Yukio Mishima’s life and death present us with a paradigm of the cultural ambivalence that has beset Japan since the country was opened to the West in the late nineteenth century, after 250 years of isolation. By “cultural ambivalence,” I mean the ongoing struggle to find an authentic stance and voice in the modern world by reconciling native values and sensibilities anchored in tradition on the one hand, and Western modes of being in the world on the other. This quest for synthesis of two often irreconcilable cultures has produced a recurrent malaise, akin to a national identity crisis, which continues to shape much of Japanese behavior today. Kenzaburo Oe, who still hates Mishima implacably, spoke of this dilemma in his 1994 Nobel Laureate address. Oe said, in English, “My observation is that after 120 years of modernization since the opening of the country, present-day Japan is split between two opposite poles of ambiguity. I too am living as a writer with this polarization imprinted on me, like a deep scar.”

Mishima, whose lifestyle was irrepressibly Western, at least on the surface, voiced the same lament in his own way again and again. On November 25, 1970, he delivered cultural ambivalence the final coup de grâce when he committed suicide in the most Japanese way imaginable, by hara-kiri. At 10:50 that morning, he visited the commandant of the Tokyo battalion of a self-defense force, on the pretext of showing him an antique Japanese sword. He was accompanied by four cadets from his private army, the Shield Society, pledged to defend the emperor. At a prearranged signal, the cadets seized and bound the general, and Mishima ordered him to assemble the troops in the courtyard below. Just before noon, he stepped out on the balcony and delivered a short speech, appealing to the soldiers to join him and his men in death as true men and as samurai, in a battle against a postwar democracy that had deprived Japan not only of its army but also of its soul. The soldiers booed and jeered. After seven minutes, Mishima stepped inside again and cut himself open with a sword. At his grunted signal, his second-in-command, who was also his lover, beheaded him and then committed hara-kiri himself.

Mishima’s death was problematic, and remains so. In the biography I wrote shortly after he died, I argue that his suicide had been driven by the longing for death that he’d been in touch with, and intermittently terrified by, since his childhood, and that the patriotism he formulated during the last ten years of his life was essentially a sham—a device that enabled him to achieve the warrior’s death at the heart of a homoerotic fantasy that he had fully conceived by the time he was twelve. I found evidence to support this view in much of what he wrote, even as a teenager. And I remain persuaded that his final act was, at least in part, private and erotic rather than public and patriotic. That said, having spent time studying Japanese history since I wrote the book, I see now that in my determination to account for the suicide in terms of personal pathology, I failed to see, or to take seriously, its larger social significance.

Mishima’s life was flamboyantly Western in style and manners. He dressed in classy Italian suits and smoked Cuban cigars. When he built his house in 1958, he told his architect that he wanted to sit in a Rococo chair in jeans and an aloha shirt. The result was a mélange of Greek statuary and French period furniture that looked like a movie set and disconcerted many Japanese who received invitations to his cocktail parties on Tiffany stationery. One night, soon after we got to know each other, I was sitting in his house late at night and he asked meinquired, somewhat abruptly, if I’d seen Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. When I said yes, he asked me to examine a pair of jeans that he’d been working on with sandpaper and give him a definitive verdict on whether he had achieved the Brando look. He dashed out of his study, leaving me stunned, and returned wearing the jeans; when I told him he was the spittin’ image of Marlon, he beamed with a smile of immense pleasure.

Mishima was, in many ways, infatuated with Western styles and modes, and he was of course an avid reader of all kinds of Western writers, including Gide and Cocteau, Novalis, Henry Miller and Fitzgerald, and Truman Capote and Hemingway, both of whom he admired extravagantly, in the kind of paradox for which he was famous. At the same time, he had a prodigious knowledge and understanding of the entire canon of classical Japanese literature, and could write fluently and beautifully in the language of the Heian Court or the medieval period. In fact, by the time he was a teenager, he had conceived a vision of himself as the final heir to the tradition of classical Japanese beauty. This exalted vision informed a hundred-page story called “A Forest in Full Flower,” which he wrote in 1941 at the age of sixteen. It was a dazzling tour de force, written in the elaborate style of The Tale of Genji, and it left the adults who were his mentors and champions speechless with admiration. Here is the youthful narrator:

Now beauty is a gorgeous runaway horse, but there was a time when it was reined in and stood quivering in its tracks, and neighing at the misty morning sky. The horse was clean and pure then, graceful beyond compare. Now severity has let go the reins, and the horse runs headlong, stumbles, its flanks caked with mud. Yet there are times, even now, when a man is endowed with the eyes to see the phantom of an immaculate white horse. It is just such a man that our ancestors are searching for. Gradually, they will come to abide in him.

Mishima was, of course, talking about himself.

