Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Evil Book Redeemed: Alexander Bennett's Translation Of The Hagakure

For years, the Hagakure (along with its spiritual cousin, "Bushido: The Soul of Japan") has been the bane of the Samurai Archives. Often taken by neophytes to the study of Japanese history as the 'official training manual of samurai down through time', it has been the indirect cause of much buffoonery and has left a trail of misconceptions in its wake. Many 'modern sammyrai' claiming to follow its tenets turn out to have never read the book at all, instead quoting heavily from sensationalistic (and often out-of-context) passages reprinted ad nauseam by pop culture books-the most notorious being the mantra "The Way of the Samurai is Found in Death". Recently we were given the opportunity to look at Tuttle Publishing's new translation: "Hagakure, The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai" by Alexander Bennett, a Ph.D currently teaching Japanese history and society as an Associate Professor at Kansai University. Bennett is also a proficient martial artist (among other things, Vice President of the International Naginata Federation and Editor of "Kendo World" magazine). That's an interesting and rarely seen blend of scholarship and practical experience with traditional Japanese martial arts, with perhaps Karl Friday being the only other prominent example-and not coincidentally, Friday highly recommended the book. This recommendation, along with Bennett's background, was enough to convince us that it was finally time to face the Evil Book head-on and see if it deserved the reputation (either good or bad) that it has acquired over the years. 

Before we examine Bennett's translation, it would be helpful to give some background on the authors of the original text. As Bennett explains, Yamamoto Tsunetomo was born in 1659 and was a retainer of the Saga domain in Kyushu ruled by the Nabeshima. While extremely feeble and sickly as a boy, through hard work and determination he managed to overcome his frail constitution. At the age of 14 he was made a page of the Lord at the time (Nabeshima Mitsushige) but was dismissed from service for being complicit in the Lord's son's fixation with poetry. Using this time to educate himself in matters of Buddhism and Confucianism, he was reemployed by the domain at age 24. His 'greatest exploit' came in 1700 when he managed to locate and procure an extremely rare text (the 'Kokin-denju', a commentary on a renowned book of poetry) after an extensive search and raced back to Saga just in time to deliver it to his Lord before his passing. When Mitsushige died, Tsunetomo wished to follow him in death (known as 'junshi') as was sometimes done in previous eras; however, both his domain and the Tokugawa government had passed laws forbidding this. Instead, he took up the tonsure, taking the Buddhist name Jocho and retired to Kurotsuchibaru. It was here that he was sought out by a younger Nabeshima clansman named Tashiro Tsuramoto. Tsuramoto had been relieved of duty in 1709 and in 1710 began to visit Jocho for counsel. In 1716, he compiled the conversations with Jocho into the first copy of the Hagakure. While there have been several different variants of the Hagakure published through the year, Bennett has chosen the Kohaku version as it is generally considered to be the one closest to the lost original. His translation covers the entirety of the the first two books (the first time this has been done in English), the ones that were filled exclusively with Jocho's material. A third chapter covers selections from books 3-11, which contained material Tsuramoto gathered from other sources as well as vignettes possibly from Jocho. Each chapter has extensive footnotes which provide a wealth of cultural and explanatory material. 

By far, the most impressive part of the book for us was Bennett's introductory chapter-"Hagakure in Context". It puts the Hagakure into its proper historical and social setting as well as examining 'bushido' (interestingly, Bennett notes that the term 'bushido' first appeared in the 'Koyo Gunkan', a treatise on Takeda Shingen written by a former retainer) with a critical eye and a look at how Jocho's life experiences and psychology is reflected in the work-and does so elegantly and brilliantly. This translation is well worth picking up just on the strength of this chapter. From the somewhat vague symbolism of the title (is Hagakure-literally 'hidden by leaves'-a reference to a poem by Buddhist scholar Saigyo Hoshi? Perhaps just a simple reference to the hermitage where the meetings between Jocho and Tsuramoto took place? Or a reference to one of the book's recurring themes, serving from behind the scenes?) to the appropriation of the book for various agendas by both 20th century Japanese and Westerners, Bennett examines the book from a variety of angles. Bennett states that the book is vastly misunderstood both inside and outside Japan, and perhaps that is why Jocho encouraged Tsuramoto to burn it upon completion (to prevent it from being read by those who could never understand the spirit in which it was written). 

