Yukio Mishima
Yukio Mishima; drawing by David Levine

Yukio Mishima died in November 1970 at the age of forty-five by carrying out a carefully staged seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment. He was one of the more talented writers in postwar Japan and had written a few brilliant novels and plays and many more works that were merely clever and competent. His death shocked the Japanese public. Some thought he had gone mad, others that this was the last in a series of exhibitionistic acts, one more expression of the desire to shock for which he had become notorious. A few people on the political right saw his death as a patriotic gesture of protest against present-day Japan. Others believed that it was a despairing, gruesome farce contrived by a talented man who had been an enfant terrible and who could not bear to live on into middle age and mediocrity. Still others saw it as a public act of homosexual love for Morita, the young student who, by agreement, gave Mishima the final blow and who died after him. In feudal Japan, Shinju, or double suicide, was a way in which lovers sometimes ended their lives when their emotions had reached their peak.

Just before he died, Mishima harangued the soldiers of the Japanese Self-Defense Force, asking them to rise against the Japanese constitution, which by renouncing armaments had consigned them to limbo. The soldiers jeered at him, telling him to cool down and stop playing the hero. Reading about this incident, most critics abroad interpreted Mishima’s suicide as the futile political act of a frustrated, right-wing fanatic. (A notably intelligent exception was Gore Vidal’s essay in this review.* ) Foreign correspondents in Japan filed reports describing what he had done as “typically Japanese.”

The Japanese themselves were utterly bewildered. There had been no ritual seppuku since the end of the war, when several officers killed themselves in apology to the emperor and nation. Mishima’s death seemed less connected with such traditional motives for suicide as honor and despair than with the idiosyncratic thoughts and needs of a peculiarly tormented man. One would no more call his death Japanese than one could call Christian the photograph Mishima had taken of himself some years before in the pose of Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian—pierced by arrows, hands bound above the head, and naked.

Five years after his suicide we have two biographies of Mishima in English (the kind of recognition that more important Japanese novelists have never received) by two writers who knew him, the American academic John Nathan and Henry Scott Stokes, the Tokyo correspondent of The Times of London. Neither succeeds in conveying much about the literary quality of Mishima’s work. Though openly partisan, as in his obvious antipathy to Mishima’s father, and sometimes simplistic, Nathan succeeds better than Stokes in describing both Mishima and the intellectuals around him. Stokes’s book is more journalistic and episodic, at its best when it simply reports, for example when it simply reports, for example when Stokes writes of his visit to the private army of a hundred men which Mishima organized during the last two years of his life. But one can’t help wondering whether the utter lack of any tender feeling in this book, by a friend of Mishima’s, reflects something in the character of Mishima himself and in the author.

When a highly self-conscious and complex man kills himself, we can never fully know his motives for doing so. Both of his biographers try to show a connection between Mishima’s suicide and the aesthetic ideals of a man who, since his childhood, had an erotic fascination with the violent deaths of beautiful men. As a frail, sickly boy, brought up by a bedridden domineering grandmother of aristocratic origins, he was only allowed to read, or to play in her room with three carefully chosen little girls. He was forbidden outdoor life of other small boys and was not allowed to play with “dangerous” toys. He would become excited when he smelled the sweat of the troops who passed by the gate. When he was five, according to Stokes, Mishima was moved by Andersen’s “Rose-Elf,” “the story of the beautiful youth who, while kissing the rose given by his sweetheart, was stabbed to death and decapitated by a villain with a big knife.” (Contrary to what Stokes suggests, almost all Japanese become familiar with Western children’s literature during their childhood. There were few in Mishima’s generation who were not brought up on Andersen and Grimm as well as on the Japanese stories of Mimei Ogawa or Kenji Miyazawa.)

During the war he was a precocious high school boy who read translations of Rilke, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Cocteau, and wrote stories and poems. He was now protected and encouraged by a devoted mother. In the last year of the war, just after he entered Tokyo University, Mishima was conscripted. He later claimed that he lied to the army doctor and succeeded in failing the medical examination. Never exposed to real danger, he idealized all the more “the exhilaration” of living under the threat of imminent death. He became drawn to ideas about finding one’s destiny in the moment of dying.


