Yukio Mishima, Tokyo, 1970

Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

Yukio Mishima, Tokyo, 1970

In September 1966, I wrote a profile for Life that ran under the headline “Japan’s Dynamo of Letters.” My subject was Yukio Mishima, forty-one at the time, a best-selling novelist, playwright, literary critic, and flamboyant man-about-town. Readers learned that he had graduated at the head of his class from the Peers’ School in Tokyo, receiving a silver watch from the emperor; that he was a bodybuilder and a kendō swordsman; had starred in a gangster movie; dressed in $400 suits or fashionably faded blue jeans; and had designed a coffee-table book of photographs, Punishment by Roses, in which he posed in the snow wearing a loincloth and brandishing a sword, and as Saint Sebastian, his wrists bound above his head with a rope suspended from a tree and arrows piercing his sides. It was rumored, I added, that he was likely to win the Nobel Prize.

Mishima was avid for the prize and did what he could to extend his celebrity across the Pacific and promote his cause in Stockholm. Unlike other important writers in Japan, who remained aloof, he was known to all the major papers and magazines as a “friend of the bureau,” hosting evenings with Japanese intellectuals and introducing foreign editors to the solid-gold baths in the seaside town of Atami. The feature in Life, published when Americans knew next to nothing about postwar Japan, was proof that his efforts had paid off. If Sony’s Akio Morita was the most famous Japanese abroad, Mishima ran a close second. As it turned out, his campaigning was in vain: in 1968 Yasunari Kawabata became Japan’s first Nobel laureate. Mishima put on a good face—Kawabata was his mentor and champion—but being passed over may have helped propel him on his fatal course.

Yukio Mishima, whose real name was Kimitake Hiraoka, grew up in a family dominated by his bureaucrat father’s mother, Natsu. When he was fifty days old, she insisted that living on the second floor was hazardous and took him away from his mother, moving him downstairs into her sickroom, where she kept watch over him until he was twelve. According to Mishima’s self-portrait in Confessions of a Mask (1949), the novel of homosexual awakening that made him famous, by the time he was five years old he had retreated into a private world of “Night and Blood and Death,” of beautiful princes being slain or lovingly executed, of the “most sophisticated of cruelties and the most exquisite of crimes” (a line he quotes from Huysmans).

Mishima was unable to free himself from a fascination with death. In “My Literary Peregrinations,” an essay he serialized from January to May 1963, he acknowledged as much:

I have already begun to feel that youth and the flowering of youth are foolishness, of little value…. What remains then is the concept of death, present, momentary, instant to instant death. It seems likely that to me this is the only truly enticing, truly vivid, truly erotic concept.

The essay was published the same year as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, a novel in which death is repeatedly invoked as a component of Eros. At the same time, he began representing himself as an ultranationalist. On examination, his politics appear to be more aesthetic than political. A prime example is “In Defense of Culture” (1968), an impossibly difficult essay that he intended as the theoretical basis for the insurrection he was already planning. He argued that the essence of Japanese culture is the concept of miyabi, a value in classical Japanese aesthetics generally defined as “courtly elegance” and crucial to the eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji; that the sole source of miyabi is the emperor; and that defending the emperor is accordingly tantamount to defending Japanese culture and, by extension, Japanese identity itself.

Four years after he appeared in Life, Mishima, acting on the logic he had contrived, died a gruesome death by his own hand. On the morning of November 25, 1970, accompanied by four cadets in his paramilitary Shield Society, young men from the countryside in his thrall who had sworn to protect the emperor from bodily harm, he paid a visit to the commandant of the Japan Self-Defense Forces on the pretext of showing him an ancient Japanese sword. On a signal, the cadets seized and bound the general, and Mishima demanded through the barricaded door that the 32nd Regiment assemble in the courtyard to listen to a manifesto. Just after noon, he stepped onto the balcony of the office and exhorted the soldiers gathered below to join him in restoring power to the emperor, thereby ridding Japan of the postwar democracy that had, he believed, taken away its soul.

He had planned to speak for thirty minutes, but he was drowned out by the soldiers’ jeers and the whirring of helicopter blades overhead—he had alerted the press to his plan—and stopped speaking after just seven minutes. Stepping back inside, he kneeled on the floor, unbuttoned his uniform, and committed hara-kiri, driving a short sword into his left side and drawing it across his abdomen. As he slumped forward, a cadet standing behind him struck off his head with a long sword. The cadet then kneeled and was in turn beheaded after cutting open his own stomach. The surviving three cadets, under orders from Mishima not to kill themselves, opened the door and surrendered.


