Kinkakuji - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
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Kinkakuji - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Japanese: 金閣寺, Kinkaku-ji) is a novel by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima. It was published in 1956 and translated into English by Ivan Morris in 1959. The novel assured Mishima's reputation as a novelist, and its 1959 translation was instrumental in making his name known overseas.

Plot introduction

The novel is loosely based on the burning of the Reliquary (or Golden Pavilion) of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto by a young Buddhist acolyte in 1950. The pavilion, dating from before 1400, was a national monument which had been spared destruction many times throughout history, and the arson shocked Japan. The story is narrated by Mizoguchi, the disturbed acolyte in question, who is afflicted with an ugly face and a stutter, and who recounts his obsession with beauty and the growth of his urge to destroy it. The novel also includes one of Mishima's most memorable characters, Mizoguchi's club-footed, deeply cynical friend Kashiwagi, who gives his own highly individual twist to various Zen parables (koan).

Explanation of the novel's title

The temple's real name is the Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺), from the first two characters of the posthumous name of its builder, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. But the shariden or reliquary in its grounds, the Kinkaku, grew so famous that the temple became known as the Kinkaku-ji instead.

Childhood

The protagonist, Mizoguchi, is the son of a consumptive Buddhist priest who lives and works on the remote Cape Nariu on the north coast of Honshū. The boy lives with his uncle at the village of Shiraku (師楽), near Maizuru. Throughout his childhood he is assured by his father that the Golden Pavilion is the most beautiful building in the world, and the idea of the temple becomes a fixture in his imagination. A stammering boy from a poor household, he is friendless at his school, and takes refuge in vengeful fantasies. When a naval cadet who is visiting the school makes fun of him, he vandalises the cadet's belongings behind his back. A neighbour's girl, Uiko, becomes the target of his hatred, and when she is killed by her deserter boyfriend after she betrays him, Mizoguchi becomes convinced that his curse on her has been fulfilled.

His ill father takes him to the Kinkaku-ji for the first time in the spring of 1944, and introduces him to the Superior, Tayama Dosen. After his father's death, Mizoguchi becomes an acolyte at the temple. It is the height of the war, and there are only three acolytes, but one is his first real friend, the candid and pleasant Tsurukawa. During the 1944–5 school year, he boards at the Rinzai Academy's middle school and works at a factory, fascinated by the idea that the Golden Pavilion will inevitably be burnt to ashes in the firebombing. But the American planes avoid Kyoto, and his dream of a glorious tragedy is defeated. In May 1945, he and Tsurukawa visit Nanzen-ji. From the tower, they witness a strange scene in a room of the Tenju-an nearby: a woman in a formal kimono gives her lover a cup of tea to which she adds her own breast milk.

After his father dies of consumption, he is sent to Kinkaku-ji. On the first anniversary of his father's death, his mother visits him, bringing the mortuary tablet so that the Superior can say Mass over it. She tells him that she has moved from Nariu to Kasagun, and reveals her wish that he should succeed Father Dosen as Superior at Rokuon-ji. The two ambitions—that the temple be destroyed, or that it should be his to control—leave him confused and ambivalent. On hearing the news of the end of the war and the Emperor's renunciation of divinity, Father Dosen calls his acolytes and tells them the fourteenth Zen story from The Gateless Gate, "Nansen kills a kitten", which leaves them bemused. Mizoguchi is bitterly disappointed by the end of hostilities, and late at night he climbs the hill behind the temple, Okitayama-Fudosan, looks down on the lights of Kyoto, and pronounces a curse: "Let the darkness of my heart [...] equal the darkness of the night which encloses those countless lights!"

