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Thread: Why bash the Hagakure?

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    Question Why bash the Hagakure?

    First of all, English is not my native language. Please consider this while reading my post.

    I have been reading some of the old threads during the last days, mainly about the historicity and value of 'bushido' (I am talking about the 17th/18th century concept here, not the 20th century ideology). I was quite surprised to realise how negatively the Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo is generally perceived by historians and martial artists.
    The main criticisms seem to be:

    1 Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a hypocrite who dreamed about being a warrior and dying in battle, kind of a predecessor of the modern "keyboard warrior".

    2 Many of his stories about the "warriors of old" are historically inaccurate and romanticized.

    3 The Hagakure was anchronistic and excessively conservative even at the time it was written.

    4 The ideology of the Hagakure was praised by japanese fascists and nazis.


    I read the Hagakure (let me stress that it was only an abridged german translation) about half a year ago. Although it is by no means "a bible", I found some of its ideas fascinating and thought provoking.

    Regarding criticism 1: I have never seen that ominous passage were he claims to be the ultimate warrior, he only claims to be a valuable retainer. He recalls stories of people who were, in his opinion, brave warriors, to illustrate what he perceives as proper ideals for a warrior class.

    I basically agree with criticism 2, but I think we should consider that Yamamoto probably didn't have all the historical records at hand when he wrote his book, he just retold anecdotes he had heard.

    3 might be basically true, but there are some passages which milden the nostalgic slant a bit. I was going to post a quote but I can't find it at the moment, maybe later.
    Furthermore,conservatism is not necessarily right-wing in itself. I consider myself left-wing and liberal, but at the same time culturally conservative.

    Regarding 4: Reductio ad Nazium

    Why all this Hagakure-Bashing? One may or may not agree with the philosophical ideas of the Hagakure, but it should nonetheless be accepted as what it is and not equated with shido and ninja-kids.
    I am looking forward to your responses and thoughts.
    "The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it."-Marcus Aurelius
    Fabian Känzig

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    None of the objections that you mentioned equated the book with bullshido or ninja kids.

    Best,
    Ron

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    I think that rather than "bashing" those expressing negative opinions would wish us to read the Hagakure in a balanced way mindful of the various issues related to the text and in conjunction with other texts including those that would provide an accurate historical picture.
    Doug Walker
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    So, the main problem I have with Hagakure is that many people read it and think, "Oh, this is exactly what all of the samurai believed. This gives me a total insight into their lives and thought processes." In reality, Hagakure reflects the beliefs of only a tiny minority of the bushi. I suspect that books like Hagakure do much to propagate some of the western misunderstandings of Japanese culture.

    Another problem I have is that Yamamoto Tsunetomo was an armchair warrior-- he wanted to tell everyone how to be a proper warrior, but had no experience of his own to fall back on. If I remember correctly-- and it's been a few years since I read the book (for a college class)-- there is a passage where he condemns the actions of the 47 ronin, on the grounds that they waited a full year to avenge their lord's death. His reasoning is that it is a mistake to ever wait on such matters, because your resolve might weaken. The 47 ronin, however, needed to wait that length of time for their enemy to relax his guard so that they could strike successfully. Yamamoto's criticism is a classic example of a man who spent his entire life as a mid-level bureaucrat playing armchair quarterback and criticizing the actions of men who had actually "been there" and "done that." To me, that borders on the absurd.
    David Sims

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    Yamamoto's criticism of the Ako Roshi was that by waiting a year, they risked Kira dying of illness or accident, and thus leaving unable to succeed in their vendetta. Of course, Yamamoto was probably working off the popular story of the ronin, in which they waited a year to get Kira to lower his guard. In reality, the ronin were busy that year trying to get the the Asano clan reinstated through conventional, bureaucratic means. Asano's punishment was highly unconventional, and they had a good case. However, when Asano's brother was placed under arrest under "ryuzai" (guilt by blood-relation), they knew it was hopeless and endeavored to complete the vendetta.

    The point, though, is that the 47 ronin, like the bushi of old, endeavored to accomplish something, and were willing to die in order to get that accomplished. Their actions were very much in tune with what the bushi of old wrote. Musashi, for example, writes that (paraphrasing) "Dying's no big thing. Bushi die, women, priests, everyone dies. What distinguishes man of martial arts from others is that he wins." Yamamoto's book, OTOH, gives the impression of admiring death for death's own sake. Guys committing seppuku to atone for some mistake, for example. The guys who'd actually been there and done that looked at death (particularly suicide) as a means of last resort.

    Yamamoto wished to commit "junshi" when his lord died of old age. "Junshi" was suicide to follow the death of a lord. However, for the warrior bushi, junshi was done when your lord fell in battle, and you wished to join him, or when he committed suicide rather than surrender. In the Edo period of Yamamoto's time, however, kabuki and other arts had heavily romanticized this, so that people were doing it whenever their lord died. That was rather ridiculous, which is why the government banned it.

    This is all necessary context to read the Hagakure. Yamamoto may have been of a buke family, but he was a bureaucrat, not a warrior. In a sense, he was very much like Mishima Yukio. When Mishima, a life-long non-combatant who played at being a soldier/warrior, started lecturing actual soldiers about dying for their country, they jeered him off the stage.

