In September 1912, Gen. Maresuke Nogi — a hero of the Russo-Japanese War — committed ritual suicide. His sensational death took place on the day of Emperor Meiji’s funeral, making it an act of junshi (following one’s lord in death) and a high-water mark for the samurai code in the modern era.
Was Nogi’s death heroic or absurdly anachronistic? The Edo Period (1603-1868) Confucian scholar Yamaga Soko — a key thinker for 19th-century Bushido theorists — would not have approved: he criticized junshi as symptomatic of sexual relations between samurai.
Two years after Nogi’s suicide, novelist Natsume Soseki picked up on this theme when he introduced the general’s death at a critical moment in the unfolding of his iconic novel “Kokoro” (“The Heart”). A middle-aged character known as “Sensei” is haunted by the suicide of his closest friend. He bares his soul in a long confession to an impressionable young narrator. Then, hearing news of Nogi’s junshi, Sensei dramatically declares that he has decided to commit suicide, too.
Soseki was an expert on English literature, having steeped himself in its satirical and ironic traditions. In “Kokoro,” he was showing how human beings can mask their true motivations behind a facade of high nobility. The character Sensei wishes to seize forever the heart of the young narrator through suicide, but he cloaks his actions in the lofty language of Bushido, saying he has decided to commit junshi to the “spirit of Meiji.”
Ever since its publication, many critics — including Kang Sang-jung in his 2008 best-seller “Nayamu Chikara” (“The Power of Wavering”) — have assumed that Soseki was being sincere in “Kokoro.” When Imperial Bushido was dropped from educational textbooks after World War II, Soseki’s “Kokoro” became the ubiquitous substitute. By the mid-1990s, hundreds of academic papers had been published about “Kokoro,” with new ones being published at a rate of about 20 a year. But few, if any, managed to see satire in the novel.
In 1957, an English translation of “Kokoro” was published, with all homoerotic content stripped by its earnest translator, Edwin McClellan. In 1956, Yukio Mishima’s first English translation appeared. His publishers did not want to present him to the English-speaking world with a “gay novel,” so rather than “Confessions of a Mask” they chose “The Sound of Waves.” Mishima described this anodyne love story of a young boy and girl set in a small fishing village as “that joke on the public.”
Initially, it seemed as though no writer could be further removed from the “sincerity” of Bushido than this young novelist. As a 20-year-old in 1945, Mishima had exaggerated illness to avoid conscription. His 1949 breakthrough novel, “Kamen no Kokuhaku” (“Confessions of a Mask”), revealed the gap between his exterior mask and dark, inner fantasies.
Yet in his 1965 short film “Patriotism,” Mishima acted the part of a soldier commiting ritual suicide. With his newly toned muscular stomach exposed he performed the act in front of a banner depicting the kanji characters for “sincerity.” As with Sensei in Soseki’s “Kokoro,” Mishima began to see that the trappings of Bushido could provide a useful mask for psychosexual desires.
In the five years leading to his death in 1970, Mishima promulgated his own version of Bushido as he embraced right-wing ideologies, despite having previously been uninterested in politics. He reworked many of the ideas of Imperial Bushido with which he had been indoctrinated as a child, publishing his own commentary on the “Hagakure,” an 18th-century book of samurai maxims, and writing a handbook titled “For Young Samurai,” which offered instructive essays on his lifelong obsessions with punctuality and good manners.
This fascination with the samurai code culminated in 1970, when, after taking hostage a general at the Eastern Headquarters of the Self-Defense Forces in Tokyo and addressing the assembled soldiers with his call for constitutional revision, Mishima committed ritual suicide. Before he died, he was supposed to draw the first character of “Bushido” — “bu” (“warrior”) — with his own blood, but the pain was too intense.
Mishima may have represented the last gasp of so-called Imperial Bushido, but many other varieties of the code have since flourished (thankfully decoupled from Emperor worship).
The enormously popular novelist Ryotaro Shiba celebrated the spirit of Bushido in best-selling books such as “Ryoma ga Yuku” (“Ryoma Sets Out”), serialized from 1963 to ’66, and “Saka no Ue no Kumo” (“Clouds Above the Hill”), serialized from 1968 to ’72. And when interest in Inazo Nitobe’s 1900 book, “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” was revived during the 1980s, the samurai code reemerged as a flexible creed that could be applied to both sports and corporate endeavours, a handy tool to explain Japan’s postwar economic resurgence.
Yet the battle over the legacy of Bushido is still keenly fought. On one side are right-leaning authors such as Hei Seki, Yuko Kitakage and the essayist Masahiko Fujiwara, whose 2005 book, “Kokka no Hinkaku” (“The Dignity of the Nation”) has sold more than 2 million copies. These authors posit Bushido as the value system upon which Japan should be built.
On the other side, and more influential globally than any home-grown interpretations, is the international version of Bushido that has made its way into Western pop culture. A notable example can be seen in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” series. The code of the Jedi represents a curious fulfillment of Nitobe’s desire to see Bushido recognized as an inspirational value system for people around the world, not only for Japanese.
Yet ironically, at the heart of Lucas’ series is an example of the power that a carefully staged death can exert over an impressionable young mind — an echo of the plot from Soseki’s “Kokoro.”
When “sensei” Obi-Wan Kenobi offers himself up for death at the hands of Darth Vader, he looks over and smiles faintly, knowing that once he dies he will seize forever the heart of the young protagonist, Luke Skywalker. Addressing Darth Vader, he remarks, “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
Was Obi-Wan’s death heroic or absurdly anachronistic? Or was it a bid for eternal power? It is Luke’s heart he will inhabit forever and control in the form of “guidance.” What is Bushido for if not to control the hearts of the young? In many ways, “Star Wars” reveals both the universal appeal of Bushido and Soseki’s ironic critique of it.
But, you might object, the Jedi code is just an invention, a fantasy set in a galaxy far, far away. Yes, so it is. But, then again, the worldwide fascination with “Star Wars” correlates closely to Japan’s ongoing obsession with Bushido.
Bushido has a catastrophic dark side and an inspirational capacity for benevolence. Sometimes it is used to mask suppressed and seething desires. How Japan chooses to channel its nebulous yet unmistakable “samurai spirit” is likely to define the “soul of Japan” for many more generations to come.
This is the final in a three-part series on Bushido. This series gratefully acknowledges the historical research into Bushido by Oleg Benesch in “Inventing the Way of the Samurai.” Damian Flanagan is the author of “Yukio Mishima (Critical Lives)” and “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature.”