The Tension of Cultural Change:

Revisiting Mishima’s Urge to Revisit Hagakure

This week I was reading The Way of the Samurai by Yukio Mishima, which I think is one of the only works that truly helps us understand his choice to commit ritual suicide in 1970 (following a failed coup attempt, in which he implored Japanese soldiers to revolt and restore the emperor to power). Mishima is one of my favorite authors, partially because he wrote beautiful love stories in beautiful prose, and partially because his eccentricity and anachronistic lifestyle was one continuously deep commentary on his modern age. He also shed a whole lot of light on what it means to struggle with the constant changes inherent in any contemporary culture.

The Way of the Samurai (which was written in 1967) is itself a lengthy commentary on Hagakure, the teachings of Jocho Yamamoto, a samurai-turned-priest who lived from 1659–1719. Mishima’s primary purpose is to reintroduce traditional samurai values into practical situations of modern life, but his passion for Hagakure pushes him to do more than merely explain it. He meditates on it — and that brings me to my point.

It’s hard to compare the present day and ideals of the past without pissing some people off. Last week I could tell I’d done just that when I wrote about a lack of opportunities for potential literary prodigies, mainly because of the ways our society’s expectations and construction of success narratives have changed over time.

It seemed as if the people who disagreed with me thought that I was just lamenting out of ignorance, or some kind of Golden Age syndrome, and without any real understanding of the fact that the seeds of literary talent don’t have a cultural expiration date. I get that. And what I’m worried about is not the very existence of literature, but the fact that the paths to cultural prominence may no longer begin with an insightful use of the written word. (Rather, we tend to elevate people now based on how ironic they can be, or how easy they are to market to niche audiences, or how many people will pay to watch them dunk a basketball.)

Whether I’m right or wrong about this isn’t all that important. What’s important is weighing all these arguments, and deciding how they’ll affect the way we live our lives. Mishima, in his own modern age, found a rather prescient interpretation of these issues within Hagakure, and he valued it so much that he used it to educate his peers.

But Mishima begins the passage by telling his readers something vital: “Here again Hagakure is clearly inconsistent.” What’s so important here is that he never considers that inconsistency to be detrimental. Instead, he draws strength from that conflict, acknowledging — as he did throughout his life, up to the moment of his own suicide — that, while it is important to recognize degeneration within one’s era, “capriciously resisting the flow of time almost never produces desirable results.”

He then quotes Yamamoto’s teachings at length, thus:


…the season cannot always be spring or summer, nor can we have daylight forever. Therefore it is useless to try to make the present age like the good old days a hundred years ago. What is important is to make each era as good as it can be according to its nature. The error of people who are always nostalgic for the old ways lies in their failure to grasp this point. On the other hand, people who value only what is up to date and detest anything old-fashioned are superficial.”

Those words were written in the early 18th century — but they were equally relevant in 1967, when Mishima was questioning the complacency of post-war Japan. They’re just as relevant now. And what’s most interesting about this whole passage is that it’s one of the very few times that we find a real sense of calculated balance within both Hagakure and Mishima’s commentary on it.

This is a book about samurai values, remember, and it often presents us with ways either very formulaic or very impulsive in which to practically approach life. Do this; don’t do that; do this before doing that. But in the case of comparing contemporary culture to the past, we’re being asked to consider two opposite poles while approaching neither of them. Yamamoto and Mishima both tell us to value the brightest elements of the past, but to be skillful in recognizing where they can or cannot be applied within the framework of the present day. It’s a lot to take into account. But that urge to live, in essence, between the generations rather than solely within any particular one is something that we need to remember whenever we argue about the benefits and detriments of modern society, as well as all the little things that go along with it.

I would never tell anyone to emulate Yukio Mishima’s personal life, but we can learn a lot from the acute perception with which he revisited Hagakure and (to some degree, very successfully) applied centuries-old teachings to his own environment. Undeniable is fact that, as each generation matures, we face tension above all else in asserting ourselves within the wide world. It was tension that Mishima shared with his readers, and it was tension that killed him. In 2012, we find it in the interpersonal alienation that comes along with digital media and interaction, and we find it also in a growing detachment from written literature. The question is not which side to choose, but how to balance our approach to “advances” in culture in ways that don’t leave us feeling quite so idle and small.

In his introduction to The Way of the Samurai, Mishima writes: “It is difficult to live and die beautifully, but it is equally difficult both to live and die in a thoroughly horrible way. This is the lot of mankind.” And while we don’t have to choose to live horribly and in search of death, as he did, his work continues to remind us that the inherent tension of our lives goes much deeper than the affectations of any given modern culture. It, like the literature that seeks to describe it, is something equally personal and universal. It is timeless — the thing that links every generation, whether or not we would ever admit that.

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