Bennett shows how Jocho was bitter at the "disintegration of warrior norms over previous decades", "anti-Shogunate sentiment", had a nostalgic longing for the previous regimes and decried how young samurai "talk of money, about profit and loss, their household financial problems, taste in fashion, and idle chatter of sex". At one point in the book, Jocho flatly states that there are "no good men". However, Bennett also shows how Jocho realized that the nature of service had changed in the time of peace and a good retainer had to change as well. This passion for the older days mixed with Jocho's call for a new type of service based on loyalty and dedication to duty rather than martial valor resulted in many apparent contradictions within the book, including some of its most famous passages. Should a vassal rush headlong into danger, or should he seek a more peaceful alternative? Does one persistently correct the Lord and let him know when he is wrong, or does one carry out the letter of his commands unquestioningly? You should always follow out the Lord's commands, except when you don't. While mastering an art is detrimental to the way of the samurai, when can its study actually be beneficial? There are passages that seem to exhort the virtues of each. Bennett demonstrates how many of these can be explained away by Jocho's splitting one's service as a youth and as an adult-as well as how one's position inside the hierarchy of the samurai chain of command affected one's actions. Indeed, it shows how the Hagakure was an excellent microcosm of the identity crisis of Edo period samurai-how to keep the virtues of a warrior society alive in a time where they were no longer used? This is perhaps best shown in Jocho's criticism of the Ako Ronin, a group that itself exemplified how martial values no longer fit into Edo society. 

As interesting as Hagakure's contemporary setting was, Bennett's examination of how it emerged into the world of the 20th century with its first out-of-domain printing in 1906 (contrary to popular belief, it was virtually unknown outside of a select few in Saga domain before then) is even more so. Does Hagakure represent a 'mystical beauty intrinsic to the Japanese aesthetic experience', or is it a 'text that epitomizes all that is abhorrent in terms of mindless sacrifice, as well as a loathsome depreciation of the value of life and blind obedience to authority'? Invented tradition? A window into the complex ethics of the Tokugawa world? Or simply the 'seditious ramblings of a disgruntled curmudgeon'? 

A careful reading of Hagakure will reveal elements of all of these. But at its heart, Bennett believes it can be summed up by four simple oaths Jocho repeats throughout the text (none of which involve finding the way of the samurai in death): 

-Never lag behind others in the Way of the Warrior

-Be ready to be useful to one's Lord 

-Honor one's parents 

And the final one-a point which is noticeably absent from oft-reprinted quotes of the Hagakure, but which fills the book with its spirit: 

-Serve for the benefit of others with a heart of great compassion 

All precepts whose underpinning philosophy is as applicable to today as it was in 1710. 

What does Jocho see as the essence of being a samurai? According to Book 2/7, it to devotion in both body and soul to his Lord, along with the virtues of wisdom, benevolence, and courage. In other sections he outlines that devotion is the only way for a samurai of his times to be recognized since martial valor is no longer an option-an eminently practical attitude. Wisdom comes from listening to others. Benevolence is for the sake of others. And courage goes back to the 'found in death' idea (more on that later). Proper grooming, speech, and handwriting are also important. Again, all very practical concepts for finding success in the Edo period. 

Reading Hagakure reinforces much of the recent scholarship being done on samurai of the Edo period. For example, Luke Roberts's concepts of 'omote' and 'uchi'-basically 'surface' and 'beneath the surface'-is a common theme in Hagakure. Jocho stresses often that it is better to forgive the failings of others, especially social inferiors, even making excuses for them rather than criticize them harshly. In essence, while their failures are recognized ('uchi'), they are politely papered over and ignored ('omote'). This allows that person to retain their pride, forestall resentment, and encourage them to become better for next time. Avoiding conflict is stressed to be every bit as important as ending it swiftly when it does happen. 

That Jocho has a realistic view of the world is confirmed in Book 2/18: "Current trends cannot be stopped...any desire to return to the 'good old days' of a hundred years ago is futile. Accordingly, it is important to try and improve the ways of the present. It is for this reason that men who hold a nostalgic view of the past are misguided". He goes on to state that the customs and traditions of old should still be kept in mind in order to differentiate between core principles and minor details. While Jocho saw the value in remembering the past, he didn't seem to promote living there. 

