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When most people think of Japan, a few images stick out in their head: things like cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji, and Kinkaku-ji.

You might not know the name Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺), but you’re almost certainly seen pictures of it. It’s the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, a shining temple covered inside and out with gold leaf sitting at the edge of a pond. It’s an incredible sight.

Kinkaku-ji is a UN World Heritage Site, putting it up there with the Pyramids of Giza, the Statue of Liberty, and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. If you have a Mac, you have a picture of Kinkaku-ji on your computer in the default wallpapers.

But what a lot of people don’t know is that the Kinkaku-ji you see today is actually not that old. Kinkaku-ji is only about 60 years old, because 60 years ago, a schizophrenic monk burned down the original structure.

Fact or Fiction?

On July 2 1950, a monk by the name of Hayashi Yoken set fire to Kinkaku-ji, burning it to the ground; that much is indisputable. But over the years, Yoken’s identity and motives have been blurred.

In 1956, author and would-be revolutionary Yukio Mishima published The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a fictional recounting of the burning of the Golden Temple. The book definitely has a basis in fact (Mishima even visited Yoken in his prison cell), but it’s largely a world of Mishima’s creation.

You’d think that the actual event of Yoken burning down the Temple of the Golden Pavilion would be more famous than the book based on the event, but that’s not the case.

Mishima was an enormous figure in 20th century Japanese history. He was an author, an intellectual, and a bit of a revolutionary. During his lifetime, he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Mishima’s death was one of the most dramatic events in Japan. He and his private militia took over a government building where Mishima gave a speech on a balcony, then came inside and ritualistically killed himself.

As if Mishima’s life weren’t enough to eclipse the reality of Yoken and the arson of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mishima’s life was made into a high-budget film (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola with an original soundtrack by Philip Glass.

It’s hard to escape the fictionalization of events once it’s been scored by Glass’s arpeggios.

What really happened that July day? Who was the man who burned down this incredible temple?

The Real Story

Even though he tried to kill himself after burning down Kinkaku-ji, Hayashi Yoken was completely unapologetic about the arson. In a police interview, Yoken said “. . . I do not believe that I have done anything wrong. It is said that a national treasure has been burned, but that seems more or less meaningless

There are lots of theories why he did it.

The big motivator in Mishima’s book was that the monk thought that Kinkaku-ji was too beautiful, and it seems that Yoken did really think that. Yoken definitely wouldn’t be the first person to destroy something because of its beauty.

Some say that Yoken had low self-worth, and burned the temple as a way of lashing out. Since he was a child, he had a massive stuttering problem that plagued him throughout his life. At his trial, Yoken confessed “I hate myself, my evil, ugly, stammering self.

Others (like Japanologist god Donald Keene) say that Yoken did it because he thought that Buddhism had become too commercialized. Kinkaku-ji was and still is a huge tourist attraction, and takes in a ton of tax-exempt money from it. Zen master Sawaki asked “For what purpose were Kinkakuji . . . and all of the other old temples built? Certainly not for monks to practice Buddhism there.

But pretty much everybody agreed he was mentally ill. The courts diagnosed Yoken with every ailment from schizophrenia to extreme paranoia to dementia.

The exact reason why Yoken burned down Kinkaku-ji will probably never fully be known, and a lot of people in Japan would rather forget about the whole thing and move on. But if you ever get the chance to visit Kinkaku-ji, take a second to think about that young man who set the world ablaze.

  • Ben

    Very interesting! Thank you for the read, I think I will look some more into his life.

  • Brittney Howdyshell

    He is a really interesting character! He amassed a personal army, took over a government building and then committed seppuku. Even more interesting is that he wrote a tetralogy called The Sea of Fertility that laid out his plan to do all of this. He is fascinating, and he wrote some really fabulous books. Seriously check out his work.

    P.S. Hashi, thank you for posting about Mishima. It would be really interesting to see a post in more detail about him. He was pretty crazy.

  • Ben

    OH! *He* wrote The Sea Of Fertility?? I’ve heard it’s an incredibly prolific work. This gives me even more reason to check it out. Thanks!

  • Brittney Howdyshell

    P.P.S Sorry, I was so excited about this post that I didn’t read it before commenting, and I just realized that I repeated what was written.

