Renowned poet, actor, agitator
Born on January 14, 1925, in Yotsuya, Tokyo, under the name Hiraoka Kimitake (平岡公威), the young Mishima was raised by his grandmother Natsu, an illegitimate granddaughter of Matsudaira Yoritaka (松平頼位), the daimyō of Shishido in Hitachi Province. Her eccentric, overprotective and sometimes violent character shaped Mishima for the rest of his life. At the age of six, he was enrolled at the Gakushūin (学習院, Peers School), an educational institution for the children of the Japanese aristocracy.
He began to write very early, fascinated by the magic of words, in particular, waka (和歌) poems, influenced by Tachihara Michizō (立原道造, 1914-1939), which were published in his school magazine, and stories such as Hanazakari no Mori (花ざかりの森, “The Blossoming Forest”, 1941). He soon became deeply attracted to the works of Oscar Wilde. It was around this time he adopted his pen name Mishima Yukio. He also developed an interest in psychoanalysis and grew fond of Western literature, which he tried to emulate in his early stories, depicting in a slightly morbid style, the life of young people of the pure (post-war period, from the French ‘après-guerre’).
Studying during the day and writing at night, because his father had forbidden him to engage in “effeminate activities” such as writing stories, Mishima graduated from Tokyo University in 1947. He landed a position at the Ministry of Finance, but soon left with his father’s approval, to recover from the physical exhaustion he had suffered during his final years at university and to resume his literary interests. He published his first major novel in 1949 at the age of 24, Kamen no kakokuhaku (假面の告白, Confessions of a Mask). Largely autobiographical, it prefigured the essence of his entire literary oeuvre: a taste for the aesthetic, mixed with a morbid interest in death, voyeurism combined with narcissism, heroism, and a conviction that all humans come to a tragic end. In 1952, he travelled around the world, fascinated in particular by Greece and its ancient culture. Although his thought was westernised, he was fiercely attached to Japanese traditions, namely a military spirit, with which he was inculcated at Gakushūin and which seems to have affected him deeply all his life.
A prolific writer, he produced novel after novel, along with essays, plays, and screenplays. He was of slight build and was constantly exercising physically: either bodybuilding or practising kendō (剣道) and iaidō (居合道) three days a week, mostly at Tokyo police stations, a weekly regime he would pursue until his death. His aim was partly to stay healthy, partly to “be beautiful”, since he hardly concealed his unreserved admiration for the male body and his penchant for homosexuality. Nevertheless, after a short liaison with the famous tennis player Michiko Shōda (正田美智子), who later married Crown Prince Akihito and is now Empress Michiko (皇后美智子 Kōgō Michiko), he married Yōko Sugiyama, the daughter of the famous traditional painter Nei Sugiyama, who he was formally introduced to by Yasunari Kawabata. They had two children together, a daughter named Noriko (born in 1959) and a son named Ichiro (born in 1962).
He wrote Ai no kawaki (愛の渇き, Thirst for Love, 1951), Kinjiki (禁色, Forbidden Pleasures, 1952), Shiosai (潮騷, The Sound of Waves, 1954), Kinkakuji (金閣寺, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1956), Kindai Nōgakushū (近代能楽集, Five Modern Noh Plays, 1956), Utage no Ato (宴のあと, After the Banquet, 1960), Gogo no Eikō (午後の曳航, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, 1963), the play Sado Kōshaku Fujin (サド侯爵夫人, Madame de Sade, 1965), the tetralogy Hōjō no Umi (豐饒の海, The Sea of Fertility, 1965), relating to four reincarnations of the same person, completed just before his death: Haru no Yuki (春の雪, Spring Snow, 1968), Honba (奔馬, Runaway Horses, 1969), Akatsuki no Tera (曉の寺, The Temple of Dawn, 1970), and Tennin Gosui (天人五衰, The Decay of the Angel, 1970).
Mishima published a large number of stories, including Jumpaku no Yoru (純白の夜, The Pure White Night), Nipponsei (にっぽん製, Made in Japan), Nagasugita haru (永すぎた春, The Too-Long Spring), Kujaku (孔雀, The Peacocks, 1965), Manatsu no shi (真夏の死, Death in Midsummer, 1953), Bitoku no yoromeki (美徳のよろめき, Unsteady Virtue), Ojōsan (お嬢さん, The Young Lady, 1969), Ken (剣, The Sword), Are no yori (From the Depth of Solitude), Kemono no tawamure (獣の戯れ, Beastly Games, 1966), and adaptions of plays, such as Kurotokage (黒蜥蝪, Black Lizard), Kurobara no yakata (黒薔薇の館, The House of the Black Rose) and Rokumeikan (鹿鳴館, The Festival Palace).
He also acted in various films and directed a movie, Seppuku, about traditional samurai suicide. Some of his novels failed, such as Kyōko no, ie (鏡子の家, Kyoko’s House, 1959), others raised controversy, as did Kinjiki (禁色, Forbidden Colors, 1953), describing the marriage of a gay man to a young woman. Kinjiki is a euphemism for homosexuality. Ai no kawaki, published in 1952, truly established his reputation as a writer of extraordinary talent.
Later life and death
In October 1968, he established the tatenokai (楯の会, “Shield Society”), a militia consisting of some one hundred members, recruited from among the staff of a right-wing college newspaper and dressed in uniforms Mishima had designed himself. The tatenokai was devoted to preserving traditional Japanese values and to the veneration of the Emperor. The Japanese public largely disapproved of such ideas and derided his movement.
On November 25, 1970, he and four other members entered the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in Ichigaya under the pretext, taking the commandant hostage.
Mishima addressed the soldiers from the commandant’s balcony, reading a manifesto that aimed at inspiring a coup d’état but was eventually shouted down and mocked. After a few minutes, he withdrew into the room and committed seppuku. Tatenokai member Masakatsu Morita (森田 必勝) had been chosen to act as second and perform the traditional kaishakunin (介錯人) duty of beheading Mishima, but he was unable to properly perform the task. After several failed attempts, he allowed another Tatenokai member, Hiroyasu Koga (古賀浩靖), to decapitate Mishima. Morita himself attempted to commit seppuku that day as well. When he failed, Koga once again performed the kaishakunin duty.
Mishima was among those considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times. His spectacular death, which was in line with his life and his thinking, drew even more international attention to his work, which had been translated into many languages. His work had not been very popular in Japan but seemed to have been rediscovered through the intense Western interest. Almost all of Mishima’s novels and stories have been adapted for the screen, some by prestigious directors, such as Ichikawa Kon (市川崑, 1915-2008) and Fukusaku Kinji (深作欣二, 1930-2003).
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
- Weston, Mark, Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan's Greatest Men and Women, Kodansha 2002
- Yukio Mishima: Saints and seppuku | The Japan Times
Yukio Mishima (三島由紀夫,1925-1970)
Yukio Mishima on November 25, 1970, speaking at the Tokyo HQ of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces
Yukio Mishima surrounded by members of the Shield Society (楯の会 tatenokai)