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Nationalism is a troubling political force. Always there like a glowing ember in a fading fire, it lies in wait for the crafty politician to fan the flames with patriotic stirrings.  And it is on the rise. We can see it in Donald Trump’s USA, already a place of uber-patriotism, we can see it in the Brexit movement in the UK, in China, and in place where, in the not-too distant past, it led to disaster–Japan. Because of its isolationist past and its late modernization, Japan fell victim to nationalistic forces, generated largely by a militaristic oligarchy, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Catastrophe ensued. Following the end of the Pacific War in 1945, democracy replaced the old constitutional monarchy (headed by the Emperor) and Japan rebuilt itself into a very different nation. Still, undercurrents of Nationalism persisted, and remain.

On the one hand, it is a rejection of globalism, an isolationism. It seeks a retreat to past glories, to a mythic golden age, when everything was better for a nation. It is a rallying force, one that galvanizes a people around their nation’s mythology and ideology, a specialness that positions them superior to other nations. On the other hand, it is an expansionist view, one that suggests, because of one’s national exceptionalism and superiority, a nation has the right to impose its will on others. Throughout history, it has led to colonization, conquest, and imperialism. Nationalism is a political and social construct, an abstraction that creates borders, both physical and psychological, that imprison humans within a specific national identity which can often take on an almost religious aspect, a worship of one’s national identity and past. The globe is currently divided up into thousands of these constructs, separating and antagonizing people through these divisions. In the extreme, Nationalism is strangely narcissistic. Think Donald Trump. The nationalist says, “I love and am loyal to my country because it is the best,” and their reasoning can usually be traced backwards in an absurdly tautological argument–and I’ve actually heard this spoken: “It is the best because it is, because I know it is, because it is where I was born and grew up so I love it.” According to this logic, your nation is the best because you were born there? Kinda self-centred, don’t ya think?

Nationalism on the rise in Japan and America

 

The problem with longing for a return to a glorious past of course, is that the past, as they say, “ain’t what it used to be,” and sometimes these mythic golden ages are just that–myths. In many cases, these golden ages weren’t so golden. In fact, for some people, these glorious golden ages really sucked. Donald Trump wants to Make American Great Again, but can’t articulate when exactly it was last great. Perhaps it has always been, perhaps never. As we saw in his election though, it doesn’t matter; nationalistic feelings were enflamed enough to give him the presidency.

The globalist, the internationalist, meanwhile, says, “I am a human, and although I am grateful to have been born in a nation in which I am free and able to pursue my dreams, (and this could have occured in any number of nations; no Americans, yours is not the only country in the world “with freedom”), I love and am loyal to people.” This, by definition, means all people. For the internationalist, the globalist, it is the nationalistic divisions, the borders physical and psychological, that complicate humanity’s progress. In some cases, these divisions threaten humanity’s existence through the endless conflicts that always have at their core a nationalistic sense of “us” vs. “them”. If only we could combine both into the more humanistic “we”. I mean, what evidence can one show that their nation is actually great? A glorious past? All nations have produced glories as well as their share of horrors, in the past. Both must be accounted for. Or are we really only convinced of our nation’s greatness because we have been taught this. And who taught us? Through what means? Does education provide an honest and clear enough account of our nation’s past for us to come to this conclusion with any confidence? I have my doubts. Is a nation great because it has built great structures? Won wars? Developed cures for diseases? developed delicious cuisine? Produced beautiful works of art? Isn’t it people, not nation-states, that do all these things?

Paul on the temple grounds

As an ESL teacher, I am by definition a humanist and internationalist. I believe nations and their borders are the problem, and that people are the solution. The ESL students I meet and work with, share this view. They want a future with less division, fewer walls between their nations; a more fluid world that favours people, not states. My own classroom activities are a reflection of this view. I am always trying new ways to allow interactive use of English, the sharing of each other’s cultures, the furthering of the idea that people are great, everywhere, and that no one nation has the monopoly on greatness. Sightseeing and tourism can play an important role in this. Any visit to another country is an opportunity to see what a particular people have built, what they have achieved, and yes, where they have done so. Social outings organized by a school’s activities department are an essential part of the student experience, but all too often the students on these outings gravitate to their own language groups and abandon their English. They have fun, but how much they are developing their English is questionable. To make the most of a field trip or sightseeing activity, it is important to involve a task or challenge, a purpose, that requires them to use their English. When I was training as an ESL teacher in Japan, my classmates and I designed one such memorable task-oriented field trip that, even after becoming a professional teacher, I’ve never topped. Not even close.

