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The Aesthetics of Manliness, by Yukio Mishima

The Aesthetics of Manliness, by Yukio Mishima
Photo by Gregory Hayes / Unsplash
"Clothing [...] is none other than that which expresses the characteristics of the sex, the characteristics of the aggressive combative male. Clothing is sexual."

The Aesthetics of Manliness

by Yukio Mishima

There was a man who, unable to help being wealthy, had ten suits made every month at a tailor in Ginza. That adds up to one hundred and twenty suits in a year, so it seems that at home he is living buried in suits. At the time, I was greatly interested in fashion, so I thought of such people not a little jealous.

But now I do not. Because my eyes have been opened to many things.

On the whole, the most expensive tailors, haberdasheries, barbershops, and so on in Ginza, the stores that serve to arrange men's deportment, are all expensive because they serve people who have become physically ugly. Even the tailoring of suits is so, and the techniques of tailoring, camouflage2, and papering up are necessary in order to somehow have customers who have plenty of money but unsightly physiques with protruding stomachs or like used-up dried fish appear in public and preserve their societal respectability. What are called the techniques of tailoring in Japan are these techniques of camouflage and trickery, and the more skilled one is in them the more money one is paid. Barbershops are also so, and the more expensive the barbershop, the more most of its customers will be distinguished gentlemen who jealously guard their pathetic hair. Barbers who have never seen abundant black hair other than their own receive a lot of money for gingerly parting those five or six hairs on the left or on the right. And in dollar barbershops hair brimming with abundant youth gathers plentifully. Further, having thus groomed their outward appearance by accumulating such deceit, the gentlemen, in search of hosiery appropriate to their appearance, enter high-end haberdasheries to buy grotesque articles like vicuña shirts. They buy specially made gold-plated Dunhills for hundreds of thousands of yen4 just for the purpose of lighting cigarettes. They show off real luxury goods by hanging them jingling from their bodies in order to cover up an essential deceit.

I have been saying that the best way to make a revolution succeed in Japan is to string together the distinguished figures of Japan's political, financial, and cultural worlds, everyone in the so-called ruling forces, and make them walk naked through Ginza. Faced with that ugliness, the masses would immediately understand the reality of the power that rules them. They would understand directly that it is not beauty that rules this world. A revolution of beauty would surely break out immediately.

It is in order to prevent such a revolution from occurring that expensive tailors, expensive haberdasheries, and expensive barbershops render their services.

Originally, men's clothing and accessories in the Orient were born of concealing the body, showing off power, and forcibly attributing class distinctions to bodies that are the same when naked. Their origins are deceit and camouflage. The male is an animal that will carry out any deception for the sake of dominion.

And what is inconvenient, what bears an essential contradiction, is that authority or status are not simply abstract things, but must be mediated by the body. In the Orient, where the necessity of clothing and accessories emerged out of this, the higher the class of the clothing, the more what does not make clear the lines of the body was chosen, and the clothing of the nobles, who had been influenced by China, was typical of this. It was thought that with regard to clothing the more that a man shows the lines of the body the more the gravity and abstraction of his power or status weakened. Because this idea is still somewhat strong and deeply entrenched, even when the suit was imported from the West, it was measured by the price of its fabric and its tailoring, and, by the oriental concept of clothing, tailoring techniques of camouflage developed greatly.

Incidentally, the Western conception of men's clothing has its foundations in the culture of ancient Greece which differed fundamentally from this. The tradition in which the beauty of the naked body was tied to the value of the character and the spirit5 hasn’t quite disappeared, and this spirit has been inherited continuously even in the tailoring of suits. Naturally, the camouflage through tailoring of people whose bodies have become ugly is advanced even in Western countries, but among original manufacturers of men's clothing and accessories like those of Britain, the regard given to the seemliness of the body was exceptional. A British colonial secretary who was appointed to an island in the southern Pacific, being of the British way of thinking, assiduously pursued sport, maintained a slim look6, and thought that this is how one maintains gravity, but the natives, unable to completely abandon the tradition of respecting the fattest chief as the most distinguished chief, apparently complained that they would be in a bad way if the secretary didn't eat a lot more and get fat.

Japanese are also unable to completely escape such thinking. Even now what old-fashioned geisha praise with the words, "you have a fine form," is unfailingly the obese corpulent type.

When one considers whether clothing or the body comes first, it is obvious that even now the greater part of Japanese think that clothing comes first. The idea that the body comes first and that one should consider what to wear such that they go together seems to be a minority opinion. While differing fundamentally from the thinking of Westerners in this, the great majority of Japanese are fixated on the Western clothing that is the suit. One must say that this is absurd.

