Yukio Mishima (trans. Kathryn Sparling), The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima on Hagakure in Modern Life (original title: Introduction to Hagakure) (New York: Perigee, 1977)
For as long as I have known about him, I have been fascinated by the Japanese writer and artist Yukio Mishima. I think the first time I heard of him was when my favorite history professor, an older fellow specializing in East Asia, spoke in exhilarating terms of Mishima, all the while naughtily adding : “He was basically a fascist.”
I’ve many times watched Paul Schrader’s masterpiece of a film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. You’re either the kind of boy who is challenged, energized, and inspired by this sort of film, or perhaps you’re not a boy. I tried reading some of Mishima’s novels in French translation. I can’t say I much enjoyed, though I deeply wanted to. Then again, I’m not really one for novels.
I recently purchased Mishima’s Introduction to Hagakure, the nonfiction guide he wrote to the samurai classic. This is a somewhat rare book in the sense that you can only get it second hand (sometimes quite expensive) or download abominable electronic versions, Penguin and other publishers having mysteriously not republished the work in many years.
I have not been disappointed. Mishima’s guide to Hagakure is an excellent book: at once concise (barely 100 pages, not counting the extracts from Hagakure included in the annex to my version of the book), clear, and cogent. Mishima both explicates the book, draws out its contemporary relevance, and highlights the most striking and paradoxical passages. I heartily recommend this book.
What is Hagakure?
My reader way be wondering: What is Hagakure and why would I need an introduction to it? Hagakure is a collection of sayings and anecdotes by Jocho Miyamoto, a retired samurai, as recorded by one of his followers. Taken together, this somewhat disparate collection ultimately forms a coherent and powerful expression of the samurai ethos. Perhaps surprisingly, the book contains a great deal of practical life advice for samurai – savoir-vivre – which the modern man will also benefit from: how to prepare for the next day, how to hold a meeting, how to criticize others, how to advance in one’s career, etc.
The point however is not a kind of selfish and shallow self-help. Hagakure is uncompromising in its moral demands: one must be the best one can be, one must selflessly serve others (one’s lord and the whole community), and one must be absolutely ruthless when necessary. In this, one must be motivated by dignity, by one’s pride and self-respect as a man, to make our brief time on this Earth as noble as it may be. There is no maudlin sentimentality or nagging here.
Hagakure was kept as a more-or-less secret book of samurai lore by the Nabeshima clan, which dominated a territory in the far southwest of Japan. This may be because the work is heavily critical of the central authorities – considered urbane and decadent in contrast with the rustic Nabeshima – and occasionally downright impious. Jocho demands one serve one’s lord even if it might displease gods or Buddha, adding that such supernatural entities will anyway smile upon such loyalty. Jocho had been apparently taught by Zen masters in his youth and in retirement become a Buddhist monk, although it is quite difficult to get reliable information on the matter.
Hagakure became a popular text in Imperial Japan (1868-1947), during which the new central government attempted to economically modernize and politically unify the country, all the while preserving elements of traditional Japanese culture. The book’s exaltation of local patriotism and loyalty was projected onto the Emperor and the Japanese nation-state as a whole.
While the Imperial authorities had banned the samurai as a caste, considering their privileged status as a break on modernization, Hagakure’s samurai values were celebrated as representing yamato-damashii, “the unique spirit of the Japanese.” Hagakure was widely promoted as a classic during the Second World War, was suppressed with the American postwar occupation as a source of Japanese militarism, and again became a bestseller in the 1970s with Mishima’s famous harakiri.
Hagakure really is quite readable. While I recommend Mishima, I would only say he makes things a bit too easy: read Hagakure directly! The read’s challenges, the work of piecing things together, will rework and do good to your soul.
Hagakure: Mishima’s Lifelong Companion
Mishima’s guide provides a good deal of insight into the various literary influences upon the writer – most prominently French and German literature and the Hellenic ideal, in addition to Japanese sources. The most prominent of these is of course Hagakure. According to Mishima, Hagakure came to be his constant companion and a source of spiritual renewal:
It was after the extraordinary popularity of Hagakure, after its wartime preeminence as socially obligatory reading had ended, that its light began to shine within me. Maybe Hagakure is after all fundamentally a book destined to paradox. During the war, Hagakure was like a luminescent object in broad daylight, but it is in pitch darkness that Hagakure radiates its true light. . . .
