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Edging Toward Japan: 'Hagakure,' my candidate for Japan's strangest book

Tsunetomo Yamamoto

By Damian Flanagan

A gold medal candidate for "Strangest Japanese Book Ever Written" must be "Hagakure," a collection of commentaries on Bushido (or, more precisely, what would later be called "Bushido") by Tsunetomo Yamamoto who was a senior retainer of the Saga Clan in northern Kyushu. The commentaries were collected by Tashiro Tsuramoto and are based on his conversations with Tsunetomo between 1709 and 1716.

Around 20 years ago, Hagakure enjoyed a small vogue amongst young men in the West due to its prominent role in the Jim Jarmusch flick "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" (1999). This film is set in the U.S. and is about a hitman called Ghost Dog (played by Forest Whitaker) who receives the names of his targets from a Mafia goon by carrier pigeon landing on the rooftop where he lives. He is obsessed with Hagakure and the portentous quotes from the book that dominate his thoughts are framed and voiced over at regular intervals throughout the film.

As a sincere believer in the "Way of the Warrior," Ghost Dog attempts to live and die by the samurai code, requiring him to wipe a slew of Mafiosi who threaten the gangster who once saved his life.

Ghost Dog is really a fairly silly film, but it does have a few interesting aspects. One is that Ghost Dog regards Bushido as a complete value system to live his life. He even has the symbol from the front cover of the book embossed on the back of his jacket and constantly wears it as a medallion. At one point in the film, he passes another young man on the street wearing a Christian cross as a medallion -- as if two equal and complete value systems had met.

Hagakure was only published in full in the 20th century once the samurai themselves had long since disappeared. It was particularly prized as Japan turned to the extremes of nationalist and militaristic sentiment in the 1930s.

Yamamoto's position is best summed up with the thought that, for the samurai, loyalty to the master is everything and that he must be prepared to instantly give up his life for his master at any time.

I appreciate Hagakure as a fascinating insight into what is now a barely comprehensible mindset. Yamamoto is firm in the belief that all identity should come from the clan. All worship and respect should be given to clan elders and ancestors rather than such things as Buddhism, Confucius or famous warriors of other clans.

Albeit that Hagakure has found fans in such people as Yukio Mishima and Jim Jarmusch and is undoubtedly a superb illustration of an extremist samurai mindset, there is surely no question that Yamamoto is insufferably pompous. There is no real consideration of why you should devote your life to your lord -- this is merely an a priori assumption, endlessly reinforced like a Buddhist priest chanting a sutra. Yet I won't be joining Ghost Dog and his pigeons on the rooftop anytime soon.


(This is Part 23 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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