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Yukio Mishima - Life Full of Contrasts

Yukio Mishima is considered to be one of 20th-century Japan’s most prolific writers, and was the first postwar Japanese writer to achieve international fame. Nominated three times for the Nobel Prize and author of 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 volumes of short stories and as many literary essays, Mishima was also an actor, a model, an expert swordsman, a traveler and a would-be "prophet."

He was born Kimitaka Hiraoka in the Yotsua district of Tokyo on Jan 14, 1925. He chose "Yukio Mishima" as his pen name, which was cryptically interpreted as "He who chronicles reason,", to hide his writing from his disapproving anti-literary father. However, it was his paternal grandmother, Natsuko Hiraoka, who had the most lasting influence on him. Just 29 days after his birth, Mishima was separated from his family and raised by his sophisticated yet capricious grandmother whose own background and personality shaped his character. He was with her until he was 12 years old.

He was forced to live a very sheltered life in which there were no sports, no playing with other boys, no going out in the sun. His grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a Meiji era daimyo with familial links to the all powerful Tokugawas and was raised in a huge and rich, samurai-influenced household, with a reverence for Japan’s past, and the samurai fascination with beauty, purity and death. She was frustrated by the fact that with her noble past she married just a successful bureaucrat and her character and opinions had a lasting effect on Mishima’s later works and personality.

1930, with his grandmother

One of Mishima’s earliest haiku dates from when he was seven years old, and it reads:
Otōto ga o-tete hirogete momiji kanaMy younger brother spreads his palms, maple leaves
The “younger brother” here is Chiyuki, two years old at the time. He went on to become a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Morocco and Portugal.

One of the most characteristic features about Mishima was his superficial Western-ness in contrast to his inner Eastern-ness. His house was a copy of a late Victorian mansion, full of oil portraits of 19th century beauties or sailing ships and baroque and rococo objects on tables and shelves. The meals he (or rather his wife) served were also Western-style. He was fluent speaker of English and German, wore Western clothes. 

At home

Working as a model

However, he was extremely proud of his display of samurai swords and kendo equipment, which were very much in use. He took up body building and kendo (‘the way of the sword’). He was attracted to kendo, he said, because it brought you to the ‘border of life and death.’ He would spend long hours during the day honing his body and his swordsmanship, and write all night. In his 1968 autobiographical essay Sun and Steel, where he talks about his relationship with his physical self, Mishima decried the notion, stressed by intellectuals, of mind over body.

In his later speaches he also criticised the emptiness of modern Western values and believed in old Japanese, samurai values. That may have been a reaction to postwar Japanese society and Western values becoming all-present. He argumented that after American occupation Japan was forced to hide its real self:
Since World War II, the feminine tradition has been emphasized to the exclusion of the masculine. We wanted to cover our consciences. So we gave great publicity to the fact that we are peace-loving people who love flower-arranging and gardens and that sort of thing… The Government wanted to cover our masculine tradition from the eyes of foreigners as a kind of protection’.

"All I desire is beauty," Mishima wrote in his diary. He wanted to make himself beautiful as well as strong. Beauty for him was purity, a purity which might realize itself in noble action. He did not want to grow old for then he would not die beautiful. But his love of beauty was not simply personal. Partly on its account he hated postwar Japan. "We watched Japan become drunk on prosperity," he said, "and fall into an emptiness of the spirit."

All that love for his country didn't stop him, when the mobilization for the Second War War had started to lie to avoid fighting. He was with a cold when they interviewed him and he lied he had tuberculosis.

But there were more contrasts in Yukio Mishima. He is believed to be gay. He frequented gay bars such as the now defunct Brunswick bar in Ginza, despite a rushed marriage at 33. On june 11, 1958 he married Yoko Sugiyama and they had a daughter named Noriko (born June 2, 1959) and a son named Iichiro (born May 2, 1962). That happened ater he briefly considered a marital alliance with Michiko Shōda, who later married Crown Prince Akihito and is now Empress Michik. The decision to marry Yoko was without any doubt influenced by the fact that in his first novel he talked openly about homesexuality and that wasn't received with any enthusiasm by his family. Biographers such as close friend John Nathan claim that the tragic writer married for respectability. It was not well seen in the Japan of the 1950s to remain unmarried beyond the age of 30. To make things even more urgent, Mishima’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier. The marriage was a way to please his family, gain respect in the society, deflect suspitions about his sexual orientation. Some of the pre-nuptial demands made by Mishima to his new wife were: to respect his privacy, not to interfere with his writing or bodybuilding, she had to be shorter than him (Mishima was only 152 cms tall). After is death, his widow and children always stated that claims about his homosexuality were false and some started believing he was bisexual.