It also involved the literature of a particularly controversial Japanese literary figure as famous for his intense, if not downright fanatical nationalism, as for his prose.

The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima was, to say the least, an intense patriot. Born to an elite family in 1925 in Tokyo, he rose to international prominence through his novels, essays, plays, poetry and even film roles, and is considered one of Japan’s most important writers of the 20th century. Mishima believed that 20th century post-war Japan had lost its way, had grown decadent, had abandoned its traditional spirit in favour of western influence, and could only be brought back from the brink by means of returning to Emperor worship and the old bakufu political structure built on samurai ideals. He formed his own private militia, the tatenokai, or Shield Societyand after completing his final novel, attempted a coup at the Tokyo headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces’ Eastern Command at Ichigaya. There, he took hostage the commanding officer, made a televised speech in front of the assembled troops imploring them, as bushi warriors to restore Japan’s greatness. When the assembled troops laughed and derided him, he went back inside the office and committed seppuku, disemboweling himself before his assistant/lover decapitated Mishima and followed him with his own seppuku. His posthumously published final novel, Runaway Horses, depicted a protagonist who assassinates an oligarch before killing himself in a similar fashion. Mishima’s art and life were in this way often seen as interchangeably paralleled, his obsession with beauty, desire, politics, and violence conflating into a singular vision.

Mishima in his study

Back in the early 1980s, a friend of mine attending university gave me a book by Mishima he’d been assigned, Confessions of a Mask, and I was immediately struck. There was the psychological depth, like that of Dostoevsky, combined with the intensely florid and beautiful prose. In addition, Mishima’s recurring thematic concerns were evident: the decline of values in post-war Japan, violence, sexual desire, identity, and radical nationalism. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp the extent to which this writer was controversial. Controversial for his right-wing leanings, and for his overt actions toward actualizing his politics.

It was not Mishima’s politics, that initially captured my imagination. It was his writing. Mishima wrote with such a gorgeous, florid figurative style that a reader’s imagination soared to strange new heights while following his protagonists through their troubled psycho-sexual-political journeys. Never has a writer so beautifully configured the inner torment of a citizen trying to reconcile their place in a changing period of social and political turmoil. Mishima was able to link sex, violence, the death drive, politics, social change, gender relations, alienation, religion and tradition into one fierce cocktail of depravity, beauty and anger. Mishima’s words are haunting, all the more so because of the way they render the violently obscene so elegantly transcendent. As he writes in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion:

 

 

If only human beings could reverse their spirits and their bodies, could gracefully turn them inside and out like rose petals and expose them to the spring breeze and to the sun…

 

Ken Ogata as Mishima in Paul Schrader’s film, “Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters” (1985)
The real Mishima appears before the troops of the Japan SDF, 1970.

detectives observe the scene of Mishima’s suicide by seppuku (note the heads, lower left)

 

Mishima’s political views seem prescient now, as conservatism, populism, and its more radical counterparts, nationalism and alt-right neo-fascism, are once more on the rise in Japan and in the west. Almost every day it seems, the Japanese press has to report some controversial and divisive statement made by a conservative politician: tourists have to behave better, women need to make babies, the lGBT community shouldn’t receive welfare, there are too many foreigners causing crime, etc. We’ve heard it all before, but it sounds somehow a little more dangerous now, more real. Authoritarian leaders are actually being elected in places we thought we’d ever see them–Britain, the USA, the Philippines. I’ve been thinking about these forces a lot lately, why they are returning, if they had ever left us, and how to avoid our falling into the old cycles of conflict they seem to inevitably lead to. In so doing I was drawn once again to revisit the works of Mishima, and in particular, his novel Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which features a exemplary object of Mishima’s obsessive longing for past glory: the golden temple, Kinkakuji.

