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.
Edward N. Smith
Hagakure and Ed
It was the penultimate spring semester of my undergraduate studies. As my interests in history and philosophy began to intersect, and my regional compass settled towards East Asia, I enrolled in an upper division course: East Asian Philosophy. When I completed my enrollment, I had the expectation to finally unlock and open a door to the previously unknown world of Japanese intellectual history--and I had equally prepared a significant budget to bring back armloads of books to my apartment. When I sat for the first lecture and reviewed the syllabus, I discovered to my surprise and confusion that only one text would guide us through Japanese intellectual history, the William S. Wilson translation of Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s conversations recorded in Hagakure. The professor constructed from this single text our sections on Japanese philosophy, lasting about two weeks worth of lectures and papers. The final assignment of this section asked us to compare and contrast the view of death presented in Sunzi’s Art of War to that of Yamamoto--an oversimplification to be sure. I accepted this was the sum work of Japanese philosophy.
That same semester, I also enrolled in Introduction to Martial Arts. We surveyed equally Judo and Karate, with a smattering of Aikido thrown in for good measure. While this course took place in the fitness center, being the students we were, discussions of the intellectual quality of martial arts crept into training. These conversations in the dojo about the philosophical and ethical qualities of Bushido invariably occurred more than a few times and, each time, the Hagakurewas listed as the book on the subject. We felt strong, confident, and powerful being able to quote “The Way of the Samurai is found in death!” after a hard practice or as a resounding battle cry before a night of poor choices.
Reflecting back, however, I recognize the emphasis on Hagakure came not from a conscious selection of this work as the central work in Japanese thought and theory; rather, it was the manifestation of a constraint of the available literature. To English readers, Hagakure was the book because it was the most widely-known and in many cases the only available work. To be sure, the literary landscape of translated primary sources improved in the time since, yet still the axiom, “The Way of the Samurai is found in death!” persists as a defining element of English-language study and understanding of Japanese philosophy and Hagakure remains a first-recommendation for readers. Google “Bushido,” and Hagakureappears in the top books recommended on the subject; search Amazon for the same and it appears on the first page of results. Often, the only work that precedes Hagakure when searching is Nitobe Izano’s work Bushido. To count the number of social media posts, YouTube videos, and podcasts highlighting Hagakure proves near impossible.
Strikingly, this phenomenon presents itself only in the English language--the English Hagakure Tradition--and is largely absent in Japan where Hagakure continues to hold close connection to two critical events that introduced it to English readers and continue to captivate their interests: The Pacific War and Yukio Mishima’s failed coup. In a Japanese perspective, it is better left in the past. These same events, in part because of the spectacle of catastrophic violence each carried, influenced the received understanding of early translations, notably the William S. Wilson edition. In part from the spectacle of violence and in another part because it’s easy to reduce to simple to remember axioms, Hagakure persists in English editions as a work obsessed with death and direct action leading to it. Unfortunately, this reduces the appreciation of a complex system of values and ethics developed from Japan’s interaction with Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and its own Shinto and limits a deeper understanding and analysis of the interconnected intellectual history of East Asia. Furthermore, this narrow view perpetuates caricatures of Japan developed during The Pacific War as mindless and murderous while reducing a rich body of literature to a single work that prior to its brief time of prominence during The Pacific War possesses a limited, regional influence. This is further complicated by the essays of Mishima Yukio that elevate nationalistic views. The frightful appeal of the specter of death continues to underpin not only the produced works available but also inhibit the larger English-language appreciation of Japanese intellectual history at the expense of other, more culturally influential authors that are also now available in English.
This work will attempt to outline the development of the English Hagakure Tradition, starting briefly with the role of the work in The Pacific War and the influence on Mishima to illustrate a unique time-specific, death-centric interpretation and how these influenced Wilson’s translation. Then, it will examine the limitations of the English Hagakure Tradition on produced media, throughout investigating how it dominates, at times incorrectly, the conversation of Japanese intellectual history. Being that this work focuses on the English Hagakure Tradition as an analysis and critique, it will make great use of those works available in English. None of this should suggest that Hagakure does not deserve note in the literary history of Japanese thought and theory; it should, however, temper the current appreciation of the work as significant only within the past century and with a particularly unique understanding in English. This author hopes that, in illustrating these points, readers will not only gain context to appreciate the Hagakure more richly but encourage them to investigate other sources available in English.
