Mishima Yukio’s ‘Sex which is not One’

published in Poetica, Issue 67

Rio Otomo


Mishima Yukio, the author of Confessions of a Mask [Kamen no kokuhaku, 1949), completed the manuscript of the forth volume of The Sea of Fertility [Hōjō no umi, 1971] just before he attempted a civilian’s coup d’état which ended in his seppuku suicide on November 25 1970. By closely reading passages from Runaway Horses [Honma, 1969], the second volume of the tetralogy, this paper re-examines Mishima’s definition of masculinity and the ways in which it plays a role in imagining a modern subject. The passages in question describe a dream scene in which protagonist Isao, a young swordsman, turns into a woman. Mishima’s descriptions of ‘being a woman’ have a striking affinity to those written by French feminist, Luce Irigaray, in her canonical feminist text, ‘The “Mechanics of Fluids”’ in This Sex which is not One (1985). While the feminine is initially placed in opposition to the masculine in Irigaray’s text, it engulfs the precepts of the latter and collapses the binary opposition which foregrounds ‘Western metaphysical tradition’. When Mishima imagines the ‘unadulterated’ Japanese subject to be anti-Western, and therefore, anti-modern, this subject is inevitably placed outside the realm of logos and reason. Figuratively, this subject becomes a woman. I draw on queer theory to discuss the complex textual effects of Mishima’s writing.


Poststructuralist thinkers argue that the Self has no clear-cut boundaries, and that the subject stands on unstable ground. Michel Foucault posits the view that the Self is, in modernist discourses, constituted as a subject only in relation to itself, in which process the Other is incorporated to be part of the Self.[1] Jacques Lacan emphasises that subject formation takes place through the mediation of the absolute Other.[2] Lacan’s use of the term Other indicates a position that cannot be incorporated as part of the whole by the Self, while being a crucial agent that helps the Self enter the symbolic order to become a subject. We note that the Self is viewed as one that is discursively produced in both Foucaut and Lacan, although the position of the Other, which I focus in reading Mishima’s text, slightly differs between them.

The so-called ‘third-wave’ (or postmodern) feminist critics[3] take the same view, provoking radical feminists’ disapproval.[4] The latter argue that without first establishing woman’s identity there is no way of reclaiming her rights, and that the former approach is too intellectual to disseminate into the wider feminist movements. For postmodern feminist thinkers it is essential to renounce the modernist paradigm in which the Self is imagined as a fixed entity in which the body is governed by the authority of mind. While earlier feminists saw sex as biologically determined and gender as cultural category imposed on the sexed body, the third-wave feminists postulate that when the self is seen as a discursive construct, there is no need to perceive the body as the raw matter on which socio-cultural names can be imprinted for the purpose of categorisation, and they argue that the sex-gender distinction does not effectively serve any purpose. From this position they seek for new ways of recognising other bodies without categorising them according to sex or gender, in other words, without imposing the modernist ‘imperialism’ on one’s body. It is on this point that queer theory converges with postmodern feminism.[5]

This shift in paradigm has significant implications for literary criticism.[6] When a feminist literary analysis is undertaken within the modern discourse of sexual identity, it will assume that actual men and women are represented in literary texts, and that their socially constructed gender differences are there to be uncovered. The problem with this approach manifests itself when a text is written to defy the concept of representation, let alone gender representation. Like pre-modern narratives, post-modern novels, including the novels of magic realism, are not concerned with such realist obsessions as representing the real world. The Sea of Fertility belongs to the post-modern paradigm, where concepts such as representation, identity and truth are negated, and my attempt in this paper is to grasp such moments of negation and negotiation. In his earlier novels, both in Confessions of a Mask [kamen no kokuhaku, 1949] and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion [kinkakuji, 1956], Mishima used the conventional discourse of gender in presenting the psychological complexity of an alienated man, the central (anti-)hero of the modern novel. It must be noted that even in narrativising homosexuality in the first text, his transgression did not go as far as to cross or even blur the existing boundaries of gender.[7] All women in the latter text are rendered mute, as the self-alienated male subject speaks of his struggle within the phallogocentric order.[8] Whichever view of subject formation we take, Foucault or Lacan, mute women exist in these novels as the Other, the position that enables the central male subject to be himself. Mishima’s desire to create a modern subject that is as deep in psyche as his Western counterpart is clearly pursued in these novels, and women take part in achieving his goals.

