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The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

Ivan Morris

New York: The Noonday Press, 1975; Pp. xxiii, 500, maps, index, bibliography, notes

Review © 2002 Branislav L. Slantchev

One aspect of Japanese history and a frequent occurrence in their tales has been the tragic fate of the hero who sacrifices himself knowing full well that his sacrifice is meaningless if one only cared about the outcome of his struggle. That is, in many instances, heroes march to their doom with grim determination in spite of, or probably because of, the realization that their quest has been for naught and that they are going to die. Far from being ridiculed, these people are honored and remembered fondly, often given as paragons of loyalty. I remember the first time I read the story of the 47 ronin, who avenge their lord's death. It was grisly, it was tragic, and it was endlessly fascinating. And there are many stories like this one.

Ivan Morris (who many probably know for his superb translation of Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book and his excellent study of Heian Japan, The World of the Shining Prince), gives us a study of heroes that failed. The book has ten chapters, nine dedicated to one person each, and the tenth dealing with the kamikaze fighters of World War II. Morris traces a long and enduring tradition in Japanese culture that not only sanctioned self-sacrifice, but made it mandatory in many cases. We do have self-sacrifice in our Western tradition, but it is invariably linked to success: Heroes that die so that their cause may survive and triumph. We tend to worship our successful heroes, the ones that win or at least the ones that lose their lives but whose ideals are victorious.

Not so with these Japanese heroes, who share a common trajectory of fate. After an initial explosive success that takes them to dizzying heights in esteem and popularity, they plummet to their noble deaths (usually self-inflicted) and with them their entire cause, their most cherished aspirations, perish irreversibly forever. Their single-minded pursuit of purity of heart and their sincerity of purpose, do not permit a worldly compromise that would spare their lives and sometimes even make the fulfilment of their goals possible. Instead, the same persistent integrity that would propel them upwards and distinguish them from their common-sense contemporaries would inevitably bring them into conflict with the forces that be and then drag them to their glorious end. What is worse (from our practical standpoint), the end comes not only to them, but to their entire purpose. Always do the ideals perish with their bearers; in many cases the calamity the hero causes by his behavior leads directly to outcomes diametrically opposed to those he desired.

It is all the more fascinating that the Japanese would endlessly celebrate such failed heroes. It is they, not their successful opponents, that stagger through the pages of history to reach us today as examples of undying sacrifice. Why should this be so? What is it about such men that makes admiration almost mandatory?

I am afraid an answer cannot be given that would satisfy our goal-oriented culture. Morris tries hard, but in the end he does not succeed in making this comprehensible. It is through no fault of his: whatever comes instinctively to Japanese sensibilities cannot be absorbed by our Western rationality. In the end, I can only admire the fact that such heroes can be admired, but I can hardly understand or pretend to understand why it must be so. When all is said and done, I can only shrug my shoulders in puzzled silence. The sacrifice of the forty-seven was heroic as well as tragic, but it was also easy to grasp: they succeeded in avenging their lord's death. The sacrifices of the kamikaze fighters are all the more puzzling once one realizes that they went voluntarily and that few of them expected to affect the outcome of the war. I can only suggest that one read about the tragic heroes and then attempt to feel (for it will be impossible to understand) the grandeur of their lives and deaths.

Morris begins with Yamato Takeru, a legendary hero from the 4th century, who perishes alone in the Plain of Nobo after having been mortally wounded by a mountain deity. Before he dies, Yamato composes several poems, one of which is especially evocative:

On the Cape of Otsu
Directly facing Owari,
There you stand,
Oh, lone pine tree!
Oh, my brother!
Were you a man,
Oh, lonely pine,
I would gird you with a sword
I would give you robes to wear.
Oh, lone pine tree!
Oh, my brother!

The next brief chapter is the story of Yorozu, an obscure warrior who fought on the losing side in the famous last battle in 587 between the Sogas and the Mononobes over the imperial succession. Even when defeat was obvious, Yorozu escapes to the hills but then turns around to fight his pursuers and finally, having exhausted his arrows, kills himself, "one of the earliest historical exemplars of makoto, the cardinal quality of the Japanese hero." Makoto, usually translated as "sincerity" has a deeper meaning that signifies a "purity of motive, which derives from man's longing for an absolute meaning out of time and from a realization that the social, political world is essentially a place of corruption whose materiality is incompatible with the demands of pure spirit and truth" (pp. 22-23). Logic is helpless for it never counsels utter defeat.

The next chapter is on the somewhat pathetic fate of "the melancholy prince" Arima no Miko, who falls victim to his cousin's scheming, is falsely accused of treason, and is strangled to death. As Morris emphasizes, Arima performed not a "single noteworthy deed", or otherwise managed to distinguish himself. Even his death was pitiful. Yet him poems and his fate were celebrated nonetheless, a puzzle to a Westerner.

Much has been written on Sugawara no Michizane, the focus of the fourth chapter. I don't see why Morris chose to include him here. He succeeded in reaching spectacular success despite his humble origins because he was favored by the emperor. Eventually, however, he ran afoul of the ruling aristocracy and ended his days as a miserable exile. It is not clear that his was any kind of heroism, and although he did espouse a losing cause, it is almost certain that had he not done so, the Fujiwaras would have found other means of removing him from power.

