The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

by Ivan I. Morris

Hardcover, 1975




New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, [1975]


Alexander, Robin Hood, Wellington, George Washington... The Western literatures are packed with the stories-real and otherwise-of diverse heroes, but most of them share the common element of victory. Many of them died heroically to achieve their goals. In Japan, however, many of the most revered heroes lost their lives without achieving their goals, and in many cases fought their battles in full realization that they would end in abject defeat and death. This cultural background remains a bedrock underlying the modern Japanese psyche, and continues to shape the Japanese as individuals and a society even today, unconsciously, in the same way the West is still affected by the myths and legends passed down from Greece and Rome. Long recognized as a core book in any study of Japanese culture and literature, The Nobility of Failure examines the lives and deaths of nine historical individuals who faced overwhelming odds, and, realizing they were doomed, accepted their fate--to be killed in battle or by execution, to wither in exile, or to escape through ritual suicide. Morris then turns his attention to the kamikaze pilots of World War II, who gave their lives in defense of their nation in the full realization that their deaths would have little effect on the course of the war. Through detail, crystal-clear prose and unmatched narrative sweep and brilliance, Professor Morris takes you into the innermost hearts of the Japanese people.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member PhoenixTerran
In some ways, Ivan Morris' The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan could be considered a companion of sorts to his earlier work The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. While The World of the Shining Prince explores the beauty of court culture in Japan, The Nobility of Failure addresses the country's more tragic history. Originally published in 1975, The Nobility of Failure has been out of print for years. Happily, Kurodahan Press was able to rerelease the volume in 2013 with a newly added preface by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Happier still, I was selected to receive a review copy of the new edition of The Nobility of Failure through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. The Nobility of Failure is an important work that examines the cultural and historical background of some of the tragic heroes who continue to influence the modern Japanese psyche. I am very glad that I, and others, once again have the opportunity to read it.

While not unheard of in Western tradition, Japan has a particular, and some might call peculiar, predilection for the tragic or failed hero. They are admired for their sincerity and loyalty even when their causes were meet with failure and their goals could be considered traitorous. Above all else, those heroes adhered to their ideals, especially in the face of their own destruction. In The Nobility of Failure, Morris traces Japan's tradition of the tragic hero back to the fourth century and the archetype of Prince Yamato Takeru. The following chapters explore the lives and influences of Japan's legendary and historic failed heroes found throughout the centuries: Yorozu, Arima no Miko, Sugawara no Michizane, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Kusunoki Masashige, Amakusa Shirō, Ōshio Heihachirō, and Saigō Takamori. The volume culminates in an examination of the World War II kamikaze fighters--an unprecedented development in modern warfare which for most countries would have been unimaginable.

One thing that I didn't realize about The Nobility of Failure before reading the book was how much of an influence Yukio Mishima had on its creation. Morris and Mishima were friends and the book was at least in part written in order to put Mishima's act of ritual suicide in 1970 into historical context. The volume is even dedicated to his memory. Since I happen to have a particular fascination with Mishima, I found this connection to be especially interesting. Many of the heroes who are the focus of The Nobility of Failure (tragic heroines are only mentioned in passing) were men that Mishima personally admired, but they are also generally recognized as important to Japan as a whole and are even considered to be inspirational figures to some. Japan's tragic heroes carry immense psychological and cultural significance; their role in Japanese history was crucial to the development of Japan's national character, perspective, and worldview.

The Nobility of Failure is an extremely illuminating volume. It's readily clear that Morris put a tremendous amount of thought and research into the volume. In fact, the endnotes, bibliography, and index make up approximately a third of the books' length. Morris draws upon both primary and secondary materials, including literature, poetry, and theatrical interpretations of the heroes' stories found in kabuki and Noh. Using a combination of sources, excerpts, and retellings, Morris reveals both the mythic and legendary basis of Japan's tragic heroes as well as their historical reality and how they have influenced Japan's culture and psyche. This is particularly evident in the chapter about the kamikaze fighters in which Morris ties in everything that had previously been examined. Even though The Nobility of Failure was written nearly forty years ago, it is still a valuable and fascinating work. Morris' compassionate analysis deserves to remain in print.

