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The Nobility of Failure , by Ivan Morris

The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan - Ivan Morris


- Utagawa Toyokuni (1769 - 1825)



As Ivan Morris (1925-1976) is best known for his translations and interpretations of the hyper-aestheticized culture of the Japanese imperial court of the Heian era (794-1185), one may well be startled to learn that the last book he published before his regrettably premature death was an examination of the role of failed heroes throughout Japanese history. In fact, he tells us in his preface to The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (1975) that Mishima Yukio complained to him that his focus on the Heian period court ignored Japan's long martial history and left out crucial aspects of the Japanese character. Morris took this to heart and wrote a 500 page response examining the lives and deaths of nine famous Japanese men of action which closes with a chapter about the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War. Morris chose to focus on tragic heroes, because they play a role in Japanese culture which has no real counterpart in the West.(*)


Perhaps when searching for a Western analogue one might think of Admiral Nelson being struck down just as his greatest victory was revealing itself, but to die under such circumstances would not be viewed as tragic by a samurai; on the contrary, Nelson's fate would be the most hotly desired goal of any samurai. The Spartans who fell at Thermopylae were defeated, but they slowed and weakened the Persians so that the rest of Greece could finish the job on the plain of Marathon; moreover, they shared the samurai's estimation of honorable death in battle. Not even the men who died at the Alamo - most of whom did not share the death-dedicated values of the Spartans and samurai - are tragic heroes in the sense at hand because their lengthy resistance and ultimate defeat assured the subsequent defeat of the Mexican forces. 


No, a tragic hero in the sense considered here is one who dies not only in defeat, but the more abject, ineluctable and obviously vain (from our point of view) the defeat, the greater the tragic hero is. As Morris mentions, just such heroes were the men Mishima most admired, and it is now clear to me that Mishima was not trying to spur an uprising when he addressed that band of soldiers from that balcony. He knew perfectly well that they were not going to do anything, and, even if they did, they would accomplish nothing against the power of the Japanese state. No, he joined the men he most admired by dying in the most pointless defeat he could arrange. After speaking his bold and (by his lights) noble words and viewing the probable mix of consternation, fear and disbelief in his audience's faces, he withdrew to a small coterie of his fellow believers and committed seppuku (harakiri) surely the most painful way to kill oneself (except possibly burning oneself alive).


In this book Morris has two primary topics: the role of the tragic hero in Japanese culture and the tragic heroes themselves. Most of the text is occupied with presenting the lives and the historical and cultural context of each of these tragic heroes, which provides the reader with vivid snapshots of particularly colorful moments in Japanese history. I very much appreciate that Morris, accomplished translator that he was, liberally quotes from original source materials - histories, diaries, poetry, etc. - that yield a richly connotative contemporaneous flavor to the portrait. For example, Morris commences with the legendary prince Yamato Takeru,(**) who murdered his twin brother in a privy and in his first great victory disguised himself as a woman, ingratiated himself with the enemy commanders and then:


Prince Ouso [another of Takeru's names] waited until the festivities were at their height, when he pulled out the sword from the breast of his robe [!] and, seizing the elder Kumaso by the collar, pierced him through the chest. The younger Kumaso rushed from the room in terror. The prince chased him to the foot of the stairs, grabbed him from behind, and thrust his sword up his backside. [!!] Then the chieftain said, "Do not move your sword any further. I have something to say to you." [!!!]


Takeru heard him out (among other things, the impaled chieftain gave Ouso the name Takeru - brave) and then killed him, "slashing him to pieces like a ripe melon." I am excerpting here from Morris' translation of an extended passage from the oldest Japanese history, the Kojiki. This Ur-hero goes on to cheat, swindle and betray many other enemies, a kind of Japanese Ulysses. When he returns to the Yamato court, he is sent at once to fight the enemies in the East, and, a clear sign of the composite nature of this account, he changes his personality and methods completely. No longer a treacherous bully, he becomes a sensitive and empathetic hero as well as the gullible victim of deceits which maneuver him into desperate situations. Moreover, in this part of the story he must also combat supernatural beings, which were completely absent from the account of the campaign in the West.


Ultimately, one of these supernatural entities undoes him (through deceit), and, dying, Takeru painfully tries to return to the court to give a report to his father, the emperor. He fails and succumbs on the desolate Plain of Nobo, but not before emitting nostalgic poems and a final message to his father replete with the proper filial sentiments. As Morris emphasizes, it is in these poems and final message that the Japanese hero manifests his true emotion and records his sincerity. It is this emotional sincerity which characterizes the Japanese hero, not his bravado, the women he seduces or the men he slaughters, and most certainly not his victories or defeats. This tradition stretches down to the kamikaze pilots who all wrote their farewell poems the night before their last flight.


Morris proceeds chronologically, and the heroes become less legendary and more firmly grounded in history. The first more or less historical figure Morris considers is a 6th century soldier named Yorozu, about whom we know next to nothing except that he was the first Japanese in recorded history to commit suicide in defeat. Defeat in itself is not dishonorable in traditional Japan, but to become a prisoner of the enemy is an unexpungeable dishonor. According to the account in the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest Japanese history, Yorozu fought valiantly (on the losing side, of course) in an extremely lopsided contest between the rival Mononobe and Soga clans (which was partially a struggle over whether Buddhism was to be officially acknowledged by the imperial court) until he was severely wounded and likely to fall into the enemy's hands, at which point he plunged his own dagger into his throat. In the account in the Nihon Shoki, the significance of this act was heightened by various supernatural phenomena, and it was carefully arranged for Yorozu to be completely alone against his adversaries at the end. This is many centuries before bushido, the way of the samurai, had been formulated, much less codified! The Nihon Shoki was submitted to the Emperor in 720, and this attitude must surely be even older.