In writing The Sea of Fertility, however, he discards this novelistic convention and attempts to reinvent a new storytelling that carries the richness of the pre-modern, while still positioning the novel’s gaze with a modern man, Honda, as the observer/outsider of the stories of reincarnation. Mishima produces here conventional binary settings, complicates them and blurs the boundaries, which I would call his ‘queering’ textual strategy. Queerness in this context recovers the fluidity of a Self and may even point the novel form in a new direction. In the latter half I discuss the limits of Mishima’s queering strategy, by pointing out the aspect of his writing in which desire is re-directed towards the self (or the sameness), hence avoiding an encounter with the absolute otherness.

Becoming a woman: Re-assignment of the feminine

The Sea of Fertility features the life of four beautiful youths who die at the age of twenty in each volume, the implication being that the latter three are reincarnations of the first hero. The hero of the second volume is Isao, a young nationalist kendō champion who commits seppuku suicide after a failed political coup. Isao is depicted, through Honda’s gaze, as a beautiful virgin with a pure heart and incomparable will to action. Honda’s almost feverish pursuit for the proof of reincarnation (also a narrative strategy) is motivated by his love that cannot speak its name, his desire for the first hero who has now returned to him, being literally embodied in Isao’s body. Walking up a mountain path, Honda encounters a view of Isao bathing under a waterfall. Three moles on Isao’s body sends the exact message that Honda wanted to read – the presence of the first hero before his eye. The body of Isao is thus narrativised from the beginning as that of a woman, the veiled object which is to be pursued by the male gaze of the text.

Following the first coup attempt, Isao is arrested. During one of his long nights in prison, Isao dreams of turning into a woman. Although this episode functions as a prophecy of the next reincarnation, a young Thai princess, the description of Isao’s becoming a woman conveys more messages than is necessary for a lead into the following volume.

[Isao] felt as if the world had been turned inside out … his flesh had lost definite form, turned into flesh that was soft and swaying. He was filled with a mist of soft, languid flesh. Everything became vague. Wherever he searched, he could find no order or structure. There was no supporting pillar… Comfort and discomfort, joy and sorrow – all alike slid over his skin like soap. Entranced, he soaked in a warm bath of flesh. The bath by no means imprisoned him. He could step out whenever he liked, but the languid pleasure kept him from abandoning it, so that staying there forever, not choosing to go, had become his ‘freedom.’ Thus there was nothing to define him, to keep him under strict control. What had once wound itself tightly round and round him like a rope of platinum had slipped loose. (Mishima, 1985: 449-50)[9]

While Isao is determined to banish the memory of the dream, he cannot deny the fact that the sensation he felt was not thoroughly disagreeable. The feminine is defined here as freedom from the restrictions not only of body but also of mind:

Everything he had so firmly believed in was meaningless. Justice was like a fly that had tumbled into a box of face powder and smothered; beliefs for which he had meant to offer up his life were sprayed with perfume and melted. All glory dissolved in the mild warmth of mud… Sparkling snow had melted away entirely. He felt the uncertain warmth of spring mud within him. Slowly something took form from that spring mud, a womb. Isao shuddered as the thought came to him that he would soon give birth. His strength had always spurred him with violent impatience towards action, had always responded to a distant voice that conjured up the image of a vast wilderness. But now, that strength had left him. The voice was silent. The outer world, which no longer called to him, now, rather, was drawing closer to him, was touching him. (Mishima, 1985: 450)

A womb-like zone – comfort and pleasure ‘inside’ the skin – is within him. The body has now lost its contour, and a smell of ‘decaying seaweed,’ ‘an entirely organic odour’ has permeated this body. But whose voice are we hearing in this passage? Is there a speaking agent in this formless body? Judith Butler contends that there is no pre-existing agent behind performance, and that rather, the agent is an effect of performance (Butler 1993:30). [10] The voice of Mishima’s text speaks from the no-man’s land that lies between man and woman, and the owner of that voice is what Butler calls a ‘linguistic effect’, the image projected on the surface of the body in the bath. Through this transgender narrative Mishima destabilises the authority of a speaking subject, first and foremost that of male sex.

Let us read further the carnivalesque space which Mishima produces in this passage, in which the realm of the feminine undermines the said order. The woman-like being in the bath is overwhelmed by the sense of eternal pleasure, jouissance, and a division between subject and object disappears in her. There seems no scope of binaries conceived in her realm.