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LibraryThing member jrgoetziii
This is an amazing book in its content. Morris' study of the importance of sincerity--rather than success--to the formation of a Japanese hero sheds light on some cultural differences that may not appear obvious at first glance. As someone who has long since felt a deep connection with Japanese culture--I love Japanese baseball and studied the Japanese language in high school (which despite what my students might think was within the last decade)--I felt like this cemented my feeling of attachment to it.

But I will also admit that in trying to form a distinction between Japanese heroes and Western heroes in terms of how the Japanese ones knowingly lead themselves to failure, whereas Western ones supposedly didn't, Morris makes a pretty large mistake. Western literature is littered with heroes (both fictional and real) who know they will inevitably meet with complete failure, or who are self-sabotaging, only a few of whom are referred to in the text. Achilles, Socrates, Nicias, Brutus, Cato, Cicero, Beowulf, Othello, Robert E. Lee, Gatsby, Robert Jordan, and Winston Smith are some examples.

This particular version is after my own heart as it contains a typo in the Table of Contents--where it reads "Diety" instead of "Deity". Some of the formatting is a bit unusual, too. Nevertheless I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member kameshaiyer
I read this in 1976 and have read it subsequently, but not recently. I was extremely impressed by the author's argument that the Japanese looked at certain kinds of failure differently from other cultures. Other cultures have failed heroes too, but there is a significant difference in the kind of failure celebrated. Japanese failures go to their deaths protesting their loyalty to the people killing them (if death is the end of that failure).

I had read a book about Hirohito a few years earlier ("The Japanese Imperial Conspiracy" by Bergamini) and this tied in with that book's description of Japanese politics over the centuries. I had also begun practicing karate and this tied in with the attitude that the seniors in the karate organization talked about.

This book is essential reading for anybody who wishes to understand Japanese culture.
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LibraryThing member Literate.Ninja
This book was marvelous to read. As a student of east Asian history, I was familiar with several of the figures mentioned in this book, but there were others who were completely new to me. Each chapter focused on a different hero from Japanese history, and gave an in-depth analysis of their life and accomplishments, right up to the bitter end. I appreciated that the author first acquainted the reader with the traditional legends of each person, and then sought to provide more accurate, academic insights about them based on historical records and a solid understanding of the circumstances of the time.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, and I will most likely re-read it several more times. I would recommend it to anyone who has a strong interest in Japanese history, or the history of archetypal heroes from around the world.
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LibraryThing member antiquary
This has interesting accounts of several Japanese heroes of divers ages notable for their failure, though I do not agree with Morris that Japan is unique (or even unusual) in glorifying failure. Consider the Scottish Jacobites, the Confederate Lost Cause, the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo, the Spartans at Thermopylae, etc.
LibraryThing member irkthepurist
i will admit that this is a subject i don't know much about - i have a vague interest in the wider culture (mainly, oddly, through the ghost stories of lafcadio hearn) but this is the first book i'd read on japanese history, let alone this subject. and what a way to start reading on the subject! i find it fascinating that a culture could be so fascinated by "the losers" of history and as such this book goes some way to explain that part of the national psyche. on one level you'd think that this would be a book about tragedy, but it's so much more than simply that. and as such, it's a great book that goes to addressing what seems to western eyes merely a national quirk. instead it's integral to their national character. fascinating...… (more)
LibraryThing member gglockster
A solid historical view of the Japan I needed to read about.
LibraryThing member chuck_ralston
Ivan Morris has developed ten exemplary portraits of Japan's noble failures from Prince Yamato Takeru, perhaps more a composite of warrior heroes from the start of Japanese civilization, to the Kamikaze pilots of World War II.