Even the oft-quoted 'The Way of the Samurai is found in death' takes on a new meaning when read in its proper context. Bolied down to its core, it says to simply do your best in everything and approach every situation fearlessly as if it is your last day on earth-to not hold back out of a fear of dying or failing. It's not necessarily about rushing head-on alone into a nest of bandits determined to die a glorious death-although it COULD be, and forms the basis for Jocho's criticism of the 47 Ronin (that their calculating manner showed too much concern for their own safety rather than performing the task at hand). 

And aside from the cultural and historical aspects of Jocho's work (and the tales of others in books 3-11), the stories have a good deal of entertainment value-they're often charming and fun to read. You'll learn how a good samurai should always be able to perform at least one action after his head has been cut off-hey, wasn't Nitta Yoshisada able to bury his own body after being decapitated (more realistically, this is simply an exhortation to fight to one's dying breath)? Samurai grew mustaches to ensure a head taken was that of a man and not a woman-no slain samurai would want their head discarded, after all! 18 foot long giant snakes show up. Discussions of how to attack gaijin in Nagasaki harbor (in the wake of an unscheduled 1673 visit by English ships) are laid out in a detailed battle plan. Giving bodyguards progressively larger swords as a training tactic is examined. There's a tale of how a wily woman made herself sexually unattractive to even that horndog of note Toyotomi Hideyoshi. For more womanly hijinks, we read the saga of how a woman marched her man into battle after he had been beaten up by three farmers. Jocho even comments on his own situation, stating that everyone over 60 is senile (although he would have been around 50-55 at the time) and that applies to him. Drunken lords, seppuku, stupid samurai, liars, poseurs, harlots, and even Jocho's thoughts regarding Shudo (male homosexuality, usually between an older samurai and a younger charge-Jocho advocates "secret love", an internal burning love for another that is never revealed, thus allowing one to devote his energies to service) all make for good reading. They're also all short, usually just a paragraph or two, making this a good book to pick up and read passages at random or when you only have a few minutes. Again, the insights given by Jocho and others into what it was to be an Edo period samurai-along with a look at the culture and values of the day-are varied and extensive. 

Also available from Tuttle are recently republished versions of two Thomas Cleary books that likewise examine the thoughts of influential Edo period intellectuals and swordsmen on the changing roles of samurai and the ethics of a time of peace. While Cleary's historical notes for the collections are not as strong as Bennett's (in some cringe-worthy examples, he states Oda Nobunaga converted to Christianity and forced all his vassals to do the same and that Takeda Shingen never lost a battle), the translations he does are excellent. "Soul of the Samurai: Modern Translation of Three Classic Works of Zen & Bushido" collects Monk Takuan's (who we covered in an earlier article on the Shogun-ki) "The Inscrutable Subtlety of Immovable Wisdom" and "Tai-A-Ki: Notes on the Peerless Sword" along with daimyo/swordmaster Yagyu Munenori's "Martial Arts: The Book of Family Traditions". "Samurai Wisdom: Lessons from Japan's Warrior Culture" goes a step further with no less than five translated texts: Confucian scholar Yamaga Soko's "The Way of the Knight (Samurai)", "The Education of Warriors", and the "Primer of Martial Education", his son Takatsune's "Essentials of Military Matters" and Tsugaru Kodo-shi's (a grandson of Soko's) "The Warrior's Rule". These books provide a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of Edo period samurai and their struggles to retain the skills of war while remaining relevant in a time of peace, and they're also easily affordable. 

Now, as to using these books as a blueprint for one's own life in the modern world-while they do embody certain universal values and you can certainly learn from then, you'd be far better served (in our opinion) picking up a work that was written with modern values, culture, and mores than using something written for a centuries old culture. The samurai and monks who wrote these treatises certainly realized that living in the past was no solution and that they needed to adapt to the times-and perhaps that is the most valuable lesson to be learned from these works. 

Until recently we never thought that anything positive could come out of a study of the Hagakure, but Alexander Bennett's translation and historical acumen have changed all that. Put in its proper context, the book is an excellent tool for a look into what being an Edo period retainer was all about-from the high to the low, from the old to the young, and the changing roles assumed as one went through life. And Yamamoto's stories and anecdotes make for delightful reading on their own. The legendary Evil Book has been redeemed, and can now be appreciated for the insight it brings to the world of the warrior during the Edo period. 

The Hagakure is available through the SA Store via Amazon or directly through Tuttle Publishing.