Man of Masks: The Strange Life of Author Mishima Yukio

Unseen Japan
Jun 12 · 12 min read
A youth who found excitement only in books, Mishima Yukio became a brilliant author who challenged his country’s sexual mores — until the day his life became stranger than fiction.

By Noah Oskow

On November 25th, 1970, an exceedingly strange, nigh unbelievable event occurred at the Japan Self Defense Eastern Command Headquarters in Ichigaya, Tokyo. On that day, Mishima Yukio, an iconoclastic but highly popular and acclaimed author, entered the main building of the Defense Force facility accompanied by four young disciples. The boys were members of Mishima’s political-movement- cum-civilian-militia, the Tatenokai (楯の会, Shield Society), and each was dressed in eye-catchingly anachronistic regimentals (designed by Mishima himself), whose exaggeratedly militaristic, almost fetishistic sharp lines brought to mind the military uniforms of World War II-era Japan.

Mishima bore with him an ancient samurai sword. His disciples, too, had Japanese blades on them. Despite these edged weapons and the strange garb worn by this quixotic group, the five men were still ushered past security and into the office of the camp Inspector General, 57-year-old Mashita Kanetoshi. There, following some feigned pleasantries regarding the pre-arranged meeting Mishima had scheduled for the day with Mashita, the young boys suddenly made their move.

Tying up the Inspector General and taking him hostage at knife-point, the boys barricaded the office, while Mishima, now having tied a martial hachimaki headband over his forehead, stepped out onto the balcony outside the office. There, overlooking the parade grounds, he read out an impassioned speech to the assembled JSDF soldiers below, imploring them to return to an imagined, now-lost samurai ethos, and to return the emperor to power by force.

Amidst jeers and mocking laughter, Mishima returned inside the office, where he knelt down, unsheathed a short sword, and proceeded to commit seppuku — ritual suicide by disembowelment.

Such a singular event almost reads like the dramatic fiction Mishima Yukio actually wrote. That, indeed, was almost certainly the point. For some time, the starkly nationalistic author had been weaving together the webs of his contradictory life and work, slowly coalescing his art and his self until it became more and more difficult to disassociate one from the other. What Mishima’s last actions have left behind is a compelling enigma; one which crosses the lines of extremist politics, art, insanity, and self-actualization in the most literal, if disturbing and dangerous, sense.

A Youth Not Yet Mishima

In the end, Kimitake would use the name for the rest of his career. It became the first of many masks he hid his younger, imperfect self behind.

Mishima Yukio was born Hiraoka Kimitake (平岡公威) on January 14th, 1925, in Tokyo, on the 15th year of the reign of the enfeebled Taisho Emperor. It was a period where the remarkable modernization of Japan had lead to the expansion of a Japanese colonial empire which itself would shortly begin a near-two decades of extreme militarization.

Young Kimitake was descended from remarkable people on either side of his family with deep ties to old Japanese tradition. His mother’s family had long served as vassals to the powerful Maeda Clan, which had ruled over the northwestern region of Hokuriku. His paternal relatives were even more impressive.

His paternal grandfather, Hiraoka Sadatarou , had been governor of Fukushima Prefecture, as well as third director of Karafuto, the incipient Japanese colony on Sakhalin island in Japan’s far north. Sadatarou’s wife, Natsuko, was granddaughter to Matsudaira Yoritaka, who had been the daimyo (大名, feudal lord) of an area in modern Ibaraki Prefecture. She had been raised in the home of a prince of the imperial line, and maintained an atmosphere of noble pretension throughout her life. Via her bloodline, Mishima was himself a direct descendant of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of the Tokugawa family that had ruled over Japan for the last two hundred and fifty years of the samurai era.

