The world of Homer’s Greek epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey (8th century BC) and the world of the Tale of the Heike, a Japanese epic tale of warriors (13th century AD), have remarkable similarities. They both depict the fall of a once mighty dynasty and impermanence of human fortunes and are keenly aware of tragic consequences of war for both the victors and the vanquished. Moreover the label ‘shame culture’ applied to Japanese culture by an anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, has also been applied to the Homeric world by a classicist, E. R. Dodds.
However, when we look at the warrior ethics of both worlds more closely, we begin to notice differences. Although warriors are expected to fight bravely, fearing disgrace more than death in both epic worlds, in the Tale of the Heike characters often go further in preserving their honour by choosing to kill themselves rather than to live in shame, while in Homer, despite the fair number of suicidal wishes, there are no actual cases of suicide in the plot itself. Suicide has been a major social problem globally and not least in Japan in recent years, and the Tale of the Heike, being an influential classic in Japan with its depiction of many idealised suicides, could be a contributing factor. It contrasts starkly with the life-affirming attitude of Homer. This paper attempts to explore the reasons why this is so and this in turn could help us deepen our understanding of the two epic worlds and their background cultures.
Naoko Yamagata studied Classics at International Christian University (BA), Tsukuba University (MA), University College London (MA and PhD) and King’s College London (PGCE). Before joining the Department of Classical Studies of the OU in 2000, she taught Classics at University College London and University of Wales, Lampeter and also tutored three OU Classical Studies modules as Associate Lecturer.
Her research interests centre on Homer, including reception of Homer in antiquity, especially in Plato and Virgil, comparison of Homeric and Mycenaean Greek (Linear B) and comparison of Homer and the Tale of the Heike, a Medieval Japanese epic.