I’ve been reading the “Hagakure”, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo1. The name translates as “In the shadow of Leaves“, but you might know it as “The Book of the Samurai”. It’s a distillation of commentaries made by Yamamoto between 1709 and 1716, mostly about bushido, the samurai’s warrior code, but also about a fairly wide variety of other aspects of life, including governance, personal hygiene, relationships, homosexuality, and justice.
It comprises a series of haphazardly2 organized short pieces of advice, proverbs, and anecdotes, ranging from the sage and insightful, to the historically interesting, and on to the downright strange. I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting ones..
There’s a lot more to this book – I’ve cited primarily excerpts that are strange and outlandish or interesting for some historical or sociological reason, but there’s a lot of timelessly good advice in there – listen carefully to others, avoid confrontation in an argument by asking questions, live each moment to the fullest, politeness costs nothing, and so forth. It’s also a very light read. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japanese history and in particular the different ways of thinking about self, relationships, and the world that prevailed in different cultures at different times. One little disclaimer – read this book with a grain of salt – it’s the product of the ramblings of a single former samurai living as a hermit, and so there are obvious limitations on its applicability to Japanese society of the time in general.
A final remark – I find the poetic, metaphorical, and often ambiguous style of writing really interesting in books like this. It seems that the fuzzier the text, the easier it is for readers to cast their own intentions and expectations into the text and read it to mean whatever suits them. As an engineer and rationalist, the goal in writing is usually to communicat a message such that the reader shares as close an understanding of the author’s intent as possible, and in that sense, works like this are hopelessly mushy. On the other hand, open texts like this are far more inspirational for exactly that reason – no reference manual could ever be the foundation of an ideological movement without some pretty serious metaphorical context. I wonder if there’s a mapping between the tension between the spiritual and the rational, and between the desire for inspiration and the desire for clarity.
Incidentally, I think I need to watch Samurai Champloo again. I feel like there’s layers I’ve missed out on..
 – I’m reading this version. There’s lots of different editions, so ymmv.
 – By haphazardly, I mean that it’s laid out in “books” of widely varying lengths, with no particular themes. I mention this only because it’s a bit peculiar – in my edition, the books are 30, 20, 2, 2, 1, 3, 6, 8, 2, 2, and 6 pages long, which seems just strange enough to suggest a reason; perhaps the writer had much greater ambitions for the text, but ran out of material, or maybe the book was abridged at some point. I’m not sure.