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Jan/Feb 2005 | Japan in the Footsteps of Yukio Mishima

Jan/Feb 2005 | Japan in the Footsteps of Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima stands as a giant in gay literature, and his controversial legacy can still be explored in modern-day Japan

On November 25, 1970, paramilitary leader Yukio Mishima stripped to his loincloth and knelt on the floor of Gen. Kanetoshi Mashita's office in Tokyo. This was not an act of supplication, as the general had been bound to a chair by Mishima's followers. From the balcony of the office, Mishima had just made a speech exhorting members of Japan's weakened postwar military to rise up and exercise real power. They had laughed.

Nonetheless, 45-year-old Mishima was where he wanted to be--at the center of attention. He had forced the nation to listen to his political views. His tanned and muscular body was on display and, with the help of his young lover and follower Masakatsu Morita, he was about to spill a great deal of blood. His favorite themes came together in this final moment.

Using all his strength, Mishima drove a foot-long dagger into his side, slicing open his abdomen. That done, Morita was to behead his master with a sword. It took him several strokes. But the result was the same, and the younger man followed the older in death a few moments later.

With Mishima's demise, Japan lost not only a controversial public figure but also a 20th-century literary giant. A prolific novelist, essayist, and playwright, he had been talked up as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Much of his work, including the autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, explored gay themes.

Writing is usually a solitary pursuit, but Mishima was no pale inmate of the library. A gym bunny ahead of his time, he loved to pose for outrageously staged photos and appeared as an actor on stage and screen. Of course, his final act is the one that is best remembered.

The room where it happened is still there and can be viewed on public tours of the Japan Defense Agency headquarters. You can actually touch the notches Mishima's sword left in the edge of a door frame during the initial takeover of the office.

Outside the room where he died, Tokyo--especially its gay side--has changed a great deal since the novelist walked the city's streets. But some of Japan's hills and forests are the same today as when he saw them and wrote about them decades ago. The intrepid queer traveler can delve into the Land of the Rising Sun with Mishima's work and legacy as a guide. You may even find a state of Zen peace in Japan's far corners that eluded the illustrious writer.

The city--especially his native Tokyo--is where Mishima was most at home. His best description of Tokyo, from a gay point of view, is the novel Forbidden Colors, written in the early 1950s. The story begins when Shunsuke, a rich old heterosexual misogynist bitterly disappointed in love, takes a beautiful young gay man named Yuichi under his wing. He trains Yuichi to be his instrument of revenge against womankind, a breaker of female hearts.

For the rest of the book we follow Yuichi on a series of adventures involving women in the open and men in secret. Gay life in Tokyo as depicted here was notable for cruising in parks on one hand and orgies in the homes of the rich on the other. In the space between those extremes Mishima depicted a few dreary bars. But Mishima knew a bit more than he revealed. His friend Henry Scott Stokes wrote in the 1974 biography The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima that around this time the novelist was frequenting a bar called Brunswick in Tokyo's Ginza district, where he liked to dance with one of the resident female impersonators.

Ginza today is home to the most highly cultured gender-benders you're ever likely to see--the onnagata, men who play women's roles in the all-male world of Kabuki. The most popular place to take in a Kabuki show is at Ginza's Kabuki-za Theater, where headphones providing an English commentary on the performance are available. To view the proceedings in an emotionally vulnerable state, be sure to first read Mishima's abysmally cruel short story "Onnagata," the wrenching tale of a Kabuki actor whose gay backstage romance is viciously sabotaged by a jealous bystander.

Not far away you'll find the genders re-reversed at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater, where an all-female troupe plays the male and female roles in stage productions known for costumes gaudy and glitzy enough to make Liberace emerald with envy.