Hagakure and English
The Wilson translation now boasts a record of regular hard-bound printing with Kodansha, sales numbers over 50,000 copies, editions in eleven languages from this edition as well as a graphic novelization printed in 2010 (also by Kodansha), and it served as a key inspiration for the 1999 film Ghost Dog directed by Jim Jarmusch. In Wilson’s words, “Since its publication some thirty years ago, this translation has taken on a life of its own.” It's from this source and the contributing influences from The Pacific War and Mishima that the influence of the cult of death crept into the English language understanding of Japanese intellectual history in both literary works and other consumable goods.
With regards to literature, evidence of the influence of this work appeared in the recently burgeoning market of works coming to press on samurai, ninja, and similar topics. One key example appeared in the 2011 Antony Cummins’ interpretation of Minami Yoshie’s translation of the Shoninki. In the introductory materials of this work, Cummins latched onto a line with seemingly similar parallels between it and Hagakure. In Cummins’ words:
“Life is found in the way of death,” is a famous samurai paraphrasing and one that is at the heart of the book, Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo…Thus, it is with a distinct shock that Natori makes a similar statement and says that the way for the shinobi is that, “life exists within death, death exists within life.”
In drawing this parallel Cummins highlighted the influence of the English Hagakure Tradition and the continued influence of the centrality of death through an explicit, and inappropriate, comparison. From a language perspective, the excerpt shared less with Hagakure and more with Chinese concepts. Both the structure of the lines, as well as the language used, bear a stronger resemblance to ideas found in Daoism, including Yin Yang theory. This influence also appeared later when the original author made references to Chinese philosophic concepts throughout. The error, however, extended into factors that constrained the time and place of the works.
Drawing this parallel is tenuous at best as it fails to address elements of key historical context. While the two works shared an approximate window in time in which the authors lived in the late seventeenth century, little more possibility of the two interacting--and being able to share ideas--existed. The Shoninki purportedly originated from modern Wakayama and Mie Prefectures, south east Honshu island; Hagakure came from Saga Prefecture on Kyushu island. Nearly 700 kilometers separated the physical origins of these works! The other contextual detail Cummins’ analysis overlooked is, there would have been little to no opportunity for literary discourse related to these works as each belonged to the respective groups’s secret libraries.
It is exactly this incorrect comparison that highlighted the influence of English Hagakure Tradition and its death-centric philosophy. It demonstrated on the one part a superficial understanding of or experience with the source material. Furthermore, it ignored the well documented works of greater significance with wider-spanning influences. Despite the questionable analysis, this instance illustrated the significant weight Hagakure and the received English interpretations bear on authors. It also, unfortunately, served to illustrate the perpetuation of misunderstandings.
More than books, however, this received emphasis on death colored English understandings and representations of Japanese culture. The products on Bushido or Samurai available through the internet, harken back to Hagakure. From print-on-demand internet apparel quoting “The Way of the Samurai is found in death,” split above and below a depiction of a samurai in yoroi committing seppuku, to an internet meme with the same text above a black and white film still of a samurai zombie, the far-reaching influences of the centrality of death in Hagakure dominated popular representations of Japanese culture. Mixed messages of images and text, with a smattering of kanji such as Bushido, demonstrate the popular appeal--and marketability--of the cult of death as transmitted to English audiences through the English Hagakuretradition.
A simple to remember line with dramatic depictions of a lone warrior choosing to end his life on his terms echoes similar uses of imagery in American culture. In large part, this appeals to the ideal of the rugged individualist, the frontiersman or cowboy, making his way in the wild against man, beast, and the elements. Though he may suffer along his journey, it’s his path to walk and he does so proudly, off into the sunset. These cultural legends that build the basis of American identity make the adaptation of Kurosawa Akira’s Chanbara films that focus on wandering samurai, alone or in bands of seven, fit so well into the Old West. American’s like to imagine themselves as men with no master, and the ronin gives them one more outlet to live out this fantasy.