If you go to the beach of a foreign country you will understand, but one can absolutely not say that the physiques of contemporary Western men are beautiful when compared to the proportions7 of Greek classical sculpture. Many are hunchbacked, with straight and overly long legs, unstable hips, grossly rotund and fat torsos, fat and often barrel-shaped chests,  narrow shoulders, and relative to that overly large buttocks.8 Westerners are well aware of these flaws in their own physiques, and invented the suit in order to conceal those teeth9.  Even many Esquire models are hunchbacked, and one cannot say that they signify healthy manliness. Legs shouldn't just be long, and excessively straight legs are mechanical and inorganic10.

But the suit is ideal for such figures. A hunchback gives the cut on the back an elegant line, a barrel chest pushes the necktie forward and makes the neckline vivid, narrow shoulders are offset by pads, and pants strongly accentuate the straight lines. Thus, ugliness was converted to beauty.

Because the Japanese suit is like a person who does not have flaws (or has the opposite flaws) going out of his way to borrow clothing that hides the flaws of another, it could not possibly succeed.

The original flaws of the Japanese were their long torsos, short legs, and large, flat faces. Recently Japanese who diverge completely from this standard have become common, but these flaws are relatively prominent from the perspective of Westerners. It goes without saying that the clothing invented in order to conceal such teeth is beautiful, but the most beautiful men's clothing among what one sees at present is the kendō gi. There is nothing that shows the beauty of the Japanese man as much as the figure clad in a training gi of indigo that almost sticks to the hands, indigo so dense one can almost smell it, a hakama, and a protector fastened to the black torso. This is because the flaws of the Japanese physique are all concealed, but this too is not something born of the idea that the body comes first and clothing second, but likely naturally became so due to function, and is congruous with the principles of Western men's clothing. Thus, for the Japanese, there comes into being the paradox that the suit belongs to the Japanese conception of clothing and accessories and the kendō gi to the Western conception.

Now, however much time passes, East is East, and West is West. Is there anything in which East and West have taken an identical course in men's clothing and accessories? There is. It is the military uniform.

Soldiering is above all a physical profession, and because the training of the body precedes everything, the fundamental conditions of the male body are all developed to the greatest degree. Because the military uniform is what they dress it in, it is naturally in conformity with the principle of clothing that the body comes first and clothing second. The tailoring of military uniforms, without distinction between East and West, requires special techniques that fit them to the body, and consequently, unlike the suit, it does not look good on just anyone. It does not suit men the lines of whose bodies have collapsed. It is rumored that in America generals whose stomachs protrude and military uniforms no longer suit them are fired, but that is natural in the military, which prizes appearance and deportment above all. That is because there is nothing that truthfully displays masculine power, agility, and elegance as much as the lines of the chest, back, and waist of the military uniform, and someone who has lost those no longer has the right to be a soldier.

If one has it that, as men's clothing, only the kendō gi and the military uniform are beautiful, then it is certain that clothing, no matter how much it camouflages, is none other than that which expresses the characteristics of the sex, the characteristics of the aggressive combative male. Clothing is sexual11. And the more that clothing is distanced from the sexual, the more it becomes filled with the techniques of camouflage as an embodiment of power and other abstractions.

The Aesthetics of Manliness (First Appearance) Men’s Quality Magazine12 - May of the Forty-Fourth Year of the Shōwa Era (1969)

(First Published) The Prince of Lanling - Shinchōsha - May of the Forty-Sixth Year of the Shōwa Era (1971)


肉体的 nikutaiteki. Beyond the meaning of flesh or body, this word also refers to the sexual. 2

ゴマカシ gomakashi. The primary meaning of this word is deception or deceit.3

後生大事 goshō daiji. Goshō also refers to the Buddhist afterlife, specifically to rebirth in a Pure Land. The use of this term here implies significantly advanced age.4

At the time of writing, one hundred thousand yen would have been about the equivalent of 300 USD. It is now more than three times that.5

人格的精神的価値 jinkakuteki seishinteki kachi. 6

スリム・ルック surimu rukku.7

プロポーション puropōshon.8

猫背が多いし、足は真っ直ぐで長すぎ、腰は不安定、胴はいやにボテッと厚く、胸は厚いが多くは樽型であり、肩幅もせまい人が多く、それに比して、尻が大きすぎる nekoze ga ōi shi, ashi wa massugu de nagasugi, koshi wa fuantei, dō wa iya ni botetto atsuku, mune wa atsui ga ōku wa tarugata de ari, katahaba mo semai hito ga ōku, sore ni hishite, shiri ga ōkisugiru. Lit., There are many stoops, the legs are straight and too long, the hips are unstable, the torsos are grossly fat as if pregnant, the chests are fat but many are barrel-shaped, there are many people who also have narrow shoulders, and, compared to that, the buttocks are too large. 9

シガ shiga.10

非生物的 hiseibutsuteki. Lit. abiotic, abiological.11

In the sense of displaying the essential characteristics of the sex, male or female, that wears it.12

男子専科 Danshi Senka. A men’s fashion magazine founded in the 1950s.

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