Part 1 of 2
Translated by Riki Rei
Czech translation here
Romano Vulpitta (b. 1939) is an Italian ex-diplomat and scholar of Japanese literature. Born in Rome, he graduated from Department of Law at University of Rome. He entered the Foreign Ministry of Italy in 1964. He was professor of Modern Japanese Literature in Naples from 1972 to 1975. Later he moved to Japan and became professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, specializing in European Enterprise Studies and Japanese-European Comparative Cultural Studies. He is the author of The Conditions of Invincibility: Yojuro Yasuda and the Thoughts of the World and Mussolini: Story of an Italian. Currently retired, he resides in Japan. The following text was delivered as a lecture in October of 2012.
1. The Appraisal of Mishima among Italian Nationalists
This year marks the 90th anniversary of Mussolini’s “March on Rome.” The grand dream that the Italian people embraced — the dream of a whole nation — was also embraced by Yukio Mishima, differences of form and expression notwithstanding.
I would like to talk about my thinking on this topic. Mishima is popular among Italian Nationalists. How has Mishima become a hero of the Nationalists? Italy is the No.1 foreign country where Mishima’s literary works are translated and published. New or revised editions continue being published even to this day. Speeches, lectures, and films on Mishima and his works, operas based on his works, as well as numerous other commemorative events have been staged continuously in Italy.
The film Patriotism was shown in November 2009, and I was there to give a lecture titled “Yukio Mishima and Japanese Romanticism.” In March of 2012, another Italian author arranged a performance of Mishima’s Voices of the Heroic Souls in Rome.
Among the Italian neo-Fascists, especially the youth, Mishima enjoys great popularity. They approach him as a thinker and an actor rather than a litterateur. They adore him as a hero who died for the values of the traditional culture of Japan and regard him as an embodiment of Japan, the nation of the Samurai and Kamikaze.
That Mishima has become an idealized personality in the eyes of many Italian neo-Fascists is because they perceive their own value system in Mishima. In the following paragraphs, I will proceed to discuss the relations of Mishima and fascism and the points of overlap between fascism and the ideals embedded in Mishima’s literature.
2. Mishima’s Opinion of Fascism
The Italian Fascists have adored Japan since before WWII. Even today there are still many Italians who hold a favorable opinion of Japan as an old ally during the War.
Despite the fact that the Italian government headed by Pietro Badoglio surrendered to the Allied forces in September 1943, still there were many Italians who wanted to continue the fight on the side of the Axis. After Mussolini was rescued by Nazi Germany and became the head of the Italian Social Republic (RSI), those who joined the Republic strongly liked and admired Japan, as do their children and grandchildren today.
There is a strong tendency in both Italy and Japan to view Mishima as the emblem of the Japanese fascist. The first time Mishima’s writing was related to fascism was when The Vanguard, the official magazine of the Japanese Communist Party, branded Mishima’s The Beautiful Star as fascist. The Beautiful Star depicted a scenario of some intellectuals “devolving” back to the primordial and savage state of mankind by being placed in extreme conditions of near-death starvation. The critics claimed that the work’s anti-intellectual posture and cruelty were indicative of fascism or Nazism.
The debate over Mishima the fascist continued for a year or so, and since then the idea of Mishima being a fascist has lingered on in both Japan and abroad. The alleged bases for this argument are his patriotism, monarchism, militarism, anti-Communism, and questioning of democracy which was visible even in his literary works, according to his critics.
So what kind of relationship is there really between Mishima and fascism? In his school days Mishima thought highly of Mussolini, which is manifest in Mishima’s diaries of the 1940s in which he made frequent mention of Mussolini. Then there was his 1968 drama My Friend Hitler, which also reveals Mishima’s interest in Hitler. But these facts are not sufficient basis of calling Mishima a fascist.
I myself consider it more significant that Mishima the litterateur adored Gabriele D’Annunzio, who as a poet contributed greatly to the formation of fascist thought and values. The fact that Mishima finds many resonances with D’Annunzio suggests, at least indirectly, that Mishima himself possessed an interest in fascist values and was influenced by them.