Friendship with Kashiwagi

During the winter of that year, the Temple is visited by a drunk American soldier and his pregnant Japanese girlfriend. He pushes his girlfriend down into the snow, and orders Mizoguchi to trample her stomach, giving him two cartons of cigarettes in exchange for doing so. Mizoguchi goes indoors and obsequiously presents the cartons to the Superior, who is having his head shaved by the deacon. Father Dosen thanks him, and tells him he has been chosen for the scholarship to Otani University. A week later the girl visits the temple, tells her story, and demands compensation for the miscarriage she has suffered. The Superior gives her money and says nothing to the acolytes, but rumours of her claims spread, and the people at the temple become uneasy about Mizoguchi. Throughout 1946 he is tormented by the urge to confess, but never does so, and in the spring of 1947 he leaves with Tsurukawa for Otani University. He starts to drift away from Tsurukawa, befriending Kashiwagi, a cynical clubfooted boy from Sannomiya who indulges in long "philosophical" speeches.

Kashiwagi boasts of his ability to seduce women by making them feel sorry for him—in his words, they "fall in love with my clubfeet." He demonstrates his method to Mizoguchi by feigning a tumble in front of a girl. She helps him into her house. Mizoguchi is so disturbed that he runs away, and takes a train to the Kinkaku-ji to recover his self-assurance. In May, Kashiwagi invites him to a "picnic" at Kameyama Park, taking the girl he tricked, and another girl for Mizoguchi. When left alone with the girl, she tells him a story about a woman she knows who lost her lover during the war. He realises that the woman she is talking about must be the same one he saw two years before through a window of Tenju Hermitage. Mizoguchi's mind fills with visions of the Golden Pavilion, and he finds himself impotent. That evening a telegram arrives at the university bearing news of kindly Tsurukawa's death in a road accident. For nearly a year, Mizoguchi avoids Kashiwagi's company.

In the spring of 1948 Kashiwagi comes to visit him at the temple, and gives him a shakuhachi as a present. He takes the opportunity to demonstrate his own skill as a player. In May he asks Mizoguchi to steal some irises and cat-tails for him from the temple garden. Mizoguchi takes them to Kashiwagi's boarding-house, and while discussing the story of Nansen and the kitten, Kashiwagi starts to make an arrangement, mentioning that he is being taught ikebana by his girlfriend. Mizoguchi realises that this girlfriend must be the woman he saw at Tenju Hermitage. When she arrives, Kashiwagi breaks up with her, and they quarrel. She runs away and Mizoguchi follows, telling her that he witnessed her tragic scene two years ago. She is moved, and tries to seduce him, but again he is assailed by visions of the temple, and he is impotent.

Enmity with Father Dosen

In January 1949 Mizoguchi is walking through Shinkyogoku when he thinks he sees Father Dosen with a geisha. Momentarily distracted, he starts to follow a stray dog, loses it, and then in a back alley he runs into the Superior just as he is getting into a hired car with the geisha. He is so surprised that he laughs out loud, and Father Dosen calls him a fool. Over the next two months Mizoguchi becomes obsessed with reproducing Dosen's brief expression of hatred. He buys a photograph of the geisha and slips it into Dosen's morning newspaper. The Superior gives no sign of having found it, but secretly places the photo in Mizoguchi's drawer the next day. When Mizoguchi finds it there, he feels victorious. He tears it up, wraps the shreds in newspaper with a stone, and sinks it in the pond.

As Mizoguchi's mental illness worsens, he neglects his studies. On 9 November 1949, the Superior reprimands him for his poor work. Mizoguchi responds by borrowing ¥3000 from Kashiwagi, who characteristically raises ¥500 of the money by taking back and selling the flute and dictionary he had given as presents. He goes to Takeisao-jinja (a shrine also known as Kenkun-jinja) and draws a mikuji lot which warns him not to travel northwest. He sets off northwest the next morning, to the region of his birth, and spends three days at Yura (now Tangoyura), where the sight of the Sea of Japan inspires him to destroy the Kinkaku.