Justice, zeal, patriotism, aspirations for which to hazard one’s life – all had vanished. In their place came an indescribable intimacy with the things around him… Things clung to [Isao] like paste, and, at the same time, lost all their transcendental significance. Trying to arrive at some goal was no longer a problem. Everything was arriving here from elsewhere. Thus there was no longer a horizon, no longer any islands. And with no perspective at all evident, voyages were out of the question. There was only the endless sea. (Mishima, 1985: 450)

This new imagery of woman as a formless, all-inclusive existence like the endless sea is a considerable shift from the way in which Mishima depicts women in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The central character of that text, Mizoguchi, finds women’s corporeality incongruous to the spiritual value embodied in the beauty of the Golden Temple, which was handed down to him by his late father. All women – his mother; the woman who rejects him; the prostitute who accepts him; the pan-pan girl who accuses him – stir anger and hostility in him. The world of the Mother and that of the Father are clearly marked in black and white; there is no room for negotiation or switching positions between the two. Mizoguchi’s narrative indeed takes place within a strictly Oedipalised and regulated space. In contrast Isao’s dream scene presents a different narrativisation of the feminine, the one that posits a powerful antithesis to the ruling regime of the Symbolic order. The she-man, Isao, is without skin or body contour, and thus no longer demarcating himself as an autonomous and unified subject. He instead feels being part of the endless sea. This passage is one of the rare occasions in which Mishima makes a reference to the title of the tetralogy. He sexes the sea, as it were, and makes it fertile.

It must be noted again, however, that this woman-thing does not embody an actual woman. It represents a position, the domain outside the speaking subject, and a linguistic effect of a particular discourse which belongs to Western philosophical tradition. Luce Irigaray points out in Speculum of the Other Woman (1985) that Western thought has presented itself as pure reason that uses body as metaphor or figure. The woman and her non-male body are placed as the Other in Western metaphysics (Irigaray 1985b:136). Mishima in this passage reasserts this tradition by using gender difference as figure. Indeed, Mishima’s definition of masculinity described below shares Foucault’s critique of the modern subject, one that is autonomous and unified, being endowed with a will to power, the central agent produced by Western thought.

[Isao] had never wished for anything else but to be a man, live in a manly way, die a manly death. To be thus a man was to be required to give constant proof of one’s manliness – to be more a man today than yesterday, more a man tomorrow than today. To be a man was to forge ever upward towards the peak of manhood, there to die amid the white snows of that peak. But to be a woman? It seemed to mean being a woman at the beginning and being a woman forever. (Mishima, 1985a: 450)

This passage describes the feminine as a state of nature and the masculine as what one is obliged to construct and perform on it. The feminine/masculine dichotomy is analogous to the nature/culture or matter/form binary oppositions. Figure 1 below demonstrates how vocabulary is used to construct gender specificities in the passage. Figure 1 .Gender descriptions in Isao’s dream

Woman vague, formless, melting, dissolving, mild warmth, mud, inaction, silent, touching, loose, organic, permeation, intimacy, clinging, meaningless, endless, sea
Man definitive form, fortified, impatient, action, strength, wilderness, distant call, tight, steel, justice, zeal, patriotism, aspirations, meaningful, departure, goal, horizon, voyage

In failing to become a man, as Isao contemplates, one remains a woman. Thus, the text accords with Irigaray’s assertion of a matter-form binary: to be a subject is to be other than matter (Irigaray, 1985: 176). For Irigaray a phallic subject imagines itself to be that which ‘forms, represents and systematises’ the matter which is in itself ‘formless, inert, passive’ and in the position of the Other (Colebrook, 2004: 200).

Throughout the dream scene Mishima appears to be re-assigning the feminine to a more positive notion than before, to a haven outside the law of the Father, in which one is promised eternal jouissance. By accepting this new assignment, however, we remain in the set binary that enforces the Western metaphysical apparatus which produces a symbolic (phallic) subject at the expense of the female body. Body-mind dualism creates a male subject through language by assuming its property to be something other than the feminine. Women are then again made to become constitutive of male-centred subject formation, and Mishima’s queering falls short of deconstructing binaries.

Isao leads a stoic life and performs seppuku suicide – a death in control – demonstrating his strong will to power. Should Isao be a woman, a seaweed-like organic non-subject, he would be without the determination that leads him to death. It is imperative that Isao should recover his control; he does so by calling his dream a nightmare:

Though the sensation that he had been transformed into a woman had persisted in his dream, he could not recall the point at which the course of the dream had shifted so that he seemed to be gazing at the body of a woman… And this confusion was the source of his disturbed feeling. Furthermore, though it was a woman… whom he had defiled, he, the defiler, strangely enough could not rid himself of the vivid sensation that he had felt before, that the whole world was turned inside out. (Mishima, 1985: 451)

Isao shifts back from a non-subject position to the owner of the gaze that looks upon the body of a woman. And yet, this woman is Isao himself. Isao first transformed his body into that of a woman to experience jouissance, of which he now speaks from his male subject position. He becomes simultaneously a speaking subject and a fleeting beauty who takes the place of a woman, the position of the Other that intervenes with subject formation. Isao in the dream scene represents a possibility of imagining a queer subjectivity in which one is expressive, fluid and inclusive, but Mishima does not pursue that possibility. Mishima’s erotic (and aesthetic) ideals are at odds with a speaking subject, and in his view the object of desire retains its sacred position only by relinquishing subjectivity. Isao is therefore, again deprived of language when he awakes from the dream, and Honda takes over the narration, spinning his words to describe Isao, the object of his desire.

