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Why is Nogizaka called Nogizaka?

In Japanese History on March 27, 2013 at 3:05 pm

乃木坂
Nogizaka (Nogi Hill)

Sign inside Nogizaka Station

Sign inside Nogizaka Station

Today’s place name is an easy one.

Nogizaka (Nogi Hill) is… you guessed it! a hill.

It’s located in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, a walkable distance from Roppongi and Azabu-Juban and Aoyama Cemetery. Officially, there isn’t an area called Nogizaka, but because the train station is named Nogizaka, the immediate area is sometimes informally referred to as such.

The hill is named after 乃木希典  Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912) who lived on the hill. Nogi was a bad ass general in the Imperial Army. He was born into a samurai family in the final years of the Edo Period and actually participated in the official smack down of the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. He lost the Imperial Banner in a battle and wanted to commit seppuku to atone for his fuck up, but the Meiji Emperor wasn’t having it. “You’ll have to wait, little Maresuke,” said the emperor, “I need you now.”

General Nogi and his wife, Shizuko.

General Nogi and his wife, Shizuko.

OK, the emperor didn’t actually say that, but he effectively said that. And don’t worry… little Maresuke will get his chance to commit suicide eventually.

Maresuke’s biggest success was forcing Russia to surrender after the Siege of Port Arthur – a battle that I have to confess I know absolutely nothing about.  Well, OK, I know something about it. I know that the Imperial Army faced much harder resistance than expected and took massive casualties. Despite winning the battle, little Maresuke met with the emperor to beg for forgiveness for losing so many men. He told the emperor he wanted to kill himself… again. But this time, the emperor said, “You’ll have to wait, little Maresuke. The battle was an imperial order. You’ll have to live at least as long as I.”

Little Maresuke in fundoshi.

Little Maresuke in happier times…

And so little Maresuke waited and waited and waited.

And waited.

Then on July 30th, 1912, his chance finally came. The Meiji Emperor died and little Maresuke could finally commit seppuku after all. But there was one problem. The funeral wouldn’t be for another 45 days.

So he waited a little bit more.

Then his chance finally came. For real.

After the funeral procession had left the Imperial Palace (formerly Edo Castle), Maresuke and his wife, Shizuko, snuck out the back and headed to their home on the hill (that’s Nogi Hill to you, buddy). They went into a nice room with a view and committed 殉死 junshi (following your lord into death). He “helped” his wife “stab herself” in the neck (seems legit), a ritual called 自害 jigai. Then he performed seppuku by making three slits in his belly.

Shizuko was quite the minger in her day.

Shizuko was quite the minger in her day.

I’m not sure who had to clean up the tatami room after this little escapade, but I’m sure it wasn’t fun. Anyways, the house is still there and you can even visit the seppuku room and see the bloody kimonos they were wearing if you go in September for the special suicide anniversary extravaganza. Nearby in Akasaka is 乃木神社 Nogi Jinja Nogi Shrine where Shizuko and little Maresuke are enshrined along with their 2 kids. If you take a short walk to Aoyama Cemetery, you can visit the couple’s grave. All these sites are accessible from 乃木坂駅 Nogizaka Station.

The Nogi Residence back in the day.

The Nogi Residence back in the day.

Don't worry, they cleaned the tatami mats a long time ago.

The Nogi residence today. Don’t worry, they cleaned the tatami mats a long time ago. There’s no suicide blood anymore.

When we learn about history, we have to take the culture and the ethos of the time into consideration. While General Nogi was unquestionably a great Japanese general in these early days of the Imperial Army and Japan’s modernization and industrialization, he was essentially trapped between two worlds – the world of Tokugawa Japan and the world of Meiji Japan. He wasn’t the only one. Everyone at that time was in the same situation.

The problem I have with little Maresuke is that his junshi (ritual suicide upon a leader’s death) is the first warning symptom we get of the fanatical emperor worship that plagues Imperial Japan and eventually leads to the near annihilation of Japan in WWII. In my mind, there was no reason for him to kill himself and even less reason for his wife to do it (keep in mind he “helped” her). Maybe I’m falling into the trap of looking at this through modern eyes, then again… this wasn’t that long ago. Apparently, opinions on this “double suicide” were divided. Some people who still romanticized the ways of bushido saw it as noble, other saw it as embarrassing – a sign that Japan hadn’t yet joined Western “modernity” or at least wouldn’t be seen as “modern” in the eyes of the foreign powers that forced Japan open in the Bakumatsu.

Whatever our modern opinions of his actions, they are distinctly Japanese. And let’s just leave it at that.

RIP

Little Maresuke and Minging Shizuko’s final resting spot.

Nogi Shrine: http://www.nogijinja.or.jp/

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  1. My cheeks are numb from laughing so hard.

    I have to do a paper on the Russo-Japanese war for my Asian Studies class and I found you blog. I think I’m going to write about Little Maresuke and his suicide fetish now!

    I was dreading this paper. Now I’m looking forward to it! Thank yoU!

  2. […] well-researched, and picture-filled posts on why Tokyo neighborhoods like Ochanomizu, Shibuya, and Nogizaka are called what they are. This is local history at its best, bringing alive the colorful and […]

  3. Great and amusing read, thank you! Of course, the real fact is that his suicide had little to do with the stated above, more to do with Hirohito and his coming to power with his decison to (not only marine)biology. The white race of Samurai warriors. The last of many, link to the forgotten past.

  4. […] In the case of the name “Nogizaka” which means Nogi Hill, the location is named after resident and Imperial Army general, Nogi Maresuke.  Which you can read more about through this blog. […]

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