Most Japanese were horrified. Fanatics on the far right revered Mishima as a modern version of a Japanese warrior. The intellectual left was aghast and silent. The government felt disgraced in the eyes of the world. In March of that year, Japan had commemorated its arrival as a powerful global economy by hosting Expo ’70, a giant trade fair on which the government had spent $2 billion in order to attract participation from seventy-seven countries and that led the futurist Herman Kahn to predict that the twenty-first century would belong to the Japanese. Now, nine months later, Mishima had turned the clock back a hundred years to a feudal age, when death by hara-kiri was a samurai’s way of acknowledging defeat honorably or signaling his allegiance to his lord.

For thirty years, Japanese were loath to talk about Mishima, and little was written about him. Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, younger Japanese readers began buying his books, and interest in him has continued to grow. Following the bursting of the economic bubble in 1990, Japan suffered a national identity crisis. Possibly Mishima’s certainty about the nature of Japaneseness—which he described as a combination of delicacy and martial fierceness—inspired some Japanese who were feeling lost. More specifically, as the call for revision of the postwar constitution intensified during the resurgence of nationalism that began in the 1990s, Mishima’s final appeal to change the emperor’s constitutional status from figurehead to ruler may have acquired new resonance. In 2000 Mishima’s lifelong publisher, Shinchōsha, began releasing the Complete Works of Yukio Mishima, Definitive Edition in forty-two volumes.

Mishima was prolific and versatile in a manner reminiscent of a writer like John Updike. In addition to hundreds of short stories and eleven volumes of critical essays, he wrote thirty-five novels and thirteen plays, many lavishly staged during his lifetime, including adaptations from the Noh theater repertory and several written in the language of eighteenth-century kabuki theater. His regimen was singular and invariable. On evenings out his friends learned to expect a punctilious bow and swift exit from whatever he was doing at 11 pm. Home by 11:30, he would soak in a hot bath, fortify himself with a bowl of cha-zuke—green tea over rice with a bit of salmon or pickled plum for flavor—and then, at midnight sharp, retire to his study on the second floor of his house. Most nights he worked at his desk until dawn.

Remarkably, it was his habit to warm up with work on a “popular novel” before turning to the “pure literature” he was writing at the time. The popular books were romance fiction, shocking in their day, with titles like The Capital of Love, Love Stampede, and The S.S. Happiness Sets Sail. They were serialized in weekly or monthly magazines with large circulations that catered to female readers—The Housewife’s Companion, Women’s Forum, Weekly Girl. Every title was issued as a book after serialization; many became best sellers, and a number of them were subsequently turned into plays or TV dramas or films starring Mishima’s favorite actress, the beautiful Ayako Wakao (with whom he was rumored, preposterously, to be having an extended affair).

Except for a new edition of Star (1961), recently published by New Directions,1 none of the popular novels is available in English, but many merit translation. Although Mishima tossed them off, they aren’t exactly trash: the plots take clever twists, and he was incapable of bad prose—it was as if a concert violinist had stopped off at a hoedown on his way home from a recital.

The seventeen serious novels have all been translated into Western languages. Mishima is amenable to translation in a way that, for example, the Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe is not. Ōe considered himself a liminal figure, and the style he developed constituted an assault on traditional Japanese. Mishima saw himself as the ultimate insider, heir to traditional Japanese beauty: his writing, reflecting this image, is in harmonious accord with the natural genius of the Japanese language. If the translator selects his words precisely and assembles them in comely sentences, Mishima’s voice will emerge. Here is my first pass at the opening lines from Virtue Stumbles, among his most popular romances:


It gives one pause to begin abruptly with an indiscreet subject; nevertheless, Madame Kurakoshi, though only twenty years of age, was endowed with an enviable gift for sensuality. Because her strict upbringing in a distinguished family had kept her innocent of reflection, theory, refined conversation, literature, or anything else that could be substituted for the sensual, it might be better to say that Setsuko had been destined to end up adrift, guileless and earnest, on a sea of sensuality. Fortunate indeed was the man loved by such a woman.

I believe this conveys the finesse and prissy condescension that were among his preferred keys in which to write. Asked to identify the passage, an informed English reader might well recognize it as Mishima’s work.

The question remains: Are the “serious novels” of enduring importance? In my reading, though dazzlingly clever, they are marred by artificiality; his characters often feel contrived, dangling helplessly like marionettes from the strings of concepts. His first novel, Thieves (1948), is a case in point. A young man and woman fall in love and decide to marry. Each has been rejected previously by a true love and has resolved independently to die. On their wedding night they commit double suicide. Later, the beautiful girl and handsome boy who had spurned them meet at a party, look into each other’s eyes, and are horrified at what they see: “They had discovered…that the true beauty and everlasting youth within them had been uprooted and borne away by some exceedingly skillful thief.”

