Reflections: Hagakure


I’m at the age now where it’s time for me to start being exceptionally boring and read books all day instead of play video games. The caveat of course is that manga technically count as books so I’m still a filthy degenerate. However, I did decide to read something within the realm of non-fiction and that turned out to be ‘Hagakure’. So now I’m sort of ‘reporting in’ on that . I don’t want to call this a book review because I don’t think that there are really any good ways to review non-fiction other than to summarize the points and say what you think. So I’m just calling it a ‘Reflection’ and we’ll leave it at that.

This is the copy that I purchased. Bear in mind as this text is some 300 years old and it has several translations. So I have left the reference as a definitive point that you can trace my reading to. I will be citing the book directly in many parts of this post. However, I’m not going to be able to reference page numbers. I bought the kindle edition because ebook master race. Sue me. Fortunately, the setup is such that it will be easy to direct readers to the source because it’s quite similar to the Bible in that it has ‘Book – Passage’ format.


I was attracted to Hagakure I was looking for a point of reference in what samurai believed. I have loved samurai ever since I was young because swords are cool and (quite frankly) eastern arms just look more badass than western ones. I’m just attracted to swords and samurai armor even though I find them pragmatically weaker than their western counterparts. What I got was a list of, I guess we’d call them maxims or aphorisms as well as anecdotes on Bushidou. Sometimes even contradictory but I suppose that’s the nature of this sort of thing. “All things in moderation”, eh? So, let’s begin with what Bushidou is.

‘Bushidou’ as a codified construct begins its existence in the Tokugawa shogunate. It seems to have been constructed as a means of transitioning a warrior class into the general populace in an era that no longer needs warriors.

A number of military and Confucian scholars started formulating and refining protocols to guide warriors in their peacetime role, which became referred to as “shidou” or “bushidou” – (Hagakure, Introduction)

So if there was a code of Bushidou that existed before this period, it may not have been formalized. And quite frankly, it may have even been changed through this codification to be what the society needed rather than the principles that underlaid it before. The samurai depicted in Hagakure exist as moral guidelines to be imitated. They are meant to have undying loyalty to their lord to the point where all other things are immaterial. I’ll bring it up later but those to become samurai were advised to stay away from buddhism (how can a loyal retainer serve two masters?) and poetry (considered a distraction). And I believe this sort of hits at the core message. Yamamoto Tsunetomo sums up what it means to follow Bushidou quite nicely. “The way of the warrior is to be found in dying”. This seems to be meant both physically and spiritually. I drew many parallels to what I knew of Buddhism but ironically enough Tsunetomo shows much contempt for Buddhism. The Nabeshima clan he served seems to show that contempt, really. So I suspect it’s a clan history thing. I wonder if it has any roots in the Nobunaga shogunate…

The Four Oaths

Tsunetomo describes the Way of the Warrior as aspiring to follow the four oaths. These oaths are:

  1. I will never fall behind others in pursuing the Way of the Warrior.
  2. I will always be ready to serve my lord.
  3. I will honor my parents.
  4. I will serve compassionately for the benefit of others.

(Hagakure, Idle Talk in the Dead of Night)

Even if I had not read these oaths at the beginning of the book, I probably would have picked up at least the last three oaths through reading. The first one kind of slips in. It’s not that it’s not noticeable, it’s just that I never would have worded it that way or taken it to be an oath. But once you know it’s there, it’s hard to ignore. So let’s talk about the oaths.

The First Oath

The first oath is “I will never fall behind others in pursuing the Way of the Warrior”. If we interpret these oaths as being in order of importance, then this would be the most important oath to take. There’s an excellent passage in Hagakure and I do wish that I had taken note of but I feel like at that point I had pretty much gotten the core message and I wasn’t highlighting as much as I used to. I looked through the book twice and couldn’t find it so I’ll quote this one from memory. It’s a quote by Oshou Tannen, I’m like 80% sure. Oshou Tannen was the head priest at a Buddhist temple and he has a few good quips. Anyway, it goes something like this,

“One doesn’t become chief retainer by wanting to become Chief Retainer. But on the other hand, one doesn’t become Chief Retainer if they don’t.”