In Chapter 5, we finally see one of the all time favorite and famous characters, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a hero of enduring fame, both in history and literature. A lot has been written and sung about the meteoric career of this Minamoto warrior who first led the successful armies against the Taira and then fell from Yoritomo's grace, and ripped open his belly after being hunted down on his brother's orders. While Yoritomo was by far the most important personage (having established the bakufu that would last in one form or another well into the 19th century), it is the effeminate Yoshitsune that has captured the popular imagination. From his fierce battles to his pitiful and lonely last journey, everything makes him the embodiment of the poetic and tragic fate of Japan's heroes.

No less renowned is the hero of the next chapter, Kusunoki Masashige, a loyal warrior who helped restore Emperor Go-Daigo to the throne but whose very uncompromising sincerity caused the loss of imperial favor and finally the enmity of the other important loyalist, Ashikaga Takauji. The exploits of Kusunoki constitute a significant part of The Taiheiki, and his valor, inspired smarts, and cunning strategizing are a source of fascination for admirers just as they were once a source of grief for his enemies. The defense of Akasaka Castle, where he held at bay enemies much more numerous than his troops, is awe-inspiring, not only because of the stunning courage required to resist the onslaught of the Kamakura samurai, but because of the inventiveness with which each assault was met and repulsed. In the end, however, despite his services (and maybe because of them), Masashige is compelled to take part in a battle where he is vastly outnumbered and almost his entire force is wiped out. He eventually retreats to a nearby farmhouse with his brother and disembowels himself, along with fifty of his retainers, earning an eternal place in popular memory.

The next hero is the unlikely teenage leader of a Christian revolt Amakusa Shiro. Although it is doubtful that he really led the fairly threatening rebelion in Shimbara (having at his side much more experienced military men), he doubtless inspired many of the oppressed peasants who took part in the desperate attempt to resist Tokugawa's harsh persecution of Christians and economic hardships inflicted by the uncaring lords of the domain. The stubborn defense of Hara Castle that ended disastrously for the besieged is all the more awesome because of the hopelessness with which the war was fought. The rebels did not lose courage until the end: the final assault on the castle cost the storming shogunal army some fifteen thousand casualties. In the long tradition of tragic heroes, the Shimbara rebelion sealed the fate of Christianity in Japan, ensuring that the Tokugawa rulers will never allow its practice freely.

The next two chapters also deal with unsuccessful revolts, forty years apart from each other. The first died an ignominious and quick death along with its leader Oshio Heihachiro, who, moved by the Wang Yang-ming dictum that "To know and not to act is the same as not knowing at all," threw aside his fairly distinguished career as a police official in Osaka to acquire fame and prestige by dying without achieving anything he had fought for in 1837 when he led an uprising in protest of Edo policies that were leaving Osaka townspeople to starve to death.

Saigo Takamori, the other rebel, had an even more parabolic career. A humble but dedicated samurai serving for a minor clan on Kyushu, he was instrumental in effecting the Meiji Restoration that demolished the long Tokugawa rule, opened Japan to the West, modernized the army, and propelled the country from a feudal backwater to a world power that in only two decades was able to successfully engage in war the colossus that was Russia. Yet before this, Saigo led an uprising against the very government that he helped put in place. In this he singularly and bloodily failed, and this unmitigated fiasco served to usher in the very reforms that he had bitterly opposed. Even so, only a few years after his decapitation, Saigo was rehabilitated by the Meiji regime he had tried to topple, reflecting the strength that popular admiration sometimes has. The Satsuma Rebelion on Kyushu did not last long, and although Saigo was driven to its leadership by the rash act of his pupils, he embraced his doom with all the strength and energy that had made him so successful before. In the end, the rebelion cost the lives of some thirty thousand men but could not stem the wave of the future against which Saigo had raised the standard of revolt.

The last chapter, unlike the others, deals not with a single man but with some five thousand of them: the shimpu units, known in the West as kamikaze fighters. Shimpu, or "divine wind", refers to the typhoons that destroyed the Mongol invaders when they tried to conquer Japan in 1274 and 1281, the single greatest overseas threat in Japanese history until the Second World War. Morris's account is revealing and startling. For many, the shimpu fighters were either brainwashed or fanatics, or both. Yet through careful examination of their diaries, last poems, and other documentary sources, Morris reveals that this was not so. In fact, they were part of the grand tradition of failed heroes in that they sacrificed their lives for something grander than their existence, something even bigger than victory or defeat for the nation. There is something inspiring and pathetic about the way they took off in their rickety coffins to plunge to their fiery deaths without inflicting noticeable harm on the American fleet. And yet they persisted... the military never lacked volunteers for these missions. Far from being compelled or brainwashed, these soldiers, most of whom were well educated and with above-average intelligence, wrote their last sincere poems and embraced their destiny however futile it might seem to a pragmatic mind. Just like Masashige, whose chrysanthemum crest they bore, they ended their lives in a way that is utterly incomprehensible to us, yet eminently heroic anyway. If one can understand the shimpu fighters, then one can partake in the Japanese way of failed heroism that must otherwise remain forever closed to Western sensibilities.

December 26, 2002

    title     = {The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan},
    author    = {Ivan Morris},
    year      = {1975},
    publisher = {The Noonday Press},
    address   = {New York},
    isbn      = {0-374-52120-4 (pbk.)},
    note      = {Index, bibliography, glossary, notes, maps}