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Edging Toward Japan: Yukio Mishima's intriguing letters to a humble lighthouse worker

Yukio Mishima is pictured in this 1956 file photo.

By Damian Flanagan

A couple of years ago, newspapers reported on the display of nine letters by the famous novelist Yukio Mishima sent between 1953 and 1965. The recipient was a young man called Michio Suzuki, who worked at the lighthouse on the remote island of Kamishima and kept records of shipping traffic.

Suzuki, we are told, kept only nine letters he received from Mishima between 1953 and 1965, but the correspondence actually continued until 1970, the year of Mishima's suicide.

Mishima visited the island of Kamishima twice in the spring and late summer of 1953, when he was doing field work for his novel "The Sound of Waves." His evocation of a Daphnis and Chloe-style Greek romance transferred to a suitably wild and sea-swept Japanese setting.

The author wished to move on from the overtly "gay fiction" of books like "Confessions of a Mask" and "Forbidden Colours" and was determined to reposition himself with an avowedly heterosexual romance. He succeeded brilliantly: "The Sound of Waves" became a massive bestseller and has frequently been turned into films. Yet Mishima later wryly referred to it as his "joke upon the public".

It's intriguing to discover that just at the time that Mishima was attempting to promote a "straight" persona on this remote isle, he succumbed to a considerable affection for a young man there who accompanied him and the composer Toshiro Mayuzumi around. (Mayuzumi composed the music for Mishima's films and had introduced Mishima to gay bars in Paris in the early 1950s before eventually falling out with him spectacularly in the early 1960s over a stalled project to write an opera together).

Yet Mishima's attraction to this young man was also surely connected to the seemingly mundane occupation he pursued -- logging shipping traffic passing by the lighthouse. Mishima had a lifelong fascination with the sea, repeatedly employed in his novels as a symbol of timeless transcendence. The ships moving about on the sea become a symbol of transient temporality imposed upon that canvas of timelessness. The person observing and recording those ships becomes analogous to the novelist himself, observing and recording human movements before they dissolve again into the timeless ether.

Anyone who has read the mesmerizing opening of Mishima's final novel "The Decay of the Angel," which across many pages describes nothing but shifting seascapes and the flickering figures of boats upon them, will understand how significant his correspondence with a humble lighthouse worker must have been to him.

Why did Mishima kill himself? Mishima's narcissism, his desire to die while his body was still beautiful, is often spoken about. But an often-missed point is how depressing it would have been to Mishima to see the beautiful young men about whom he fantasized and adored grow old.

Mishima kept prominently displayed on the walls of his rococo home in Tokyo a painting of a ship upon the seas, a daily reminder of mortal impermanence, the sea being a place where time had no meaning.

Mishima is long gone, but the transcendent, timeless vision of him remains strong; the man, the sea-watcher, to whom Mishima once felt attraction was, at 87, unrecognizable from his younger self, yet still survives in the letters Mishima wrote to him long ago.


(This is Part 22 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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