    A non-repeated fact to make up for it: Mishima didn’t give a crap about getting married, so he let his parents arrange a marriage for him. His only requirements were that she must be shorter than him (he was very short), and that she’d never read anything he’d written before. He was totally crazy, and super fascinating as a result.

  • Makoto

    it’s not about the treasure, it’s about sending a message.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nathanjjevans Nathan J Evans

    interesting read

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > Kinkaku-ji is a UN World Heritage Site,
    > putting it up there with the Pyramids
    > of Giza, the Statue of Liberty, and the
    > Cathedral of Notre-Dame.

    The two halves of that sentence do not belong together. If you want to argue that 金閣寺 is on par with those three sites, you should make that case on its merits. Being a World Heritage Site does not put it on par with them. Being a World Heritage Site puts Kinkakuji on par with the Cahokia Mounds, the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Whale Valley, Tsodilo, Tassili n’Ajjer, the Socotra Archipelago, Abu Mena, Sahr-i-Bahlol, the Bend of the Boyne, Derwent Valley Mills, Sammallahdenmaki, the Great Plains of Molvania, and over nine hundred other sites, at least five hundred of which you’ve never heard of. I’ve never heard of about a third of the ones in my own country, and I’m a geography nut.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I agree that Kinkaku-ji might not be on the same scale as the Pyramids or the Statue of Liberty, but a Heritage Site is a Heritage Site, no? There aren’t like, different tiers of sites, are there?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607790802 Alex Napoli

    Mishima didn’t simply take over a government building and deliver a speech, he tried to stage a coup d’état at JSDF. He wanted to rally Japanese spirit or something (I still really don’t know what his goals were).

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thanks!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, my history about Mishima is definitely a quick ‘n’ dirty version so I glossed over a few details, but as far as I can tell, Mishima had planned for a while to kill himself that day, so I’m not sure how much of a coup he was planning.

  • wesley.akh@gmail.com

    Eryk recently blogged about this same event over on This Japanese Life. Not sure if his version has any more truth to it than these, but the story he weaves is absolutely fascinating, regardless! Read it at: http://thisjapaneselife.org/2012/10/18/the-neurotics-travel-guide-to-kyoto-part-2/. Scroll down to the last section, “Kinkaku-ji.”

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’m a big fan of This Japanese Life! That article actually inspired me to write this.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    It’s so sad. Many buildings haven’t survived because tsunamis, typhoons or earthquakes as well as wars destroyed them. Japan doesn’t need crazy monks to destroy even more.

    That’s why I love original structures, esp. original castles are very interesting to visit.

    Did you know that there’s also a Golden Temple in Shirahama (Wakayama Prefecture)?
    http://www.arakawas.sakura.ne.jp/backn010/sirakink/sirakink.html
    It doesn’t look like the original, though.
    I wanted to visit last weekend when I was in Shirahama, but they told me it can’t be accessed at the moment.

  • Pepper_the_Sgt

    Yeah, my understanding is that he was radically traditional (if that makes sense) and didn’t like how Japan was being Westernized. He was into the warrior spirit kind of thing, explaining the dramatic seppuku. I really need to get around to reading some of his stories. I found a couple of his works cheap at a book store, but they’ve just been sitting on my shelf unloved.

  • Mullsack

    Some men just want to watch the world burn..

  • http://twitter.com/PinkStarhime シドニー

    Aw I have a mac and went to find my picture of 金閣寺 and was disappointed when I don’t have it. *goes to google* D:

  • Liz

    Read Patriotism by Mishima, it’s almost like his death rehearsal!

  • caro

    Hi, first time commenter. Just found the site today and absolutely love it. But – I don’t love the title of this article. It was suggested that the monk was mentally ill but it wasn’t established that he was definitely schizophrenic, according to the article. So why jump to labeling him as schizophrenic in the title? Is it because it’s predictable and fits the stigma attached to the illness? As someone with a close relative who is schizophrenic, I resent this. People already have such stigma attached to the idea “schizophrenia” without knowing what it’s really like that I was afraid to read the comments to see if anyone was going to something alarmist and misinformed.

  • caro

    *say* is missing in the last sentence