Mishima described his own work in theater as "a jolly party" and delighted in the thought "that I, as a playwright, governed and manipulated all these theatrical worlds." Brought up by a doting aristocratic grandmother, Mishima was well aware of his genius. He agreed to an arranged marriage that appeared to work well, but as Scott Stokes describes him, Mishima "carried two swords." He seemed to clearly prefer men who fell into "two very distinct types: the tender, elite school-type intellectual student with a taste for literature...and swarthy, hirsute men--gangster types." Mishima had an intense relationship with his deathmate, Morita, but in the end, as with many a great gay man of history, the real love of his life was most likely himself. Mishima's worship of the physique and his own image was legendary. It's no coincidence that he turns up as a flawless human statue at the end of the 1968 cult film Black Lizard.

Mishima's old haunt Brunswick is long gone, and the gay scene has shifted elsewhere, notably to the Shinjuku Ni-chome area. The 2004 edition of the annual gay bar guide Otoko Machi Map lists 236 Shinjuku bars where like-minded men might share a drink. Walking through the area's narrow streets, though, I am struck at how effectively this social wealth is hidden. Most of the bars are small places that can be cozy once you find them, but they tend to be tucked away in basements or on upper floors, with discreet signage out front. Now, as in Mishima's day, the closet remains a major Japanese institution. Racism and sexism are two more institutions that have yet to be swept away, as most bars are limited to certain genders and infuriatingly polite notices such as please, foreigners refrain from entering still crop up here and there.

Scott Stokes informed me one afternoon, "Mishima worked like a reporter. He went to examine landscapes with a notebook in hand." It shows, especially on Kamishima, the remote fishing island Mishima renamed Utajima and made the setting for his sweet heterosexual romance novel The Sound of Waves. In the turbulent Pacific outside Ise Bay, Kamishima is reached by ferry from the port of Toba (about 45 minutes from Kyoto or four hours from Tokyo). Toba is the birthplace of Japan's cultured pearl industry. The whole circumference of the island can be walked in a couple of hours, and the atmosphere is sunburned and callused old Japan, a far cry from designer-label Tokyo.

Mishima's novel opens during octopus season, and stacks of octopus pots were the first thing I saw at the pier. I began my visit by washing the salt spray from my eyeglasses in the stream from the village spring where heroine Hatsue fought off an attack by the book's villain. The shrine where hero Shinji offered his humble prayers was under renovation, but the lighthouse whose keeper he befriended looks much as it always has. Built in 1909, it is only 36 feet tall, but it stands atop a 340-foot cliff beside which hawks swoop near enough to show you the patterns on their feathers. In the woods on the far side of the island is the abandoned Imperial Army observation post where Shinji and Hatsue had their fateful tryst one stormy night. It is not as cozy as I had imagined, but it is definitely the place. I was literally walking in Mishima's wake.

A less remote spot to appear in his work is Kamakura, Japan's capital from 1185 to 1333 and an easy day trip from Tokyo. In his novel Spring Snow, two young men named Honda and Kiyoaki are hiking through the woods along a ridge above town when suddenly they catch sight of the bronze Great Buddha in the valley below. This 37-foot-tall, 750-year-old statue is a must-see for any Kamakura visitor. The precise view described by Mishima is hard to find--the forests may be thicker now than in the postwar decades when he knew this place--but you can still catch a glimpse of the back of the Buddha's hairdo from the Great Buddha Hiking Trail, which starts near Kita-Kamakura train station and ends near the entrance to the Great Buddha's temple.

One stop from the Great Buddha on the picturesque Enoden streetcar line, near Yuigahama Station, is the house where another queer Japanese trailblazer, Nobuko Yoshiya (1896-1973), lived. An author of lesbian romances, she resided for decades with her "secretary," Chiyo Monma. Their home is now a museum, open to the public only a few days a year. But the museum's signage scarcely refers to Monma at all.

As for Honda and Kiyoaki, their relationship as friends appears to end with Kiyoaki's untimely death. But then on the novel's last page, he makes a deathbed prophecy: "I'll see you again. I know it. Beneath the falls."