3. A Common Language that Attracts Fascists
As mentioned above, the bases for viewing Mishima as a fascist are his patriotism, monarchism, and militarism. But this view is merely superficial and is derived from the preconception linking fascism as a political philosophy with militaristic, reactionary, and violent images. I would like to talk about the characteristics of Mishima’s literature and the values of fascism.
Talking about fascism from a political point of view runs into a large stumbling block: the definition of fascism has not been fully ascertained yet. It terms of political science and the history of ideas, the nature of fascism remains a major point of contention. There are as many interpretations of fascism as there are fascists, with each one believing himself the genuine fascist.
When we talk about Mishima’s literature and fascist values, rather than the fascism of political philosophy, we shall analyze his outlook on the world, his outlook on life and his values. For example, when we look at Mishima’s various works, his Confessions of a Mask and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion receive high praise even from the Left, regardless of ideological differences. But some of his other works, such as Patriotism, Voices of the Heroic Souls, and Sun and Steel, were hardly appreciated, even roundly rejected, by the same group.
However, works like Patriotism generate resonance and empathy not merely in Italy, but in nationalists of any nation. In particular, the neo-fascists of Italy instinctively comprehend and appreciate works like To the Young Samurai and Hagakure: Way of the Samurai. This fact speaks more of language than ideology, as it is Mishima’s language that the neo-fascists find sympathetic.
Meanings of key words and the emotions contained in those terms differ for different persons. For instance, terms such as “fatherland,” “nation,” “sacrifice,” “hero,” “action,” “history,” “army” invite different interpretations and responses according to one’s own way of thinking. But in the case of Mishima and the Italian fascists, such words are well-understood between them.
I met Yojuro Yasuda in his old age. Despite our differences of age and culture, I understood Yasuda’s words in the abovementioned sense. There is an emotional content of language, i.e., the key words as noted above, which expresses how one views the world, humanity, and life. If a common language exists, the worldview and values inside the common language are shared as well.
4. The Epochal “March on Rome”
Nowadays fascism has become very much demonized, which I believe is to a large extent a question of wording. The term “fascism” has been given a bad name, and its substance has thus been changed. This exemplifies the duality of languages. The bad meaning of the term has now become all but fixed all over the world. This fact serves as a glaring testimony to the victory of Leftist intellectuals and politicians in the “war of words.” Beyond the example of fascism, Leftist intellectuals have assured that their jargon has permeated the mass media, successfully shaping world opinion.
For instance, while the term “Right wing” assumes a generally negative connotation in world opinion, the term “Left wing” is different. While the image of the “conservative” is somehow unseemly, the image of the “progressive” is a pleasant one. In the course of persistently promoting its own language to the world, the Left has successfully promoted the images embodied in such language.
As a result, “fascism” has become a term of invective and is being constantly stretched and abused: “American policies are fascist,” “Stalin is fascist,” “Al Qaeda is fascist,” etc. Whenever someone is to be demonized, he is labeled a “fascist.” In this way, fascism has lost its original meaning and become a term of complete meaninglessness.
But the concept of fascism was not necessarily an abomination before WWII. There existed a variety of views on fascism whose image has undergone changes with the passing of time. The Left of course started to attach reactionary and dictatorial images to the term fascism at an early stage. The term of abuse was used rampantly in 1920s, and the Italian Communists even called their socialist opponents fascists. After that, with the ascendancy of the Mussolini regime and the subsequent political and economical stabilization of Italy, fascism played its role of contributing to raising the international standing of Italy.
In the 1930s, a worldwide expectation that fascism would help establish a new global order was born, and fascist parties came into being in a number of countries.
As mentioned at the very beginning, it has been a full 90 years since the March on Rome that took place on October 28, 1922. The coming-into-power of Mussolini at that time generated huge repercussions across the world.