 

 

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Kinkakuji attracts thousands of visitors every year from across the globe. The temple was originally a villa built in 1397 by shõgun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After his death, it was converted into a zen Buddhist temple. During the Pacific War, the Americans wisely chose not to bomb Kyoto, the first capital of Japan before it was moved to Tokyo, believing–rightly so, I think– that the Japanese would never forgive them had they destroyed the many precious historic sites there. Though spared a fiery death by the Americans, in 1950 the golden pavilion was burned down by a novice (acolyte) monk Hayashi Yoken, who was arrested and sentenced, but later released due to mental illness. The golden pavilion was rebuilt in 1955, including a full restoration of its gold-leaf gilded exterior. The pavilion stands at the edge of a large pond amidst a vast strolling garden, immaculately landscaped and manicured. Perched atop the highest point of the roof is a bronze phoenix, wings spread as it lifting the temple to the heavens. As Mishima says of it in the novel:

This mysterious golden bird never crowed at the break of dawn, never flapped its wings–indeed, it had itself no doubt completely forgotten that it was a bird. Yet it would be untrue to say that this bird did not look as if it were flying. Other birds fly through the air, but this golden phoenix was flying eternally through time on its shining wings. Time struck those wings. Time struck those wings and floated backwards.

Whereas Confessions of a Mask was the first novel of his I read, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, first published in 1956 remains the one that impacted me. Based on true events, the novel tells the story of a young acolyte monk living at the titular Golden Temple in Kyoto. Consumed with latent rage, the acolyte stutters as a result of the traumatic experience of seeing his mother have sex with another man right in front of both he and his father. Flooded with feelings of betrayal and latent violence when Japan is defeated in the war, and when he discovers his head monk also visiting prostitutes, he finds himself as impotent as his father, unable to consummate sexual relations with either a girlfriend or a prostitute. He finds an object upon which to project all his alienation

Then the Golden Temple appeared before me. A delicate structure, gloomy and full of dignity. A structure whose gold foil had peeled off in different places, and which looked like the carcass of its former luxury. Yes, the Golden Temple appeared before me-that strange building which, when one though it was near, became distant, that building which always floated clearly in some inscrutable point of space, intimate with the beholder, yet utterly remote.

Kinkakuji in summer

The Golden Pavilion

In the novel, the acolyte monk grows obsessed with the temple’s hypnotic, ethereal beauty, and in a bravura feat of extended personification, Mishima allows the temple to assume a growing presence as the object and subject of all the monk’s woes. The beauty of the temple mocks the monk’s corporal deformity and impotence–indeed, all of Japan’s post-war impotence–oppressing him with growing intensity as the novel progresses, the Pacific War brining fire and destruction to the Japanese Empire. As the fictional acolyte, Mizoguchi, observes,

 

 

Since Saipan had fallen, air raids on the mainland had been inevitable and the authorities were [pressing forwards with plans for evacuating part of Kyoto; nevertheless, so far as I was concerned, there seemed to be no relation between the semi-eternal existence of the Golden Temple and the disaster of the American air raids. I felt that the inherently indestructible temple and the scientific force of B-52 bomb fire must be well aware of the complete difference between their natures, and that if they were to meet, they would automatically slip away from each other. The fact remained that the Golden Temple was in danger of soon being burned down in an air raid. Indeed, if things continued as they were, the Golden Temple was sure to turn into ashes. Since this idea took root within me, the Golden Temple once again increased in tragic beauty.

The seeds of his destructive quest firmly planted, the monk lashes out at the cruelty of existence by setting fire to his beloved Kinkakuji. This much actually happened, though the motivations of the real arsonist monk remain unclear. Those described by Mishima are his own interpretations. Mishima’s book was an international sensation, and was later rendered on screen in 1958 as Enjyo, directed by Kon Ichikawa, and in 1976 by Yoichi Takabayashi as Kinkakuji—Temple of the Golden Pavilion. A stylized and abbreviated dramatization was featured in Paul Schrader’s quasi-biopic, Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters. It was additionally rendered for theatrical presentation in the late 2000s.

