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The Deadly Friendship of Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata

Damian Flanagan By Damian Flanagan Published on October 23, 2017

The strong friendship between Yukio Mishima (1925 -1970) and Yasunari Kawabata (1899 - 1972) - both world-famous novelists - was at the heart of the Japanese literary scene in the post-war decades, or so it seemed. Until the advent of Haruki Murakami as an international literary superstar in the 1990s, it was Mishima and Kawabata who defined what people thought about when they considered the novel in modern Japan.

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Yukio Mishima

Mishima - famously photographed in 1969 with bulked-up bodybuilder physique, sword in hand and bandana around his head - was the poster boy of an ultra-muscular aesthetic and his spectacular death by ritual suicide in 1970 caused headlines around the world.

Mishima was the author of iconic works such as his fearless novel of sexual revelation, Confessions of a Mask (1949), and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), his contemplation of the overwhelming and sometimes destructive power of imagination. His tetralogy The Sea of Fertility (serialized 1965 - 71) which attempted to transcend time itself by tracing the seeming reincarnations of the same person over succeeding generations, is one of the most important and monumental literary achievements of modern Japan.

Kawabata meanwhile was the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, famed for exquisite, precise novels such as Snow Country (1935-37), The Sound of the Mountain (1949-54) and The Master of Go (1951), all of which combine modern sensibilities with uniquely Japanese aesthetics. In contrast to the bulked-up ebullience of Mishima, he was a thin, wiry figure often pictured in Japanese dress.

What is not very well known however is that Mishima was Kawabata's protege, who would later go on to be instrumental in the downfall of his mentor.

Mishima first met Kawabata in January 1946, when as a virtually unknown 21-year-old aspiring author he called, nervously and reverentially, to the Kamakura home of the nationally famous 46-year-old Kawabata petitioning for his help in getting his stories published in some of the magazines with which Kawabata was connected.

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Mishima and Kawabata, 1968

When Kawabata lent his patronage, it was, in the words of Mishima's brother, like a "hand of God" lifting the then weakly youngster out of obscurity and making him a figure who started to attract notice in the Japanese publishing world. Eventually a publisher came to Mishima - still holding down a day job as a government bureaucrat - and commissioned him to write the novel, Confessions of a Mask, which would turn him into a national sensation, lauded in a newspaper article by Kawabata himself as "The Hope of 1950".

From that point on, Mishima did not look back and poured out a profusion of novels - literary and popular, many of which were instantly turned into films - as well as plays, short stories, criticism and memoirs. Throughout the 1950s his star rose ever higher. And always by his side was his mentor Kawabata, even calling round to his home to wish him "bon voyage" when Mishima departed on a round-the-world trip in 1951.

So close were the two, and so grateful was Mishima for the connection, that Mishima - though actually gay - casually suggested marrying Kawabata's adopted daughter in 1952. When Mishima eventually did marry another carefully picked girl in 1958, Kawabata acted as the official matchmaker.

Yet behind the scenes, what the world assumed to be the closest of friendships had been transformed into the most deadly of rivalries. 

When in 1968 it was announced that Kawabata had become the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mishima rushed to his home in Kamakura to congratulate him. And when Mishima spectacularly died by his own hand in 1970, Kawabata would give the eulogy at his funeral.

Yet behind the scenes, what the world assumed to be the closest of friendships had been transformed into the most deadly of rivalries. By the 1960s the master-pupil relationship had been turned on its head.

The effortlessly fecund Mishima - described by Kawabata as "the kind of genius who comes along perhaps once every 300 years" - was now a dominant figure on the literary landscape, no longer in need of any patronage. Kawabata on the other hand was increasingly dependent on sleeping pills and sometimes incapable of performing as a professional writer at all. When Kawabata was serializing his novel The House of the Sleeping Beauties in 1961, he was hospitalised and rather than suspend serialization it seems likely that he turned to Mishima to ghost-write for him.

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Mishima, a man of fantastic discipline who never missed a deadline in his life and who formed a dim view of anyone incapable of showing the same professionalism, steadily started to revise his opinion of Kawabata. In private, he described Kawabata's supposed masterpiece Snow Country as "trashy patchwork" and when asked what his favourite Kawabata novel was, replied, deadpan, The House of the Sleeping Beauties.

Mishima's ambitions were limitless. Being a literary superstar in Japan was not enough: he wished to conquer the world. After being mauled by Japanese critics in 1959 with the publication of Kyoko's House, the long novel he believed would "describe an age" and which would firmly establish him as a great writer, Mishima determined that he would make fools of Japanese critics by becoming the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He did everything possible to realise his ambition: courting international translators and publishers, charming diplomats, and even visiting Stockholm in preparation.

But in 1960 Mishima became embroiled in a controversy that would scupper his chances and open the door to the Nobel Prize to Kawabata. Mishima wrote a novel called After the Banquet which was a thinly veiled and unflattering portrait of a conservative politician. The politician sued for invasion of privacy, embroiling Mishima in a court case that would rumble on for years.

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Get it here.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, the rumour was that the Nobel Prize committee shied away from Mishima - later to become an iconic figure of right wing politics - because they mistakenly thought that he must be left wing due to his satirical portrait of a conservative politician.

Meanwhile Mishima tried to enlist Kawabata - as the head of the Japanese PEN (writers) Club - to write a letter of support affirming his right to freedom of speech. In return Kawabata shrewdly requested that Mishima write a letter supporting his candidature for the Nobel Prize. Subsequently Kawabata disingenuously claimed that he had no interest in winning the Prize which he finally landed - as a non-political representative of traditional Japanese aesthetics - in 1968.

With his chance for winning the Nobel Prize snatched from him, Mishima became increasingly consumed by the mental struggle to complete his monumental "life work", the tetraology The Sea of Fertility. Away from his creative work, he became obsessed with the idea that Japan might descend into civil war because of the anti-Vietnam student riots of 1968.

He formed his own private army and called for the revision of Japan's "Peace Constitution". Finally in 1970, in a bizarre incident, he took hostage a general at a military base and called for the army to rise up. When they derided him, he immediately committed ritual suicide by disembowelling himself before being beheaded by an attendant.

There were many reasons for Mishima's shocking death: political statement; the realisation of lifelong sadomasochist fantasies; a desire to die at the peak of his powers. But few could have felt the damning power of death more keenly than his lifelong mentor Kawabata.

Ironically, Kawabata was attending a funeral on the morning that news of the "Mishima Incident" reached him and he rushed to the military base still dressed in his mourning clothes. Two months later he would lead the mourning at Mishima's official funeral.

Kawabata was profoundly haunted by Mishima's death and within two years Kawabata himself was dead, gassing himself to death. Some maintained that he had died by accident, but it seems far more likely he died by design.

What happens when an older writer nurtures a younger talent that he eventually relies on like a crutch? What happens when that younger talent grows like a monster and overwhelms the older talent, who secretly resents him and hides behind empty accolades?

The fascinating psychological tussle between Mishima and Kawabata is not only a key story in the evolution of modern Japanese literature, but one of the most fascinating love-hate relationships in literary history. 

Featured image via Homo Literatus


Author, critic, satirist. Writing for The Japan Times, The Irish Times and The Daily Express. Books include, "The Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London", and "Yukio Mishima".