Or, "When to not Read Hagakure"
If just starting out, Hagakure is not the place to begin a book study of budo.
Yukio Mishima spares no words on his negative perception of book study in budo. In his essay “Hagakure and I,” Mishima Yukio derides the study of books in budo: “Manuals of samurai ethics, Confucian tracts, and the military arts themselves tended to degenerate into idle moral philosophizing.”  His inspiration, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, expresses similar disdain for cultural pursuits, despite his Confucian background, “In all cases, the person who practices an art is an artist, not a samurai, and one should have the intention of being called a samurai.”  These conclusions, however, are limited both in their scope of understanding but also their historical influence.
In an ironic twist, an intellectual analysis is exactly what this issue of Budo Book Review applies to the study of Hagakure, especially the English tradition. This essays presented here will evaluate how Hagakure came to English readers and how the common conceptions of the work restrict the wealth of thought it contains significantly. The second essay—the product of the class described in the first essay—will highlight one, but important, difference between the role of death (a feature popularly audiences associate with the Hagakure) in Yamamoto’s and Sunzi’s writings. While there are limitations to this analysis in covering few works, the parallels drawn are indicative of larger trends.
Ideally, Hagakure will be a work that students come to after having spent some time between the page of other, more historically significant works. Some solid reads, of both primary and secondary sources, include:
Ames, Roger T. The Analects of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
_____. Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine, 2003.
Bennett, Alexander. Japan the Ultimate Samurai Guide. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2018.
_____. Cleary, Thomas. The Book of Five Rings. Boston: Shambhala, 2005.
_____. Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook. Boston: Shambhala, 2009.
_____. Samurai Wisdom: Lessons from Japan’s Warrior Culture. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2009.
Friday, Karl. Legacies of the Sword. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.
Hoff, Benjamin. The Tao of Pooh. London: Penguin Books, 1983.
Hurst, G. Cameron III. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale, 1998.
Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
Wilson, William S. The Life Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun. Boston: Shambhala, 2012.
_____. The Swordsman’s Handbook: Samurai Teachings on the Path of the Sword. Boston: Shambhala, 2014.
_____. The Unfettered Mind. Boston: Shambhala, 2012.
After going through this list—or something similar that builds a reasonable foundation of knowledge in history and philosophy—then read through these essays and reviews in this journal. These will help provide some much needed context to come to a deeper understanding of Yamamoto’s writing—to see his work as one of service and selflessness—that cannot be summarized in an easily quotable line “The Way of the Samurai is found in death.”
Edward N. Smith, Oklahoma City
February 18, 2021
1. Mishima Yukio. “Hagakure and I.” The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life, trans. Kathryn Sparling (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 37.
2. Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Hagakure, trans. William S. Wilson (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1992), 27.
2/23/2021 0 Comments
Edward N. Smith
First Composed, May 3, 2007
This essay, composed in 2007, represents the first attempt to analyze the philosophy found in Hagakure. It contains minimal edits, except to clarify meaning and improve organization.
When considering the military libraries of East Asian thought and theory, two works often come to the front of shelves: Sunzi’s Art of War and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure. Today, audiences from walks of life far removed from the original authors read, analyze, and meditate upon these works to find insights into managing conflict, running businesses, and coaching sports teams. Despite the distance between the works from one another, as well as the far-removed distance and cultures behind reasons for reading them today, the core of both address a very human concern that transcends these limitations: death. To meet this grim end, each approaches it from differing roads lined with cultural influences upon the author, reflected in Sunzi’s concerns of efficacy and managing troops compared to Yamamoto’s evaluations of proper behavior and selfless action.
Sunzi, author of the Art of War, is arguably most responsible for the development of military thought in East Asia. Scholars generally accept that he composed the work during the Warring State Period from 403 to 221 BCE. A widely known work in its day and studied continuously since, The Art of War served as the basis of not only the Chinese models of warfare but also served a similar role throughout Asia where Chinese influence spread. Principally, The Art of Waraddressed military matters at the strategic level; that is, the interests of the commander in whom the king vested the responsibility to end conflict. Concise and direct, Sunzi opened his text with “War is a vital matter of state. It is the field on which life or death is determined and the road that leads to either survival or ruin and must be examined with the greatest care.” Other translations noted a subtle difference in the language concerning the nature of warfare, such as “the Way (Tao) to survival or extinction.”