When he was still very young, Kimitake was taken in by this imperious grandmother, who had insisted it was too dangerous to raise a child in a home like that owned by Kimitake’s parents — the perceived danger being the fact that the house had a second floor. She raised Kimitake in a strict, cloistered environment, disallowing him from playing outside with other children for fear of injury or sickness. The only playmates he was allowed were docile older girls, and Kimitake was made to speak a more feminine form of Japanese while in his grandmother’s household. She imbued him with a sense of strict, traditional manners, and it has been suggested that some of her more morbid tendencies later influenced the young boy’s fixation on the concept of death. Conversely, she also passed down to him her intense love of the kabuki theater, which the two would often attend together.

Forbidden to engage in the more active pastimes of youth, the increasingly sickly Kimitake took instead to the internal world of literature. From even his first years of elementary education (carried out at a prestigious school orientated towards the peerage), he had become a voracious reader of both prose and poetry, indulging in a wide range of works both Japanese and foreign. He soon began composing his own writings.

At the age of 12, with his grandmother hospitalized and near death, Kimitake was finally returned to the care of his parents. Kimitake’s father disdained the son that was returned to him, and tore up the boy’s writings in front of him while abrasively scolding him for his overly-feminized interest in literature. His mother, however, continued to support her son’s artistic endeavors, helping to hide the boy’s work from his father’s gaze.

It was in 1941, as Kimitake turned 16, and as Japan slid deeper and deeper into a war on multiple fronts across Asia and the Pacific, that Kimitake’s first work to be circulated outside of school periodicals was published. Hanazakari no Mori (花ざかりの森, “Forest in Full Bloom”), a poetic collection of tales in the first-person about the narrator’s deep connection to his ancestors, was considered by Kimitake’s teachers to be so good as to deserve outside publication. It was circulated among some of the most active authors in Tokyo at the time, even described as “genius” by one, and was lauded for the surprisingly deep, colorful aphorisms and metaphors that would develop into one of the author’s stylistic calling-cards.

As the work was prepared for nationwide publication, Kimitake’s teacher and literary mentor, Fumio Shimizu, began to worry about the potential backlash the young man might receive from his father if word of his son’s literary achievements reached him. He decided to give Kimitake a penname to protect him from his father, assuming that as the young man grew and continued writing that he would eventually shift to using his own name.

A sobriquet came to Shimizu’s mind in two parts. For the surname, he thought of the city of Mishima (三島) in Shizuoka Prefecture, which led him to an image of the pure white snows that blanketed the heights of Mount Fuji in the same region. “Yukio (雪男, Man of Snow)” would do nicely, he thought. Kimitake himself had preferred another name, the older-style Sachio (左千夫), named after a favored author. They compromised between the two, and Mishima Yukio (三島由紀夫) was born. In the end, Kimitake would use the name for the rest of his career. It became the first of many masks he hid his younger, imperfect self behind.

The Birth of Mishima Yukio

Mishima Yukio at age 30, pumping iron in his garden. Mishima would become obsessed with bodybuilding and various martial disciplines. (Picture: Wikipedia)

He had been denied what he considered a beautiful death.

Mishima’s later work would almost read as autobiographical, directly referencing the bullying he received from peers for him literary predilections, or using his grandmother or other relatives as the basis for his characters.

As war continued to rage, Mishima, already so imbued with a sense of martial birthright as a descendant of samurai, became more and more enchanted with the idea of going off to battle to fight — and perhaps die — for the emperor. When an upperclassman told him that it was time for him, too, to begin preparations for becoming a soldier, Mishima felt a rush of excitement.

And yet he was not to be granted his desired glory in battle. When Mishima received his draft letter in 1944 and reported for his physical examination, he was initially admitted for military training. That same year, Mishima graduated high school, with Emperor Hirohito himself in attendance (the awestruck Mishima would later describe Hirohito as having appeared “magnificent” on that day). Mishima was subsequently accepted to the University of Tokyo’s law department, and would attend lectures at day and then write late into the night. Surprisingly, his father had finally come to accept Mishima’s writing based upon his son’s increasingly evident exceptionalism.

But when Mishima reported for duty with his military unit, the recently-arrived doctor conducting physicals thought he heard sounds from within Mishima’s lungs that presaged tuberculosis. He immediately relieved Mishima of duty.

