Howard Jacobson: A land whose writers understand fortitude

Mishima lowers himself into the terribleness of beauty, and allows all the abject cruelties to pierce him

For some reason, when it comes to travel, I have always put Japan on the back burner of my curiosity. Just as you can't read every book, you can't visit every country. Friends have been trying for years to arrange for a party of us to travel to Japan together, to see the cherry blossoms. My indifference has probably been contributory to its never having happened. Cherry blossom? Surely there were other things we all wanted to see more. Like the menu of our favourite restaurant in Rome. Cherry blossom could wait.

It turns out that one of the best places in Japan to see cherry blossom in all its splendour is, or was, Sendai.

I taught a Japanese girl once at a summer language school in Oxford. English literature. I say "taught" but this was language-teaching lite: mainly we sat around with books unopened on our laps, chatted about Oxford, and discussed the goings-on at the previous night's disco. The Japanese girl was different. She skipped the discos. She brought a solemn expression to classes – which the school had promised in its brochures to make "fun" – and sat in the front row with a pen and notebook at the ready. "Teach me properly," her expression said. But she was already well taught, and knew a great deal about the poetry of Shelley. When, in response to her request to hear my views on Shelley, I repeated the verdict of my old teacher, F R Leavis, that Shelley always seemed to be running a temperature, she countered by saying that Shelley's reputation in her country, and she thought in mine, was higher than that. "What's reputation for," I said, remembering the spirit of "fun" I'd been hired to inculcate, "if not to challenge?"

She shook her head. No, that was not what reputation was for. Reputation was to be revered.

Was she another reason I have been in no hurry to go to Japan or to visit its culture in my imagination? Such obedience was too alien. Never mind all I'd read about the Japanese and their blind loyalty to the Emperor in the war – wars are wars – here was obedience where obedience was absolutely not to be tolerated. You think for yourself when it comes to literature, or you don't think at all.

And yet, speaking of literature, there is another idea of Japan that has intrigued me to such a degree that if I have put it to the back of my mind it can only be because I haven't known what else to do with it. I am thinking of the, to us, erotically bewildering Japan, now subsuming sex in the infinitely subtle concept of the geisha, now observing it with unsparing fascination as in those meticulously carved netsuke couplings you find on the mantelpieces of well-to-do but cultivated European adventurers, and now going where we English think a long time before going (and then decide to stay where we are) in the work of such novelists as Yukio Mishima and Jun'ichiro Tanizaki.

Whoever doesn't put his mind to sado-masochism is not going to write well about sex, and in the main the English don't and don't. Tanizaki's The Key tells the story of an elderly professor who connives in his wife's infidelity. It is arousing not because it is explicit but because it is perverse, and also unsparingly matter-of-fact in its depiction of the minutiae that feed lust. "After bathing, I had put on my earrings," the wife, a woman of refinement and "extreme reticence", confides to her diary. "I got into bed, purposely lying so that he could see my jewelled ears." Jewelled ears, for God's sake. Jewelled ears, reader. Here women pump up their breasts and get themselves a full Brazilian, and then wonder why they can't find anyone to love them.

That you must live half the time in a modest, carefully regulated society in order to find letting go exciting would seem to be something Japanese writers understand. Inhibition is a sine qua non of sex. It is not erotic to be free. Nor is it erotic to be safe. The novelist Yukio Mishima posed pointing a Samurai sword to his chest and ultimately had himself beheaded in public. This is what's called taking your art seriously. The novel of his I know best is Confessions of a Mask. It is prefaced by a quotation from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, beginning: "Beauty is a terrible and awful thing." To say Mishima explores this paradox would be to put it mildly. He lowers himself down into the terribleness of beauty, and allows all the abject cruelties of desire and submission to pierce him until he bleeds. As a boy, watching another boy with whom he is in love, the narrator-hero describes the beauty that overwhelms him, the feeling the other boy gave of "having too much life ... of purposeless violence that can be explained only as life existing for its own sake...".

Standing alone on a rocky beach, abandoning himself to the sensation of "emptiness before the sea's repletion", he realises that the beautiful boy he loves he also envies for his loneliness. He wants life to claim but also to destroy him. Staring out to sea, he watches the waves. "As [the swell] drew near the beach, something awakened and rose up within its green hood. The wave grew tall and, as far as the eye could reach, revealed the razor-keen blade of the sea's enormous axe, poised and ready to strike. Suddenly the dark-blue guillotine fell, sending up a white blood-splash... and for a moment it reflected in the pure blue of the sky, that same unearthly blue which is mirrored in the eyes of a person on the verge of death."

I have no desire to connect that passage to the tsunami. And it would be the grossest impertinence on my part to suppose that on the strength of a few Japanese novels I happened to have read I have anything to say about Japanese fatalism. But it must be that the perils of one's habitat affect one's sense of life, and that the presence of that violent sea part explains the fate which, as a writer and a man, Mishima pursued.

From the safety of our armchairs we marvel at the fortitude – if that's the word – of those whose lives this cataclysm has ruined. We know that if it were us we'd be wailing on every news channel, shaking our fists at God or some other authority. We must blame somebody. It is beyond us to accept the "purposeless violence of things".

I wish we could learn to do so. Because there is no other truth.