Mizoguchi, the acolyte monk, in Paul Schrader’s stylized bio-pic “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985)
Movie poster for Kon Ichikawa’s film “Enjo” (1958)
still from “Enjo” (Ichikawa 1958)
Archival photo of the actual fire damage at Kinkakuj

When I first read the novel in my early twenties, it struck me deeply.  It was a time when I first set out on my own, and was feeling my own alienation and struggle to find my way while living in a big city. I felt alone, lost and unsure of who I wanted to become, or who I was becoming. Though my own experiences were vastly different from that of the novel’s monk, I did empathize with his sense that his life was changing and unfolding in ways that he couldn’t grasp or accept. Life in Toronto wasn’t providing me what I wanted from life, so imagined myself destined for somewhere else, far-away, exotic lands. Japan, for example. Though it would be many years before I visited Japan, I did take up the study of the Japanese martial art Aikido, and immersed myself in studying its language, history, and culture, largely through its cinema and literature. Like the monk, the golden pavilion fixed itself in my own imagination, not as an object of my sexual or violent stirrings, but of my longing for a sense of destiny and identity.

 

 

I was reminded of the endless series of correspondences that arise when a small universe is placed in a larger universe and a smaller one in turn placed inside the small universe. For the first time I could dream. Of the small, but perfect Golden Temple which was even smaller than this model: and of the Golden Temple which was infinitely greater than the real building–so great, indeed, that it almost enveloped the world.

When I finally visited Japan for the first time years later, among the first things I wanted to do was go to Kyoto, to Kinkakuji. I did so, and it did not disappoint. Indeed, seeing for the first time a real-life place that I had spent so many years imagining was one of the most profoundly moving experiences I’ve ever had. Having haunted my imagination for so long, well, I felt a little bit like the monk in the story, overwhelmed by the serene, majestic beauty of the gleaming golden temple, combined with my own memories and imagination. My own thoughts echoed that of the acolyte monk, who speaks directly to the temple as though it were his lover:

Finally I have come to live beside you Golden Temple! I whispered in my heart, and for a while I stopped sweeping the leaves. It doesn’t have to be at once, but please make friends with me sometime and reveal your secret to me. I feel that your beauty is something that I am very close to seeing and yet cannot see. Please let me see the real Golden Temple more clearly than I see the image of you in my mind. And furthermore, if you are indeed so beautiful that nothing in this world can compare with you, please tell me why you are so beautiful, why it is necessary for you to be beautiful.

I also loved Kinkakuji, but of course, felt no desire to burn it down. Rather, I wanted to share the appreciation I felt for Kinkakuji, with its links between literary imagination and history. I finally got the chance to do so when I returned to Kyoto in 2008 to study at the Ritsumeikan Pacific University Graduate School of Language Education and Information Science. While a student at ‘Rits,’ I took a summer program in Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL). There were roughly 20 students in my program, all brilliant, energetic and in their 20s. Most were Japanese, others were from Hong Kong and Taiwan. I was not only the lone caucasian, I was also by far the oldest, as I was already in my 40s. Everyone got along well, everyone was collegial toward each other, but I always felt slightly out of place. I found myself gravitating toward two of my Japanese classmates, whom I’ll call “S” and “Y,” who also for various reasons felt slightly outside the social cliques that naturally form within larger groups. We became fast friends. When the time came to do our final assignment, the three of us formed a working group and set about designing our project.

Gradually the Golden Temple came to exist more deeply and more solidly within me. Each of its pillars, its kato windows, its roof, the phoenix at the top, floated clearly before my eyes, as though I could touch them with my hands. The minutest part of the temple was in perfect accord with the entire complex structure. It was like hearing a few notes of music and having the entire composition flow through one’s mind: whichever part of the Golden Temple I might pick out, the entire building echoed within me.

