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.