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Continuing To Comprehend The Hidden Leaves or Trying To Understand The Hagakure Part 2


Yamamoto Tsunetomo was born Jun 11 1659. He served as a retainer to Mitsuhige Nabeshima for thirty of years of his adult life. When Mistuhige died in 1700, Yamamoto refused the standard practice for most Samurai retainers to commit Junshi1 mainly because Mitsuhige was vehemently opposed to the practice2. Yamamoto Tsunetomo opted to not continue his service to Mitsuhige’s son and instead retired to a hermitage for the last 19 years of his life. It was during this period (1709-1716) that he began ruminating about his thoughts and beliefs on Bushido to Tsuramoto Tashiro, who wrote them down, resulting in The Hagakure: Book of The Samurai. The Hagakure is pretty much Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s legacy to the world, as it gives a guideline for life as Samurai and also provides something of a literary snapshot of the slowly decaying caste system of Feudal Japan.

Chapter 2

Tsunetomo lived during the Edo period during the Tokugawa Shogunate. In his lifetime 5 men held the seat of Shogun during what was mainly a peaceful time for the still newly united Japan. While there were still problems among feuding clans, these resulted in far political struggles than outright military ones. The Shogunate ruled the day and with most of the old clans kept in check via political strong-arming3. The first chapter Tsunetomo makes a point of calling the modern Samurai out as being nothing more than glorified dandies. With lack of actual warfare to be waged the soul of the Samurai seemed to be, in Tsunetomo’s view, to be dwindling away.

The second chapter talks at length about what qualities a Samurai should posses both in terms of physical ability and mental prowess. Tsunetomo points, once again, to servitude and stewardship to one’s Lord as the primary focus of a Samurai’s existence. It is after one has committed fully to that can he move on to perfecting himself physically, mentally and spiritually. In Chapter one Tsunetomo talks of the importance of how important grooming, exercise and dedication to martial skills are a must for the Samuri. The second chapter focuses on the three disciplines that form the psyche of the Samurai: Intelligence, Humanity and Courage. According Tsunetomo, intelligence is bred through spirited discourse with others. It is through discussion that one acquires a firmer grip on his Intelligence and the Intelligence of those around himself and, in turn, forms the basis of “limitless wisdom”. Humanity is bred by doing things not for one’s own sake (or not even, necessarily just for the sake of one’s Lord) but doing things for the sake of others. If I understand Tsunetomo correctly, this is a simpler way of saying do things that benefit everyone and if not everyone then at least see that you try to make your world you live in a better place. The last part of this trifecta is Courage. Tsunetomo  oversimplifies Courage as gritting your teeth and pushing ahead, regardless of the circumstances.

Honestly, I grasp the first parts (Intelligence and Humanity) very well by my reckoning but it is the Courage aspect that seems over simplified to me, as it seems there has to be more to it than that. Courage usually has something to do with holding true to one’s principles because its your principles that are the cornerstone of who you are from a moral standpoint. Yet Tsunetomo makes no connection between morality and principle in the second chapter. By his own reckoning, the building of Intelligence leads to the formation of one’s sense of Humanity and then in turn the Humanity breeds Courage. One flows into the other like stream that flows int oa river that feeds into a lake. But if Courage is the greater lake in this aqueous metaphor I have made then Tsunetomo fails to properly expand on what exactly Courage is.

What Tsunetomo is mapping out is what a “Perfect” Samurai should be. The “Perfect” Samurai has the unwavering concept of Fealty and Loyalty with the physical foundation and grooming for Samurai that is laid out in chapter one. This is then combined with the Mental and Spiritual cornerstone of of the Samurai’s psyche in Chapter 2. Using this example of the ideal Samurai leads to one of the more interesting parts of this second chapter as Tsuramoto Tashiro takes a break from being Tsunetomo’s stenographer to actually question a comment the later man makes regarding how the “modern” Samurai was far less “Rowdy” than his predecessors. Tsuratomo doubts this as the case and Tsunetomo replies by saying that the old Samurai were for more rowdy because they had a stronger “Vitality”. They were rougher men, living in rougher times. Yet Tsunetomo points out that though the Vitality of the Samurai has dropped the “Character” of men has improved. Without coming right out and saying it, Tsunetomo is saying that civilization as made man, as a whole, less barbaric and this is to the benefit of all.

This is where I find Tsunetomo has just contradicted himself, as far as I can tell. He has just spent the last 2 chapters bashing the Samurai of his time period for being nothing more than a bunch of Japanese Jollyjacks but then he turns around and says they are better than the rougher, cruder, meaner Samurai of days gone by. The philosophy of what a Samurai should be all makes sense. He Physical, Mental and Spiritual must all come together as one to forge someone who is simultaneously a student and master of “The Way”. Yet, after saying the “modern” Samurai care only for wealth, Earthly possessions and luxury, he then turns around and says they superior simply because they are civilized. How Tsurmoto Tashiro sat there and didn’t say “Wait a minute Tsunetomo, you’re kind of full of it” amazes me. Ah, but there in lies the beauty of this chapter. It is Because Tsuramoto accepts Tsunemoto’s response after first questioning him that Tsunetomo’s point about being a good vassal who is about being dedicated to fealty and servitude that the older man’s point is validated. We don’t know the true nature of Tsunemoto and Tsuramoto’s relationship, but is it to much to assume that there was a Master/Student sort of respect between them? Is it even possible Tsuramoto may have seen Tsunemoto as a Lord whose judgement on the subject of Bushido should not be questioned.

Sadly I don’t have those answers. The only ones who are Tsunetomo and Tsuramoto and both men are long dead. I’d like to think that Tsunetomo was testing Tsuramoto. That presenting the “Civilized Samurai” of the “present” as superior to the “Rowdy Samurai” of the past was Tsunetomo baiting the younger man into challenge his instruction on what “The Way” really is and means. I’d like to think Tsunoetomo saw, that after initially challenging his authority, Tsuratomo sat back down and knew his place in their relationship. I’d also like to think that Tsunetomo smile and nodded, realizing that Tsuramoto got the point.

Next Time: Chapters 3 & 4 , plus some background on The 47 Ronin

1Junshi was the practice of a retainer committing ritual suicide in order to follow his lord in to death. This is different than Seppuku, a form of ritual suicide which deals with savign face for any number of reasons.

2Junshi was actually outlawed by Imperial Decree in 646 AD but the practice continued, unchecked, for centuries.

3The practice of keep political hostages as “Guests” in the Inperial Court was not a new practice by any means.

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