Hagakure and Us
As this work attempted to demonstrate, understanding the context of a document is critical to evaluating the significance of the work throughout history, including the time and circumstances in which the work originated, the influences that poured into it, and the “life,” the work assumed after publication. To do this responsibly, we must evaluate not merely the key factors that encouraged the spread of the work but also those that restrain it. Where we encounter our greatest challenge is in unraveling the influences of an author and ideas on another, and then in another work, ad infinitum. In this instance, where this research stands today, an early exposure to Mishima’s work guided Wilson’s understanding of Hagakure that ensured his death-centric approach persisted in English as readers devoured Wilson’s translation.
This is not to fault or criticize the volumes of great work produced by Wilson--indeed, through his efforts, a great body of literature is now accessible to many readers that only serves to make richer our understanding of Japanese culture and thought. Where this is a challenge is when Western readers and authors give primacy of place to Hagakure that it never had. This can be found throughout popular media in the numerous articles, blogs, and podcasts touting the deep wisdom and insights of Hagakure as an exemplar of samurai behavior.
English speakers tend to put more emphasis on Hagakure than it possessed either in Japan or than Japanese readers placed on it. As Mishima noted, “Because during the war, Hagakure was utilized for political indoctrination, some people still interpret the work in political terms…” Undoubtedly, Mishima’s actions continued this politicization of the work with his essays and his failed coup and subsequent seppuku in 1970. The English understanding continued down this path through further distilling of Hagakure down to a single line, “The Way of the samurai is found in Death.” Unfortunately, this approach denies Yamamoto’s emphasis on selflessness and service and divorces the work from its place in a larger body of philosophical literature. Reducing this work to a single line will only perpetuate a fatalistic philosophy of violence.
Readers should not leave this essay with the idea that Hagakure is a sentient entity pushing violence on the world--like anything written, it is the actions of those that read it that are dangerous. And this is arguably the source of the greatest appeal of the work in Hagakure to English readers: a superficial reading of quick to memorize axioms based on black-and-white, actionable choices. This all fits well into the American ideal image of the rugged individualist or action star. This does not, however, appreciate the context of the work as one of levels with selflessness and service to a social hierarchy at its core. This highlighted the need for deep, authentic, study of sources--and Hagakure does belong in this study, but with an appropriate appreciation of context. Thus, the responsibility for helping to place this work on the larger literary shelf of man’s creation--and it does deserve a place there--is on readers for understanding and appreciating the historical context in which the work developed in its own language and how this is critical background to appreciate it in English.
 Wilson, “Afterword,” Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai - The Manga Edition (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2010), 143.
 William S. Wilson, “Afterword,” 143.
 Readers may find evaluations of the academic qualities of Cummins’ work discussed at length elsewhere. For the purposes of this essay, the detail readers should bear in mind is not the quality of Cummins’ scholarship but rather the widely accessed nature of it. For more on his academic rigor, see relevant passages and citations on “Reviews” Budo Book Review accessed 2/14/21. https://budobookreview.weebly.com/reviews/cummins-antony-minami-yoshie-samurai-war-stories-teachings-and-tales-of-samurai-warfare-gloucestershire-the-history-press-2013
 Sanjuro Masatake Natori, True Path of the Ninja: The Definitive Translation of the Shoninki, trans. Yoshie Minami eds. Antony Cummins (Tokyo: Tuttle, 2011), 164.
Interestingly, this may have been an easier parallel to draw connecting the work to the writings of Yagyu Munenori, not only in the language and geography, but also the philosophical underpinnings.
 This section bears examination in detail in a future work. Readers may observe a similar treatment of Spartan culture in the American use of the Greek Molon Labe “Come and Take Them” spirit. Spartan or the lone frontiersman or cowboy.
 Mishima, “Hagakure and I,” 40.
Mishima, Yukio. “Hagakure and I.” The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life. Translated by Kathryn Sparling. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
__________. “Hagakure and Its Author, Jocho Yamamoto.” The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life. Translated by Kathryn Sparling. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
__________. “How to Read Hagakure.” The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life. Translated by Kathryn Sparling. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
Natori, Sanjuro Masatake. True Path of the Ninja: The Definitive Translation of the Shoninki. Translated by Yoshie Minami. Edited by Antony Cummins. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2011.
Sparling, Kathryn. “Translator’s Note.” The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life. New York: Basic Books, 1977.
Wilson, William S. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983.
Wilson, William S. “Afterword.” Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai - The Manga Edition. Edited by Sean M. Wilson. Tokyo: Kodansha, 2010.
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.
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