Salaryman. Nogi Syndrome, Workoholism and Karoshi. THINK IAFOR

June 23, 2016

Professor Stuart D. B. Picken explores the influence of Nogi syndrome and post-World War 2 survivor syndrome on modern-day Japanese work culture, in Part 15 of his “Death in the Japanese Tradition” monograph.

Survivor Syndrome

The following letter, written by a thirty-four year old housewife from Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture, was carried by the hitotoki a serious discussion column of the Asahi Shimbun, in August 1980:

“It’s now three months since my father died a sudden death. And the thirty-fifth anniversary of the end of the war is just around the corner. My father was an army lieutenant then. On the day the war was declared ended, he returned from the army barracks, told my mother that their engagement was cancelled and that he was going to kill himself with a gun in front of the Imperiel Palace after paying his last respects to his ancestors at his family’s grave. It took my mother’s desperate efforts to talk him out of committing suicide. Then they got married but my father would say from time to time since then that he was living a life that should have ended long ago. My father, in my eyes, was always a hard worker. He worked even at night when I was a child and he was working on the day he died. He would drink some sake and read books. Those were his only hobbies and otherwise he worked hard almost 365 days a year. I couldn’t understand why he worked so hard and asked him the reason once. “I work for myself. I just want to work as hard as I can so that I don’t have to regret I lived.” It was probably just that he always wanted to keep himself busy with something. My father was very strict with himself. My husband used to say that my father was arbitrary and biased through and through. This is only my guess, but he must have continued the war in himself. That must have been why he refused to live a happy, comfortable life. The only thing he would talk about regarding the war was the disastrous Tokyo air raid of March 10, 1945. Otherwise he didn’t like to discuss it. What he was really thinking remains unknown. But he refused to accept the idea that Japan alone was wrong. It would have meant total self-negation for him. Though he was very stubborn, he lived a straightforward life, saying that the best education a parent can give is to provide an example. He suddenly died, to everyone’s surprise. He would have been fifty-eight had he lived a few more days.”

“countless Japanese have committed themselves to work as a form of living that may lead to death in order to justify their not having died when their friends and comrades did”

The death recounted here illustrates the way in which countless Japanese have committed themselves to work as a form of living that may lead to death in order to justify their not having died when their friends and comrades did. Not a few, like the father of the writer, worked themselves to death in the process of rebuilding the nation, while feeling that their own lives were of little value in any other way.

This is the root of what I would like to designate as the Nogi Syndrome, the feeling of guilt about survival and the desire to atone for that by working oneself to death. It is an attitude towards death to be found amongst many Japanese who were socialized according to pre-World War 2 values. They are committed to the ideal of devotion to the dead. Their lives seem to have a death orientation that arises from what psychologists have called ‘survivor syndrome’. That syndrome takes many forms, including that documented by Robert Lifton concerning the hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima, in which the grief and shock at the death of someone close may lead people to behave in a manner that shows marked indifference as to whether they themselves live or die. They continue to live, but with no regard for themselves. They seek merely to justify their continued existence. (Lifton, Robert Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, New York: Random House, 1967)

Nogi Syndrome and Workaholism

The life and death of Nogi Maresuke is a perfect illustration of this syndrome for a number of reasons. (Lifton, R.J. with Kato Shuichi and Reich, Michael R. Six Lives Six Deaths New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979). Firstly, he was a victim of survivor syndrome not once, but several times. Secondly, his death was manipulated by the government as an object of moral idealism and as a tool of ideological influence intended to stimulate patriotism and loyalty in the period preceding the Second World War. Consequently, his image was the basis of a government appeal for complete dedication to the principles of patriotic duty even unto death. Thirdly, although the victims of Nogi Syndrome are now businessmen and not soldiers, their attitudes towards themselves and their work show how old ideas may transform themselves into new forms of expression that are not always immediately recognizable as such. Fourthly, Nogi Maresuke is a symbol drawn from recent Japanese history and since he was influenced by similar values, illustrates well the special form that survivor syndrome took in Japan, extreme compared to the form it took in other places. Survivor syndrome is a universal phenomenon. but the particular manifestation of this that I have labeled ‘Nogi Syndrome’ is peculiar to Japan. (Scheidmann, E.S. Death: Current Perspectives CA.: Mayfield, pp. 233 ff).