Honda is a man of reason, a judge by profession, for whom Isao’s body is a site of jouissance. The young hero of the first volume, whose memory Honda now projects onto Isao, was a ‘shining, forever unchanging, beautiful non-willing particle’, a core reincarnating agent (Mishima, 1985: 372). The description ‘a forever unchanging, beautiful non-willing particle’ matches the definition of the woman-like being in Isao’s dream. Mishima turns Isao, the imperious swordsman with an ability to mobilise others, into a ‘beautiful non-willing particle,’ and he does so by imbuing Isao with an illogical (almost hysterical) drive to rush into death. Isao is thus made the most desirable object of the text, representing the masculine ideals peculiar to Mishima, a masculinity without logos and reason, to which point I return later.

Autoerotic desire: I want to become the obuje that I look at

I have argued that Mishima set up in the dream scene the masculine and the feminine binary oppositions, having Isao embody two sets of values. Let us further investigate the structure of desire within the text. Isao is a vehicle of complex textual relations and a narrative device that drives Mishima’s storytelling. Isao’s body is gazed upon as the Lacanian objét petit a which is metonymically replaced endlessly without harking back to the original.[11] Metonymy, unlike metaphor, does not require an original meaning (or the Truth) to be imbued in the word in replacing the previous one. There is no depth in this word play of metonymy but only an endless sequence of words. The reincarnation theme of the tetralogy provides the perfect structural tools for a never-ending story in which the body of reincarnation is being metonymically replaced without revealing the migrating core substance. There is no such thing as the original (or the Truth), if one sees that the first hero was also constructed by Honda’s desire, as the old Abbess (the lover of the first hero) implies at the very end of The Sea of Fertility.[12] Any possibility of imagining a subject would be doomed in this metonymical narrative structure. Indeed, one could argue that the tetralogy as a whole is a story of desire that is governed by male homosexuality whose drive is always already returning to the self and addressing the sameness. Even when the text comes closest to meeting the Other in Isao’s dream, it quickly recovers a distance from it and remains autoerotic.[13] A male subject is the unity and the same, the defiler and the defiled, and Isao, Honda and Mishima, thus all remain autoerotic. Mishima’s novelistic gaze that regulates narratives is governed by self-referential and self-completing autoeroticism. He finds himself everywhere and never meets the otherness that cannot be retrieved as part of him. He is well aware of it and also condemns it in an earlier essay entitled ‘Boku wa obuje ni naritai [I want to become an objet d’art, 1959]’:

A novelist is never an objet d’art. He is always the subject, projecting himself onto the object… Like a detective, he analyses others in a rather sadistic manner. An actor, a film actor in particular, is the existence that is solely the object of gaze… In other words, [an actor] is the ultimate objet d’art… I’m fascinated by the fact that he is deprived of his will, and that his action is counterfeit. That is why I want to be an actor… I want to be treated as a thing, not as a character… An objet d’art does not have lips to talk with. (Mishima, 1989: vol. II 350-55)

In the context of Runaway Horses, we may regard Isao as the ultimate objet d’art and Honda as the ‘sadistic detective’. Isao always appears rather than speaks in Runaway Horses; he does not ‘have lips to talk with.’ He simply comes into view, always ‘tantalising in the distance’ and ‘veiling the truth’ as Nietzsche describes the plurality of Truth.[14] Isao’s well-calculated moves and skills of manipulation in the art of kendō are not interpreted by Honda to be evidence of maturity and control. Rather, he is depicted as a tormented beauty:

The instant that… [Isao] shouted out his challenge, the thirty-eight-year-old judge perceived that there was some pain tearing at this boy’s breast, as though an arrowhead had pierced it and remained fixed there. Never had Honda tried to fathom in this manner what went on within the heart of any young man… (Mishima, 1985: 266)

The arrow piecing the boy’s breast may remind the reader of the depiction of St. Sebastian in Confessions of a Mask, which has become not only a key image of homoeroticism in Mishima, but also a symbolic representation of male homosexuality in the West at large. The beauty and desirability of Isao’s body are emphasised in the way that heterosexual readers will also find the young man desirable. The text disturbs heterosexual norms by touching on the latent homosexuality of men, while presenting Isao as the universal beauty for both men and women.

