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.


Hagakure (#7)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya



Part 7: The Wisdom of the Hagakure: The Secret of Spit


Our text is taken from two aphorisms given in Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Jocho Tsunetomo, translated by William Scott Wilson.

Chapter 10: Verse 3 “When faced with a crisis, if one puts some spittle on his earlobe and exhales deeply through his nose, he will overcome anything at hand. This is a secret matter. Furthermore, when experiencing a rush of blood to the head. if one puts spittle on the upper part of one’s ear, it will soon go away.”

Chapter 11: Verse 15 “To calm one’s mind, one swallows his saliva. This is a secret matter. When one becomes angry, it is the same. Putting saliva on one’s forehead is also good. In the Yoshida School of Archery, swallowing one’s spittle is the secret principle of the art.”

What, we wonder, is the secret matter that Jocho alludes to in these intriguing aphorisms? And can saliva rubbed on a forehead or an earlobe possibly reduce anger or make a fighter indomitable? Well… in a very real sense… yes.

The human body has three built-in autonomic nervous systems. The parasympathetic which kicks in when we eat or make love; the sympathetic which activates as we experience fear or anger – the “flight or fight” response; and the enteric which governs intestinal motility and urinary urges.

It is while we are in the domain of the parasympathetic nervous system that we salivate. We may not be rigorously amorous or ravenously wolfing down our food; but we are relaxed or, at the very least, not thinking about running away or getting into a street brawl. When we eat, we salivate as an integral part of the digestive process. When we are amorous, those long, wet kisses and all the various verbs that are common to eating and to mouth-involved lovemaking also require saliva. In peaceful sleep, we slobber like babies. In deep meditation, we drool. Our heart rate slows, our blood pressure drops, and we are utterly “collected,” calm, and focussed on what we’re doing. Seldom are we ever distracted by extraneous thoughts when we are in the pleasant embrace of the parasympathetic nervous system. Nothing can compete for the attention we give a lover or a delicious sirloin steak when we’re hungry.

In the sympathetic nervous system’s domain, the body is jolted into varying degrees of panic or rage. In the fear response, we wish, we pray, we more than anything else in this world want to be anywhere else but where we are. The body, our mind’s wise host, accommodates our desire. It knows that we must conserve body fluids so that we’ll be able to run fast and far to safety. Therefore, when we’re afraid our mouth becomes dry and our hands get “clammy” as blood and fluids are withdrawn from the extremities to serve the requirements of the thighs and lungs. We don’t want our muscles to cramp.

Consider what happens to those of us who are not accomplished public speakers whenever we’re obliged to speak to an important assembly: our blood pressure rises; our heart races; our breathing becomes fast and shallow, and our mouth becomes so arid that our lips seem glued to our teeth. Answers to questions we very well know get “stuck in our throat.” (For the speaker’s convenience, water is always placed on the podium.) We are totally self-conscious. Instead of seeing the people, we see the people seeing us. This displacement of perspective inhibits us from thinking clearly. We stammer. We stiffen, or we tremble. We stare into space with that “deer in the headlights” dumbness. If we’re reading from a text, we lose our place. If we’re reciting from memory, lines that we thought were chiseled into our brain are suddenly obliterated.

And this, says Jocho, is no way enter combat.

The military leader fears most the paralysis that comes from fear. He wants his soldiers to be efficient, agile, obedient, resourceful – and a soldier whose mouth is dry from fear is far from such competence. The good leader therefore inspires his men to trust him, to believe him when he reassures them that they will prevail; and, usually, he promises that after the battle they will drink together to celebrate sweet victory.

The “wet-mouth of fearlessness” is more than just the bravado of being able to spit in the face of an opponent. The promise of libations occurs in natural tandem with the victorious vision. It is no coincidence that triumph is proclaimed with beverages: No matter how cold it is, the winning coach will be doused with Gatorade. No matter how tee-totaling a championship team’s players are, those who don’t swill the champagne will shake a bottle of it and spray other teammates. No matter how exhausted the Indianapolis 500 winner is, he or she will lift that bottle of milk and gulp it as it sloshes down over face and neck. No need to worry about fluids now.

And yet, though a rat will scurry away from danger, it is “the cornered rat” that attacks. This reversal of response can usually be attributed to the body’s attempt to achieve homeostasis. Areas of the brain can be so chemically over stimulated that the body introduces “opposition” substances as it attempts to restore balance. Another example of this oscillation can be seen in a mother’s response to the news that her young son is missing. Terrified, she prays and vows that she will be forever grateful for the boy’s safe return; but when the boy is found dallying with friends her terror converts to anger. She hugs him and then spanks him, chastising him for being disobedient and causing her such anguish. Then she hugs him again. Even the hysterical giggling that occurs from being tickled is said to be a relief response: a person puts his hands on us in what our body momentarily interprets as a possible attack, but as soon as we discover that it is mere playfulness, we react with giddiness and laugh in a peculiar way.

Especially after we’ve endured a serious, life-and-death physical challenge and suddenly realize that we’ve survived intact after gaining our objective, we may display an irrational fury in response to our fear’s over-stimulation. We occasionally see soldiers and police officers go a little berserk when, after a particularly dangerous pursuit, they are so emotionally conflicted with the hormones of fear, relief, aggression, and rage that they lose control of themselves, violently reacting to their captured quarry – and to anyone else unlucky enough to be near him. When the overwhelmed ego cannot interpret all the signals given it, routine training disciplines go unheeded.

This, too, is unsuitable conduct in a combat situation.

The third member of the autonomic nervous system: the enteric, acts to eliminate body waste. When signals between the various systems cause a confused, conflated, panic response, we may experience sudden and totally unexpected diarrhea, urination, vomiting, or cramps. It pays to stay calm.

As to Jocho’s reference to exhaling deeply, in order to do that, the combatant must first have inhaled deeply. Fear constricts our chest and makes our breathing shallow – or sometimes it even makes our breath seem to freeze within our chest. We have heard the descriptions: “I was frozen in terror. I could hardly breathe.” or, “I tried to scream but nothing would come out.” The reason we perform the Healing Breath or other slow, controlled forms of structured breathing when we prepare to enter the meditative zone is simply that controlled breathing initiates a biofeedback loop. A slow, deep, full breath, when held, will cause the thoracic muscles to secrete serotonin as they relax when the breath is exhaled. The serotonin promotes a feeling of well being which conduces to the generation of saliva and the lowering of blood pressure and heart rate.