Chief Retainer is the coveted title of the one that is closest to their lord. Tsunetomo describes it as being the highest ideal for a samurai. I only realized how good this quote was after I began drafting so I’m really saddened by the fact that I could not find it again. Anyway, this is a good quote because it really wraps up all four of the oaths. First, you can’t become the Chief Retainer if you want to be Chief Retainer… for yourself. For the glory, for the stipend. Desiring the position of Chief Retainer for yourself is a betrayal of the four oaths.

A man believed he was owed a generous reward after serving his lord diligently for many years. His friends were quick to offer their congratulations when he received a much-appreciated letter from his lord, but he was to be disappointed. To everybody’s surprise, all he was award was  a small increase in stipend. They continued to rejoice as this was still a welcome reward, but he looked surprisingly dejected. Full of woe he lamented: “I feel so embarrassed, and I find it hard to face you all. I suppose I was of little consequence to my lord after all. I will retire from service and become a recluse.” His close friends consoled him, and persuaded him not to retire.

Yes his attitude clearly demonstrates that his heart was not really in service. His main motivation was self-aggrandizement. It goes without saying that when you receive a reward, or even in the case of demotion from samurai to foot soldier (ashigaru), or if you are ordered to commit seppuku for a crime you did not commit, a hereditary retainer unflinchingly accepts his fate. Saying he was too ashamed to show his face proves that he was an egoist only concerned with his own standing. All warriors should bear this in mind, although it will be beyond comprehension for conceited rogues. – Book 1 – 87

It kind of wraps up oaths two and four. “It is ruinous to follow two Ways. The warrior needs only to train in Bushidou – the Way of the samurai – and seek nothing else” (Book 1 – 139). The retainer in the story was following two masters – himself and his lord. In serving himself, he forgot the core of Bushidou. “The way of the warrior is to be found in dying”. If you are dead, then you have no need for personal wealth. You have no “self” to serve. He wasn’t serving compassionately for others, he was greedy. He wanted wealth for himself.

A samurai is not a true retainer without placing himself in absolute servitude at the feet of his lord, thinking of himself as already dead, like a ghost, always mindful of his lord’s wellbeing from the bottom of his heart, and thinking of sound solutions for the resolution of problems within the domain – Book 1 – 35

This brings us to the first oath – never fall behind others in your pursuit of the Way. If you truly wish to serve your lord, you’ll want that Chief Retainer position because through it you can best serve your lord. You’ve probably seen these people at work, right? They do their job not because they love their job, but because they want the money that comes with it. Work in retail? You know what retail voice is. And you know what else? Everyone else knows what retail voice is too. Customers aren’t fooled by your false sincerity. And this is why the Lord will never promote a selfish bastard to Chief Retainer. Your eyes must be earnest.

There are a series of other passages that may be interpreted this way. I didn’t highlight all of them but I will mention a few I guess.

A samurai should not, in the slightest degree, say or do something faintheartedly. Never forget this. The depth of one’s heart is discernible even through something seemingly inconsequential – Book 1 – 142

You will have no doubt noticed this in life as well. Maybe the cooking isn’t as good as it could be. Maybe the room is ‘clean enough’. This sort of thing is everywhere. This contentedness for something that isn’t done to the best of one’s ability. Hell, I’ve done this on many exams, particularly those in which I did not care for the subject at all *coughWorthlessHumanitiesCoursescough*

According to an old retainer: “A samurai should be excessively obstinate. Anything done in moderation will fall short of your goals. If you feel that you are doing more than is needed, it will be just right.” – Book 1 – 188

A few times, he will note that “Everything done before the age of 40 should be done with all your strength. Only after reaching age 40 should you begin to moderate yourself” (paraphrased).

If you don’t believe, rather audaciously, that you are the singularly most gallant warrior in Japan, it will be difficult to exhibit true valor. The extent of one’s courage is evident in one’s confident attitude. – Book 1 – 47

The Second Oath

The second oath is “I will always be ready to serve my lord.” This one is fairly self-explanatory but it extends beyond this idea of mere subordination. The Lord – Retainer relationship is one that goes both ways. There are several anecdotes in which a retainer expresses very firm discontent, things that may be considered disobedience, yet through disobedience, the lord will come around.

