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Discussion Paper 4 in 2007
First published in ejcjs on 15 October 2007

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Queering Mishima's Suicide as a Crisis of Language


Matthew Chozick


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Introduction to the Problem

On November 25th 1970, Yukio Mishima, forty-five-year-old bodybuilder and three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature, broke into the Tokyo headquarters of Japan's Self-Defense Force with a privately funded militia. The author climbed onto the building's balcony to address a crowd below. In a bombastic speech, Mishima decried the Emperor's standing in the modern Japanese state. In response, the assembly jeered and heckled Mishima, who then retreated from the balcony to join militiamen in an overtaken office of the highest ranked military officer in Japan. The esteemed General Mashita, bound to a chair, was forced to watch Mishima commit seppuku.

Mishima's self-disembowelment was the first act of seppuku to occur after Japan's post-war reconstruction. Former Prime Minister Sato's official statement on this anachronistic and media garnering fatality was that Mishima had gone mad. Attributing the suicide to insanity, the Prime Minister could conveniently avoid a minefield of difficult questions on patriotism and the role of the Emperor. But had Mishima suddenly gone mad? This is terribly unlikely in so far as no one was surprised by the novelist's death.

Donald Keene once wrote about Yukio Mishima's readership: 'it was natural to wonder when he would do the same [and kill himself like his protagonists]' (1996: 207). The public had watched Mishima commit seppuku on the silver screen in two of his verisimilitudinous directorial productions: Patriotism (1966) and Murderer (1969). Mishima wrote of self-disembowelment in many of his forty semi-autobiographical novels, dozens of short stories, and eighteen plays (in some of which he acted out seppuku). The author's oeuvre positively pulses with thanatopsis: from his first widely successful autobiographical work, Confessions of a Mask (1948), right through The Sea of Fertility (1970), a novel finished immediately before his attempted coup d'état.

The pretense for Mishima's coup, though outwardly political, has been widely depoliticized by scholars as well as biographers. Noguchi Takehiko's rigorous examination of Mishima's sedition, 'The Aesthetics and Politics of Ultranationalism,' concludes: 'political success or failure of the rebellion was not the issue; he [Mishima] was interested only in seeing its "fragile and ethereal beauty"—that and nothing else' (1984: 452). Similarly, Paul Schrader, screenwriter of the film Mishima (1986), said in an interview: '[Mishima's] politics were a mass of balderdash' (interviewed by Jaehne, 1986: 15). Mishima's friend and biographer, Henry Scott-Stokes, wrote that Mishima 'seems to know nothing about politics' (1974: 14-15). Scholar Susan Napier described the relationship between Mishima's politics and death as largely a facade: '[Emperor worship was] in some ways simply an elaborate excuse for his suicide [. . . .] a more impressive backdrop' (1989: 85).

Little scholarship has examined the nuanced multi-causal factors behind Mishima's act of self-mutilation, in the name of the Emperor, from an apolitical perspective. Of the existing scholarship, Susan Napier's 'Death and the Emperor' rebuked critics for the common mono-causal association between Mishima's Emperor worship and Mishima's sexual orientation, which she deemed, 'ultimately reductive' (1989: 79). The proceeding essay does not discount Mishima's sexual orientation or Emperor worship, but advocates for the analysis of concomitant linguistic dimensions to expand discussion. In this article, the 'scientific' manner in which Mishima systematically explored 'the crisis of language' is interpreted as inextricable from Mishima's sexual practices, relationship with the Emperor, and suicide. This paper, though not exhaustive, depicts Mishima's biography from the start to the end; and, the novelist's ever changing approach to language is foregrounded for analysis.

Pre-Confessions of a Mask: Sublimation

Yukio Mishima was born into an aristocratic family on the evening of January 4th 1925, in Tokyo. Mishima's father, a government official, placed his son in the care of Yukio's grandmother. Poor health permeated Mishima's childhood. He was diagnosed with two ailments, which some psychoanalysts might be inclined to read much into: anemia (a feminine malady) and autotoxemia (the self-poisoning of the body). The first twelve years of Mishima's life were spent quarantined in his grandmother's parlor, save for interaction with servants and three carefully chosen young ladies. Concerning these girls, Mishima wished to be seen as one of them, not as a boy. For a short stint, he cross-dressed to be like his only childhood friends. But by age nine, Mishima abandoned transvestitism, noting that: 'it was tacitly required that I act like a boy. The reluctant masquerade had begun' (Confessions, 27).[1]