Naturally, there can be no choking or gasping for air when a breathing exercise is performed. Gasping signals the body that there is a possibility of suffocation and this initiates a panic response. Adrenaline is immediately released, and until the adrenaline is “washed out” of the bloodstream there will be no entry into meditation.

Since controlled and relaxed breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, it provides for calm sustained concentration. Fear and anger can focus the attention, too, but it is a different kind of attention – narrow and unaware of ancillary or peripheral information. This, too, is not an advantageous state for combat.

So there we are, standing in front of an assembly, trying to give a speech. We can alternate between being livid with fear and flushed with embarrassment. We may want to run away or, in our embarrassment, we may flare into anger and wish that a bomb go off and level the place, putting our antagonists out of our misery. Embarrassment generally causes a blushing of the face, or, as Jocho puts it, a rush of blood to the head; and this experience of capricious emotion disrupts our performance. What is needed is the calm, cool, unemotional exercise of duty. And this can be found only in the domain of the parasympathetic nervous system – evidenced by that nice steady flow of saliva and that deep, controlled breathing.

Jocho’s “secret” lies in not getting into the fearful state at all. It takes a few seconds to activate the sympathetic nervous system but without disciplined counter measures, it requires an hour or so for these chemical agents to be purged from the bloodstream. Regaining composure is a very good thing; but better still is not losing it in the first place.

How do we prevent fear from occurring? Insofar as combat or physical competition is concerned, we train by repeatedly experiencing situations that at first elicit a fear response but then repeatedly prove to be harmless. By “crying wolf” sufficiently, the mind is lulled or tricked into ignoring the fearful message. We habituate to the presence of the stimuli of danger when they do not deliver the expected harm. Also, the drill sergeant who shouts obscenities at his men, who heaps insults upon them, is training them that “sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you.” A soldier that is easily provoked into anger, is likewise a poor combatant.

Consider that old “crying wolf” story. A farm boy wants attention and knows that if he shouts that he is being threatened by a wolf, the workers in the field will come to save him. So he cries, “Wolf! Wolf!” Alarmed, the workers come running… but there is no wolf. A few days later, the boy again cries, “Wolf! Wolf!” And again the workers run to his aid. But there is no wolf. They may be fooled a third or even a fourth time. But they will soon ignore his cries. They have habituated to the distress call and no longer allow it interfere with their duties.

When two martial artists are in training, contesting on a mat, one may be thrown violently to the ground. But he gets up and to his body’s surprise, he is not hurt. He may be clumsy in his initial reactions, but with enough practice, he acquires confidence and can respond effectively.

There is a story told about training in Zen monasteries in which older students are permitted to kick or punch a new trainee at will. The newcomer learns to be alert to possibilities. Danger can come from any side and from any one and at any time. At first he is a nervous wreck. But he understands that he is being subjected to learning experiences and that there is no malice directed towards him, that the intention is not to destroy but to teach. This helps him to maintain a positive attitude despite the bruises; and once his body acquires the reassurance that the blows are not going to be fatal, he eagerly goes to the dojo to learn those techniques which block attacks against him – providing he can remain in control of his emotions. Eventually he learns not merely to parry, but to reposte. Once he is able to strike back effectively, his opponents respect him and his elementary training period is over.

And this is true of any kind of combative skill. With repeated encounters that do not result in serious harm, the fear diminishes until it dissipates entirely. If a warrior stays calm, he stays in control. He is not likely to flee in fear from his post just as he is not likely to let his emotions devolve into uncontrolled rage.

The control of performance fear – artistic, scholastic, or of a variety of events that require a public presentation – requires uninterrupted concentration upon the material. The moment the performer wonders how his audience is regarding him, he has broken his concentration and will fumble his lines. A series of successful performances provides sustaining poise, but when the material is being delivered for the first time, concentrated self control is required. Rehearsal helps the quality of the performance, but the focus cannot be shifted from delivering the material to considering the audience’s appraisal of it.

Jocho often asserts that spiritual conviction confines the ego’s focus upon inwardly directed sacred service and generates the faith that all will be as it should be, regardless of the outcome. Trouble occurs when attention is shifted outwardly in prideful concern for one’s appearance or reputation. Inward focus promotes the humility necessary for meditative freedom from the interfering ego. Outward focus creates the obstacle of ego awareness that slows down all action and reaction times.

Humility and a lack of desire for status are the best aids a performer can have. This requires the self-discipline to stay focussed on the task, faith in the outcome, and an understanding of the parasympathetic biofeedback loop.

Once the practitioner acquires the ability to enter the meditative zone at will, he can act and react subliminally, with extraordinary alacrity.

The angry or fearful hand is not steady; but the relaxed hand is – and for this reason the archer who can swallow his saliva – that magical elixir – attests to his being in control of his emotions. He’s on his way to becoming one with the bow, the arrow, and the target.

Jocho, a Buddhist monk and a Samurai, knew the extent to which ignorance, egotism, improper and incomplete training, and juvenile emotions hamper the ability to fight effectively. The warrior who is afraid is emotional, and in an emotional state, it is not possible to enter that vaunted meditative zone in which the ego yields to its Buddha Self; and the sensory data of action and reaction slip directly, automatically, and “subliminally” under the threshold of consciousness.

As long as fear dries the mouth, the man who stands on the battlefield with spit to spare is somebody whose side you want to be on.


Hagakure (#6)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya


Part 6: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya


Jim Jarmusch’s film Ghost Dog is the story of a modern Samurai warrior who serves his daimyo master according to principles stated in the Hagakure.

The film reminds us immediately of Lao Tzu’s verse in which he says that clay may make the vessel but what is important is the empty space the clay encloses.

In Ghost Dog, what we don’t see, or see only fleetingly, is the important part of the story. This vital empty space is contained within two events: the first of which occurred eight years before the film begins and the second which occurred four years before the film begins. In a brief flashback, we see the first critical moment: thugs have beaten and kicked a man who lies prone and bloody in an alleyway. One of them is about to shoot him, when a passerby, a mafioso named Louie Bonicelli, sees the assault and, heroically responding to the human impulse to help the underdog, fearlessly draws his weapon, confronts the thug, and kills him before he can kill the helpless man.

