Maresuke Nogi commanded Japanese troops during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and became one of the heroes of the campaign. For some he came to be viewed as representative of the type of general who was indifferent to the number of men sent off to be killed. For others he stood for the samurai spirit, absolute in its resolve and devotion to the Emperor. The complexities of his character and career can only be understood in the light of the period which saw the restoration of the Emperor and Japan’s rapid industrialisation.
The Meiji restoration in the 1860s and Japan’s modernisation went together. The only non-Western country to industrialize, at least until recently, Japan’s transformation was achieved in a remarkable way. The patchwork of local allegiances which had existed under the Shogunate was shifted to a unified loyalty to the deified Emperor. Under this backward looking move the country was able to make a leap forward. Nogi, the son of a military man, wished to be a poet and landowner, but his father insisted he enter the army. He was wilful and insubordinate, suspended for drinking “green liquors under scarlet lanterns”. An eccentric, he never recovered from the effects of an incident in the 1870s when fighting those who had rebelled against the new regime. He became cut off from most of his men and, supreme dishonour, lost the regimental standard. His commander ordered him to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) but he was spared by the Emperor, leaving Nogi to live on “suffering beyond death”. He took part in the war against China in the 1890s before retiring to his estates to write poetry.
Recalled to the colours during the Russo-Japanese War, he was appointed General of the Third Imperial Army for the final push on Port Arthur. It was at this stage, after visiting the battlefields and the grave of his son who had been killed in the conflict, that he wrote the poem given below. The capture of Port Arthur led to heavy losses before the Russians surrendered to General Nogi and he returned home to a hero’s welcome. The early incident continued to haunt him, together with a sense of responsibility for the deaths of so many Imperial troops under his command, and he is most remembered – and became a heroic figure for right wing nationalists – for committing suicide (seppuku), together with his wife, after the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912. His house is preserved as a shrine and is a national symbol.
The poem translated below is well known, and for generations was learnt by every schoolchild, because of its associations with Nogi and the sensibility conveyed within a traditional stoical exterior. The structure and form of the poem are complex. There are two written texts. The first, the primary text, is written in Chinese characters, in the strict ordered form obligatory in this kind of poem. The second text is used when the poem is to be recited. Here, in the shigin style of recital, the Chinese characters are arranged in a different order and amended by Japanese syllables. It is the play between meaning and text, choice of character and sound, that carry the poem for a Japanese reader.
As an instance of the way this operates in Nogi’s poem, the Chinese character giving the sense of bleak desolation is defined by the use of the element ‘ice’ as part of the character, and not the element ‘water’ which would more commonly be used. By this means a colder, more shivering feeling is given to the desolate battlefield, and thereby to the poem as a whole. The literal translation is that the horses ‘do not advance’, but the sense is conveyed that they are suddenly struck still, unable to move in the silence after the clamour of battle. The place where the battle took place is called Chou-chin. The Japanese pronunciation of this is Kin-shu, the characters used meaning gold (Kin) and land/area (Shu), hence the title of the poem. But as is well known poetry is what gets lost in translation. These notes are an attempt to convey to a wider audience what the poem would mean to a Japanese reader and how this meaning is expressed.
Outside the Fortress at Goldland
Hills, river, grass, trees,
Truly desolate, a ten mile stretch.
A foul, blood-soaked wind
Over a fresh battlefield.
The horses do not stir,
The men do not speak.
In the slanted rays of the setting sun,
Outside the Fortress at Goldland.
This translation © Michael Hardy and Joern Keck
The Wikipedia entry for General Nogi reproduces the poem in Chinese characters. The content is reflected in the visual appearance as well as the sound. The entry does not, however, use the element ‘ice’ found in the original, but the element ‘water’ more commonly used nowadays.
D & P Warner, ‘The Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905’. Angus & Robertson, 1974.
On later writers, see Steve Rabson, ‘Righteous Cause or Tragic Folly: changing views of war in modern Japanese poetry’. Univ of Michigan, 1998.
Donald Keene, ‘Dawn to the West: Japanese literature of the modern era: poetry, drama. criticism’.
Michael Hardy and Joern Keck, 2008
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