The final assignment involved designing a learning activity, the type you might later use in the professional ESL classroom. It was to be our final project, for all the marbles. We also had to test the activity on our classmates. My position was that we should throw everything we had at the project. I was determined to become a working ESL teacher following this program, in either Japan or Canada, and thus, I was eager to try new techniques, as well as put a clear, strong and memorable stamp on everything I did. As the elder student in the class, I wanted to show them that what I lacked in hipness and youthful promise, I could make up for in hard work, the type that develops from years of professional life. S, Y and I agreed on this tactic. We all had something to prove. We all wanted the best grades, and we all wanted to show our classmates a little shock and awe.

Y and S, posing on our reconnoissance visit to Kinkakuji, 2010
Domino’s kalbi pizza.

I told S and Y my story, how I first read the novel and later visited the temple, and how much I loved it. They adored the temple too, and we decided to incorporate the novel and actual temple into a learning activity. Initially we thought of making a simple board game that students could play, and we could reuse. But our ambitions–or my obsession; I can’t tell which–led us to expand this idea. We decided to use the actual temple and its grounds as the board game, and instead of moving icons around on a board, the students themselves would move through the grounds of the temple. In this way, we could combine a sight-seeing field trip with a learning activity. We’d get together after school over pizza and beer at my apartment at the Duo Inn and map it out. The pizza came from Domino’s and featured Korean BBQ beef kalbi as a topping, something I’d never encountered before–it was fantastic! Studying at Rits in Kyoto had also presented me a chance to rekindle my love for Temple of the Golden Pavilion novel and Kinkakuji itself because the campus was located only a few blocks away from the temple grounds. This made it a simple matter for S, Y, and myself to go to Kinkakuji and reconnoitre the grounds to lay out the activity.

The students would be organized into small groups. Each group would be given a copy on a clipboard of the Mystery Tour Guide (MTG) and 2 cloze text excerpts from the novel, that is, passages of text with several blanks spaces where words had been removed. The groups would follow the MTG to each station on the grounds, where they had to complete the cloze before being permitted to advance to the next stop. Each cloze text was in fact an excerpt from a larger whole, so as they filled in the blanks, they’d make predictions about how their passage would fit into a larger whole, and solve the mystery of “What happened at Kinkakuji?” Once each group had completed the circuit and strolled the length of the temple grounds, the entire class would muster together, read aloud the individual excerpts and reassemble the story into a whole.

Our plan was ambitious to say the least. Overcomplicated, yes. Far too intricate, yes. Professionally applicable? Absolutely useless. We weren’t even sure if our classmates or our teacher would appreciate it. But we didn’t care. We wanted to show them something they had never seen before. We wanted them to cower in the awe of our game, as the monk had before the temple’s beauty. Of course, we also wanted our classmates to enjoy the site itself, take some pictures, and have fun, all at our behest.

Tourist map of the Kinkakuji grounds
Y, S and P instruct the class on the Literary Mystery Field Trip and Human Board Game
Hot, exhausted but eager classmates ready to play

 

 

The day came to play the game. It was mid-July in Kyoto, the hottest time of the year. Broiling hot and incredibly humid. By the time we had walked the few blocks from the university campus to the temple grounds, purchased our tickets to get in, and assembled to begin the game, everyone was already exhausted and soaked in sweat. We hadn’t factored in the heat, and our elder teacher was clearly uncomfortable. Nonetheless, everyone proceeded, clearly intrigued by our instructions. It was evident that nobody in the class was familiar with the novel, which was good because it would make figuring out the story based on the excerpts that much more challenging.

 

One by one, the small groups of classmates proceeded through the grounds, translating the passages, trying to figure out what the hell they were experiencing. The pathway through the grounds first moves through some shrubbery and a long, tree-lined path, then emerges out to the main pond, where the golden pavilion reveals itself in all its majesty.

It is no exaggeration to say that as I gazed at the temple, my legs trembled and my forehead was covered with cold beads of perspiration. On a former occasion when I had returned to the country after seeing the temple, its various parts ad its whole structure resounded with a sort of musical harmony. But what I heard this time was complete silence, complete noiselessness. Nothing flowed there, nothing changed. The Golden Temple stood before me, towered before me, like some terrifying pause in a piece of music, like some resonant silence.