Yamato Takeru may be seen as a folk hero comparable to Lancelot of Arthurian legend. His early victories resulted in his receiving the special Kusanagi 'grass mower' sword from the Emperor's sister. Having subdued the Emperor's enemies east and west, Takeru, on his way across Tokyo Bay, raised the ire of the God of the Straits who stirred the waves sending his boat adrift. After many more trials, Takeru decided it was time to return home to report to the Emperor, but his inability to muster the strength to do so, resulted in failure. Before his death Takeru crafted a poem to a lonely 'brother' pine tree. The aura surrounding this Ur-hero in Japanese tradition, by not requiring his safe return home, is, according to Morris, a departure from the norm and the basis for all Japanese tragic, failed heroes to follow.

Yoruzu, 6th-century warrior hero, was crippled by an arrow and unable to escape his enemies. He stabbed himself in the throat, propelled by the momentum of his own bravery, in pursuit of honor, and became an exemplar of makoto or 'sincerity', the cardinal quality of the Japanese hero.

Arima no Miko, 7th-century prince, who though quiet and pessimistic at court, was accused by political opponents of treason even though innocent of political intrigue. His demise symbolized by the scattering of cherry blossoms, a quintessential image that permeates Japanese literature.

Sugawara no Michizane, 9th-century poet, calligrapher and master of Chinese, the official language of scholarship in Japan then, died in exile in his sleep unlike so many other failed heroes who died violently by their own hands. He is venerated today, enshrined as a Shinto deity.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune, 12th-century military hero along with his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo, is the epitome of the tragic hero who suffered a tragic fall from power at the height of his career. Despite Yoritomo's fame as administrator and government reformer, it was Yoshitsune who became Japan's quintessential hero.

Kusunoki Masashige, failed 'hero' of the Battle of Minato River in 1333, near present-day Kobe, when surrounded by the forces of Ashikaga Takauji, when asked by his fellow loyalist commander what his last wish was before committing ritual suicide, replied: “I should like to be reborn seven times into this world of men so that I might destroy the enemies of the Court.” Scholars today see Masashige as a 14th-century Marshal Petain, defender of Verdun. Morris tells us that for kamikaze pilots Masashige was their most revered hero (p. 103).

Amakusa Shiro, the Japanese Messiah, is said to have been able like St. Francis, to call down flying birds that would alight on his hands. Christianity came to Japan in the middle of the 16th century, and had initial success, but by 1640 the Tokugawa rulers had eliminated its influence. Shiro, lead a rebellion against the Tokugawa that had its apotheosis in 1637 at the Battle of Shimibara across the bay from Nagasaki. Shiro, unlike other noble failures who obligingly committed suicide following defeat in battle, did not do so because of his Christian faith. His flag which survived the holocaust at Shimibara displays on a white background, two black angelic figures on each side of a chalice above which is a white host adorned with a black cross. The failure of Christianity in Japan remains an anomaly considering that both Buddhism and Confucianism have co-existed alongside Shintoism throughout Japanese history.

Oshio Heihachiro, Confucian scholar and Osaka police official, in 1837, exactly 200 years after the disaster at Shimbara, led an uprising to protest conditions of Osaka's starving populace. The protest was a fiasco and the Tokugawa regime ended violently the resistance and lives of Oshio's rebels. A few hours after the uprising began, with no ensuing support from surrounding villages, Oshio sat on a stool munching a rice ball while gazing at the burning Osaka harbor. Ivan Morris tell us, “like the other heroes Oshio has experienced a total peripetia and it is at these key moments that one most keenly realizes the contrast between the preceding success and the catastrophe that is the ensue. Much of the appeal of the hoganbiiki [sympathy with the loser]type of hero derives from this contrast: it is because he has such a great distance to fall that the hero's failure stirs the emotions.” (p. 137)

Saigo Takamori, the apotheosis of samurai warrior, was for Ivan Morris the last true hero of Japan. Morris who died shortly after his Nobility of Failure was first published in 1975, would have been pleased that Saigo served as the basis for the film, The Last Samurai.

