Fairly or unfairly, death has always been linked to the samurai. It is in fact the samurai's presumed affinity for
death that seems to set him aside from other warriors and captures the imagination. Of course, there can be little doubt that
the manner in which he viewed his own death was considered most important. But was he as obsessed by it as we have been led
to believe, ready to toss his life away at a moment's notice?
Perhaps we, both Japanese and foreign, owe much of our 'death-intensive' view of the samurai to the Hagakure, a
book composed in the 18th Century. Written long after the last samurai army had marched into battle, the Hagakure
- and books like it - sought to stiffen the flagging martial spirit among a samurai class nearly destitute and directionless.
Needless to say, a good deal of idealism found its way into the pages of these 'how-to' books, but at the same time, the wisdom
contained within was (and is) often distorted or misconstrued. Perhaps the most famous example is provided in the opening
chapter of the Hagakure itself…
"The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to death, there is only the quick choice of death."1
These oft-quoted lines find their way into many 'populist' books and magazines on the samurai and/or Japanese martial culture.
Yet, if we read a bit further, we encounter this passage…
"We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained
our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one's aim IS a dog's death
and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one's heart
right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His
whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling."2
In these words we find a depth and thoughtfulness lacking to some degree from our image of the samurai and death. Another
Edo samurai, Daidoji Yuzan, wrote…
"One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind…the fact that he has to die. If
he is always mindful of this, he will be able to live in accordance with the paths of loyalty and filial duty, will avoid
myriads of evils and adversities, keep himself free of disease and calamity and moreover enjoy a long life. He will also be
a fine personality with many admirable qualities. For existence is impermanent as the dew of evening, and the hoarfrost of
morning, and particularly uncertain is the life of the warrior…"3
Yet, how much can be drawn from the writings of peacetime samurai? Granted, any Edo samurai faced the prospect of suicide
should he greatly displease his lord, or commit some notable transgression (the penalty for striking another with a sword
in anger was often suicide). Additionally, even life in Edo Japan was fraught with all manner of hardships, including fires,
earthquakes, and disease. In this respect life differed little from the days when Kamo no Chomei had written, "Where to find
a place to rest? And how bring even short-lived peace to our hearts?"4
samurai view and idea of death was shaped not so much, perhaps, from the ways of war as the realities of life. Every aspect
of Japanese life was tailored to suit an existence in a land that could be shockingly and suddenly cruel. Earthquakes could
topple castles, and plagues ravage the countryside. Raging fires often swept towns, leading Chomei to write, "all of man's
doings are senseless / but spending his wealth / and tormenting himself / to build a house in this hazardous city / is especially
Famine was an ever-present danger, and Chomei witnessed the
especially cruel one that tormented the land from 1181-82. "There was little trade, but grain was worth more than gold / Beggars
were many in the streets, clamor of suffering, sorrow filled the air / Even as you watched, stricken people walking by, would
suddenly fall / so many bodies of the starved lay in the streets hard by the walls of houses / Since these were not removed
there rose a dreadful stench. It was more then one could bear to look upon these rotting corpses."6 This same famine
brought the Gempei war to a grinding halt, and claimed both high and low.
centuries, many famous men would die not in battle but from illness, including the two great rivals Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen.7 Promising young lords such as Mori Takamoto and Taira Shigemori died young and in their beds. All of this contributed
to the sentiment behind the words of Daid˘ji Yuzan and the Japanese appreciation for fleeting beauty.
With this in mind, then, we'll take a brief look at two of the two ways a samurai might prefer to die, and how they were
"Those who cling to life die, and those who defy death live."8 The sengoku daimy˘ Uesugi Kenshin left
these words for his retainers just prior to his own death. The Hagakure provides a somewhat similar bit of wisdom.
"A person who does not want to be struck by the enemy's arrows will have no divine protection. For a man who does not wish
to be hit by the arrows of a common soldier, but rather those of a warrior of fame, there will be the protection for which
he asked."9 In other words, while a peacetime samurai was free - and encouraged - to contemplate death, a fighting
samurai was probably better off not thinking about it.
No samurai was ever safe from
the shadow of death when at war, and many famous names fell on the battlefield. Uesugi Kenshin's own father had been killed
in battle, and more then a few of his notable contemporaries would fall to an enemy's sword. Imagawa Yoshimoto, Ryűz˘ji Takanobu, Sait˘ Dosan, Uesugi Tomosada… great warlords all slain in daring enemy rushes. Many others commited
suicide after their causes had been lost, from Minamoto Yorimasa of the 12th Century to Sue Harukata of the 16th.
Naturally, the samurai took a somewhat philosophical approach to death, as we have already seen. Beauty, or at least an enduring
pathos, could be found in the passing of a samurai. Rather then dwell on the dreary details of battlefield slaughter, let
us read the closing lines to the N˘ drama 'Atsumori', which recounted the death of the young Taira warrior Atsumori
at the Battle of Ichi no Tani in 1184 and the later meeting of his ghost with the man who had killed him…
'Then, in time, His Majesty's ship sailed,
with the whole clan behind him in their own.