No man can feel lower than a man who’s lying on the ground being kicked like a dog. For him there are only three possibilities: he can perish in his shame; he can continue in that same ignoble state; or he can be reborn in a new identity. Evidently, the man resurrects himself as a samurai warrior with only the ghost of his former dog state remaining. But we do not see the transformation. We know nothing about his existence until four years after the attack, the time it has apparently taken him to prepare himself for service. It is then that he contacts Bonicelli, acknowledges the debt he owes him, and pledges a lifetime of unconditional service as repayment. Having committed himself to do whatever his master asks, he becomes a hit-man. He would have gone to the bakery every morning for cannoli if that had been the order.

The film doesn’t say that prior to the attack Ghost Dog was a man without honor; skill; religion, codified principles, or a leader whose commands he could serve unreservedly. We know only that when he does emerge after his four year absence, he is a crack, ambidextrous shot; a dutiful and efficient murderer, and a devout Buddhist. He lives a spartan existence in a rooftop shack beside a coop for carrier pigeons – the means of communication he uses to contact his master.

He prays before a Buddhist altar, wears beads, and does a sword routine, more as an action meditation than as preparation for battle, for in fact he does not ever use a blade. He identifies himself with two ko-mon crests, both are trefoils, one of encircled birds – possibly doves, the symbol of the Holy Spirit – embroidered on his jacket, and the other, a gold pendant of encircled radial legs. He reads the Hagakure as though it were scripture.

He collects his wages annually, during a holiday that in Japan is traditionally reserved for the mourning of the dead – the autumn equinox.

Jarmusch lessens the violent aspect of Ghost Dog’s duties by invoking the Bugsy Siegel gangster ethic: “We only kill each other.” The presumption here is that the deceased deserved their fate.

The mythological implications of Ghost Dog are strengthened by fictitious elements in the setting. Jarmusch filmed in Jersey City, New Jersey – but the license plates bear the mottos of unknown states and the telephone area code (433) that appears on signs is of a number not in use in the U.S. We’re not in Kansas, anymore…

Although many TVs are on during the film, only cartoons are shown. The cartoons presage the action… or vice versa, making an interior witty commentary : in a cartoon, Betty Boop waves a banner at a flock of circling birds and Ghost Dog, on his rooftop, waves a banner at a flock of circling birds; Ghost Dog watches a woodpecker; and in a cartoon a ghost laughs at Woody Woodpecker; a cartoon dog-character shoots a gun up a water pipe and Ghost Dog shoots a gun up a water pipe; and so on.

Whether Jarmusch has placed the Hagakure at the service of his plot or whether he has put his plot at the service of theHagakure is of no consequence. The film is what it is, and it is intriguing. Forest Whitaker is perfect in the role.

Ghost Dog quotes 15 selections (plus two lines from a 16th) taken from the 300 or so verses translated by William Scott Wilson in his Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai.

To refer to them, we’ll number them in accordance with the chapter and verse in Wilson’s work. (Wilson divided his work into chapters but he did not number each entry within the chapter – so this must be done by the reader). For example, Ghost Dog’s first reading is taken from two verses: 1:2 (Chapter 1, verse 2): “The Way of the Samurai is found in death.” The recitation then jumps to 11:31 (Chapter 11, verse 31). “Meditation on inevitable death….” and ends by returning to 1:2 for the line, “This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai.”

It is a somber recitation. What it is not is one of those “Meditations on the transiency of life” or a resigned acceptance of death’s inevitability. In the orient there are many “charnal house” type exercises in which the meditator is supposed to grasp life’s transitory nature by sitting on a corpse or some such drivel. If being in the company of mangled or diseased corpses were the key to comprehending the mysteries of life, morgue attendants, cops, and funeral directors would be philosophers. They are not. Such thoughts are of no value to a warrior.

Recitation 1 (1:2) The Way of the Samurai is found in death. (11:31) Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committingseppuka [ritual suicide] at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. (1:2) This is the substance of The Way of the Samurai.”

The penultimate line restates Hsu Yun’s great advice: “Cultivate the poise of a dead man.” The samurai should be incapable of being emotionally aroused, particularly by lust, greed, pride, jealousy or anger.

The selection offers a solution to a warrior’s natural fears of pain and death. Fear slows reaction time, indeed, sufficient fear can freeze reaction time altogether, resulting in that stunned paralysis we often call the “deer in the headlights” response. Obviously, controlling fear, suppressing or eliminating it, is much to a warrior’s advantage. The more a warrior is cognizant of the calamities that may befall him, and the more he rehearses his role in the event, the more he acclimates himself to the possibility. And then when he goes into action and the calamity does not occur, the event loses much of its fearful character – and as the fear lessens, his efficiency increases. This daily recitation does not make the samurai passively accept these possibilities. On the contrary, by listing the disasters, a positive emphasis is placed upon being prepared to meet them.

Modern survival manuals can provide explanations for the physiology of fear – the sympathetic nervous system, the amygdala’s function, etc. But this information was not available to the samurai. He would know only that a man who swims does not fear “being carried away by surging waves” in the same panic-seized way that a man who cannot swim fears it. A man who learns how to maintain his balance on unstable surfaces, such as a sailor with “sea legs,” does not stumble and fall as an untrained landlubber would. As a mountain goat is not afraid of cliffs, a man who hikes and rock-climbs becomes more nimble and surefooted and thus acquires confidence as he overcomes his natural fears. He appreciates the danger of lightning and doesn’t stand under a tree in a thunderstorm. He keeps his armor in perfect condition – the better to defend against arrows, spears, bullets, and swords. He is fastidious in his personal hygiene and attentive to his diet and sleep requirements and in so doing becomes less vulnerable to disease.

With training, the techniques of meditation can be adjusted to produce a “hypnotized” anesthetic effect. We know also that under hypnosis or in any self-induced trance, a person can not only become oblivious to pain, but he can speed the healing process. Hypnotic suggestibility is part of the acupuncture regimen as well as a means to control bleeding in, for example, dental extractions on hemophiliacs. (The stigmata are the reverse of this effect.) With sufficient willpower and a knowledge of focussed concentration, these pain management techniques are not difficult to acquire.

Yukio Mishima in his The Way of the Samurai comments, “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.” His comment emphasizes the positive aspect of what otherwise seems morbid and pessimistic. And it is to be remembered that although he was a writer – not a warrior – he wrote eloquently on the very day that he planned and executed his own death.