The unit that was to have been Mishima’s was sent to the Philippines, where most of them would lose their lives. Mishima had avoided sharing their fate, and yet for him this was far from a happy outcome. He had been denied what he considered a beautiful death in war.

Rise of An Author

Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

His open writing on [sex] was scandalous in contemporary post-war Japan, and likely helped propel his work to popularity.

Mishima emerged from the post-war years much like his country itself: humbled, frustrated, ashamed. But much like Japan, his recovery was surprisingly swift, his subsequent rise meteoric. In 1946, he had befriended famed author Kawabata Yasunari (川端康成), who took Mishima under his wing, encouraging him in his work and assisting in the publication of his stories. Mishima began writing at an astonishing rate, crafting poetry, Noh and Kabuki plays, as well as essays.

Mishima’s first major post-war work was Confessions of a Mask (仮面の告白), published in 1949. It became a best-seller, rocketing the young 20-something to instant domestic fame. The book in question, once again told in the first person, deals with another major autobiographical theme — Mishima’s struggles with his own attraction towards men, as well as an obsession with the beauty and eventual degradation of the human body. A line from the book sets out the early emergence of Mishima’s own sexuality:

「小さい頃の夏の暑い日に、母親に手を連れられて歩いている時に汗をかいた男性が歩いてくるのを見て興奮した。」

On a hot summer’s day back when I was young, while walking hand-in-hand with my mother, my heart began to pound as I caught sight of a man, sweating as he walked.

Much has been made of Mishima’s sexuality, although it appears he was likely bisexual. No matter the reality, his open writing on the subject was scandalous in contemporary post-war Japan, and likely helped propel his work to such popularity. Mishima had in fact begun dating men, one of which mocked him for his flabby physique, launching Mishima towards another lifelong passion — bodybuilding.

Various of Mishima’s works began to be published overseas, and he began to develop an international following — something quite novel for a Japanese author. Mishima, who only became increasingly nationalistic throughout his career, still craved the validation of overseas attention, which he associated with the greats of Western literature he had so voraciously read in his younger years. He subsequently engaged in a good deal of overseas travel to a variety of countries, although the nation that most stuck with him was Greece. He had imagined the land of classical antiquity since his youth, and his fascination only grew upon actually experiencing the place. The classical Greek veneration of physical beauty as a moral good entranced and affirmed Mishima’s own beliefs, and he later used elements of his time in Greece for his famous 1954 novel, The Sound of Waves (潮騒).

Mishima’s next major work is perhaps his most famous. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (金閣寺, Kinkakuji), first published in 1956, fictionalizes the real-life tale of a disturbed young Buddhist acolyte training at the titular and world-renowned Kyoto temple. In Mishima’s version of the story, the acolyte suffers from a socially debilitating stutter, as well as a related misanthropy, combined with an especially intense hatred and fear towards women. The acolyte becomes obsessed with the perfect beauty of the shimmering temple in which he works; he must either possess it for himself, or he must destroy it.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

As World War II comes to an end, he awaits with perverse glee the assumed destruction of the Golden Pavilion by American bombers, but is disappointed when the Americans spare Kyoto from their fiery onslaught. Eventually, he realizes he must destroy the Golden Pavilion himself. After successfully destroying this immaculate temple, which had survived centuries of wars and disasters, the acolyte retreats to a hill overlooking Kyoto, where he he attempts to commit seppuku.

Such themes abound in Mishima’s extensive library of works: Obsession with beauty and eventual death meshed with fetishistic eroticism; noble suicide after carrying out morally just actions lesser men fail to consider. Mishima focused on such themes with laser-like consistency.

The Artist Becomes His Art

By the 1960s, when his popularity had begun to wane (strictly in his own country — Mishima continued to be very popular in foreign markets), Mishima had sculpted an intentional image for himself completely unlike the sickly boy he had once been.

Yet this image still contained a multitude of fascinating contradictions. He was an accomplished man of letters, yet he contrastingly presented himself as man of action, and tended to write of intellectualism with obvious disdain. He trained to a degree of mastery in the swordsman’s sport, kendo, and had continued his thrice-weekly regimen of work outs, building up his body, yet he was fairly open in his sexuality — something considered very unmanly in the Japan of his time.

