On Hagakure or Hagakure Nyuman in Japanese (Introduction to Hagakure in English) is Yukio Mishima’s 1967 take on Jocho Yamamoto’s (1659-1791) Samurai ethics, which was written down by one of his followers and is known as The Hagakure, which means ‘Hidden among the leaves’. In this text the views of Yamamoto were set down and came to influence Traditional Japan for around three hundred years. The most famous saying within the text is ‘I found that the Way of the Samurai is death’.
The book is split into four major parts, and then an appendix. The first part is that of the Prologue, which is sub-titled Hagakure and I. In this part Mishima lays out how he came to know of the Hagakure while he was young during the war, and how at the time he always had it by his bedside or on his desk. He also lays out how after the war the book was banned and looked upon as old, outdated and barbarous. It was the book of a fanatic, and in modern materialistic Japan, this was evil. He explains how through this darkness when the book was banned, its true and beautiful light began to shine and light up the world for him. He uses the sentence ‘the Way of the Samurai is death’ to suggest that the book is nuanced, and seems paradoxical, but within this paradoxical way, the book is a profound gem. Although it preaches that the way of the Samurai is death, Mishima states that this book and the teachings contained within it gave him the strength to live.
He also shares with us an article he wrote in 1955, which is twelve years before this book, where he expresses that the core principal of the Hagakure was the man of action’s belief in expediency: to do things properly, regardless of whether viewed as right or wrong, and that this is a rejection of extreme refinement of any kind. To do things properly, to be a doing man, a man of action is to see and concentrate on death not as a tragedy, but as the last inch and part of a full circle about to complete its journey. He also explains how Jocho wished to commit ritual suicide when his Lord died, but the laws at the time made this illegal. Being a man of action and doing things properly, he shaved his head and became a priest and died a natural death – thus he devoted his life to something else, he made the shrine his lord, being spiritual became his warrior ethic, and in this he did it properly according to his ethic.
Mishima then goes into how the Hagakure was like a womb that gave birth to his literary career. Without it he would not have been able to write with such flowing abundance. He considered the Hagakure as an infinite womb of passionate expression. This combined way of the scholar and the warrior is what led Mishima to become a man of action in the last ten years of his life, which led him to ritual suicide. He became a body builder, a martial artist, and began to express his literary self in a different way, concentrating on tradition and being a man of action and doing things properly. This was later expressed in his book ‘Sun and Steel‘ in 1968, one year after this book, and shortly after his military training which led him to form his own private military organisation The Tatenokai (the shield society), and two years before his ritual suicide. He ends this section of the book by expressing how important the Hagakure is to him, and that without its constant criticism, its icy beauty, its way of making him stronger, he would not be who he became. The Hagakure had made his life difficult, but had made him a better and stronger person in general through this difficulty.
The second part of the book is titled My Hagakure, and is sub-titled Hagakure is Alive Today. This part goes into the sections of the Hagakure that Mishima thought were most important to his own life, giving personal examples of how these teachings can be expressed through his own experiences. He begins with Jocho’s condemnation of men in his own time. How when they gather they speak of money, or sex stories, instead of making each other better men and better Samurai. They had fallen into debasement. Mishima gives the example of the view of fashion, and how he would be approached by men in clubs asking where he got his clothes from, as if that’s of some great importance. To be so audacious about fashion, instead of being audacious about life itself, is to deny your own masculinity. In the same vein of thinking, it is said that men often strike him as female, rather than outwardly male.
Jocho also complains that Samurai of his time set their sights so low, concerned about food, money and sex, instead of the life of their master and how to die properly. Food, money and sex are simply low level needs, but the Samurai must offer up something much more self-actualising: the living for something greater, a master. and be able to push his own reputation and needs aside in order to honour that tradition and honour one’s master. In a way modern men are acting like Ronin (A Samurai who’s master has died or been disgraced), instead of killing themselves honourably because their life has failed to have meaning, they carry on walking down the path of desolation and debasement without seeing the problem: but this way of living according to tradition, is not even to live, or to die, it is to be a hollow shell of a man. A Samurai on the other hand knows how to live, and knows how to die, thus the Samurai lives to die, but with this end goal he truly lives.
