General Maresuke Nogi lived and died by a strict Samurai code—and tried to raise future Emperor Hirohito the same way.
Guns thundered around Tokyo on September 12, 1912, as the cortege of Meiji, Japan’s first modern emperor, passed thousands of Japanese who knelt solemnly, in some cases pounding their foreheads against the pavement as the sacred white oxen led the emperor, dead of stomach cancer at 53, to his burial mound. When the funeral procession left the city, General Maresuke Nogi, director of the Peers School for Japanese princes of the blood, returned to his humble house in old Tokyo’s Akasaka district. His wife Shizuko bowed as she greeted him at the alcove, then the couple took a ritual bath and changed into pure white kimonos. Then, kneeling at the tokonoma, the family shrine, Shizuko Nogi cut her throat with a razor-sharp dagger. As soon as she was dead, Nogi drew his wakizashi, or short sword, drove the blade into his belly and disemboweled himself. He died several hours later. When the neighbors and police arrived, they found a note deploring the self-indulgence of the younger generation and urging Japanese to exercise the ancient warrior spirit.
Briefly, the world gasped. Maresuke Nogi was internationally known through newspaper accounts as the conqueror of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. Highly educated, fluent in English, French and German, he had been a popular genteel curiosity during visits to England. Although David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly and Giacomo Puccini’s opera of the same name had established suicide, by a jilted geisha, as a staple of Japanese culture, the deaths of Maresuke and Shizuko Nogi sent shockwaves through Western diplomatic and military circles. The West soon developed its “official” viewpoint— Nogi and his wife, as loyal retainers, wanted their spirits to follow Emperor Meiji to the hereafter. But many informed Japanese felt otherwise.
Born in 1849, Nogi had been called Nakito, literally “not a person,” because his father had lost two previous newborn sons and wanted to convince evil spirits that this one wasn’t worth taking. Later, when the boy proved to be healthy, he was named Maresuke, or “Round Boy.”
Five years after Nogi’s birth, a U.S. Navy force commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry forcefully pried open Japan’s door to Western contacts—and forced its people to come to terms with European imperialism. Opinions varied among the country’s clans. Nogi’s father was a samurai of the Chosu in southern Japan, an army clan that produced advocates of agriculture and conservatism, who came to view Russia as Japan’s most dangerous enemy. The rival Satsuma clan, with an established naval tradition, was business oriented, international and elitist in outlook, and hostile to the Western European colonizers in China and the Pacific.
As a boy, Nogi had wanted to be a farmer and a poet. Neither ambition was especially strange or effete in old Japan, where the caste system ranked farmers only a single step below the samurai warrior-police caste. Tough swordsmen often wrote haiku or tanka while preparing for brushes with death and dismemberment.
Nogi’s father wanted him hardened to a rigorous life. If the boy complained about the winter cold, his father stood him barefoot in the snow and dumped buckets of cold water over his head. Swordsmanship and judo played a routine part in the education of an upper-caste Japanese, and at age 16 Nogi lost the use of one eye in a fencing accident.
In 1868 the young Emperor Meiji launched the modernization of Japan with his Imperial Rescript. The samurai were deprived of their once-exclusive right to bear arms. Japan was ordered to form a new national army drawn, in the manner of Napoleon I, from all classes of society. For one tumultuous year the samurai, because their clan loyalty posed a threat to national sovereignty, were entirely banned from their previous caste employment as soldiers or officers. Shortly after that, they were admitted to the national army on the same basis as every other Japanese, but their warrior tradition soon came to inspire, if not dominate, the new national forces.
Young Nogi joined the new army as soon as his samurai caste status permitted. Still a poet at heart, he was renowned for his swordsmanship, his insubordinate attitude and for “drinking green liquors under scarlet lanterns”—sampling imported French absinthe in brothels and geisha houses.
