The Hagakure, written by Tsunetomo Yamamoto in the 18th century, is thought to be one of the most authoritative documents on samurai values and code of conduct. It was secretly circulated for the next 2 hundred years until in 1906, it was published. It is said that the Japanese ruling class was greatly influenced by it and anyone looking to get a glimpse of the mind of Japanese men from businessmen to politicians should look into it. The book Bushido: The Way of the Samurai is the first English translation of the Hagakure text. The book is a quick read at less than a 100 pages not including the foot notes.

In Hakagure, Yamamoto covers deep philosophical issues such as the essence of Bushido and honor, courage and spirit to the trivial and mundane such as how to stop yawning or the samurai’s toiletries. There may be as little as 2 sentences written about each topic. Some of the stuff is probably not going to be applicable to the modern day westerner, but I was surprised to find how much of it was very applicable to me in all aspects of my life, including my personal life, my work, and of course, my martial arts.

The Hakagure starts off with a bang. The often misunderstood or misquoted first line reads:

I have found the essence of Bushido: to die!

Statue of a SamuraiAs I began reading this, I already started forming wrong impressions on the philosophy of Yamamoto and probably wrote him off as a lunatic. Once I started getting into it and dove deeper and deeper, I began to understand what he meant. What he didn’t mean was to throw away one’s life needlessly and seek death. What I took from this was that one (in this case, a samurai) should live and act as if one were ready to die. That is to live and act with no regrets, giving it your all as if you had nothing to lose. That is the way of the samurai. This reminds me of a scene from the movie Gattaca, where Ethan Hawke’s character, a natural born unenhanced human, is swimming across the lake against his genetically modified superior younger brother. Ethan’s character manages to beat him and his brother asks him how. His reply was that he never saved anything for the trip back.

Here are some other takeaway points:

  • Trust those who’ve made mistakes as opposed to those who are perfect and have yet to make mistakes. Place your trust in people who have experience.
  • Nobody’s perfect, take and learn from the strong points of each person.
  • On loyalty: “If you want to see the true mind of your friend, then you should get sick.”
  • On spirit: “Sane men of calmly composed mind cannot accomplish a great enterprise.” You have to be a little crazy.
  • On failure: “Fall seven times and get eight.”
  • On changing times: “… do your best according to the requirements of the present generation.” Those who are stubbornly nostalgic cannot succeed. Likewise those who ignore the past cannot hope to learn from it.
  • On judging your own abilities: you can’t. Ask others.
  • On challenge and difficulties: “If the water rises, the ship rises too.” The harder the obstacle, the more you will need to rise to meet that challenge.

There are many more lessons covered in this book, but these ones were the ones that resonated with me. It’s such a small book that you should just read it as your take will be different from mine.

One thing I learned about the word “Ronin” is that it doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation that the Hollywood movie by the same name seems to connotate. Ronin are samurai that are asked to leave their Lord’s household either for punishment or as a way for them to gain life experience by tasting the miseries of life.

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