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Comprehending The Hidden Leaves or Trying To Understand The Hagakure Part 1


My reading habits have, in the past, always leaned towards fiction or at least something with a defined narrative. Text books that do not offer narrative have the nasty habit of frustrating me or, worse, putting me to sleep. Even bad fiction will occupy my brain enough to finish it. So with this having been stated, trying to get through Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s The Hagakure: The Book of Samurai has been very much a challenge for me. It’s very much a manual on how the Samurai of Japan’s Saga domain lived their lives during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, or more aptly, how Tsunetomo believed they should live their lives.

The Hagakure is both an instruction manual and philosophical diatribe on Bushido (or as Tsunetomo refers to it, simply as “The Way”). Tsunetomo is kind of an interesting figure, especially since his approach to being a Samurai addresses such things as fealty, piety and death. More importantly it it also gives a small view of how the role of the Samurai was changing in feudal Japanese society and how, according to Tsunetomo, the Samurai were is a state of falling from grace due to warrior caste not adhering to “The Way”. Of course it is one man’s view on things. He is very critical of how the Samurai of the time were more focused on worldly possessions, trying to actively rise above their station in life and cheating death. Its interesting that Tsunetomo wasn’t more widely read until the first half of the 20th Century. Until then The Hagakure was not exactly a studied text, but came to prominence with the rise of Japanese Militarism under Hideki Tojo. I’m not saying Tojo and Tsunetomo shared similar beliefs but almost 70 years after Tojo’s death people are studying The Hagakure more than everin the close to 300 years since Tsunetomo passing at the age of 60 in 1719.

Chapter 1

Tsunetomo believed in the Samurai as a humble servant, whose role is to live for his Lord. Such things should reflect in a Samurai’s conduct, speech and manner of appearance. The Hagakure does address how a vassal should groom himself to reflect not just himself but his lord as well. The grooming aspect isn’t a vanity issue, as one might think, but more a matter of self-respect and respect for those around you. Tsunetomo’s argument is that one can be well groomed but flashy, in fact the simple dress with a well maintained appearance is preferable for a Samurai because a Samurai should not be concerned with personal wealth and material things in the first place because they only detract from the Samurai’s true purpose which is to serve. Humility in action and humility in appearance are addressed in such a manner. Tsunetomo took issue with Samurai of his period by saying they focused to much on carousing and amterial gain. While he doesn’t call them dandies outright, the notion is definitely implied and Tsunetomo’s frustration with those Samurai of the time period is very frustrating to him.

He also believed that one should never be complacent in what skills they possessed, that only through constant honing of one’s skills does one improve and only by improving does one grow. The example of Master Itteri’s Quote of “Even a poor penman will become substantial in the art of calligraphy if he studies and puts forth a good model”. Similiar short tales and parables are used to furtehr drive this point home, including the story of the dying spearmaster and his lone disciple. Tsunemoto is making a point here about the young Samurai of his time were not looking to the more distinguished, elder Samurai as role models by which to follow. Only by watching, learning, listening and following the elder Samurai could the younger Samurai shake off what Tsunetomo saw as their lazy, materialistic and vain downward spiral.

Tsunetomo also believed that conduct of a Samurai should be one of calm when dealing in all matters. Not necessarily to show a lack of emotion but rather to know what the proper time is to use very specific emotions. He is careful to point out that “calm” does not mean “lax”. The point being, one should be calm because calm allows the mind to be focused, whereas petty emotions like anger will always distract the mind and prevent execution of tasks to be done properly. Being lax is not being calm, the point Tsunetomo makes is that a lax mind is, in fact, easily distracted and more likely to succumb to being tricked or distracted. Better to be calm and focused, that way fewer misrtakes, if any are to be made.

Final Thoughts On The First Chapter:

Tsunetomo is good at illustrating what he viewed were the main problems with the young Samurai of his time period . The only problem is his writing style is kind of wandering. Trains of thought seem to start, wander to a different topic and then come back to the previous one every few pages or so. This is were my reading of the text is hard for me. Yes, he ends up tying each topic together but more than once I had to go back a few paragraphs (or even a few pages) to remember what he was relating his parables to. The edition I’m reading is also doubly frustrating for the large number of grammatical and spelling errors I kept coming across. My own penchant for typos and issues of tense, coupled with my own dyslexia, made it very hard to get through this. Still one could argue that perhaps Tsunetomo was rambling to Tsumaro Tashiro, the man who transcribed Tsunetomo’s thoughts during Tsunetomo’s retirement from service.

Tsunetomo also has the issue of making a point once with one example and then drives the same point home with 2 or more similar tales or parables that make the exact same point. I sense a kind of pattern wit hthis hough, as he seems to make a point an example from the military/marital side of things and then makes the point again with a non-martial example. The quote from master Ittei and the story of the Spearmaster and his disciple are the same point, just taken from different walks of life. Maybe I’m simply rebutting my own problem in trying to read The Hagakure, in that it is a manual and philosophical text telling a Samurai how he should act and then explaining why the Samurai NEEDS to act that way for the non-Samurai to comprehend?

Either way, I get the feeling the first chapter of The Hagakure is just doing what any book does, give a starting point for what is to come. Tsunetomo touches on his issues with the historical events of the 47 Ronin but doesn’t go in to great detail as to why. I’m hoping in later chapters he tackles it more in depth. Sure he he gives a reason for his dislike of the Ronins’ actions in a short paragraph, but I want more explanation as to why he feels the way he does about it. Either way, onward to Chapter 2!

Next Time: Chapter 2 & Some Background On Yamamoto Tsunetomo

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