This denial of Samurai living is what results in men not being able to live beautifully, nor to die horribly. The prime essences of existence, that of beauty and horror, are being denied. Which is why one must live to die, one must follow the path to death to live. If your reputation means nothing to people whether you live or die, it is better to carry on living in order to build honour, and then die as an honourable Samurai. There is a contradiction in that if you choose to live beautifully and seek to die beautifully, you will choose to live, but if you live horribly and choose to die horribly, you will choose to die. In a life or death situation, it is better to choose death. There is nothing to it, just proceed. In that sense a horrible death can be beautiful, thus suggesting the paradoxical nature of the Samurai ethic.
He then moves onto a subject which western culture has a very hard time grasping. That of what true love is considered to be in a culture like Japan’s. Love in the west is something we profess to, we tell people, we tell the person we love and we announce it with proposals, marriage and children. While in the Hagakure true love is that which is never spoken of. It doesn’t need to be stated nor told to the object of our love, because through our honourable actions and sense of duty it is clear. By confessing within ourselves that love, instead of sharing it with the world with a profession, it is cultured and grows. In this sense one must die for love without professing it, and this death makes the love pure and more intense, and this is considered ideal love in the Hagakure. A worthy comparison is that of duty. It is certainly good that you consider and follow your duty, but if your duty was to bring your life to an end and you knew that one day that would be so, that duty would become more intense, refined, pure and ideal. If we are willing to die for our duty, our duty itself will hold a tension which makes that duty much more than mere duty. In the same light love, while going towards death, is much more than mere love. It is pure love.
In a similar way the Hagakure is considered a type of medicine for the modern way of living. Medicine both means to cure and to poison. Poison can cure you of life, yet being cured can poison your life, and vice versa. The Hagakure will cure you, Mishima says, of your peaceful life, and through this it will bring you death. In cultures where you are too comfortable, the ability to work or be masculine is dwindling. The modern world requires being poisoned in order to cure it of its materialistic and soulless malady. Though poisoning the body harms it and goes towards death, the soul is soothed and cured.
The modern world is suppressing inside us one side of the contradictions that make us human, but not the other. For example, it is suppressing the urge to die and surrender ourselves to something bigger than us, but not the urge to be free and rebel. With this the youth are attracted to socialism for freedom’s sake and the sake of rebellion which the youth loves, but with this comes the result of never being pleased. By making headway towards socialism they will never be satisfied, because no real death struggle is happening. There is nothing real to rebel against, there is nothing to surrender to, so as we live as freely as possible we become bored with living and being free. Mishima then points out that the way Christianity conducted itself when it was oppressed was exactly why it succeeded: the youth wanted something meaningful to die for, and Christianity offered that meaningful death which made living as a Christian beautiful and filled it with meaning. In the same way that Rome worked to protect its own people and to conquer the foreign to bring peace to its own people, the frontier guards had found a goal worth dying for: peace in Rome, and that peace was obtained by those frontier guards who were willing to die and go to war.
In modern Japan at the time of Mishima it was illegal according to their post world war II constitution to have a working army. From this the whole of the Japanese identity was being denied the human ability to have the urge to die and surrender to something bigger, thus the Japanese became obsessed with the urge to be free and rebel. With this comes a one sided humanity, who is only half of a true human being. We are living as one side of a contradictory nature, but not the other which balances us out. Or to say it in other words: modern man is allowed to be female, while the male is banned. To be a Samurai is to live towards death and surrender to your lord, in the same way, modern Japan has made it illegal to be a Samurai. This denial of the Japanese identity and tradition is why it is meaningless and materialistic.
Then Mishima writes poetically about how modern man does not forget that death exists, but avoids it all together. This sounds like Martin Heidegger (18898-1976), the German Philosopher of Phenomenology, who thought that when one forgets death (or at least pretends to) you take away a core essence of life. Mishima says very similar things when he talks about how old people die in their hospital beds, and more people have been killed by traffic accidents than in the great war Japan waged against Russia. Yet, we will not ponder death and think that to do so is wrong or morbidly obsessive. But, for Mishima and Heidegger, to ponder death daily is to ponder life profoundly. When we do our work and think about how we may die today, our work is transformed into something more radiate and brimming with life. By placing a veil over the face of death, which looks upon our life unceasingly, waiting to gobble it up at any moment, we do not know how to live, for we do not know how to die, or what it means to face death and to die.
