"Sun and Steel": The suicide of Yukio Mishima

In 1956, Yukio Mihsima had achieved his lifelong ambition to become a writer. He had to overcome various obstacles to do so, not the least of which was his father’s strenuous objections. Two years later, he would marry and eventually have two children. He should have every reason to continue living. Yet in his mind, he also had every reason to die. On 25 November 1970, at the age of 45, he committed seppuku or suicide by plunging a sword in his abdomen.

 

We shall try to examine the probable reasons that led to his suicide. In order to do so, we shall need to look at his childhood days in some detail.

 

 

PART I: THE ABNORMAL CHILDHOOD

He was the first of three children born on 14 January 1925 to Asuza Hiraoka, an official with Japan’s Fishery Department and Shizue Hashi, the daughter of a school principal. When he was forty nine days old, he was named Kimitake Hiraoka, a name which alluded to the paternal family’s aristocratic lineage. The next day, his paternal grandmother, Natsu Nagai, took him away from his parents to stay alone with her.

There may not be anything inherently strange about a child being brought up by his grandmother. But a grandparent would normally not want to shoulder the burden of looking after a grandchild by herself when the parents of the child are still around. To add to the mystery, the grandmother was also suffering from ill health. She had epilepsy attacks and sciatica, a sickness caused by pain from the spinal nerves. If she already had difficulty looking after herself and instead needed someone to look after her, how could she ever look after an infant?

One possible reason was that she wanted a companion to share her physical pain and despair. Another deeper reason was that she wanted to instil in him the sense of values that she believed were his birth right – not the lowly commoner that her family had been reduced to in recent times but as a Japanese noble lord from which she could trace her lineage.

She was descended from an illustrious samurai family since her paternal grandfather had been a daimyo or lord of a fief. The family even claimed that they were related by marriage to the Tokugawa government.

But she was a sickly and unstable person from a young age. She suffered from frequent fits of hysteria. As she was the eldest of twelve children, the others could not marry before her. So her parents hastily arranged her marriage to Jotaro Hiraoka, who was then the governor of Sakhalin. In 1914, he had to resign his post due to a scandal involving fishing licenses. He then ventured into various businesses but they all failed. This only served to worsen the wounded pride of his haughty and sickly wife.

She only allowed Kimitake to be away from her when he required feeding from his mother. His mother was understandably unhappy about losing custody of her first born child. But she had no support from her husband in this matter. Instead, he generally treated her coldly.

When another granddaughter, Mitsuko, and grandson, Chiyuki, were born, the grandmother showed no interest in them and did not take them under her wing. Kimitake was seldom at home and hardly got to know his sister and brother. He was not allowed to come out and play with the other children.

Shortly before he turned five years old, he vomited something black and went into a coma. His family began to get ready for what seemed to be inevitable. But the crisis passed during the night. It would take another week before he was fully recovered. However, he suffered recurring attacks almost monthly and required hospital stay each time. His condition began to improve only when he started attending school from the age of six. Perhaps he was relieved that he could temporarily escape the tug of war between the two women in his early life.

Such an abnormal upbringing during his formative years would leave its mark and darken his outlook for the rest of his life. When the pain form her sciatica was intense, she would scream long and loud for Kimitake to comfort her. But the effects were not entirely negative. She also introduced him to Kabuki theatre and instilled in him a longing for the Romantic past.

In March 1937 his grandmother finally relented and allowed him to return to his parents. By then, she was 62 years old and very ill. His grandfather had been trying to persuade her for the past year to release her grandson. The grandmother had less than two years to live before her death in January 1939 from haemorrhaging ulcers.

PART II: THE WRITER EMERGES

Kimitake Hiraoka had come home at the age of twelve. It took some time for his sister and brother to consider him as more than a guest in the house. He was aged twelve but physically, he looked more like an eight or nine years old.

His father was strict with his children but with Kimitake, he was tyrannical. Although he was now finally free to venture outdoors, he preferred to stay indoors, reading and writing. He discovered Wilde, Rilke and the Japanese classics. His father did not want him to be bookish which he considered as effeminate. It was as though he wanted to undo the effects of his early life with his grandmother.

In April 1937 he joined the White Birch School, a literature club. He submitted six poems to the club’s biannual journal and these were published in December 1937. The next issue contained his first short story entitled“Sorrel Flowers – A Memory of Youth.” These early writings clearly showed the influence of his grandmother. In 1941, he was asked to submit fiction to the literary magazine, Bungei-Bunka (Art and Culture). He contributed “A Forest in Full Flower” (Hanazakari no mori).

But the peaceful days were rapidly coming to an end. Japan entered the Second World War in December 1941. By late 1944, Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers began raiding Japan from the Marianas instead of from China. The shorter distances involved meant that the raids were getting more effective. In February 1945, Kimitake took his medical examination to join the Army. If he were accepted, it meant certain death. Given his frail health, it was not surprising that he failed the examination. In March 1945, there were fire raids over Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe. The war was officially over on 2 September 1945. In October 1945, his sister Mitsuko died of typhoid fever.

