Thoughts On The Hagakure – Samurai Wisdom

Thoughts On The Hagakure – Samurai Wisdom

        There is a book called Hagakure written in the 1700’s by an ex-samurai turned Buddhist monk. Hagakure is a word that gives the meaning of “in the shadow of falling leaves” which implies various hidden words spoken in passing. It is a book of sayings collected by a younger samurai who was a scribe. He met with Yamamoto Tsunetomo over a period of 7 years collecting things he spoke out loud to him. Most of these thoughts are random and in no particular order. There is over 1,300 passages in the book. A modern translation of 300 of his most relevant sayings was written by William Scott Wilson titled Hagakure – The Book of the Samurai. It is a very interesting historical read for cultural insight on Japanese history and possibly the mindset that Japanese society has developed from. Of course every culture changes over time, but there are always historic roots that are the foundation of current ways of thinking. In my opinion Yamamoto Tsunetomo mostly has illogical things (because he was a Zen monk and it is a very illogical and irrational religion), irrational things he admits are irrational yet claims this is proper, as well as contradictions. One instance he claims many arts are bad to study at one time and being adequate at many of them is for vulgar men and another instance he says is it bad for a samurai to be a master of one art and focused on one and become a fool. I should also mention he gives random instructions on how to behave properly as a homosexual samurai and how to take on a gay relationship with another samurai “the right way.” He was not gay himself though. But there is no way to know if he had tendencies if he was given the chance, all though much talk about women and proper behavior of wives is mentioned in his sayings as well.

Depiction of monk Yamamoto Tsunetomo

        Most of what he says has to do with the samurai’s duty and expectations. Therefore, it does not apply to me or anyone who is not a Japanese living in the 1700’s or a samurai. Most of what people get out of this book, or think this book is all about is honor and dying with honor and loyalty etc. But there are many other topics mentioned. Even so, there are some wise things mentioned that go hand in hand with proper morality that would also agree with the Bible’s teachings on some topics.

        As I was reading the book today, which I read purely for historical and cultural reasons (because I enjoy warrior history as I am a martial arts fanatic), a certain passage stood out to me.

When I was young, I kept a “Dairy of regret” and tried to record my mistakes day by day, but there was never a day when I didn’t have twenty or thirty entries. As there was no end to it, I gave up. Even today, when I think about the day’s affairs after going to bed, there is never a day when I do not make some blunder in speaking or in some activity. Living without mistakes is truly impossible. But this is something that people who live by cleverness have no inclination to think about.” (Wilson, p. 56)

It is interesting to hear a 18th century samurai give his thoughts on the fact we all make mistakes. Samurai culture was based on Bushido the warrior code that samurai followed. It was strict and many things were expected of a samurai to follow. The way of the samurai was like a law and based on personal will to do what is correct (according to The Way, not necessarily what is truly correct and holy as God commands). Even such a good samurai as Tsunetomo had to admit he made over 30 mistakes or more a day. He admits no one is perfect. Even the bible states this when it says “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The problem is there is no justification in Bushido except works and following the code. Punishments could include death which was expected to occur by suicide. It was a samurai’s duty to die for his master:

Concerning martial valor, merit lies more in dying for one’s master than in striking down the enemy.”

Samurai crest


        Bushido is backwards to Christianity. Where a samurai who is a soldier for his feudal lord (daimyo) is expected to die for his master, in Christianity the one true master of the universe instead dies for his soldiers (Christians). All Christians are spiritual warriors for God (2 Corinthians 10:4). Instead of working, proving ourselves, trying to make right our wrongs, collecting our sins in a book for records and realizing its impossible to keep up, and committing suicide for our master, God instead sent His only Son to die in our place (John 3:16). God did this to redeem us. God does not pile our sins up and keep a record. Psalm 103:12 states, “He has removed our sins from us as far as the east is to the west.” That means infinite distance as in completely disappeared and never remembered to be held against us. Only those who do not repent and keep pride such as “the clever person” mentioned by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who has no inclination to think of his own sinfulness. Truthfully the person who relies on his own cleverness or human wisdom and arrogance will never be inclined to think of his own sinfulness and repent to God for his salvation.

        Now concerning the enemy and valor, God fights for us and is a warrior (Exodus 15:3, Zepheniah 3:17, Isaiah 42:13) who crushes the head of our enemy for us (Genesis 3:15, revelation 16:20). All we do is use our spiritual weapons as God commands to further His purpose. But in the end God fights our battles and is our strength. In Bushido, the man is his own warrior and is his own strength who dies for a human master whom be puts before all gods and family. It is idolatry and nonsense to put another fallible human being above oneself and dedicate your life including your death for him assuming this will free your mind and existence into the next realm. If Yamamoto Tsunetomo belives everyone makes mistakes, then his daimyo makes mistakes so why put fourth all effort to serve another fallible human and becoming nothing before him?

18th century photograph of real samurai

        Despite the fact Hagakure is based on pagan ideas from eastern religions it is an interesting read and when compared to the christian worldview it gives the Christian an interesting perspective on the warrior culture of Japan as well as Japanese thought, and concepts from Zen Buddhism and Taosim. This is helpful when witnessing to Japanese people and understanding man’s ideas from the past in eastern cultures that are the foundation of current thought within their cultures.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s