It is later revealed that the woman-like being in the mud bath that appeared in Isao’s dream is a ‘coloured’ lesbian woman.[15] The next reincarnate after Isao is a Thai princess studying in Tokyo in the late 1960s, at Mishima’s present time. In the third volume, The Temple of Dawn, this young woman is presented through Honda’s heterosexual gaze. There is a scene in which Honda spies on her bedroom through a peephole that he had prepared in his study for this very purpose. A voyeur’s gaze, as the essential drive of the modern novel, implicates the reader in Honda’s moral decline. Honda is on the sacred mission of searching for the Truth, which is also driven by his sexual desire. The moment he discovers that the princess is the true reincarnate (with three moles on her body as the proof), it is revealed that she is a lesbian who would never reciprocate Honda’s desire. On the one hand, the scene is a far cry from the liberation of a woman’s body, being presented as the object of male voyeurism. On the other hand, it is liberating that this ‘coloured’ lesbian body rejects the role of the Other which is constitutionally part of the subject formation in the modern novel; she is not there for the male subject’s own demarcation against it. She is utterly indifferent to Honda, firmly rejecting the projection of his desire and remaining outside the loop of Honda’s autoeroticism. The dark princess from Thailand – Isao’s trans-gendered new body – is thus explosive in terms of narrative coherence and marks a turning point in the tetralogy.[16] She appears at a time when Japan had lost its self-image of authentic beauty which is, in Mishima’s terms, a ‘young’, ‘pure,’ ‘masculine’ and ‘white’ Japan (Mishima, 1985: 509-512). She pulls down the imagining of the modern subject, which Honda had so far sustained in his storytelling, and which Japan and Japanese modern novels had, up to that point of the late 1960s, had their faith in. The woman-like being in Isao’s dream can be read in this context as a harbinger of the shifting paradigm.

The other woman

In an essay entitled ‘The “Mechanics” of Fluids’ Luce Irigaray draws an analogy between woman and the properties of fluids. The passage I quote below evokes Mishima’s woman-like being in Isao’s dream:

And yet that woman-thing speaks. But not ‘like,’ not ‘the same,’ not ‘identical with itself’… Not a ‘subject,’ unless transformed by phallocratism. It speaks ‘fluid’… it allows itself to be easily traversed by flow by virtue of its conductivity to currents coming from other fluids or exerting pressure through the walls of a solid; that it mixes with bodies of a like state, sometimes dilutes itself in them in an almost homogeneous manner, which makes the distinction between the one and the other problematical; and furthermore that it is already diffuse ‘in itself,’ which disconcerts any attempt at static identification… Fluid – like that other, inside/outside of philosophical discourse – is, by nature, unstable… Woman never speaks the same way. What she emits is flowing, fluctuating. Blurring. (Irigaray, 1985a: 111-112)

Irigaray here attempts to create plural morphologies of bodies, through which a woman-like being emerges and speaks; its speech does not aim at creating a solid, fortified self, but it is instead morphing, always in the process of becoming. The phallic body, in Irigaray’s account, orders other bodies as male-female, having or lacking the phallus, as present or absent, within the law or before it (Irigaray, 1985b). This is indicative to the reading of the present text. Mishima’s Thai princess does not accept the phallic body, nor takes its order. She is not a monstrous feminine that assumes a phallic body, either. She is, like Isao, a beautiful, non-willing particle passing through time, without speaking words, or producing texts, which is what Mishima eagerly wishes to become.

A year after writing Runaway Horses, Mishima acted out Isao’s role. As a result it is now almost impossible for readers to read Isao’s story without referring to its author. Readers are expected to mis-read Runaway Horses and to see the existence called Mishima as part of the grand narrative entitled, The Sea of Fertility.[17] In this lengthy work Mishima initially aimed at containing a hundred years of Japanese history – a modernist project of representing ‘true’ Japan – and at using different styles of writing in one work, which is a writer’s will to contain the whole world.[18] In the process of writing, however, Mishima changed his direction so as not to complete a circle of narratives. What Karatani Kojin calls ‘romantic irony’ determined the ending of his storytelling and the story of his life (Karatani, 1995).[19] The Sea of Fertility does not neatly contain four sets of stories, and instead, we are presented a set of male-female binaries and a trace of difference (Derrida, 1978). The tetralogy presents the imaginary core values of Japan as masculine or feminine, and yet readers’ attempt to locate the actual site of such values will return empty-handed.