He is retrieved by a policeman, and on his return he is met by his angry mother, who is relieved to learn that he did not steal the money he used to flee. Obsessed by the idea of arson, one day he follows a guilty-looking boy to the Sammon Gate of the Myoshin-ji, and is amazed and disappointed when the boy does not set it alight. He compiles a long list of old temples which have burnt down. By May his debt (with 10% simple interest per month) has grown to ¥5100. Kashiwagi is angry, and comes to suspect that Mizoguchi is considering suicide. On 10 June Kashiwagi complains to Father Dosen, who gives him the principal; afterwards, Kashiwagi shows letters to Mizoguchi that reveal the fact that Tsurukawa did not die in a road accident, but committed suicide over a love affair. He hopes to discourage Mizoguchi from doing anything similar. For the last time, they discuss the Zen story of Nansen and the kitten.

Final events

On 15 June, Father Dosen takes the unusual step of giving Mizoguchi ¥4250 in cash for his next year's tuition. Mizoguchi spends it on prostitutes in the hope that Dosen will be forced to expel him. But he quickly tires of waiting for Dosen to find out, and when he spies on Dosen in the Tower of the North Star, and seems him crouched in the "garden waiting" position, he cannot account for this evidence of secret shame, and is filled with confusion. The next day he buys arsenic and a knife at a shop near Senbon-Imadegawa, an intersection 2 km to the southeast of the temple, and loiters outside Nishijin Police Station. The outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June, and the failure of Kinkaku's fire-alarm on 29 June, seem to him signs of encouragement. On 30 June a repairman tries to fix it, but he is unsuccessful, and promises to return the next day. He does not come. A strange interview with the visiting Father Kuwai Zenkai, of Ryuho-ji in Fukui Prefecture, provides the final inspiration, and in the early hours of 2 July Mizoguchi sneaks into the Kinkaku and dumps his belongings, placing three straw bales in corners of the ground floor. He goes outside to sink some non-inflammable items in the pond, but on turning back to the temple he finds himself filled with his childhood visions of its beauty, and he is overcome by uncertainty.

Finally he remembers the words from the Rinzairoku, "When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha", and he resolves to go ahead with his plan. He enters the Kinkaku and sets the bales on fire. He runs upstairs and tries to enter the Kukkyōchō, but the door is locked. He hammers at the door for a minute or two. Suddenly feeling that a glorious death has been "refused" him, he runs back downstairs and out of the temple, choking on the smoke. He continues running, out of the temple grounds, and up the hill named Hidari Daimonji, to the north. He throws away the arsenic and knife, lights a cigarette, and watches the pavilion burn.

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When Beauty led to destruction (Mishima Yukio: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

You have very much figure out that I am a fan of Mishima by now. This is my third Mishima book and I have resolved to fork out money to buy the rest of his backlist because I badly want to read them all and because my local libraries don’t stock every Mishima’s title. I am afraid I wouldn’t be qualify to discuss the psychological and literature merit of this complex novel. It is surely one that requires re-reading to soak up everything that goes on within the inner world of Mizoguchi, the protagonist.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is loosely based on the burning of the Reliquary (or Golden Pavilion) of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto by a young Buddhist acolyte in 1950. The temple’s real name is the Rokuon-ji, from the first two characters of the posthumous name of its builder, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. But the shariden or reliquary in its grounds, the Kinkaku, grew so famous that the temple became known as the Kinkaku-ji instead. The pavilion, dating from before 1400, was a national monument which had been spared destruction many times throughout history, and the arson shocked Japan.

A little history about the Golden Temple:

Kinkaku-ji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion), also known as Rokuon-ji, Deer Garden Temple), is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. The garden complex is an excellent example of Muromachi period garden design. It is designated as a National Special Historic Site and a National Special Landscape, and it is one of 17 World Cultural Heritage sites in Kyoto. It is also one of the most popular buildings in Japan, attracting a large number of visitors annually.

The site of Kinkaku-ji was originally a villa called Kitayama-dai, belonging to a powerful statesman, Saionji Kintsune. Kinkaku-ji’s history dates to 1397, when the villa was purchased from the Saionjis by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and transformed into the Kinkaku-ji complex. When Yoshimitsu died, the building was converted into a Zen temple by his son, according to his wishes.