The third part is titled The Forty-eight Vital Principles of Hagakure, and sub-titled Hagakure and Its author, Jocho Yamamoto. He explains how the Hagakure came about, how Jocho lived his life, and how a younger scribe came to visit him called Tsuramoto Tashiro, who noted down all of his teachings which became the Hagakure. He then describes the Hagakure as three philosophies: a philosophy of action, a philosophy of love, and a philosophy of living. It is a philosophy of action through its concentration on death and making a man of action. It is a philosophy of love because Japan at the time did not separate the concept of love by romance and the Platonic, thus love always led to loyalty and duty, and the highest loyalty and duty is to your master, your emperor and nation, and thus the highest ideal of love is your duty and loyalty towards the highest ideal of authority: your master. It is a philosophy of living because life and death are two sides of the same shield, and thus by concentrating on death one can truly live, and live properly.
He then goes through the forty-eight vital principles of the Hagakure, and adds his own interpretation. These subjects include women, nihilism, how to run your life, make decisions, how to have proper behaviour at a dinner or drinking party, growing old, adversary, how to never utter a word of weakness or cowardice, pride, dignity, valour, how to set up a meeting, and much more. With each subject there are principles of the Hagakure where Jocho expresses himself on that subject, and then before this or after this Mishima has written his own thoughts on these principles, with examples or explanations.
The fourth and final part before the appendix is titled How to read Hagakure, and sub-titled The Japanese Image of Death. Mishima expresses the fact that Japanese culture has a long history of being grimly aware of death, and this has informed the way they live. It is not considered something so much to fear, as something to find a pool of inspiration and living from. Death is like a doorway into a large body of pure water, from which small amounts of pure water pour through into life. The subject of the Kamikaze pilots of world war II is addressed. How they died is put forward as an ideal form of Hagakure, yet if we look into each pilot individually or as individuals we would come up with excuses to say it wasn’t: coercion and so on.
Which leads Mishima to state that there is no distinction in Hagakure between chosen death and obligatory death. What he means by this is that when it comes down to it, one cannot truly choose death because we would also be able to reason ourselves out of it, because that is how a living being works. When it comes to a life or death situation, it is impossible to choose by reason death, but it is not impossible to die or accept that death as a living action, rather than a reasoned choice. When he says choose death, he means that when it comes to a situation where you could live or die, it is surely better to be the kind of person who would pick death and fulfil life by completing it. Even if one was to fail in one’s objective and die, it would not be considered a waste according to Hagakure.
This relates to the Kamikaze pilots because after the war, their sacrifice was considered wrong and something to be ashamed of: a waste. But by considering their deaths a waste, you have dishonoured those who honoured you with their death. When Mishima spoke to the youth of his time, he noticed that they would say they are not willing to die for the Vietnamese war because they do not agree with it, but they would be willing to die for a cause they believed in. This is because what they believe in is what they believe to be Just. But again, one cannot choose to die in order to be just, because one does not possess the standard for choosing death. In this we can see a type of nihilism in Jocho’s Hagakure. He goes on to say: ‘The fact that we are alive may mean that we have already been chosen for some purpose, and if life is not something we have chosen for ourselves, then maybe we are not ultimately free to die.’ (P.93)
In this sense no death is in vain, and no way in which you can die is in vain. Be and train yourself to be the type of man in the future to make the swift action towards death with no choice at all. In this pure act of action, one can choose death. To say that one died in vain is to calculate in a way which dishonours yourself and the one who died. With this strong imperative to action, a man can transcend the apparent adversary between life and death, uniting both in a glorious moment of summation where life and death merge and express the truth and reality of existence. This leads Mishima to his most beautiful statement in this entire book: ‘We tend to suffer from the illusion that we are capable of dying for a belief or theory. What Hagakure is insisting is that even a merciless death, a futile death that bears neither flower nor fruit, has dignity as the death of a human being. If we value so highly the dignity of life, how can we not also value the dignity of death? No death may be called futile.’ (P.94), and with this beautiful thought provoking statement, this fourth part of the book ends.
The next and final section of the book is titled Appendix, and sub-titled Selected Words of Wisdom from Hagakure. As is clear from the title, this part is a collection of sayings from the Hagakure of Jocho, and isn’t put alongside Mishima’s interpretation, but they are selected by Mishima in order to represent the Hagakure and give the reader a glimpse of the gem that it is.