Skip to content

Hagakure (#8)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya



Part 8: Don’t ask. Don’t tell


(Taken from commentary on the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai translated by William Scott Wilson)

Yukio Mishima’s fascination with military affairs, modern and medieval, lends significance to issues that are still relevant. He opens his commentary on the Hagakure with a chapter boldly titled: Hagakure Is Alive Today, an assertion which he then proceeds to refute. Prefacing his text with an obscure verse from the Hagakure’s Second Book, he begins:

“The ultimate love, I believe to be secret love. Once shared, love shrinks in stature. To pine away all one’s years, to die for love without uttering the beloved’s name, that is the true meaning of love.”

It’s clear that Mishima wants to interpret the lines in terms of Cyrano de Bergerac’s years of silent devotion to the beautiful Roxanne, “it was my life to be the prompter every one forgets!” In fact, in samurai terms, Jocho’s “secret love” approximates the more famous line from a poem by Alfred Douglas, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” Homosexuality and the Warrior ethic? Yes, and the medieval samurai version is not much different from the ancient Spartan or Athenian versions we so often read about, or even, at least as far as discretion is concerned, from what our military’s current”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was supposed to be.

Among the samurai, class distinction necessarily influenced the style of training. A samurai required a horse, armor, equipment, weapons, and long periods of individualized instructions in all the arts of war. The high cost of such provision virtually limited participation to an aristocratic class; and it was to this class that the Code of the Samurai naturally applied. Combat skills were mostly conveyed in the standard Spartan type of male-to-male relationship, i.e., of an older man mentoring an adolescent student. This style provided for a long, non-sexual period of paternal solicitude during which time the adolescent matured sufficiently to make his own decisions. If both parties were agreeable, a period of intimacy could ensue. Patroclus and the young Achilles are an exemplary pairing of this type.

Intimacy was further encouraged by the long months of non-social activity – extended maneuvers, endless marches, sieges of interminable length – any number of encounters from which women were excluded. Because it was battle and not social-grace that brought the parties together, the homosexuality that occurred between a mentor and his charge was not the type in which one male was effeminate. Indeed, evidence can be adduced which shows that in Spartan, Athenian, and in Samurai cultures, a warrior male lost considerable status if he was less than manly in demeanor and if he did not marry and produce male heirs.

Verse 1:97 of the Hagakure states explicitly the samurai understanding of this relationship:

“This was Nakano Shikibu’s opinion: [Nakano Shikibu, at the age of 71, fathered author Yamamoto Jocho Tsunetomo.]

“When one is young, he can often bring on shame for a lifetime by homosexual acts. To have no understanding of this is dangerous. As there is no one to inform young men of this matter, I can give its general outline.

“One should understand that a woman is faithful to only one husband. [an expression indicating fidelity – i.e., never being promiscuous or even remarrying after becoming a widow]. Our feelings go to one person for one lifetime. If this is not so, it is the same as sodomy or prostitution. This is a shame for a warrior. Ihara Saikaku has written a famous line that goes, ‘An adolescent without an older lover is the same as a woman with no husband.’ But this sort of person is ridiculous.

“A young man should test an older man for at least five years, and if he is assured of that person’s attentions, then he too should request the relationship. A fickle person will not enter deeply into a relationship and later will abandon his lover.

“If they can assist and devote their lives to each other, then their nature can be ascertained. But if [only] one partner is crooked, then the other should say that there are hindrances to the relationship, and sever it with firmness. If the first should ask what those hindrances are, then one should respond that he will never in his life say. If he should continue to push the matter, one should get angry. If he continues to push even further, cut him down.

“Furthermore, the older man should ascertain the younger’s real motives in the aforementioned way [relationship]. If the younger man can devote himself and get into the situation [even] for five or six years, then it will not be unsuitable.

“Above all, one should not divide one’s way into two. One should strive in the Way of the Samurai.”

This last line is footnoted: “Shikibu enjoins a man not to think that he must separate his life into two ways. He should be a samurai regardless of his love life.” The point is clearly that a man is not a different man in his romantic conduct from the kind of man he is in his military life. His character as a samurai requires absolute integrity and loyalty. We find in Achilles’ defense of his lady Briseis, his grief at the death of Patroclus, and his decision to resume fighting, evidence that he had not become “two” in his heroic character.

It is part homophobia and part difference in training styles that account for much of our modern military’s intolerance. In medieval Japan there were no mass boot camps of common enlisted men trained and equipped at government expense, or academies for training officers, just as the close mentor-student relationship is unknown in today’s military.

In the samurai tradition, the older man might well be a family man and the younger man might later divert his attentions to establish his own family. Neither man was locked into a permanent physical relationship that excluded family life; but both men were required not only to be discreet but to behave in accordance with the Code of the Samurai. Promiscuity was unthinkable.

Verse 1:98 further clarifies the practice:

“Hoshino Ryotetsu was the progenitor of homosexuality in our province, and although it can be said that his disciples were many, he instructed each one individually. Edayoshi Saburozaemon was a man who understood the foundation of homosexuality. Once, when accompanying his master to Edo, Ryotetsu asked Saburozaemon, ‘What have you understood of homosexuality.’

“Saburozaemon replied, ‘It is something both pleasant and unpleasant.’

“Ryotetsu was pleased and said, ‘You have taken great pains for some time to be able to say such a thing.’