The willingness to die for principal or principles is part of every soldier’s heroic willingness to sacrifice himself. We expect that the Secret Service agents who are assigned to protect the President will “take a bullet for him” in the event of attack. They know this in advance of every assignment – as does every soldier who goes into combat. And all of them know that constant training and vigilance are their best protection and means of survival. Ghost Dog places himself at the secret service of his Daimyo; he has pledged to do as he is commanded; and he must, at all costs, protect him with his own life. It follows that he cannot harm him.

And if, in a final showdown, a samurai could not avoid death by any means, he could rely upon his knowledge of Zen Buddhist theology which differs completely from older versions of Buddhist truth. The Zen concept of illusionary “life and death” is often poetically described as a simple journey of shifting forms, as the Great Ocean evaporates, forming clouds that rain down upon the earth as individual living beings which pass through a conscious existence until each eventually returns to Oceanic bliss. Mishima writes, “… we [Japanese] were unable to assimilate Buddhist philosophy with its stultifying concept of sin and karma, according to which one is born and reborn throughout eternity. Death for Jocho has the strange, clear, fresh brightness of blue sky between the clouds.”

Although the practice of committing ritual suicide at the death of his master was not a common practice and occurred only during a fifty year period of history, if required to commit hara kiri, a samurai could do so as a willing martyr to his way of life and as an act of loyalty to the heroic individual to whom he literally owed his life.

A loyalty of such depth, once pledged, could not easily be siphoned off and distributed. Further, given the inter-family intrigues and wholesale punishments, surviving one leader and then pledging loyalty to another, who may or may not have been on good terms with the deceased daimyo, did not hold much in the way of confidence and trust.

Recitation 2, (1:73) contains most of the original verse. The omitted line – inserted here in brackets – helps to clarify the meaning.

“It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a Way. [Therefore, it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai.] If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”

This recitation states the practical advice not to apply other standards of behavior to the Path to which one has committed oneself. Although the Code of the Samurai may take what it requires from any other Code, it is not obliged to accept that Code in its entirety and it cannot be judged by that other code. The Samurai’s own Way is his own unique Path which he must follow consistently; and he cannot follow it properly if he is constrained by extraneous rules or conflicted by contradictory values or directions. In Biblical terms, “A servant cannot serve two masters.”

Ghost Dog serves one master and he serves him without reservation. Of course we realize that “we only kill each other” is hardly an excuse for what he does – but our larger view must encompass his initial beating. The society in which he lives – that mythical place – is a dog-eat-dog world. It is, as Mishima noted, “Jocho’s dream.” In this world, Ghost Dog is able to balance the crime of committing a dozen contract murders by living a monk’s gentle and austere life. In this world, he lives and must be judged by his adherence to the Samurai’s code.

In that mythical “dream” world, Ghost Dog performs admirably.

Editor’s note: The remainder of the Recitations will be discussed in subsequent essays.

Hagakure (#5)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya


Part 5: The Rising Sun Sets Upon The Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya


Tokugawa “Edo” Shogunate (1603 – 1868)


It has ever been the case that when men in power are given the support of religion, they will use that support but never credit it; and when men in power are not given the support of religion, they will hold the religion responsible for every mistake they make.

Ieyasu regretted that after having pledged to protect Hideyoshi’s son, he instead destroyed him; but he also believed that without the support of the Western Christian daimyos, Hideyoshi’s son would never have been a threat needful of destruction.

In 1600, a Dutch ship, piloted by an Englishman named William Adams, landed on a southern island. Immediately the Catholic missionaries demanded that Adams be executed for piracy. No one knew better than a samurai that “The enemy of my enemy is probably my friend,” and Ieyasu not only forbade anyone from harming Adams, but he further discomfited the Catholics by ordering Adams to be brought to his palace for a long and private audience. Adams, being an English Protestant, was familiar with Spain, Portugal, and Catholicism, and his adverse opinions of all three confirmed Ieyasu’s suspicions and validated the opinions expressed by the Buddhists. Adams gave further assurance that if a trade agreement could be reached between Japan and the Dutch and English, Japan would receive all of trade’s benefits and none of religion’s detriments.

Ieyasu expressed a desire to have his own large trading ships, and Adams, who had once apprenticed as a shipwright, agreed to do his best in supervising the building of several large ships. His best proved to be good indeed, for the ships he built sailed to Mexico and back quite safely. Adams was handsomely rewarded for his efforts as was the Dutch East India Trading Company. He was even permitted to carry the samurai’s “two swords.” The Portuguese and Spaniards were invited to leave.

Unfortunately, their farewell addresses lacked a certain “consolation of parting.” They were accomplished motivational speakers; and they were not motivated to leave but to strengthen Christian unity in defiance of civil order. Emotionally aroused, their converts did not respond well to Ieyasu’s order that all citizens convert to Buddhism and to be sincere in that conversion. Those who lacked the required verve were executed.

The samurai nobles constituted 10% of the population of Japan, a considerable leisure class for the common man to support. Ieyasu could count no less than 260 daimyos, 259 more than he would have preferred. Many of these lords had huge armies and many palaces. He therefore ordered that each daimyo have no more than one castle; and to prevent alliances that might prove inimical to his interests, he ordered that any marriage between nobles first be approved by him. And to prevent the daimyos from growing too rich from trading, he also imposed restrictions on the number of ships each could possess.

To enforce the concept of centralized government, he decreed that each daimyo must contribute men and material to the construction of a government complex of buildings and his private palace in the new bakufu capital in Edo – which was suddenly transformed into the metropolis later called Tokyo.

Aware that one man could think whatever he liked but that it took two men to conspire, he permitted the feudal lords to rule their fiefs as they saw fit; but what he strictly regulated was their interaction with each other.

Ieyasu recognized four classes of individuals: warriors, farmers, artisans, and tradesmen. It was not an Indian Caste System which permitted no movement between castes, but rather a means to establish conformity within the members of the group. Each class had to be instantly identifiable by uniform. Merchants had to appear in public wearing homespun cotton kimonos; a purpose they did not consider defeated by lining them with gorgeous silk brocades.

For the Samurai, ko-mon, those heraldic crests had to be displayed on garments. Fabrics, styles, and colors were allocated according to class and even the menu suffered its share of class distinction. Delicacies could be prepared by the common man but not consumed by him. On and on the regulations went.