In writing novels Mishima advocated modernist ideals, particularly the autonomy of the self, a self-determining and freestanding agent that has no external causalities such as God or nature. No matter how many contradictions were imbedded in Mishima’s text, the dominant voice of the narrator always declared the universality of his or her viewpoint, that is, with the exception of the final scenes of the tetralogy where those viewpoints were overturned at once. What is known as Mishima’s choice of tastes – nationalism, ethnocentrism, martial arts or Wang Yangming philosophy[20] – also points to a single goal, namely, to be more man tomorrow than today, in other words, to strive for the manhood foregrounded by modernist ideals. Along the way, however, he moved away from the initial plan to create four variations of Japanese aesthetic values and arrives at a place where he had not planned to arrive. Mishima’s will to ‘contain the whole world’ takes an ironical turn at the end of the tetralogy; the autonomy and freedom of the subject are no longer presented as goals to achieve against any odds.

In Isao’s dream Mishima suggested that one was always-already free in (and not free from) one’s relationship to nature in the domain of the feminine. Mishima’s gaze fluctuates in the tetralogy between the two domains – the masculine and the feminine – revealing the author’s desire to become both the object and the subject of the gaze. The domain of the feminine – the bath water where it is no longer possible to identify the border between inside and outside – signifies the death of the modern man. The death of Mishima as a modern novelist is marked when his project to produce a modern Japanese subject through his writing is renounced in the process of writing The Sea of Fertility. He later replaces words with action, and The Sea of Fertility becomes Mishima’s final attempt to incorporate the non-verbal domain – the feminine – into literature.

Kōha literature

The non-verbal domain, or the non-subject position as we saw in the dream passage, has been assigned to the feminine in the hegemonic view of gender. Mishima’s provocation lies in his attempt to incorporate this feminine non-value into the masculine property. In 1960’s Japan when society was fast moving towards a more knowledge-based economy, machismo was losing its vigour. Mishima wrote in this climate an essay called Kōha: the Masculine Principles of Japanese Literature (1964). [21] In this essay the binary is replaced by two male positions called kōha and nanpa, [22] while woman is totally excluded from it.

What is kōha? … youth, violence, naivety, straightforwardness, anti-social behaviour, small-group hierarchy, or ethnocentrism. If one looks closely, one will find that emotions in kōha mentality are represented by politics rather than romantic love. Politics in the Orient is the ideal of machismo and the relationship amongst men. Although both politics and romantic love are naturally saturated in emotionalism …what makes the former distinct from the latter is that while the latter strives for individualism, the former is the urge to mould oneself into an ideal shape [as part of the whole]. Therefore, [kōha affiliates] have no danger of self-mortification…their desperate attempt to preserve their power begins in conservatism and racial fundamentalism. Since action is considered to be the embodiment of their power that blindly aims at justice, kōha will never suffer from a guilty conscience for their own action. (Mishima, 1989: 1015)

Despite its often violent and anti-social behaviour, the men who were called kōha [the school of the solid] occupied the place of legitimate masculinity, while nanpa [the school of the soft] was not necessarily excluded from the patriarchal order, receiving a certain respect from kōha affiliates. As Japan rapidly evolved into the post-industrial society, in which kōha values were regarded as excessive and therefore redundant, nanpa became the norm. The hidden agenda of the article above are: Mishima’s denunciation of the modern novel, which he now calls ‘nanpa-style literature’ which has dominated the Japanese literary scene since the post-Meiji era; and his call for ‘kōha-style writing’ that represents Japan in its pristine state.[23] The article also expresses Mishima’s yearning for a life that is steadfast, fleeting, emotional and devoid of psychological complexity, in other words, his longing for a story-telling that predates the modern novel. Kōha, according to Mishima, defies things logical and intellectual, demonstrating a Japanese native characteristic – distrust in logocentricism. Mishima is here re-defining the concept of masculinity (and the kōha-style that represents it) to be emotional and non-verbal, taking over the properties of the feminine. It is an ironical twist given by Mishima who started his writing career as an emblematic nanpa writer[24] and is now steadfastly transforming himself into a boxer, a sport-reporter, a swordsman and an army officer. The politics that Mishima takes up is a nationalism without logic and words; for him kōha literature – the story of Japanese masculinity – is a counter-discourse to the masculinity foregrounded by Western imagination.

