« Resilience to Humiliation: Aung San Suu Kyi | Start | Révész Exhibition in Tokyo »


Profound Experiences of Humiliation and How to Resist: Japanese Actor Akihiro Miwa

Actor Akihiro Miwa
Interview by Mayumi Nakazawa
Tokyo Journal, 06/95, pp. 18-21

(I thank Diane Cornish for making me aware of this text.)

Akihiro Miwa is 60 years old, a chanson singer, an acclaimed stage actor and a public personality whose confidence and charisma has earned him the awe of young fans eager for his advice. He rose from a career as a gay-bar waiter, bartender and pimp to make his debut as a chanson singer in 1952. His autobiography, which was published in 1968 and included a preface by his close friend Yukio Mishima, is in its fourth printing.

Actor Akihiro Miwa
Interview by Mayumi Nakazawa
Tokyo Journal, 06/95, pp. 18-21

A Salmon-pink Jaguar is parked at the entrance of a white Western-style house. From just inside the glazed door, a marble floor stretches all the way to the feet of Akihiro Miwa, who sits regally in an emerald green dress on a sofa covered with pink bore cushions in an enormous living room all done in spectacular Art Deco style. He is holding court.
Miwa is 60 years old, a chanson singer, an acclaimed stage actor and a public personality whose confidence and charisma has earned him the awe of young fans eager for his advice. He rose from a career as a gay-bar waiter, bartender and pimp to make his debut as a chanson singer in 1952. His autobiography, which was published in 1968 and included a preface by his close friend Yukio Mishima, is in its fourth printing.
Miwa has appeared in plays by Shuji Terayama, performed concerts at Paris’ Etoile and was scheduled to act on a Parisian stage this year in Kegawa no Marie, a Terayama play which premiered in 1967 with Miwa in the lead role. The French production has been postponed due to the presidential elections.
His Art Deco surrounding are, at first glance, perfect and expensive. But there is an oddly disturbing hint of kitsch, some flaw that adds character to the reality of both Miwa and his environment. Most often, he talks in a song-like falsetto, with feminine gestures and word use; other times, when he is angry or adamant, his voice switches to a deep and full masculine timbre. His words and his posture are bold just as his life has always been one of outspoken and forthright honesty. He is a man totally at peace with himself.

You were 10 years old and in Nagasaki at the time of the atomic bombing. Did that experience have a very big effect on your life?
Of course it affected me. It was like seeing hell. I lost a lot of my friends and people I knew. I never got keloid scars, but I lost my hair and anemia made me dizzy. I suffered a long time from various side effects. And it changed the way I looked at things. Of course it was big, but for me the biggest experience was my childhood between the ages of one and ten. That’s what made me what I am and the bombing is part of that.

You grew up nears a red-light district of Nagasaki, where your parents ran several businesses.
Yes. They ran a café, a traditional Japanese restaurant and a public bath. Next door was a theater, across the road was a record shop and next to that was an antique art dealer. There were bars and clubs all around this area.

Did growing up there stimulate your interest in music and theater?
Yes, it did. I started going to the theater when I was old enough to be aware of things. I saw movies, concerts, plays. I heard all kinds of music at the record shop. And the antique shop had all kinds of art from all over the world, east and west. I even studied Japanese painting from my elementary school days. I once wanted to become a painter.

It was a very unique environment, wasn’t it?
I saw every kind of person. The maid used to hold me in her arms while she sat at the counter of our bathhouse. I’d see people take off their clothes and what they looked like naked. …

You saw people without the dressing.
Yes. I’d see the very shabby bodies on the rich people after they undressed and I’d see gorgeous bodies on those who would take off the most dreadful clothing. So I know clothing is a total sham. Then, at the café, I’d watch men and women playing love games, fighting, arguing. You see the true nature of people when they drink like authority figures who are actually very uncouth individuals. I saw it all when I was very young and that made me what I am. The bombing came on top of that.