During the Onin war, all of the buildings in the complex aside from the pavilion were burned down. On July 2, 1950, at 2:30 am, it was burned down by a monk named Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the Daimon-ji hill behind the building. He survived, and was subsequently taken into custody. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released because of mental illness on September 29, 1955; he died of other illnesses shortly after in 1956. During the fire, the original statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was lost to the flames (now restored).

The present pavilion structure dates from 1955, when it was rebuilt. The reconstruction is said to be an exact copy of the original, although some doubt such an extensive gold-leaf coating was used on the original structure. In 1984, the coating of Japanese lacquer was found a little decayed, and a new coating as well as gilding with gold-leaf, much thicker than the original coatings (5/10,000mm instead of 1/10,000mm), was completed in 1987. Additionally, the interior of the building, including the paintings and Yoshimitsu’s statue, were also restored. Finally, the roof was restored in 2003.


Back to the novel, after his father’s death, Mizoguchi was sent to the Temple as an acolyte and it is his parents’ hope that he will one day rise to the rank of Superior. Mizoguchi sees himself as ugly and speak with a stutter. He sees his deformity as a contradiction with the great beauty of the temple.

My stuttering, I need hardly say, placed an obstacle between me and the outside world. It is the first sound that I have trouble uttering. This first sound is like a key to the door that separates my inner world from the world outside, and I have never known that key to turn smoothly in its lock.

It is no exaggeration to say that the first real problem I face in my life was that of beauty. At the thought that beauty should already have come into this world unknown to me, I could not help feeling a certain uneasiness and irritation. If beauty really did exist there, it meant that my own existence was a thing estranged from beauty. – page 20

I could not say wherein this beauty (of the temple) lay. It seemed that what had been nurtured in my dreams had become real and could now, in turn, serve as an impulse for further dreams. – page 27


In the temple Mizoguchi befriended a sweet nature boy called Tsurukawa, but felt that as they go off to the university they should spend less time together and get to know other people. This is the period when Mizoguchi fell into the bad influence of Kashiwagi’s company.

Kashiwagi is the son of a Zen priest who happens to be born clubfooted. So just like Mizoguchi and his stutter, Kashiwagi shares an imperfection that makes them both “tainted” in the eyes of beauty. At one point Kashiwagi discloses a sexual experience with an attractive girl, but how he then became repulsed by his own clubfeet touching her. Eventually, Mizoguchi learns that beauty can be attained through skill. He learns this after listening to Kashiwagi play the flute, and his ability to create something of beauty triumphs, despite the imperfection of his clubfeet. He actually notes: “Kashiwagi’s playing…sounded so beautiful not only because of the lovely moonlit background, but because of his hideous clubfeet.”

Kashiwagi then admits to disliking anything of lasting beauty, and how his likings “were limited to things such as music, which vanished instantly, or flower arrangements, which faded in a matter of days; he loathed architecture and literature.”

People with comic looks like me are extremely adept at avoiding the danger of appearing tragic by mistake. I knew every well that if I once began to appear tragic, people would no longer feel at ease when they came into contact with me. It was especially important for the souls of other people that I should never appear to be a wretched figure. – Kashiwagi, page 91

The novel thus evolves into a philosophical meditation on beauty, and Mishima’s well-crafted prose is beauty in itself. Mishima’s lead characters are all not particularly likable (except Ms Kazu Fukuzawa, the main charater in After the Banquet), Mishima crafts the narrative voice of a young delinquent very well, so that even if I don’t always agree with the character’s ill intent, Mishima always managed to present plausible arguments that made me understand why such an obsession or perverse idea exists in the first place.

The idea of arson soon germinates into a resolution. A series of catalysts of events led Mizoguchi to the point of resolution. Hatred of beauty is one, Kashiwagi’s influence another, the Temple’s corrupted leadership and many other more subtle reasons culminates into the one disastrous action of arson.