The class gathers to reassemble the text

While we were supervising the game’s progress, an incident occured on the grounds. An elder Japanese man and his wife began barking loudly at a small group of tourists, who appeared to be a family. They were taking pictures of the temple, pointing, laughing, and seemingly enjoying themselves. Yes, they were loud and yes, the kids were unruly; one of them snuck underneath a little barrier fence that was more implication than wall, and entered the landscaped garden, but they hardly deserved the response form the old man. My Japanese was in half-decent shape at the time, so I understood what he was saying: “Rude Chinese dogs! You have no right to be here on this sacred place, go home and die!”

In short order, the site’s security staff appeared and calmed the situation down. They guided the tourist family away, and left the old man and his wife to their tour. It was an interestign response. The offending man, clearly Japanese, didn’t get so much as a reprimand. In fact, the security staff apologized to him. This struck me as indicative of exactly the sort of xenophobia Japan continues to suffer from, and which fuels the nationalist flame.

 

I wondered what the old man thought of the likes of me, a tall bald white westerner with my group of classmates traipsing all over the holy temple grounds, playing an English game. Probably not much. Mishima himself wouldn’t have approved, I thought. He might have thought we were debasing the sacred traditions of his divine country, and that any government that would allow us to conduct such a game on the Kinkakuji grounds was corrupted, decadent and thus had to be removed and replaced with a strong militaristic system that would better shape the nation. The irony of what we were doing was not lost; we were putting English-teaching students through the paces of a learning game on the sacred grounds of a temple made famous by a writer who felt that western influence had rotted the spirit of Japan. It hadn’t occurred to me that Mishima would have loathed what we were doing because I was genuinely enamoured with both the temple and Mishima’s gorgeous prose. Besides which, he was long dead, so his opinion hadn’t been considered. Regardless, the incident with the old man was a telling interlude to our game, and reminded me of the more serious undertones present in both Mishima’s work and Japan itself.

Once the students had completed the circuit of stations, the students gathered together, put the story together and then, exhausted, went for ice cream. In the end, our teacher gave us the grade we wanted, an A+. She of course, appreciated the ambitiousness of designing a class field trip as a human board game, but also advised us that such a thing would be impractical in the ESL classroom. Not long after completing my program at Rits, I became a working professional and learned how right my teacher had been, and how impractical such an activity could be. Firstly, most ESL classes do not involve elaborate field trips. Although most schools do offer field trips as part of their activities program, they typically don’t take place during class hours but rather after classes end, and thus fall outside the teacher’s purview and within that of the Activities Coordinator. Classes are usually only one hour long, and our Literary Mystery Field Trip and Human Board Game clocked in at over 3 hours long! Secondly, our game required a level of English fluency that most ESL students haven’t acquired yet. To participate in our activity, they’d need to be able to both read and interpret Mishima’s prose. As lovely as it is, it’s not exactly easy to grasp.

Still though, for a field trip design, I think it was pretty good. Rather than simply visiting a tourist site and having the students babble away in their native languages, our design enriched a field trip with an interactive activity that let them see the site, take the inevitable selfies, and also engage with the place’s history and cultural heritage in a deeper and more meaningful way. For my part, I look back fondly on this experience. Me and my two new friends showed our classmates what we were made of. And I was able to share my passion for Kinkakuji and the literature of Yukio Mishima, as well as being reminded of the darker currents of nationalism that flow beneath his beautiful writing, and beneath the surface of everyday life in Japan.

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P, S, and Y graduating, 2010
…and celebrating

For his part, Mishima remains a fascinating contradiction, having created some of the world’s most beautiful prose while at the same time espousing some of its ugliest political ideals: extreme Nationalism, the type that enflames national identity and patriotism to the point of positioning one’s own nation superior to all others by divine right or by manifest destiny. For Mishima, it was his worship of past ideals, of a Japan that may never have truly existed as he imagined it, just as Donald Trump seeks to do today in the USA. Mishima wanted, as Trump does, to “Make Japan Great Again” but he sought to do this through violence, which is precisely what made Japan not-so-great earlier in the 20th century and brought so much suffering to its people. Nationalism of this sort has been on my mind lately; it has clearly been on the rise, a consequence of the shift toward conservatism over the past 30 years, and it troubles me. It has risen in Turkey, the United Kingdom, in Russia, my own Canada, the USA, and yes, in Japan too. It seeks a turn backwards, away from the progression toward peaceful globalism that liberalism achieved following the World Wars.