Mishima’s early works are masterly adaptations of Western modern novels, adaptations which testify to the possibility of narrativising a new Japan which is a pseudo-West.[25] Novel-writing since the Meiji era was a project of modernity, an attempt to create a new Japanese subject whose interiority was universally recognisable. The Western (therefore modern) elements of Mishima’s writing appealed to Japanese readers just as the same elements ensured that Western readers could find it accessible. The reception of Confessions of a Mask both in Japan and in the West testify to it. Despite the success of his career as a modern novelist (and also as a nanpa-style writer par excellence), Mishima suddenly rejects this in the mid 1950s. He began a physical make-over through body-building and martial arts training to become an embodiment of machismo, which he also attempts to do by taking up politics and re-inventing kōha literature.[26] He encountered something that resisted his conviction for literary modernisation, and this resistance from within takes a peculiar form of masculinity which is emotion devoid of rationality, the quality Isao best demonstrates. Once Mishima enters into this domain, writing the modern novel becomes impossible.


The right-wing activist Isao who embodies masculinity has to be emotional rather than rational, silent rather than articulate, and naive rather than manipulative. The figure of Isao is not that of a fascist who systematically wields power over others with words, but instead, wishes to mould himself into a particular shape to be part of history. To that end, he exercises power only over his own body. The type also defies notions of democracy, efficiency and the economic principles which lead the nation’s drive for postwar recovery. Thus, being immersed in The Sea of Fertility, Mishima was writing against the grain for the last five years of his life from 1965 to 1970. By presenting a right-wing monarchist as the ideal hero in Runaway Horses, Mishima seemingly takes an essentialist and ethnocentric position. When this story is read as a part of the tetralogy, and Isao is placed in relation to the series of reincarnates, however, it is clear that this story is an aesthetically constructed piece which offers a counter-narrative to the prevailing discourse of modernity of the day. Runaway Horses also evokes nostalgia, which in effect reaffirms that the values and the styles of this text are absent in the writer’s present, just as The Book of Hagakure [The Way of the Samurai] was written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, an ageing samurai, when a society without war had made the presence of warriors redundant (Mishima, 1967).[27]

By narrativising Japan as a site which thrives only on emotionalism and rejects reason, logic and knowledge, Mishima locates the West on the opposite end of a schism. While it may be defined as masculine by Mishima, this Japan is emotional to the extent that it is almost hysterical. Hysteria was initially understood as a woman’s disease. Naming her as such was a way of dealing with (or coping with) a woman who did not behave according to the patriarchal order; her irrationality and her rebellious bodily explosions were defined in medical terms, and by doing so, contained by society. Isao’s behaviour (or that of the author’s) – to act without prospect of success and to be driven by a death wish – is a good example of hysteria. Mishima’s Japan that does not respect reason and logos also speaks hysterically. In other words, this man – Isao, Japan, or Mishima – willingly takes the position of woman in opposing Western modernity. The provocation of Mishima does not stop at ultra-nationalism or barbaric suicide, but is indeed better found in the space of literature within which a more liberated and free-floating gender relations are possible, which, as I have demonstrated, he strategically produced through a multitude of textual relations.


This essay was revised with the financial support of the Japan Society for Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.


[1] The clearest discussion on this topic is found in Michel Foucault’s critique of modernist conception of the subject in ‘Subjectivity and Truth’, ‘The Hermeneutic of the Subject’ and ‘Technology of the Self’ in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, 1994.

[2] Lacan, 1977.

[3] This includes Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler and others. They drew their arguments and departed from Lacanian psychoanalysis.

[4] See, for example, Catherine MacKinnon’s argument in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989).

[5] I will explain these terms later in relation to the quotation from Luce Irigaray in section ‘The other woman.’

[6] Queer theory rests on the Foucauldian position and reads the multitudes of textual relations. My task here is, therefore, to explore the ‘textual negotiation, contamination and production of various binarisms’ (Colebrook, 2004: 229) rather than aiming to reach the ‘true’ meaning of the text.

[7] Mishima’s short story, Onnagata (1957) is a good example. Onnagata actors (male actors who specialise in female roles in the Noh and Kabuki Theatres) do not aim to approach the proximity of an actual woman; they instead produce a creation that is called ‘woman’ that has nothing to do with the actuality of woman. It is an allegorical mode of representation; hence their beauty somehow exhumes the male body itself, which is buried under female attire (Jackson, 1989). Mishima focuses on the male gaze that is projected on the onnagata actor.

[8] Mute women and the gaze of Mishima’s earlier texts are discussed in ‘A Manifestation of Modernity: the Split Gaze and the Oedipalised Space of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Mishima Yukio’ (Otomo, 2003).

[9] The page numbers hereafter are from the 1985 Penguin edition. Volume two, Runaway Horses, is translated by Michael Gallagher. The italics in all quotations are my emphasis, unless otherwise indicated.

