Yukio Mishima

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Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima (三島由紀夫 Mishima Yukio), was the public name of Kimitake Hiraoka (平岡公威 Hiraoka Kimitake), (January 14, 1925 - November 25, 1970), a Japanese author and rightist political activist, notable for both his nihilistic post-war writing and the circumstances of his suicide.


Early life

Mishima's early childhood was dominated by the shadow of his grandmother, Natsu, who took the boy and separated him from his immediate family for several years. Natsu was of a minor retainer family which had been related to the samurai of the Tokugawa era; she maintained considerable aristocratic pretensions even after marrying Mishima's grandfather, a commoner but, nevertheless, a bureaucrat who had made his fortunes in the newly-opened colonial frontier. She was stubborn and this was exacerbated by her affliction with sciatica, which bordered on madness: she was prone to violent, even morbid outbursts which are occasionally eluded to in Mishima's works; she was also in constant pain, and the young Mishima was employed to massage her. It is to Natsu that some biographers have traced Mishima's fascination with death, and to the exorbitant: she read French and German, and had an aristocrat's taste for the Kabuki. Natsu famously did not allow Mishima to venture into the sunlight, to engage in any kind of sport, or to play with boys; he spent much of his time alone, or with female cousins and their dolls.

Mishima returned to his immediate family at 12. He entered into a relationship with his mother that some biographers have described as near-incestuous; it was to his mother that he turned always for reassurance, and proof-reading. His father, a brutal man with a taste for military discipline, employed such tactics as holding the young boy up to the side of a speeding train; he also raided the young boy's room for evidence of an 'effeminate' interest in literature, and ripped up adolescent Mishima's manuscripts wantonly. He is reported to have had no response to these gestures. (One important rejoinder one might add to his oft-mythologized early life is that biographers have often taken certain off-the-cuff remarks and Confessions of a Mask as expressions of autobiography. This is problematic, and has led to the more general issue of Mishima as larger-than-life.)

Schooling & Early Works

At 12, Mishima began to write his first stories. He voraciously read the works of Wilde, Rilke, and numerous Japanese classics. Although his family was not as affluent as those of the other students of this institution, Natsu insisted that he went to the elite Peers School.

After six miserable years at school, he still was a pale and frail teenager, but he started to do well and became the youngest member of the editorial board in the literary society at the school. He was invited to write a short story for the prestigious literary magazine, Bungei-Bunka (Literary Culture) and submitted Hanazakari no Mori (The Forest in Full Bloom). The story was published in book form in 1944, albeit in a limited fashion due to the shortage of paper in wartime.

Mishima received a draft notice for the Japanese Army during World War II. At the time of his medical check up he had a cold and spontaneously lied to the army doctor about having tuberculosis symptoms and thus was declared unfit. Although Mishima was greatly relieved of not having to go to war, he continued to feel guilty for having survived and having missed the chance for a heroic death.

Although his father had forbidden him to write any further stories, Mishima continued to write secretly every night, supported and protected by his mother Shizue, who was always the first to read a new story. After school, his father, who sympathized with the Nazis, wouldn't allow him to pursue a writer's career, but instead forced him to study German Law. Mishima attended lectures during the day and wrote at night and graduated from the elite University of Tokyo in 1947. He got a job as an official in the government's Finance Ministry and was set up for a promising career.

However, he exhausted himself so much that his father agreed to his resigning his position within a year in order to devote his time to writing. When his father gave up his opposition, he told Mishima that he'd better become the best Japanese writer there was.

Postwar Literature

Mishima began his first novel, Tōzoku (Thieves), in 1946 and published it in 1948. It was followed up by Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask), an autobiographical work about a young latent homosexual who must hide behind a mask in order to fit into society. The novel was extremely successful and made Mishima a celebrity at the age of 24.

Mishima was a very disciplined and versatile writer: He wrote not only novels and popular serial novellas, short stories and literary essays but also highly acclaimed traditional Kabuki plays.

His writing gained him international celebrity and a sizable following in Europe and America, as many of his most famous works were translated into English.

He travelled extensively and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times and was the darling of many foreign publications. However, in 1968 his friend Yasunari Kawabata won the Prize and Mishima realized that the chances of it being given to another Japanese author in the near future were slim.

Private life

After Confessions of a Mask Mishima tried to leave behind the young man who had only existed inside his head and had continuously flirted with death. He tried to tie himself to the real, physical world by taking up stringent physical exercise. In 1955 Mishima took up weight lifting and his workout regimen of three sessions per week was not disrupted for the final 15 years of his life. He also became very skillful at Japanese swordfighting. However, the swimming and weight lifting only trained his upper body, while his legs stayed thin as before -- just as he found it impossible to get his early romanticism out of his system.

Although he visited gay bars in Japan, Mishima reportedly remained an observer and only had affairs with men when he travelled abroad. After briefly considering an alliance with Michiko Shoda -- she later became the wife of Emperor Akihito of Japan -- he married Yoko Sugiyama in 1958. Over the next three years, the couple had a daughter and a son.

In 1967 Mishima enlisted in the Army Self Defense Force (ASDF) and underwent basic training. A year later, he formed the Tatenokai (Shield Society), composed primarily of young patriotic students who studied martial principles and physical discipline and who were trained through the ASDF under Mishima's tutelage.

In the last ten years of his life, Mishima acted in several movies and co-directed an adaption of one of his stories, Patriotism, the Rite of Love and Death.