There was a disjunction between Mishima's private life and what he was willing to show others. By puberty, he theatrically hid interior abnormalities: 'I swore to play my role faithfully' (Confessions, 196). However, he privately 'resort[ed] to my bad habit [masturbation] sometimes as much as five times a day' (Confessions, 240). Mishima's first ejaculation—which shall be returned to—was inspired by Guido Reni's painting St. Sebastian. The image is described as follows:

[St. Sebasian's] white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk. His muscular arms, the arms of a praetorian guard accustomed to bending the bow and wielding of sword, are raised at a graceful angle, and his bound wrists are crossed directly over his head. [….] It is not pain that hovers about his straining chest, his tense abdomen, his slightly contorted hips, but some flicker of melancholy pleasure like music. Were it not for the arrows with their shafts deeply sunk into his left armpit and right side, he would seem more a Roman athlete resting from fatigue. (Confessions, 39)

This fantasy funneled in others of grand, macabre deviance. Mishima soon began regularly to imagine Roman gladiators' stomachs sliced open; on the cusp of their deaths he fantasized 'kiss[ing] the lips of those who had fallen to the ground and were still moving spasmodically' (Confessions, 93).

In contrast to Mishima's private erotic fantasies, in public he appeared well adjusted. He described seeming at times, 'lighthearted and gay [….] a young man abounding in wit' (Confessions, 145). By age sixteen, in monthly installments, Mishima completed and published his first book, The Forest in Full Bloom, in the literary journal Bungei Bunka. Due to the success of this novel, at the end of the author's senior year in high school, he was escorted by limousine to the Imperial Palace. The Emperor awarded Mishima the gindokei, a silver watch honoring literary achievements. Yukio fondly recalled the occasion a year before his death: 'I received a watch from him [the Emperor]. . . My personal experience was that the image of the Emperor is fundamental. I cannot set this aside. The Emperor is the absolute' (Quoted in Scott-Stokes, 1974: 98-99).

This passage reveals Mishima's affinity for the Emperor, not as political but rather as personal. Under the auspice of the Emperor, Mishima was accepted into Tokyo University. He managed to take a bachelor's degree while writing profusely at night.

Mishima's daytime composition reflected that of a pedestrian, albeit overachieving, young man, whereas, his night-time compositions violently disregarded social norms. The latter was valued as authentic at this time. Mishima 'detested [….] the role [of the day]' (Confessions, 145). He felt trapped in endless deception: 'I was to play my part on the stage without once ever revealing my true self' (Confessions, 101). He recalled, 'other boys, having no need for self-awareness, could dispense with introspection' (Confessions, 105). Indeed, constant self-examination was required to emulate a well-adjusted exterior with which to veil sadistic cravings.

In 1949, at the age of twenty-four, Mishima published his childhood autobiography, Confessions of a Mask. This book made him a celebrity, but failed to achieve the conscious goals set for the work. He wrote in a dairy that the text was aimed to eradicate an inner 'monster' (Quoted in Scott-Stokes, 1974: 119). Confessions of a Mask did not purge hidden lusts, but instead publicized them. The fantasies Mishima labored to obfuscate suddenly seeped into Japanese popular discussion. In the modern idiom, one might say he was 'outed as gay,' but circa 1950s Japan lacked a conceptual term that linked sexual practice to identity in this capacity.[2] Likely for this reason Mishima felt it necessary to coin the first word of its kind, danshokuka, which translates to the effect of 'man lover person.' This neologism, presented in the novel Forbidden Colors (1954), starkly broke away from traditional Japanese notions of sexual orientation in favor of a more Western construction of the self.

Post-Confessions of a Mask: Queer Foreign Identity

Yukio Mishima's writings circulated widely in 1950s Japan, but as a celebrity he could not find a niche to gladly occupy. Mishima chided intellectuals: 'I detested their ugliness. How unattractive intellectuals are!' (Quoted in Scott-Stokes, 1974: 125). He did not wish to be a poet: 'men called poets were invariably jilted by women' (Confessions, 109). As an alternative, Mishima became intrigued in Greek dramaturgy and literature, both provided material for an identity deviating from Japanese hetero-normative standards. Before long, Mishima made his away around the world to Greece. From December of 1951 to May of 1952 Mishima's peregrinations brought him East through Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, Paris, and then Athens. Abroad, he had sexual relations with men (no deaths resulted).