The same anxiety about survival was felt by many living in the West after 1945. I know many clergymen who entered the Church in order simultaneously to atone for the deep moral guilt they felt about having killed people, most of whom they didn’t even see, and to serve the living. This feeling seems to have been common among ex-fighter pilots. Some, like the father described in the letter, worked themselves relentlessly and died prematurely. Their view of life was colored perhaps by religious faith as well as survivor syndrome. They believed that God had spared their lives during the War for a purpose, and that they could fulfill this purpose in serving the needs of other people. There was no conscious belief that in death they could atone for their guilt, unlike sufferers from Nogi Syndrome, in which a commitment to death seems to be deeply embedded.

Devotion to the Dead

In a general way, the problem of survivor syndrome was rather less severely felt in the West than in Japan. The vast majority of those who came back after the War adjusted quite quickly and reasonably well to normal civilian life, pushing to the backs of their minds, the moral compromises that War inevitably entails. Memories doubtless lingered, but on the whole, the mood was one of relief rather than anxiety. By contrast, many returning Japanese experienced deep guilt at having survived and, another feature of the Nogi Syndrome, a need to atone by showing devotion to the dead.

We have spoken earlier of the important role reverence for ancestors in particular, and kami in general, plays in the social psychology of the Japanese, even in comparatively modern times. Attitudes towards death also play an important part in shaping all facets of social life. The cultural perception of death and the dead that is a feature of the Nogi Syndrome, seems to have been unconsciously at work among the Japanese of the postwar era who have become objects of envy and criticism, and have been labeled ‘economic animals’ or ‘workaholics’. The post-1945 Japanese have demonstrated an enormous capacity for effective organization and hard work, a major factor contributing to Japan’s spectacular economic success, a quality that prompted Ezra Vogel to write his book: Japan as No. 1. (Vogel, Ezra Japan as No. 1: Lessons for America, Tokyo: Charles Tuttle & Co. Ltd., 1988). My proposition is that one factor stimulating such hard work has been the Nogi Syndrome. A brief examination of Nogi’s life will confirm this.

Early Life of General Nogi

Nogi was born into a samurai family in 1849. He showed an early inclination towards the growing Imperial party and at the age of sixteen helped to form a radical group called the hokokutai (patriotic corps) whose pledge involved devotion to duty and a promise to commit seppuku in the event of failure. Nogi’s group joined with the Choshu forces that challenged the Shogunate in 1866. Emperor Komei died in February 1869 and the young Emperor Meiji ascended the throne in Kyoto. This transition encouraged various anti-shogunate groups to unite in protection of the new Emperor.

While the Tokugawa family was struggling to find a political formula to solve this crisis, some pro-Imperial forces occupied the palace in Kyoto and proclaimed a restoration of Imperial power, whereby the Emperor would henceforth rule as well as reign. In January 1868, Shogunate forces were defeated at Toba and Fushimi and finally, in April 1868, the Tokugawa castle in Edo (the present Imperial Palace) fell into pro-Imperial hands. The Shogunate collapsed and in the name of Emperor Meiji, an assorted group of anti-shogunate samurai declared itself to be the new government.

Meiji Restoration Conflicts

Nogi’s activities at that time were limited by the fact that he had been wounded and sent back to Choshu. He did not, therefore, participate in the dramatic moments of the Meiji Restoration. But in 1871, after the formation of the Imperial Army, he was appointed to the rank of major, and was almost immediately involved in a crisis. The Meiji government, fearing further rebellion, set about the gradual elimination of the old samurai class. This produced a re-grouping of former friends and enemies. Remnants of pro-shogunate samurai, plus dissatisfied revolutionary samurai united against the forces of the Meiji government and Nogi found himself commanding the 14th regiment, which was stationed at Kokura in North Kyushu. The district was vital to the survival of the Meiji government, and the previous commander had been relieved from duty. Nogi’s brother was a Choshu samurai who had left the government side to join those who wished to preserve the samurai way of life. Nogi soon found himself in a difficult situation. His brother had also become a disciple of Nogi’s own former teacher, who was principal spokesman for the rebels, and both now stood against him. In the name of Emperor Meiji, Nogi had to destroy the rebels.

This conflict of giri and ninjo (social obligation and personal feeling) seems to have had a marked influence on Nogi’s later state of mind. However, it would be an inadequate, although perhaps tidy, explanation to say that his death resulted directly from this conflict. Such a theory is better reserved for an account of shinju (double love suicide). To continue the narrative however, although Nogi did not commit his forces, his brother was killed in the battle that eventually took place and his teacher committed seppuku. Nogi was criticized at the time for equivocating by requesting reinforcements.