In a preface to his four-volume epic, The Sea of Fertility, Mishima wrote, indulging his taste for paradox, “I am a realist who attempts to depict with complete reality a romantic psychology which cannot be found in reality.” This turns out to be only partly accurate; more often than not, Mishima fails to depict “with complete reality” a psychology of his own making. The murderous gang in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, for example, sound like no thirteen-year-olds to be found in nature: “We must drain that sailor’s fresh lifeblood and transfuse it to the dying universe, the dying sky, the dying forests, and the drawn, dying land.” But Mishima could still transcend that artificiality. Even in The Sailor, the hero’s transformation as he falls in love from a loner with no attachments to a sentimental landlubber feels real.

In 1963 Knopf’s editor in chief, Harold Strauss, came to Tokyo to look for a Mishima translator. Knopf’s exclusive contract with the writer required the publisher to release a new English translation of one of his novels every three years, and the deadline for the next publication was approaching. I was a student at the University of Tokyo at the time, and Strauss, at the suggestion of the Harvard historian Henry Rosovsky, tracked me down and asked if I would be interested in meeting Mishima. We had dinner at a French restaurant with thick carpets and heavy drapes that felt like a fin-de-siècle relic, and I must have passed my audition: Strauss called subsequently and asked me for a sample translation, chapter 1 of The Frolic of the Beasts (1961), which was to be the next novel in English.

I spent $300 I could ill afford on a Mont Blanc fountain pen, the stubby, cigar-shaped variety used by important Japanese writers, and worked every night until dawn as Mishima did. I sent in my translation and heard back at once from Strauss, who informed me unapologetically that he had changed his mind after consulting with Donald Keene and other grown-ups in the field; the next Mishima book was to be The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. I submitted a second sample chapter a week later, and this time it was Mishima himself who called to congratulate me on having been chosen as his new translator. Strauss and his colleagues had made the right decision: The Sailor was a better book.

The Frolic of the Beasts has finally been published in English, in a decent translation by Andrew Clare. The novel is stuck in the middle of Mishima’s divergent styles: romance fiction with pretensions to seriousness. The frolicking beasts in the title are three unappealing people caught in a sadomasochistic ménage à trois destined to end badly. An amorous young man, Kōji, returns to a fishing village on the Izu Peninsula after serving seventeen months in prison for “bodily injury”—in a convulsion of rage he attacked his paramour’s husband, Ippei, beating him with a wrench and leaving him aphasic and paralyzed on his right side. Ippei’s treacherous wife, Yūko, has petitioned the court and received permission to serve as guarantor of her erstwhile lover.

A Boat Cast Adrift (Ukifune) by Sata Yoshirō

Osaragi Jirō Memorial Museum

Sata Yoshirō: A Boat Cast Adrift (Ukifune), 1966; folding screen from the exhibition ‘The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated,’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, until June 16, 2019. The catalog is distributed by Yale University Press.

Early on, Yūko takes her men on a hike up a mountain path, Ippei limping along in silence. At the base of a waterfall, she asks her maimed husband if he understands the word “kiss,” and when he hesitates, she demonstrates, kissing Kōji passionately in front of him. Ashamed, Kōji pushes her away and objects to being used. “What are you saying, after all this time,” Yūko says mockingly. “When you’ve been used from the very beginning. You like it, don’t you?” Kōji slaps her in the face and Ippei looks on with an “unmistakable smile” on his face.

Variations on this horrid moment abound. Kōji is vaguely aware of the moral impropriety of the circumstances but cannot desist from vain attempts to win Yūko’s heart. Yūko is by turns desperate and aloof, importunate and tyrannical. Ippei remains an enigma with an inscrutable smile, until near the end, when, alone with Kōji, he rasps, “Death. I want to die.”

The conclusion emerges second-hand in an epilogue, as though Mishima were uncertain how to dramatize it. An ethnologist traveling in Izu to research local songs hears the story of the three lovers from the village priest, who recalls Yūko and Kōji coming down the hill from their house hand in hand, “their faces brimming with happiness…more beautiful than ever before.” They are on their way to the police station, having just strangled Ippei at his request. Kōji is sentenced to death, and Yūko to life imprisonment. The ethnologist visits Yūko in prison to deliver a photograph the priest has given him of their three gravestones all in a row. “Now I can serve my time in peace,” she says impassively, and returns to her cell. There is no pathos in this violent story; it brims with perversity, and the improbable situation makes it hard to believe that the characters are real.

