Title: Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
Author: Yamamoto Tsunetomo
Translated by: William Scott Wilson
Publisher: Kodansha International
Year of Publication: 2000
About the author:
Yamamoto Tsunetomo was born in 1659 in the Saga domain in Japan. When he was born, his father (Yamamoto Jin’emon) was 71 years old and he was a loyal retainer of one of the local feudal lords named Nabeshima Katsushige. Tsunetomo was not in a very healthy situation during his childhood the local doctors believed he can’t live more than 20 years. He became the loyal retainer of Nabeshima Mitsushige for thirty years.
It was in 1700 when Nabeshima died and according to the traditions of that period of time, Tsunetomo was supposed to kill himself by the way of a Samurai but it did not happen. The reason was regarding the Nabeshima’s opinion about Junshi (following the lord in death) which he wasn’t supporting this voluntary act and Tsunetomo did not commit Seppuku after his master’s death. Later and after his retirement from the court, he became a monk. From 1709 and for around seven years he narrated some of his thoughts to a fellow Samurai named Tashiro Tsuramoto. Years later his commentaries were published in a book called Hagakure. Tsunetomo died when he was 60 years old in 1719.
Japan has a rich culture and the Samurai culture has always been a mystery for me and I decided to go deep into the life of a Samurai to study their beliefs and lifestyle. I was a fan of East Asian martial arts and the book “Hagakure” is a remarkable reference to go back to around 350 years ago and see how the life of a Samurai was and to see the importance of following the master from the first day a Samurai enters his court until the day which the Samurai decides to devote his life to his master.
Samurai people were always known as warriors who fight with their Katanas with all their power and do not have a fear of death, but the things which do not consider much about the Samurai, are the background behind their beliefs and characteristics like pride, ethics, respect, courage, and sacrifice. This book helped me to figure out the philosophy behind the life of a Samurai and how even very little daily behaviors are important in their way of living.
The book consists of 11 chapters and each chapter has shorts comments from Tsunetomo about different aspects of a Samurai’s life. The book has written in small chunks and does not follow a continuous storyline. Also, many stories about the happenings at that period of time are included in the book and Tsunetomo had expressed his feelings and opinion about those stories.
A great focus of the book is about the readiness of a Samurai to die at any time. Moreover, daily rituals of a Samurai are introduced with the emphasis on how a Samurai should always act like a gentleman. Some other subjects of a Samurai’s life which have been discussed in different chapters of the book are about appearance, wealth and material things, religion and much more which will be mentioned in the following part of the book review.
Hagakure is a Japanese word which means “Hidden Leaves”. Hagakure is the book of the Samurai. In the first chapter, this very basic question has been simply answered. What is the way of the Samurai? The way of the Samurai is found in death.
First, it has to be explained who is a Samurai? The Samurai were the pre-modern Japanese warriors. They were provincial warriors before they come to power in the 12th century. Before the 12th century, they were in charge of backing up and supporting the authority of great lords. Minamoto Yoritomo was the founder and first Shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate in Japan. In 1192, Minamoto set up the first Samurai government in Japan and the Samurai started their ruling over Japan for the almost next 700 years. In the late 1200s, the Samurai became more powerful and went to fight with Mongols and defeated them. They developed their military style and used swords as their main weapon. Later, the very famous Japanese sword introduced to the world. Katana was a traditional Japanese sword which was used by the Samurai people. Being a Samurai was not only a job but also a social class. The power of the Samurai had ups and downs until the time of the Meiji Restoration. In 1867, Meiji named Tokyo as the new capital of Japan and a year later he introduced the “Five Articles Oath” which was the beginning of a new era in Japan and began the dismantling of the Samurai. In 1873, Meiji established an army which was open to anyone and three years later the use of swords was banned, and the Samurai lost their profession and this special social and military class ended up after around one thousand years. The way of a Samurai is called Bushido and one of the purposes of Hagakure is to define Bushido. There is remarkable randomness in the book and as too many different and scattered topics are mentioned, only some of the most interesting points from the view of the author will be discussed.
The book just begins with this explanation in the 1st chapter: “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim.” A Samurai knows that death without achieving the goal is worthless but there is no shame in it. A Samurai must always be ready to die. It has been mentioned many times in the book and Yamamoto believes that the highest virtue of one’s life is to accept the death with calmness and dignity. Even the next part which will be discussed is going back to Yamamoto’s belief about death.
A Samurai must always pay attention to his appearance. He should wake up early in the morning at 4 o’clock and eat his breakfast by the time of sunrise, take a shower and dress up his hair. A Samurai also rests from the time of sunset. He should always cut the fingernails and rubbing them with a kind of rock called pumice and then with wood sorrel. They always kept their armors totally clean and shined. But the reason for doing these things goes back to their most important aspect of their life which was the death. As they are expecting to die at any time, their appearance must be always in its best form to send the message to the enemy that they are always proud even in the moment of their death.
In the way of a Samurai, righteousness is an important matter but not the same as the view of the public’s opinion. It is suggested that paying too much attention to be righteous is not the best way of living. And the way of Samurai is in a higher place than being righteous. A person should learn from experiencing and if it is not always possible for them, he should consult others to find the best way.
Another important aspect of a way of a Samurai is to let people compensate for their faults. Once there was a council about promoting a person. They decided not to promote the man because he was once a participant in a drunken brawl. Then a person in the council said that if we want to eliminate everyone who had once made a mistake, then we won’t have any useful person in our community. Then he was asked if he can guarantee that man or not and he said yes, I will guarantee him. When he was asked why do you guarantee him? He answered: I guarantee him because once upon a time he made a mistake and if a person has not ever made a mistake, that person is dangerous and unreliable.
There are two things which put a Samurai’s life into trouble: honor and riches. If a person struggles with the hardships of life, he will make fewer mistakes. So, it seems that the life of a Samurai is not only about fighting and using Katanas. Yamamoto describes many different aspects of a Samurai’s life from his appearance to his even social behaviors which will be mentioned in the following part.
A Samurai should not yawn in front of other people. He also has to practice how to speak in front of people and take care of what he writes in his letters even the letter only consists of one line. A person has to make his life powerful and strong until the time he enters the 5th decade of his life and try to form a family life by entering the 6th decade of life. When people are happy, they should not show too much pride and extravagance because it is dangerous. If someone is not prudent in normal times of his life, he will not be able to compensate in hard times. When someone exaggerates in happy times, he will suffer in bad times.
Although the book is about the thoughts of a Samurai back to around 350 years ago, its content has too many stories and lessons which are totally feasible in today’s life. The content of the book is interesting from the point of the author and there are for sure some critics about the book which in overall do not influence the greatness of the Hagakure. It has also to be mentioned about the very good translation of the book by William Scott Wilson.
The book is not only a good practice for studying the beliefs of the Samurai people, but also takes us back to the very old and rich culture of Japan and how the Japanese are influenced by the behaviors of the Samurai in their modern life.
I would like to finish this literature review by quoting a noteworthy part of the Hagakure:
“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live to being true to the single purpose of the moment.”