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

A fascinating book that looks at heroes from Japanese culture. They are mostly tragic stories of men fighting for something they believe in eventhough they face insurmountable odds and certain death. There is a thin line between bravery and stupidity, but men who sincerely stick to a cause they believe in and bravely fight until the end are celebrated as heroes in Japanese culture. Though I wonder how the extremely difficult loss of WW2 and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has had an effect on these types of heroes in the national psyche in the post-war period to the present day.

The historical figures written about:

  • Yamato Takeru
  • Yorozu
  • Arima no Miko
  • Sugawara no Michizane
  • Minamoto no Yoshitsune
  • Kusunoki Masashige
  • Amakusa Shirō
  • Ōshio Heihachirō
  • Saigō Takamori
  • The kamikaze fighters of World War II

The story of Saigo Takamori is an especially good chapter. You may have seen the movie “The Last Samurai” which is inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori. So yes, Saigo Takamori is what is considered the last samurai.

The final chapter looks at kamakaze fighters in World War 2. After reading about the other stories of venerated heroes who died for what they believed in, it makes kamakaze fighters seem less ‘irrational’. If you had been brought up to worship these types of heroes, and then are convinced by your government that you are in such a heroic stuggle - why not give your life for the motherland and live on as a hero in the memory of your people?

I heard about this book while listening to the epic podcast Supernova in the East by Dan Carlin. That podcast was incredible and really helped me understand the World War 2 in the Pacific much better.

Reading this book has made me realize I don’t know much about Japanese history prior to World War 2. I now want to read more books about the time of Shoguns, and watch some samurai movies!

Rating: ★★★★★

Book #30 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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