Loss of the Imperial Standard

He was given a chance to redeem himself in February1877 when his regiment was summoned from Kyushu to assist in putting down a samurai uprising in Kumamoto, under Saigo Takamori. Nogi, wishing to demonstrate his loyalty, recklessly assaulted Kumamoto Castle by a direct frontal attack, during which the regimental color-bearer was killed and the flag seized. The loss of the Imperial color so upset Nogi that he had to be physically restrained from personally pursuing it. He accepted full responsibility for the loss of the color and requested punishment. Army chief Yamagata was about to grant his request by punishing him severely and it was only through the intervention of General Nozu of the 1st Kyushu Regiment that Nogi was pardoned. But the sense of guilt never left him. Later, when he committed the form of suicide known as junshi (suicide to follow one’s lord into death), beside his will and testament, he laid the military memorandum he had written accepting responsibility for the loss of the Imperial colour, his request for punishment and the notice of pardon.

New Year 1878 and Prussia 1885

Nogi’s survivor syndrome began to express itself in his poetry. On New Year’s Day, in 1978, he composed the following lines:

“Last year was a time of many battles
All things from today are of the New Year”
Leisurely the year’s first calligraphy portrays a war chronicle;
“My self is nothing but a person spared death (shiyo no tami ).”

He seemed to find difficulty in justifying his continued existence amidst the death that surrounded him. Consequently service and devotion to the Emperor was all that he had left to justify his present and future life. His later experiences served only to intensify that feeling.

In 1885, Nogi was sent to Prussia to study military techniques. He presented a fully documented report in 1888 in which he stressed the idea that officers should exemplify military discipline and that this discipline was best demonstrated by wearing one’s uniform with pride. The idea of setting an example is reflected in the letter to the press with which this chapter began. Nogi thus found a means of fusing his samurai ethic with his acceptance of military discipline in contriving to be an example of the ideal to which he subscribed. Nevertheless, in spite of his firm resolutions and strong principles, Nogi’s continued military career was not without its ups and downs, including spells out of active service arising from conflicts and disagreements.

China and Taiwan

The next major crisis came after his appointment as commander of the 1st Infantry Brigade in Tokyo. He was dispatched to China in 1894 and achieved a number of successes, including the capture of Port Arthur in one day, a feat that earned him the rank of Lieutenant General. In late 1895, he helped to take Taiwan, and after a six-month rest, he was appointed Governor there. His wife and mother went with him but his mother soon died of malaria. This was the first of a series of unhappy events that culminated in his resignation after one year, for failing to solve the political and economic crises of Taiwan, and for resorting to such dangerous tactics as the seizure of British assets and the blockade of the British Consulate.

In 1898, Nogi took command of a new division stationed at Kagawa Prefecture and there he tried to put into practice his principles of military-moral education. Men from his division were dispatched to assist in defending Japanese interests during the Boxer Rebellion in China. Regrettably, some senior officers, among which was a major from Nogi’s command, were accused of unlawfully removing silver from T’ienchin Castle. Nogi was angered at the violation of his military code, resigned his command and became a farm manager in Tochigi.

Russo-Japanese War

When the Russo-Japan war broke out, Nogi was recalled to active service. In May of 1904, he was again commissioned to take Port Arthur, which finally fell at the cost of some 58,000 men. His initial assault lost him 15,000 of his 57,000 troops. Russian machine guns repelled three frontal assaults that he ordered in defiance of Imperial Army H.Q. proposals to attack Hill 203. When he finally followed that recommendation, the Russians were well dug in and a further 13,000 men died. Nogi was technically replaced as commander of the operation. But his sense of guilt at being alive must have been heightened by the fact that due to his own ineptitude, among the dead of the assault on Hill 203 was his second son. (The first had already died before his taking command.) The pyrrhic victory at Port Arthur was the result of a mismanaged combination of modern weapons and obsolete formations similar to that seen in Europe during World War I. The Japanese at home soon forgot the incompetence and Nogi was hailed as a national hero in much the way that the British of the same period were praising General Kitchener, despite an equally senseless squandering of the nation’s youth in the interests of self-aggrandizement.