Although Nathan successfully describes Mishima’s determination and discipline, his eagerness for recognition of the most conventional kind (which is probably responsible for his being the best-known Japanese writer abroad), he fails to show how Mishima stood apart from his fellow writers. Japanese novelists in this century have on the whole identified themselves as outsiders and dissidents. By this I do not mean that they have all been articulate anarchists or socialists, although a small number of them were; but many have tended to be “so-called left-wing progressives,” as Mishima sneeringly put it, and most deliberately defied the social rituals of modern Japan. Even in prewar days many writers grew their hair to their shoulders, wore kimonos instead of the dark suits which had become the uniform of office workers. They rejected the values of conventionally successful Japanese, despised young people who were obsessed with grades, prizes, careers. It was unexpected and bizarre that the brilliant young Mishima, who aspired to be a novelist, should also work hard to be the top student of an academically undistinguished but socially select high school and that he should be happy to receive a silver watch from the emperor. Brilliant literary youths were more likely to become angry dropouts from good schools.

Mishima used to come to the Greek classes I attended as an undergraduate at Tokyo University. He had graduated from the university some seven years before and was already a well-known novelist who self-consciously stood for aestheticism at a time when the concerns of most students were moral and political. We were curious about him. Although many of us had our personal aesthetic cults of Valéry, e e cummings, or No plays, we still wanted to treat aestheticism as a curse. Our favorite writers tended to be Sartre or Kobo Abe, Dostoevsky or Taijun Takeda. I recall how amazed I was by the way Mishima worked—almost like an earnest schoolboy.

Our very small class of six or seven was studying Plato’s Symposium, but it was primarily a language class; one first had to read aloud a paragraph of the Greek text, and then give as exact a translation as possible, analyzing and commenting on certain grammatical structures. Being lazy I usually found myself desperately trying to figure out the sense of a particular line before my turn came. I was astonished to see Mishima’s notebook: he had copied every line of the text at three line intervals, translated certain words on the line beneath, and written sentences in Japanese on the line below that. He was obviously not there merely to satisfy his curiosity about Alcibiades or to memorize some quotable lines.

Mishima dressed carefully, but without real elegance, and he seemed extremely thin and sickly. He was just beginning the weight lifting and other exercises that he continued until his death. When I look at the photographs in these biographies, taken a decade later and showing a very different Mishima flexing his shiny muscles, I can imagine what discipline he must have brought to the transformation of his body.

Mishima could not bear to be sentimental. He was in many respects closer to Raymond Radiguet and Oscar Wilde, two European writers he greatly admired, than he was to Kawabata and Tanizaki, the two Japanese writers of the previous generation for whom he had the most respect. Whereas Kawabata’s work is full of sentiment and murky emotions that are evoked and suggested, Mishima is always descriptive and explanatory. His style often seems contrived, with its abundance of unexpected similes, but it is nevertheless controlled and can produce glittering pictorial effects. His dialogue can be witty and even ironic. But despite its facility and the thorough knowledge of classical Japanese which it reveals, his Japanese lacks the natural flow and rhythm which characterize Tanizaki’s wonderful prose and dialogue.

Mishima often said that the strength of Tanizaki’s sensibility lay in its “intelligence,” which was true enough. But Tanizaki’s sensibility also reflected a genuine sensuality. The women and beautiful boys Mishima describes have the strange abstract quality of an ideal object. Even the most erotic passages reflect the excitement of carrying out an intellectual experiment rather than anything directly sensual, just as in the novels of the Marquis de Sade, whom he much admired.

There is always something curiously cerebral about the erotic obsessions and fantasies which Mishima depicts. In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion for example, an ugly young man becomes so obsessed by hatred of the beautiful that he burns down the temple which embodies aesthetic perfection for him, and in so doing feels an intense erotic satisfaction. In The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, the son of a widow adores his mother’s new lover, a sailor, whose life at sea with its unfettered freedom and challenge represents virility for the boy. When the sailor leaves his ship and settles down with the mother, the disillusioned boy gets his gang together and lynches him. Mishima is at his best in coolly showing people so driven by fantasies that their violent acts are accompanied by disturbing sexual excitement. He becomes unconvincing and artificial when he attempts to link these fantasies with political ideologies or philosophical doctrines. Even the Buddhism and Shintoism which appear in Mishima’s last work, a five-volume novel, The Sea of Fertility, are like doctrines carefully studied and put to use by a foreign writer, rather than anything lived from within.