He had also added acting to his list of accomplishments, playing strong, action-oriented characters in a number of films — some he himself wrote or directed. He had photographs taken of himself in a variety of manly or masochistic poses; wielding swords while nearly nude, showing off his physique; strung up on a tree and impaled by arrows à la a painting of the martyred St. Sebastian (an image Mishima had found quite erotic); reclining against a motorcycle, wearing only black boots, gloves, a speedo, and a motorcyclist’s hat and goggles; and, of course, images of “beautiful” death, with Mishima drowned or committing seppuku.

Additionally, his nationalistic statements and writings increasingly associated Mishima with a traditionalist right wing (despite an actual disdain for him from the far-right of Japanese politics because of his belief that Emperor Hirohito should have admitted fault for the atrocities of World War II). He decried what he saw as the Japanese abandonment of a glorious past and the loss of a martial Japanese spirit (something that meshed well with his obsession with the corruption of beauty). Abroad, such things led to Mishima being seen as the quintessential samurai, while at home there were those who had begun to see him as an illogical anachronism.

Throughout these years, there had been continual talk of Mishima receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, something Mishima deeply coveted. (As always, he yearned for international accolades despite his warlike nationalistic pretensions.) Each time it seemed likely, however, the award went to someone else, and his chances became less likely as the 60s wore on, and he became more politicized.

Eventually, a Nobel was instead given to his mentor, Kawabata Yasunari. Mishima gave off an outward appearance of being pleased that his great friend had received such a monumental award (Kawabata remains one of only three Japanese nationals to have won the Nobel for Literature). But it seems there may have been more going on behind the scenes: Kawabata seemingly pressured Mishima to send a letter of support for his nomination to the Nobel board as payment for Kawabata’s support during an earlier legal dispute.

Mishima was well aware that he would likely never get another chance at this most prestigious award. Now that a Japanese author had received it, it would likely not return to the same country for some time. If that could not be his legacy, perhaps he needed to look elsewhere.

All this led Mishima inexorably onwards, his fixation on legacy and beatific immortalization finding him hatching a plan that was almost unprecedented. Mishima would soon create his own personal army, intent on both protecting Japan from insidious foreign forces, re-awakening what Mishima saw as a lost samurai spirit, and — perhaps most importantly — delivering Mishima the sort of end he truly sought.

To Be Continued…

Sources

Meyers, Jeffrey. Mishima’s Suicide. Michigan Quarterly Review, Volume XLIX, Issue 4: Growing up Motown, Fall 2010.

Flanagan, Damian. Mishima, Murakami and the elusive Nobel Prize. The Japan Times, August 29, 2015.https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/08/29/books/mishima-murakami-elusive-nobel-prize/#.XPP9GtMzZE4

Vulpitta, Romano. Yukio Mishima, Yojuro Yasuda, & Fascism, Part 1. Lecture, October 2012.

Liukkonen, Petri. Yukio Mishima (1925–1970). Author’s Calendar, 2008. http://authorscalendar.info/ishiguro.htm

Mccarthy, Paul. Revealing the many masks of Mishima. The Japan Times, May 5th, 2013. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2013/05/05/books/revealing-the-many-masks-of-mishima/#.XPP9LdMzZE5

三島由紀夫. フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア(Wikipedia). https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%B8%89%E5%B3%B6%E7%94%B1%E7%B4%80%E5%A4%AB

楯の会. フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア(Wikipedia)https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%A5%AF%E3%81%AE%E4%BC%9A

三島事件. フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア(Wikipedia). https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E4%B8%89%E5%B3%B6%E4%BA%8B%E4%BB%B6

Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have lead to appearances at speaking events and popular podcasts. Noah is currently working on his Masters Degree in Global Studies at Leipzig University in Germany.


Originally published at https://unseenjapan.com on June 12, 2019.

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