Saturday, 6 August 2016

Why Hagakure is Japan's Strangest Book


I recently ran a three part series in The Japan Times on Bushido (the Samurai code) and referred in Part Two to the Hagakure. As it is the beginning of the Rio Olympics this weekend, I thought I might offer a closer reading of this Bushido classic: Japan's Gold Medal candidate for 'Strangest Book Ever Written'.

Around 15 years ago, Hagakure enjoyed a small vogue amongst young men in the West due to its prominent role in the dire Jim Jarmusch flick Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). This film is set in the US and is about a hitman called Ghost Dog (played by Forest Whitaker) who receives the names of his targets from a Mafia goon by carrier pigeon landing on the rooftop where he lives. He is obsessed with the Hagakure and the portentous quotes from the book that dominate his thoughts are framed and voiced over at regular intervals throughout the film.

As a sincere believer in the 'Way of the Warrior', Ghost Dog attempts to live and die by the samurai code, requiring him to wipe a slew of Mafiosi who threaten the gangster who once saved his life. Jarmusch, like Tarantino, attempts to enfold the whole world into his films and piles into this one not only Italian Mafiosi and classics of Japanese literature such as Akutagawa’s Rashomon, but rappers, an exclusively French-speaking ice cream man, Chinese restaurants and The Wind in the Willows. It is the author of Hagakure however who tops the ironical ‘personal thanks’ in the credits.


Ghost Dog is really a very silly film, where too often ‘quirkiness’ tips into self-indulgence and cliché (particularly in its depiction of Italian Mafiosi), but it does have a few interesting aspects. One is that Ghost Dog regards Bushido as a complete value system to live his life. He even has the symbol from the front cover of the book embossed on the back of his jacket and constantly wears it as a medallion. At one point in the film, he passes another young man on the street wearing a cross as a medallion – as if two equal and complete value systems had met.

Another idea, somewhat buried in the film, and only obvious through Jarmusch’s pretentious thanks in the end titles to ‘Miguel de Cervantes’ is that Ghost Dog is a modern Quixote, attempting to live by a code of chivalry in an unchivalrous age. This is a perceptive observation about the way many Westerners relate to the code of the samurai and indeed to Japan itself.

And finally there is the pairing of gangsters with Bushido, which might seem weird, but to my mind is entirely apt, as the samurai were in fact the world’s ultimate gangsters, living by strict codes precisely because they had arisen due to the collapse of the authority of central government and were notorious for internecine conflicts and blood-letting.

But back to Hagakure…

Hagakure means ‘In the Shadow of Leaves’ indicating that the author was giving a whispering insider’s account of the subject. It is a collection of commentaries on Bushido (or, more precisely, what would later be called 'Bushido') by Yamamoto Tsunetomo who was a senior retainer of the Saga Clan in northern Kyushu in the far west of Japan. The commentaries were collected by Tsuramoto Tashiro and are based on his conversations with Tsunetomo between 1709 and 1716.

Hagakure was only published in full however in the twentieth century once the samurai themselves had long since disappeared. It was particularly prized as Japan turned to the extremes of nationalist and militaristic sentiment in the 1930s.

Hagakure divides opinion even in Japan between those who feel, like Yukio Mishima (who was a great fan of the book and wrote his own commentary on it), that Tsunetomo offered the most piercing insights into Bushido and those who feel that his opinions were completely crazy.


Yamamoto’s position is best summed up with the thought that, for the samurai, loyalty to the master is everything and that he must be prepared to instantly give up his life for his master at any time. Yamamoto even criticized the famous Forty-Seven Ronin. They took nearly two years to avenge their master’s death (before being ordered by the Shogunate to commit seppuku themselves), but according to Yamamoto they should have immediately attempted assassination on their master’s enemy even if such an attempt was doomed to failure.

A refrain throughout Hagakure is that the samurai must repress self-interest. ‘People think that they can clear up profound matters if they consider them deeply, but they exercise perverse thoughts and come to no good because they do their reflecting with only self-interest at the centre’, Yamamoto bewails.

Instead one must give obeisance every morning to one’s master, one’s ancestors, patron deities and guardian Buddhas. But amongst them the master is all-important. ‘For a warrior there is nothing other than thinking of his master.’

