The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

A Writer Remembered for the Wrong Reason

Japanese literature is not one of my strongest fields (to put it mildly!) but Yukio Mishima is a writer whom I have found interesting – although perhaps for the wrong reason. Because Mishima, who was three times nominated for the Noble Prize in literature, ultimately is probably more famous for his failed coup d’état followed by his seppuku (ritual suicide) in 1970 than for his novels. To somebody like me, who is interested in history, Mishima’s coup d’état throws up lots of questions about postwar Japan. Nevertheless, it’s probably not what you would want to be remembered for as a writer.

I read two of Mishima’s novels: Runaway Horses – which is the second part of his tetralogy, the Sea of Fertility – and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and I can’t in clear conscience say that I loved them. Which is not to say that they were not well written; but I find his inescapable fascination with death disturbing. When you consider the way he ended his life and look at some biographical facts, you have to wonder if Mishima was entirely sane although to the best of my knowledge he was never diagnosed with any mental illness.


The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is based on the real incident of the burning down of one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, the Kinkaku-ji – the temple of Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion, one of the buildings of the Zen Buddhist temple in the former imperial capital Kyoto, was set alight by a novice monk in 1950. The temple was built at the end of the 1300s and became famous for its golden pavilion. It was repeatedly spared destruction throughout Japan’s turbulent history – most notably in the Onin war in which most of Kyoto was burned down and to which the novel makes repeated references.

The Golden Pavilion in 1886, in the aftermath of the fire and in 2004. Source: Wikipedia
The Golden Pavilion in 1886, in the aftermath of the fire and in 2004. Source: Wikipedia

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion traces the mental processes of the young acolyte, Mizoguchi, as he progresses from a childhood fascination with the beauty of the pavilion towards the desire to destroy it. The story develops in a straightforward narrative with some recurring elements – like the woman who lost her lover in the war and the cryptic Zen tale of Nansen and the cat – against the backdrop of second world war and its immediate aftermath. Mizoguchi’s two friends, the ‘good’ Tsurukawa and the ‘bad’ Kashiwagi stand as counterpoints between whom he oscillates as he picks his path, moving inexorably towards his act of destruction in the shadow of Father Dosen, the chief priest at the temple whose place at some point he aspired to inherit.

Mizoguchi considers himself ugly and he suffers from a stutter – the beautiful Kinkaku, the Golden Pavilion is everything he isn’t. But the reasons behind him setting fire to the pavilion are more complex than that. I found the tale of Nansen and the cat particularly intriguing in this context. It left me feeling that – unless Mishima played an elaborate joke on his readers – if I could only decipher the meaning of this tale (I have plenty of theories but none of them strike me as the right answer), I could gain a genuine insight into Mizoguchi’s mind. And perhaps Mishima’s.

Nansen Kills the Cat

In the tale of Nansen and the cat, two groups of monks training under Nansen started to fight over a beautiful and cuddly cat that strayed onto the grounds of the monastery. Nansen noticed the fuss. He picked up the cat and said: “If you can say anything, I won’t cut it into two.” But no-one could say anything so Nansen cut the cat in two.

A little later, one of Nansen’s favourite disciples, Joshu, who had been working in the fields, returned to the monastery. Nansen told him what happened. Joshu immediately took off his sandals and put them on his head, then walked away. Nansen looked after him and said, “If you had been here, you would have saved the cat.”

Now the first part of the parable is clear enough to any Western mind: it’s the classic case of squabbling children: since they can’t share, you take away the toy. Although – since I know eff-all about Zen Buddhism – it might not be the interpretation that the author of the tale looked for. But assuming I got that part right, we come to the second part, about Joshu putting his sandals on his head and walking away and his master saying…


I ask you:

What did Joshu mean by putting his sandals on his head?
And why did Nansen react to this by saying: “If you were here, you would have saved the cat?”

Do leave a comment if you have any theories.

One thought on “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

  1. Pingback: Liebster Award, Yay! | LeennasCreativeBox

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