Nogi Maresuke (1849–1912) was a Japanese general and war hero whose dramatic suicide upon the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 catapulted him to near god-like status in pre-World War II Japanese state propaganda.
By 1912 Nogi was already a national icon. He had arrived on the national scene in 1895 when he was named governor-general of Formosa, and then became a celebrated war hero for his promenant role in the Japanese capture of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. By 1912 the government was already promoting Nogi as a model of duteous service and loyalty to the emperor.
Perhaps the fame went to Nogi's head, or maybe he really was simply that loyal. At 7:40pm on September 13, 1912, just as Emperor Meiji's funeral procession was leaving the imperial palace, Nogi and his wife Shizuko seated themselves facing a portait of the emperor in their home and commited seppuku, he disembowling himself with his sword, and she plunging a dagger into her heart. Their suicide notes spoke of "following the lord".
Nogi's suicide presented an interesting dilemma to the Japanese propagandists. The ancient custom of junshi, or following one's lord in death, had been outlawed by the Tokugawa bakufu way back in 1663, and the Japanese government hardly wanted to encourage its leading citizens to kill themselves off every time an emperor died. At the same, time however, the government and its ideologues were definitely interested in promoting loyalty to the emperor, even unto death, and thus Nogi's suicide proved too good an opportunity to pass up. Thus within hours of his death, the process began, in newspaper reports and pamphlets, to enshrine Nogi as one of the greatest national heroes in Japanese history.
To forestall imitators, the propaganda surrounding Nogi's suicide emphasized the "old-fashionedness" of the act and spoke of his loyalty as so pure, that Japan would "never see its like again." The idea was to mold Nogi into an ideal of loyalty so lofty, that while it should always be striven for, it could never again be reached.
The Japanese could not get enough of the Nogi story, which quickly assumed mythic proportions. A contemporary commentator proclaimed that "nothing has so stirred up the sentiments of the nation since the vendetta of the 47 ronin in 1702."1 Similarly, a poll of Japanese schoolchildren asked, "Who would you most aspire to be like?" The most common response was Kusunoki Masashige, followed closely by General Nogi. The Emperor was a lowly third place.
1. Ukita Kasutami. "Nogi Taisho no junshi o ronzu." Taiyo 18, no. 15. November, 1912. p.2.