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..

  • You need not test the back of the armor worn by officers. Only test the front” – because officers caught from behind are clearly cowards.
  • No decorations on armor are necessary. But you must examine and choose good helments, as these may fall into the enemy’s hands with your head” – even in death, it’s important to look good.
  • My offspring will not learn strategy. With discretion you will fall prey to suspicious misgivings and have much difficulty reaching definite decisions. In time of war, it is important that you be utterly indiscreet” – Don’t think too much.
  • It is a great fault to speak of other’s affairs. It is also not advisable to praise others“, elsewhere “It is of the utmost importance to admonish others with the intention of helping them overcome their faults” – I’m guessing this double standard depends on social status
  • If by chance you begin to yawn, stroke your forehead and then your yawn should stop. If this does not work, lap your lips with your tongue while keeping your mouth closed.“, “This is also true of sneezing, which makes you look silly and foolish” – I’ve yet to have the presence of mind while yawning or sneezing to try either of these, but I want to.
  • Sane men of calmly composed mind cannot accomplish great things. You have only to get wildly crazy to the point of death” – the idea that emotionality trumps reason is common throughout the text, and suggests interesting parallels in Japanese behavior during World War II.
  • Regarding homosexuality, young samurai might experience an error that will bring life long shame … Remember, a good wife never meets a second ‘husband’“, also “A samurai without a companion is like a girl without a fiance” – it’s not clear where male companionship and actual homosexual relations begin and end in the author’s comments, but it’s clear that there was a complex and nuanced understanding of the issue at the time.
  • In the event of recovering from intoxication or awakening from sleep, you may look pale. In such cases, you may apply rouge and powder” – how limited is the taboo on men’s makeup to the modern west?
  • How not to get nervous. Before you attend an important occasion, apply spit to your earlobe and then breathe in deeply through your nostrils. Then go out. Kick every object you come across. This is the secret” – I wonder if they teach this at Toastmasters. I love these quaint little pieces of advice.
  • I have found the essence of Bushido – to die!“, “When you have a choice between life and death, choose death“, “Die every morning in advance” – according to the introduction, these sentiments have been amongst the most compelling drawn from this book, being a big reason behind its popularity in the 1930s and early 1940s; at the end of the war, it was described as an ideological war criminal.

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..

[1] – I’m reading this version. There’s lots of different editions, so ymmv.
[2] – 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.


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  • Dr. Curiosity

    Some books of wisdom seem almost like a textual form of divination. The advice that they provide can be quite obtuse, but by being obtuse they're a lot more widely applicable. They're like certain cultural and conceptual touch points to align and inspire you to form your own plan, rather than a step-by-step methodology for solving this or that specific problem.

    In some ways it does remind me a bit of teaching by asking questions, rather than simply transmitting what the teacher knows and expecting the student to understand it. Of course, sometimes a few practical tips don't go amiss, either :-)

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