Dollars and Sense

I have been reading the third novel of the four that comprise Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy titled The Temple of Dawn. The four novels in the group focus on the life of Shigekuni Honda before during and after the Second World War. The third volume is written around the years of the war, especially the final years when Japan was being fire-bombed relentlessly by B-29’s and Honda picks his way through the ruins of his beautiful homeland trying to make sense of a world in chaos.

The Japanese signed an agreement known as “Comintern” with Germany and Italy, late in the 1930s in order to unite against the threat of the Soviet Union and Communism, which was sweeping Europe and the Far East at a time when the world economies were in serious trouble. But the old line Japanese worried as much, if not more, about capitalism than they did Communism, according to Mishima. They saw capitalism as an insidious force that was gradually destroying the ancient values that made Japan a unique culture — and it was undermining the ancient religion as well.

Early in 1932 there had been an abortive attempt to establish a military dictatorship in Japan by a group of young idealists who were intent on restoring the ancient values. This attempt included the intent to murder of several leading bankers and industrialists. Mishima deals with that revolution in his second volume. But in this third volume his hero, Honda, comes across a poem written by one of the young men who had been involved in the failed attempt to bring down the existing government. “The poet expressed the disillusionment that followed the revolution for which he had been so ready to give up his life.” In that poem, Honda reads the following couplet: “Yesterday’s wisdom is beclouded in luxurious baths of profit.” That thought alone justifies the reading of this fine novel, which is full of insights and profound observations about the world at that time, not only in Japan, but elsewhere as well.

In any event, in reflecting on that particular thought I find it remarkable that Japan was fighting at that time against the very same capitalistic forces the Roman Church was fighting against during the European Middle Ages. Capitalism won out and the battle was over between the love of money — which is condemned in both Christianity and Buddhism — and the love of God and our fellow humans. In both cases, the fight was lost and lofty spiritual ideals were replaced by the most crass, materialistic values humans have ever come to espouse. One really must sympathize with those young Japanese men who were willing to die in order to preserve a culture that was in so many ways superior to the one they knew would inevitably replace it. Just consider Japan today, with its Western dress and ideals — and especially its commitment to capitalist objectives. And consider the insidious influence of great wealth on the government in this country which is virtually crippled because those who govern are determined not to pass any laws that might infringe on the right of a few wealthy men to become even wealthier. In both cultures, Japanese and American, it is now all about money.


6 thoughts on “Dollars and Sense

  1. Well said. I see these “Capitalist” bumper stickers using the same approach the “Coexist” bumper sticker use and they always give me pause. Unfettered capitalism causes many problems. We must have some “governors” on it to make sure the interest of the community are represented and supported.

  2. Hugh, I will have to check out those novels. The couplet you quoted is lovely. Yes, both China and Japan both really struggled with the encroachment of western civilization — successfully fending it off for centuries. Pretty much up until World War II, the Chinese word for Western Europeans and Americans was the same as their word for barbarians. They believed they were the center of the enlightened world, levels far above the west in terms of education, religion, thought, refinement. Obviously, there was great poverty in the rural reaches of China, just as there was a great refined culture, but still it is interesting that both they and Japan seemed to understand that capitalism and industrialization would uproot all that had anchored them for so long. Alas, then came the 1930s and World War II and, in both countries, aftermaths of different sorts that took them far from where they were at the beginning of the 20th century.

  3. Very interesting blog, Hugh. We spent a week in Japan a few years ago visiting our daughter who was there for one semester of school – abroad studies. The impression I left with was how westernized the country has become. Tokyo is capitalism on steroids. It’s like Times Square in New York expanded 100 times. Many of the Japanese people still maintain some of those ancient values – very polite and modest. Yet that western influence is also on display everywhere, especially after 5:00PM.

    I agree with you that there certainly has been a negative effect to that culture from this capitalistic influence. I’m not sure the “lofty spiritual ideals” of the culture at the time, though, were always carried through by their actions, as the Chinese would attest too.

    The novels you reference sound like something I would enjoy reading and I am going to check them out.. Hopefully, they are not too far over my head:)

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