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.