Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Hagakure: The Book of the SamuraiHagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hagakure: Book of the Samurai was written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai who lived from 1659-1719. The version that I read was translated by William Scott Wilson.

The book was written in short thoughts and anecdotes, this combination gives the reader a look into not only the mind of the samurai but it also helps the reader understand the times and the culture of the samurai.

As one would expect there are many thoughts and stories about what death and honor meant to the samurai. But it also covers some less expected subjects, such as education, religion, compassion, politeness, and even thoughts on homosexuality (seemed that sexuality wasn’t nearly as important as duty).

There are many things in the book for the reader to think about and several may be a bit difficult for people of modern times to understand, like the fact that by the age of 15 a samurai was expected to go to where the condemned prisoners are kept and practice decapitation. Or committing ritual suicide to follow their retainer into the afterlife. One of the things that really made me stop and think; loyalty equals sincerity.

Even though there are things that might be difficult for people of today to relate to there are several thoughts that people of today would be all the better if they incorporated into their lives.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo tells his thoughts on the younger samurais of his day compared to the older samurai of just 50 yrs before and the story reminded me that the more things change the more they stay the same. I can’t remember his exact words, so I’ll paraphrase: “Damn kids today have no respect or idea of how things should be done” (and yes I even pictured him shaking his fist in the air as he said it).

Overall I enjoyed the book and it did give me a lot to think about and a better understanding of a people. Highly recommend Hagakure to anyone interested in samurai, the people or the philosophy.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. To expand a little on this, Yamamoto Tsunetomo likely didn’t have much (if any) first-hand experience in battle, as he was born so late in the Edo period that samurai had all but been reduced to glorified civil servants with special privileges. There was rarely any strong need for martial prowess or proving the ultimate loyalty to your lord, but perhaps that is exactly why he was so enamored with it. It is both through people of the samurai class like Yamamoto and the commoners of Japan that “samurai” has been existed in two contexts ever since the Warring States ended: the actual samurai, and the true samurai, if that distinction makes any sense.

    I appreciated Hagakure when I first read it, but I appreciated it even more when I read “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” by Inazo Nitobe. While Hagakure illustrates samurai behavior, Bushido explains it in more depth, and I think they compliment each other well.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the comment. “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” is on my to read list. I’ve read “Zen and Japanese Culture” by D.T. Suzuki I was fascinated when I read the section that explained the “Sword of no Abode”. Shortly after I read (Zen and Japanese Culture) I saw the movie Ronin and automatically realized that the car chase was the sword fight and I recognized the the symbolism of the Sword of no Abode.

      Reply

      • I’ve only read a couple chapters of D.T. Suzuki’s work, though it’s referenced everywhere. I should put the full book on my reading list!

        Reply

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