on June 21, 2004
I read this book when it was near/below freezing outside; I sat on a metal bench. I read with such intensity, that I needed the cold to dedicate my mind to the words I was reading. I was often confused by the writings, where I would think about them in great detail until the message became clear. Each paragraph is very important. It is a short book, but it should take longer to read than the Bible. I read it in two weeks, thanks to the cold, but, still, I missed more than I can imagine. Should your eyes miss one word, or a single thought take you away, you need read the passage again and again. This book will change your perspective... change how you view life. It is VERY philosophical, if you concentrate on the reading. I recommend it to those who need change in their lives, those who feel powerless but especially those who feel they cannot control their thoughts. This book is about concentration, dedication and loyalty. This is an important piece of literature!
on January 4, 2003
Deliberate before purchasing this book unless you are a hardcore Japan fetishist. I know that most of the reviews here are glowing and I am nonplussed by this because, frankly, this book is definitely way too esoteric for most.
Hagakure is a compilation of the selected musings of a 'retired' Samurai as recorded by a disciple or admirer who visited him in his post-retirement gig as a Buddhist monk. These selections pertain to the day to day comportment of a 'good' Samurai, sweeping statements about how things work, and examples of good 'Way.' As this was dictated during the late 1600's, you can imagine how otherworldly much of this information is, and frankly this is the book's main attraction: The total alterity of a supposed way of life of a discrete segment of the population of historical Japan.
If one reads enough books about subjects Japanese, one is bound to run into excerpts of this book being quoted say, or displayed as chapter headings. This is because the book has some really excellent 'sound bites' that beg to be used as such. Sadly, this nugget-like structure makes a linear reading of the book a bit of a bore.
Also, if one reads the text closely (assuming that the translator has done a good job, and I am not sure that I would concede this point), one is forced to realize that either the narrator is not a particularly deep-thinker or that the scribe to whom he spoke did only a fair job of capturing the essence of the narrator's speech. One needs only to have read, from Japan, Sei Shonagon's brilliant 'Pillow Book' or 'The Story of a Rogue,' as I believe it is called, for the contrast between these truly perceptive and insightful efforts and those found here to cast this book in a very poor light. I highly recommend an excellent book by Hiroaki Sato titled "Legends of the Samurai" where, incidentally, I believe that Yamamoto is quoted, as an alternative to this as a means of getting the Samurai perspective.
on November 2, 2001
"Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai" was written by a samurai who never once fought in a battle and, being denied the "honorable" samurai death (ritual suicide) when his lord died, became a Buddhist monk for the last 20 years of his life and faded into historical obscurity. And yet, the book which is his legacy, a transcript of conversations collected over 7 years, grasps the heart of the samurai spirit so prevalent one hundred years before his time.
Less abstract than Miyamoto Musashi's famous "Book of Five Rings" - a similiar work by a famous swordsman and samurai who came about his enlightenment after a lifetime of hacking, killing and dueling; and less concerned with military/political tactics than Sun Tzu's "The Art of War", "Hagakure" espouses a mixture of Confucianism, Zen and fanatical personal loyalty and devotion to samurai duty and responsibility and provides an often fascinating look into the ideals of the samurai warrior.
For example, there is the popular warrior class obsessive focus on death. According to Tsunetomo, one's death should be fixed in one's thoughts upon waking and kept throughout the day. This allows one to serve his lord admirably without cowardice, attachment or distraction creeping in.
There is a stong anti-materialistic bent ("Both riches and honour will blemish a retainer...") as well as plenty of Confucianistic thought on proper social graces - from it being bad taste to yawn or sneeze in front of others (including how to repress or hide it) to how to carry a letter properly. Some of it seems laughable in today's Western culture. Yet, without battles to focus on, its as if Tsunetomo, unable to turn his passionate warrior's focus outward, brought it inward, or at leat to the little things in life.
There is also a Zen-like self-help bent - a serious perfectionism, which I feel probably drove Tsunetomo in everything he did. "Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never ending."(pg. 27) He summarizes the synthesis of his self-discipline, his perfectionist drive, and the 3 schools of thought which influenced his life: warrior, Confucist and Buddhist:
"Never be oudone in the Way of the Samurai.
To be of good use to the master.
To be filial to my parents.
To manifest great compassion, and to act for the sake of Man."
Also check out "The Book of 5 Rings" by Musashi, the Samual B. Griffith translation of "The Art of War" and "Mastery" by George Leonard who uses Aikido as his metaphor for "the Way".
