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TESTAMENT OF A SAMURAI
Yukio Mishima
January 11, 1971
Yukio Mishima, who committed seppuku, a grisly and ritual act of suicide, last November, was a literary figure of massive proportions in Japan. His novels, plays and articles were the most influential and brilliant in his nation's postwar era. Beyond his prose works, Mishima was also a sensitive poet, an accomplished actor and—at the age of 45—a superbly conditioned athlete. Many characterized him as a kind of Japanese Renaissance man. To find a literary loss of comparable scale in the United States one must look to the death of Ernest Hemingway, a man Mishima resembled in many philosophical ways.
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January 11, 1971

Testament Of A Samurai

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Yukio Mishima, who committed seppuku, a grisly and ritual act of suicide, last November, was a literary figure of massive proportions in Japan. His novels, plays and articles were the most influential and brilliant in his nation's postwar era. Beyond his prose works, Mishima was also a sensitive poet, an accomplished actor and—at the age of 45—a superbly conditioned athlete. Many characterized him as a kind of Japanese Renaissance man. To find a literary loss of comparable scale in the United States one must look to the death of Ernest Hemingway, a man Mishima resembled in many philosophical ways.

His theme, like Hemingway's, was heavy with notions of honor, strength and man's destiny. In Mishima's view, Japan since World War II had failed its destiny, and the crushing imperatives of this realization led to his final frustration and bizarre death. Toward the end of his life his preoccupation with Japanese nationalism and a return to samurai values seemed to many a tragic aberration.

Shortly before he died Sports Illustrated asked Mishima to discuss his views on physical fitness and his experiences in sport. In the following article, translated by Michael Gallagher, Mishima gives a down-to-earth account of how fitness changed his life, and he relates this to the ideas that became central to his philosophy.

If there has ever been anything that has set me apart from other people, it was the inferiority complex about my own physique that I developed as a young boy. I was weak and frail, and there was nothing at all about my body I could be happy about or take pride in. To make matters worse, my youthful environment had none of the literary atmosphere that would have pampered my weakness but was conditioned by the background of World War II. Every day offered me countless examples that one had to be strong because there was no pity to waste upon the weak. And the harshness of my environment persisted in altered form even after the war was over, with the added element of American sensuality that deepened my inferiority complex and made my misery more acute.

I was not deformed or especially prone to sickness. It was mainly a matter of my being skinny and having a bad stomach. Soon after I had started to make my way as a writer I became painfully aware that this unnatural and unhealthy pursuit was going to make my plight still worse. I began to have a keen sense of mortality, fearing I might become a total wreck before I reached 30. I had done some horseback riding in school, and now my concern caused me to take this up again and also to set up a crossbar in my backyard, from which I duly swung. Neither effort did me much good.

In the summer of my 30th year I discovered the discipline of body building. During the course of a trip to the United States I had heard something about the sport, but I was sure it was a technique that would never be of any use to me. In that not-to-be-forgotten summer of 1955, however, I came across a picture in a magazine of the physical culture club of Waseda University, with an accompanying sentence that riveted my attention: "Anyone at all could develop a similar physique." I quickly got in touch with Hitoshi Tamari, the Waseda coach.

We had our first conversation in the lobby of the Nikkatsu Hotel, where Tamari was able to astound me with the feat of so rippling his chest muscles that their activity was apparent even beneath his shirt. And when he insisted that "you yourself will be able to do the same thing someday," I put myself under his guidance.

Tamari came to my house three times a week. I bought some barbells and an exercise bench, and so began unwittingly to amuse my friends and provide cartoonists with material for years to come. Though I by no means overdid my exercises, during this first period all sorts of physical disabilities came along to aggravate the normal pain that was part of the initiation. My tonsils became chronically swollen and a light fever persisted. I even went in for X rays. Some friends, at my eager urging, embarked on body building with me at this time, but all of them gave it up before the first month was over, precisely because of this initial agony that had to be undergone. What sustained me was the realization that day by day I was growing in strength. It is a kind of joy that is peculiarly elemental.

If one takes up body building at about 20, when the muscles are most suited for development and the bones themselves have not reached their maximum growth, the results can be spectacular. At 30, however, I had a massive handicap to overcome. Nonetheless, after no more than a year my body had so developed that I could hardly believe my eyes. I saw the apparently miraculous proof of what the flesh, which had seemed in my youth so unresponsive to the spirit in which all my dependence lay, had now been able to accomplish under the force of that spirit. And after a full year had passed, I suddenly realized one day that the stomach disorder that had harassed me for so long was gone, like something I had put down somewhere and forgotten.

Before this first year was over I had come under the tutelage of a remarkable man named Tomoo Suzuki. He was middle-aged and had been a gym instructor in the navy. His vocabulary was strikingly colorful, and he was ever buoyant and exuberant. He was also intensely didactic, and he would brook no word that ran counter to his somewhat heretical dogma of physical culture. According to Suzuki, one should avoid any exercise that tightened the muscles, concentrating on those that stretched them and made them limber. And so it was that in Suzuki's gym I found myself confronted with the Imperial Navy exercises I had once suffered through in high school. But now when I performed these calisthenics, I felt—if I might boast just a little—tears of joy in my eyes. Suzuki's influence upon me was profound. His slogan of "exercises for everyday life" became mine.

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