How are we to account for the banality of some of his novels such as The Sound of Waves, or the unbelievably shoddy quality of the arguments in his right-wing political tracts? Perhaps these are better understood in the light of his cult of the deliberate. He felt that the intentionally preposterous was better than the accidentally mediocre. One might say that the real point of The Sound of Waves is that the sophisticated Mishima can write a love story as simple as that of Daphnis and Chloe. To be able to publish such a simple tale, written in a popular style, was itself, for Mishima, a superior act. Indeed, he described the book, according to Nathan, as a “joke on the public.” And one suspects that some of Mishima’s crude political writing was also something of a joke on the public, an exercise in creating for himself a public image and in manipulating popular reactions to it. But of course the simplistic effects he achieved in such novels as The Sound of Waves and in his tracts are no less a failure for having been deliberate. Nor was his work helped by his longings for what he misleadingly called “purity”—which for him is nothing more than a single-minded and total absorption in an emotion or belief; the more implausible the belief and more destructive the emotion, the “purer” Mishima considered such absorption to be.

Two autobiographical novels, Confessions of a Mask and Kyoko’s House, reveal his fascination with the workings of self-deception. He tried to show how those who play-act can remain aware that they are embracing illusions, and by that very awareness keep a precarious contact with reality. Confessions of a Mask purports to be a confession of a young man who is attracted to a young girl in love with him. He discovers however that he can only be aroused sexually by the picture of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. What is interesting here is that the original Japanese title is ambiguous: it could refer to confessions being made by a mask or to confessions in disguise. One never knows whether the book is a confession of a homosexual posing as a heterosexual, or whether it is a false confession of a man who now pretends to be a homosexual.

In Kyoko’s House the self-deception is political. A character voices the same kind of right-wing cant about the Imperial throne and the Japanese spirit that Mishima himself was to proclaim four years later. When a boxer insists he can’t even understand what is being said, the right-wing character explains, “I wouldn’t say I believed it exactly. It’s just that phrases like that give me a fine feeling…it’s probably because phrases like this are closer than anything to death.”

Mishima’s political views were no doubt motivated by his desire to attack the leftist positions of most of his fellow writers and intellectuals, who could, as he said, be self-righteous, and sometimes inconsistent or superficial. He was well aware of the outrage he was causing and took pleasure in it. He must have sensed how shoddy his arguments had become. Perhaps he was able to go on making them because he knew he did not really believe them and because he was able to cloak them with the erotic fantasies of violence which gave them a bogus air of excitement.

Mishima’s last words were “Long Live the Emperor.” To say this in Japan requires a far more self-conscious and determined act of will than to say “God Save the Queen” in England. For most Japanese such phrases have been discredited by their country’s military past. Postwar Japan has no national pageantry, such as the military parades one sees in America; there is nothing that can be compared even to the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Mishima’s impulses to shock and provoke must be understood as taking place within a pacifist society, one that is highly skeptical of patriotic symbols, but in which strong undercurrents of nationalist sentiment still exist, however furtively they are acknowledged. He was the only writer of his generation to support the acts of the ultranationalists of the Thirties who carried out political assassinations in their attempt to bring about a coup d’état. But even here he was not a defender of orthodox right-wing views. He tried to show these officers (who were condemned by the emperor at the time) as idealists rising against the military, as well as against the government and financial powers.

Nathan’s book includes a poem written when Mishima was fifteen, which made an older poet exclaim, “He’s not precocious, and he’s not a genius. He’s just a profoundly unpleasant freak.” But in his best works Mishima was a great craftsman of Japanese prose, and deep down he seemed to be a sensitive and vulnerable man. It is sad that his obsessions with provocation and his inability to tolerate boredom drove him to put himself on show as a freak. What explains the extraordinary aggressiveness he displayed just before he died? I suspect he saw that he had been trapped in the tawdry spectacle he had created around himself and chose to end it with the most dramatic gesture possible. Nevertheless, some of his books will long outlast the current fascination with the manner of his death.

This Issue

December 11, 1975