Saturday 25 November 2017

About Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima speaking to an audience of Japanese soldiers at Ichigaya Barracks Tokyo on November 25, 1970.

It is hard to imagine a more surreal scenario than one where a globally famous writer stages an abortive coup d’etat at a military barracks before committing suicide. Perhaps Wole Soyinka’s infiltrating of a Nigerian television station where at gunpoint he ordered a newscaster to stop the announcing of the results of a fraudulently contested election in the mid-1960s comes a distant second (Soyinka was later arrested and charged, but acquitted on a technicality). But by ceremonially disembowelling himself prior to being decapitated, Yukio Mishima had to many modern-thinking and Westernised Japanese seemingly turned the clock back to the Middle Ages.

His actions on November the 25th, 1970 remain incomprehensible to his countrymen.

Where some saw elements of “psychotic craziness” others could discern a carefully choreographed piece of theatre, a last act in the life of a man who was an eccentric but also a brilliant artist. He was a force of literary creativity and public controversy.

He lived in a state of perpetual contradiction.

A man imbued with a love of Japan’s rich heritage and proud of his Samurai ancestry, he was also intensely drawn to the Western world to which he often travelled and from where he relished the acclaim heaped on him. He even lived in an Italianate villa in Tokyo. He was married with two children but was apparently homosexual. And while he often projected the ambiance of a deep-thinking intellectual, he had a fascination with swords and was obsessed with bodybuilding and physical culture. As a boy he had been thin and weak, but later while living amid the trappings of upper middle class gentility, he found an outlet for a yearning to be something of a ruffian gangster, a role he played in cameo roles in films.

Mishima’s love of many things Western did not extend to wholeheartedly embracing Western notions of liberal democracy. He was decidedly right-wing and subscribed to to the ideology of Emperor worship, albeit that he alienated many Japanese monarchists when he denounced Emperor Hirohito for renouncing his claim to divinity. He memorialised what he considered to be the martyrs of the Niniroku Jiken or ‘February 26 Incident’, an abortive coup in 1936 that had been orchestrated by Imperial Japanese soldiers belonging to the Kodo-ha faction which aimed to purge what they perceived to be the corruption in the Japanese political and business classes in order to return Japan to a pre-industrialised and pre-westernised state that would be run along totalitarian lines by the Emperor with the assistance of a bakufu or military government.

Mishima merged his political thinking with his enduring thoughts of death in a short movie in which he starred in 1966 titled Yukoku (‘Patriotism’). In it, he played an army officer linked to the failed plot of February 1936 who commits seppuku.

It was something of a rehearsal of his macabre ending.

In his later years, Mishima would form a private militia he called the Tatenokai or Shield Society. It is from this group of young followers that he recruited the men who would accompany him to the Ichigaya barracks where under the pretense of paying a courtesy call to the commandant, would take him hostage and threaten to kill him unless he was allowed to give a speech to the soldiers in the main courtyard of the establishment.

The soldiers cursed him and mocked him as he enjoined them to rebel and free Japan from what he argued were the shackles of American military and cultural domination. They were, he chided, “American mercenaries” in a Japan that had “no spiritual foundation”.  

It was a fruitless plea and one which most believe Mishima knew was doomed to fail. He had had a death wish, it is widely believed, since his youth when he had feigned sickness in order to avoid being drafted into the Tokubetsu Kogekitai, the air corps of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which in the latter part of the Pacific War employed a strategy of suicidal combat. The guilt of not enlisting as a Kamikaze and perishing honourably in flames haunted him all his life. Some argue that he realised that he had reached his creative peak as a writer and could see no future on earth. He had, after all, been in the running to become Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in literature before he had stepped aside to make way for his mentor Yasunari Kawabata. Others point to writing where he explicitly declared that having built a powerful-looking body, he would not yield voluntarily to the degenerative force of the natural ageing process.