“Some years later there was a person who asked Saburozaemon the meaning of the above. He replied, ‘To lay down one’s life for another is the basic principle of homosexuality. If it is not so, it becomes a matter of shame. However, then you have nothing left to lay down for your master. It is therefore understood to be something both pleasant and unpleasant.'”

The concept of self-sacrifice in battle for the sake of one’s comrades in arms is universally known, as is accepting a dangerous mission in loyalty and devotion to one’s country or to one’s commanding officer.

What Jocho specifically stresses is that a minor ought never to be enticed into a homosexual relationship; and that if he does express interest in the affair, he should have no ulterior motive.

Propriety being the rule, nothing in their respective behaviors provoked censure. Each was the same person, dedicated to an inviolable code of conduct. Are such persons living among us in this age? Who knows? And that is the point.

Yet, despite the Hagakure’s often bellicose edicts, Mishima, contradicting his own heading, (i.e., that the Hagakure is alive and well in modern Japan) strives to make the point that peacetime Japanese males have abandoned the Samurai ethic in favor of self-indulgent effeminacy. The first section of his chapter is entitled, Contemporary Youth Infatuated With The Cardin Look which he follows with, The Feminization Of The Male, and so on, until he proclaims, The Ideal Love Is Undeclared and returns to the opening verse’s “secret love.” Pierre Cardin may have inflicted a French sartorial psychosis upon Japanese youth; but it is the U.S. that gets blamed for draining the joy from their masculine libidos. Evidently, until we came along and won the War, men were men in Japan. They knew the difference between love and sex. Now, he laments, all they care about is instant gratification and being unwontedly foppish. He relates that he recently sat in a cafe and was approached by young Japanese men who were not interested in him, but in his fashionable garments. He also refers to the emasculation of males during the enforced peacetime of the Tokogawa Shogunate in an earlier century. A physician who, for a similar ailment, would treat men differently from women, then no longer saw a need to make any distinction regarding gender, so alike had the two sexes become. Because of a lack of warfare, “Men had lost their virility.” And in the artwork of the period, particularly the Ukiyo prints, the males and females are coifed and garbed so similarly that the gender of a pair of lovers is impossible to ascertain. The Unisex ideal that inspired the artist finds no favor with Mishima.

While Jocho tends to attribute Samurai homosexuality to the military lifestyle, Mishima suggests that the effeminacy of the Japanese male is due rather to the lack of warfare than to the sexual exigencies of it.

Our present “Don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy was created by President Bill Clinton as a compromise measure. Previously, a claim of homosexuality was sufficient to exempt a man from the draft; and in consequence, during the Viet Nam war many heterosexual men avoided induction by claiming to be homosexual. The new policy served to prevent sexual orientation from being a factor in the selective service process.

The “Don’t Ask” policy precludes inquiring into a person’s sexual orientation and, especially when he or she is performing his duties and conducting himself in a respectable way, insures that there will be no witch-hunt investigations or other spying. The commanding officer is required to take disciplinary action against anyone who subjects another person to homophobic jokes or other forms of sexual harassment.

The “Don’t Tell” policy prohibits a homosexual from broadcasting his or her sexual orientation or from making sexual advances to another. If a report of such an advance is made to the commanding officer and if the charge can be proven, the offender is discharged from the service, usually honorably.

The policy lists the standard rules against “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” Adultery; lying; dishonorable failure to repay a debt; cheating on examinations; public drunkeness and disorderly conduct; crimes involving moral turpitude; reading another’s mail; consorting with prostitutes; and so on. Engaging in homosexual acts is considered dishonorable by all branches of the military and so is the lewd and lascivious behavior of heterosexuals – but to what extent this behavior applies to the privacy of an off-base bedroom remains woefully unclear.

Although “Don’t Ask” implies that the military will not on mere suspicion subject an individual to humiliating investigations, it would seem that an anonymous poison pen email – particularly one which does not allude to a specific act of misconduct – would not constitute good and sufficient cause for investigation. Yet, this is precisely what happened recently to an Army sergeant, a decorated Arabic language specialist who had already served honorably for four years in the service. His commanding officer received an anonymous email which claimed that the sergeant was a homosexual and further threatened that if the C.O. did not take action against him, every person on the base would receive an email-notice of his failure to act. The C.O. buckled under the threat and, against the Army’s own policy, conducted the witch-hunt during which the sergeant was directly asked, “Are you a homosexual?” Not wishing to lie or to subject others to harassment, he accepted an honorable discharge. He does, however, intend to appeal.

It is difficult to imagine that off-base cohabitation presents a threat to national security or affects the military capability of an individual. We often hear that homosexual behavior is condemned because the threat of “outing” an individual is sufficient to coerce him or her into committing treason or worse. But this condemnation constitutes a self-fulfilling circular argument. It is only when a draconian and arbitrarily enforced “Code of Honor” punishes sexual preference for which the individual fears reprisal, not only for himself but for his friends, that he might become vulnerable to compromise or blackmail. That a commanding officer should be coerced into persecuting an honorable and valued member of the military violates the Clinton intent.

In the patrician circumstances of Samurai and Greek military orders, the perquisites of class distinction facilitated sexual practices that obviously cannot apply in today’s egalitarian society. But unless anyone is prepared to call Patroclus, Achilles, or a samurai warrior,”a limp-wristed wimp,” a respectful attitude towards responsible sexual orientation should be shown to any man or woman in service.

This has nothing to do with civil marriage. It has everything to do with civilized behavior.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email