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December 7 2019
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Ken Watanabe as Katsumoto in The Last Samurai, based on the story of Saigo, who died on the battlefield while leading a rebellion in the 19th century.

In December 1945, four years after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, an 86-year-old man, riddled by the disgrace of the emperor’s defeat, succeeded in killing himself. It was a terrible ending to a courageous life. He was by some accounts the last remaining samurai, a link to the country’s imperial past—and to a code of conduct that had endured for hundreds of years.

* * *

On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito went on Japanese radio, announcing the end of the war in the Pacific. An 86-year-old retired general, Shiba Goro, decided to commit seppuku, ritual suicide.

That in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy. Hundreds of Japanese officers at the time were deciding to follow the old samurai way of choosing honorable suicide over living in disgrace and defeat.

But General Shiba wasn’t just following the old samurai ways. He was an old samurai, born and bred in a samurai household, possibly the last man in Japan about whom that could be said. For him, suicide was a family tradition.

Shiba Goro began his military career as a cadet in 1873, in the new imperial-army academy in Tokyo.

He was born in June 1859, in Aizu (now Fukushima), in the northeast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. He was the fifth son of a well-placed samurai, eighth of nine children, all raised in strict samurai tradition. Japan was still a military dictatorship run by the shogun in Edo (now Tokyo), with the emperor a figurehead in Kyoto. But six years earlier, Commodore Perry and his gunships had showed up. Japan was thrown into turmoil that led, in January 1868, to civil war. Southern warlords and their samurai removed the shogun and put the emperor in power.

Shiba wasn’t just following the old ways. For him, suicide was a family tradition.

That spring, the emperor’s forces marched on the northern stronghold of shogun supporters, Aizu. Shiba Goro’s father and brothers went out to fight. His mother, wanting at least one male of the Shiba line to survive, sent him out to stay with an aunt in the country. She, his grandmother, and two of his sisters prepared to defend their home. Goro’s father and brothers were all captured alive on the battlefield—a disgrace for samurai. The women and girls, however, committed suicide rather than be dishonored by the invaders. One of Goro’s uncles stood behind them with a sword and delivered the killing coup de grâce to each, then set their home on fire. Goro fainted when his uncle told him. Later, he and his aunt sifted through the ashes with their fingers and chopsticks to find bone fragments to give a proper burial.

Goro and his father and brothers were relocated with other Aizu samurai to the remote northern tip of Honshu—Japan’s equivalent of Siberia. They lived in hovels, with no blankets or coats or boots. For food, they gathered seaweed and fought over dog carcasses. Famine and disease spread. Goro became perilously ill.

In 1873 he was accepted as a cadet in the new imperial-army academy in Tokyo. The samurai had been demolished as a class but were absorbed into the new military as its officer corps. He was in officer training when the last outbreak of samurai rebellion flared up, led by Saigo Takamori, who died on the battlefield but lives on as the highly fictionalized and romanticized character Katsumoto in The Last Samurai.

With sacred samurai swords lying on the table before the surrender document, Japanese military men surrender Marcus Island to the U.S. Navy on August 31, 1945, aboard the U.S.S. Bagley. In the center is Rear Admiral M. Matsubara, former commander of the island’ s Japanese garrison.

In June 1900, 41-year-old Colonel Shiba Goro was the military attaché to the Japanese legation in Beijing when the peasant revolt the West called the Boxer Rebellion flashed across China. The extraordinary dowager empress Cixi threw her army behind the peasants in a full-on siege of Beijing’s Legations Quarter, where foreign diplomats from 11 nations and their families lived. About 1,000 soldiers and civilians defended the quarter against tens of thousands of attackers. Colonel Shiba had the daunting task of holding a large, open corner of the quarter with a handful of troops and legation staff. His soldiers were very short on ammo; the civilians resorted to throwing bricks at the enemy and poking at them with sharpened broomsticks. Yet he was cool, brave, and resolute. He crawled under withering gunfire to drag wounded men out of danger. He astounded the other defenders by holding on to his corner for two months of constant attack, until an international column rescued them. It was the height of his career. His courage was lauded in newspapers around the world and in the memoirs of many survivors, and eight nations awarded him medals.

He was in officer training when the last outbreak of samurai rebellion flared up, led by Saigo Takamori.

From 1904 to 1905, he served in Japan’s victorious war with Russia, and was awarded more medals for his courage. He later served as Japan’s military attaché in London, and, promoted to general, commanded the imperial army’s garrison on Taiwan.

General Shiba retired in 1930 to Setagaya, a leafy residential area of Tokyo. He remained a loyal servant of the emperor, approving of Japan’s invasions of Manchuria and China in that decade, and ecstatic over the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. During the war years he wrote his memoirs of his tragic childhood, not published in Japan until 30 years after his death, and translated into English as Remembering Aizu in the 1990s. In 1945, when the empire he’d served all his adult life lay in ruins, he, like many officers, assumed personal responsibility. The only honorable course was suicide.

General Shiba knelt and plunged a knife into the left side of his abdomen, then began to draw it to the right. The idea is to slit the belly open, spilling the intestines. But it’s so excruciatingly painful that tradition allows for a second to deliver a merciful coup de grâce, as Shiba’s uncle had done so long ago.

General Shiba did not have a second. He struggled for four agonizing hours and managed to cut about four inches across his belly before he succumbed to the pain. He suffered from his wound, and probably great shame, for months before finally dying on December 13. His life had ended the way it began, in failure and disgrace.

John Strausbaugh’s most recent book is Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II

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