Hagakure – “The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai” – A Book Review

Hagakure – “The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai” – A Book Review of the book written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo and translated by Alexander Bennett.

Hagakure “The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai” – A Book Review

“Hagakure” – by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, translated by Alexander Bennett

First of all, this book claims that it has a “distinct advantage over all other previous English editions”, and that “all other English translations are extremely fragmentary and incomplete.” It also says that it is the first translation to include the complete first two books, and the most reliable and authentic passages of the third book. Is this true? I do not know. Does it make the book more boring? It definitely might.

“Hagakure” is a book about the Samurai warrior spirit, or Bushido, written around the early 1700’s. A Samurai handbook of sorts. It is about total devotion to one’s Lord and the way of the warrior. It describes many different Samurai traditions and contains many stories and beliefs from the Saga domain in Kyushu, the large southern island in Japan. The book was written from the narrations of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who had ‘retired’ to be a hermit after his own Lord died. Yamamoto wanted to commit a ‘social’ form of Seppuku (ritual suicide), as he could not commit the traditional seppuku when his Lord died. Seppuku had been outlawed by this time. It was after he retired, and when he was living in the mountains, that he passed along his philosophy to another Samurai who wrote it all down.

“Hagakure” (Amazon Link) was intended as a spiritual guide, or manual, for the Samurai. A guide to living as if you were already dead. The title “Hagakure” translates as “hidden leaves” or “hidden by the leaves”. The book contains many passages that guide the Samurai to live the best life that they can.Picture of the book "Hagakure - The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai"

Some of the stories seem to promote haphazard, and dangerous, actions instead of well thought out plans. For instance, Yamamoto says that one Samurai was disgraced for not fighting back in a quarrel. He says it is better to “retaliate…(by) frenetically throwing yourself at your adversary with every intention of being cut down (yourself).” He says that being killed this way brings no shame, and he goes on to say that thinking about how to win may cause you to miss the best opportunity to act. So, in other words, throw yourself into a fight without thinking about it and hope that it was the right thing to do.

Yamamoto often makes himself look like an old person that complains about the younger generations, and how they lack good morals and a good work ethic. For example, he complains that young Samurai only talk about money, sex, fashion, and other useless things. In this same example he shows that he can be contradictory. He says that people shouldn’t complain about their finances; that if they live within their means and don’t indulge in extravagances beyond their station, then they will be alright. But then he says that he can’t understand why young men that are thrifty are praised in the day’s society. He says that men who are too miserly tend to lack a sense of duty or obligation. I guess there is a balance to be had somewhere in between too miserly and wasting money on extravagant things? Live within your means, but don’t be too thrifty.

There are passages that just don’t make any sense. For instance, his advice that if you wish for something strongly enough, it will happen. He then goes on to tell a story about how they didn’t have any matsutake mushrooms in their province, but people wished for them to grow there. And miraculously, there was then a lot of matsutake mushrooms growing in the area shortly after. Or “Noble people of high stature are void of impurity in their hearts to start with, and are inherently able to formulate sage ideas through their chasteness.” This after saying that lower class men can’t come up with sage remarks because they are “too busy being selfish and thinking lewd thoughts.” I think lower class men are busy rather because they are trying to provide for their families and themselves.

There are other parts of the book that make sense. An example is that even if you are not good at something, you should copy someone that is extremely skilled at that thing. If you can copy that master, then at least you will be somewhat good, even if you cannot be skilled yourself. Another is to make sure that you check your appearance in a mirror before leaving your house, because too many people don’t do this and wind up looking slovenly. Or, practice your writing even if you are only writing one sentence. Write it as if you expect that it will be hung on a wall for all to see. This way you will write it the best way that you can.

This book is fairly interesting if you are into this sort of thing. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. The book was not all that interesting to me and I couldn’t get around the contradictions.