Not all traditionalists were satisfied to roister and drink. In Kyushu, once the bastion of Japan’s largely exterminated native Christian minority, later the seat of clan intransigence, traditionalist samurai led by Takamori Saigo revolted against the national forces in February 1877. Nogi, now a captain, led a company of 240 multicaste soldiers against the rebels and charged into an ambush. Shot twice, Nogi lost many of his men, along with the banner given to the new regiment by the emperor. On September 25, Saigo, shot in the groin during his cornered army’s last stand at Kagoshima, acknowledged defeat and committed hara-kiri to implore pardon for his followers, most of whom were duly spared. Nogi, humiliated by the loss of the regimental banner, sent a request through the national army’s chain of command to atone for his disgrace through suicide. His request was approved by General Aritomo Yamagata who, as a boy, had swum out to attack Commodore Perry’s “black ships” armed only with a dagger in his teeth. When the request reached Meiji, however, he replied, “Not while I am still alive, Nogi—that is an order.” In the Shinto tradition both men followed, the best warriors were sometimes reserved for a mass departure when the emperor took his earthly leave. More grateful for the compliment than the reprieve, Nogi developed a devotion to Meiji and the imperial family that was extreme even for a samurai.
Letting bygones be bygones, Meiji had a statue erected of the defeated Saigo, clad not in samurai armor but in his rabbit-hunting costume with bow and arrows. He also married off Nogi to Shizuko (“Quiet Girl”), a 19- year-old daughter of the rival Satsuma clan. The first years of the marriage were troubled. Nogi drank heavily, even during their honeymoon. Shizuko took their two children to live with her family, while Nogi sometimes lived with his mother. Eventually they learned to tolerate each other as domestic partners and raised two boys, Katsusuke (“Victory Boy”), and Yasusuke (“Peace Boy”), in the samurai tradition.
In 1886, Nogi was sent to study military science in Germany. He found the kaiser’s peacetime parade army too frivolous, and returned to Japan as a martinet instead of a roisterer—and apparently as a better husband and father. Nogi and his wife and sons took up the family hobby of potting bonsai, miniature trees with landscapes.
In 1894, after many years of modernization, Japan made its own bid to be a power in Asia by going to war against the decadent China of the Manchu Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi. The Chinese were trampled and Nogi, as a brigade commander, captured the Chinese fortress in Manchuria that would later be known as Port Arthur, a conquest he described as “slightly more difficult than twisting a baby’s arm.”
Japan had won its war by 1895, but European intervention robbed it of most of the loot. In 1904 Nogi and his two sons, now grown to young manhood, were told to prepare for war with tsarist Russia.
“Please show a smiling face at least for once,” Shizuko Nogi said at the family farewell dinner in Tokyo. “This is not a smiling matter,” Nogi replied soberly. “A father and two sons are going to war. None of us knows who will be killed first. There should be no funeral until all three are returned in coffins.”
Although unruly, inefficient and poorly led, the Russian army proved tougher foes than the baffled Chinese. Besides dogged courage, they had electrified barbed wire, land mines and Maxim heavy machine guns. The Japanese won almost every battle, but their casualties were appalling. Katsusuke was the first Nogi to fall, while leading his troops at Nanshan as the tsar’s men withdrew into the fortified lines at Port Arthur. Mortally wounded, he conferred his samurai sword on a brother officer, saying: “I give it to you, and you shall enter the city of Port Arthur instead of myself. My soul is in the sword.”
“I am glad he died so splendidly,” Nogi said when told of his eldest son’s death. “It is the highest honor he could have.” Later he visited the grave with its simple wooden slat marker and left two bottles of beer so Katsusuke’s spirit could slake its thirst. He also wrote a morose poem in classic Chinese characters:
For ten miles the wind smells of blood from this new battle,
the warhorse balks, men are silent.
I stand outside the town in the light of the setting sun.
Yasusuke, fun-loving “Peace Boy” and his stern father’s favorite, was carrying dispatches from the front lines at Port Arthur’s critical 203-Meter Hill when a Russian bullet killed him. This time Nogi arrived in time to see the body of the boy who had once played around him like a puppy as they warmed their feet together at the family charcoal brazier. The father noted that the bullet had entered the back of Yasusuke’s head. “Was it after he had completed his task, or was it before?” he asked quietly. A staff soldier replied that Yasusuke had delivered his message bravely under heavy fire and was killed while returning to report his success. Nogi nodded. “I often wonder how I could apologize to His Majesty and to the people for having killed so many of my men,” he said. “But now that my son has been killed….” He wept silently, then said, “Cremate it, turn it to ashes,” turning away to hide his emotion.