Mishima sometimes deprecated his own fiction as trivial entertainment, but he referred repeatedly to The Sea of Fertility, on which he worked from September 1965 to the last night of his life, as his “masterpiece.” The premise that drives the four volumes of the epic is samsara, the transmigration of the soul as it is conceived in Buddhism. In the first volume, Spring Snow, Kiyoaki Matsugae, an excruciatingly self-conscious aristocrat’s son, engages in a love affair with Satoko Ayakura, a beautiful girl who is betrothed to an imperial prince and thus out of bounds, and he dies of a broken heart at twenty. Kiyoaki’s reincarnation emerges twenty years later in the second volume, Runaway Horses: the fanatic patriot and assassin Isao Iinuma is born with a birthmark identical to Kiyoaki’s, a triad of moles on his torso (Mishima intended Kiyoaki and Isao to represent his view of the two aspects of the Japanese male: a lissome, effeminate elegance and a warrior’s brutality).

The Temple of Dawn, the third volume, set in Benares and Bangkok, concerns a Thai princess, Ying Chan, who has the same birthmark. The lighthouse keeper in the final volume, The Decay of an Angel, a sixteen-year-old with pellucid eyes and no feelings—trained from childhood to break women’s hearts, he is a counterpart to Estella in Great Expectations—bears the telltale birthmark but turns out to have been born shortly before Princess Ying Chan’s death from a cobra bite.

The cycle of death and rebirth is witnessed from beginning to end by Kiyoaki’s boyhood friend Shigekuni Honda. A lawyer and eventually a judge, Honda is committed to Western rationality and is reluctant to accept what he observes, struggling to explain the mystery in a rational way. As a classmate of Kiyoaki’s at the Peers’ School in 1911, Honda becomes involved in his friend’s doomed love affair with Satoko in the first volume, helping to arrange their secret trysts and doing what he can to forestall the catastrophe awaiting them. At the end of that book, Satoko becomes pregnant, has an abortion, and takes monastic vows, entering a nunnery in Nara. In the final volume, Honda, now eighty years old, resolves to visit her at the temple where she is the abbess. When he is finally admitted to her presence, he recognizes an aged Satoko, but when he mentions Kiyoaki, she denies any knowledge of such a person. Honda protests: “But if there was no Kiyoaki, then there was no Isao. There was no Ying Chan, and who knows, perhaps there has been no me.”

In his preface to Spring Snow, Mishima wrote, “I weighed each word on a scale like a pharmacist,” and the abbess’s reply confirms this. Speaking in the dialect used in Nara, she says, “That is such as it may be in each mind.” The word Mishima chooses, a recondite Buddhist term, is kokorogokoro, a doubling of kokoro, the character for “heart,” which can also connote “mind.” Honda is struck dumb. The abbess instructs a novice to show him to the west garden, as though to give him time and space to collect himself:

There was nothing eye-catching about the garden but it was quietly refined. The shrilling of summer crickets was insistent, like rubbing on rosary beads.

There was no other sound; the stillness was overwhelming. The garden was empty. He had come, Honda thought, to a place that held no memories, nothing.

In the noonday sun, the garden was hushed.

The End
The Sea of Fertility

November 25, 19702

As the conclusion of a thousand-page epic, this ending feels disappointing and contrived. Mishima devoted four volumes to detailing the mystery of samsara. With her denial of any knowledge of Kiyoaki, the abbess appears to invalidate the mystery. The reader knows as well as Honda that Kiyoaki did exist, and we are left as confused as he is. Honda, who has devoted his life to the pursuit of reason, is left speechless, defeated. Metaphorically, Mishima’s ending seems to imply the defeat of reason itself.

The reader may feel cheated by this impenetrable conclusion. But considered in light of Mishima’s life at that point, it is hard to imagine how he could have ended his masterwork otherwise than he did.

Even as he rehearsed with the Shield Society the mini-insurrection he almost certainly planned to end with hara-kiri, Mishima had secretly accelerated the pace of his work on Volume 4 and was more than six months ahead of his serialization schedule. His purpose may have been to mislead his publisher and close friends, who later revealed they had reassured themselves he would not do anything foolish until the Sea of Fertility tetralogy was complete. In his study on the last night of his life, he wrote the final pages of his “life’s work.” Leaving behind a stack of manuscript on his desk, he dressed in his paramilitary uniform and left for his appointment with the general in a car with the four cadets who had agreed, in the Japanese phrase he apparently used, to “lend him their lives.”

Mishima must have known that no one would take his call to insurrection seriously. And surely he had known where the action he was about to take would lead. Mishima longed for death, but not any death would do: for years he had nourished a fantasy of dying a painful warrior’s death by his own hand, ending his life honorably on a battlefield where he had suffered defeat.3 Hence, as a means to that end, his theatrical but meaningless appeal to the soldiers.

The action that Mishima contemplated as he wrote the final pages of his epic was an unreasoning need. How can he have imagined this, let alone carried it out, without first silencing reason? In such a state, how else could he have concluded The Sea of Fertility as the sun rose that final morning?