A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Solemn OPEN HOUSE Event at the Old Nogi Residence

By Avi Landau


When it was announced that the Meiji Emperor had fallen ill on July 20th 1912, all Japan was thrown into a state of deep concern and restraint. By that I mean that all festivities were called off, out of respect for the Emperor’s condition. Many refrained from any entertainment or pleasures. Some even abstained from taking alcohol or meat. When the sovereign died on July 29th, this somber mood turned into one of disbelief, deep grief and even hysteria (the house of the doctor treating His Majesty was attacked).

Bloodied cloth
Bloodied Cloth

It took more than a month for the actual funeral to get underway (because of the elaborate preparations and also to give foreign dignitaries time to arrive). The grave itself was not to be in Tokyo but in Fushimi, Kyoto. As temple bells tolled throughout the country to mark the start of the funeral procession which would take the Emperor’s remains out of the capital, General Maresuke Nogi, one of the great figures of the Meiji Period, and his wife Shizuko, committed ritual suicide. First, the General assisted his wife in stabbing her neck, and he then proceeded to cut open his belly with three slashes.

This dramatic display of loyalty, deeply impressed the nation (and the world) at that time. The incident has been used in scenes of several of Japan’s greatest novels (including A River With No Bridge, recently reviewed in Tsukublog). The Nogi’s simple wooden residence was left as a memorial to the couple, and eventually their spirits were enshrined as Kami. A shrine, Nogi Jinja, was subsequently constructed just downhill of the old house.

Yes. In Japan, MERE MORTALS can be enshrined and turned into Gods. Over the centuries, most of those deified were great national heroes, though some were feared enemies whose spirits had to be appeased and placated (like our local rebel leader Taira no Masakado, enshrined at Kanda Myojin). Of course, General Nogi and his wife are to be classified in the former category. The General had played a major role in Japan’s rise from hermit kingdom to regional superpower with his greatest claim to fame being the capture of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese war. This led to international superstardom. When Nogi toured European countries in 1911, he was given spirited welcomes wherever he went. I have heard that in Turkey as well as Romania, the crowds went wild.

Though General Nogi’s SEPPUKU (ritual suicide) is often seen as the ultimate act of JUNSHI (loyalty) in that he followed his master to the grave, when we look at his story in more detail, we can see the General in a different, and I think more interesting light.

General Nogi’s military successes, and in fact his career in general, were marred by severe dark spots. Early on, in the battles between the new Imperial forces and the old Shogunate (1877), Nogi lost his regimental flag, a great disgrace which always hung over him. And even his moment of greatest triumph, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 is greatly marred by the fact that Japan lost 60,000 troops just to take Port-Arthur. The Nogi’s two sons (their only children) were among the dead. This astounding loss of life was a great weight on Nogi’s conscience and apparently he dreaded returning to Japan to all the pomp and celebration waiting for him.

After having gone through the motions of the victory parade, the General presented himself to the Emperor and proceeded to break down crying. He asked for permission to commit ritual suicide. The Emperor refused with these famous words. CHIN GA IKITERU UCHI WA SHINU KOTO WA NARANU ZO. In other words, YOU HAVE NO PERMISSION TO DIE WHILE I’M STILL ALIVE.

Since the General had lost his children, the Emperor decided to give him a whole slew of surrogate kids by making him director of the GAKUSHUIN school for the children of the Imperial family and nobility. Nogi spent the next five years instilling the samurai virtues of patience, perseverance and modesty into his wards. The future Showa Emperor (Hirohito) was among those in his care.

When the Meiji Emperor died, Nogi went ahead and did what he had long felt he had to do: atone for all the death and devastion he had caused, and take responsibility for the serious mistakes he had made in the past.

The Nogi Shrine and the old Nogi Residence are located just past the new Tokyo Mid-Town Complex, a few minutes’ walk from Roppongi Station. The ever-encroaching brand name luxury and decadence must surely have the General wincing in his grave. The Shrine can be visited any day, and if you go, you are likely to see a traditional wedding. The shrine office sells small gourds, the type in which the General used to keep his Sake stash in (they also sell his favorite sake, from Tochigi, which is where he had long been stationed).

Of interest is also a dogwood tree planted by none other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was apparently an admirer of Nogi. Some actually believe that American bombers purposely spared the shrine (could this be true?), under orders from the very top.

Every year on September 12 and 13th (the anniversary of the couple’s suicide), the old house is opened to the public. I went again this year (on the 12th) and wandered about, looking at all the clothes and accessories laid out on display and trying to conjure up images of the old couple as they prepared for their end. The house itself is a spartan, wooden structure based on French military barracks Nogi had seen while in Europe. Across from the house are the brick stables where the white horse, presented to the General by his Russian counterpart,Stessel, after his victory at Port Arthur, was housed.

The Nogi ResidenceA steady stream of visitors was cheerfully greeted by the staff. Most of them lingered longest in front of the room where the couple died, which is marked off with bits of sacred paper. Among the medals and uniforms laid out are a bit of cloth, bloodied from the ritual suicide.

Looking at the old clocks and telephones put me in a contemplative mood. But the bath and various toilets really brought images of the old couple back before my eyes.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a glorifier of SEPPUKU or ANYTHING military, for that matter. I do however, think that a visit to the old Nogi residence and shrine is important food for  thought regarding both Japan’s past and its present. I also have to say that the General DOES set a good example. I think that ALL people of power, who benefit from sending soldiers off to kill and be killed, or likewise profit from death and destruction, should follow the Nogis’ lead and disembowel themselves.  That would be quite appropriate, don’t you think?