Mishima: A Writer’s Suicide

Mishima: A Writer’s Suicide

The story of Mishima, one of Japan's most famous writers

One of the most intriguing figures of modern Japanese history is the writer Yukio Mishima, considered by many to be Japan’s most important 20th century writer, whose death was every bit as dramatic as his life.

Born in 1925 as Kimitaka Hiraoka, he was taken under the care of his domineering grandmother, Natsu, who was descended from a minor samurai family and carried this aristocratic sensibility through her life. She was notoriously stubborn and prone to violent outbursts that are alluded to in Mishima’s later writings. Natsu is perhaps most famous for having forbidden young Kimitaka from being exposed to sunlight, playing sports, or playing with boys. As a result, Kimitaka spent a lot of time alone, or with his female cousins.

By the time he was 12, Kimitaka was returned to his parents. Freed to Natsu’s tyrannical behavior, he turned to his mother for reassurance and support, in a relationship that has been described as near-incestuous. But while his mother would often proofread his work, his father would often search his room for evidence of interest in literature, which he considered effeminate. Much of Kimitaka’s adolescent work was destroyed in this way. In addition to his father’s anti-literary bent, Kimitaka was also subjected to harsh military-style discipline, which were to have a strong effect on his later life.

At the age of 16, Kimitaka had become the editor-in-chief of his school’s literary magazine. Under the guidance of his teacher, Fumio Shimizu, Kimitaka’s first story was published in the prestigious Bungei Bunka. Kimitaka, in an effort to conceal his literary identity from his father, chose the pen name Yukio Mishima. From that point forward, the professional writer Mishima was born.

By the time he was declared unfit for military duty in 1945, Mishima had already published a number of poems, essays, and stories. Under his father’s orders, he began to study German law while secretly writing at night. After graduating from Tokyo University, Mishima worked a year in the Finance Ministry until exhaustion forced him to resign. From that point forward, he devoted his time to writing, publishing his first novel in 1948. In 1949, his autobiographical novel, “Confessions of a Mask,” is about a young, latent homosexual who hides behind a mask to fit into society. This novel makes him a celebrity at the age of 24.

As he continued to write, his celebrity status grew. He became internationally acclaimed, his novels regularly translated into English, while he was nominated 3 times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. But when his aged friend, Yasunari Kawabata, won the Nobel Prize in 1968, Mishima realized that the chance of another Japanese winning the honor was slim.

In his personal life, Mishima had transformed himself from the frail, sickly boy he had once been. Beginning with his weight training in 1955, Mishima added swimming and kendo to his studies, becoming a physically imposing figure (at least in his upper body — his legs were still frail). While he visited gay bars in Japan, his liaisons with men were largely confined to overseas. He briefly considered a liaison with Michiko Shoda, who eventually married Emperor Akihito. In the end he married Yoko Sugiyama and had a son and daughter.

In 1967, Mishima enlisted in the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), and a year later formed the Shield Society, composed of patriotic young soldiers who studied martial principles under Mishima’s direction.

On September 25, 1970, Mishima, with four Shield Society members, visited the commandant of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces. Tying the commandant to his chair, they barricaded his office. They hung a banner listing their demands, and Mishima stepped onto a balcony to read his manifesto to the soldiers below, calling for a coup d’etat to restore the Emperor to his rightful place. Rather than inspiring the soldiers, however, his speech caused jeers and catcalls. Unable to make his voice heard, Mishima read only a small portion of his speech before returning to the commandant’s office and committing seppuku. The final action, his beheading by Shield Society member Masakatsu Morita, was badly botched several times and was finally performed by Hiroyasu Koga. Morita, in turn, committed seppuku before also being beheaded by Koga. The Mishima Incident was over.

It has become very difficult to know what to make of Mishima’s suicide, since there is a great deal of evidence to suggest he never expected his coup d’etat to actually work, and that his death was a planned outcome all along. His political views have made him unloved by both the liberals and conservatives, to the point that he has fallen out of favor in academic circles. However, his devotion to samurai ideals (as he perceived them) and his romanticization of death made his suicide a dramatic exclamation point to his life.

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 1/13/06. Author retains all copyrights.)


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