Anxious to be aboard, I
sought the shore,
but all the warships and the imperial barge
stood already far, far out to sea.
I was stranded.
Reining in my horse,
I halted, at a loss for what to do.
There came then, galloping behind me,
Kumagai no Jir˘
shouting, "You will not escape my arm!"
At this Atsumori wheeled his mount
and swiftly, all undaunted,
drew his sword.
We first exchanged a few rapid blows,
then, still on horseback, closed to grapple, fell,
on, upon the wave-washed strand.
But you bested me, and I was slain.
Now karma brings us face to face again.
are my foe!" Atsumori shouts,
lifting his sword to strike; but Kumagai,
with kindness has repaid old enmity,
the Name to give the spirit peace.
They at last shall be reborn together
upon one lotus throne in paradise.
(Kumagai), you were no enemy of mine.
Pray for me, O pray for my release!
Pray for me, O pray for my release! 10
It may be of some interest to note that the play 'Atsumori' was reputed to be a favorite of the often-ruthless 16th
century warlord Oda Nobunaga.
The line between suicide and death in battle was often thin, especially since a
certain measure of glorification was attached to the notion of perishing on the battlefield. Here we find the 'nobility of
failure' Ivan Morris once wrote about, the gallant death of the losing warrior. The Battle of Nagashino in 1575 provides us
with a moving example. The Takeda army had been crushed by the combined forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu and now faced complete annihilation, with no less then ten thousand men already dead. The venerable Takeda general Baba Nobufusa had somehow survived the morning's slaughter and now led the remains of his command in a doomed rear guard action.
Nobufusa rushed a man to [Takeda] Katsuyori to say, "Sir, leave this place at once. I beg you. I will stay here and die." He stayed on with eighty horsemen and lost
all of them. He climbed a hill and, seeing that Katsuyori was now far away, shouted loudly to the enemy, "I am Baba, Governor
of Mino. Kill me if you can and win a big reward!" Enemies gave him multiple stabs, and he died.11
The death of Nobufusa is given added poignancy by the knowledge that he and the other
old Takeda generals had urged Katsuyori not to attack the allied army the night before. When Katsuyori ignored their advice,
Baba and his colleagues dutifully led their men from the front and were killed almost to a man.
doomed warrior whose advice had been ignored prior to the start of his last battle was Taira Tomomori, perhaps the greatest
of the Taira generals. With the final confrontation of the Gempei War imminent, Tomomori had urged his lord, Munemori, to
dispose of a certain general whose loyalty he questioned. Munemori rejected his suggestion, and during the course of the Battle
of Dan no Ura (1185) that very general betrayed the Taira cause. With all hope lost, Tomomori resolved to end his own life.
"I have seen enough," said the New Middle Counselor Tomomori. "It is time
to take my life." He summoned his foster brother, Iga no Heinaizaemon Ienaga. "What do you say? You will stand by your promise,
"Of course." Ienaga said.
assisted the New Middle Counselor into a second suit of armor and donned another himself, and the two leaped into the sea
with clasped hands. More then twenty samurai took one another by the hand and sank in the same place, determined not to stay
behind after their master was gone. 12
Note that Tomomori's retainers were quick to follow him in death, an impulsive reaction
not at all uncommon, especially under such devestating conditions.
In a marked contrast
to the resignation of Tomomori is the head of the Taira, Munemori, and his son…
…Munemori and his son Kiyomune lingered at the side of their boat,
looking around in bewilderment, with no apparent thought of jumping. Some of the Taira samurai, shamed by the minister's conduct,
pushed him overboard under pretense of brushing past him. Kiyomune promptly leaped after him.
the others had entered the water wearing heavy armor, with weighty objects borne on their backs or held in their hands to
make sure of sinking. This father and son had done nothing of the kind; moreover, they were excellent swimmers with no stomach
for drowning. Thus it was that they stayed afloat…As the two swam around, watching each other, Ise no Saburo Yoshimori
suddenly rowed up in a small craft and dragged Kiyomune out with a rake. Munemori looked on without attempting to drown himself,
and Yoshimori dragged him out too.13
Munemori's impulse towards self-preservation is altogether human, but occasionally
death was actively avoided for the greater good of the cause. This is nowhere better illustrated then by the actions of Kusunoki
Masashige, the famous Imperial loyalist of the early 14th Century. He is particularly well remembered for engineering
two classic defensive stands, at Akasaka and Chihaya, where he tenaciously resisted much larger enemy armies. The Taiheki
records the events surrounding the fall of Akasaka…
Kusunoki had built this castle in great haste, with no time to prepare
adequate provisions. In a mere twenty days after the battle had started and the castle was surrounded, there were only four
or five days' worth of provisions left in the castle. So Masashige faced his men and said:
won several battles and destroyed countless enemies. But their number is so great they don't think anything of it. Meanwhile
we're running out of food and there isn't any rescue force. Since I was the first among the soldiers of this country to rise
with a decision to help his Majesty unify the land, I wouldn't hesitate to give up my life if the time were right and the
act was just. Still, a courageous warrior is someone who takes precautions on an important occasion and chooses to plot things
out. For this reason I, Masashige, would like to let this castle be taken and make the enemy assume I have committed suicide.
