Discussing Yukio Mishima is a complex mess of sorting fact from fiction, and while in our last article of Elagabalus we found ourselves faced with similar problems, the reasoning behind this confusion could not be more different. With Elagabalus, it was because we were faced with a cacophony of differing accounts of her life. But Yukio Mishima is a much more modern figure, having only died in 1970, so we still have many first-hand accounts of his life, including videos of him. This is where we find the complexity. It has less to do with others' varied feelings on the life of Mishima, but the contradictions found within the man himself.
Trigger Warning: To write about Yukio Mishima’s life we will be discussing suicide, specifically seppuku, throughout the article.
Yukio was born January 14, 1925, in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. He spent most of his earlier years with his grandmother who maintained a very aristocratic lifestyle and shared that with Yukio. She was also prone to violence and attempted to isolate Yukio from other boys his age. He was pushed, instead, to spend time with his female cousins and enjoy more traditionally feminine tasks with his grandmother. At the age of twelve, when Yukio was returned to his immediate family, we find the first crack in the glass.
Though Yukio was allowed, and sometimes even pressured into enjoying traditionally female tasks with his grandmother, the opposite was true once he was living under the same roof as his father. Yukio was forced away from anything his father deemed feminine. At one point, his father tore up a story Yukio had written, then held him up to the side of a speeding train in an attempt to scare some masculinity into him.
The emotional whiplash caused by these two distinct upbringings would be hard for anyone, but we can see the effect it had on him throughout the rest of his life.
Yukio Mishima grew up to become a successful writer, and, in fact, was tapped to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature multiple. His work explored themes like sexuality in a semi-autobiographical way, as he wrote his perspective as a gay man.
To discuss his sexuality, we come across another major contradiction in Yukio’s life. Though it is mostly believed he was a gay man, many people try to deny this because of his marriage to Yoko Sugiyama and their two children. With this knowledge, there are two different lines of thought you can follow.
The first, and most accepted being that he was a gay man who married a woman, as gay men sometimes do. It is a reality that some gay men marry women in an attempt to either hide their sexuality from people who may punish them for it or to try and fix themselves. There is evidence that the second may have been the case with Yukio, who was said to believe that with discipline he could “fix” his sexuality.
The other possibility is that he was bisexual, was legitimately attracted to his wife, and by extension at least a little bit attracted to women. This claim is much more difficult to prove, though it is possible that Yukio believed his sexuality could be changed because he was, in fact, attracted to women. That belief does have some merit. Of course, the most important evidence is self-identification, which is something we, unfortunately, do not have.
For the sake of this article, we will say that the evidence does tip in favour of him being a gay man. Considering his obsession with self-discipline and the contents of his semi-autobiographical book, Confessions of a Mask, this is the most probable possibility with the least assumptions being made. The debate will likely continue, as we can never know for sure.
This seems to be the case for many things in Yukio’s life. While we still have much left from the man, most of it was contradictory. While his politics were firmly against Western beliefs creeping into Japanese society, he had a fondness for many Western things. His home was modeled in a Western style and his work was very popular with Western audiences, making him one of the most well-known Japanese writers in Western media. From quote to quote, there is contradiction after contradiction, and it can be difficult to pin down much about him.
One thing that we can know is that he had a lifelong obsession with the Samurai lifestyle, particularly focusing on the practice of seppuku. As he grew older, he used this knowledge to slowly build his own political group. His far-right ideas about Japan’s post-World War Two pacifism betraying the ideals of Japanese culture are slightly overshadowed by his complete avoidance of army enrollment during the war. Much of his rhetoric seemed quite toothless for a time.
While he advocated for a return to more traditional Japanese beliefs, most of what he did to get there was train in various martial arts, and slowly amass a group of like-minded students to join him. Because of how harmless he seemed, and how well loved his work was, many dismissed him and his following and let them go about their business.
But on November 25, 1970, this dismissal was proven to be folly. Yukio Mishima and four members of his group went to Tatenokai Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. They then barricaded themselves in the office of the Commandant. Yukio Mishima went to the balcony to address the soldiers and attempt to convince them into a coup and delivered a manifesto about restoring power to the Emperor. When the soldiers failed to respond, Yukio Mishima went back to the office and attempted to commit seppuku. Unfortunately, it proved to be more difficult than planned, and he died a slow and painful death.
After his death, it was revealed that he had expected the refusal.The question then becomes why. Why did he do it? Some people say that he did it to avoid aging, as he was terrified of the concept of no longer being beautiful. Some say it was merely a political distraction. Many suggest that the motive was probably psychological. But to answer this question, we find a quote from Yukio Mishima himself:
“[On seppuku] Dying for a “great cause” was considered the most glorious, heroic, or brilliant way of dying.”
So it seems that the answer may be startlingly simple: all of the above. Like many of us, he wanted his death to mean something. He used his extremist beliefs to justify it to the world, and possibly to himself.
[Disclaimer: Some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
Belsky, Beryl. “Yukio Mishima: The Turbulent Life Of A Conflicted Martyr.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip Ltd, 18 Oct. 2012.
Flanagan, Damian. “Mishima and the Maze of Sexuality in Modern Japan.” The Japan Times, The Japan Times LTD., 14 Jan. 2017.
Graham, Tom. “The Tragic Life and Death of Yukio Mishima.” Little White Lies, TCOLondon Publishing, 25 May 2016.
Kelly, Richard T. “Rereading: The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy by Yukio Mishima.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 June 2011.
Lanagan, Damian. “Yukio Mishima's Enduring, Unexpected Influence.” The Japan Times, The Japan Times LTD., 21 Nov. 2015.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Mishima Yukio.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 May 2015.
Watts, Jonathan. “Anniversary of Japanese Writer Yukio Mishima's Suicide.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Nov. 2000.