Ieyasu understood the democratic principle: the power to tax is the power to destroy. When to tax too much and when to tax not enough was as large a problem to him as it is to any modern regime. When it came to political ambitions and the mother’s milk of all politics, i.e., money, he did not want to oppress, he merely wanted to depress. It was therefore necessary for him to require large tribute payments from his 260 daimyo taxpayers. They, in turn, passed the burden onto the common man.

In his early seventies, while hawking with his favorite birds, he grew ill. He died shortly after, leaving the Shogunate to his son. But after eight years of ruling Japan, his son retired, dropping the burden onto his own son, the formidable Iemitsu.

In 1623, as the Pilgrims suffered the labors of creating a new way of life, Iemitsu became Shogun and cruelly squeezed the life out of an old one. The Golden Age of Samurai nobility of body, soul, and mind was over.

Unlike his grandfather who, he claimed, visited him in visions, Iemitsu had never so much as witnessed a battle. He had, therefore, no inhibitions about warfare. He summoned each daimyo and ordered him to submit to his absolute authority or suffer complete family extermination.

He had inherited a nation at peace with the shogun’s coffers filled with daimyo tribute; yet he was brutal, tyrannical, and more than normally paranoid for a shogun. To eliminate any possible competition for his position, he ordered his younger brother to commit suicide. Any man at court who disagreed with him issued his own death warrant. But what would he do with all those unemployed nobles? How would he keep them from conspiring against him? How would he ensure that they always lacked the funds to mount a military campaign against him? Iemitsu devised an efficient scheme for achieving his goals. He initiated the “Alternate Attendance System.”

Every daimyo had to send a large contingent of samurai to Edo every year to spend several months in the capital. Samurai wives and children had to remain in Edo the entire year which meant that within a single generation there were samurai who did not know their own estates, who knew only Edo and the friends and, presumably, the enemies they met growing up in Edo. It would be as if each of the United States was governed by families who had lived every day of their formative years only in Washington, D.C. (One does not have to be a States’ Rights advocate to shudder at the thought.) If in their fiefs regional dialects were spoken, they did not know them… or the manners and customs of those who would have been their neighbors. When samurai boys became men and journeyed to their fief for the first time, they went as strangers.

And the cost to the daimyo to send a well-groomed army and countless support personnel on the long overland journey, to maintain them at Edo during the Attendance period, and to maintain the families of the Samurai at Edo all year round, was prohibitive. Three-fourths of a daimyo’s income could easily be spent each year on pointless expeditions to the capital. Manufacturers and merchants along the routes prospered.

During the Attendance Period at Edo, the samurai had to have something to do and money to spend doing it. But Iemitsu decreed that the samurai could not work beneath their station. With no way to earn money they had to content themselves with spending their stipends in the pastimes of idleness and boredom: gambling, effete musings, fashion, food, poetry, theater, gossip, and the ever-popular wine, women, and song were the pursuits of knightly valor.

Centuries before, the rise of the samurai began when idle, vain and utterly useless aristocrats fled the capital of Kyoto to find sanctuary and purpose in service to hinterland daimyos. And now the situation was completely reversed. Trained and spirited samurai came to the capital in Edo to live like idle, vain, and utterly useless aristocrats. The arts of war had been reduced to sport and grandstand chatter.

Farmers, in a feudal system, belong to the land – as countable and as fixed in place as trees. They received no permission to travel the five highways that led to Edo. Passports were issued and border guards carefully inspected them and the travelers who bore them.

The rules of etiquette applied. With nothing of importance to do, trivia became significant. The samurai could settle their disputes among themselves in strict ritualistic form; but if a samurai so much as suspected that a lower class man had insulted him, he could quite literally slice him in half without even offering an explanation much less a statement of regret.

It was mandatory that a wife wear a red headband when she brought her husband his meals as he worked from dawn to dusk in the fields.

If anyone even unknowingly broke one of Iemitsu’s myriad rules, he could be mercilessly flogged or even crucified. It was not a time to be careless.

Since warriors had no wars to fight, they were expected to become scholars, not to satisfy intellectual curiosity but rather to fill their vacant times with reading and writing. By way of “busywork” they wrote poetry; and because they had no money to pay for their enforced luxury, they would congregate in public places which the generous merchant class visited. So that there would be no infraction of the rules of class distinction, pen names were adopted.

As the years passed and burdens upon the poor to pay for all these excesses increased beyond the capacity to bear them, the system collapsed. Unable to pay samurai retainers, the daimyo released many of them from service and they became Ronin, unattached knights, or paladins.

Some ronin formed gangs, resorting to theft and extortion, activities which were once attributed to the despised merchant class. But this class had gotten very rich, and again, in a complete reversal of fortune, the merchants would pay daimyo to adopt them so that they could wear those coveted samurai heraldic crests upon their kimonos.

The strain of irrational cruelty that cursed the great Ieyasu’s line became evident again in the Fifth Tokugawa Shogun who happened to be born in the Year of the Dog. He decreed that no dog could be killed and that any stray animal must be housed and fed. Thousands of dogs were kenneled in Edo. People in the countryside starved, but the dogs were fed.

In the year 1637, in Shimabara, drought and famine had reduced the people to unbearable suffering. One farmer who was unable to pay his taxes had to watch his innocent daughter unmercifully flogged for his failure to pay. The farmers along with the “closeted” Christians rebelled and barricaded themselves in a castle. The shogun ordered the castle to be placed under siege until all who occupied it starved to death. And then it was decreed that foreign influence had created this rebellion. The Dutch were confined to a small island near the port of Nagasaki. Japanese who were abroad were prohibited from returning and no Japanese citizen could leave Japan.

Two years later a Portuguese ship sailed into Japanese waters. The Shogun ordered all personnel on board – which included royal ambassadors – to be executed except for a few men who, acting as messengers, were told to inform the King of Portugal that if his Majesty entered Japanese waters again, his head, too, would be removed. Japan had begun several centuries of total isolation.

And as if to codify samurai codes before they could all be forgotten, in the middle of the seventeenth century, Miyamoto Mushashi composed The Five Rings of samurai strategy .

And it is also in this time period, in 1659, that in Nabashima fief, a young Buddhist samurai named Tsunetomo was born into the Yamamoto family. He would be a Buddhist acolyte, a writer, a trained samurai warrior, a monk, and finally the author of the Hagakure.

Hagakure #4

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya


Part 4: The Twilight of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya


In Medieval Japan there was no Geneva Convention. No Hague Court considered war crimes. War crimes were warfare’s status quo.