After returning to Japan, Mishima attempted a literary intervention against Japanese sexual orientation as it had come to historically be defined. To this end, Mishima wrote the above-mentioned Forbidden Colors, which implicitly rejected Japan's fixed categories of sexual identity in favor of 'European' semantic notions. In 1954, the same year Forbidden Colors was released, Mishima also penned and published a complementary novel, The Sound Of Waves. In this novel, Greek Gods dwell in Japan and are transfused into the country's mythological repository. The Sound of Waves synthesized two disparate cultural histories, and their resulting identities, in a time characterized by rapid change in Japanese social attitudes after the Second World War. By 1954, the Japanese way of life had begun to shift from that of an agrarian nation to a relatively more affluent industrial nation. Rapid and systematic educational reforms, labor unionizations, as well as Japanese consumer goods growing in overseas competitiveness, gave agency to many with faith in cultural change.

After 1955, the importance of Greek classicism on Mishima's identity and writing waned, and then was renounced: 'I, twenty-six years old, I, the classicist, I, the one closest to life—all these "I"s' may have been fakes' (Quoted in Scott-Stokes, 1974: 139). The only element of classicism that continued to grip Mishima was the Greek male figure, which this discussion will return to. Despite an earlier rejection of the opposite sex, by Mishima's early thirties, he attempted high-profile courtships. He unsuccessfully wooed Shoda Michiko, who went on to marry Emperor Akihito. At this time, he wrote and then published Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which revisited the topos of concealing sexuality, but now more explicitly as a product of language. Recall that this leitmotif was prior analyzed in Confessions of a Mask, before Mishima's sexual orientation was 'outed.' Had he returned to the 'closet' and therefore this topos?

Confessions of a Mask and Temple of the Golden Pavilion unmistakably treat similar topoi. About this likeness, scholar Hisaaki Yamanouchi described the latter novel as: 'just another variation of the sexual perversion in Confessions and [it] testifies to Mishima's preoccupation with the theme' (1972: 7). Mishima's protagonist in Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a stuttering and frail Zen acolyte, sounded suspiciously redolent of the author's autobiographical works:

Most people, thanks to their easy command of words, can keep this door between the inner world and the outer world wide open, so that air passes freely between the two; but for me this is impossible [. . . .] There is no need to justify my cruelty in clear, smooth words (23-24).

This passage shows that, in 1956, Mishima was again comparing the entirety of self to a sociolinguistic mask, which permits a limited range of identity to be outwardly conveyed. The gulf between interiority and exteriority is clearly mediated and problematized by language.

In Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mishima's explored the 'crisis of language' vis-à-vis aberrant eroticism. Intriguingly, the kanji for the young protagonist's name, Mizoguchi, translates as 'alienated-mouth.' Notably Mizoguchi is not only hyper-aware of language, but twice fails to perform sexually with a woman. Mishima subtly clued the reader into this character's attraction to the same sex at the start of the novel, when Mizoguchi Mizoguchi smells another boy's sweaty clothing. But by the end of Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mizoguchi cannot distinguish between 'the animalian expression that belongs to defecation and to sexual intercourse' (188).

Temple of the Golden Pavilion provided a model of how inadequate language might be reworked into a new sign system, even if with questionable success. Within this system, Kyoto's visceral architecture built by the Yoshimitsu Shogun in 1397, Kinkakuji, substituted in for the abstract notion of beauty. From the context of linguistics, in the Saussurean sign and referent are flattened into one entity. Mishima cued readers to hyper-read the novel on such levels at many points: 'You know how this passage is explained in the commentary, of course' (121). Because of this interpretive feature, David Pollack's outstanding analysis of Temple of the Golden Pavilion said that the text confirms 'Roland Barthes's vision of Japanese as the natural language of deconstruction' (Pollack, 1985: 397). But the Japanese language disappointed Mishima. He critiqued deficiencies in language on the page, and, went on to explore bodybuilding in search for an alternative solution for representation.

Sun and Steel: Autoerotic Askesis

Yukio Mishima's rigorous exercise routine was a panacea. It brought linguistic insights as well as facilitated the sublation of the past, through the construction of a new body. Bodybuilding resolved the author's seemingly lifelong desire to escape frailness. As a boy, Mishima's first crush was on a teenager named Omi, who was physically Mishima's opposite: 'my scrawny shoulders and narrow chest had not the slightest resemblance to Omi's' (Confessions, 83). Although Mishima longed for a sexual relationship with Omi, he also coveted Omi's mighty frame experiencing 'jealousy fierce enough to make me voluntarily forswear my love' (Confessions, 79). Through bodybuilding, Mishima became his own homotextual fantasy, and, could fetishize himself as such while living an arguably hetero-normative lifestyle.

