One of the hoariest of Japanese cultural archetypes is the noble loser who fights on against hopeless odds, sustained only by loyalty and the purity of his devotion to the cause for which he is dying. Western movie audiences were treated to a dose of this with the film The Last Samurai, very loosely based on a famous incident in the late nineteenth century that saw a kind of last stand of the old feudal order. The sentiment is not completely foreign to americains despite our adulation of winners; the career of Robert E. Lee fits the Japanese “noble loser” stereotype pretty closely.

Thus, while the “noble loser” archetype may not be limited to Japan, it has a particular hold over the Japanese imagination – sometimes to rather dark ends; vide the young kamikaze pilots sent in the waning days of the Second World War to certain death in fruitless attempts to forestall the inevitable. The Tale of the Heike does not end with the destruction of the Taira at Dan no Ura, but follows the tragic denouement of the general who won the battle – Minamoto Yoshitsune, younger brother of the Minamoto clan leader Yoritomo. Yoshitsune is depicted in innumerable plays, novels, and pictures as a slight, even effeminate boy who gains the affection and loyalty of the warrior Benkei after besting him in a fencing match. Benkei forms the original model for another enduring Japanese cultural archetype : the strong, dogged fighter – not much for words or any overt expression of emotion, but with a great heart and a fierce, dogged loyalty. Yoshitsune, meanwhile, is the archetypal doomed bishōnen or beautiful boy who dies young precisely because of his purity and virtue. The relationship between the two forms one of the great romances of Japanese culture.

R. Taggart Murphy, Japan and the Shackles of the Past, 2014, p.17

Regardless of where and how the heroes fought, these popular narratives allow their actions and even their downfall to be framed as an act of courage and selfless sacrifice. Historian George Mosse explored this proclivity to celebrate fallen soldiers by examining how the war dead were martyred in Germany after World ar I to dissipate the pain of failure and to relieve the guilt of the survivors. Martyrdom allows the living to say that soldiers did not die in vain. In the Japanese version, the narratives of fallen heroes often also claim redemption for them in that their death ostensibly contributed to making Japan’s future better and brighter – the “fortunate fall”

A well-known example of this genre in Japan is the story of the fallen heroes on the battleship Yamato, once of the most iconic narratives of sacrifice for a greater cause in Japan’s World War II history. The largest battleship ever built, it sank north of Okinawa in April 1945 with a crew of 3,000 men as it was deployed for a tactically dubious suicide sortie only months before Japan’s defeat.

Moments before the ship sank under an overwhelming bombardment by seven hundred American bombers, Captain Usubuchi makes the now-famous statement that his impending death is rendered worthwhile because his sacrifice can serve as an awakening, a rallying cry for a better national future :

Japan has paid too little attention to progress. We have been too finicky, too wedded to selfish ethics; we have forgotten true progress. How else can Japan be saved except by losing and coming to its senses? If Japan does not come to its senses now, when will it be saved ?

We will lead the way. We will dies as harbingers of Japan’s new life. That’s where our real satisfaction lies, isnt’it ?

What this twenty-one-year-old officier meant by “progress” is vague enough that different meanings can be attributed to it, such as peace, justice, security, or prosperity. It is also easy to fault the logical contradiction of a young man claiming to contribute to a future that he will not experience. Yet this contradictory logic is as the core of the idea that links progress to sacrifice, which engendered the collective belief that Japan could rebound and recover.

Akiko Hashimoto, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan, 2015, p.9

Knights of Phantom Republic

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