On September 13, 1912, shortly after the funeral cortege of the Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) left the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, General Maresuke Nogi (1849-1912) and his wife, Shizuko (1856-1912), committed ritual seppuku in the general’s room of their house in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, not far from the headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Army. Although it had been a tradition in medieval Japan for samurai to follow their masters to the grave in this manner, for a man of “modern” Japan to take his life in this way caused something of a sensation.
Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise to anyone given General Nogi’s life. A career soldier born into a samurai family and dedicated to the Chrysanthemum Throne, Nogi had on two occasions during his career tried to die, seeing it as his duty to do so. The first incident was in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion, when, as a young soldier, he fought in imperial troops against rebelling samurai. During the fighting Nogi had lost an imperial banner and nearly lost his life trying to retrieve it. The second time was in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese war, when Nogi asked the Emperor Meiji for permission to take his own life to take responsibility for the heavy loss of Japanese soldiers (56,000 casualties) under his command during the five month siege of Port Arthur. The Emperor refused to give his permission, telling Nogi he needed him.
So it was that after the death of the Emperor Meiji, Nogi, as a man of samurai values dedicated to serving the emperor who presided over Japan’s modernization, would choose to be finished with life.
General Nogi’s house, built in 1902, has been preserved. It is one of the few examples of Meiji Period architecture available in Tokyo. (For other opportunities, try the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, or go farther afield to Meiji Mura in Gifu Prefecture.)
While the house itself is only open to the public on September 12 and 13 every year, in honor of the anniversary of the deaths of General and Mrs. Nogi, there is a catwalk around the outside of the house that allows visitors to see through the windows into several of the rooms on the main floor. Although the house is western in style, a number of rooms have tatami mat flooring. In General Nogi’s room, two markers are placed on the floor to show where the general and his wife were sitting when they took their lives on that fateful day (see top left photo below).
From the front entrance, the house appears to be a single story bungalow. In fact, there is second story attic space containing two bedrooms for the two Nogi sons, both of whom lost their lives fighting in the Russo-Japanese War. The house is built on a slope so that there is also a lower level below the entry level, made of stone, which contained kitchens and servants’ quarters.
Not far from the entrance of the house is the stable, a substantial brick structure with its back to Gaien Higashi Dori, another glimpse of the fin de siecle life of a military man in Japan. On the other side of the gateway is a guardhouse.
Sensational though it may have been, many Japanese were deeply impressed with devotion shown by Nogi’s final act. In 1920 a group of those who admired the general’s sacrifice arranged for the consecration of a shrine in the lower part of the grounds of the general’s home. The deities of the shrine, known as Nogi Shrine, are the general and his wife. (They are buried in nearby Aoyama cemetery.) The neighborhood was also renamed to Nogizaka (Nogi’s hill), the name also given to the local stop on the Chiyoda line.
The shrine is currently undergoing some renovations that make entry all the way to the main hall (honden) somewhat convoluted, but is still open to worshipers (ie, open to the public). Although the honden is somewhat austere from the outside, the deep colors used to decorate the inside make it warm and inviting.
The shrine grounds contain a number of interesting features to leisurely explore; I won’t spoil the surprises.
The shrine, as with all shrines, is open sunrise to sunset.
The grounds of General Nogi’s house are open to the public from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm daily (closed only for a few days at year end). There is no charge to enter and explore this historical spot that is so significant as a signal of the end of the Meiji period of Japan’s history.
© 2019 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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