Mizoguchi’s severance from the social space was further escalated by his lack of a father figure. He perceived his own father, a lowly Buddhist monk, as physically and morally weak. Not only was Mizoguchi’s father sickly, his father also tolerated his mother’s extramarital affairs with other men. Other speculation for the motive cited Mizoguchi’s final act of burning the temple can be interpreted as classic example of the oedipal imbroglio of killing the father, “the root of everyone else’s powerlessness.” He only wanted to get rid of the symbolic strictures (as crystallized in the figure of Temple of the Golden Pavilion) that blocked his access to his desires. Thus Mizoguchi goes out his way to challenge the Superior’s authority and when his misbehaviours went unpunished, he was affirmed of the Superior’s powerlessness.

The novel is not all about obsession with beauty and its destruction plan. There are tender moments of growing up pains and love for his first friend Tsurukawa:

I stuttered silently inside my mouth, like when one vainly searches for something in a bag and instead keeps on coming across some other object that one does not want. The heaviness and density of my inner world closely resembled those of the night and my words creaked to the surface like a heavy bucket being drawn out of the night’s deep well. – page 233

In the first place, doesn’t luxurious dissatisfaction at the thought that one may not be living fully? – page 94

And what I envied most about him was that he managed to reach the end of his life without the slightest conscience of being burdened with a special individuality or sense of individual mission like mine. This sense of individuality robbed my life of its symbolism, that is to say, or its power to serve, like Tsurukawa’s, as a metaphor for something outside itself; accordingly it deprived me of the feelings of life’s extensity and solidarity, and it became the source of that sense of solitude which pursued me indefinitely. It was strange. I did not even have any feeling of solidarity with nothingness. – page 122


This novel projects a philosophical depth in multifarious ways that in whatever perspective you look at it, you will most probably find your answer. Besides a lengthy meditation on beauty and ugliness, you will get a glimpse of life as a temple acolyte, read a coming of age novel about a rebellious young boy and his sexual awakening, about good and evil friendships, estranged relationship with parents etc. etc., that depending on which phase of your life and at what point you are reading this, you will see it in a new light at each read. I am sure of this.

The book ends with a different intention than the Hayashi, the arsonist in real life. I read somewhere that in an online documentary, Mishima comments that the act of seppuku has to be done on a body that is “beautiful”. Mishima himself spent years bodybuilding and crafting his physique into something of physical beauty, all with the intention of someday gutting his stomach. Many of these themes are present in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, albeit indirectly: the idea of destruction of beauty and death. Perhaps when I read more of his closely biographical work such as Confession of the Mask or Forbidden Colours I would clearly see the motivation for Mishima’s suicide; but for the time being I am happy not to read too deep into the creator’s mind or decipher which voices most resembles his.

Rating: 5/5

This is a highly philosophical and at times, complex novel. And although the character is self destructive, he is believable and well crafted. You get sucked into the world of the Golden temple that Mizoguchi is obsessed with. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, for all its destruction and angst, is without a doubt a work of beauty in itself. Reading it in the elegantly bind copy of the Everyman’s Library Classics edition, it is a rather surreal and beautiful experience for me.

I am reading this for Japanese Literature Challenge 4. The Everyman’s Library Classics edition comes with a ruminating introduction by Donald Keene (Sincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia Unviersity), which contains spoilers, for this reason I always read Introductions last; it also contains a chronology of Mishima’s fascinating life. Fascinating new facts of his life: real name: Hiraoka Kimitake, studied law in Tokyo University, took up physical examination for military service and passed, 1947 work for Ministry of Finance, took up body building in 1955, learnt English in 1957, took up boxing in 1958, had a daughter Noriko and son, Iichiro, 1968 established a small private army called ‘Shield Society’ with avowed purpose of defending the Emperor, 25 November 1970 commited seppuku.

Hardback. [Everyman’s Library Classics, 1994, originally published 1956],[247 pages],[Bracknell Library Loot], Finished reading at: 15th October 2010. Translated by Ivan Morris, Introduced by Donald Keene.

I am curious of Mizoguchi’s (or Hayashi Yoken, the name of the real arsonist) obsession. I googled up some pictures of the Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple) in Kinkaku, Kyoto, and I was strucked by how beautiful the temple is, the gold reflect against the sun and reflection and the structure’s serene composure on the face of the pond. Have a look!….