In his writings, Sunzi made clear to readers the nature of war as difficult on body and spirit, taxing on state finances, and wasteful all around. For example, “If there is no gain, do not deploy the troops; if it is not critical, do not send them into battle.” Nowhere did this waste show more apparent than in death and, to preserve the state Sunzi cautioned commanders and rulers alike to avoid unnecessary conflict: “the dead cannot be brought back to life.” This concern possessed far-reaching influences, chiefly among them the reliance of Chinese states upon labor taxes to complete public works projects. It is reasonable to extend this even farther into the realm of a recognition that without people, there is no state as reflected in the idea of the Mandate of Heaven.
Looking more deeply into Sunzi’s considerations for commanders, his target audience, he wrote in detail of the characteristics of military leaders. Of the five qualities of commanders that are fatal, two bore relevance to death. First, “If [the commander] has a reckless disregard for life, he can be killed” otherwise translated as “one committed to dying can be slain.” In this instance, Sunzi warned commanders against overzealousness in their own operations so as to not be defeated. Furthermore, he also implied that, when facing such a commander, he may be defeated by helping him meet his commitments to death. The second quality for commanders to beware, “if [the commander] is determined to live at all costs, he can be captured.” Or “one committed to living can be captured.” In the second, a Daoist like sense of balance may be inferred from the suspicious commanders too committed to preserving life. While death wasted the resources of the state, the prospect of death also acted as a rod commanders wielded over subordinates. “Throw your troops into situations from which there is no way out, and they will choose death over desertion. Once they are ready to die, how could you get less than maximum exertion from your officers and men?” In this case, a clear need for intense loyalty precipitated the placement of soldiers in a hopeless scenario--and here, Sunzi resonated a sound like the language of death as Yamamoto.
Where The Art of War received significant note on a regional level, Hagakure spent much of its life before the twentieth century in relative, and purposeful, obscurity as the secrete guidebook of ethics and behavior of Nabeshima samurai--samurai far removed from the influential centers of literature found in Edo and Kyoto. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, author of the Hagakure, approached martial matters and death from a different perspective than Sunzi’s worry about the state’s resources. The Hagakure, composed in 1716, over 100 years after the conclusion of the golden age of the samurai, addressed the growing conundrum of the nature of the samurai in a peaceful world. Here, he focused not on the martial prowess of the commander to inspire and maneuver troops—though historically speaking, samurai often acted as commanders of lower-class troops such as Ashigeru and Yamamoto does include some lines about management—but on the spirit and selflessness of the individual warrior.
Like the cherry blossoms often associated with them, samurai were expected to live brilliant and brief lives. In times of tumult like the nearly two-hundred-year civil war known as the Sengoku Jidai (1467-1615), the samurai trained and practiced their craft of violence and thus understood their role in society as preparing for a glorious death in the service of their feudal lord. Though he could not receive an end like this--indeed, he was denied following his lord in death--Yamamoto longed for these days in his times. For example, the Hagakure established within the first two verses that “The way of the samurai is found in death.” Additionally, Yamamoto advocated that “when there is a choice of either dying or not dying, it is better to die.” Yamamoto encouraged samurai to daily meditate on death. The ultimate goal of death is utilitarian in nature. Like principles of Zen used in samurai education, these words prepared samurai to commit to battle--or whatever the challenge may be--completely and selflessly, without ego.
To truly appreciate the depth of Yamamoto’s philosophy, however, required readers to delve deeper into the function of this selflessness beyond preparing for death for death’s sake and into the realm of death for service’s sake. As Yamamoto noted, “Concerning martial valor, merit lies more in dying for one’s master than in striking down the enemy.” On the surface, this passage highlighted that, for a samurai to be valorous, he must die in the service of his feudal lord. Under that, however, rested the base of Yamamoto’s philosophy that action for the master stood higher than action for one self. This same theme continued throughout Hagakure, and appears nowhere stronger than in his vows:
Never be outdone 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.
In the language used, as well as the points made, Yamamoto demonstrated in his personal vows the critical nature of loyalty, service, and selflessness in his philosophy that extended as the basis of his discussion of death. As he noted, “Whatever you do should be done for the sake of your master and parents, the people in general, and for posterity,”and this extended to even the case of death.