The war years, particularly the firebombing of Tokyo in 1944 and 1945, fanned the flames of his fantasy of beauty and death and privileged destiny. As he would later reflect with the wonderful clarity he often had about himself, “The narcissism at the border separating adolescence from adulthood will make  use of anything for its own ends. At twenty, I was able to fancy myself as a genius destined for an early death, as a decadent among decadence, even as beauty’s kamikaze squad.” In 1949, Mishima established himself as a best-selling author with Confessions of a Mask, a chronicle of his homosexual awakening, which was in part an attempt to disempower his obsession with erotic death by accounting for it clinically and diagnosing it away. In 1951, he set out on his first trip to the West and embarked on his classical period, a conscious effort, fueled by superhuman discipline, to put death behind him once and for all. The first entry in the diary of his journey indicates his determination to become a new man:

Sun, sun, perfect sun, today I did not watch the sunset. Having spent the day gazing lovestruck at the sun, I had no heart to see her in her ancient feeble makeup. In my boyhood, I felt that the sunset was the only justification for the sun’s existence. As I bared myself to the sun today, I felt throughout my body the joy of release from the oversensitive stubbornness of my youth.

On his return from this trip, during which he visited New York and Rio (where he misbehaved somewhat) and then finally Greece, Mishima began the regimen of weightlifting that he continued for the rest of his life and that transformed him from a scrawny weakling, whose nickname at school had been Asparagus, into the muscle man that you see in some of Eikoh Hosoe’s wonderful photographs.

As evidence of his rehabilitation, Mishima wrote The Sound of Waves, his best-selling book ever (from which several films have been made), his only love story that was neither perverted nor sardonic. Ten years later, while I was translating and had the good fortune to spend many evenings at Mishima’s home, I began a rhapsody about this book, which I’d just read, running on a bit about the purity and the innocence of the fisher-boy and the diving-girl and so on. I shall never forget how Mishima watched me. When I had finally concluded my rhapsody, he said, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, “That was a joke I played on my readers. A lie.” And then he closed his eyes and did a sort of gesture as if he were writing the book with his eyes closed. It was a mortifying moment for me. By that time, he was already back in the grip of the death-ridden romanticism he had worked so hard to exorcise, and was moving rapidly in the direction that would end with his suicide. “Today, I no longer believe in that ideal known as classicism,” he wrote in his diary in 1963, “and I have already begun to feel that youth, and the flowering of youth, are foolishness. What remains is the concept of death, the only truly enticing, truly vivid, truly erotic concept.” For all I know, that twenty-six-year-old, that classicist who felt about himself that he was as close as possible to life, was a dissembler, a fraud.

In July 1968, Mishima published an article entitled “In Defense of Culture,” an elaborate disquisition on identity. He argued that the Japanese were Japanese by virtue of Japanese culture, that the emperor was the source of culture, specifically that His Imperial Majesty was the emanating source of miyabi, a value in Japanese classical aesthetics that is usually defined as “courtly elegance,” as epitomized in The Tale of Genji. In Mishima’s singular definition, miyabi was the essence of court culture and the people’s longing for that essence. If the Japanese ever hoped to regain their connection to the aesthetic quality that defined them, he believed they must protect the emperor at any cost. Here, for the final time, Mishima evoked the longing for connection to the cultural past, and specifically to the traditional beauty of the past, which he had first expressed as a young man in “A Forest in Full Flower.”

It’s important to realize that Mishima was not alone in his sense of discontinuity with a defining past. The terrorism on both the Right and the Left that characterized the 1960s, following the renewal of the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty, was evidence of a growing national uneasiness in the aftermath of the MacArthur constitution imposed on Japan during the occupation. And if American democracy was proving to be a not entirely satisfactory substitute for wartime values, neither was the frantic pursuit of gross national product that was being promulgated as the new national mission. By the late ’60s, Japan’s company man, the cog in the wheel of the economic miracle, was tired, hemmed in, too busy to take his annual one-week vacation, and beginning to wonder why life was affording him so little gratification, despite his hard work and new prosperity. Something was missing. The emerging consumer class was finding that the acquisition of wealth and property was not, after all, a goal worth living for. Asked what that goal might be, no one would have answered: “a reconnection with traditional beauty achieved by a warrior’s death.” Nonetheless, the uncertainty about his own existence that  Mishima increasingly suffered was endemic in Japan. Unquestionably, Mishima’s suicide was personal and idiosyncratic, fully comprehensible only in the light of his lifelong erotic fantasies. At the same time, it should be understood as an unbearably lucid and apposite expression of a national affliction: the agony of cultural disinheritance.

One final word about Mishima’s place in Japan today. The government and the public were furious and chagrined at the Mishima incident, which came just as Japan was re-emerging on the global scene as a major world economy. By 1980, except by a small number of Mishima worshippers on the far Right, he had been largely forgotten. Recently he has been rediscovered, and there is a full-scale Mishima boom in progress. In November 2000, on the thirtieth anniversary of his suicide, his publisher released the first volume of a new forty-two-volume Complete Works of Yukio Mishima. So far, the first fourteen of the major novels have appeared, and each volume has sold between five and six thousand copies at a price of fifty dollars a book. This is an astonishing statistic: book sales in Japan are currently at an all-time postwar low. There’s an explanation for this. By 1988, the global economy had created unprecedented affluence in Japan, and the Japanese were disporting themselves like the princes of the known universe. In 1990, the economy took a sharp fall, from which it has yet to recover. By the middle of the decade, familiar troubling questions about identity and the purpose of life were in the air again, and a brash new nationalism was emerging. It seems clear that this environment has disposed Japanese readers to reassess Mishima, and to find meaning for themselves in his work and his final act, evidence that he understood their current plight and might even serve as a beacon to guide them out of confusion and disheartenment toward a rediscovery of self.