I recently read a book that, a decade ago, created a controversy in Japan about homosexuality. In it the prize-winning writer Jiro Fukushima described his sexual relationship with Yukio Mishima dating from 1951.

Because of the book, Mishima’s surviving family sued the publisher and the author. Or, more precisely, Mishima’s daughter, Noriko, and his son, Iichiro, brought a lawsuit saying Fukushima violated the copyright law and Mishima’s “personality right” (jinkaku-ken) by incorporating Mishima’s letters into his account without permission.

But the general sense was that Noriko and Iichiro did not like Fukushima’s candid descriptions of their father’s sex with men. As the publisher Bungei Shunju put it, the suit was “based on prejudicial sentiments against homosexuals.”

I found Fukushima’s book to be a well-written, convincing account — not just of his relationship with the famous author, but also of his own amorphous sexuality. So I asked a friend in Tokyo to find newspaper articles on the lawsuit. In the November elections, Arizona, California and Florida approved referendums to ban gay marriage, and Gus Van Sant’s film, “Milk” — about San Francisco gay advocate Harvey Milk, who was shot dead in 1978 — had just arrived to great acclaim.

The articles my friend found began in March 1998, when Mishima’s children filed their “cease and desist” complaint with the Tokyo District Court, and ended in November 2000, when the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as “without merit.”

Reading them, I saw that Bungei Shunju was right in its initial reaction. Till then, personal letters were not regarded as falling under copyright protection or no lawsuits arguing otherwise had been brought. Mishima’s correspondence with Yasunari Kawabata, for example, had been published four months before Fukushima’s book, and it had not provoked any demurral from Noriko and Iichiro. (Mishima’s wife, Yoko, who had worked hard to suppress the suggestion that her husband was interested in men, died in 1995.)

Worse, the court’s reasoning that certain letters may come under copyright protections but certain others may not was, to quote the publisher again, “lacking in persuasiveness.” In his decision in October 1999, Toshiaki Iimura, chief judge of the Tokyo District Court, argued that if a personal letter conveyed “simple seasonal greetings” or was “a reply,” you may quote it with impunity. But, if a letter went beyond it and expressed “feelings, a worldview, or a philosophy of life,” you cannot. Isn’t that too subjective a standard to be useful?

Yes, “personality rights” have to do with libel, and libel suits are largely subjective. I do not find anything that befouls Mishima’s reputation in the 15 letters of his that Fukushima cites. If anything, Mishima’s own work, “Confessions of a Mask,” which had established him as a novelist at age 24, seems to contain more material prejudicial to his “personality.” Mishima then wrote what might be called his homosexual magnum opus, “Forbidden Colors.”

In fact, it was none other than “Confessions of a Mask” that shook up Fukushima, making him feel “as if a pill resembling a toxin, thrown into my body, had quickly spurted up blue bubbles, without melting, and spread throughout me,” and it was “Forbidden Colors” that prompted him, a poor college student from the countryside, to dare visit Mishima simply to ask where the gay bar described in the novel was.

There was also the question of invasion of privacy. But, as Noriko and Iichiro certainly knew, their father based the lead characters of “After the Banquet” — his 1960 novel fictionalizing the 1959 gubernatorial election in Tokyo — on the former diplomat Hachiro Arita and his feisty wife. When Arita sued him on the grounds of invasion of privacy, Mishima insisted he had not committed any such infringement. He kept doing so even after the Tokyo District Court judged against him, with finality, in 1964.

I can cite several other reasons to suggest how silly and backward the lawsuit was, but I’ll limit myself to one.

Two years before he killed himself in an ultimate show of male bonding — the young man who beheaded him followed him in death — Mishima wrote an introduction to Tamotsu Yato’s collection of photographs celebrating Japan’s “naked festivals” (hadaka matsuri). Men taking part in them wear nothing but loincloths, most of the time.

In that essay, Mishima rued how culturally diffident the Japanese were when they opened their country to the West in the 19th century. They thought they were “backward” in comparison with Europeans and set out to suppress many of the things that were natural to their own culture. They were unaware that the seemingly “advanced” Westerners came with a lode of cultural hangups of their own.

Among the customs the Japanese tried to snuff out as “barbaric” amid the onslaught of Christian morality was the “naked festivals.” Another was the easy custom of men and women bathing together. One thing Mishima could have readily mentioned but didn’t, though he had made it palpably clear elsewhere, was male-male love.

A memorable account describes the amazement of Shin Yuhan, a member of the Korean Embassy to Japan in 1719. A candid recorder of things he observed and what he thought of them, Shin could not believe how Japanese men — from lords of fiefdoms on down to ordinary folks — pampered and indulged young men. Evidently, his male compatriots did no such thing. But he could not believe his eyes partly because he found the Japanese women so “sensuous and elegant” as not to be human.

With a new president about to take office, this bit of reflection brings to mind Bill Clinton’s first policy failure as U.S. president 15 years ago: realizing his campaign promise to secure full civil rights for gays in the military. Among those who opposed it, despite a rally of 1 million supporters in Washington, on April 25, 1993, was Colin Powell. In his autobiography, “My Life,” Clinton says the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told him that to recognize rights for gays in the military would be “prejudicial to good order and discipline.” Some have since suggested that Clinton should have fired Powell for insubordination.

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.

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