“The body”, he had written in Sun and Steel (1968), “is doomed to decay, just like the complicated motor of a car. I for one do not, will not, accept such a doom. This means that I do not accept the course of Nature. I know that I am going against Nature. I know that I am forcing my body onto the most destructive path of all.”

In death, it is believed that he formed a lover’s pact, taking his male lover, Masakatsu Morita with him into the afterlife.

His call from the balcony at Ichigaya barracks while dressed in his military tunic, for Japan to reclaim its martial past while ostensibly attempting to rouse the Japanese military to armed rebellion was in the final analysis a ruse. It served as cover for the fulfillment of a life-long obsession with seppuku. That he believed it would offer vindication of his life and the values he propagated is clear in the words of an interview he once gave during which he differentiated between the Western and Japanese concepts of suicide:

“Sometimes,” Mishima insisted, “Harakiri makes you win.”

© Adeyinka Makinde (2017)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

Saturday 11 November 2017

Wilder-Stiverne: A Tale of Collusion and Chaos

Deontay Wilder bundled away from the prone Bermane Stiverne by referee Arthur Mercante (PHOTO: Getty Images)

The outcome of the recent WBC world heavyweight title bout between Deontay Wilder and his challenger Bermane Stiverne provided the drama of a first round knockout that has provided the impetus for a ratcheting up of interest in a unification bout between Wilder and Anthony Joshua, the holder of the WBA and IBF versions. But the fight, as well as providing a reminder of the perpetually fractured nature of world championship boxing, also raised a number of disquieting issues. First was the legitimacy of Stiverne’s entitlement to challenge for Wilder’s title. Second was the disgraceful physical state of the challenger who weighed in at 254 pounds. Thirdly, is the question of whether on his thirty-ninth appearance in the ring, Wilder’s level of skill is befitting of one bearing the mantle of a world champion. Finally, was the quality of officiating. Lost in the post-fight inquest was an appropriate level of scrutiny of Arthur Mercante Jr’s all too often chaotic style in the ring.

Very few, if any, among the followers of the sport of boxing were overjoyed at the prospect of Bermane Stiverne’s challenge to Deontay Wilder for the latter’s version of the world heavyweight title. In the first instance, Stiverne, the 39-year-old Haitian-Canadian from whom Wilder had won the title in 2015, had been a replacement for the Cuban Luis Ortiz, whose eagerly anticipated clash with Wilder had been derailed by a positive doping test. But before that, aficionados of the sport had expressed concern about Stiverne’s designation as the number one contender for Wilder’s World Boxing Council title given Stiverne’s relative inactivity during the period that had elapsed since his loss to Wilder.

That Stiverne, who had only fought once against journeyman fighter Derric Rossy in November of 2015, could maintain his mandatory status was almost certainly due to the influence of his manager, Don King. King had a close and enduring relationship with the late Jose Sulaiman, the longstanding president of the WBC who was the father of the current president Mauricio Sulaiman. The King-WBC ‘special relationship’ is one that appears to be transgenerational.

The original relationship with Sulaiman Snr was much derided by journalists, rival promoters and managers of fighters who were opponents of Don King-controlled boxers. The late Jack Newfield once lamented that Sulaiman “became more King’s junior partner than his independent regulator.”

While the grip King once had on heavyweight boxing has long been weakened to one that is largely insignificant, many with memories of the King-Sulaiman Snr. ‘partnership’ would be forgiven for their angst at the apparent special treatment given to a contemporary Don King fighter.

Many fans were irritated at the initial resistance shown by Stiverne to take stand-aside money to pave the way for the intended fight between Wilder and Ortiz. The overwhelming consensus was that Stiverne had been beaten comprehensively on points and there was no interest in seeing both men fight again.

Despite Stiverne’s pre-fight threat that he would “kill” Wilder, it was apparent that he was an unworthy challenger given his pot-bellied and generally out-of-conditioned appearance. Indeed, for some, Stiverne’s poorly conditioned frame and lacklustre performance were redolent of the era of overweight and out-of-condition heavyweights of the late 1970s and 1980s, an era dominated by King.

