Monday, August 1, 2016

Bushido: Soseki, ‘Star Wars’ and the samurai BY DAMIAN FLANAGAN

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.

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