You were saved because you were visiting your grandparents’ house.
Fate is really hard to understand. I could very easily have died that day. After a brush with death like that it is very easy to live as free as you wish. I had known about death. My mother died when I was two, and I often saw destitute prostitutes dying of lung disease. I already had an understanding of the evanescence of life. The bomb just proved it. I started to understand the true meaning of war.

What do you mean?
The word “war” is such a decorative euphemism used to justify mass murder and destruction. We don’t need euphemisms. We shouldn’t call it “World War I,” we should call it “World Mass Murder I.” The word “soldier” should be changed to “murderer,” “military arms” should be called “murder weapons.” Why is it called a murder weapon if it’s used by an individual, but when a country uses it, it’s called “defensive armament.” It is bizarre. And if we don’t refuse to use these euphemisms we’re just part of the plot.

Do you think living through the bomb and the defeat has given you a clearer view?
Yes, because after August 15, the day of the surrender, everything we had been taught up until then suddenly changed. Before, we were required to learn the entire succession line of all the emperors and memorize the Imperial Rescript on Education. If we made one slip, we’d get beaten by the teacher. When we went back to school after the defeat, we were told that everything we had learned previously was wrong; we had to cross things out with ink in our textbooks. When you suddenly see all your values and views change, you start to distrust anything you can’t see, touch or confirm on your own. That’s when I started making my own decisions and not following others.

How do you feel about what’s been going on with the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit and Clinton’s refusal to apologize for the bombs?
That’s the national character of America. Westerners find it easy to say “excuse me,” but they find it difficult to say “I’m sorry.”

Page 20
If they were sorry, then they would be admitting they made a mistake. For them, it’s a natural attitude. But I’m sure a lot of them feel differently inside.

You seem very cool about it.
Like I said, I’ve seen a lot of things and a lot of people … tragedy, comedy. I’ve seen powerful men put their hands up waitresses skirts and pour beer all over their heads. So ever since my childhood, I’ve never had much of a belief in authority. I’ve seen these men with their hands up waitresses’ skirts at night acting very righteous during the day in public. That’s why I hated ex-governor Suzuki. Who does he think he is? He is so close to industry that he doesn’t even consult with people before deciding on things like the Frontier Expo. Then he says, “It will be problematic if we cancel it.” It’s a pathetic joke! No wonder his followers were voted out. They were being punished.

Was there anything else about Nagasaki that was unique?
It was a very cosmopolitan kind of place. At school, it didn’t matter whether you were Japanese, Chinese or Korean everybody was shoulder to shoulder. Remember, it has a 450-year history of accepting foreigners. Ever since the Tokugawa Period the merchants had a system of paying off the Shogunate to leave them alone and let them govern themselves. There is s certain kind of freedom in towns that live off trade with the outside world. And I guess that freedom is a part of me as well.

You were there until you were 16. Did you feel a big gap when you came up to Tokyo to enter music school?
I thought Tokyo was a real hick town. The first time I met Yukio Mishima I was wearing Rubashka, the traditional Russian clothing. Mishima said to me, “Oh, so that’s what is ‘modern’ in the countryside.” I said, “What are you talking about? People from Edo used to go to Nagasaki to study Western culture.” And Nagasaki was the place where Western culture came from Asia’s biggest international city back then Shanghai. Tokyo was once nothing but empty fields. So I let him have it. “What are you talking about, you Tokyo farm boy!” I said.

What was Mishima’s reaction?
He was speechless. See, I was also surprised at the discrimination I found in Tokyo. When I was working part-time at a gay bar, I would hear people use words like “chankoro” [Chink] or “Chosen-pi” [discriminatory word for Koreans]. I’d say, “You guys don’t know anything, do you? We are all a mix of Chinese and Koreans anyway. Buddhism, Kanji, even the way of making kimono fabric all came from the continent. If you put them down, you’re putting down your own ancestors!”

You said you were fond of music since you were small.
I had a beautiful soprano voice. I even took private lessons, since I thought about being a classic singer. But after my voice changed and I started studying French in junior high school, I started singing chansons as a hobby.

I heard that you were very popular among the older boys at school.
Yes, they would call me “pretty” or “beautiful.” I was the recipient of many, many proposals.

