The astrophysicist Carl Sagan famously called writing “perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs.” “Books,” he said, “break the shackles of time.” In that sense, reading “Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai” lets the reader escape into Japan’s feudal past for a chat with a warrior.

Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo Translated by Alexander Bennett.
TUTTLE, Nonfiction.
Rating: ★★★★★

It’s been 138 years since one of the last symbols of samurai power, the wearing of swords, was outlawed, marking the outward dissolution of the caste itself.

Yet the collective memory of centuries of warrior rule feels both distant and fresh. Although the samurai made up only a small segment of the population, their ethos has since been soldered onto the national identity.

Today, Japan’s football team is popularly known as “Samurai Blue,” and images of sword-wielding warriors often appear in advertising and popular culture. Despite those 138 years, the tinge of samurai etiquette, societal structure and philosophy in quotidian Japanese life persists.

The path to a better understanding of this martial facet of the culture invariably passes through a well-known but often misunderstood treatise called “Hagakure” (“Hidden by Leaves”), by Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

Beginning in 1710, Yamamoto, who took the name Jocho after becoming a monk, dictated this fascinating mix of vignettes and philosophy to Tashiro Tsuramoto, his junior clansman. Both men were retainers of the Hizen domain, present-day Saga Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu.

Now, working from a copy of the original manuscript made by Tashiro’s contemporary, Kamohara Kohaku, Alexander Bennett has produced a new and exacting English translation. It is the first to contain the complete parts one and two of Hagakure’s 11 books—the only ones believed to have come exclusively from Yamamoto.

Asked about the five-year process of translating from classical Japanese, Bennett jokes that “the way of translating Hagakure is to be found in dying,” a reference to the famous line, “The Way of the warrior is to be found in dying.”

An associate professor at Kansai University, Bennett teaches martial arts and Japanese history. He also holds the kendo teaching rank of Kyoshi 7-dan and wrote the 2013 book “Nihonjin no Shiranai Bushido” (“The Bushido That Japanese Don’t Know”) in Japanese. He called the Hagakure translation process “incredibly complex.”

“The hardest aspect was trying to contextualize the information and read between the lines to try to ascertain at what level of samurai each vignette was directed” he added. “At first it seems chaotic, but there is actually a method to the madness once you get stuck into it.”

The writer Yukio Mishima, who committed seppuku (samurai ritual disembowelment) in 1970 and greatly admired Hagakure, said of Tashiro’s roll in the text, “the sharp sensitivity and editorial skill of the listener, in other words, the transcriber, are extremely significant.” Translation, too, is a kind of transcription, and to that end Bennett has participated in the work by painstakingly shedding light on its darker corners.

It becomes easy to imagine a rustic hut in the woods, with Tashiro taking dictation as Yamamoto steadily adds detail to his image of the ideal warrior:

“Strength of will aligns your words and deportment with the Way. You will be commended by others as being a true adherent. When inquiring into your own heart there is the last phrase of a poem that goes, ‘How will you reply when your own heart asks questions?’ This is the ultimate teaching for all arts, and it is a fine regulator of one’s behavior.”

Taking the form of maxims, history lessons featuring prominent figures or anecdotes involving everyday folk, such passages have a slow, cumulative magic, gradually sketching in the milieu that shaped this man and his view that fealty and service, even in death, are the defining marks of a warrior’s life.

Another strong point is a scholarly and succinct introduction that grounds the work in historical and social context, equipping the reader with a cultural map of Yamamoto’s world.

Footnotes provide valuable background and add resonance throughout, keeping names and familial relations straight, highlighting pertinent cross-references and generally rendering the work accessible to contemporary readers.

“At first I had a bit of a cynical take on it, to be honest,” said Bennett. “But the deeper in I went, the more intriguing and beautiful it became. It felt almost like a conversation, as though I was interviewing Yamamoto in my mind. Eventually I came to appreciate this very profound piece of the heritage of the human experience.” Hagakure will always remain a challenging work; at times contradictory and violent, it urges us to ponder our mortality in order to live more meaningfully.

Yamamoto is said to have instructed Tashiro to burn his manuscript upon completion — yet in the course of dictation, he also quoted his poetry teacher, the monk Ryozan Osho, who said, “Whatever you write on paper will remain in the world; and so, even if it is just a letter, you should write carefully, imagining that it will be hung on the wall of the recipient’s home.” Such is the magic of books.

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