As evidence of this self-fetishization, in 1966, Mishima had a photograph taken in which he posed as Saint Sebastian. This work replicated the painting by Guido Reni that had inspired Mishima's first ejaculation. In this photograph, Mishima's brawny body is bound to a tree with rope. His flesh glimmers with the light reflecting off of baby oil. Mishima is garbed in a white, low-riding loincloth and is pierced with three arrows emphasized by thin lines of blood. Mishima gazes up in erotic ecstasy at his mimetic death. Thus, via weightlifting, Mishima found a technique to sublimate, as well as sublate, his violent penchant for other men. The extreme exercise was an askesis; there are no clear cases of Mishima's danshokuka liaisons after he began training in 1955. In 1958 Mishima wedded Sugiyama Yoko, the daughter of a painter. The two produced one child of each sex.

In addition to a sublation of Mishima's past, exercise allowed him to explore empirically the boundaries of language. The author discovered that by training he could escape 'words [which] are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason' (Sun and Steel, 9). Unlike language, Mishima believed, 'flesh could be 'intellectualized' to a higher degree, [and] could achieve a closer intimacy with ideas' (Sun and Steel, 16). This finding served as a solution to limitations he earlier demurred; adoration for example, once situated 'within the confines of analysis, it would already have disappeared' (Confessions, 71-2).

Even if Mishima's new philosophy eschewed language, he ironically devoted much text to the Zen-like breakthroughs it produced. Insights were gleaned during enervating workouts that deterred unwanted mental commotion:

My only interest lay in following consciousness through to its extreme limits, so as to discover at what point it was converted into unconscious power. That being so, what surer witness to the persistence of consciousness to its outer limits could I have found than physical suffering? There is an undeniable interdependence between consciousness and physical suffering, and consciousness, conversely, affords the surest possible proof of the persistence of bodily distress (Sun and Steel, 38-39).

In this excerpt, Mishima agonizingly located residual cognition once words that obfuscated it were stripped away. Without a dependence on language: 'the inner world and the outer world had invaded each other, had become completely interchangeable' (Sun and Steel, 102).

This treatment of interiority and exteriority, like in much of Mishima's work, was tethered to the conflict of sexuality. Was it by chance that in Mishima's final novel, Sea of Fertility, completed immediately before the attempted coup, he used similar language to imagine the transformation of a man into a woman? In this swansong Mishima depicted, in third person, the freedom of becoming a female: 'the world had been turned inside out [. . . .] there was nothing to define him, to keep him under strict control' (449-50). In this quote, exterior forces linguistically 'define' the character's identity; consequently, sex reversal provides autonomy over an oppressively internalized 'strict control,' for which language again is the culprit.

By lifting weights Mishima perceived himself as dissolving the boundary between interiority and exteriority, which seemed pleasantly analogous to death: 'death lay only a short way beyond [severe exercise]' (Sun and Steel, 41). This finding, readers might hypothesize, afforded Mishima confidence to ape so many of his own characters and commit seppuku. In Sun and Steel, the author described communal suicide as 'beauty [. . . .] by men in general, in an ultra-erotic sense' (55). In this quote, 'beauty' is connoted by stylized homoerotic death—as opposed to beauty being represented as Kinkakuji in Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Mishima again rehabilitated the abstract notion of beauty by providing a new, visceral implication. In this rendering, beauty equals collective self-disembowelment. Japanese men in 'general'—male voyeurs as well as participants—are to gain sensual pleasure from phallocentric martyrdom. By conceptualizing seppuku in such a way, Mishima's work problematized cultural boundaries as mutable products of linguistic discourse.

Closing Discussion

The week before Yukio Mishima's attempted coup, from November 12th through November 19th, 1970, an exhibition on his life was held in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Approximately one hundred thousand fans attended. Conspicuously on display was the sword, by Seki Magoroku, that Mishima would be decapitated with. This weapon was juxtaposed with photographs of Mishima and his family. The exhibit formed a bizarrely incoherent narrative. Mishima, who had notoriously avoided military duty during the Second World War, was photographed as a uniformed officer in Japan's Self Defense Force; Mishima, who had produced a new homosexual archetype, was accompanied by children; images of a scrawny twenty-six-year-old author hardly resembled later photographs of a thick-framed bodybuilder.

