Yukio Mishima

A 20th Century Samurai

Yukio Mishima, pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoka (1925-1970), was a Japanese novelist and playwright, whose central theme is the dichotomy between traditional Japanese values and the spiritual barrenness of contemporary life.

Mishima is the best known Japanese writer to Western readers. A man of discipline and great energy, he usually wrote from midnight until dawn and in his lifetime produced more than 100 works, including novels, short stories, traditional Japanese No and Kabuki plays, and screenplays.

Born in Tokyo, he failed to qualify for military service during World War II and worked in an aircraft factory instead. His relief at the war's end turned into guilt at having survived. After the war he studied law and for a short time was employed in the finance ministry.

Mishima's first novel, the partly autobiographical Confessions of a Mask (1948), was widely acclaimed and successful enough to enable its author to become a full-time writer. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) portrays a young man obsessed with both religion and beauty; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963) is a tale of adolescent jealousy; and his four volume epic The Sea of Fertility (1970), consisting of Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel, is about the transformation of Japan into a modern but sterile society.

True to the spirit of the samurai, Mishima was deeply troubled by the changes wrought on traditional Japanese ways by Western modernisation. This theme dominated his writings. His last work compares modern Japan to the barren landscape of the moon.

Mishima detested the sedentary life of most writers. In an effort to revive the samurai tradition he organised the Tatenokai (Shield Society), a paramilitary brotherhood stressing physical fitness and the martial arts. A latter day samurai, Mishima attempted to rally his people to combat the damage being done to Japanese society by such alien forces as liberalism and consumerism.

A flamboyant figure in life, Mishima became a legend after his ritual suicide following an unsuccessful attempt to re-enact successfully, in a carefully staged 'Incident', the Young Officers' rebellion of the 1930s.

On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four society members took control of an office at military headquarters in Tokyo. He gave a speech attacking Japan's post-World War II constitution and called on the ranks of the Japanese Self Defense Force to rebel in an effort to save traditional Japanese culture. Faithful to the samurai he then committed ritual suicide (seppuku).

His death was regarded as his final protest against modern Japanese decadence.


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