The book that was to provide constant spiritual guidance must form the basis of my morality and it must enable me to approve completely of my youth. It must be a book that could support firmly this loneliness of my and my anachronistic stance. What is more, it must be a book banned by contemporary society. Hagakure conformed to all these specifications. (6)
Mishima later says:
I have come to be more and more deeply possessed by Hagakure. But I, who follow the way of the artist and entertainer condemned by Hagakure, have been tormented by the conflict between the action ethic and my art. The suspicion I had harbored for years, that there was inevitably something cowardly lurking beneath the surface of all literature, was articulated. In fact, to tell the truth, my firm insistence on the “Combined Way of the Scholar and the Warrior” I owe to the influence of Hagakure. Although I knew full well that there is no discipline so easy to speak of and so difficult to perform as the Combined Way of the Warrior and the Scholar, I decided that nothing else could offer me the excuse to live my life as an artist. This realization, too, I owe to Hagakure.
I am convinced, however, that art kept snugly within the bounds of art alone shrivels and dies, and in this sense I am no believer in what is commonly called art for art’s sake. If art is not constantly threatened, stimulated by things outside its domain, it exhausts itself. . . . All at once I recognized in Hagakure a philosophy of life, and somehow I felt that its beautiful, pristine world could stir up the quagmire that was the world of literature. For me, the meaning of Hagakure is in the vision of this pristine world, and although it is the influence of Hagakure that has made living as an artist so unusually difficult for me, at the same time Hagakure is the womb from which my writing is born. It is the eternal supplying source of my vitality – by its relentless whip, by its command, by its fierce criticism, because of its beauty, which is the beauty of ice. (10-11)
Mishima’s discussion is not abstract but, like Hagakure, deeply practical. He contrasts samurai society and postwar Japan, covering topics as diverse as celebrity culture, Japanese drinking habits, fatherhood, feminization, masculinity, sex and prostitution, the kamikaze, and even the English habit of pouring milk before tea. (I thought Mishima was being precious on this point, until I saw that even today Boris Johnson could cause a minor controversy by inverting the order.)
Above all, Mishima would have men live full, worthy, and noble lives. He is clearly revolted by the long, boring, predictable, and safe lives of office workers with nothing to look forward to but their pension. He would prefer men boldly and intensely, even if that should mean a shorter life.
Mishima gives Hagakure an individualist twist, perhaps unsurprisingly as an artist. He denies the book’s political implications arguing: “It is a philosophy of action, not of government.” This is not entirely convincing, though perhaps sensible in an era in which anything resembling the Führerprinzip was inevitably going to be disreputable. In any event, Hagakure’s principles can indeed be applied by any individual whatever his situation, regardless of the regime.
Mishima loves Hagakure’s ruthless realism. That one should give advice respectfully and diplomatically, so as not to hurt others’ egos, is not done out of mere niceness, but “a scathingly realistic evaluation of human psychology” (47). Hagakure has us starkly look into the void:
Jocho frequently refers to this life as a puppet existence, to human beings as marionettes. At the very core of his personality is a deep, penetrating yet manly “nihilism” [in English]. He scrutinizes each moment to extract the meaning of life, but at heart he is convinced that life itself is nothing more than a dream. (52)
This knowledge of the vanity and impermanence of all human things could lead one to despair. But for Mishima, this lucidity is a challenge and a source of inspiration, for we still have our pride, our dignity, our love of beauty. Mishima makes the striking observation: “Here is the nihilism of Jocho Yamamoto, and here, too, is the ultimate idealism, born of his nihilism” (105).
Hagakure famously states that “the Way of the Samurai is death.” This means that a samurai should be ready to die at any moment if this necessary to serve his lord and preserve his honor. Paradoxically, the knowledge that we can and should die for something had a great energizing effect on Mishima: “this sentence . . . gave me the strength to live” (6).
Mishima speaks of “our perverted day and age, in which only ideology is valued and the trifling practices of everyday life are not taken seriously” (56). Instead of merely criticizing problems, Hagakure challenges us to simply act, putting our life on the line if necessary, but also if necessary patiently working with 10 or 15-year horizon. A man must be ready for any circumstances.
Mishima was continuously challenged and inspired by the he shocking contrast between the way of life described in Hagakure and that of postwar life. He says:
The occupation of the samurai is death . . . The premise of the democratic age is that it is best to live as long as possible.