The panoply of objects on view paraded the spectacle of Mishima's public life as lacking in continuity. It is no wonder that following the author's suicide, Prime Minister Sato labeled him as insane. But, the drastic changes that occurred over the course of Mishima's life can be understood to a degree, if treated with concern to the interplay between sexual orientation, Emperor worship, linguistic exploration, and suicide.

Recall that Mishima emerged from childhood as hyper-aware of speech as to leave no clues of violent and homoerotic fantasies. After being 'outed' by Confessions of a Mask, Mishima traveled extensively, learned of foreign sexual orientations, and then attempted to graft an idealized Greek homosexual identity onto the Japanese. He problematized Japanese hetero-normative discourse by examining inadequacies in language, which resulted in the coining of a new word as well as the subversion of meanings in existing words. In search for solutions to linguistic deficits, he explored the body as containing a corporeal language. By weightlifting Mishima located a residual 'cognition' that transcended syntax and lexical meaning. A second outcome of weightlifting was that Mishima came to physically resemble the sort of men he was attracted to. He fetishized his renovated, exotic body—perhaps as a substitute for a regular male lover—and then forayed into a largely disingenuous marriage. As Mishima said early on in his career: 'the reluctant masquerade had begun' (Confessions of a Mask, 27).

Mishima examined the masquerade as language mediated cultural norms that split identity into a disjunctive interiority and exteriority. The author struggled to liberate himself by modifying and destabilizing oppressive discourse through words. Mishima went onto eroticize himself in what he defined as the greatest act of homosocial beauty, seppuku. This regrettable outcome was no surprise to Mishima's readers. He extolled the destiny of self-disembowelment redundantly in the corpus of his work as well as in his dramaturgical career on stage and in cinema. But when Mishima gutted himself like the Roman gladiators of his early fantasies, the world lost a brilliant creative force.


1. Some literary theorists might be reluctant to accept Mishima's protagonist in Confessions of a Mask as himself. In response to such skepticism, Donald Keene has thoroughly researched the veracity of Mishima's first autobiography and concluded: 'the facts and incidents in this book, in so far as they can be verified, are all true, though incomplete and sometimes telescoped' (1996: 206). Apropos of this, we may consider the hero of Confessions of a Mask—albeit with some caution—to be Mishima.

2. Scholar Mark McLelland (2000) described the Japanese normative understanding of homosexuality as 'largely conflated with cross-dressing and transgenderism'.


Jaehne, Karen (1986) Schrader's 'Mishima': An Interview. Film Quarterly, (39) 3: 11-17.

Keene, Donald (1996) The Blue-Eyed Tarokaja: A Donald Keene Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press.

McLelland, Mark (2000) Male Homosexuality and Popular Culture in Modern Japan, Intersections, 3, January, Accessed: 16 August, 2007.

Mishima, Yukio (1958) Confessions of a Mask. Trans by Meredith Weatherby. New York: New Directions.

— (1973) Runaway Horses. Trans Michael Gallagher. Tokyo: Pocket Books.

— (1985) Sea of Fertility. Trans Michael Gallagher: New York: Penguin Books.

— (1970) Sun and Steel. Trans John Bester. New York: Kodansha International.

— (1971) Temple of the Golden Pavilion. New York: Berkley Medallion Books.

Napier, Susan (1989) Death and the Emperor: Mishima, Oe, and the Politics of Betrayal. The Journal of Asian Studies, 48 (1): 71-89.

Noguchi, Takehiko (1984) Mishima Yukio and Kita Ikki: The Aesthetics and Politics of Ultranationalism in Japan. Trans. Teruko Craig. Journal of Japanese Studies, 10 (2): 437-454.

Pollack, David (1985) Action as Fitting Match to Knowledge. Language and Symbol in Mishima's Kinkakuji. Monumenta Nipponica, 40 (4): 387-398.

Scott-Stokes, Henry (1974) The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. Toronto: Doubleday, Canada Ltd.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki (1972) Mishima Yukio and His Suicide. Modern Asian Studies, 6 (1): 1-16.

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About the author

Matthew Richard Chozick lives in Tokyo where he is writing his master's thesis on Haruki Murakami. Chozick returned to Japan after studying at Harvard University. His research interests include art reception, problems in applying Western theory to Eastern aesthetics, and the linguistic turn. Chozick has also worked as a freelance writer, critic, teacher, and translator.

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Copyright: Matthew Chozick
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