Yukio Mishima Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Mishima was a writer of great power, whose life became a performance, ultimately a tragic performance. At the time of his suicide, he was widely regarded as a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Early Life

Yukio Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka in Tokyo, Japan, on January 14, 1925. His father was Azusa Hiraoka, a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture. His mother was Shizue (Hashi) Hiraoka. Because of his father’s position, the boy was able to attend the prestigious Gakushuin (the Peers’ School). He proved a fine scholar and was cited for excellence by the emperor himself. During his schoolboy days, his complex nature was already evident. He was a gentle, bookish child, with a delicate constitution. Nevertheless, he was drawn to stories that portrayed the valiant deaths of warriors or their ritual suicides. This fascination with ritualized death persisted throughout his work and life.

Mishima began to write at an early age and was publishing short stories in the magazine Bungei Bunka (literary culture) before the age of sixteen. In 1944, he entered the University of Tokyo to undertake the study of law. He was graduated in 1947, but his education was briefly interrupted by his conscription into the army in February, 1945. He saw no action in the closing months of the war, and his period of active service was short. Still, it was to affect him profoundly in the years to come. In Taiyō to tetsu (1968; Sun and Steel, 1970), he describes the process by which his personal philosophy of physical prowess and the beauty of violent death began to emerge as he underwent the rigors of military training. In 1947, he received a position in the Ministry of Finance, but he resigned it in the following year to devote himself exclusively to writing.

Life’s Work

While he was still a schoolboy, Mishima met Yasunari Kawabata, who was to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. The elder writer not only served as a literary influence but also became a lifelong friend. Mishima’s decision to use a pseudonym may have been prompted by the subject matter of his first, and very successful, novel, Kamen no kokuhaku (1949; Confessions of a Mask, 1958), an autobiographical tale of a shy, sensitive young man who is wrestling with his homosexual and sadomasochistic impulses. Critics have suggested that this novel set the tone for the rest of Mishima’s fiction: He had adopted not only a new name but also a new personality. Henceforward, he would mask his timidity, vulnerability, and aestheticism with an arrogant, even a provocative, persona. While retaining the love for fine prose and for the Japanese and Western classics that he had shared with Kawabata, he began to affect a strident manliness. He sought the ideal of male beauty and, through a regimen of weight lifting, transformed his puny physique. He studied boxing and karate until he achieved proficiency in both. He made himself into an excellent swordsman and imbibed deeply the tradition of the samurai.

Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Mishima produced a succession of critically acclaimed novels, including Shiosai (1954; The Sound of Waves, 1956), Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1959), Utage no ato (1960; After the Banquet, 1963), and Gogo no eikō (1963; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, 1965). On June 1, 1958, he married Yoko Sugiyama. He eventually became the father of two children—a daughter, Noriko, and a son, Iichiro.

Mishima was prolific in genres other than the novel. He wrote many short stories, most of which are uncollected or collected in Japanese editions only. A collection in English translation, Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories, appeared in 1966. Among the stories in this volume is one of Mishima’s most celebrated, “Yūkoku” (“Patriotism ”), the haunting and prophetic story of a young army officer and his wife. When a group of his close friends rebel against their military command, he is torn by his loyalty...

(The entire section is 3,243 words.)