Last reviewed: June 2017
Japanese author, playwright, poet, director, and actor.
January 14, 1925
November 25, 1970
Yukio Mishima (mee-shee-mah) was a writer of great power—widely regarded in his last years as a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature—whose life became a performance, and ultimately a tragic one. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in Tokyo, Japan, the son of Azusa and Shizue (Hashi) Hiraoka. His father was a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture. The boy was an outstanding scholar at Gakushuin (the Peers’ School), where he was cited for excellence by the emperor himself. He was a gentle, bookish child, with a delicate constitution, who was drawn, nevertheless, to books that portrayed the valiant death and ritual suicides of the warrior. He began to write at an early age and was publishing short stories in the magazine Bungei Bunka (literary culture) by his sixteenth year. In 1944 he undertook the study of law at Tokyo University. He graduated in 1947, after his education was briefly interrupted by his conscription in the army in February, 1945. Though short, his period of service affected him profoundly. His religion was Zen Buddhism, but he described in Sun and Steel how his dominant philosophy of physical prowess and the beauty of violent death began to emerge as he underwent the rigors of military life. He was employed in 1947 by the Ministry of Finance, but by the next year he had resigned to devote himself to his writing.
He was influenced by the older writer and his lifelong friend Yasunari Kawabata (winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1968), whom he met while he was still a schoolboy. Kimitake Hiraoka may have chosen the pseudonym Yukio Mishima because of the nature of his first, and very successful, novel, Confessions of a Mask. It is the autobiographical account of a shy, sensitive young man who wrestles with his homosexuality and sadomasochistic tendencies. Critics have argued that this novel set the tone for the rest of Mishima’s career, for with it Hiraoka had adopted a new name and a new personality. Henceforward he would mask his timidity, vulnerability, and aestheticism with an arrogant, even provocative, persona. He retained the love for fine prose and for the Japanese and Western classics that he had shared with Kawabata but began to affect a strident manliness. Through a regimen of weight lifting he developed his slight physique. He studied boxing and karate until he achieved proficiency in both, and he made himself into an excellent swordsman and imbibed deeply the tradition of the samurai. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Mishima produced a succession of critically acclaimed novels. On June 1, 1958, he married Yoko Sugiyama, and two children were born of their union: a daughter, Noriko, and a son, Iichiro. Yukio Mashima
Mishima was also prolific in other genres. He wrote many short stories, most of which are uncollected or collected in Japanese editions only. A notable collection in English, Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories, appeared in 1966. Mishima also became one of Japan’s leading playwrights. By his early thirties he had published some thirty plays, several of which are available in English. His modernized versions of traditional Japanese No plays were very popular (these can be sampled in the 1957 collection in English, Five Modern Nō Plays). Often Mishima himself directed the production of his plays.
His life became increasingly flamboyant, and he became a motion-picture actor, screenwriter, and director, even appearing in a gangster film. He recorded songs and became a television celebrity, achieving more fame in this way than through his many literary prizes and awards. He built an Italianate villa in Tokyo and filled it with English antiques. He enrolled his wife in classes in Western cooking. His writing began to contain more allusions to French literature than to Japanese literature. Despite—and perhaps, in part, because of—the Western influence on his own life and work, he came to hate the Westernization of Japan. In a stream of essays and articles he advocated Japan’s return to the samurai tradition. He organized a private army of like-minded university students, the Tate No Kai, or Shield Society. His elitism, his militancy, and his idealization of the old Japan disturbed many people.
On November 25, 1970, he ended his life with a beau geste when he and four members of the Shield Society invaded the headquarters of the Eastern Ground Defense Forces, took the commanding officer hostage, and demanded that the troops be assembled. From a balcony he harangued the twelve hundred soldiers for their failure to rise in rebellion against Japan’s Western-style constitution. The men responded to his speech with laughter and derision. He then knelt and, in the traditional seppuku ceremony, committed suicide: He disemboweled himself with a dagger, and one of his followers beheaded him with a sword. He had written almost the exact scene in the 1960 novella Yukoku (translated as "Patriotism" in Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories) and later, when he had adapted his novella as a film, he had acted in the lead role. He had completed his tetralogy The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels on the last day of his life. Other of his works, too, were posthumously published.