When did you realize that you were gay?
When I was still quite small. In my father’s café, I would visit the rooms where the waitresses and the waiters would rest. The waitresses would be doing nothing but bad-mouthing the customers and their colleagues. But, back in the café, they’d have nothing but compliments for everyone. It wasn’t like that in the waiters’ room. Many of the young men wanted to be writers or painters those days, so there was lots of talk about literature and film. I was small, so I didn’t understand everything, but I felt very much at peace among them. The waitresses lived in a very real world: the guys were much more romantic.

So you saw a bad side of women when you were small.
Yes. They were surrounded by beautiful things, but they had no dreams. Their room was all messy with scattered cosmetics and clothing. In the waiters’ room it was messy, too, but with scattered books and paint tubes. For me, that was much more appealing.

I’ve seen a picture of you in junior high school that took my breath away. Is that the period in which you had your fist sexual experience?
Yes. With a high school boy five years older than I. I learned a lot about Western and Japanese art and literature from him.

Wasn’t Nagasaki very open about sexual matters?
That’s true. I would walk hand-in-hand with older students and people would just say, “Oh, how nice.” That’s why I never thought there was anything wrong with homosexuality. But after I came to Tokyo, people called me “pervert” and “faggot.” I was in shock! Where the hell was I? I couldn’t find anything intellectually stimulating in Tokyo. See, I had studied Japanese painting, so I knew a lot about Japanese history. I knew that there was a long history of accepting homosexuality, stretching hundreds of years from the civil wars to the Meiji Restoration. And even after that, at some schools. Yasunari Kawabata wrote about his love for a classmate in junior high school, right? I’d been reading a lot, so it seemed perfectly natural to me.

So you first experienced discrimination in Tokyo?
Yes. It was the first time I was told that what I thought of as natural behavior was not. Actually, the movement against homosexuality was part of the militarization of Japan. Because homosexuality doesn’t breed more cannon fodder, it’s anathema to the authorities. It’s the same with the Christian bible. Nations with larger populations were traditionally stronger, so they banned things that would result in a smaller population. It became religious dogma, and many homosexuals suffer, thinking it’s a sin. I think that’s ridiculous. I tell them, “Why don’t you become Buddhist?” (laughs)

How did you overcome the prejudice?
I’d say, “So, who are you? What makes you perfect? What special talents do you have?” People who criticize others think they have a right. But they have nothing at all. I attack right back at them. I always tell people who are discriminated against that their detractors are stupid, but that victims are responsible as well. You have to fight back if you don’t want to be attacked.

You don’t seem to have an inferiority complex.
Not at all. No one should have an inferiority complex. There is no one made up of 100 percent good and no one with 100 percent bad.

You went from a spoiled upbringing to family bankruptcy. Then you came to Tokyo and lived in some very impoverished circumstances. Did you ever lose confidence in yourself?
I’ve slept in the underground corridors of Shinjuku station because I was penniless. I was so faint from hunger I was close to dying. But I was always looking for a way to pull myself up. When Chaplin was asked what his best film was, he answered, “The next one.” That’s me. I always thought things would get better. I always thought positively, never negatively.

You first met Mishima when you were 16, working at a coffee shop for “beautiful young boys.”He came to do research. He was a hot-shot writer, so everyone was fawning all over him. But I’ve never been big on power and authority, so when he called me over to a seat near him I just

Page 21
shrugged. He asked me, “Do you want anything to drink?” and I said, “No thanks. I’m not a geisha.” He said, “You’re not being very cute,” and I said, “I don’t have to be cute, I’m beautiful.” He was speechless.

What was your first impression of him?
His face was very pale. He was pretty intense. It was like his nerves extended several feet out of his heal, like lightning rods climbing out of his skull. I wasn’t really interested in that type of man.

But you later became very close.
I think I represented a culture shock to him. At the time, he had met every condition necessary to be called genius. And in the world of literature, he was very clever, he knew all the corners, all the ins and outs. But in private life he was immature.