It is instantly obvious why this text appealed to Mishima so much and gave him such inspiration. Rather like Mishima’s tips on behaviour for so-called ‘modern samurai’, the text switches suddenly from lamenting the lack of skill at beheadings and cowardice (instead of resolve to commit suicide) to some handy tips on manners. ‘It is because a samurai has correct manners that he is admired’, Yamamoto points out, and proceeds to warn that one should not yawn or sneeze in front of other people.

Sometimes Tsunetomo reminds us of the sayings of his father Yamamoto Jinemon who said that you should look your listener in the eye, not put your hands in your pocket and throw away books after reading them. According to his father, a samurai with no group and no horse (i.e. a wandering samurai or ronin) was no samurai at all. Also, according to Yamamoto pere, a samurai should rise at four in the morning, bathe and arrange his hair daily, eat when the sun comes up and retire when it becomes dark. Mishima took none of this advice, routinely going to bed when the sun came up after writing throughout the night.

The whole book is washed with the hues of nostalgia and longing for an age before peacetime brought a general corrupting mood of idleness, luxury and triviality. ‘It is a wretched thing that the young men of today are so contriving and so proud of their material possessions...Every morning, the samurai of fifty or sixty years ago would bathe, shave their foreheads, put lotion in their hair, cut their fingernails and toenails rubbing them with pumice and then without fail pay attention to their general appearances. It goes without saying that their armor in general was kept from rust, that it was dusted, shined, and arranged.’


Yamamoto advises us to look for models of politeness, bravery, proper way of speaking, correct conduct and steadiness of mind. We are told that ‘a person who does something beyond his social standing will at some point commit mean or cowardly acts…one should be careful with menials and the like’. And yet, in a characteristic contradiction, we are told, ‘As for a person who has risen from the humble, his value should be prized and especially respected, even more than that of a person who was born into his class.’

Self pride and luxury are to be avoided; attaching cloves to your body will stop you being affected by colds; it is better to have some unhappiness when you are still young to stop you becoming giddy; drinking a decoction of the feces from a dappled horse is the best way to stop bleeding from an injury received by falling from a horse; look for the single purpose of the present moment as loyalty is also contained within single-mindedness; apply powdered rouge carried in your sleeve if your complexion is poor.

Intertwined with all of these ideas runs the constant refrain about preparing for death, dreaming of dying in battle or committing seppuku. ‘The way of the samurai is, morning after morning, the practice of death, considering whether it will be here or be there, imagining the most sightly way of dying, and putting one’s mind firmly in death.’ But there is, it seems, a silver lining. ‘With martial valor, if one becomes like a vengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die.’

A highlight of the book is its description of various Sicilian-style revenge killings among the samurai. Often these would start as drunken brawls in bars, or sometimes be over nothing at all, and yet end up killing lots of innocent people. For example, a boy accidentally steps on a ronin’s foot while putting on his sandals. The ronin instantly kills him and his grandmother. The boy’s uncle then kills the ronin, but is in turn killed by the ronin’s younger brother. Another uncle, a Buddhist priest, then plans to kill the ronin’s younger brother, but kills the ronin’s father instead…and all this over treading on someone’s foot.

The samurai were also pretty nasty in their tortures. This is the punishment meted out to one robber: ‘all the hairs on his body were burned off and his fingernails were pulled out. His tendons were then cut, he was bored with drills and subjected to various other tortures. Throughout, he did not flinch once, nor did his face change color. In the end his back was split, he was boiled in soy sauce and his body was bent back in two.’

Once Yamamoto gets going with his tales of revenge killings and seppuku, there is really no end to them. There are tales of adultery leading to seppuku; of fathers acting as kaishakunin (assistants who behead the person committing seppuku) for their sons; of revenge killings leading to seppuku; of retainers crucified for not finishing off a fight or banished for intervening.

The slightest slip could lead to your death. One retainer is scolded for daring to put gold coins before his lord: ‘To place such base things before a person of importance is the extremity of carelessness’. (Given that the samurai class were created in the first place by ambitious warlords annexing land and appropriating taxes for themselves, and hiring gangs to protect them, this absurd denial of their own covetousness is truly breathtaking).


At this point, we get more handy tips from Yamamoto pere: ‘If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. This was heard by the priest Gyojaku when he was in Kyoto. It is information to be treasured.’