on September 14, 2001
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the 17th century Samurai! While some of this material evokes a Zen-like sense of clarity and wisdom, other passages seem just plain ridiculous to my modern Western mind. I found that the constantly recurring references to ritual suicide, while ghoulishly interesting at first, grew more and more repulsive as I read through the book. In the end the fierce samurai come across as nothing more than a bunch of mindless robots. In the politics of old Japan, the samurai were just cannon fodder to be moved around from battle to battle. Their masters expected then to follow orders without thought or hesitation, be it attacking a castle or spilling one's guts to atone for some minor infraction of the rigid warrior code. In the end the whole "seppuku" thing is just too tiresome to put up with anymore. Despite all the spooky ceremony attached to the samurai method of suicide, the act remains what it has always been - the coward's way out of difficulty. Rather than sticking around to suffer with shame and embarrassment (and just maybe figure out a better way to conduct his affairs) the proud, stiff-spined samurai drops through the convenient trapdoor provided by suicide. "Hagakure" offers us a look into an alien world, a way of living (and dying) far removed from ordinary everyday experience. In many ways it is strange and repulsive, and yet, like so many other repulsive things, it manages to be very interesting.
on April 6, 2001
Hagakure is a guide to the proper roll of a samurai during feudal times. Things such as expected behaviour, dying with honor, obeying one's lord, etc...
For today's reader, this book offers several tips on the proper mindset when in combat from a samurai's point of view. Still, Some of these rules are, to say the least, a little strange.
For a serious martial arts student, this book will probably find a place on your bookshelf (if it hasn't already). However, if you saw the movie "Ghost Dog" and were expecting a book of straight warrior-wisdom, you may wish to consider the fact this book has a lot of Japanese history in it. Some of Hagakure's content is a little dry, and although it offers profound insight in some places, it can be a bit hard to sort out what is useful in today's world.
Hagakure is also not put together in an user-friendly format. You have to search for specific quotes, because there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it's layout. This can be tough when you want to go back and review how something was phrased to better understand it.
Still, this book is well worth the time and money. I have read it several times, and I'll probably read it several more...
on August 27, 2000
This book features sayings and anecdotes from an aging Samurai who died around 1700.
It is a quick and entertaining read, and offers great perspective both on the individual who wrote it, and on the general theory of being a samurai.
There is an obvious sense of loss in many of the passages which comment on how things in contemporary society (of the 1700s) are so different from years past. This book, intentionally or not, captures the spirit of those older days, and serves both as a manual for younger samurai, and as a historical document for people who are interested in "The Way of the Samurai" today.
In his excellent introduction, the translator makes the very relevant point that this book is not a rigorous philosophical treatise, at least not in the way that Western scholars would define it. Instead, it is a collection of stories and phrases about a certain way of living. It doesn't hold up to scientific cross-examination (the author contradicts himself frequently), but it shouldn't have to. Yamamoto gives the impression that if faced with a philosophical attack on his "way", he would shrug his shoulders and say, "Yes, but that doesn't change a thing." In other words, his examples and aphorisms speak for themselves, and are not meant to either exclude other points of view or force others into conformity. Yamamoto even states that the Way he advocates is specific to his region of Japan -- samurai of neighboring regions are free to develop their own Ways.
The passages in the book usually focus on one of two topics: bravery, or etiquette. Yamamoto offers a lot of advice on charging into battle, seeking revenge, executing others, etc. The main thrust of most of it is: the Samurai does not spend a lot of time thinking about killing his enemy. He just rushes in and gets it over with. On matters of etiquette, Yamamoto discusses the proper way to hold a Tea Ceremony, how to cover up a yawn, how to pay attention to people you are talking to, and so on. One of the charming aspects of this book is that right after discussing the swiftest way to cut off someone's head, he'll discuss how to make yourself look nice even if you have a hangover. This could be a result of the editing, but it still makes for entertaining reading.
The other theme that permeates almost every paragraph of the book is loyalty to one's master. Yamamoto never tires of discussing the extremes that a samurai should go to so that he may honor his master and show his loyalty. He gives the example of a samurai who was being beaten by his master: during the course of the beating, the master dropped his staff down a hill, so the samurai immediately ran down to retrieve it, and return the staff to his master so he could continue to be beaten. Of course, the ultimate act of loyalty to one's master is to kill oneself after his death. Yamamoto spends a great deal of time discussing various aspects of this tradition, and regrets that his own master forbade him to commit suicide in such a way.
The book reads very quickly (it took me about 4 hours), in part because it is organized into brief paragraphs and anecdotes (much like a book of sayings), and in part because the underlying material is almost inherently fascinating. It gives a very complete picture of the state of mind of an aging samurai, and depicts the world of the samurai as it existed in the 17th century.
The translation flows very well, though I cannot attest to its accuracy, and the translator includes a somewhat useful glossary in the back of the book, as well as the introduction which I mentioned. I should also mention, for the curious, that this is the translation that Jim Jarmusch used as the source of his aphorisms in the recent film "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai."
on December 5, 1997
"...if you are slain in battle, you should be resolved to have your corpse facing the enemy."
Hagakure -- which can be translated as either "hidden leaves" or "hidden by leaves" -- was published on September 10, 1716. It is a compilation of the philosphies of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a close retainer of Nabeshima Mitsushige, the third ruler of what is now Saga Prefecture.
The book can be very dry, especially if a person is not especially interested in Japanese history or Samurai thought. But if one does enjoy those subjects, Hagakure is interesting not so much for all of its philosophies, which run from the profound to the mundane to the absurd, but rather for the historical context in which it was written. By the time Mitsushige passed away in May 1700, Japan had been at peace for almost exactly 100 years. This left the samurai with the same problem facing our modern military: how do you remain a proud, disciplined warrior in times of extended peace?