Wilder’s blow-out of Stiverne earned him praise from some quarters including Mauricio Sulaiman who claimed that he had not seen a heavyweight “throw a jab with such sharpness and precision since Larry Holmes.” Others are not so convinced about the level of his ringcraft, contending that Wilder’s modus operandi of throwing his jab low, seemingly from the hip, would be courting disaster against a better class of heavyweight such as Anthony Joshua. And while one of Wilder’s knockdown punches, a straight right that pierced the guard of Stiverne, caught the eye, his overly excited finish composed of wild swinging blows underlined what to some is a champion who remains crude and unlettered in the finer aspects of the sport. The ‘punch stats’ seemingly bear this out: Wilder landed 15 out of 39 punches thrown during the bout.

There are complaints that while Joshua’s title win over Charles Martin was received with caution because he had defeated a decidedly mediocre opponent, Wilder has been serenaded for dispatching a hapless and inept excuse for an ex-champion.

Apart from questions associated with the making of the fight and the quality of the fight -at least in so far as the competence of Stiverne was concerned, is the performance by referee Arthur Mercante Jr.

It was not merely that Mercante’s longstanding habit of whistling at boxers when signalling for them to resume fighting infringes fundamental notions of professionalism and respect for the combatants, he clearly breached a number of rules and conventions governing the officiating of bouts in the jurisdiction of New York State.

For instance, Mercante gave Stiverne a mandatory count of nine after the first knockdown, and in the succeeding one, he gave the fighter a mandatory ‘seven count’. Both are of course deviations from the rule of giving a fighter a mandatory count of eight.

Mercante is no stranger to playing roughshod with both the letter and the spirit of the rules of the game. In 2010, he ignored the pleas of Yuri Foreman’s corner to have the fight stopped and admonished an inspector of the New York State Athletic Commission who had begun to climb the steps to the ring in the eighth round, the round before he stopped the bout. Inspectors have the right to implore a referee to stop a fight.

The ‘innovation’ of a flexible count was not the only infraction.

The standard of practice promoted by the New York State Athletic Commission is that after a knockdown, the downed fighter once upright, at the behest of the referee is expected to take a step forward followed by a step to the side. But Mercante failed to insist that Stiverne take a step to the side. Further, he neglected to keep a firm control on Wilder’s movements after the knockdowns while he was administering the count.

The underlying current of chaos was exemplified by the incident before the final knockdown when Stiverne collided with him as Mercante stood near the ring ropes. This arguably may have delayed Stiverne’s descent and allowed Wilder to connect with more punches than he otherwise would have. In any case, when stopping the fight, Mercante’s act of grabbing Wilder and grappling with him after he was already turned away from the prone Stiverne was unnecessarily theatrical.

Mercante’s longevity in the topflight continues to mystify many who bemoan the controversies and even tragedies that have been associated with poor levels of refereeing - this all the more galling when there is a pool of highly professional officials available, including the veteran Ron Lipton whose talents have been remarkably underused by the authorities in New York.

At a time when boxing is facing competition from the genre of mixed martial arts, the Wilder-Stiverne bout highlights the disquieting features attendant to the sport that only serve to undermine it: shady behind-the-scenes administration by the sanctioning bodies in collusion with promoters, which result in mismatches that demean the prestige of bouts offered to the public as being between combatants at the pinnacle of the sport. That, as well as the evident favouritism shown to certain referees whose levels of competence and professionalism do not stand the test of objective evaluation.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2017)

Adeyinka Makinde is the author of Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula.

Thursday 2 November 2017

The Balfour Declaration: World Zionism and World War I

Only a relatively few historians acknowledge just how close Britain came to losing the First World War.

