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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Hagakure

The nuances of Japan’s langauge can be found even in the title of this book, as Hagakure can be rendered as ‘hidden leaves’ or ‘hidden by the leaves’. But this collection of 300 musings and anecdotes, of the 1,300 taken down from the retired samurai retainer Yamamoto Tsuenetono (1659-1719) are close enough to give the Western reader a taste of the ethical ideas, philosophy and moral ideas of the Japanese samurai class.

In 1660 the Shogun prohibited the practice of tsuifuku where a retainer committed suicide at the death of his master. So when Yamamoto’s Master died, he retired to a Buddist monastary, and younger samurai gathered to hear his views. They were transcribed, and these were collected as a book, some excerpts of which can be read here.

They are, to say the least, radically different to anything in the Western moral tradition. This is not a book of essays, many of the precepts are but a paragraph in length, and deal with the ways of the samurai. What preoccupied them was war and death, and the correct way to inflict and recieve them. It is, to our eyes, a gruesome code.

The samurai were the warriors who served their Lords, the daimyo, who were the real rulers of Japan, under the Shoguns and Emperors. Yamamoto Tsuentono devotes much of his work to the conduct and behavior of the samurai retainers. He extolls an ideal of absolute unquestioning obedience; to me it seems like voluntary slavery. And death, of course, is the ideal. The retainer should consider himself as a dead man walking, and should also be ready to die even at his own hand, should his Master require it of him.

Nakano Jin’emon constantly said, “A person who serves when treated kindly by the master is not a retainer. But a person who serves when the master is being heartless and unreasonable is a retainer. You should understand this principal well.”

But of course, the main business of the samurai was to inflict death, and this they did on a constant basis. The ‘Way of the Samurai’ is a military code, designed to discipline men into serving as soliders in a hostile, pre-technological environment. Notions of class and honour evolved into concepts which overpowered other sentiments. Yamamoto scorns women and the ‘lower classes’ when he thinks of them at all. For him, life is death, service is freedom, and killing is love.

This is an important document for the historian who turns to look at Japan. This moral code enabled the conquest of Japan and the destruction of its original inhabitants, over 2,000 years ago, and seems to have evolved until the end of the pre-technological age. As new precepts and ideas emerged in this culture, they survived by winning victory, or were killed in battle, so a form of social Darwinism dominated. For the Japanese were constantly fighting each other.

One meme that did survive was the need to be adaptable to new military ideas. So when the West impinged on the Japanese culture with a decisive technological edge in the 1850′s, the Japanese ruling class embraced the new concepts quite quickly, and within 50 years had totally discarded their old techniques for new. However, they had not changed their ideas on how wars should be fought- they felt that the old ethical considerations and ideas of valour
and honour were quite adequate for the new age.

This is why the brutal ideas of the Hagakure survived into the 20th century. In reading this book, one can see the ideas of the old samurai in full view against the might of Western industrial power. But it was decisively defeated by the US with their own ethical code, and since then, the Japanese have eschewed war for other pursuits. A reading of the Hagakure is enough to remind any reader that this is something we should all be thankful for.

Concerning martial valour, merit lies more in dying for one’s master then in striking down the enemy.

13 comments to Hagakure

  • M. Simon

    Another way to handle the alpha male problem.

  • Ben

    “Concerning martial valour, merit lies more in dying for one’s master then in striking down the enemy.” Darwin in action.

  • lemuel

    And a pdf version of Hagakure (selections) is here.

  • R C Dean

    Nah, Ben. It just confirms that dying for your master is the most important thing you can do. Pretty handy belief for the masters to inculcate in their armed subjects, no?

    That said, put a bunch of guys who follow the Hagakure and think dying well is more important than winning, up against a bunch of guys following Patton’s dictum that a soldier’s job is to make sure the other guy dies for his country, and you get the 10:1 kill ratios Americans enjoyed against the Japanese in WWII.

  • Julian Morrison

    I suspect that Hagakure ought to be seen in context of the surrounding “martial glory” culture. Basically I read the author as saying “quit being such glory-seeking cowboys, you’re supposed to be soldiers and bodyguards, do your job”.

