When I first came to Japan, I was confused by the way some people used the word “sincerity.” They seemed to be using it to mean something very different from what I had always understood the word to mean. To me, a sincere person is one whose words and actions reflect the deepest feelings and beliefs of their better nature–I had certainly never thought of a sincere person as one who would commit violence. But in Japan, I heard the word sincerity being applied to people like the 47 ronin; 47 “masterless samurai” who killed and cut off the head of a shogunal official by the name of Kira as revenge for a perceived insult to their lord.
Their lord had lost his temper, drawn his sword and attacked the man inside the Shogun’s castle in Edo, for which crime he was ordered to commit seppuku. His heirs lost all rights to his ancestral lands, and his samurai retainers suddenly found themselves unemployed. 47 of his former retainers showed their “sincerity” by, two years after the fact, taking lethal revenge on Kira, the man their lord had attacked. For this they are held up as paragons of the spirit of bushido and sincerity.
As my Japanese got better, I came to realize that this odd usage of the word sincerity was a problem of translation. When people told me that the 47 ronin had “sincerity” what they meant was that they had “makoto.” Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary defines makoto this way: “sincerity; a true (single) heart; faithfulness; honesty; fidelity; constancy; devotion.”
But makoto is a difficult word to translate because it carries a lot of baggage. The standard translation, “sincerity” lacks the martial connotations that are part and parcel of “makoto.” For the samurai it had an almost mystical sense, and during World War II, the concept of makoto was put to evil use. It was one of the concepts that spurred both foot soldiers and the kamikaze pilots to hurl themselves into certain death in a misguided demonstration of “Japanese spirit.”
The concept of makoto went out of favor after World War II. For example, a number of revisionist samurai movies were made in the 1960s, the most famous example being Masaki Kobayshi’s 1962 film Harakiri, that took an unromanticized and critical look at bushido and attendant ideas such as makoto because of the way they had been used for control of the individual by the state.
The 1970s, however, saw a revival of nationalism–this time in the form of economic nationalism–and the notion that Japan was somehow a uniquely unique nation with a singular climate, culture and sensibility. Makoto, specifically, saw its rehabilitation due in no small measure to a book written by the British Japanologist and translator Ivan Morris. The Nobility of Failure was written partly in response to the bizarre death of the famous novelist Yukio Mishima–who killed himself by committing seppuku–and dedicated to his memory. Japanese poet Ryusei Hasegawa writes in a review of the book that:
…this book has changed my outlook on life. For years after the war, I have been feeling something fishy and dangerous about the word makoto, sincerity, standing as it did for the ideal of the nation dominating the people. In the name of makoto, it was possible to exact selfless service to the nation for military causes in the past and economic causes now. And yet I realized with embarrassment how deeply attached I have been to the ways of living with makoto. But the weight of makoto is now being reassessed and redefined in my mind. The spirit of makoto can serve as a spring board to live to a ripe old age. I am confident that this concept of makoto can help us to serve not one nation, but all humanity, whether the action itself be effective or not.
I’m not sure what Mr. Hasegawa means by that last sentence, but it’s not an uncommon sentiment among conservatives, especially those who subscribe to theories of Japan’s inherent uniqueness and superiority. Fujiwara Masahiko writes in the introduction to his 2005 bestseller, The Dignity of the Nation, which makes the claim that the Japanese have a sacred mission to save the world by teaching all of mankind the tenets of bushido, that, “We must again be ‘Japan the proud, Japan the different.’ By serving as a model for the rest of the world, Japan can, I believe, make a contribution to the whole human race.”
Professor Saito Kazuaki gives an interesting definition of makoto in a 1987 essay, Heroes and Hero-Worship–Ivan Morris’ Views on the Japanese Fascination with Failure (which has the kanji for makoto written in calligraphy on its title page):
All those heroes, together with the kamikaze fighters treated in the final chapter of Morris’ book, who, incidentally, no longer have to be labeled as ‘crazy’ or ‘mentally disordered’ thanks to Morris, have in common the spirit of makoto, which lends poignancy to their lives of failure. It is the cardinal quality of the Japanese hero, denoting purity of mind and motive, and a rejection of self-serving objectives. It despises pragmatic ways of thinking and doing. It is moral fastidiousness. The rational, not subjective, righteousness of a cause itself is unimportant. What counts most is the honesty with which the hero espouses it…The Japanese respect for makoto tends to assume the presence of readiness for accepting joyfully the final catastrophe in the mind of a Napoleon or any other hero. Makoto is an ethical, religious concept
A historical figure who lived this ideal is Saigo Takamori, the real “last samurai” and one of Japan’s most beloved heroes. He died in a quixotic fight against the recently established, modernizing Meiji government–the very government which he had been instrumental in establishing just ten years earlier. He was fighting to preserve the samurai as a class, but was vanquished by a modern conscript army of peasant soldiers. In their final confrontation, he refused to surrender even though he was outnumbered 60 to 1. He died, along with every last one of his men, in the hail of gunfire that met his final suicidal charge.
But nobody in Japanese history is as closely associated with “makoto” as are the Shinsengumi. The Shinsengumi were a group of samurai swordsmen whose job it was to patrol the streets of Kyoto and to find and kill the many anti-shogunal ronin who advocated returning the Emperor to a position of real power at the expense of the Shogun, during the last turbulent years of the shogunate–from 1863 to 1868. They followed a very strict interpretation of bushido and were merciless when facing an enemy. Both their banner and their uniform were emblazoned with the kanji character for makoto.
“Makoto” can actually be written with three different kanji, or ideograms. The kanji that the Shinsengumi used is made up of two parts that are each full-fledged ideograms in their own right. On its own, the left side of the character means “speak,” and the right side means “become.” So visually, this kanji connotes the opposite of “empty words;” it is an excellent pictograph of “sincerity.” As many imperial loyalist ronin learned in their final moments, the Shinsengumi were deadly sincere about their mission.