Sunzi addressed death from the perspective of the commander. He argued that war was a wasteful adventure and death was one of the many methods the resources of the state were exhausted. Death did have a role in his approach to warfare that, if properly utilized, served to motivate soldiers. Commanders needed to, however, balance the role of death as a motivation, either a desire for or a fear of, to not become a liability to the state. Conversely, Yamamoto Tsunetomo discussed death from the perspective of the individual soldier in service to his immediate feudal superior--not the state overall. Yamamoto strongly advocated that “The Way of a Samurai is found only in death,” but that such a death, as with all things, must be one met through a life of selfless service. It was hoped that, in meditating on death, a samurai could release himself from ego and thus enjoy a more complete and satisfying quality of life.
 Ralph D. Sawyer (Trans.), Art of War (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994). 27.
 Roger T. Ames (Trans.), Sunzi: The Art of Warfare (New York: Ballantine, 1993), 103.
 Sawyer, 167.
 Ames, 166.
 Ames, 166.
 Ames, 136.
 Sawyer, 204.
 Ames, 136.
 Sawyer, 204.
 Ames, 157
 William S. Wilson (Trans.) Hagakure (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2002), 9.
 Wilson, 45.
 Wilson, 164.
 Wilson, 55.
 Wilson, 177.
 Wilson, 62.
Ames, Roger (Trans.) Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare. New York: Ballantine, 1993.
Sawyer, Ralph D. (Trans.) Art of War. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.
Wilson, William S. (Trans.) Hagakure. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2002.
Key terms: bibliography, Bushido
No matter the art, at some point, martial arts students become curious about the study of Bushido. This mountainous topic can seem impossible to scale because of the volumes of work online and in print. What’s more, because the quality of scholarship on the topic varies greatly, it can be easy for readers to wander from quality reading. This brief list includes some of the most robust works on the study of Bushido.
To keep this reading list brief, it will only include works with the main drive of analyzing or contributing to the explicit study of the intellectual history of samurai.
Benesch, Oleg. Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
A thorough academic work, Benesch seeks to trace bushido as a tool of the post-Meiji Restoration government of Japan—an “invention of tradition.” Benesch argues the invented tradition of Bushido was Designed to inculcate the populace with a sense of duty, nationalism, and as a response against foreign threats, or national “popular narcissism.” To accomplish this mission, Benesch draws upon a plethora of primary and secondary sources in both English and Japanese, ranging from government documents to cultural studies. Rich in source material and thorough in addressing some of the most preeminent authors on the subject, Benesch’s work will undoubtedly move the scholarship of Bushido forward.
Bennett, Alexander. Bushido and the Art of Living: An Inquiry into Samurai Values. Tokyo: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, 2017.
An accomplished scholar and martial artist, Bennett takes on a scholarly and critical analysis of Bushido. The work begins with a brief yet informative intellectual history of Bushido, divided into four phases of development, framed by the social, political, and military events around each. A key argument implied in this section, and carried over into the next chapter is the idea that Bushido is an ever evolving philosophy and not one easily marked off a checklist set in stone. As the work proceeds, Bennett interweeves his studies with ideas such as zanshin and koyo-gunkan, as well as examining central works often cited in Bushido research: Hagakure and Budo-Shoshinshu as well as The Life Giving Sword. Finally, Bennett concludes the work with a critical analysis of bushido in modern Japan as told through interweaving his analysis with his experiences as both a kendo and university student. This is a rich, thorough work, appropriate for novice or experienced readers alike. Bennett’s mastery of the content is second-to-none, and his ability to convey complex ideas and events succinctly makes this work informative and pleasurable at the same time.
Interestingly—perhaps, appropriately—Bennett’s work stands as a bookend to Nitobe’s. Nitobe, a Japanese author, wrote his Bushido first in English for foriegn audiences only to later have a Japanese-language edition published; Bennett, a New Zealand-born author, first wrote his work in Japanese for a Japanese audience, only later to issue an English language edition.
Boylan, Peter. Musings of a Budo Bum. Peter Boylan, 2017.
Largely concerned with matters that would interest modern martial artists, Boylan’s work consists of a number of essays based on his experiences studying a variety of martial arts, including Judo, Jodo, and Iaido, in the United States and Japan. While themes in Bushido thread throughout the work, the last section, “Philosophy,” is most closely connected to the study. Here, Boylan examines a number of topics shared by ancient and modern scholars alike, from what makes an effective martial art, to what does it mean to be an instructor versus a professional. Throughout the works, Boylan references a handful of important primary sources for readers to examine, both Chinese and Japanese. At its core, this work stands as a text for others in martial arts today—it is not intended as a thorough, academic treatment of philosophy or intellectual history. It is critical for this list, however, in that it helps to demarcate a critical element of the post-war intellectual history of Bushido as a primary source.