On December 6, 1904, Nogi’s Third Imperial Army captured 203-Meter Hill at a cost of 14,000 dead. A story circulated that three Russian officers had sold the Japanese a map of the minefields and were later murdered when they tried to collect. In any case, 11-inch Krupp siege howitzers had breached the brick and stone fortress before the Japanese stormed in through machine gun fire and electrified barbed wire to rout the shell-shocked survivors with cold steel. Once 203-Meter Hill was captured, Japanese forward observers could direct heavy shells on the Russian warships in the harbor. They sank four battleships and four cruisers in days, and the Russian commander, General Anatole Stoessel, sued for peace. The Russians were so eager to get out of Port Arthur after losing 5,000 men that they left some of the 25,000 soldiers’ wives and officers’ widows behind. To their credit, the Japanese put them on a train unmolested. Stoessel even gave Nogi his fine Arabian horse.
While Russian stragglers and Japanese soldiers celebrated their survival with leftover vodka, Nogi poured sake in a solemn ceremony honoring the spirits of the dead, intoning: “I wish to tell you that your noble sacrifice was not in vain, for our enemy’s fleet has been destroyed, and Port Arthur at last has surrendered…with you, spirits of the dead, I wish to share the triumph.”
“The mountain after its capture would have been an ideal spot for an [international] peace conference,” wrote British correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett after the struggle ended. “There have probably never been so many dead crowded into so small a space since the French stormed the Great Redout at Borodino.”
As the first East Asian to defeat a white European nation in a modern land battle, Nogi became an international celebrity, much in demand for missions to Britain, which had diplomatically and technically supported Japan’s war as a way of containing Russian ambitions in Asia. In 1908 Emperor Meiji accorded Nogi another honor: The white-bearded general became the headmaster of the Peers School, where Meiji’s three grandsons were being groomed as future rulers. Hirohito, the oldest boy, was the leading candidate. A studious but clumsy child, Hirohito saw his father about once a month and his mother about once a week. He customarily addressed Nogi in the terms a child would use when speaking to a father. Nogi raised Hirohito as he himself had been raised, standing the 10-year-old under a glacier-fed waterfall and dressing him in coarse and ragged clothes. Nogi, however, was less impressed with Hirohito than he was with Prince Chichibu, a fun-loving and naturally graceful boy who may have reminded him of his second son Yasusuke.
In 1912 Meiji died, and the issue of a crown prince became critical to the crowning of Meiji’s son Yoshihito as the Taisho emperor. The German-loving Taisho barely knew his own sons, and a council of princes sought Nogi’s advice. According to American author David Bergamini, a Japanese-raised American whose father designed and built St. Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo and whose court sources were excellent, Nogi urged that Hirohito be put aside in favor of Chichibu, the second son. Besides Hirohito’s physical clumsiness, Bergamini cited the old general’s “vague presentiment, a sense of something dark” in Hirohito’s character. Taisho, who loved a drink as much as Nogi had, and enjoyed the sort of heavy Germanic pageantry that Nogi found preposterous, listened politely but disregarded the old samurai’s advice.
Nogi, dismayed, confronted the emperor’s 12-year-old heir. “I ask you to study harder,” he admonished. “You are now the crown prince…I beg you to attend to your military duties. I beg you to take daily care of your health, no matter how busy you are. Remember, I shall be watching. Work well for yourself and Japan.”
That night Nogi and his wife committed their double suicide. Westerners might believe that he was eager to follow Meiji to the land of ghosts, and many Japanese saw Shizuko’s voluntary death as a way of rejoining her two sons in the next world. But others, including Japanese courtiers who spoke in confidence to Bergamini, believed Nogi had been so outraged by Hirohito’s succession, against his strong advice, that he killed himself in sheer rage and resentment.
Nogi was a stern samurai whose soldiers called themselves “human bullets,” and he spared neither his men, his sons nor himself in the pursuit of honor. It is doubtful, however, that he would have approved some of the methods Hirohito later endorsed, ranging from the mass corruption of Manchuria through deliberate introduction of morphine and heroin, to the Nazi-style medical experiments on Chinese and Soviet prisoners and the fascination with germ warfare that percolated out of the palace once Hirohito was enthroned. These tactics had little to do with the samurai’s code of honor in warfare.
Informed of his tutor’s death—and no doubt aware of Nogi’s attempt to bump him out of the succession—Hirohito bowed and said, “Japan has suffered a regrettable loss.” His face reportedly betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
Based in Glen Rock, N.J., John Koster is related by marriage to former kamakazi pilots and numerous members of Japan’s prewar nobility. For further reading he recommends: The Tide at Sunrise, by Dennis and Peggy Warner; and Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, by Edward Behr.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.