[…] By and large, an ambitious vassal seeks to admonish his lord because it will be thought of as an act of merit, or because he has been coerced by others. A loyal remonstration should be courteous and discrete so that it is received with good grace. If your lord refuses to listen, then do your best to obscure his failings. Take his side as his advocate, and ensure that no rumors arise to defile his name. Often it is the case that retainers become belligerent, and they turn their backs when their lord doesn’t heed their counsel. Making a commotion is the most perfidious kind of behavior for a retainer. – Book 2 – 114

And in the event that your lord ignores your advice (and you still live), you should try to cover up his mistakes.

The gaze of retainers today seems to be very low. Their eyes resemble those of crooks driven by covetousness and cunning. Even if a samurai seems to have spirit, this is merely a feigned exterior. A samurai is not a true retainer without placing himself in absolute servitude at the feet of his lord, thinking of himself as already dead, like a ghost, always mindful of his lord’s wellbeing from the bottom of his heart, and thinking of sound solutions for the resolution of problems within the domain. This is the same for samurai who occupy stations both high and low. He must be completely unflinching in his resolve, even if it falls contrary to the bidding of the gods or Buddha. – Book 1 – 35

I feel like this selection emphasizes what I’m trying to get at above. The retainer’s loyalty is to the good of the lord and the domain.

Aside: This is prime Edo period (During Tokugawa Iemitsu’s reign no less) which creates a structure not unlike that which I remember being taught as Feudalism. What little I currently know about Tokugawa Iemitsu is that he was somewhat paranoid of the Japan his Grandfather Tokugawa Ieyasu unified. He established some rules with the intent of weakening powers in the region (lords) so that they may never challenge him. When I read more about this, I will probably make more comments on it but this is one such policy.

The intent is that when you challenge your lord, you’re challenging your lord because he may be ignorant or naive. Your desire should be that your lord have a long and prosperous reign. You can see the remarks at the beginning where Tsunemoto doubts the loyalties of retainers during his time. This will again go back to the prior section, who do the retainers serve? Themselves? Or their Lords and the domain?

To summarize the essence of samuraihood, first and foremost the warrior must be devoted body and soul to his lord. In addition, he must internalize the virtues of wisdom (chi), compassion (jin), and courage (yū). Although it may seem impossible to embody these three virtues, it really is easy. To nurture wisdom simply requires listening to others. Immeasurable knowledge comes from this. Compassion is for the sake of others. It is opting to do good things for other people rather than through selfish motives. – Book 2 – 7

I selected this because of the last line I’ve copied here. “Compassion is for the sake of others”. This also appears in my kendo manual. You’re asked to contemplate what you wield your sword for, and the idea here is that you wield it for others. This compassion extends not only to your lord, or those in your domain, but even to those you kill on the battlefield. The very first practice you’re taught is Nukitsuke (a draw slash), Kirioroshi (a killing blow dealt to the head), Chiburi (cleaning the blade), and Noto (return the sword to its scabbard). This entire process seems to be very ceremonial and if I’m remembering correctly, part of Kirioroshi is done in compassion for the enemy you’ve wounded. After your draw slash has critically wounded the foe, it is inhumane to allow them to suffer. The killing blow is a stroke of mercy. And I don’t want that quote to come back to me out of context.

Anyway, this section is getting long but the next two are short, I promise.

The Third Oath

The third oath is “I will honor my parents.” Quite frankly, there aren’t that many passages that emphasize this that I made note of. Those that I did make note of were… less than pleasant by modern standards. “The oldest daughter is special, but any others should be discarded.” (Book 2 – 117). This was a different time friends.

In raising a boy, the first priority is to encourage valor. From his youngest days, the child should be taught to respect his father as his lord, as well as matters of protocol and etiquette, service, proper speech, self-control, and even how to walk down a road. Warriors of old did this. If he is lazy, he should be scolded and not fed for a day. This is all training to be a good retainer. – Book 11 – 162

I will probably use those notes in the next post. More details on that at the end of this post.