Bushido, the Japanese version of the Chinese wu shi dao (way of the warrior) is entirely reasonable – particularly when it is looked at from the point of view of those who followed it – and not inspected with lenses crafted nearly a thousand years later.

Necessity created the code of the samurai. They brought to their vocation their education, courtly manners, Buddhist instruction and practice, pride in family lineage, and a thorough respect for their relatives’ vicious intrigues and perfidy.

Intermarriage constituted so much of statecraft that a family quarrel had national consequences – which only contributed to more inter-family strife. Tradition, which inculcated family loyalty, had to be neutralized – opposed by an even greater force. A warrior had to depend on his comrades in battle. He had to trust them… and not just some of the time or casually. He had to believe that his objectives were their objectives; that his loyalties were their loyalties – and the only way this could be accomplished was for all of them to pledge their respective loyalties to an independent leader. Since blood ties could only drag a warrior into compromise and betrayal, it had to be understood that a warrior could not be persuaded to spy or plot or to be intimidated in any way into betraying his fellows. All had to be loyal to the same principal and principles.

If a samurai were killed in battle, other samurai would provide for his family – and not as poor relatives, but as equal members of their households. A samurai’s biological siblings were not so reliable.

The Code, therefore, served to protect warriors from the attacks of sentiment and social ambition. When a samurai vowed, “I have no parents; I make heaven and earth my parents,” or, “I have no friends; I make my Buddha-mind my friend,” or even, “I have no enemy; I make incautiousness my enemy,” he and every other samurai who took such vows, meant it.

In terms of gaining victory, such assurances worked in tandem with anxieties about capture. Fear is always a great motivator; and history records many events that would have inspired the requisite fear. Two events during the Taira and Minamoto conflicts stand out as examples because they have so often been the themes of contemporary films:

After one battle in which the Taira prevailed, the Minamoto chieftain was condemned to death; but the Taira insisted that his own son perform the execution. The son could not behead his father; and another Minamoto samurai stepped forward, seized the sword and executed his own chief; and then he killed himself.

On another occasion, the Minamoto set fire to the palace buildings of a Taira ally. As the men, women and children tried to flee the burning buildings, they were cut down. Those who survived the flames and slaughter were cast into a well to drown or to be crushed to death by the bodies falling on top of them.

There had been at least as much warfare in Japan during the fifteenth century as there was in the rest of the civilized world. And there had been prosperity, too. Foreign trade fostered the growth of great port cities.

The Ashikaga presided over a cultural efflorescence seldom seen in world history. Trade with China, which had been discontinued because of Japanese pirates, resumed in full when the Shogun demonstrated his good faith in the mutual benefits of unimpeded foreign trade. When China captured a few Japanese pirates, the Shogun obliged by publicly boiling them alive. It had a chilling effect on Jolly Rogers everywhere.

But prosperity contained the formula for its own destruction. Families tended to have large, healthy families – with sons who inherited their father’s property. But while population increased, land did not; and Malthusian theory applied. War, pestilence, and famine kept the population in check, but usually challenged the meaning of prosperity. A new cycle had to begin.

Several factors contributed to the disintegration of prosperity. Ashikaga governmental self-absorption had fostered an independent spirit among the various daimyo; and then a new esthetic flared, inspired by nationalistic fervor. The ornate decor of Chinese origin was supplanted by the elegant simplicity of Japanese Zen esthetics. Rugs were replaced by straw mats; heavily embroidered brocades, with delicate weavings; gilded, carved, and lacquered furnishings disappeared; floral profusions became gardens that were sculpted as carefully as renaissance statuary. Everything – music, art, theater, architecture, and literature – was stripped of embellishment. The outer surfaces of style, regarded as so much tarnish, had to be polished away to reveal nothing less than core purity.

But purity did not come cheap and neither did the incessant warfare. The barons continued to fight each other as usual until the peasants were taxed into revolt. For eleven years, during the so-called Onin wars, civil order spun out of control in retrograde revolution. It was always back to the bad old days.

Buildings in Kyoto were burned to the ground; looters moved in to rob the dead of armor and weapons and to salvage what they could from ruined structures. Most of the aristocratic citizens of Kyoto – all members of the samurai class – again fled for their lives, often seeking the protection of those unsophisticated country bumpkins with whom they once would not have condescended to dine.

Like sovereign states, the fiefs each had its own laws; and none of the daimyos paid any attention to the mostly ruined capital city. There was no central government. There was not even a pretense of one. The Ashikaga Shogun, bound to Kyoto, was politically impotent. The Emperor scraped by in dignified poverty.

And then on one otherwise ordinary day in 1543, three Portuguese mariners landed on the southern island of Tanegashima. They carried firearms which they sold to the Daimyo of Tanegashima who promptly gave them to his metalworkers for them to duplicate. The Daimyo had seen a demonstration of the ease with which a musket ball could penetrate armor at a safe and considerable distance; and he did not lack foresight.

New styles of battle came quickly into vogue. Combat between horse mounted samurai now changed to infantrymen led by a few mounted officers. And then these rank and file footmen who bore shields and lances and proceeded in a Spartan kind of phalanx, were in turn replaced by musketeers.

A series of civil wars saw the rise of three extraordinary men who were superb military and political strategists and who quickly adopted the new weaponry into their arsenals. Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu stepped into the limelight of Japanese history.

Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu

The Japanese tell a story that illustrates the difference in the three men’s dispositions: the three of them come upon a song bird that is silent. Nobunaga says, “Bird, sing or I’ll kill you.” Hideyoshi says, “Bird, sing or I will force you to sing.” And Ieyasu says, “Bird, I will wait until you sing.” The bird watchers did not always act in accordance with their reputations.

By way of guaranteeing peaceful relations, it was customary for a young son of one great daimyo to be sent to the castle of another daimyo, there to be raised as a member of the family. As a samurai he would be taught the arts of culture and combat. Ieyasu, as the scion of the Tokugawa Clan, was such a “hostage guest” in a castle that would fall in battle to Nobunaga of the Odo Clan.

As little fish are eaten by bigger fish that are in turn eaten by bigger fish until the top of the food chain is reached, the lands of the provincial warlords were consumed until only a few big fish remained in Japan. The top daimyo lord was Nobunaga, who had immediately recognized the superiority of muskets over swords, armed his warriors, and proceeded to conquer more than half of Japan – including the lands of young Ieyasu’s host daimyo.

