The “light and shadow” of the way of the warrior (bushidō) as portrayed in the “Hagakure”
Until the discovery of the Yoshinogari ruins, the one historical artefact that made Saga prefecture famous was the “Hagakure”. Even now, people from Saga prefecture take particular pride in what might be termed the “Hagakure spirit”. The Hagakure was written by a samurai of Saga province, Tashiro Matazaemon Tsuramoto, who paid visits to a retired retainer of the province by the name of Yamamoto Jinaemon Tsunetomo (born in 1659), and recorded what Yamamoto told him. Never was a work so suited to the times in which it was written. The basic teaching of the Hagakure is “The way of the warrior is to be prepared for death”. In other words, the way of the warrior means not to fear death, or else be prepared to die for the sake of loyalty. Whether this is true or not is beside the point, and is not that strange in itself, however why did the Hagakure concentrate on “death”? This emphasis is in part a reflection of the character of the book's narrator, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, and other questions that the times dictated. (pg.34)
A way of acting without embarrassing oneself
Tsunetomo, upon the death of the provincial ruler Nabeshima Mitsushige in 1700 (Genroku 13), took the tonsure (became a lay priest) and went into retirement. The Bakufu had already banned the practice of “junshi” (committing suicide upon the death of one's master). On the death of Mitsushige's father Katsushige, 28 samurai of Saga province had followed their master into the afterlife, yet following the death of Mitsushige none chose that path. Rather, Tsunetomo became the only one of his peers to take the tonsure and retire, for which he was held in veneration by those around him. To a young Tashiro Tsuramoto, Tsunetomo said the following…
“The warriors of today all seem to be lax in their behaviour. The reason for this is lies in the fact that if you ask them “what is the way of the warrior?”, none can give you an immediate answer”.
When Tsuramoto's expression conveyed surprise at this response, Tsunetomo continued…
“The way of the warrior is to be prepared for death”.
People prefer life to death; they do not want to die. And the more they want to live, the more cowardly their behaviour becomes, the more they embarrass themselves and in the end they are forced to committ seppuku (ritual suicide). However, those who act while being prepared to die are resolute in their decisions, and even if they find themselves in difficulty they take appropriate action. That was Tsunetomo's lesson. (pg.35)
Almost one hundred years had passed since the end of the era of the warring states. Warriors, rather than dying on the battlefield, had come to prefer dying on a tatami mat. Yet a warriors' logic and behaviour were supposed to be those of fighters. They would get themselves caught up in meaningless fights and die as a result, or else they would be ordered to commit seppuku on the slightest of pretexts. In a time such as this, “the way of the warrior is the way of death” had a ring to it that certainly seemed true. (pg.36)
Yet if you read the entire “Hagakure”, you realise that Tsunetomo was not merely recommending that a warrior embrace death. Instead he spends a lot of his time explaining how a warrior should behave so that he does not embarrass himself. For example, Tsunetomo places a lot of emphasis on spur-of-the moment situations. If you are asked to overpower someone you meet while on the road and you are unable to do so, if you shout “what a hopeless case, are you going to run away?” at your opponent you will keep your dignity. If you are insulted by someone while in your lord's household and your opponent draws his sword, do not draw your sword, but instead send word to the watchman of the following: “Inform our lord, that in deference to the household, of how great my patience is in bearing this insult”. If you do this ahead of time, then you will not be branded a coward.(pg.36)
The contradiction of issuing a reproach (towards one's lord)
Issuing a reproach towards one's lord in order to correct their mistake was, according to Tsunetomo, not something that a lowly ranked samurai should do. This was instead to be performed by an advisor. If you had something you wanted to tell your lord, you first had to approach one of the lord's advisors and tell him your concerns. In Tsunetomo's view, it was preferable that one shut one's mouth and perform one's duty until one became an advisor. Yet for warriors, if they thought their lord was making a mistake, then it was surely preferable to issue a reproach given that one was risking one's life. Even if it wasn't one's place, it was not something that you could entrust to another person to say on your behalf. (pg.36)
Of course, a reproach is not something you can do half-heartedly, yet by “acting as though one were already dead”, aren't you already doing something half-heartedly? Tsunetomo's way of thinking was thus very convenient for one's lord.
So the idea that the “way of the warrior is the way of death” means that a warrior is supposed to give up on logic and choose the path in which there is a high probability that he will die. So even if you die without achieving your aim, at least you have not shamed yourself. These are, admittedly, quite careless words. The “carelessness” or irresponsibility of the Hagakure, or adopting a position whereby you cease thinking about your actions, was highly praised during the Second World War. And of course it was. In a war in which thinking about your actions would lead to questions, soldiers who didn't think and who would “quickly die and be done with” became a necessity. (pg.37)
So the “Hagakure war of the warrior”, which dictated that one should accept the above philosophy without questioning its validity and that those lower on the social scale should just follow along, was very convenient for those higher on the social ladder. And yet the original purpose of “bushidō” was not that contained in the Hagakure. (pg.37)