Great Japanese Writers: Yukio Mishima

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Yukio Mishima’s death is arguably more famous than his life — and casts a long shadow over his output. As he was such a personal, confessional writer who mined his own existence for inspiration, this is perhaps unsurprising. Whether reading early works like Confessions of a Mask or his final tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, the sense of a man struggling to forge a definition of himself is palpable. He is widely regarded as one of the great Japanese writers of the 20th century.

Mishima’s great tragedy was good fortune. Born in 1925 as Kimitake Hiraoka, his was the generation that fought World War II. He grew up—and he writes about this in Confessions of a Mask—expecting to die for the Emperor. All through school, through his adolescence and teenage years, Japan was involved in a military conflict on the continent. The war with China had already begun and the boys in the years above him were going off to fight, to fulfill their assigned roles and do their duty. He appears to have taken this on board (how much of this is self-mythology is unclear, Mishima was nothing if not a self-mythologizer) at an early age and accepted his future. He writes about how this freed him from the usual concerns of life: why worry about qualifications, getting a job or finding a wife if you’re destined to die young? Why bother? But ill-health — misdiagnosed tuberculosis on account of a cold — prevented him from joining the army. He never recovered from the guilt that he had been granted an exemption. He survived the war but was from then on morbidly drawn towards the martial, the warrior spirit and death.

His first novel Thieves was about suicide. His second, Confessions of a Mask, was a thinly veiled semi-autobiography about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality while escaping enlistment during the war. These became the themes and the tension that haunted his writing over the next 20 years.

The publication of Confessions of a Mask was a bestseller and made him famous. Other novels such as Forbidden Colours (1951/1953), The Sound of Waves (1954), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) and After the Banquet (1960) soon followed, cementing his name and bringing him into Nobel consideration more than once. However, when his one-time mentor Yasunori Kawabata became the 1968 laureate, Mishima knew he’d never achieve that honor. (It took until 1994 and Kenzaburo Oe for another Japanese writer to win).

It’s often difficult to separate the life of an artist from their work — and with Mishima it’s all but impossible.

He was translated into English and other languages early on and became something of a celebrity overseas, often traveling abroad. He wrote for the stage and even acted and sang. He cultivated the image of a playboy, with dashing suits and movie star looks (he modeled as well). He took up bodybuilding and was famously photographed in a loin cloth wielding a sword. His love of the classical signs of masculinity seemed only to strengthen in this period. In addition to physical training and a preoccupation with all things martial (he published books on the samurai ethics, on bodybuilding, on the Japanese self-defense force and on nationalism), in 1968 he formed a far-right “militia” called the Tatenokai, or the Shield Society, with a group of young men.

In 1970, he and four members of Tatenokai attempted to incite the Japan Self-Defense Force into a coup d’etat, to overthrow the government and return Japan to imperial rule. His speech to the troops — once the commander had been tied up in his office — was met with laughter and ridicule. Mishima and one of his followers, Morita, then committed seppuku (ritual suicide) and were beheaded by a third man. Thus, the youth who had been denied his opportunity to die for the Emperor in war, finally ended his journey in an arc that could have come straight from Greek tragedy.

Shortly before his death, Mishima completed the fourth and final part of his magnum opus, The Sea of Fertility. Set between 1912 and 1975, the series is seen from the perspective of Honda, a law student in Spring Snow (1969), a lawyer in Runaway Horses (1969) and The Temple of Dawn (1970) and a retired judge in The Decay of the Angel (1971). In the first installment, Honda’s friend Kiyoaki Matsugae dies after his hopes of marrying his true love are dashed. In each subsequent book, Honda encounters Kiyo’s reincarnated spirit.

Mishima was a true stylist, and his prose resides in a languid beauty. It’s often difficult to separate the life of an artist from their work — and with Mishima, it’s all but impossible. While his ideas and obsessions brought him ridicule and contempt in his lifetime and a complex reputation after death, he still stands as one of Japan’s most important and influential writers.

Whether you’re into lauded Japanese writers or are just want to read a little more about this country from where they come, bookworms can check out our Books on Japan page.  

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Gifu-based Scottish novelist, poet, journalist and editor.

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