He studied law at the Imperial University (later renamed the University of Tokyo) and graduated in November 1947. He found a job at the Banking Bureau, Ministry of Finance. He lasted as a bureaucrat for only nine short months in 1948. In September 1948, while waiting for the train at the Shibuya station, he felt groggy and fell on the rail tracks. Some fellow passengers helped him climb back to the platform just in time. His father grudgingly agreed to let him become a full time writer. He took the pen name Yukio Mishima.

His first major novel was “Confessions of a Mask” (“Kamen no kokuhaku). It was a bestseller in 1949 with some 20,000 copies sold. Then came “Forbidden Colours Part I” (Kinjiki) in 1951, followed by “Forbidden Colours Part II” (Higyo) two years later. In 1954, he published “The Sound of Waves” (Shiosai). But it was the publication of “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (Kinkakuji) in 1956 that brought him to the peak of his fame. The novel was about a Zen Buddhist monk who burnt down his temple in order to free himself from his obsession with Beauty.  The book sold some 155,000 copies within two months. His elated publishers were encouraged to print a limited edition of 200 copies for sale at 2,500 Yen each, an unheard of price for a novel in those days.

In July 1955, Mishima began to take up body building. But he only concentrated on his upper torso and neglected his legs which remained skinny. By 1956, he had become an established writer. But his father was concerned that his younger son, Chiyuki, had already been married for three years and it was not proper for the elder son to remain unmarried. There were also rumours circulating that Mishima was a homosexual. If he got married, it might give the lie to these rumours. In 1958, it was arranged that he should marry Yoko Sugiyama, the daughter of Nei Sugiyama, a famous painter. However, the two families were not on speaking terms. The go-between was the famous novelist, Yasunari Kawabata, who had a most difficult job. In June 1959, a daughter, Noriko was born followed by a son, Ichiro, in May 1962.

In September 1965, rumours were rife that the Nobel Prize for Literature might be awarded to a Japanese writer. The evening paper, Asahi Shimbun, stated that Mishima was “a strong candidate” – along with perhaps ninety others! Instead, the Prize was won a Russian novelist, Mikhail Sholokhov. In October 1968, Mishima was again tantalised by reports that the Nobel Prize might be awarded to a Japanese writer. This time the winner was indeed a Japanese writer. Only it turned out to be Yasunari Kawabata instead of Mishima. Although Mishima was sorely disappointed, he wrote a congratulatory message that was published in theMainichi Shimbun. If Mishima did not win the Prize this time, it was extremely unlikely that the Prize would be awarded to another Japanese writer in the near future.

PART III: PREPARATIONS

Some people who knew Mishima felt that the loss of the Nobel Prize finalised his decision to commit suicide. If he had won the Prize, he would have benefitted from the exposure in the West and might have continued to live. However, given his fascination with Death from an early age, even if he had won the Prize, it was likely that that he would only have postponed his suicide.

The other indication that he was ready to end his life was literary. He completed his tetralogy of novels that comprised “The Sea of Fertility” (Hojo no umi). In March 1965, he had announced his cycle of four novels and estimated that it would take six years and some 3,000 words to complete. In the event, he completed it within five years and about 2,800 words. In September 1965, he began serialisation of the first volume, “Spring Snow” (Haru no yuki). This was followed in February 1967 by the second volume, “Runaway Horses” (Honba). The third volume, “The Temple of Dawn” (Akatsuki no tera) was published in September 1968 and the last volume,“The Decay of the Angel” (Tennion gosui) came out in 1970. The theme was that there were four rivers – the river of books, the river of theatre, the river of the body and the river of action. The four rivers were meant to flow into “The Sea of Fertility”.

In April 1967, he enlisted in the Army Self Defence Force (ASDF) and underwent 46 days of basic training. Possibly, he wanted to become a warrior, a samurai. He had his literary masterpiece. Now he only wanted a heroic death – kirijini, the samurai’s death in battle. After the training, he decided that it was necessary to take political action. He intended to form a civilian army similar to the Territorial Army to assist the ASDF to combat what he called “indirect aggression” from the Left. In November 1968, he formed the Shield Society (Tate no Kai) and recruited about forty members to defend the Emperor. In March and July 1969 he led groups of students to the ASDF Mount Fuji training camp for one month training course. By March 1970, the Society had recruited about one hundred men from five enlistments. The press dubbed it “Captain Mishima’s Toy Army.”

In March 1970, Mishima and his deputy, Masakatsu Morita, recruited Masayoshi Koga, better known as “Chibi Koga” or “tiny Koga” and Masahiro Ogawa to join them in their plans. The fifth member was Hiromasa Koga or Furu-Koga. They planned to occupy the Diet with the ASDF and demand revision of the Constitution. They would force the Ichigaya Division to assemble by either capturing the commandant or threatening to blow up their arsenal. They would then plead their case. Mishima would speak for thirty minutes and the others for about five minutes each. It was hoped that the Division would join them in the march on the Diet. The only weapons they planned to use were Japanese swords.

In June, Mishima made legal arrangements to transfer the rights of his novels “Confessions of a Mask” and“Thirst for Love” (Ai no Kawaka) to his mother, Shizue. Both novels had been written before his marriage so his wife, Yoko, had no grounds to complain. The first novel sold well but the second novel did poorly. So it could not be said that Mishima chose only the bestselling novels to give his mother.

His long autobiographical essay “Sun and Steel” (Taiyo to testu) was among his final works.

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