The falls are far to the south, near the even more ancient city of Nara, Japan's capital from 710 to 794, and an easy day trip from Kyoto. Nara boasts a Great Buddha even older and larger than Kamakura's. The more than 50-foot-tall, 1,250-year-old bronze figure is housed in Todaiji temple, billed as the world's largest wooden building. Nara is also famous for sacred deer that wander at will and have a Hindu-cow-like ability to halt traffic. Mishima studied at Nara's many religious sites, and in 1966 he stayed at Omiwa Shrine, 30 minutes south of town by train, where he practiced misogi (Shinto water meditation) beneath Sanko Falls. He then wrote a scene in the novel Runaway Horses, a sequel to Spring Snow in which an older Honda sees a youth bathing in the falls and becomes convinced he is the reincarnation of Kiyoaki.

Hidden hundreds of yards into the forest, the falls are reached via the Sai Shrine, one of several smaller shrines on Omiwa's sprawling grounds. You pay a priest $3, leave your camera behind, and don a thin white Shinto robe. On the hike in I was enchanted to see dozens of tiny frogs, smaller than peas, hopping along the path. Later I would see half-dollar-size freshwater crabs scampering across the forest floor in search of refuge as heavy rain swelled the creek below the falls.

Sanko Falls is just as Runaway Horses describes it, except that now much of the flow from the top of a small cliff has been channeled through a dragon-head spout. Thanks to the rain, a torrent of latte-colored water was exploding from its mouth as I disrobed in a primitive hut and climbed the few remaining steps.

Formal misogi is done in a white loincloth or robe, but such garb is not strictly necessary. Honda did it in everyday underwear. The falls pummeled my scalp and shoulders with its muddy fists and ran its cool fingers down my back. With my eyes closed and my hands pressed together I prayed for a while as the earthy but clean-tasting water ran over my face. Then I turned around for a view of the quaintly dilapidated hut and the forest beyond. Finally I looked straight up into the rain coming down from a soft oval of sky amid the ancient trees and thanked whomever for this beautiful moment.

As a character in Runaway Horses explains, "When the falling water strikes a man, it clears his head. That's what makes it a religious exercise." Feeling lighter, happier, and more awake, I naively wondered how Mishima could have such an experience and go on to commit gruesome suicide a few years later.

Of course, you can't step into the same waterfall twice, and my own joy eroded as I returned to the city in wet clothes.

Baker is an editor at The Daily Yomiuri, an English-language newspaper published in Japan. He has lived in Tokyo since 1997.

Samurai Sexuality

There's a scene in the Mishima novel Forbidden Colors where the elderly schemer Shunsuke invites his young protege Yuichi to examine some antique scrolls in his private library. They turn out to be gay sex manuals. Tufts University professor Gary P. Leupp has seen similar scrolls: In writing Male Colors, a study of homosexuality under the 1604-1868 rule of the Tokugawa shoguns, he found that "nearly 600 extant literary works of the period dealt with homoerotic topics, and that at least seven of the 15 Tokugawa shoguns...had well-documented, sometimes very conspicuous, homosexual involvements."

The shoguns sat at the pinnacle of a samurai culture in which male homosexuality was routine. Leupp traces this back to the Buddhist monasteries that dominated Japanese society before the rise of the samurai, places where "monk-acolyte sexual relationships [were considered] proper." Following that pattern, many powerful samurai also took young male proteges and attendants to bed.

Such relationships did not rule out heterosexual activity, as contemporary Japanese writer Shogo Oketani saw while doing research for a historical novel. "Bisexuality was in fact the norm for Japanese men from samurai to ordinary citizens," he wrote.

Westernization had much to do with the disappearance of this relaxed sexual attitude. Today, Oketani pointed out, even the popular samurai dramas on TV de-gay the past. They often include female prostitutes as characters, but almost never show the also-common male ones.

But for a quality slice of Japanese pop culture that does not shy away from such themes, rent the 1999 movie Taboo. Set in the twilight of the Tokugawa era, it's a tragic love story among the ranks of the samurai. That the lovers are all male is a nonissue.

Move Over, Pokemon!

