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Suicidal Honor

Suicidal Honor: General Nogi and the Writings of Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki

Doris G. Bargen
Copyright Date: 2006
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    Suicidal Honor
    Book Description:

    On September 13, 1912, the day of Emperor Meiji’s funeral, General Nogi Maresuke committed ritual suicide by seppuku (disembowelment). It was an act of delayed atonement that paid a debt of honor incurred thirty-five years earlier. The revered military hero’s wife joined in his act of junshi ("following one’s lord into death"). The violence of their double suicide shocked the nation. What had impelled the general and his wife, on the threshold of a new era, to resort so drastically, so dramatically, to this forbidden, anachronistic practice? The nation was divided. There were those who saw the suicides as a heroic affirmation of the samurai code; others found them a cause for embarrassment, a sign that Japan had not yet crossed the cultural line separating tradition from modernity. While acknowledging the nation’s sharply divided reaction to the Nogis’ junshi as a useful indicator of the event’s seismic impact on Japanese culture, Doris G. Bargen in the first half of her book demonstrates that the deeper significance of Nogi’s action must be sought in his personal history, enmeshed as it was in the tumultuous politics of the Meiji period. Suicidal Honor traces Nogi’s military career (and personal travail) through the armed struggles of the collapsing shôgunate and through the two wars of imperial conquest during which Nogi played a significant role: the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). It also probes beneath the political to explore the religious origins of ritual self-sacrifice in cultures as different as ancient Rome and today’s Nigeria. Seen in this context, Nogi’s death was homage to the divine emperor. But what was the significance of Nogi’s waiting thirty-five years before he offered himself as a human sacrifice to a dead rather than living deity? To answer this question, Bargen delves deeply and with great insight into the story of Nogi’s conflicted career as a military hero who longed to be a peaceful man of letters. In the second half of Suicidal Honor Bargen turns to the extraordinary influence of the Nogis’ deaths on two of Japan’s greatest writers, Mori Ôgai and Natsume Sôseki. Ôgai’s historical fiction, written in the immediate aftermath of his friend’s junshi, is a profound meditation on the significance of ritual suicide in a time of historical transition. Stories such as "The Sakai Incident" ("Sakai jiken") appear in a new light and with greatly enhanced resonance in Bargen’s interpretation. In Sôseki’s masterpiece, Kokoro, Sensei, the protagonist, refers to the emperor’s death and his general’s junshi before taking his own life. Scholars routinely mention these references, but Bargen demonstrates convincingly the uncanny ways in which Sôseki’s agonized response to Nogi’s suicide structures the entire novel. By exploring the historical and literary legacies of Nogi, Ôgai, and Sôseki from an interdisciplinary perspective, Suicidal Honor illuminates Japan’s prolonged and painful transition from the idealized heroic world of samurai culture to the mundane anxieties of modernity. It is a study that will fascinate specialists in the fields of Japanese literature, history, and religion, and anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Japan’s warrior culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6451-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION: An Incomprehensible Act
    (pp. 1-8)

    The Meiji period officially began with the enthronement of Emperor Mutsuhito (1852–1912;r. 1867–1912) on 12 October 1868.¹ It ended with his death forty-four years later, on 30 July 1912. The funeral took place in Tōkyō on 13 September 1912. On that day, as the funeral procession departed from the imperial palace for the parade grounds of Aoyama, an extraordinary event occurred that shocked the nation. One of Japan’s most famous and revered generals, Nogi Maresuke (1849–1912), committed ritual suicide by disembowelment(seppuku).According to the autopsy report, he cut open his stomach from left to right and...

  6. Part I: “Following One’s Lord into Death”

    • CHAPTER 1 Sacrifice and Self-Sacrifice
      (pp. 11-19)

      When Emperor Meiji died on 30 July 1912, after an eventful, remarkably long reign of forty–four years, his people were disoriented and inconsolable. The length of this reign and the close association of the emperor with his era made Meiji’s death especially traumatic. His passing signaled the end of an era that—in encyclopedic compactness and formulaic generalization—“saw the transformation of feudal Japan into a modern industrialized state with a parliamentary form of government and its emergence as a world power through military adventures abroad.”¹ The end of the era was also a pivotal religious moment.