Tsunetomo relates how a samurai was dismissed from trial for having the bravery to cut down opponents of his clan and thereby uphold the way of the samurai and Tsunetomo gives us many instances of exemplary retainer behaviour such as the samurai who rushes into a burning house to save his lord’s treasured genealogy. The samurai dies in the flames, but when his corpse is found, it is discovered that he has cut open his stomach and put the genealogy inside.

Tsunetomo was very enthusiastic about the recuperative, blood-clotting powers of horse feces, but surprisingly very down on the value of tactics. ‘On the battlefield, once discretion starts it cannot be stopped. One will not break through to the enemy with discretion. Indiscretion is most important when in front of the tiger’s den. Therefore, if one were informed of military tactics, he would have many doubts, and there would be an end to the matter...there are no military tactics for a man of great strength’.

We are shrewdly told that ‘one should not show his sleeping quarters to other people. The times of deep sleep and dawning are very important’ and that ‘underwear should be made from the skin of a badger’.

There are occasional flashes of wit between the samurai:

Matsudaira Izu no kami said to Master Mizuno Kenmotsu, ‘You’re such a useful person, it’s a shame that you’re so short.’

Kenmotsu replied, ‘That’s true. Sometimes things in this world don’t go the way we would like. Now if I were to cut off your head and attach it to the bottom of your feet, I would be taller. But that’s something that couldn’t be done.’

However the odd snippet of humour is far outweighed by general insanity, with lots of tales of heads being cut off and invocations to always think of your master.

'The warriors of old cultivated mustaches, for as proof that a man had been slain in battle, his ears and nose would be cut off and brought to the enemy’s camp. So that there would be no mistake as to whether the person was a man or a woman, the mustache was also cut off with the nose. At such a time the head was thrown away if it had no mustache, for it might be mistaken for that of a woman. Therefore, growing a mustache was one of the disciplines of a samurai so that his head would not be thrown away upon his death.'


In Yamamoto’s view, boys should be taught valour, forbearance, politeness and etiquette. For girls however, the most important thing is chastity. They should be always kept six foot from a man, never look them in the eye, or receive things from them by hand. And heaven forbid that they ever go sightseeing or on trips to a temple.

Yamamoto is firm in the belief that all identity should come from the clan. All worship and respect should be given to clan elders and ancestors rather than such things as Buddhism, Confucius or famous warriors of other clans. ‘One worships the head of whatever clan or discipline to which he belongs. Outside learning for retainers of our clan is worthless.’

One should serve the clan, even committing seppuku whenever required by the lord, is Yamamoto’s message. In this way, Yamamoto vows never to be outdone in the Way of the Samurai.

Albeit that Hagakure has found fans in such people as Yukio Mishima and Jim Jarmusch, and is undoubtedly a superb illustration of an extremist samurai mindset, there is surely no question that Yamamoto is insufferably pompous. There is no real consideration of why you should devote your life to your lord – this is merely an a priori assumption, endlessly reinforced like a Buddhist priest chanting a sutra.

A while back I was watching Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and istening to the declarations of the Nazis at the Nuremberg rallies (‘We know of nothing but to follow the Fuhrer’s order and show our loyalty!’) and Hitler’s own declaration that the spiritual tenets of National Socialism would be like that of a religious order, you can see that the guiding principles of fascism and the more extremist samurai – the blind cult of loyalty, the yearnings for militaristic order, the nostalgia for the past, the xenophobia – had a good deal in common.

The resurgence of Bushido in the 1890s, accompanied by Nitobe Inazo's book Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900) becoming an international bestseller, clearly created in Japan an intellectual framework in which fascism and dictatorship could quickly take root (ironically this development was not foreseen by the internationally urbane Nitobe Inazo, who was horrified by Japan storming out of the League of Nations in 1933 after the Lytton Commission’s critical assessment of Japan’s culpability in the invasion of Manchuria. Nitobe died shortly thereafter in Canada.)

I appreciate Hagakure in the same way as I appreciate Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films – as a fascinating insight into what is now a barely comprehensible mindset. Yet while delighting in its Gothic nastiness, I can’t but help feel that if is this is the Way of the Samurai, I won't be joining Ghost Dog and his pigeons on the rooftop anytime soon.

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