Two paranormal sleuths fall in love while battling vampires and a lecherous madman. A teenage boy turns into a girl when he comes into contact with cold water. A lesbian android develops a crush on a robot she calls "Big Sis."

Meet the queer denizens of anime (a term used outside Japan to describe Japanese animation). In a homogenous culture where sexuality is considered a very private matter, these characters--stars of Gravitation, Yami no Matsuei, Ranma, and Steel Angel Kurumi, respectively--hold exotic appeal for an ever-insatiable gay (and straight) audience.

Many anime films started life as manga (comic book serials). One of the most peculiar crazes among Japanese schoolgirls is yaoi (pronounced "yah-oh-ee") -- manga that focuses on love between young men. Marketed to women, these titles cover a wide variety of genres, from giant robots to high school romance. Japan's most successful yaoi magazine, June (pronounced "ju-nay"), sells twice as much as Japan's top gay magazine, Badi.

You'll find rows of yaoi at Tokyo's Mandarake store (Beam Building, 31-2 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku; 011-81-3-3477-0777), with a separate sections for yaoi (a.k.a. "boys love"). Staff often dress as manga characters and perform onstage.



(Dial 011 before all telephone numbers) Expensive: The characters in Lost in Translation didn't seem to enjoy their stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo (81-3-5322-1234, $426-$908), but if you're not having an existential crisis you should find it comfortable. If you can't afford to stay, stop in for English-style afternoon tea at the 41st-floor Peak Lounge. Moderate: The Shinjuku Washington Hotel (81-3-3343-3111, $109-$290) is a businessperson's hotel with compact rooms a couple of blocks closer to JR Shinjuku Station.


Inexpensive: Get some tongue at Isshin (2-1-2 Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku; 81-3-3815-7418; $6-$12), which serves this succulent beef part raw, boiled, fried, grilled, and in other ways. Moderate:Who's Foods (1-3-16 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3-5291-8352; $13--$36) boasts vaguely Balinese decor and a menu of mainly Southeast Asian and Mexican cuisine as interpreted in a Japanese kitchen. Expensive: The seafood restaurant Ikaya (1-4-1 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3-3344-0291, $25-$54) is worth visiting in the winter months just so you can brag about having eaten shirako (cod semen), served raw, grilled, or as tempura.


For a cultural experience involving minimal dress, check out Snack 24 (2-28-18 Asakusa, Taito-ku; 81-3-3843-4424), one of many gay establishments in the riverside Asakusa neighborhood. The dress code in the back room is fundoshi loincloths (the staff will be glad to instruct you on how to put them on). Tokyo's largest gay district is Shinjuku 2-chome, home to the basement bar called GB (2-12-3 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3-3352-8972), the best-known gathering place for the city's English-speaking gay male population. A quieter spot is Backdraft (2-10-10 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3-5269-8131), a cozy, rock-walled den. Inside Arty Farty (2-11-7 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3-5362-9720) you'll find dim lights, thumping music and decor that marries the tastes of Georgia O'Keeffe and Morticia Addams. The mint beer tastes rather like mouthwash, but surely you can see the benefit in that. Women should check out the English-speaking Chestnut and Squirrel (3-5-7 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; 81-90-9834-4842), a Wednesday-night-only lesbian bar in Shibuya.


Take in a Kabuki show at Ginza's Kabuki-za Theater (4-12-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3-3541-3131), where headsets provide an English commentary. You'll find the genders re-reversed at the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater (1-1-3 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3-5251-2001), where members of an all-female troupe play the male and female roles in productions known for Liberace-like costumes.

Getting There

The new gay travel portal at Japan Airlines, one of Asia's top carriers, features special fares to Japan and cities throughout Asia, and includes?exclusive package tours for gay and lesbian travelers. Win a trip for two to Japan by completing a short survey, located on the homepage (through Jan 31, 2005). JAL offers direct flights to Tokyo from New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Chicago. To make a reservation call (800) 525-3663.

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.
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