      Descended in...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Japanese Custom of Junshi
      (pp. 20-30)

      It is easy to understand that prisoners, captives, or slaves did not want to be sacrificed in order to serve the posthumous needs of a deceased ruler or to avert the cosmic uncertainties of an interregnum. Much harder to understand is a ritual sacrifice in which attendants—not captives—willingly followed their lord into death. Motivation was crucial. In its prototypical Japanese form, junshi is voluntary human sacrifice upon the death of a secular lord who is venerated like a deity. Junshi is performed by seppuku, an elaborate ritual usually requiring a second or a witness. Junshi expresses so strong...

  7. Part II: Nogi in History

    • CHAPTER 3 Nogi’s Life Sentences
      (pp. 33-63)

      The roots of Nogi Maresuke’s junshi are deeply hidden in his personal history and intricately intertwined with the rebellious and reformist movements of the Bakumatsu period and the international politics of the Meiji period.

      The Nogi House traced its origins back to Atsuzane, the ninth son of Emperor Uda (867–931; r. 887–897). Prominent among the family’s ancestors was Sasaki Shirō Takatsuna (?–1214), a grandson of Minamoto Tameyoshi (1096–1156). While Takatsuna was still a child, most of his family was destroyed in the Heiji Insurrection (Heijino ran,1159–1160), but he was spared—as was his...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Sword and the Brush
      (pp. 64-82)

      Nogi intentionally timed his death on 13 September 1912 to coincide with the departure of Emperor Meiji’s funeral cortege from the Imperial Palace at Nijūbashi in Tōkyō. Nogi was expected to be among the most esteemed of thousands of mourners. If the procession began at 8 p.m., the lineup must have begun quite some time before that. Ten thousand honor guards were part of the “massive funeral train” of over twenty thousand persons, and twenty-four thousand soldiers were positioned along the route.¹ (Some sources refer to seven thousand attending the funeral and three hundred thousand lining the streets.)² The concluding...

  8. Part III: Nogi in Literature

    • CHAPTER 5 Mori Ōgai’s Junshi Stories
      (pp. 85-121)

      Among the mourners in Emperor Meiji’s funeral procession on 13 September 1912 was Nogi’s friend and military colleague, the writer and army surgeon general Mori Ōgai (1862–1922). When rumors of the Nogis’ death reached Ōgai in the early morning hours of 14 September, he was shaken to the core and confessed in his diary that he “half believed, half doubted it”(yo hanshin hangi su).¹ Ōgai had known Nogi as a military man and man of letters since the two of them had studied in Berlin in 1887.² Mori Oto (1889–1967)³ noted his father’s fondness for Nogi, which...

    • CHAPTER 6 Mori Ōgai’s “Sakai jiken”: Rebellion and Martyrdom
      (pp. 122-158)

      One of Ōgai’s responses to the national and personal trauma of 1912 was to write about an apparently unrelated incident that, like the deaths of Emperor Meiji and his general, marked Japan’s transition from one era to another. This incident occurred at the apex of the political and social movements linking the revolutionary Bakumatsu period (1853–1867), the tumultuous interim of the Meiji Restoration (Meiji ishin,1867–1868), and the Restoration War (Boshinsensō,27 January 1868–27 June 1869).

      On 8 March 1868, Tosa soldiers stationed in the port of Sakai, near Ōsaka, killed eleven French sailors, thus plunging...

    • CHAPTER 7 Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro: Living as Though Dead
      (pp. 159-188)

      In Ōgai’s historical fiction, Nogi does not appear. Yet Ōgai was obsessed, from the moment he heard about Nogi’s junshi, with coming to grips with a man he thought he knew. Like many, he was uneasy; and like many, he was moved. Nogi had committed an act both anachronistic for the new Japan and eminently suited to his personality. With the fervor of Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811), some of whose historical fiction he had translated from German into Japanese,¹ Ōgai set out in his historical fiction to uncover the mysteries of junshi. Swooping down like the swallow in “Abe...

    • CODA: Last Stands in Ancient Rome and Modern Japan
      (pp. 189-198)

      It is easy to condemn General Nogi for his military failures, and it would be even easier to condemn him altogether if he had not ultimately displayed his virtues by an act of self-sacrificial atonement. Yet he was adopted, if reluctantly by some, as a Japanese hero—akami—because, unlike less conflicted military men, he seemed to embody the nation’s painful transition from the Meiji era into an increasingly modern world. Nogi had been a divided figure, torn for thirty-five years between wanting to die and having to live. When he was at last free to assert his will...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 199-258)
    (pp. 259-278)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 279-289)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 290-290)