A fellow Special Forces veteran recommended the Hagakure to me several years ago, and I regret not picking it up until recently. As it turns out, a number of my friends read it. One of them even carries his Hagakure around as his war book. Written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the late 1600’s, the Hagakure is a about bushido, the way of the samurai and outlines the manner in which a warrior should endeavor to conduct himself. My friend recommended the book to me because of the writings which focus on the samurai’s return home after war.
Others, like our own Odyssean have pointed out that sword masters in Japan hold Mushashi’s The Five Rings in high regard. Tsunetomo was a clerk when he wrote the Hagakure, and apparently never saw combat. Although, he did participate in killing as in his writing he claims to occasionally spend an afternoon beheading condemned prisoners in order to maintain his healthy soul. He even advocates for children to execute prisoners. “Today even the children of the lower classes perform no executions, and this is extreme negligence,” he bemoans!
The way of the samurai differs from American culture in many ways. In the Hagakure there are many descriptions of seppuku, or ritualistic suicide. Lots and lots of seppuku. Being a samurai is pretty rough. You have to cut people down with your sword in order to maintain honor, but then having violated some arcane social norm you then have to kill yourself as well, in order to maintain your honor. I’m sure the way of the samurai is more nuanced than how I describe it, but this was my initial impression upon reading the text.
Nonetheless, I found the Hagakure to be an enjoyable read with many fascinating insights into feudal Japan and the way of the warrior. Tactics are explained, mindset is detailed, and as the author grew older and seemed to reflect on what a young man should focus on as opposed to the old. For instance, he believed that young men should not study Buddhism but be completely devoted to Bushido, as religion would be an unneeded distraction.
Having read the abridged Hagakure translated by William Scott Wilson, I will finish by quoting my favorite passage:
A certain person said, “In the Saint’s mausoleum there is a poem that goes:
If in one’s heart
He follows the path of sincerity,
Though he does not pray,
Will not the gods protect him?
What is this path of sincerity?”
A man answered him by saying, “You seem to like poetry. I will answer you with a poem.
As everything in the world is but a sham
Death is the only sincerity.
It is said that becoming as a dead man in one’s daily living is the following of the path of sincerity.”
-Yamamoto Tsunetomo, from the Hagakure
Featured image from the film ‘Seven Samurai’