FOR A VARIETY of cultural, religious and psychological reasons, the Japanese are far less troubled by the fact of death than we are. At the same time they have used the ceremony and symbolism of death most effectively-albeit often, in the Western mind, to bizarre extremes. The authors of this book note that a certain "collectively-oriented this-worldiness" sharply distinguishes modern Japanese culture from the "individualistic monotheistic" culture of the West. Against this background and by way of illuminating it, they have written a distinguished and provocative study about six prominent Japanese of the past century: not only about their lives but, very specifically, their deaths. Lay readers may be put off a bit by the heavy use of psychological or psychiatric terms and occasional showers of academic cliches, but they will not fail to be stimulated. This book brings us a rare insight into the mind of modern Japan and how it developed.

The three collaborating writers-Robert Jay Lifton, a professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School and author of Death in life: Survivors of Hiroshima , Michael R. Reich, a gifted young scholar, and Shuichi Kato, a Japanese polymath who deserves a study in himself-started work on the book in the course of a teaching seminar at Yale in 1974. They chose the six subjects for their case-study biographies with care and, it seems to me, with success.

Nogi Maresuke, the victor of the bloody seige of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese war and a symbol of national loyalty, played a kind of aging Duke of Wellington's role during the late Meiji era until his suicide following Emperor Meiji's death in 1912. Mori Ogai was one of those extraordinary talents who flowered in Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration but of whom the West heard little because of linguistic and cultural translation problems. Mori went to study in Germany and, unlike many of the Japanese visitors of that era, assimiliated the culture of Europe. (A romance with a German girl is one of the centerpieces of his life.) An artist and novelist by instinct and creativity, he became a bureaucrat and a soldier out of respect to family tradition and the national needs of that time. He was also a doctor and ultimately retired as chief medical inspector of the Japanese army-after a career in which he managed to write in his leisure hours some of the most brilliant literacy work of the 19th century.

Nakae Chomin was Japan's great commoner of the Meiji days. Where Mori studied and Germans, Nakae went to France and later returned to Japan as the apostle of Rousseau and became, in a sense, the Thomas Paine of the Meiji Restoration. All his life he kept trying to nudge the cautious bureaucrats in the new Tokyo towards a more popular form of democratic government. He died frustrated in his efforts, but he left a tradition of egalitarianism behind him.

Kawakami Hajime was one of the prototypical Japanese Christian Marxists-separated from Japanese society because of both these allegiances. He managed to combine a belief in some kind of Christian-based moral code with fidelity to the Communist Party of Japan until his death in 1946. Masamune Hakucho, by contrast, was far more of a Christian than Kawakami, who struggled a lifetime with his religious doubts. He lived through the tumults of his time as a self-proclaimed literary bystander although he opposed Japan's militarism and the war it brought with it. His "naturalist" writings were models of their kind. At his death he had inspired a whole new generation of postwar Japanese writers.

About Mishima Yukio, little needs to be added. Many modern Americans have read some of Mishima's work-which ranges from the weirdly exhibitionist to a few books that have become classics of modern fiction. We are all familiar with his grotesque ritual seppuku suicide in 1970. It is significant that Mishima-of all the six people perhaps the least admirable-is probably the only one whom most Westerners have ever heard of, apart from an occasional reference to General Nogi in history textbooks.

Although the lives of these people are interesting enough, Lifton, Kato and Reich have shown theim in new dimension by exploring how, in each case, a man had intended his own death to mean something. Some of the parallels fit exactly. Nogi and Mishima both committed suicide in the ritual Japanese way. Nogi did it to avenge his early defects as a soldier and his failures to support his clansmen in the original wars of the Restoration; he waited years to make his gesture. Mishima too probably thought out his suicide, partly from a sense of inadequacy rising from his avoidance of military service in the Pacific war. He planned his death, however, with the thoroughness of a military operation.

Others do not fit so well. Masamune worried about the Christian afterlife more than others, and his own return to Christianity at the end was suggested by his call for a Christian funeral. He saw himself as a "historical survivor" who outlived his own era. Kawakami also saw himself as a survivor; in his case, he was deeply chagrined by the death of Yamamotot Senji, a fellow Communist who was assassinated by a rightist. Kawakami spent long months in prison and caused a sensation as the first professor of an Imperial university to face punishment for his political beliefs during the prewar period. That rare individual, a true Japanese ideologue, but influenced by Christian ideas of self-sacrifice, Kawakami achieved a kind of resignation in dying years after his political struggles were over.

By far the two most interesting people of the six are Mori and Nakae. As Kato Shuichi characterized him, Nakae was a "marginal man...neither an outsider nor an insider." This is rare in Japanese society which is "group oriented, traditionally homogeneous, highly organized and controlled." All his life he was fighting battles for lost causes, in his efforts to create a really popular political party in Japan. He was an editorialist as well as a politician. He worked until the end but regarded himself as a failure-not in the way of the heroic "glorious" failures of Japanese society whom the late Ivan Morris wrote about, but in that of a man who would neither compromise with principles nor with the needs of a group.

Mori did, in a way. He lived two lives with success in both. He gave the government and the Japanese people the full measure of his efforts as a doctor and a military man. Even as a surgeon general, he was more influential in molding the military ideas of that era than most. Although a member of the establishment, he constantly wrote in an ironic vein, posing moral and ethical problems which no establishment or bureaucratic thinking could ever solve. His very death, the authors feel, was in a sense a "defiance of authority." for he insisted he be buried as an ordinary man from his native province. Yet he also submitted to "cultural prejudice" in that he suppressed the fact of his long illness from tuberculosis to protect the family name. As the authors write, Mori thus "personified Meiji society, its compromise and balance between two cultures and the stress resulting from their accommodations."

If there is any fault in this book, it is the authors' obsession to account for so much in terms of mass versus elite. Indeed, if they had fined themselves $5 for every casual use of the word "elite" or "elitist," they would have built up a sizeable kitty by the end of the writing. They do concede that in Japan the gulf between the so-called elite and mass culture is far less than it is elsewhere. For all its ostentatiousness, the Japanese elite manages to live a lot closer to the ground than any other elite i know of, including our own.

I am also not sure that I would agree with all the authors' judgements about the Meiji oligarchy, or with various psychological problems and behavior which are assumed rather too readily. This aside, they have written a remarkable, arresting, and stimulating book.