Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunemoto (translated by Alexander Bennett)

When I am looking for something to read I try to look for any form of literature that has been nurtured from a different way of thinking from what I have been brought up. Works from anywhere overseas are an example of this and even more so works of such written from a different era.

An example of this can be found in the book Hagakure.

Hagakure is about how the Japanese Samurai should act, think and behave.

Hagakure was not written with regards to the Samurai as a whole, but how a specific branch of the Samurai perceived it, in this case the Nabeshima of Kyushu in southern Japan. Not only is it written with respect to the Nabeshima clan but Hagakure was finished in 1716 during the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, over a century after the Sengoku Jidai period was over when Japan was at constant war.

The Japan of Hagakure was relatively peaceful (part of this was achieved by booting out all foreigners from Japan with the exception of some Dutch traders). The warrior class of the samurai at this time shifted from becoming seasoned warriors to government bureaucrats. It is a homage to those earlier times and how they saw death over dishonour.

Hagakure (Tuttle edition)

Hagakure tells of its own interpretation of Bushido (The Samurai Code). For example its says:

‘The Way of the warrior is to be found in dying. If one is faced with two options of life or death, simply settle for death.’

‘Realize that ”the time is now”, come up with a plan to meet any situation in a flash.’

However there are also some odd thoughts in Hagakure as well you would not think would be relevant for the Samurai:

‘Yawning in the presence of others is impolite. If the urge to yawn suddenly arises, rub your fore-head in an upward stroke to suppress it.’

‘Jin’uemon used to say ”One should not bother bringing up daughters. They may stain the family name and disgrace the parents.’

Hagakure is a heavily romanticised look of what the samurai were and even for the samurai describes some deluded concepts of death as opposed to any form of disgrace even if it included suicide (there is however notes of the samurai being able to find peaceful alternatives to war). There’s even some fascinating if a bit peculiar observations of decapitated heads.

Although the Samurai had a strict warrior code, we know that during the Singoku Jidai period in particular that the samurai could be ruthless and dishonourable. The Samurai daimyo Nobunaga Oda for example was betrayed by one of his generals Mitsuhide Akechi for reasons unconfirmed.

Hagakure seems to contradict itself in some parts and some of it you would not expect as being relevant to anything. To compare it to our times, it is like a collection of social media posts, one posted after the other like you would find in a blog. A series of meditations.

Hgakure if anything teaches us about discipline and being the best you can be which is the core of its message even if it has a funny way of showing it Although a lot can be learnt from them today, Japan itself has benefited by leaving Samurai rule behind, if albeit it has been kicking and screaming (the Americans more than any other nation has shaped what modern Japan has become). The look on death and taking one’s life over some perceived dishonour is still a somewhat pressing social issue with a significant number modern Japanese.

This is a fascinating look for us in the west at least of people from another nation and another time on how they saw themselves though I’m glad the Japanese don’t appear to follow the advice about daughters.