Ieyasu was then free to return to his own fief. During his absence, his father had died, but his father’s retainers were still loyal, waiting upon the commands of their young lord. Ieyasu did not disappoint. He intensified and broadened the scope of their training regimens to include the latest weaponry; and he secured his line: he married at fifteen and by eighteen had two children.

Nobunaga, the most powerful man in Japan, proved not to be immune to the treachery that infected the body politic. He was assassinated by one of his ambitious generals. And then his brilliant general, Hideyoshi, immediately avenged him, killing the traitorous general. Hideyoshi; a commoner who had no aristocratic prerogatives, simply assumed control of all the lands Nobunaga had unified… and all the armies, too.

Ieyasu considered challenging Hideyoshi’s supremacy but he quickly reconsidered, prudence demanding more preparation. Lacking the power to defeat the brilliant general, he instead formed an alliance with him and was rewarded with a huge domain in the distant area of Tokyo Bay. Hideyoshi ordered him to establish his seat of government in a fishing village called Edo – which is now called Tokyo. Ieyasu complied, building his headquarters in Edo and, at a later time, constructing a magnificent castle for himself – which is now Japan’s Imperial Palace. At this stage of his career, however, he was still waiting for the bird to warble.

Hideyoshi built a grand castle in Osaka near Kyoto. Believing himself to be destined for greatness, he aspired to be named Shogun by the Emperor; and to achieve this end, he lavishly entertained the Emperor and the Imperial court. His efforts were in vain. The Emperor refused to sanction the appointment of a commoner to the position of Shogun. The refusal did not sweeten the rejected leader’s disposition. His administrative style degenerated from strict to sadistic.

While Ieyasu was able to marry his granddaughter to one of the Emperor’s sons, Hideyoshi had no such privilege and further, he had no male heir. He therefore adopted a nephew whom he raised to adulthood, training him to be his successor. But then, at the age of sixty, he fathered a son. His delight with the boy exceeded all rational bounds and serves as an example of the family prejudices which the samurai code tried to obviate; for, now that Hideyoshi had a natural son, he no longer had a use for an adopted one. He therefore ordered the young man to commit suicide and, to preclude any interested party’s desire to retaliate, he executed all possible interested parties…. some thirty-five of his adopted son’s relatives.

Hideyoshi, suffering serious health problems, appointed five regents, Ieyasu among them, to look after his infant son in the event of his death. He died, in 1598, when the boy was five, but not before he exacted a solemn promise from Ieyasu to protect the boy’s life “with his own life.” Ieyasu actually considered keeping this promise…. for longer than might be expected.

When the regent most loyal to Hideyoshi died unexpectedly the following year, Ieyasu suddenly heard the bird sing and took control of Osaka Castle. Particularly since he had been forming alliances with daimyos who had been enemies of Hideyoshi, the three other regents regarded Ieyasu’s action as a provocation that had to be addressed. The country was split into two factions: those daimyos who supported Ieyasu of the Tokugawa Clan and those who supported Hideyoshi’s son whom Ieyasu had allowed to continue residing in Osaka Castle – but as a commoner.

There was a geographical and, by extension, a religious distinction to the split. The Portuguese, having sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, had entered Japanese waters from the south. Once Japan’s wealth became known to the King of Portugal, he naturally desired to annex the islands. Since the quickest way to do this was through religious conversion and trade, he dispatched merchants and Catholic missionaries whose efforts succeeded beyond all expectation. Within fifty years, the missionaries had made some 300,000 converts and the merchants had enriched the daimyos and commercial houses of Japan’s southwest islands. It was mainly those daimyos who prospered from trade with Portugal and additionally Spain – who opposed Ieyasu whose holdings were largely in northeastern areas. But it was more than financial benefit or the acquisition of new products and weaponry that induced them to support the Portuguese presence. The relentless pace of warfare that had driven Japanese politics for generations had been stalled by the unifying efforts of Christianity.

The Japanese tolerance for religious diversion had in essence destroyed the fundamental solidarity of religious fellowship. But in those fifty years of proselytizing, the Catholic missionaries generated a unity of belief that no other religion in Japan had been able to produce. “Catholic” means “universal” and even today, Catholicism is is precisely that…. catholic. Rituals and dogma are virtually identical around the globe. Especially in Japan, with the contentious array of Buddhist sects, the new liturgical conformity tended to create a peaceful cohesion among the catholic converts. The daimyo in these areas appreciated the peace and prosperity. Many of them also converted.

It followed that the daimyo in northeastern areas, who were not blessed with the international trade and the benefits of religious unity, regarded the southwestern fiefs as a clear and present danger to themselves and to Ieyasu’s intention to govern all of Japan.

The Catholics in Japan were led by a small number of Jesuit missionaries. Ieyasu, as had other leaders before him, tried to curb these priests’ increasing power, thinking that if they eliminated the missionaries they would destroy the mission; but as quickly as he had one Jesuit deported, two Franciscans would slip in with the ships that came from Spain’s Philippine colonies. He wanted the trade that came with Spain and Portugal. He did not want the interference to his rule that their new creed presented. He knew that his predecessors’ unification strategies had required the destruction of recalcitrant Buddhist groups and to that end had burned down temples and executed monks. But the Buddhists had had no commercial value! It was a vexing problem.

More was at stake than trade: it was no secret that Spain and Portugal intended religious conversion to be the overture to a military symphony. Catholicism may have been the goal of the missionaries; but their sovereigns’ goal was colonization.

Of the two powers, Spain posed the greatest threat to Japan. The missionaries were circumspect in discussing the aims of empire, but the seamen who manned the trading ships felt no such compunction. They spoke of Spain’s military might and how the few galleons that sailed into Japanese waters were insignificant compared to great gunships that patrolled the oceans.

Trusted Buddhist clerics had warned Ieyasu that there were now so many Catholic converts in Kyushu that if they ever revolted against him they could hold out long enough for Spain’s armies in Manilla to reinforce them. He already knew that the converts were spreading northward at an alarming rate.

To Ieyasu, the normal intrigues and schemes of everyday life were quite enough. He did not welcome interference and the potential subversions the Catholics presented. Before the problem grew too complicated and unmanageable, it was best to solve it. The showdown would come in a massive military confrontation at Sekigahara Castle, on the plains a hundred miles or so east of Kyoto.

