Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, translated by William Scott Wilson

Hagakure was written down sometime after 1700 by a young samurai who took the words from his conversations with Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai who became a Buddhist monk after the death of his lord. The practice of tsuifuku, ritual suicide of a retainer upon the death of his lord, had been outlawed in the 1660s, and so Yamamoto was not able to follow his lord as duty dictated. In the chapters of the Hagakure he discusses the ethos of the samurai through admonitions and anecdotes. The original Hagakure contained over thirteen hundred thoughts and sayings, but this translation contains only three hundred of them.

One thing that came through to me in reading this was the odd similarities between samurai culture and viking culture. Both prized death in battle and stress the virtue of saying little but speaking through actions. There are areas in which the two cultures would be at odds, but I find the parallels intriguing.

A curious thing about the collection is that Yamamoto stresses, in the case of retaliation for an affront, quick action over success. He believes that it is better to die attempting to avenge one's lord than it would be to bide one's time in order to be assured of success. Service, above all, is his most prized virtue. One's lord is to be revered and valued above one's own family and ancestors, and even the gods. His anecdotes support this, as in the tale of a retainer whose lord beat him with a scabbarded sword. When the lord dropped the sword into a ravine, the retainer fell into the ravine after it and brought it back, fully expectant that his beating would resume.

There are many glimpses such as this into the samurai culture, and into Japanese culture of the time. Yamamoto constantly derides women, for one thing, and speaks of distrust and rivalry between daimyo. He exalts samurai of earlier generations, and speaks with disdain of the shortcomings of his contemporaries.

It's difficult to draw one central idea from this text, but I found it interesting that it, at times, presented a picture of samurai which called into question the veracity of Koike and Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub, which I had previously regarded as the most authoritative work (although fictional) on bushido and the samurai mindset. Since Hagakure is a primary source, I must give it more weight, though it having come from a late period of samurai culture, its differences may reflect the evolution of said society. In any case, this is an interesting--and at times amusing and odd--document by the real thing.


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