Although heavy loss of young lives in the stalemated land war on French territory dissipated national strength and morale, Britain’s fate, ominous for a certain period of time, was dependent on the development of the war on the high seas. This was not related to a diminution in the formidable power of Britain’s navy which had imperiously ruled the waves since the time of Lord Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

A defeat at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile in November 1914 had been swiftly revenged the following month in the Battle of the Falklands. And while the German High Seas Fleet inflicted heavy losses on the Royal Navy in the epic Battle of Jutland in 1916, the result was essentially a draw, after which the German Navy did not venture out of its ports on the Baltic Sea to confront the British. The problem at sea related to German U-Boat warfare which was inflicting colossal losses on British cargo. An Island nation could only sustain so much before capitulating.

This was the warning delivered in 1917 by the British Admiralty to its political overlords.

America’s resources of manpower and martial machinery was needed to tip the balance. But just as would be the prelude to US intervention in the Second World War, the Americans, for long heeding of the advice given by their Founding Fathers, were wary of getting into “foreign entanglements”.

This is where the leaders of world Zionism came in.

It was a simple bargain: If Jewish leaders such as Chaim Weizmann could call on the Jewish Diaspora in America to use their influence to bring the United States into the war to rescue a desperate situation, then Britain would do what it could to help bring to fruition the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in Palestine.

The ‘Balfour Declaration’ was part of this bargain.

Winston Churchill acknowledged this in a statement he made to the House of Commons in July 1937:

It is a delusion to suppose this was a mere act of crusading enthusiasm or quixotic philanthropy. On the contrary, it was a measure taken. . .in due need of the war with the object of promoting the general victory of the Allies, for which we expected and received valued and important assistance.

Other evidence of the bargain comes from correspondence between Churchill and Chaim Weizmann, a prominent leader of world Zionism. In a letter to Churchill which was dated September 10th 1941, Weizmann while pleading for Churchill to establish a “Jewish fighting force” that would have “our name and flag arrayed against [Adolf Hitler]”, wrote the following:

It has been repeatedly acknowledged by British Statesmen that it was the Jews who, in the last war, effectively helped to tip the scales in America in favour of Great Britain. They are keen to do it - and may do it - again.

The Balfour Declaration was one of several bargains entered into by Zionists en route to the eventual declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. Another would be the controversial Haavara Agreement [or ‘Transfer Agreement’] with Nazi Germany entered into by German Zionists in the 1930s.

Before Israel was born would be the struggle of the Palestine-based Jewish Agency to get Britain, the holders of the Mandate, to allow unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine, the bombings and assassinations conducted by Irgun and Lehi against British and Arab targets, the United Nations Partition Plan and a war against Arab armies.

Today the Armenians bemoan the ‘betrayal’ of the Western powers for not enabling the creation of an Armenian nation spanning much of its historical territory, and the Kurds similarly feel ‘betrayed’ by the unfulfilled promise of a homeland made by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But few are aware that a Jewish homeland -the Jewish Autonomous Oblast- was created in the USSR under the watch of Joseph Stalin in 1934 with Birobidzhan as its administrative capital. It still exists, albeit with a rather minute Jewish population.

Meanwhile, Israel is approaching its seventieth year of statehood. The Balfour Declaration put into the public imagination the idea of a Jewish state which twenty years earlier, Theodor Herzl, wary of ridicule, was content to write of in his diary after the Basel Congress. “If I said this out loud today,” Herzl wrote on September 3rd 1897, “I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.”

Lord Arthur Balfour’s declaration to Lord Walter Rothschild was problematic at the time for the reason that Britain had yet to obtain custodianship of Palestine in succession to its Ottoman rulers. But most problematic of all was the caveat that such promise would “not prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”

That the Arabs of Palestine, tied for centuries to the hamlets, towns and cities on the land Zionists refer to as Eretz Yisrael, have been subjected to dispossession and occupation while been continually denied a state of their own is surely evidence that Balfour’s condition has not been met.

The Jews created a nation in Palestine, but that created an inevitable injustice against its Arab Muslim and Christian inhabitants.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2017)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.