Laws of the Military Houses (Buke Shohatto)—this collection of laws put forth by Tokugawa Ieyasu exemplifies what the Tokugawa Shoguns expected of retainers. Reading through it, Tokugawa’s concern of control and stability become clear, as a number of items prevent the consolidation and spread of power. What is most important for the study of Bushido is how this document outlines the roles and relationships that samurai had to follow (this, itself, was reinforced by the Tokugawa’s implementation of New-Confucianism during their rule). A reasonable edition can be found here: https://edoflourishing.blogspot.com/2016/04/buke-shohatto-laws.html
Cleary, Thomas. Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook. Boston: Shambhala, 2009.
Translated and edited by the prolific author Thomas Cleary, Training the Samurai Mind collects excerpts from several important primary sources in the intellectual development of samurai philosophies from the 14th- through 19th-centuries. While this 500 years of coverage does not address the same expanse of time other authors investigate, it does cover the core of an intellectual golden age in Japanese philosophy. Cleary’s expertise in both Chinese and Japanese texts shows through in his translations, though at times he seems to place an emphasis on spirituality that other authors do not. The work includes a thorough glossary as well, to help readers explore more complicated elements of the text. Unfortunately, it includes neither footnotes nor endnotes—a quite peculiar feature for Cleary.
Friday, Karl F. “Bushidó or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition.” Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences (March 2011): accessed August 27, 2019, https://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_friday_0301.htm.
In this article, reprinted from The History Teacher, Volume 27, Number 3, May 1994, pages 339-349, Friday argues that the Bushido ideals used by early twentieth century imperialist leaders in Japan had no connection to any code or philosophy of the samurai. He further goes on to note that the Bushido of Imperial Japan was, in actuality, an invention of both western observers and the Japanese state to motivate and direct the Japanese people in wartime. In making his argument, Friday begins by reviewing briefly the history of the term Bushido and providing critical historical background to the issue, brief analyses of critical works often used when examining the topic. Perhaps most importantly in this section of the work, Friday notes that the use of philosophical or legal texts to outline a code of behavior like bushido does not adequately examine the day-to-day lives of samurai. From there, Friday uses his established history to examine the case against Imperial Japan’s supposed continuation of bushido to great effect. While this work is 25 years old, it stands as a critical work in the English language scholarship on Bushido—indeed, it may well be the spark that lit the fire of critical review of this topic.
Nitobe, Inazo. Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2002. Other editions available.
First composed around the turn of the 20th-century, Nitobe’s work has one of the more curious histories of texts. Originally composed in English for Western audiences, Nitobe hoped Bushido would act as a bridge to help Western nations better understand Japan. Using a mixture of cultural references from both hemispheres, Nitobe creates a thoughtful essay to explain what he sees as the foundation of Japan’s moral philosophies. The first half of the text aligns closely with Confucian principles; the second half contains a chapters on “Suicide and Redress,” the sword as a national symbol, and the role of women. The final three chapters seek to outline the past, present, and future of bushido in Japan, c. 1900.
When working with Nitobe’s Bushido, it is critical to keep in mind the intent, the method to deliver the content, and the time period that gave rise to the text.
Yamamoto, Tsunetomo. Hagakure. Translated by William Scott Wilson. New York: Kodansha, 1992.
This short treatise, recorded from the words of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, describes in no particular order the expected behavior of samurai of Nabeshima. This work is a relatively geographically localized in that it did not see widespread publication or reading until the Imperial Era and has since gained a reputation as a work associated with Japanese militarism. While an often-cited work, in the larger historical context, Hagakure is of little import. Because of its promulgation during and after World War II, it is a boom readers may see reference towards made.
ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
Budo Book Review strives to provide thoughtful, in-depth reviews of works of interests to martial artists from a variety of backgrounds.
All Article Art Of War Bibliography Book Study In Budo Buke Shohatto Bushido China Chinese Martial Arts Confucianism Death Editorial Hagakure Japan Mishima Yukio Non-Fiction Philosophy Red Guard Red Lanterns Sun Tzu Sun-Tzu Sunzi Tokugawa Volume 1 Number 1 August 2019 Volume 2 Number 1 March 2021 Volume 2 Number 2 June 2021 William S Wilson Women Yamaga Soko Yamamoto Tsunetomo