He was spoiled by his upbringing?
Oh, yes. He was meant to follow the course of his bureaucratic parents from the elite Gakushuin school to Imperial University, and on to the Ministry of Finance. He was a gentle man so he couldn’t say no to them. He had this monstrous clash of wills inside: his parents’ wishes versus his own. I guess I was the one who pushed him over the edge and made him take responsibility for his convictions. His mother was furious. She blamed me for making him what he was.

You were a type of person that he’d never met before.
I’m sure he knew that people like me existed, but it was the first time he’d ever met one. For him, I guess it was like meeting E.T. He had always led a very passive life, but I had always lived a very active one, a life that I chose for myself. I’m sure he felt jealous that someone could actually do that from the time they were 16. He was always wearing a suit and tie, just because he was expected to. But I would wear whatever I wanted. Because of my influence, he started wearing jeans and leather jackets, he started boxing, he started doing what he wanted.

It was your influence that got him started on body-building?
No, he began planning his own life based on a painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. And a muscular body was a necessity for the type of life he wanted.

What do you think of his fascination with martyrdom?
I had seen a picture of St. Sebastian when I was young, but I’ve never believed blood is beautiful. Martyrdom is absolute nonsense! Are flowers going to bloom after your death? I told Mishima that. But he believed in the purity of young martyrs.

What was it about martyrdom that intrigued him so much?
It’s not easy to answer. There are many, many reasons and they all fed each other. In the end, it seemed like Morita was the one pushing Mishima. Mishima told Morita that he didn’t want him to follow him into death. I’ve had so many requests to write or speak about Mishima’s death, but I just don’t want to say anything more about it. It was something between the two of us, and it has nothing to do with anyone else.

What do you think of Paul Schrader’s move Mishima?
I was asked to appear in that, but I refused. Schrader came and talked to me. I told him some of what I knew and he said he had learned a lot that he didn’t know. But it’s better to leave Mishima mysterious. I guess Schrader did the best he could….

What did Mishima’s existence mean to you?
He was a good friend. Not a lover … I never felt that kind of emotion. But he was so pure that I felt sorry for him. People need to suffer sometimes to build character. It’s a lesson that young people should pay attention to these days as well.

Five years after your debut, you took the country by storm with a chanson called “Meke Meke.” Then, five years lager, you wrote a song for the working class called “Yoi Tomake no Uta.” I was shocked at the change. What a comeback!
But I didn’t change at all! Chansons were originally just local songs about sadness, joy and anger that were popular after the French Revolution. In Japan, all the reality was taken our of it, and chanson became this very sophisticated thing. But I wanted to put them back in the hands of the people, so I sang the very rough words of “Meke Meke.”

And you met with some criticism.
The “sophisticated” critics didn’t like the way I demystified chansons and brought them back to an earthy reality. But that was my way of fighting against them. I also wore frilly, feminine clothes so they called me “sissy-boy” and things like that. At that time I was trying to make a statement that I was against militarism and anti-war. I wanted to bring back the 2000-year-old aesthetic sense that led to the Taisho modern era and the art deco of Showa one that had been destroyed by the military. But the mass media ignored what I wanted to say. They thought I was just being cocky. The only ones who supported me were people like Mishima.

Your life has always been one of fighting against social mores. In fact, you were the first to openly admit your homosexuality, weren’t you?
I had seen a lot of people dying in sad circumstances, suffering from homosexual discrimination. I decided, if I became famous, that I would speak out and announce that I was a homosexual. Usually, people want to form activist groups for things like that, but I hate joining groups. I just did it myself. There were a lot of people, including women, who supported me in what I did.

It’s been forty years since then. Attitudes towards gays have changed a great deal, haven’t they?
Changed is not half the word for it! Young people now grow up with David Bowie. Boy George and the popularity of the “New Half” transsexuals. For kids now, accepting homosexuals is perfectly natural. People used to call me faggot and pervert, but today young boys on TV will say they like me without even hesitating. They don’t see me as either a man or a woman; they see me as Akihiro Miwa. In that sense, Japan is the most advanced country in the world.

Posted by Evelin at July 29, 2004 06:45 AM