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Suicidal Honor: General Nogi and the Writings of Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki
304pp. October 2006
Suicidal Honor: General Nogi and the Writings of Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki
Author: Bargen, Doris G.;
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.

"By bringing into focus the historically specific circumstances surrounding Nogi’s life, and bringing together the selected texts of Ogai and Soseki, the book gives us invaluable insight not only into Nogi’s junshi but also into Ogai and Soseki’s moral dilemma and anguish and into the challenges that the changing values of the bakumatsu and Meiji periods must have posed for the Japanese people in general." —Journal of Japanese Studies (34:1, 2008)

"Wide-ranging [and] ambitious. . . . The book’s first and second sections are grounded in history, focusing on the practice of ritual suicide and the life of General Nogi; chapters herein should prove of great use to undergraduates seeking background information on Meiji and Taisho history. The third section, which explores the relationship between Nogi’s junshi and the works of Meiji-period authors Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki, is of greater theoretical complexity. . . . Highly recommended." —Choice (444:9, May 2007)

"Suicidal Honor is a model of modern literary criticism with an international perspective." —Japan Times (8 April 2007)

Author: Bargen, Doris G.;
Doris G. Bargen is professor of Japanese literature and culture and director of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Read Chapter 1 (PDF).