Ivan Morris :: The Nobility of Failure


The Nobility of Failure
Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

by Ivan MORRIS
Preface by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Alexander, Robin Hood, Wellington, George Washington... The Western literatures are packed with the stories—real and otherwise—of diverse heroes, but most of them share the common element of victory. Many of them died heroically to achieve their goals.
In Japan, however, many of the most revered heroes lost their lives without achieving their goals, and in many cases fought their battles in full realization that they would end in abject defeat and death.
This cultural background remains a bedrock underlying the modern Japanese psyche, and continues to shape the Japanese as individuals and a society even today, unconsciously, in the same way the West is still affected by the myths and legends passed down from Greece and Rome.

Long recognized as a core book in any study of Japanese culture and literature, The Nobility of Failure examines the lives and deaths of nine historical individuals who faced overwhelming odds, and, realizing they were doomed, accepted their fate--to be killed in battle or by execution, to wither in exile, or to escape through ritual suicide. Morris then turns his attention to the kamikaze pilots of World War II, who gave their lives in defense of their nation in the full realization that their deaths would have little effect on the course of the war.
Through detail, crystal-clear prose and unmatched narrative sweep and brilliance, Professor Morris takes you into the innermost hearts of the Japanese people.

Supported by extensive notes and bibliography, the chapters cover:

  • Yamato Takeru
  • Yorozu
  • Arima no Miko
  • Sugawara no Michizane
  • Minamoto no Yoshitsune
  • Kusunoki Masashige
  • Amakusa Shirō
  • Ōshio Heihachirō
  • Saigō Takamori
  • and the kamikaze fighters of World War II


  • Here the late British historian Ivan Morris celebrates Japanese heroes who refused to make the tawdry compromises success all too often demands. They fail, but fail gloriously, reaping the posthumous reward of deathless fame.
    —Michael Hoffman, The Japan Times
  • The Nobility of Failure is an extremely illuminating volume. It's readily clear that Morris put a tremendous amount of thought and research into the volume. In fact, the endnotes, bibliography, and index make up approximately a third of the books' length. Morris draws upon both primary and secondary materials, including literature, poetry, and theatrical interpretations of the heroes' stories found in kabuki and Noh. Using a combination of sources, excerpts, and retellings, Morris reveals both the mythic and legendary basis of Japan's tragic heroes as well as their historical reality and how they have influenced Japan's culture and psyche. This is particularly evident in the chapter about the kamikaze fighters in which Morris ties in everything that had previously been examined. Even though The Nobility of Failure was written nearly forty years ago, it is still a valuable and fascinating work. Morris' compassionate analysis deserves to remain in print.
    —Ash Brown, Experiments in Manga


  • Pages: 392
  • Trade paperback 6" x 9" (152mm x 229mm)
  • ISBN:
    Softcover 978-4-902075-50-2
    Ebook 978-4-902075-68-7
  • Cover: Asayama Sumio, Noh-e

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About the author

Ivan Ira Esme MORRIS studied Japanese language and culture at Harvard University, followed by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He wrote widely on modern and ancient Japan and translated numerous classical and modern literary works, including The World of the Shining Prince (recipient of the Duff Cooper Award), The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams, among others.
He served on the faculty of Columbia University from 1960 to 1973, and was chairman of the Department of East Asian languages and Cultures from 1966 to 1969. He was also one of the founders of Amnesty International USA, serving on its Board of Directors. As a friend of Yukio Mishima, he is said to have written this book partially to place Mishima's death in historical context, and dedicated the book to Mishima's memory.
Ivan Morris died in 1976, but retains his position as one of the foremost scholars in the field.