SUICIDAL HONOR: General Nogi and the Writings of Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki, by Doris. G. Bargen. University of Hawaii Press, 2006, 289 pp., $42 (cloth)

The name of Maresuke Nogi (1849-1912) reverberated through the world twice: when he subdued the Russian fortress at Port Arthur (Luxu) during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and when he disemboweled himself to follow Emperor Meiji in death — to commit junshi — during the imperial funeral procession in September 1912.

The English writer H. G. Wells (1866-1946), for example, most likely changed his view of “the yellow race” because of Nogi’s demeanor as reported in the Western press during the war. He defined “the samurai” as “the voluntary nobility” and soon argued that the samurai would be “the ideal citizen of the Socialist State.”

The American poet Harriet Monroe (1860-1936), upon learning about Nogi’s seppuku, was moved to write an ode to the general. It began, “Old soldier of the fighting clan,” and went on to describe him as using “the same battle sword” with which he had struck down “the White Tsar” to disembowel himself, “That not alone your heaven-descended lord / Should meanly wander in the spirit land.”

There was irony behind this. His frontal assaults on the Russian fortress merely adding to vast casualties, Nogi surrendered his command to a fellow general temporarily, a fact kept secret from the public. A man deeply pained and conflicted since losing his flag during the civil war in 1877, he would have killed himself sooner had not Emperor Meiji proscribed the act.

Nogi’s suicide elicited from two leading Japanese writers of the day two different reactions that have since become part of Japan’s literary annals. Ogai Mori (1862-1922), an army medical officer who had studied in Germany in his 20s but served as a vital interpreter of European literature and philosophy for his fellow Japanese, sharply turned his eyes away from Western tradition to focus on his own. Beginning with the one he finished within five days after Nogi’s death, he wrote a series of stories to describe how men during the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868) dealt with seppuku, elective or imposed.

If Ogai’s reaction was urgent and direct, that of Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) was reflective and deliberate. An English professor turned novelist after studying in England, he wrote, nearly two years after Nogi’s junshi, a novel in which the act becomes a trigger for the denouement of a psychological dilemma with which he had wrestled earlier: What should a man do after winning someone he loves through betrayal? In his 1910 novel, “Mon,” the protagonist seeks resolution in Zen and fails. In his 1914 novel, “Kokoro,” the protagonist kills himself.

Doris Bargen’s “Suicidal Honor” is an erudite examination of Nogi’s junshi and the stories Ogai and Soseki wrote in reaction to it. A German scholar who teaches Japanese literature and culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Bargen previously wrote “A Woman’s Weapon” (1997), a monograph on spirit possession (mononoke) in “The Tale of Genji.” What distinguished the book was the breadth of anthropological and other studies she drew from many cultures to elucidate the phenomenon of spirit possession. She brings an equally broad outlook to the subject of purposeful death.

If Japan learned junshi from China, choosing death for a purpose has been common in many cultures, with a range of meanings attached to the act. So, as one may well expect, Bargen details the suicide of Cato and Cicero. As most readers may not expect, however, she also examines the sacrificial Aztec practice to illuminate Gen. Nogi’s relationship to Emperor Meiji.

Every year the Aztecs would choose the finest-looking man from among the captive warriors, ritually change him into “a teotl ixiptla, or image of the god,” and treat him royally for one year before cutting his chest open to offer his heart to the sun. Nogi was similarly honored after emerging as a “victorious” general from the war.

Bargen’s meticulous scholarship is particularly impressive in her treatment of Ogai’s “Sakai Incident,” which is based on an actual international incident.

In March 1868, as the Tokugawa regime was coming to an end, a group of Tosa (today’s Kochi) men serving as police in the port town of Sakai, assaulted and killed eleven French sailors. French Minister Lon Roches demanded punishment. Twenty Tosa men were duly ordered to disembowel themselves according to form, with official witnesses standing by. The men willingly accepted the order. In the course of the self-executions, however, the French captain, sickened (perhaps) by the gruesome spectacle, called off the proceedings, thereby saving nine men.

Bargen examines Ogai’s account against the actual incident as described not just in Japanese but British, French, and German sources. This helps clarify what Ogai meant to achieve through his narrative: to uphold “the honor of the nation.”

“Suicidal Honor” is a model of modern literary criticism with an international perspective.

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