    That the Hagakure was a propaganda text of the pre-war nationalists certainly does it no favors. I think one could say there's been something of a backlash against the Hagakure these days. Many of the things Yamamoto writes are less than palatable to western readers, but at first they accept it as a document of a different culture and time. When they find out that he wasn't even a real warrior, they don't want anything to do with it. The Hagakure still has some good stuff in it, I think. One learn from almost anything, and Yamamoto was closer to the warrior age than we are. Still, I think it has to be read with an understanding of its historical context. If one really wants to get insight into the "samurai mindset", Musashi's "Go Rin no Sho" and Yagyu Munenori's "Heiho Kadensho" are far, far superior books.
    Josh Reyer

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    Schoene Greusse,

    Hagakure is an interesting read, and can be instructive - historically, at least - as long as it is viewed in context and not considered to be a tome of Truth in regards to Samurai culture, behavior and practices. It's a fairly small slice (and a very strange one in many ways) of a field of study that spans hundreds of years and several regions of Japan ...

    My problem isn't with hagakure proper, but rather with those who read it and take it as the Bushido Gospel of St. Tsunemoto.
    Chuck Gordon
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    Thanks to everyone for their quick replies!

    None of the objections that you mentioned equated the book with bullshido or ninja kids.
    True but most of the posters who originally raised these criticism basically did it by throwing in derogatory comments.

    So, the main problem I have with Hagakure is that many people read it and think, "Oh, this is exactly what all of the samurai believed. This gives me a total insight into their lives and thought processes." In reality, Hagakure reflects the beliefs of only a tiny minority of the bushi. I suspect that books like Hagakure do much to propagate some of the western misunderstandings of Japanese culture.
    I agree that the Hagakure should be read in context, but how does the fact that many people read it and think "Oh, this is exactly what all of the samurai believed. This gives me a total insight into their lives and thought processes" affect the quality of the book per se? Same goes for western misunderstandings. It is not Yamamotos fault that many people today misinterpret his book. He wrote it for a Japaneese audience, at a time when everyone could see how most of the Samurai actually led their lives.

    Sorry if this post doesn't make much sense, I am tired now and will write more tomorrow. Again thanks for sharing your opinions!
    "The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it."-Marcus Aurelius
    Fabian Känzig

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    Which is also the reason why it isn't such a great book. There are other books that give a better representation of the bushi mindset. E.g.: see the aforementioned works, whose authors are better informed/experienced. Secondly: the role and place of samurai had changed at the time when the Hagakure was written. This can be compared to using the Chanson de Roland at face value as a source about early ninth century chivalry...



    PS: Man kann in dieser Fall nicht reden von einer 'reductio ad Hitlerum/nazismum' (sic!) denn dieses Werk würde tatsächlich durch den faszistischen Regierung misbraucht worden.
    Remi Vredeveldt

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    Quote Originally Posted by Josh Reyer View Post
    Yamamoto's criticism of the Ako Roshi was that by waiting a year, they risked Kira dying of illness or accident, and thus leaving unable to succeed in their vendetta. Of course, Yamamoto was probably working off the popular story of the ronin, in which they waited a year to get Kira to lower his guard...

    Ah, that's right. Thanks for refreshing my memory. And very good points about the contrast between Yamamoto's romanticized attitude towards death vs. the more classical and pragmatic attitude.


    As a side note, Hagakure has done at least one wonderful service for me. Back in college I took a class in which we were having recurring debates on the subject of the death penalty. I was pro-execution, and a friend of mine was staunchly against. After a couple of weeks of futile class debates, I finally brought my copy of Hagakure and read the passage in which he advises that young men volunteer at the execution grounds in order to toughen them up. The look on the face of the leader of the anti-death penalty faction in the class was priceless.
    David Sims

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    My opinion is, in all likelihood, worth exactly what you are paying for it.

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    Which is also the reason why it isn't such a great book. There are other books that give a better representation of the bushi mindset. E.g.: see the aforementioned works, whose authors are better informed/experienced. Secondly: the role and place of samurai had changed at the time when the Hagakure was written. This can be compared to using the Chanson de Roland at face value as a source about early ninth century chivalry...
    But I don't take it as a source about bushi-lifestyle. I take it as a collection of philosophical reflections, thoughts and anecdotes which was its original intention. Btw, I read the aforementioned books, they are fantastic reads. But they are not primarily concerned with the same topic as Hagakure is. They are mainly about fighting and the mindset one should achieve during fight, whereas the Hagakure mainly discusses the ideal mindset and attitude of a bureaucratic Bushi.

    PS: Man kann in dieser Fall nicht reden von einer 'reductio ad Hitlerum/nazismum' (sic!) denn dieses Werk würde tatsächlich durch den faszistischen Regierung misbraucht worden.
    Das ist ja gerade der Punkt. Nur welil die Nazis/ Faschisten irgendwas missbraucht oder untestützt haben bedeutet das nicht unbedingt, dass es falsch ist.
    Wikipedia: the fallacy most often assumes the form of "Hitler (or the Nazis) supported X, therefore X must be evil/undesirable/bad"
    As a side note, Hagakure has done at least one wonderful service for me. Back in college I took a class in which we were having recurring debates on the subject of the death penalty. I was pro-execution, and a friend of mine was staunchly against. After a couple of weeks of futile class debates, I finally brought my copy of Hagakure and read the passage in which he advises that young men volunteer at the execution grounds in order to toughen them up. The look on the face of the leader of the anti-death penalty faction in the class was priceless.
    I am opposed to death penalty but that sounds quite funny
    "The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it."-Marcus Aurelius
    Fabian Känzig

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