During WWI, revolutions broke out in Russia which led to the birth of the first Communist regime in the world. After that, the Communists also took power in Hungary and greatly expanded their influences in Germany and Italy. Facing the possibility of sweeping Communist movements in Europe and sensing the dire threat of revolution, the Fascists of Italy acted to eliminate the threat of the Left and launched a revolution quite unlike the Russian and French revolutions. This is exactly where the epoch-making significance of the March on Rome lies.
The Italian Fascist movement started with the formation of “Combatant Fascists” in 1919. Its emblematic black shirt troopers subdued various Leftists groups of the Socialist and Communist parties within a short time, and the movement increased its momentum steadily until they won the national political power. While Mussolini only got a miserable 5,000 votes in the election of 1919 and lost by a wide margin, he came back to win over 100,000 votes in Milan and Bologna respectively in the elections of 1921 and became the top winner. This is truly encouraging as we think of the possible phenomenon of present-day Japan changing itself in three years. Anyhow, the March on Rome was realized not by intimidating and controlling the Italian people with violence but by winning the general support of the Italians.
5. The Mussolini Boom of the Early Showa Years
Now let’s look at Japan’s reactions to the Fascist movement in Italy. Even prior to the March on Rome, there was close Japanese interest in and sympathy with the Italian Fascist movement. In fact, three Japanese parliament members met Mussolini in Rome about two months before the March on Rome took place.
Japanese Nationalists were said to have received great stimulation from Italian Fascism. General Sadao Araki expressed positive opinions of Fascism in his diary. One interesting anecdote is about the noted Japanese National Socialist theorist Motoyuki Takabatake, who burst out with the exclamation “Long Live Mussolini!” during a banquet and starting waving and cheering out of uncontrollable excitement at the news of the March on Rome. Japanese versions of “Black Shirts” also formed, and a series of social movements based on the Italian Black Shirt Troopers emerged.
Japan’s politics and economy experienced a serious slump during the early years of the Showa Era. During that time, Mussolini’s popularity continued to rise. As the worldwide economic crisis brought about a worldwide Mussolini boom, the emergence of a Japanese Mussolini was eagerly anticipated.
Publications pertaining to Mussolini, both academic and popular, were published in large numbers, and books written for children, such as biographies of great Western men, also included Mussolini in their tables of contents. Films and even operas on Mussolini were produced. In 1928, a Kabuki show titled Mussolini opened at the Meiji-za Theater of Tokyo in which the role of Mussolini was acted by the popular Kabuki performer Sadanji Ichikawa and won great acclaim. The popularity of Mussolini in Japan was not just a phenomenon of the 1920s but carried on until the end of WWII.
Mussolini’s high popularity was sustained by his charisma and his ascent to the office of Prime Minister from humble and impoverished origins. He was given a chapter in Japanese publications on great Western men due to the heroism and romance of his life story.
Owing to a combination of all the factors related above, many Japanese of that era identified with Mussolini, who also had a peculiar comment on the Japanese. He said: “There is no need for a Fascist party in Japan as the Japanese are natural-born Fascists.” While this remark might sound a bit exaggerated, it amply demonstrated that Mussolini also found Japanese culture and values congenial and resonant and thought very highly of them. In line with this thinking, perhaps Mishima was also a natural-born Fascist.
1. Yojuro Yasuda (1910–1981): Japanese essayist and literary critic. One of the central figures of the Japanese Romanticism. Famous for his criticism of modern civilizations and his advocacy of Japanese classicism
2. Showa: the Era name of the previous Japanese Emperor. It lasted from 1925 to 1989.
3. Sadao Araki (1877–1966): Senior General of the Japanese Imperial Army. A charismatic figure among the middle and low ranking young military men. Involved in the well-known 2.26 military coup.
4. Motoyuki Takabatake (1886–1928): talented and prolific Japanese social thinker, philosopher and national socialist. Famous for his early translation of Das Kapital into Japanese, his critical study of Marxism, and cynical social criticism.