The Fourth Oath

The fourth (and final) oath is “I will serve compassionately for the benefit of others.” There are quite a few of these examples. This is referenced quite often when it comes working with your lord. The retainer was an extension of the lord. Presumably, the lord wanted to serve his people for the good of the country and to help maintain his position. This post is already plenty long so I’m going to try to limit this section to this one vignette.

When discussing paraphernalia needed for a wedding, one person made the observation: “A koto and shamisen are not included in this list, but we will need them.” Another person remarked curtly, “We don’t need them at all.” This individual made his comments fully aware of the company present, but contradicted himself the following day by stating that the two instruments were in fact essential for weddings after all, and that two of each, of the highest quality, should be acquired. Upon hearing this story, I thought: What a venerable fellow [for admitting he was wrong]. Master Jōchō said to me: “It is wrong to think like that. He acted that way simply to assert his authority. Such conduct is often encountered among outsiders of equivocal loyalty employed in our domain. First of all, it is rude to behave in such a way to a person of higher station; and it does not benefit his lord at all. To an adherent of the Way of the warrior, even if an item is reckoned to be completely unnecessary, correct deportment dictates that one first acknowledge the other person’s assessment, and mention that it can be discussed later on so as to not cause embarrassment. Furthermore, the items in question were actually necessary, so he requested that they be added to the list the next day. This was devious, discourteous behavior that consequently humiliated his colleague publicly, and was very careless.” – Book 1 – 20

So what’s going on here? Quite simply, two men had a disagreement in public. The next day, the instigator acknowledges that he was wrong. Now it’s very important that we acknowledge when we are wrong, so Tsunetomo’s aide Tashiro Tsuramoto (the person actually writing these  things down) says that the belligerent was quite venerable for admitting his mistake. Tsunemoto corrects this naive kid.

The instigator made 3 mistakes. First, the instigator addressed someone of higher status rather rudely. The society at the time, as mentioned earlier was quite similar to that which we would associate with feudalism. So openly ‘confronting’ one’s superiors is not acceptable. Second, he directly contradicted his superior. This is different from what I would consider an ‘indirect contradiction’ which Tsunemoto mentions. “This can be discussed later”. I’ve only read about this so don’t put too much faith in what I’m about to say but it seems that the Japanese really find this to be rude even to this day. So if I were to say “The train station is to the north?” the listener would respond yes even if the train station were to the south. It’s also sort of baked into expressions. So we would say, “Would you like to go to the pool?” and the way it’s said in Japanese is probably closer to  “Won’t you go to the pool?” Peculiar. Anyway, if you do feel strongly about something that you want to admonish the speaker about it, you should do it privately. And third, by acknowledging his mistake, not only did he disrespect his elder, openly contradict them, but he then had to walk all of that back. So what was the point of having that entire argument in the first place?

Now I know you’re asking, where’s the compassion. The whole oath is about compassion for others. Compassion is the lesson learned from this. A little bit of compassion would have benefited everyone. First, the instigator would not have publicly humiliated himself. To have caused such a fuss only to turn around the next day, what a disgrace. Second, the lord would not have been humiliated by the actions of his retainer. Third, the families would not have been humiliated. Lastly, the planner would not have been humiliated. Privately disagreeing might have achieved the desired goal one way or another without anyone having any disgrace. When you act, remember that you represent yourself, your lord, your family, and you don’t want those names dragged through the mud for a moment of passion. Compact your passion into compassion.


First, some foreshadowing. There are some really woke lines in here, or things that I found particularly amusing that didn’t quite find the mould that I was setting up here. So I’ll publish the Hagakure: Woke AF edition… sometime in the future. I do these posts when I feel the urge so it’s unpredictable. I needed to finish this blog post so I could finally focus on the next history book that I want to read. More reflections or summaries to come!

Long story short, I don’t think the life of a Nabeshima samurai is for me. I’m a very selfish person. I’m a capitalist, greed is useful. Greed can be relied upon. If everyone is greedy, everyone is predictable. Tsunemoto mentions that the arts are to be forsaken for a samurai. I enjoy the arts. I enjoy life. And perhaps that is the problem, after all – “The way of the warrior is to be found in dying” (Yamamoto Tsunemoto). Thanks for reading.

Artemis Hunt

Reflections: Hagakure