Novelist Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide on this day after failing to inspire an insurrection against the Japanese government. Forty years later, Japan still grapples with his legacy.
Born as Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, Yukio Mishima grew up in Tokyo as the son of a government official. Raised from an early age by his grandmother, he was a voracious reader of both Japanese literature and translated works from authors like Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke and Hans Christian Andersen. Mishima began writing stories at an early age and was drawn to a form of classical Japanese poetry called waka. His father was a disciplinarian and disproved of his early interest in literature, finding it effeminate (his mother, however, encouraged his efforts). It was a view evidently shared by others in Japanese society, for one of the budding author’s teachers suggested he publish under the name Yukio Mishima in order to protect him from backlash from his school mates. When he confessed his membership in a literary society to members of a school rugby team, he was bullied and shunned. Reconciling the dichotomy between the culture of the mind and the culture of the body would be Yukio Mishima’s defining struggle.
Mishima was drafted into the Imperial Army during WWII, but escaped serving by feigning tuberculosis – an act of cowardice that would later haunt him. After the war, he graduated from the University of Tokyo and embarked on what looked to be promising career in the Ministry of Finance. However, he couldn’t shake the writing bug, and was penning works in secret each night, despite being expressly forbidden to do so by his father. After less than a year, Mishima had exhausted himself trying to burn the candle at both ends. Rather than quit writing, he resigned from the Ministry.
He sought the advice of famed novelist Yasunari Kawabata, who recognized the young author’s talent and helped get some of his short stories published. His first novel, 1948’s Thieves concerned two aristocrats who committed suicide, but it was his second novel that made him famous.
Confessions of a Mask was the semi-autobiographical story of Kochan, a closeted homosexual struggling to find a place in a militaristic Japanese society. The book was an instant sensation and made Mishima a household name at the age of 24. As his works were translated, his fame quickly spread to Europe and the United States. His most popular book worldwide was 1956’s The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, a story based loosely on a true-life incident where a mentally disturbed monk burned down an ancient temple in Kyoto.
But the Yukio Mishima his readers thought they knew was already beginning to transform himself into something else.
Beginning in 1955, Mishima started a strict bodybuilding program as part of his desire to become “a man of action.” He cited “the corrosive power of words” in shaping his youthful character (making him a “grotesque old man of 25 years of age”), and became increasingly fascinated with martial arts and the feudalistic code of bushido – the way of the warrior. He also emerged as a vocal critic of the Westernization of Japan, alienating the left-leaning literary establishment by arguing that the country was abandoning its traditional values and creating a spiritual void. In addition to writing plays and novels, Mishima refashioned himself a cinema star, often playing a warrior or a gangster – roles which further distanced him from his previous, more cerebral image. Though he married at age 33 and had two children, it was an open secret that Mishima was homosexual. When spotted in gay nightclubs in Tokyo’s Shinjuku entertainment district, he would typically say he was there doing research for an upcoming novel.
An obsession with the aesthetics of physical beauty and their relation to suffering and death were themes that coursed through the entirety of his life and work. Fascinated by death from an early age, when as a boy he would both yearn for glorious deliverance in battle and yet run in fear when air-raid sirens warned of approaching American fighter planes, he was increasingly drawn to romantic notions of heroic tragedy.
All of these ideals – hyper-masculinity and the cult of the body, the rejection of Western consumerist values, the glorification of death by violence – would coalesce in the strange events that led to his end.
Leveraging his celebrity, in 1967 Mishima underwent basic training with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces – a somewhat ironic move given he’d faked TB to avoid enlistment during WWII, but wholly in keeping with Mishima’s re-awakening as a man of action. A year later, he’d started his own private militia called the Tatenokai (Shield Society) made up primarily of young journalists from a little-known right wing college newspaper.
On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima delivered to his publisher the final pages of his The Sea of Fertility tetralogy and then, accompanied by four members of the Tatenokai, drove to the Tokyo headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces under false pretenses of a friendly visit. Instead, they barricaded the office, bound a general and held him at sword point, then demanded he issue an order that all troops be assembled. With 1,000 troops gathered at mid-day, Mishima stepped out on the balcony while police and news helicopters circled overhead and delivered a speech urging the military to overthrow the government and re-instate the Emperor as the divine ruler of Japan.
The troops openly mocked him.
His plan a failure – as many believe he must have known it would be – Mishima went back inside and, with the aid of his young acolytes, committed the ritual act of seppuku, which involved disemboweling himself and being decapitated by a member of the Tatenokai. Many saw his action as laughable, a piece of absurdist theatre gone wrong. Newspaper editors initially disbelieved their reporters and refused to print what had happened – no one had committed the anachronistic act of seppuku since the end of WWII. When told of the incident, Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, a friend of Mishima’s, said the writer “must have been out of his mind.” But anyone who’d paid close attention to Mishima’s deeds and words over the last decade would have concluded that Mishima had merely engineered the violent death by action he’d so long yearned for.
Tens of thousands mourned at his funeral. Today he remains among the most read Japanese novelists worldwide, his popularity eclipsed only by contemporary author Haruki Murakami.
The Mainichi Daily News reports that more than 10 books about Mishima have been published in Japan in the two months leading up to the anniversary of his dramatic death. Many quote Mishima’s prophecy for Japan, written just months before his suicide.
“Japan will disappear,” he wrote, “and in its stead, an impersonal, empty, neutral, intermediate, opulent, shrewd, economic giant will be left standing in a corner of the Far East."
Forty years later, they’re words in which many of his countrymen find at least a modicum of truth. In striving to become a man of action, Mishima is still remembered chiefly for his words.