Let me explain why.
"If they find out that I have commited suicide, the men from the
Eastern provinces will be overjoyed and return to their lands. When they have, I'll come out and fight; if they come back
here I'll withdraw into deep mountains. If I annoy the forces from the East in this fashion four or five times, they're bound
to become exhausted. This is how by preserving myself I plan to destroy the enemy."14
Masashige's decision allowed him to embarrass the Eastern forces at Chihaya, but in
the end he was ordered to a battle he knew he could not win. Dutifully accepting the wishes of the Emperor, who desired a
decisive battle to end the war in one stroke, Masashige prepared to depart for Minatogawa, first visiting with his eleven-year-old
"…If you retain a single word of mine in your ear, please do not
go against what I now have to say. I think the coming battle will decide the fate of our land, and this will be the last time
for me to see your face in this life.
"When people learn that Masashige has been killed
in battle, assume that our land is to be run by lord [Ashikaga] Takauji. But even if that happens, do not destroy our loyalty of many years and surrender to save your own life. As long as a young
man remains alive in our clan, hide yourself near Mt. Kongo and fight the enemy…that will be your first filial duty…"
Masashige then departed for the battle where, as he had predicted, his side was defeated. Surrounded by the enemy, Masashige
commited suicide. His son, Masatsura, took his father's parting words to heart, and carried on his fight on behalf of the
'Southern Court'. Sadly, Masatsura himself fell in battle, but not before leaving the names of his kinsmen and these lines
etched on a temple door that remain to this day…
I could not return, I presume,
I will keep my name
Among those who are dead with bows. 16
As we have seen, a meaningful or dramatic suicide (or de facto suicide) was one of
the ways in which a samurai could achieve posthumous fame. Here are some other men noted for the manner in which they died…
Taira Noritsune (d.1185). At the same Battle of Dan no Ura where Tomomori would drown himself, Noritsune was determined
to take the head of his clan's great foil, Minamoto Yoshitsune. He jumped from boat to boat, seeking out his quarry, until
he finally shouted a challenge in frustration. Three Minamoto warriors came forward, seeking to subdue him, but straightaway
suffered the loss of one of their number kicked into the sea. Noritsune then grappled with his other two assailants. '…he
clamped the second man, Sanemitsu, under his left arm, and the younger brother, Jiro, under his right, gave them both a mighty
squeeze, and sprang into the waves, saying, "All right, come on! Be my companions in the Shide Mountains."17 He
was twenty-six years old.'
Shiaku Saburozaemon (d.1333). Saburozaemon was the son of a low ranking member of the Hojo Bakufu. In 1333 the Hojo
were defeated by the supporters of the Emperor Go-Daigo and Kamakura was attacked. Saburozaemon's father decided to commit
suicide along with his masters, but advised his young son to escape and assume the life of a Buddhist monk. Saburozaemon refused.
"Even though I have not been actively and personally connected with our master, as your son I have been brought up under the
benevolent protection of his grace. If I already followed the life of monkhood it would be a different matter. Having been
born into the family of a samurai, how can I leave you and our master and save myself to become a monk? No shame is greater
then this. If you are to share the destiny of our master, let me be your guide into the next world."18 Before he
had even finished speaking, he slit his own belly open. He was followed by his father, who first wrote the lines… "Holding
forth this sword, I cut vacuity in twain; In the midst of the great fire, A stream of refreshing breeze!'19
Makara Naotaka (d.1570) This great warrior, better known by his title of Jűr˘zaemon, rode out to cover the retreat
of the Asakura after they had given way to the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga at Anegawa in 1570. He killed a
certain Ogasawara Nagatada in single combat, then, aided by his son and a long sword, bought his clan as much time as possible
. Finally surrounded in the shallow waters of the Anegawa, Makara and his son Naomoto were cut down - but not before the Asakura
had made good their escape.
Matsunaga Hisahide (d.1577) Having failed in a rebellion against Oda Nobunaga, Matsunaga was faced with committing
suicide even as enemy troops assailed the walls of his castle. It happened that Matsunaga was a tea master of some note, and
knew that Nobunaga had always coveted his famous teakettle 'Hiragumo'. Hisahide therefore determined that Nobunaga would be
denied the two things he wanted most from him. He ordered that, after he had commited suicide, his head and Hiragumo were
to be fastened together and blown apart with gunpowder.
Nobunaga's reaction to losing
both is unknown.