TOKYO – Yukio Mishima lived and died as a character in one of his turbulent plays. Today, 50 years after his death, Japan is still coming to terms with the legacy of one of its most influential and uncomfortable authors.
Mishima took his life by “harakiri” – self-disembowelment – on Nov. 25, 1970, after taking the captain of the headquarters of the Japanese Army hostage in Tokyo and failing his attempt to inspire a coup.
The gruesome death of the greatest Japanese cultural celebrity of his time overwhelmed the country, which the writer himself predicted: for years he repeatedly represented his suicide according to the ritual of the samurai through his novels, plays or films.
“He was very young and I did not understand the reason why he did it. It was a shock for me,” a 70-year-old Tokyoologist, who wanted to remain anonymous during her Thursday visit to Mishima’s grave in Tama’s cemetery, told EFE.
“The Japanese in which Mishima writes is very beautiful. The first thing that surprised me about his works is his beautiful language, that’s how I started to get fully into his books,” an 18-year-old who identified himself as Ohgota said. He made a pilgrimage to the author’s grave from southwest Tokyo.
Half a century after his death, there is no official act in memory of his figure in Japan, and few personalities from the world of politics and culture dare to praise him despite being one of the world’s best-known Japanese authors of the 20th century.
The dramatic end of his life, together with his political ideas and endless eccentricities, have since eclipsed his work, more translated into other languages than that of his contemporaries and Nobel laureates Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe.
During his speech to 1,000 military personnel that day, Mishima called for restoring the lost greatness of Imperial Japan and abolishing the pacifist articles of the constitution, the same one the ruling party reinterpreted in 2014 with a controversial initiative.
His harangue to the troops did not work, but for his fervent nationalism Mishima is still revered by ultra-conservative Japanese organizations, including one that organized a Shinto ceremony in his memory on Thursday in Tokyo.
The writer, whose real name was Kimitake Hiraoka, was born in 1925 in the Tokyo neighborhood of Yotsuya into a wealthy family, and during his career won the most prestigious Japanese awards and was repeatedly among the Literature Nobel Prize nominees.
At 16, he published his first story in a literary magazine, and in his 20s he achieved recognition with his novel “Confessions of a Mask,” where he explored the taboos of homosexuality and false appearances in the midst of a crisis of Japanese national identity after World War II.
He entered his 30s being a literary star after publishing “The Golden Pavilion,” but after the lukewarm reception of “Yoko’s House,” Mishima decided to try his luck as an actor, singer or model. He gave himself up to the practice of bodybuilding, kendo (martial art of the sword) and karate, boosting his media coverage.
At 45, hours before trying to mobilize Japanese troops, he sealed the last manuscript of his most extensive and ambitious work, the tetralogy “The Sea of Fertility,” in which he traces the turbulent history of Japan in the 20th century.
As a writer he penned 34 novels, 50 plays of genres ranging from kabuki and noh to contemporary works, 25 short story books, 35 essays and a film.
As passionate about classical antiquity as he was about samurai, his longing for old Japan caused him to label his postwar compatriots materialistic, “soft” and westernized.
Curiously, Mishima fascinated the West especially during the first decades after his death, when in his country he was a “cursed” alienated author labeled romantic or nihilistic, although today few Japanese people doubt his literary genius.
Mishima’s life and work were above all a product of the Japan of his time, a country straddling tradition and modernity, and between his warrior spirit and pacifism. Perhaps that is why his figure is so difficult to unravel for his own country.