Peers School to the Funeral of Emperor Meiji

The myth of Nogi and the invincible Imperial Army made exciting reading in the press, despite the slaughter at Port Arthur and the inconclusive end to the war. He was appointed director of the Peers School (now Gakushuin University) in 1907, while still a soldier. There he tried to impose his ideals on the rising generation who, for the most part, regarded his speeches as dull, anachronistic and unconvincing. Those students of Gakushuin University saw through the facade of the neo-samurai to the nihilistic mind that was struggling with failure and meaninglessness. Nogi finally chose death to restore his innocence, purity and fidelity to his principles of loyalty to the Imperial caused. With the death of Emperor Meiji, the time had come to demonstrate his spirit. He committed junshi, accompanied by his wife, on 13 September, the day of Emperor Meiji’s funeral. These are the death poems he left:

“The light of the kami shines no longer
The great lord’s memory is revered all the more”
Nogi Maresuke

“The kami departs from this world
The great lord’s memory I know and follow”
Nogi Maresuke

His wife wrote:

“Departing there is no day of return
Hearing the ceremonial promenade there is no meeting”
(English translation quoted from Six Lives/Six Deaths op.cit. p. 31

Little need be said of the national commotion excited by Nogi’s death and of the subsequent manipulation of it in the interests of nationalism, militarism and fanaticism. Nogi was subsequently enshrined at Nogizaka in the Nogi jinja, which both assured his place in Japanese history and provides yet another example of the deliberate confusion of ancestor and kami in the interests of ideological needs and manipulation.

Changing values and work

In a survey of five hundred businessmen, taken during the summer of 1980, into how they spent their leisure time, the results were broken down as follows:

Group A (aged 46-54) showed clearest effects of the Nogi Syndrome. They worked hard and had a strong sense of themselves as heads of their families. Around 30 percent dined at home often, but most worked later on Fridays. ‘Late’ was considered to be after 11.00 p.m. They estimated that they had less than four free hours a day. These they used for study or exercise to keep themselves in good mental and physical condition.

Group B (aged 36 to 45), whose childhood was interrupted by the War, spend a great deal of time at home playing with their children. Thirty percent considered 10.00 p.m. as ‘late’ and only around fourteen percent worked late on Fridays.

Group C (aged 35 and under), the post-war generation, complained that they had too little free time in which to do the things they wanted to do. Around 20 percent did Friday overtime and had dinner at home regularly. They considered 11.00 p.m. to be late. They also considered their average of five free hours a day to be inadequate.

(Kramer, Irving: Motivation: A Study of Japanese Industrial Workers Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 1975, pp.1-89 Naruse, Takeo: “Are the Japanese Workaholics?” Look Japan, July 10, 1979, pp. 6-7
The Japan Federation of Employers’ Associations. “Survey of Workers about Retirement”, August 29 – September 4, 1981, pp. 27-33
The Present State of National Public Opinion Surveys. Office of the Prime Minister – Cabinet Secretary’s Official Report, 1979)

These findings have been used to suggest that Nogi Syndrome is probably on the wane. While it may be, at least it still has the remnants of a generation to run before it will cease to claim any more victims and is completely eliminated from Japanese social psychology, if that is indeed possible. But as elsewhere, so in Japan, the more things change, they more they remain constant. The emergence and identification of karoshi calls judgments about change into question.

Strategic Suicide and Karoshi

From an academic point of view, the meaning of Nogi Syndrome is similar to Jean Baechler’s concept of ‘strategic suicide.’ (Beachler, Jean Suicide New York: Harper Books, 1979). The term refers to a form of behaviur that will lead to the eventual death of the sufferer whether from drugs, alcoholism or workoholism. The symptoms that Nogi showed in his life match those described by Baechler, and the fact that Nogi actually committed suicide serves to underline the validity of the ‘strategic suicide’ hypothesis and the reality of Nogi Syndrome.

In 1989, a new term was invented in the Japanese language, karoshi, used to describe people who die unexpectedly of overwork. That there had been some legal claims possibly suggests that society and the law are becoming disconnected to the older values. But from the 1991 recession, the virtue of work began being preached again. Japan, quo vadis?

Image | Reuben Stanton


This is Part 15 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, Suicide in Contemporary Japan will be published next Thursday on June 30, 2016.

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  1. […] Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture Part 18: […]

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About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Featured, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Subject Area, World


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