Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Hagakure or “In the shadow of the leaves” by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659-1720), placed great importance on a samurai’s commitment to death.  The sentence, “Bushido is a way of dying,” is often said to summarize the work’s central theme.  One of its most famous lines also expresses this sentiment quite clearly: “In a fifty-fifty life-or-death crisis, simply settle it by choosing immediate death.  There is nothing complicated about it.  Just brace yourself and proceed.”  But Tsunetomo also called for complete loyalty and service to one’s lord without any consideration for one's self.

Hagakure consists primarily of stories about samurai and commentaries on these stories, which Tsunetomo dictated to a fellow samurai.  Hagakure was not widely known after it was written, except perhaps in Tsunetomo’s own Saga domain.  During the twentieth century it gained a great deal of popularity with the rise of militarism and nationalism in the 1930s.  It was even said that kamikaze pilots wrote down verses from the Hagakure on a piece of cloth and tied it around their heads before their missions.  The Japanese novelist Mishima Yukio was also extremely interested in Hagakure.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo
Yamamoto Tsunetomo is also known as Yamamoto Jocho, the name he took after retiring and becoming a monk.  Prior to his retirement, Tsunetomo served as a samurai of Saga domain.  When his lord died he wanted to follow him even in death by committing seppuku, a practice known as junshi.  However, as part of the larger effort to maintain peace and order in Tokugawa society the Tokugawa shogunate had banned the practice of junshi several years earlier.  Prevented from following his lord in death Tsunetomo eventually decided to renounce his worldly life, become a monk, and live “in the shadow of the leaves.”  He was disgusted by what he saw as the erosion of the samurai ethic and spirit during peacetime, and in this sense Hagakure can be read as a protest against what some have called “the taming of the samurai.”

English Translations
Perhaps because Hagakure is considered a “bushido classic,” there are a number of English translations or partial translations of this work available.  Four of these translations have been listed below.

Hagakure, in Legends of the Samurai, translated by Hiroaki Sato (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1995)

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai translated by William Scott Wilson (Tokyo: Kodansha International; New York: Harper & Row, 1979)

The Hagakure: A Code to the Way of Samurai (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1980)

The Wisdom of Hagakure: Way of the Samurai of Saga Domain translated by Stacey B. Day (Saga, Japan: Hagakure Society, 1994)