[10] Butler’s theories of performativity is based on the idea that the subject is an effect, and not a cause (Butler, 1990).

[11] Refer to ‘The Split between the Eye and the Gaze’ in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis (Lacan, 1998: 67-78).

[12] The Abbess puts an end to Honda’s quest by saying:

Don’t you suppose, Mr. Honda, that there never was such a person? You seem convinced that there was; but don’t you suppose that there was no such person from the beginning, anywhere? I couldn’t help thinking so as I listened to you. (Mishima, 1985: 822)

This is the final twist that Mishima gives to the tetralogy. Unsettling as it is, the ending of The Sea of Fertility confirms Mishima’s position that the existence of the core object, or true Japan, is an illusion.

[13] Domoto Masaki’s account of Mishima’s erotic obsession with double suicide is compelling

in that one’s desire takes place as narrative, and actors are subordinate to the authority of

storytelling (Domoto, 2005).

[14] I am referring to the expressions used in Jacques Derrida’s, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles (1979), where Derrida reads Nietzsche’s figurative use of a woman in veil standing afar, as it implies that there is no singular Truth which a philosophical pursuit can reach.

[15] The dark skin colour of the Thai Princess is significant in contrast to the whiteness that Mishima repeatedly implies in describing Isao’s body as well as that of the first hero. (Mishima, 1985: 265-269)

[16] Mishima’s initial plan for the tetralogy was to create four different styles and moods: (1) toayameburi or nigimitama [the feminine/the peaceful] (2) masuraoburi or aramitama [the masculine/the raging] (3) kushimitama [the exotic] and (4) sachimitama [the blissful] (Mishima, Mainichi Shinbun 26 Feb. 1969). This plan was somehow aborted at a certain point and the fourth story became darker and rather unsettling. I would argue that the third hero, the Thai princess who embodies the ‘exotic’ (the Other) intervenes in the narrative sequence and shifts the direction. See Mishima Yukio hyōron zenshū [Complete Collection of Mishima Yukio’s critical writings] vol 2, 1989: 500.

[17] On this point, I am indebted to Nakagami Kenji’s reading of Mishima that appears in his discussion with Yomota Inuhiko in ‘Tensei, monogatari, tenno: Mishima Yukio o megutte [Reincarnation, Narratives and the Emperor: on Mishima Yukio, 1986]’.

[18] Mishima’s explanation of the tetralogy project demonstrates its modernist aspects:

I have been thinking about starting a long, long, long novel since around 1960 — I was tired of the format of a chronicle — time must skip at some stage, and each individual time slot would produce a story peculiar to that time, forming at the end a large circle of narratives. I’ve wanted to write a novel that reveals the whole world all through my writing career. (Mainichi Shinbun 26 Feb. 1969, Hyōron zenshū, vol.2, 1989: 500)

[19] Karatani argues that Mishima is fundamentally a product of ‘romantic irony’ (not of ideology) and that the ultimate irony lies in that Mishima’s final act aimed to achieve something by negating man’s will to achieve (1995: 89-135).

[20] Mishima advocated the ‘way of the samurai’ described in the eighteenth-century book, The Book of Hagakure, which was based on the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming’s teaching. See Mishima, ‘Kakumei tetsugaku toshite no yomeigaku’ [Wang Yangming School as the Philosophy for Revolution, Sept. 1970, Hyōron zenshū, vol. 3: 564-587].

[21]Hyōron zenshū, vol. 1:1015-17, the original title is, Bungaku ni okeru kōha: nihon bungaku no danseiteki genri’ in Chuokōron, May 1964.

[22] In my view, both terms simultaneously disappeared in 1970’s Japan.

[23] Mishima imagines a ‘pristine’ state of Japan (1985: 509-12) in The Temple of Dawn, the third volume of the tetralogy, where he places Japan as the beautiful young son who sways between Asia (Mother) and the USA (Father).

[24] Mishima’s earlier style demonstrates that he belongs the school of Japanese Romantics, a

trace of which was recognisable till the end in his notoriously grandiose expressions and metaphors.

[25] From as early as Tabako (1946) to Gogo no eikō (1963) Mishima appeared to the readers in Japan as one of the most Westernised writers of his generation.

[26] The text within Runaway Horses, ‘The league of Divine Wind,’ is a good example of the late-Ogai style that Mishima uses.

[27] Mishima regards The Book of Hagakure as paradoxical, in other words, he sees romanticism and irony in the fact that Yamamoto wrote this book against the grain. See Mishima’s views in Hagakure nyūmon [The samurai ethic and modern Japan, 1992]in Hyōron zenshū vol. 1, 1989: 689-735.