  • Dan

    But cowboys weren’t seeking glory, except for outlaws like Jesse James or the Daltons. Most cowboys were young men who wanted to work hard and have a chance to live on their own merits, rather than work in a factory or a farm on the East Coast.

  • tom beta 2

    A few notes:

    This moral code enabled the conquest of Japan and the destruction of its original inhabitants, over 2,000 years ago

    Bushido hasn’t been around for 2000 years. The “bushi,” or warrior class, began developing around AD 800, and weren’t well-established until around AD 1100 or so, and weren’t politically supreme until a few centuries after that. The idea that bushido enabled a conquest of Japan more than 2000 years ago is really bizarre.

    But of course, the main business of the samurai was to inflict death, and this they did on a constant basis.

    Not in Yamamoto’s time. Japan had a period of peace from about 1630 to about 1860. Yamamoto never served in combat (there was no combat for him to have served in), and is not recorded as having ever fought a duel. During this time, the samurai became bureaucrats, and towards the end of the period a good percentage probably couldn’t have served effectively in combat in any case.

    One meme that did survive was the need to be adaptable to new military ideas.

    Actually, this was NOT part of bushido for many warriors. The military government had imposed a true isolation on the country around 1630, with only Chinese and Dutch traders allowed, and they into only one port, Nagasaki. Any and all military information that came in was subject to censorship, and the military government didn’t introduce significant changes from that information. Note that, in 1850, despite having information from the Dutch and Chinese about modern weapons, all Japanese forces were still armed with bows, spears, swords, and a few 1600′s-era muskets and 1600′s-era light cannon.

    So when the West impinged on the Japanese culture with a decisive technological edge in the 1850′s, the Japanese ruling class embraced the new concepts quite quickly, and within 50 years had totally discarded their old techniques for new. However, they had not changed their ideas on how wars should be fought- they felt that the old ethical considerations and ideas of valour and honour were quite adequate for the new age.

    I think you are ignoring a revolution in 1868 that made a band of fiery revolutionaries the ruling class, and that they ENTIRELY changed the way wars were fought. Although the movie “The Last Samurai” was a historical joke, it shows the difference. Samurai were hereditary warriors — literally born warriors. The Japanese military up to the revolution was based on this system. One of the first things the victorious revolutionaries did was to throw out the old hereditary classes — there were no samurai after 1868, by decree. They disarmed and disbanded the samurai armies, destroyed most of their castles, and instituted a conscripted army of commoners, based on a European model.

    These same rulers did not embrace Hagakure until late in the 1800′s, and it was chosen because the ideas fit the ruling clique’s ideas of what they wanted in conscript soldiers.

    I think most Westerners are simply unaware that there were hundreds of versions of bushido (each clan / fief had their own), many of which disagreed with each other in various, often significant ways, including the emphasis on dying. Musashi Miyamoto, for example, in “Book of Five Rings” (written ca. 1640), states quite plainly that bushido is about achieving victory, however it is won, and himself used guile, ambush, and psychological warfare methods when appropriate. He never wrote anything in praise of dying or blind obedience.

    The ruling elites specifically chose Hagakure out of the myriad possibilities because it fit their indoctrination needs. And, because the late 19th century Japanese leaders chose to elevate one version of bushido to prominence, many people (both Japanese and non) have believed it was THE bushido for the Japanese warrior caste for all time, despite significant historical evidence to the contrary.

    But it was decisively defeated by the US with their own ethical code …

    and, from R. C. Dean

    put a bunch of guys who follow the Hagakure and think dying well is more important than winning, up against a bunch of guys following Patton’s dictum that a soldier’s job is to make sure the other guy dies for his country, and you get the 10:1 kill ratios Americans enjoyed against the Japanese in WWII

    Superiority in air power, artillery, and naval intelligence had a lot more to do with US victory and superior kill ratios than a simple clash of ethics. Of course, I agree with Patton (and I think Miyamoto would have as well), but that’s beside the point.

    I agree that this is a very important book for understanding Japanese history, but I would stress that it is far more important for understanding 20th century Japanese history than it is for understanding most 18th century samurai.

  • The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum

    Tom Beta 2 is right.I think it’s important to note that the one saying quoted from Hagakure is actually one area where Japanese and Anglo-Saxon/American values are pretty much the same.

