Places: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Kinkakuji, 1956 (English translation, 1959)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedKinkakuji

Kinkakuji Temple of the Golden Pavilion, The (kin-ka-kew-jee). Temple, also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, in Kyōto that is a rare masterpiece of Buddhist garden architecture, the central metaphor of the novel. The temple dates back over five centuries to the days of the great Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, a powerful military leader, appreciator of fine art, and devoted follower of Zen Buddhism. The temple served as a spiritual retreat for this hard-driven military leader because he enjoyed evenings of music and poetry, which took him away from the constant warfare of his dynasty.

The temple dominates the thoughts of the novel’s main character, the acolyte priest, Mizoguchi, who reads about it in books for years before he sees it in person. It is a three-storied tower structure overlooking a pond in a garden. The first two stories are built in traditional style of domestic architecture with folding shutters, but the third story consists of a square room built in pure Zen style. The roof is covered with cypress bark and capped with a copper and gold phoenix.

To Mizoguchi, the temple constantly changes its meaning throughout his life. The temple sometimes represents enduring beauty, envy, and eternal moral authority in contrast to the failings of human beings. Sometimes the temple is comforting, and sometimes it is forbidding and deadly. When Mizoguchi thinks of the temple, he recalls his own personal failings and the immorality of his mother. The memory of the temple makes it impossible for him to make love to a girl when he visits the geisha district of Kyōto. Mizoguchi comes to the conclusion that only by destroying the Temple of the Golden Pavilion can he free himself from his own obsessions.


*Maizuru (mi-zew-rew). Town west of Kyōto, in which Mizoguchi grows up, knowing the Golden Pavilion only through photographs. Mizoguchi recalls East Maizuru Middle School of his early school years, remembering its spacious grounds, pleasant surrounding hills, and the bright, modern buildings of the school. As a boy, Mizoguchi had a weak constitution, he stuttered frequently, and other children teased him because of his physical differences. He dreamed of seeing the Golden Pavilion in Kyōto for years before his father actually took him there. Though his father was only a simple country priest ignorant of the terminology of architecture, he taught Mizoguchi that the Temple of the Golden Pavilion was the most beautiful thing on earth. After his father’s death, Mizoguchi left his village to become an acolyte in Kyōto.


*Kyōto (kyoh-toh). Japanese city and cultural center, which along with Tokyo, defines Japanese values. Kyōto is a city of great beauty with raked pebble gardens, exotic contours of beautiful temples, and traditional costumes of geishas. The city is filled with more than two thousand shrines and temples, in addition to palaces, gardens, and an abundance of Buddhist artwork.

When Mizoguchi first goes to Kyōto and sees the Golden Pavilion in person, the experience contrasts with the grim news of World War II and the imminent American bombardment of Japan. Speculation abounds about whether the Golden Pavilion will survive Allied bombing. Mizoguchi sees airplanes from the Maizuru squadron flying over the Golden Pavilion, but the eternal beauty of the place is untouched by bombing.

Even when Mizoguchi accepts cigarettes from an American soldier who tries to terminate the pregnancy of a Japanese prostitute in the garden, the Golden Pavilion seems unaffected. Mizoguchi becomes convinced that the temple will be burned down by the American incendiary bombs, and he is “released” by the idea that absolute beauty will not survive. When the Temple is not bombed, he takes matters into his own hands after the war and sets fire to it himself.

BibliographyScott-Stokes, Henry. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974. This biography provides ample material for those who seek parallels between Mishima and Mizoguchi.Starrs, Roy. Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima. Folkestone, England: Japan Library, 1994. Sees Mizoguchi as “rising heroically from passive to active nihilism.” Sees “relief and catharsis” in the ending.Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Focuses on The Temple of the Golden Pavilion as a philosoph-ical novel and on the role of novelist as psychiatrist. Makes ample use of details from Mishima’s life.Wolfe, Peter. Yukio Mishima. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1989. The most useful commentary in English on the novel. Considers Mizoguchi’s act to be one of self-betrayal and sees The Temple of the Golden Pavilion as “a downbeat, negative book.”Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Argues for separation of Mishima from his protagonist, even though Mishima himself was nihilistic and often felt estranged from life.
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