The woman who would become Yukio Mishima’s wife was a 19 year old college sophomore named Yoko Sugiyama. The day before he married her, he burned all of his diaries. Mishima wrote,
As we walked down the corridor on the second floor, a girl from the beauty parlor picked up the telephone in the corridor and began informing someone of our every step in a voice so loud we couldn’t possibly have missed it. As the elevator doors closed we heard her report, “They’ve just stepped into the elevator.” In our room whenever a girl came to clean up or bring us something she was always accompanied by two or three others who just tagged along for a good look at us on their way out. When a waitress from room service appeared and Yoko ordered a cream soda and I ordered one too, the girl said, “You drink the same drink! That’s passion!” I was appalled.

Mishima’s interest in homosexuality was clearly illustrated in his first major novel, "Confessions of a Mask" (1948) where he tells of a man who conceals his true self and sexuality behind a mask of lies and pretense. This book is regarded by many as a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s own life and the exposure of his own homosexual and sadomasochistic desires. “Confessions of a Mask” includes a description of the narrator’s ejaculation, which occurs while he is transfixed by the arrow-pierced body of St. Sebastian, as depicted in a Guido Reni painting.
It was a sensational “coming out,” but he immediately after that stepped back into the closet. His family, with whom he still lived, dismissed his sexual fantasies as “nonsense” and Mishima was keen to avoid the stigma of being seen as a gay writer. Even with “Forbidden Colors” (1951-53), which includes descriptions of the gay demimonde that had sprung up in Tokyo after the war, Mishima claimed to be merely an observer, not a participant. He would never directly touch the subject again.
A year later, however, Mishima published another book in an entirely different style: The Sound of Waves (Shiosai, 1954). This was a ‘clean,’ traditional Japanese love story between a poor young fisherman, Shinji, and Hatsue, the daughter of a well-to-do ship owner on a remote Japanese island. As in many such stories, their love has to undergo many trials before Shinji proves to Hatsue’s father that he is worthy of her. For Western readers, the simplicity and universal appeal of this tale makes it probably the most palatable and enjoyable of Mishima’s books.
His extreme nationalist credentials were most notably illustrated in his founding of the Tatenokai (Shield Society) in 1968, a small private army of mostly university students dedicated to the bushido code and the protection of the emperor and the martial discipline of pre-Meiji era Japan. This dedication was not to Hirohito, the 124th Emperor of Japan, whom he had criticized for "dishonoring" the war dead by surrendering, and for renouncing his divinity after World War II, but rather to the symbolism of the emperor system for traditional Japan.
With Tatenokai mambers

On Nov 25, 1970, carrying with him a longing for a return to lost samurai values, and an obsession with a purifying and beautiful death, Mishima and four of his Tatenokai followers, entered the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) headquarters in Ichigaya and attempted a coup d’etat which they hoped would awaken the Japanese from their spiritual and political slumber. Stepping out onto a nearby balcony, Mishima was ridiculed and jeered as he attempted in vain to rouse the present JSDF members below him to his cause. Realizing the hopelessness of his efforts, the "Lost Samurai" went back inside for his final act of drama.

Positioning himself in traditional Japanese manner on the floor of the office which they had seized, Mishima proceeded to ritually disembowel himself with a "tanto" (a small sword), exclaiming “Long live the emperor” just before a pre-ordained "kaishakunin" (the one chosen to decapitate Mishima) and later one other, made an initially botched but ultimately effective attempt at beheading the famed author. This act of seppuku - the ritual suicide of a samurai warrior - did not go to plan. Mishima failed to disembowel himself cleanly and his cohort's hands were shaking so much that he could not chop off his master's head in one blow. Yukio Mishima died an agonising death.

Debate surrounds Mishima’s motivations. Attempting a coup d’etat with only four other people was almost certainly going to be a failure. As his suicide notes later revealed, he expected to fail, but hoped that his seppuku would transform Japan. In his writings some years earlier he claimed that “spiritually, I wanted to revive some samurai spirit. I did not want to revive hara-kiri itself but through the vision of such a very strong vision of hara-kiri, I wanted to inspire and stimulate younger people.”
His dramatic death has been seen as a final yet futile stand against the direction of post-war Japan.
1970. shortly before his suicide



  1. Excellent post.

    One thing I have noticed about certain sites is that, even though they have tons of content, the site looks great and the headlines are eye catching is that the material is simply filler. It’s downright unreadable. You can forget it 6 seconds after you read it. Not the case with your post though, really enjoyed it reading it and it held my attention all the way through! Keep it up.

    Read my Latest Post

    1. Thank you, Pete! For comments like yours it's worth spending some time writing it all!

  2. Mishima didn't die in agony.
    Morita had failed twice so he ask ed another member more experienced in the use of katanas, Masayoshi Koga,to behead
    him quickly. Then Koga would behead Morita.
    In fact just Mishima and Morita were the only ones to die.

    1. That's all true. However I haven't said he "died in agony", but that he died "an agonising death". Which is quite true. I can't imagine chopping his head off in 3 attempts ;)


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