井の中の蛙

11/27/2011

Seppuku: A Samurai Suicide Miscellany

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:20 pm

For a little entertainment this Thanksgiving, I read Andrew Rankin’s Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide (Kodansha, 2011).1 Since I’m teaching both Samurai and Early Japan this semester, seemed like a good supplemental read, and this is the first thing resembling a lull I’ve had all semester. This is an attractive little book, substantially researched, but not much of a history. It’s more like a miscellany, a collection of materials in search of a thesis.

Japan - 17c late Full suit ArmorAndrew Rankin is a graduate student in literature, specializing in Mishima Yukio: no wonder then, that he has collected materials on extremes of samurai culture, though Mishima is conspicuous by his almost-total absence from this work.2 Mishima is the subtext, though, as the entire work is dominated by discourses of aesthetics and authenticity, without the complications of anthropological or historical theory, economics or historical context. Thus you get sentences like: “Their chief aspiration, in its psychological essence, was to realize the perennial samurai fantasy of inviolable rectitude and fearless self-sacrifice culminating in sanguinary apotheosis.” (197) While Rankin acknowledges changes in practice over time, the view of samurai culture is anachronistic and stands little close scrutiny. Too bad, because even within the realm of performative aesthetics, there’s a fascinating set of problems on display here that deserve serious thought.

Japanese Dolls Warrior 2While academics are often accused of bibliography-dumping on our younger colleagues, that Kodansha would publish a footnoted, bibliography-laden book on samurai culture without references to Eiko Ikegami, Thomas Conlan or Paul Varley — to pick the first three that I looked for and didn’t find — seems a bit haphazard. This book could be an interesting counterpoint to Ikegami, in particular, because of her focus on the tensions between control and individual self-expression around the warrior class, but without any engagement or thesis statement, this work remains frustratingly aloof.

What this book does reasonably well is present nearly-raw materials on the stomach-cutting suicide practice, how it evolved from an exceptional display to a tradition, then to a routinized procedure and finally to a romantic gesture in the Bakumatsu-Meiji era, where it stops. This process is as close as the book comes to a thesis, though “point of view” might be closer. There are two substantive chapters chronicling this evolution. separated by one on the procedure of the mature seppuku ritual of the Tokugawa era. All of these chapters are more episodic than coherently narrative, focusing on individual events selected, as near as I can tell, for cultural impact or typicality: Well over half the book is short prose portraits of seppuku events and their ilk. There’s a great deal of interesting stuff here, details and terminology that will liven up lectures and spur the imaginations of historical novelists. There’s also a sort of epilogue, called “Paradigms” which is a collection of primary source quotations… well, it starts as primary source quotations, chronological, then Westerners and 20th century Japanese views start to slip in, material which was never addressed in the rest of the work. My favorite bit from that section is the “Death poem of Kanzawa Toko (1795)”

Death poems
are a delusion.
You just die.

It feels incomplete. Not just because I’m a scholar and I want analysis and counterarguments. But because the book doesn’t even hold together to the standards of a popular history. Despite the example above, the prose is mostly fine, though the endless progression of stomach-cutting does get to be a bit much: there aren’t enough synonyms, though Rankin doesn’t resort to euphemisms, which is good. While there’s great value in a detailed examination of a powerful social and cultural phenomenon like this, there should be some conclusion, some cohesion, which is just lacking.

  1. It helps to have friends who are journal editors: my colleague at Midwest Quarterly passed it on to see if it was worth a review, shortly before the journal gave up reviewing. []
  2. Three references, mostly directed at the presentation of suicide in his writing, and one brief mention of the Mishima’s own “anachronistic seppuku suicide.” (18) The Satsuma uprising is also missing, except for its role in General Nogi’s own anachronistic death. []

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