Yukio Mishima (1925-1970)

“Japanese novelist, playwright, and essayist. Mishima elicits very strong reactions among Japanese, for whom his celebrated ritual suicide has raised very large and troubling questions that remain unanswered.

As a young author, Mishima quickly earned a reputation for intellectual and artistic genius. As revealed in his essay Taiyo to tetsu (1968; tr Sun and Steel, 1970), he was deeply troubled about the dichotomy between mind and body that afflicted modern civilization. This and other philosophical concerns are treated in works such as Kamen no kokuhaku (1949; tr Confessions of a Mask, 1958), which is also noteworthy as Japan’s first homosexual autobiography, and Hojo no umi (1965-71; tr The Sea of Fertility, 1971-74). The latter, Mishima’s final work, is a tetralogy of daunting intellectual density. Perhaps his best-known work is Kinkakuji (1956; tr The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1959), a brilliant philosophical novel.

Yet this is the same author who wrote reams of cheap fiction, starred in gangster movies, and was a fixture of the popular press, where he even appeared seminude in photos. Mishima’s narcissism was a match for his genius. His was not an ordinary literary career: Mishima lived the life of a jet-set socialite and achieved an international celebrity status unheard of in the context of a traditionally inward looking and self-effacing Japanese literary community.

Like many post war Japanese writers and intellectuals, Mishima was deeply concerned about modern Japan as a spiritual wasteland. But unlike his contemporaries, Mishima did not only express his concerns in writing. He also acted upon his beliefs, launching a personal crusade to restore traditional Bushido values and imperial majesty to what he felt had become a nation of drones.

In a feat of self-dramatization that some called inspired and others spurned as madness, Mishima became commander of a small, ultrarightist organization, the Tatenokai (Shield Society). Then, on November 25, 1970, in one of the defining moments of modern Japanese history, Mishima and several of his lieutenants occupied the Japanese Self-Defense Force headquarters in Tokyo. And in full view of a stunned nation and the world, Japan’s greatest living writer disemboweled himself. This single stroke, whose meaning has been endlessly debated, instantly elevated Yukio Mishima to a mythic stature.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

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