I suppose that slicing one's carotid artery was too easy, for suicide in defeat eventually acquired associated rites and developed into the excruciating seppuku. If you were able to do that, your makoto - usually translated into English as sincerity, but with much deeper and richer connotations than it now carries(***) - could not be doubted.(4*)


Morris looks closely at such figures as Sugawara no Michizane and Saigo Takamori, about whom I have written elsewhere, as well as Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Kusunoki Masashige and Amakusa Shiro, the sixteen year old "Japanese Messiah" who led a peasant/Christian rebellion in 1638 and who, not surprisingly, was spotted walking on the sea off the coast of Kyushu. All most interesting. And Morris writes very well. Each of these case histories adds a new aspect to the multi-faceted notion of failed hero in Japanese culture, but the central theme is "the hero, far from surviving or succeeding, is fated by his sincerity and lack of political acumen to die at an early age as a glorious failure." To magnify the pathos, it was preferable that the hero be initially graced with brilliant victories before he was obliged by fate to walk open-eyed into a complete and total defeat.


But let me get to the other focus of this book: the role of the tragic hero in Japanese culture. The stories surrounding these failed heroes were told in Japanese marketplaces and festivals by their itinerant story tellers and acting companies; they permeated Japanese literature, theater (Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku) and, more recently, cinema and television. Like central cultural myths everywhere they were used and abused for all possible political purposes. Shorthand phrases (such as hoganbiiki - sympathy with the loser) entered the language to quickly refer to the associated conceptual and emotional complexes. 


Morris suggests why the Japanese have a fascination with such tragic heroes:


In a predominantly conformist society, whose members are overawed by authority and precedent, rash, defiant, emotionally honest men like Yoshitsune and Takamori have a particular appeal. The submissive majority, while bearing its discontents in safe silence, can find vicarious satisfaction in identifying itself emotionally with these individuals who waged their forlorn struggle against overwhelming odds; and the fact that all their efforts are crowned with failure lends them a pathos which characterizes the general vanity of human endeavour and makes them the most loved and evocative of heroes.


And further:


This understanding of lacrimae rerum is reflected in an instinctive sympathy with the tragic fate of the failed hero, whose defeat by the forces of a hostile world exemplifies in a most dramatic form the confrontation of every living creature with adversity, suffering and death. ... the pathos of worldly misfortune is especially evocative when the victim stands out as being young, pure and sincere.


I may be deluding myself, but The Nobility of Failure is a convincing examination of one of the elements of Japanese culture which clearly set it apart from European cultures and their descendants.



(*) I was set upon this book through a review by Marguerite Yourcenar in her remarkable, posthumously published collection of articles and essays, Le Temps, Ce Grand Sculpteur, which I recommend to your attention for its beautifully polished prose and Yourcenar's finely honed sense of history and aesthetics.  


(**) Morris does not just tell colorful stories; the scholarly side of history is not neglected in the least. For example, he tells us that traditionally Takeru is supposed to be a historical figure from the 1st century CE, but experts have established that, actually, the violent young prince was a composite of various Yamato commanders during the 4th century. With nearly 200 pages of notes and glossary providing additional details, The Nobility of Failure is the kind of history I would expect to see published by a university press, not by Random House.(!)


(***) In the words of Kurt Singer, makoto "spells readiness to discard everything that might hinder a man from acting wholeheartedly on the pure and unpredictable impulses that spring from the secret centre of his being." Like its synonym magokoro, it also implies a purity of spirit and motive. What is most interesting is that the objective righteousness of the man's cause is immaterial - what matters is the sincerity with which he espouses the cause. When I think back on the acts of sporadic violence in the 1930's by some junior officers in the Japanese armed forces, which included murdering generals and government ministers, not to mention causing war with China, I now have a better understanding of the reluctance of the men in power to destroy or even to punish the transgressing officers.  


Do you recall that scene in Tom Cruise's movie The Last Samurai where the battle has been manfully fought against overwhelming odds and lost? At that point, if not sooner, Westerners would surrender. Or perhaps they would hole up in a strong position and wait for the enemy to come to them. The last charge of the pitiful remnants against the howitzers and Gatling guns in which they were mowed down to the last man (except Cruise's character, of course), was not an act of madness, whimsy or incompetence. It was a textbook manifestation of makoto. With this hopeless and useless charge their pure sincerity was displayed beyond any doubt. And it was not done with the purpose of dispelling doubt; it was done because of the perfection of that culminating act. Human beings are wondrous and terrifying creatures...


(4*) Thus spake Mishima Yukio in a 1966 newspaper interview:


I cannot believe in Western sincerity because it is invisible, but in feudal times we believed that sincerity resided in our entrails, and if we needed to show our sincerity, we had to cut our bellies and take out our visible sincerity. And it was also the symbol of the will of the soldier, the samurai; everybody knew that this was the most painful way to die. And the reason they preferred to die in the most excruciating manner was that it proved the courage of the samurai.