Actor and author Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) is a homoerotic masculine icon in Japan and abroad. Despite lifelong ambiguity concerning his sexual orientation, Mishima is remembered for his fascination with sado-masochistic homosexual themes, his approach to life as performance, his accessorizing of Japanese folk tradition, and the manner of his death. His 1949 novel Confessions of a Mask was the first internationally known novel dealing with homosexuality in modern Japan. Mishima gained additional legendary status by committing seppuku (ritual suicide) after leading an unsuccessful attempt to take over the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
“Mishima Yukio” was a pseudonym used by Hiraoka Kimitake, who was born in Tokyo and had a tumultuous childhood. His father bullied him, and his neurotic paternal grandmother who watched over him fought with his mother for his affections. Isolated from other children, he spent much of his free time reading and writing poetry and stories.
As a young man, Mishima became obsessed with masculinity, and he took up weightlifting, martial arts, and boxing. He made a name for himself internationally as a writer, playwright, actor, director, model, and Japanese nationalist. In 1968, Mishima organized a private militia called the Shield Society (Tatenokai) dedicated to restoring values of pre-war Japan, including veneration of the emperor. In November 1970, the Shield Society attempted to take over the headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Force. When this failed, Mishima and Morita Masakatsu, a student leader of the Shield Society, committed ritual suicide.
The Homoerotic Closet
Mishima frequented Gay bars in Tokyo and had sexual relationships with men. Married to a woman and the father of two children, he never publicly acknowledged his male lovers. Mishima was closeted (he did not want his same-sex romantic relationships known), and closeted identities abound in his writings. Mishima’s works have homoerotic elements central to the narratives, despite the officially heteronormal frame in which Mishima constructed his life.
In some ways, Mishima’s most homoerotic expressions were his own self-portraits as the epitome of Japanese masculinity, images that border on the homoerotic. He posed for almost nude photographs in bondage as Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows, and accessorized symbols of masculinity in photography and film as a policeman, pilot, and soldier. He is most famous, however, for portraying himself as a fantasy warrior flexing his muscles while wielding a samurai sword and wearing nothing more than a traditional headband (Japanese: hachimaki) and loincloth (fundoshi). There is even a series of photographs in which he enacts committing seppuku in the headband/loincloth outfit.
The precarious balance he struck between his insistence that he be considered Straight, while insinuating that he was Gay, continues to resonate at the fringes of the sexual orientation spectrum of the LGBTQ folk movement such as MSM (men who have sex with men, but may not consider themselves Gay), an identity that carries strong erotic appeal for some members of the LGBTQ community.
Mishima was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize, and his works are considered landmarks of twentieth-century literature. He wrote forty novels, twenty books of short stories, eighteen plays, and numerous books of essays. Much of his work reflects his lifelong fascination with sexuality, death, and romantic agony.
The book that established him as a novelist of international proportions was Confessions of a Mask (1948, first English publication 1958) a semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up in a militaristic Japan who develops a façade or mask to hide his homosexuality. The protagonist becomes progressively more estranged from himself. He also associates sexuality with violence, and his first sexual experience happens after viewing a painting of St. Sebastian pierced with arrows. The fact that Mishima had himself photographed in that same iconographic representation of Sebastian’s martyrdom once again illustrates Mishima’s flirtation with the possibility of coming out, but steadfastly refusing to do so officially.
The title of Mishima’s novel Forbidden Colors (1953; first English edition 1968) is a Japanese euphemism for homosexuality and may also be translated as “Forbidden Desires” or “Forbidden Love.” The novel is notable for its detailed depiction of the Tokyo Gay scene, and the term “forbidden colors” has been adopted by numerous Gay businesses, web sites, etc.
Mishima in Theater and Film
Mishima worked as an actor and director. He wrote plays, both contemporary and in the traditional Japanese forms of noh and kabuki. His best-known noh play is Yukoku, which eerily prefigures his own death. The story involves a general who tries to incite a coup, and commits dual suicide with his wife when it fails. It was filmed in 1966 with Mishima playing the general.
Mishima acted in several other films, including the bizarre detective thriller Kurotokage (“Black Lizard,” 1969), which features the drag queen icon Miwa Akihiro (b. Maruyama Akihiro) as a murderous jewel thief who kills, embalms, and stores her victims (Mishima plays one of her human statues).
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (directed by Paul Schrader) is a highly stylized work that aims to give the viewer a sense of Mishima’s life and legacy. However, Schrader has been criticized for largely ignoring Mishima’s sexuality. The one explicitly homoerotic segment was removed when the film was played on Japanese television.
Lilly, Mark. “Yukio Mishima: Confessions of a Mask,” pp. 127-143 in Gay Men’s Literature in the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University, 1993.
Mishima, Yukio. Confessions of a Mask, trans. Meredith Weatherby. New York: New Directions, 1958.
Scott-Stokes, Henry. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. New York: Noonday, 2005.
Stars, Roy. Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence, and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1994.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Dir. Paul Schrader. Warner Brothers, 1985. Criterion Collection, 2008.