In the novel Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji inspires in the young monk a violent projection of his own self-loathing and death wish. For Mishima, the ferocious beauty of Kinkakuji seems to have enflamed both his troubled sense of Japanese identity and the obsession with death he later realized. For Mishima, the conflict lay between knowledge and action, and for his entire life he felt his writing inadequate to the task of transformation. As he rose to prominence, with greater intensity he embraced radical action as the means to transcendence. Mishima was conflicted; as a writer he believed the pen mightier than the sword, but as a political actor, he believed the sword mightier than the pen.

What transforms the world is–knowledge. Do you see what I mean? Nothing else can change anything in this world. Knowledge alone is capable of transforming the world, while at the same time leaving it exactly as it is. When you look at the world with knowledge, you realize that things are unchangeable and at the same time are constantly being transformed.

For forty-five years I struggled to resolve this dilemma by writing plays and novels. The more I wrote, the more I realized mere words were not enough. So I found another form of expression.

Is the sword mightier than the pen?

Recently, one of my students noticed that I was using a Japanese pen, one I had purchased at the new Muji store in Vancouver. “Japanese pens are the best, I think,” she said. I then asked her why she believed that. “That’s an interesting belief,” I told her, “but how do you know that is is true? Have you tried pens from every single country on earth, and then decided in comparison, that Japanese pens are the best?” Of course, she hadn’t. She said that she felt that way because she was Japanese. Given that I had already had nationalism and Mishima on my mind around that time, I felt it was a striking moment. I thought to myself, this is where nationalism begins, with the simple belief that your nation is somehow superior to others for no other reason than it is your  nation. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was the one using a Japanese pen, and I do think they are nice pens. And I haven’t tried every pen in the world either. But Muji pens are better than, say, Bics, in my opinion. A pen is only a harmless pen, but a belief about a pen can point to other forms of more problematic thinking. As a teacher, I feel compelled to address this. It is where, I think, we can guard against the problematic aspects of thought that can lead to problematic political beliefs. After all, isn’t nationalistic thought first developed in the classroom? If this is the case, then its opposite can also be encouraged in the classroom, ESL or otherwise.

By no means am I suggesting that it is an ESL teacher’s duty to shape a student’s political thought. That is a deeply personal choice. However, teachers can and should, I think, teach students to critically analyze their own beliefs. This is, for example, what followed from our Literary Mystery Field Trip and Human Board Game at Kinkakuji. My classmates and I talked at length about Mishima’s politics, Japan’s history, and its future. It is, I think, knowledge that makes it impossible to retreat into past glories. We have knowledge now that our ancestors did not. Scientific discoveries, for example, like the the human genome and DNA make the old flawed theories about racial differences, and the xenophobia they entail, seem patently absurd. Such knowledge now makes it irrational to suggest any nation contains people that are superior to others, given the deep connections we all share.

Like Mishima, I too value both the realms of knowledge, art and beauty–the liberal humanities–and that of action. But unlike Mishima, and the type of regressive nationalism he represented, I have no desire to seek death. I seek life. Beauty, like that of Kinkakuji, inspires in me a desire to create, to share, to give to to the world something of lasting impact. I do this through my own writing and through my teaching English to young people who, it is my hope, will use this knowledge to transform the world in new and positive ways. As a teacher, I want to help my students see the beauty in the world, the amazing capacity humans have to effect change, both great and terrible. The Literary Mystery Field Trip and Human Board Game at Kinkakuji was intended as an appreciation of Mishima’s prose, the Golden Temple, and perhaps more importantly, as a celebration of our diversity through a shared experience and appreciation of the beauty that the people of Japan have given the world.

 

Paul Schrader’s dramatization from the film “Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters” (1985)

 

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Teacher Paul
Teacher Paul

Paul Duke lives, instructs and tutors English, studies and writes in Canada and Japan.

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