Honor-Shame Code in The Tale of Heike
In The Tale of Heike, the way in which the Japanese viewed defeat and dying is revealed to the reader through various incidents covered during the time of the novel. To be defeated was shameful but to prevail was a way to gain respect and honor. The accounts in Heike tell us that one could defeat an opponent by exiling him, insulting him, or even taking revenge upon him. Because being defeated was shameful, warriors would kill themselves before being killed by the opponent. If a warrior failed in his duty, suicide would be the necessary measure taken to regain honor. Not only could suicide be a way to gain honor, it could also be a way to shame someone. If you prohibit your enemy from killing himself (exiling him) then you have shamed him. It was the warriors’ duty in Heike to fight, even if they were grieved they still had to fight because warriors had to be courageous in battle.
In Heike, Kanehira tells us that “no matter how glorious a warrior’s earlier reputation may have been, a shameful death is an eternal disgrace (380).” To these warriors, getting killed by the enemy was a shameful death. If a warrior in battle new he was soon to be killed by the enemy, he would commit suicide instead of risk his life being taken by the enemy. For example, when Kanehira saw Lord Kiso’s head taken by two of Tamehisa’s retainers, he had the opportunity to preserve his honor by killing himself because he no longer had to protect anyone (381). Before killing himself he exclaims, “this is how the bravest man in Japan commits suicide (381)!” This reveals to the reader that in the ethos of the warrior class, suicide was brave and honorable. Koremori (415) and Antoku (426) both commit suicide by drowning themselves in the sea because it was honorable to kill yourself rather than being slain at the hand of the enemy.
If a warrior failed a duty, he would be shamed but again, suicide was the key to regain your honor....