    “*Concerning martial valour*, merit lies more in dying for one’s master then in striking down the enemy”(Emphasis mine). In other words he’s not talking strategy, he’s not talking tactics or logistics. He’s talking about bravery and what makes bravery and saying that it’s braver to stand and die in a lost battle than in just killing someone.

    How different in spirit from that is the chant of Beorhtnoth’s Housecarles at the Battle of Maldon? o_O

    “Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose,
    more proud the spirit as our power lessens,
    Mind shall not falter nor mood waver,
    though doom shall come and dark conquer.”

    How different do you think it was from Colonel Travis drawing a line with his sword at the Alamo? I think both Alamo defenders and Maldon housecarles would have understood that part of Hagakure and agreed. The fact that too many in the 21st Century do not worries me. There’s always a time and place when luck runs out and things seem hopeless and you must decide whether or not you will still stand. Sometimes enough people deciding yes can turn it around. But if such courage is lacking then those who try to flee will only forfeit their cause.

  • Snark and Tom Beta 2 have provided us with a couple very interesting comments on a very interesting article! Thanks to all!

  • Try this link (Link)for what must be one of the best interpretations of Hagekure, by Yukio Mishima – the Japanses Nobel prize winner who committed Hari-Kiri in 1967.

  • R C Dean

    Of course Tom is right to a point, but we should remember that the Japanese were in almost every way the technical equals of the Americans at the beginning of the war, and actually enjoyed significant superiority in a number of areas (I’m thinking naval aviation, but there may be others). Early in the war, when we fought on more or less equal footing, Japanese casualties were often much higher than those of Americans.

    Eventually, of course, we swamped them with overwhelming logistics, but we did the same to the Germans without the same enormous kill ratios.

    I think the critical variable is cultural. Americans have always put a relatively high priority on “force protection” and minimizing casualties (while achieving the objective, of course). Given the attitudes on display in the Hagakure, it is not surprising at all that the Japanese suffered the casualties they did once they were up against an enemy they could not completely dominate in the first rush of battle.

  • tom beta 2

    Hi, Gawaine,

    Actually, Mishima didn’t win the Nobel prize, though he was nominated three times. The biography I read suggested that was possibly one of the reasons he decided to commit suicide. He committed seppuku in 1970 as part of a failed attempt to get the Japanese Self Defense Forces to overthrow the government and re-establish a military dictatorship. As you point out, he was a big Hagakure fan.

    The movie “Mishima” is excellent, if you can find it. It was banned in Japan, I believe.

    RC Dean:

    Good point, and I suspect you’re right about that.

  • themic

    Having read the Hagakure probably over 50 times in my life, I’d like to offer just a few quick thoughts, as they randomly swim into my head:

    It’s a good idea to read the whole thing, set it down, and read the whole thing through again 6 months later. You’ll find that the meaning of entire excerpts can dramatically change for you.

    While it’s most undoubtedly about death, it’s just as much a book about life; or rather how to lead it. The main thrust of the book, I think, is that you should think about yourself and the world, resolve personal and interpersonal conflicts, truly know your capabilites, fears, desires, and overall be 100% without any doubt of who you are. In this manner, it takes no time to reach decisions, it takes no time to decide on bravery versus fear. There is no hesitation to do what is right for you, and for your master (or your code of honor). PArt of the focus on death is because that is likely the most debilitating fear. If you approach and accept death, then your biggest fear remaining is to act without honor or dishonest to yourself.

    Finally, the Hagakure is a book of rantings by an old samurai at the dusk of the age of samurai. It’s interesting that he seems to represent one of the best studies of samurai mentatlity we have available, despite the fact, or maybe because of, the declining level of valor and dedication he was witnessing in his fellow men.

    However, the book is devoid of structure, or the structure is artificalliy emplaced. It contradicts itself numerous times, and the lack of cohesion becomes more and more apparent every time you read it. He was a troubled man in changing times.

    One more thought: if you remove the majority of passages regarding women, society, leadership decisions, and judgement of fellow man, leaving only about 3 chapters (guess which 3?), it retains a suprising amount of cohesion.

    Thanks for the link to Mishima’s comments. I’ve never read these, and highly look forward to it.