Review by Peter Leitch
Title:HAGAKURE: The Book of the Samurai
Author: Yamamoto Tsunetomo
Published: 1979 by Kodansha Int'l Ltd.
The original text of Hagakure, now more than 275 years old, was recorded over a seven yearperiod by a young samurai, Tashiro Tsuramoto. Of the more than thirteen hundred sayings,dictums, maxims and stories related to Tsuramoto by Tsunetomo, about three hundred entrieshave been selected by the translator.
This book, the definitive ethics text for many generations of samurai, describes a philosophytowards life which is totally different from anything to which the modern reader may beaccustomed. In fact, it was considered to be a hundred years behind the times when it was firstwritten.
The author deals in depth with the Way of the samurai. Etiquette, hygiene, personal appearance,honour, loyalty, courage, discipline, wisdom, compassion and death are all dealt with in thepassages of the book and it soon becomes clear that the author is fanatical in his devotion to theprinciples of the Way.
In many of the selections, the author attempts to illustrate the meaning of being a "retainer"which was apparently central to the Japanese order of government and society. Tsunetomo washimself a retainer of a daimyo (a feudal lord) by the name of Nabeshima Mitsushige. A retainerwas so devoted to his master that it was considered normal for him to commit seppuku (killhimself) when his master died! In fact Tsunetomo wished for this fate but seppuku was forbiddenin the Nabeshima fief.
Death and seppuku are central themes in the book. Tsunetomo justifies this by succinctly statingthat the Way of the samurai is found in death. This gives the book a distinctly controversialflavour which some readers may find difficult to appreciate. For example, Tsunetomo believedthat an important part of a child's upbringing was the teaching and practice of the art of killingpeople by chopping off their heads!
Other controversial topics covered range from a detailed description of the torture (to death) ofa thief, to the idea that daughters are a blemish to the family name and a shame to theparents.
"Useful" tips detailed in the book include eating horse manure to stop wounds from bleeding,ways of keeping lice out of your underwear, and a grotesque set of instructions on the best wayto remove the skin from a human skull. This last gem is described as being "information to betreasured"!!
In and amongst these bizarre paragraphs there really are some rather profound bits and piecesworth treasuring. Tsunetomo gives the reader some insight on the subject of teaching and learning. He asks the question: "By bringing shame to a person, how could one expect to makehim a better man?"
In all, the book is very readable, and apart from giving us with a unique view of the life of asamurai, the author has provided us with a work of timeless value and enlightenment.
I will leave you with a quote from the book ... my own personal favourite:
"Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exertyourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought."
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