Reading carefully for the feeling of the passages rather than just the facts, one gets a sense for how the fanatical, death-driven, honor-obsessed samurai of feudal Japan must have felt as they watched their profession stagnate. Tsunetomo himself was forbidden to commit junshi, a retainer's ritual suicide in order to follow his master into death, by the command of the Tokugawa Shogunate. No doubt, this added to his misery and frustration.
So, in a way, Hagakure is not just "The Book of the Samurai," but also a last bit of verbal bravado from a dying breed. It is particularly ironic if you read the version adapted by one of Japan's most celebrated authors, Mishima Yukio, who commited ritual suicide samurai-style (called hara-kiri or more often seppuku) in the office of Japan Self Defense Force General Mashita for numerous reasons including Mishima's obsession with "bushido," the way of the warrior, which is embodied within "Hagakure.".
The philosophy of Hagakure is typical of the unique blend of Zen and Confucianism that was prevalent during Edo Era (1600-1868) Japan. This particular social system was promulgated by the Tokugawa Shogunate because it added to the focus of Zen the Confucian emphasis on ancestor worship, which strengthened the status quo and the concept of feudal class systems.
Although Japan is becoming increasingly Westernized in recent times, the Tokugawa Shogunate's 268-year rule still has a strong subconscious impact on Japanese behaviour. So, to better understand the Japanese, it is useful to understand their socio-political history, though it is certainly true that most Japanese (esp. those under 30) have never heard of "Hagakure" or Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
In addition to the historical character sketch it paints of samurai during the Edo Era, there are some gems of Eastern philosophy to be mined from the book, including the idea that one must always focus on every moment of his life, so that he may not be found negligent. For as Yamamoto writes in Hagakure, "The end is important in all things." By this he means that if everything else goes well, the one bad thing that happens at the end of the day, so to speak, is what people will remember when they think about you.
For Yamamoto, however, "Hagakure" is the legacy he is remembered by.
on February 11, 1997
Whether you find HAGAKURE of interest depends on your approach to the book. Although this is not a book of sword technique, it is much like a traditional sword
master, teaching only what the student is open enough to
know, and teaching on many levels. On one level, it is a book of eyewitness accounts and stories from the decline
of the Samurai era. Tsunetomo has a gift for storytelling,
and for slipping in little details that might be of use to
the aspiring Bushi. For example, do you know the quickest,
easiest way to remove a dead enemies' face from his skull?
He also gossips in an entertaining way about the lives of
various local notables. It is as if you are having dinner with a slighly cynical, retired Samurai, the saki is passed around, and he begins talking freely.
On another level the book adresses the questions of loyalty,
honor, and the meaning of life. It celebrates virtue and
valor, while avoiding the sugarcoating that such subjects
get in the west. Anyone who faces dangers and obstacles in their day to day walk will find this little book strangely
supportive. In this age where loyalty has a price, and
commitment is a meaningless word, the savage beauty and
strange purity of the Bushi mind, as revealed by Tsunetomo, can strengthen the heart, and recharge the mind.
IF YOU LIKE HAGAKURE, you should read:
THE BOOK OF FIVE RINGS, Miamoto Mushashi
THE UNFETTERED MIND, Takuan Soho
ACTS OF WORSHIP, Yukio Mishima
on January 23, 1998
HAGAKURE: The Book of the Samurai is a very interesting book which describes the everyday life and mindset of a samurai. For those that are not interested in the Samurai thought, this book may appear rather dry and in some instances, absurd. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The book is made up of short entries of various topics. Whether it's describing a wise samurai's actions, or cracking jokes at the noblemen around him, it is obvious that Yamamoto Tsunetomo was truly a samurai in every aspect of his life. During Yamamoto's time, the prestige of the samurai was declining, due to a long period of peace in Japan. The samurai lived to die for his lord in battle, but how can one remain a noble samurai during times of peace? Yamamoto answers this and many other questions in Hagakure. He also points out that when one is focused on dying, he will not be afraid in the presence of death. As Yamamoto liked to say, "The way of the Samurai is found in death."
on December 28, 2002
The Hagakure explains the Japanese warrior code (Bushido) simply and elegantly, and in a much more accessable manner than "The Book of the 5 Rings," considered THE authority on the subject. The observations, thoughts and reflections of the author reflect the Zen aspect of the samurai code ("a samurai should reflect daily and in the most graphic manner his demise"), as well as the strong Confucian influence on Japanese culture (the tale of his Master, Nabeshima Mitsushige, covering his face with his sleeve in order not to see his men flustered when a wounded boar lunged at a hunting party) in addition to the crisis of peace the samurai faced under the Tokugawa Shogunate (providing advice on how to practice severing heads on the condemned.)
All in all it was fascinating, and a marvelous "picture in time." I recommend this before reading Sun Tsu ("The Art of War") or Mushashi ("A Book of Five Rings.")