Ritual Suicide

On November 25, 1970, Mishima and 4 members of the Tatenokai under a pretext visited the commandant of the Ichigaya Camp, the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Once inside, they proceeded to barricade the office and tied the commandant to his chair. With a prepared manifesto and banner listing their demands, Mishima stepped onto the balcony to address the gathered soldiers below. His speech was intended to inspire them to stage a coup d'etat and restore the Emperor to his rightful place. He succeeded only in irritating them and was mocked and jeered. As he was unable to make himself heard, he finished his planned speech after only a few minutes. He stepped back into the commandant's office and committed seppuku, ending in his ritual decapitation by Tatenokai member Masakatsu Morita. Morita, who was rumored to have been Mishima's lover, was unable to perform the decapitation properly, and after several failed attempts, allowed another Tatenokai member, Hiroyasu Koga, to finish the job. After Mishima was decapitated, Morita also committed seppuku and was beheaded by Koga.

Mishima prepared his suicide meticulously for a year and no one outside the group of handpicked Tatenokai members had any indication of what he was planning. Mishima must have known that his coup plot would never succeed and his biographer, translator, and former friend John Nathan suggests that the scenario was only a pretext for the ritual suicide that Mishima always dreamed of. Mishima made sure his affairs were in order and even had the foresight to leave money for the defense at trial of the two surviving Tatenokai members.


Much speculation has surfaced regarding Mishima's suicide. At the time of his death he had just completed the final book in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy and was recognized as one of the most important postwar stylists of the Japanese language.

Mishima wrote 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 books of short stories, and at least 20 books of essays as well as one libretto. A large portion of this oeuvre comprises books written quickly for profit, although even if we disregard them it remains substantial.

While Mishima espoused a brand of 'patriotism' towards the end of his life (and in death), it is perhaps most appropriate to say that he took a position outside of politics. He was neither 'rightist' nor 'leftist': he was hated by true nationalists for his position, in Bunka Boeiron (A Defense of Culture), that Hirohito should have resigned the throne to take responsibility for the war dead, and was hated by leftists (particularly students) for his outspoken, anachronistic commitment to the code of the samurai. That his politics was in fact dominated by the language of aesthetics evinces this essential quality of 'the outsider,' and suggests that the relationship between said politics and the political reality of the Japanese postwar was at best illusory.

The theatrical nature of his suicide, the camp photographs he had taken, and the occasionally bathetic nature of his prose have surely taken their toll on his legacy and in the Japanese and Anglo-American academies Mishima is today virtually unspoken of, although he is undergoing something of reappraisal amongst critics interested in the critique of Japanese capitalism.


  • Shincho Prize from Shinchosha Publishing, 1954, for The Sound of Waves.
  • Kishida Prize for Drama from Shinchosha Publishing, 1955.
  • Yomiuri Prize from Yomiuri Newspaper Co., for best novel, 1957, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
  • Yomiuri Prize from Yomiuri Newspaper Co., for best drama, 1961, Toka no Kiku.

Major Works

Japanese Title English Title Year English translation, year ISBN
Kamen no Kokuhaku (仮面の告白) Confessions of a Mask 1948 Meredith Weatherby, 1958 ISBN 081120118X
Ai no Kawaki (愛の渇き) Thirst for Love 1950 Alfred H. Marks, 1969 ISBN 4101050031
Kinjiki (禁色) Forbidden Colors 1954 Alfred H. Marks, 1968, 1974 ISBN 0375705163
Shiosai (潮騒) The Sound of Waves 1954 Meredith Weatherby, 1956 ISBN 0679752684
Kinkaku-ji* (金閣寺) The Temple of the Golden Pavilion 1956 Ivan Morris, 1959 ISBN 0679752706
Utage no Ato (宴のあと) After the Banquet 1960 Donald Keene, 1963 ISBN 0399504869
Gogo no Eikō (午後の曳航) The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea 1963 John Nathan, 1965 ISBN 0679750150
Sado Kōshaku Fujin (play) (サド公爵夫人) Madame de Sade 1965   ISBN 0781456003
(真夏の死) Death in Midsummer and other stories 1966   ISBN 0811201171
Waga Tomo Hittora (play) (わが友ヒットラー) My Friend Hitler and other plays 1968   ISBN 0231126336
Sun and Steel 1970 John Bester ISBN 4770029039
Hōjō no Umi (豊穣の海) The Sea of Fertility tetralogy: 1964-70   ISBN 0677149603
Part one:
Haru no Yuki
  Michael Gallagher, 1972 ISBN 0394442393
Part two:
  Michael Gallagher, 1973 ISBN 0394466187
Part three:
Akatsuki no Tera
  E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia S. Seigle, 1973 ISBN 0394466144
Part four:
Tennin Gosui
  Edward Seidensticker, 1974 ISBN 0394466136
Hagakure Nyūmon (葉隠入門) The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in modern life   Kathryn Sparling, 1977 ISBN 0465090893


Year Title USA Release Title Character Director
1960 Karakkaze Yarō Afraid to Die Takeo Asahina Yasuzo Masumura
1966 Yūkoku Patriotism, The Rite of Love and Death Shinji Takeyama Domoto Masaki, Yukio Mishima
1968 Kurotokage Black Lizard Human Statue Kinji Fukasaku
1969 Hitokiri Tenchu! Shimbei Tanaka Hideo Gosha
1985 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (bio-pic) Mishima   Paul Schrader, Music by Philip Glass
Yukio Mishima: Samurai writer (BBC documentary) same   Michael Macintyre

Works about Mishima

External links

Related Articles

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