Thus in evaluating the impact of Hagakure, it becomes an important question whether or not the readers are samurai. If one is able to read Hagakure transcending the fundamental difference in premise between Jocho’s era and our own, one will find there an astonishing understanding of human nature, a wisdom applicable to human relations even in the present day. One reads lightly and quickly through its pages (stimulating, vigorous, passionate, but extremely sharp and penetrating, paradoxical pages), letting one’s body be refreshed as by a spring rain. But in the end one is forced to confront the fundamental difference in premise. (28)
Mishima’s critique of liberal modernity does not feature any of the mystical ravings one finds in much of “Traditionalist” literature. Rather, Mishima and Hagakure are at once of an extreme realism and are ethically demanding, something which will appeal to the modern man of the Right. Amidst what Mishima calls “the black fog” of moral decay in our societies, Hagakure provides practical advice and exhortation that we, in our own individual life, may strive to live more nobly.
Selections from Mishima’s Introduction to Hagakure
All artistic creations are born of a resistance to one’s era. (7)
We must recognize that when a human being tries to live beautifully and die beautifully, strong attachment to life undermines that beauty. (22)
Hagakure is an attempt to cure the peaceful character of modern society by the potent medicine of death. . . . The author, in his abundant understanding of human life, knows that man does not live by his life alone. He knows just how paradoxical is human freedom. And he knows the instant man is given freedom he grows weary of it, and the instant he is given life he becomes unable to bear it.
Ours is an age in which everything is based on the premise that it is best to live as long as possible. The average life span has become the longest in history, and a monotonous plan for humanity unrolls before us. The youth’s enthusiasm for “my-home-ism” lasts as long as he is struggling to find his own little nest. As soon as he has found it, the future holds nothing for him. All there is is the retirement money clicked up in rows on the abacus, and the peaceful, boring life of impotent old age. This image is constantly in the shadow of the welfare state, threatening the hearts of mankind. (24)
Each and every one of us hides within his subconscious mind deep, blind impulses. These are the dynamic expression of the contradictions filling one’s life from moment to moment, a manifestation that has essentially nothing to do with social ideals for the future. In youth these are manifested in their boldest, sharpest form. Moreover, these blind impulses appear in dramatic opposition, even in confrontation with one another. (25)
Our rational humanism, while constantly performing the function of turning the eyes of modern man toward the brightness of freedom and progress, wipes the problem of death from the level of consciousness, pushing it deeper and deeper into the subconscious, turning the death impulse by this repression to an even more dangerous, explosive, ever more concentrated, inner-directed impulse. We are ignoring the fact that bringing death to the level of consciousness is an important element of mental health.
But death alone exists unchanged and regulates our lives now as in the era of Hagakure. In this sense, the death that Jocho is talking about is nothing extraordinary. Hagakure insists that to ponder death daily is to concentrate daily on life. When we do our work thinking that we may die today, we cannot help feeling that our job suddenly becomes radiant with life and meaning. (29)
The philosophy of Hagakure creates a standard of action which is the most effective means of escaping the limitations of the self and becoming immersed in something greater. (39)
For a woman the mirror is a tool to be used in her daily toilette, but for a man the mirror is material for introspection. (66)
What Hagakure has to say . . . about ideal human, or rather manly, beauty – “reverent yet stern, self-collected” – is still one kind of aesthetic for manly appearance. “Reverent” requires a humility that inspires trust in others, while “sternness” hints at an air of austerity and aloofness. What is needed to reconcile and bind together these two opposing element is a serene, unflappable calm. (66)
A samurai must perform his duties so that as an individual he represents all sarumai and his conduct in any given situation may stand for the Way of the Samurai. (72)
If one gains wisdom only at the age of forty, one must retain the strength to put it to use. Most of us do not, however. This is Jocho’s warning. (77)
It is useless to try to make the present age like the good old days a hundred years ago. What is important is to make each era as good as it can be according to its nature. (83, quoting Hagakure)
If for the sake of moral goals a man always strives to live beautifully, and if he considers death as the ultimate standard of that beauty, then all his days must be a continuum of tension. Jocho, for whom laziness is the supreme vice, discovered a reason for living in a daily life of unrelieved tension that never lets up even for an instant. That is struggle in the midst of daily routine; it is the occupation of the samurai. (90)
Dignity is the outward manifestation of inviolable self-respect; it is what makes a man a man. It is the firm belief that one would rather die than be despised by others. (90)
[Samurai beauty] is a beauty of strength, for the sake of appearances and to avoid losing face. When one tries to be beautiful in order to be loved, effeminacy begins. That is spiritual cosmetics. (92)