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Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai    by Yamamoto Tsunetomo order for
by Yamamoto Tsunetomo
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2002 (1981)
Hardcover, Paperback
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This Japanese classic was written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo and translated by William Scott Wilson. Born in 1659, the author was a close retainer of daimyo Nabeshima Mitsushige. On his master's death in 1700, Tsunetomo retired to become a Buddhist priest. The meaning of 'Hagakure' is something like 'hidden leaves'. These reflections, written over a seven year period, are aimed at the samurai class, who would understand their cultural context and historical references. Subject matter varies and I found the the meanings of some of the vignettes obscure - while there are brief Notes at the back of the book, a more detailed commentary would have helped.

Death, and being always prepared for it, is a repeated theme - 'The Way of the Samurai is found in death' - though this is very much in the context of absolute loyalty and service to a lord rather than a general suicidal impulse. Tsunetomo's Buddhism also shows in his view that avoiding thinking about death is worthless, 'a joke within a dream.' There are many accounts of samurai taking each other's and servant's heads, for motivations that were often unclear to me, but seemed to have to do with perceptions of honor.

Another theme (as relevant to the corporate environment today as to a Japanese daimyo's retinue) relates to working with others, giving negative feedback in a way that will be accepted, soliciting broad input, being decisive, and dealing with the argumentative. I like insights like 'People who talk on and on about matters of little importance probably have some complaint in the back of their mind.' And these are pertinent to both corporate and military strategy: 'Win first, fight later', 'Wrap your intentions in needles of pine', and 'Matters of great concern should be treated lightly ... Matters of small concern should be treated seriously'.

Tsunetomo teaches us about manners, e.g. the bad taste of yawning in public, and etiquette - 'The basic meaning of etiquette is to be quick at both the beginning and end and tranquil in the middle.' There are ideas which seem quaint, like attaching bags of cloves to the body to avoid colds, or applying spittle to the ear in times of crisis. A few seem mysoginistic. And there are universal truths, such as 'A person who knows but a little will put on an air of knowledge'; 'Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending'; or one I particularly like, 'Courage is gritting one's teeth'.

While some of Yamamoto Tsunetomo's lessons are easier to take in, or more relevant to modern life, than others, it is well worth delving into Hagakure for the nuggets of wisdom its author garnered in a lifetime of service.

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