Kamikaze fighters, mostly pilots of the Oka, a modified air-to-surface, rocket-guided glider torpedo, began their suicide missions mostly against the U.S. Seventh Fleet in October 1944 at Leyte Gulf, intensified attacks during the battle for Okinawa, and ended such missions in August 1945. Why did Japan pursue this tactic late in a war that its leadership knew was strategically lost at Midway three years earlier. Morris believes Japan's leaders convinced themselves that their enemy would be daunted by the spiritual strength of kamikaze, that this trump card might counter the enemy materiel superiority. This had become an article of faith among the Japanese leadership and their volunteer kamikaze suicide warriors. The first four attack units were designated Shikishima (an ancient poetic name for Japan), Yamato (another traditional name for the country), Asahi (rising sun), and Yamazakura (wild cherry blossoms) – all four words providing the framework for an 18th-century poem :

What is the spirit of Yamato's ancient land?
It is like the wild cherry blossoms,
Radiant in the rising sun.

Ivan Morris dedicated his Nobility of Failure to his friend Yukio Mishima, novelist and playwright, who committed ritual suicide at a Japanese military headquarters in November 1970.
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LibraryThing member loafhunter13
This work in an English language masterwork on the the Japan's concept of national heroism as embodied by historical/mythological figures. Morris is an authority and one of the pinnacles of the field of Japanese studies so that completeness and readability of this work should come as no surprise. What makes it transcend from very good to great is Morris' ability to understand both within and without of the Japanese mindset and emotional psyche when analyzing this history. It is not a pure observational study nor is it blind to alternative perceptions outside of the Japanese persona. A perfect blend of emotion, history, critique, and hypothesis.… (more)
LibraryThing member nvgomez
A great work! A little text bookish but you do learn so much about the Japanese culture as you do the samurai culture and martial spirit. Well done!
LibraryThing member bokai
It's wonderful to see such an excellent book in print again. Morris' understanding of the Japanese psyche, and more importantly, his empathy for it, comes through clearly in The Nobility of Failure. It serves as an excellent overview of the Japanese hero and his place in the national psyche, and would be suited both as an entertaining series of biographies spanning almost the entirety of Japan's history as a nation, or as a scholarly text for students of history, sociology, and so on.

Morris has an easy, conversationalist style as he brings to life nine famous heroes of Japan, and enforces almost all of his claims with copious amounts of annotation. In some chapters there are more than one hundred footnotes. This is important, as all but maybe the very first individual covered in the book were real men who later passed on to myth, and Morris tries to (successfully, I think) make sure that the reader is aware of what is known, what is speculation, and what was later changed to fit the popular desire for a heroic figure. As he says, what falshoods are told are almost more important than the truth when one is trying to determine what a nation is looking for in its heroes. As entertaining as each of the biographies may be, it is clear by the end of the book, where the final chapter is dedicated to the psychology of the Kamikaze fighter, that there is a shadow thesis throughout, and a clear desire to make Japan understood to a Western audience.

Of particular interest to me was the fact that Morris was personally friendly with Yokio Mishima, a man who attempted to embody the spirit of the Japanese hero so completely that he died for it. Morris' empathy, not just for his friend but for the culture that created him, comes through in his treatment of each little biography, and while he admits to not agreeing with parts of the philosophy that each warrior may have lived by, it seems as if he understands it, and in turn he makes them understandable to the reader.

The first edition of this text was published in the 70s, and I'd like to think that Japan is considered less "inscrutable" by now, but none the less, I think this is an excellent introduction to a certain ingredient in Japanese culture, and one that is a pleasure to read as well.
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LibraryThing member marilynsantiago
Japan is my favorite country to read about. Usually I read modern culture so this was a switch for me. I really found the kamakazi chapter interesting. Morris explains the planes, the pilots, and the people behind the idea of using individuals "sitting in a bomb" to crash into the enemy.


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