Rain and adverse traveling conditions had disrupted the scheduled arrivals of many of the combatant forces, particularly those of the southwest who had longer treks over the mountainous terrain. Although outnumbered, Ieyasu’s 50,000 troops were better rested than many of the castle’s defending 80,000 troops who had endured weeks of exhausting traveling conditions.

The defenders were not of one mind. Several daimyo were unsure of their choice. Ieyasu was a charismatic leader; and they suspected that his forceful personality, clever strategizing, and aristocratic lineage represented Japan’s best hope for unification. As the battle commenced, Ieyasu’s vigorous attack dispelled any doubts that about the side they had chosen: they left defensive positions and joined his forces. Ieyasu’s victory was complete. The victorious samurai slaughtered thousands of defeated samurai and, of course, any of their relatives who had survived the initial battle. The spoils of war were divided among the victorious daimyos and preparations were made for Ieyasu to be named Shogun. Japan’s long medieval warring period had ended.

Because he had given his word to protect Hideyoshi’s son “with his own life” Ieyasu Tokugawa had left the boy in peace. But too many old Hideyoshi supporters agitated for a restoration of the boy’s rightful place, and so, after ten years of such irritation, in 1615, Ieyasu reneged on his pledge of protection and attacked Osaka Castle. He burned it down, killing all the defenders; and when Hideyoshi’s son committed seppuka, all possible future threats to Ieyasu’s shogunate were eliminated. (Only one woman was spared in the slaughter… the wife of the late lamented scion who happened to be one of Ieyasu’s granddaughters.)

The first pledge of the Code of the Samurai is “I have no parents. I make Heaven and Earth my parents.” No one should wonder why this familial detachment is given the primary position in the Code.

It is said that Ieyasu so regretted having to break his word that as penance he wrote the Buddha’s name ten thousand times.


Hagakure (#3)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya


Part 3: The Samurai and the Shogun
by Ming Zhen Shakya


Taira Clan Ministry (1156 – 1180)


Kyoto had long been the exclusive domain of the Fujiwara clan; but when the Minamoto and Taira clans turned against the Fujiwara and took Kyoto for themselves, the spoils of victory were not equally divided. The Minamoto seized the opportunity to become the pre-eminent force, taking over most of the responsibilities the Fujiwara had had for generations. The Taira, as might be expected, resented this unilateral acquisition of power and the feud between these two great houses escalated into a five year war that brought even more turmoil to the country.

The power alternated between the two in one bloody contest after another; until finally one great Taira victory inflicted particularly heavy casualties on the Minamoto who then retreated to Kamakura, near Tokyo Bay, where they recovered, waited, and prepared.

The Taira moved into Kyoto and gorged themselves on all the perquisites that the Fujiwara had enjoyed. Life was wine, poetry, fashion, romantic intrigues, favors for friends, and intermarriage with the imperial family. They not only lived the same life as the Fujiwara had lived; they made the same mistakes. Rather than quell the riots in the provinces, they ignored them, preferring to turn their attention to silks and gossip. When, by 1180, they were sufficiently “soft” the Minamoto struck.


The Minamoto Shogunate (1180 – 1199)


Victorious, the Minamoto chief, Yoritomo Minamoto, called himself Shogun (seii -taishogun – the “barbarian suppressing commander in chief”). History would consider him the first Shogun and the first real statesman of Japan. Yoritomo avoided the errors his predecessors had made: he put his administrative offices, the Bakufu, in Kamakura, far from Kyoto. The Emperor, placing his imprimatur upon the Shogun’s legitimate claim to secular power, continued to perform ceremonies and rituals in Kyoto, but Japan’s secular government, the Bakufu , firmly held the real power. Since Yoritomo preferred meritocracy to nepotism, he was able to bring efficient administration to government affairs. Cosmos replaced chaos as the norm of Japanese life.

Courts were created as were administrative departments – the most significant of which was the samurai-dokoro, the “service room” where retainers of the noblemen convened. This “service room” now functioned as a complete, multi-tasked Department of Defense.


The Hojo “Kamakura” Regency (1199 – 1333)


After Yoritomo Minamoto’s death, his sons, having proven themselves incapable of efficient statecraft, were displaced by his widow and her family, the Hojo Clan, who acted as regents and assumed control of the government. And for the next century Japan prospered. Buddhism flourished, and trade with Korea and China brought new crafts, skills, and philosophies into Japan.

And then, as the momentous thirteenth century began, the ingredients for greatness came together. The samurai “servant knight” was able to add to his fighting skills a regimen that provided for emotional control and a philosophy that gave him an understanding of the true nature of reality. Now it was not only unlimited loyalty to his daimyo and his fellow warriors – or fear of capture – that made him such an effective fighter, but he was able to acquire the spiritual means by which he could overcome even the natural fear of death. Dogen Zenji had returned from China, bringing Zen and a full range of Zen techniques for attaining egoless “detachment.”

Zen Buddhism explained the difference between the illusionary world of samsara and the real world of nirvana. But mainly, it gave a warrior a technique he could practice, one that would give him an extraordinary ability to transcend the ego entirely. Immediately, the samurai, knowing that a warrior’s greatest opponent was his own ego, seized upon these ego-eradicating techniques. The samurai went from being fearless to being indomitable.

Since a properly trained and motivated samurai would enter battle with his ego transcended, he could be killed, but he could not be defeated. He was “not there” to be defeated. And while he fought, his chances of victory were enhanced greatly; for he would be placing at the disposal of his supremely aware and capable interior Buddha Self all the skills he had acquired.

The information had not arrived a moment too soon. The Mongols were on the move.

Before the hoards of Genghis Khan slowed down and stopped, they would conquer Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Once they had secured China and Korea, a move against Japan was inevitable.

Kubilai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, sent an emissary to the Hojo Bakufu to communicate a polite request that the Japanese accede to his demands… or else. The Hojo Regent preferred to test “or else” and ignored the request.

The Mongols responded by commanding Korean shipwrights to construct some 450 ships of various sizes that could carry 15,000 men, horses, and weapons of war across the Straits of Korea to Japan. The invasion would occur in November, 1274.

The samurai braced themselves. They assumed that the invasionary force would land at Kyushu, the island closest to Korea, but they did not know where specifically that landing would be. Positioning themselves in small groups at various locations on the coast, the samurai waited to be surprised. The most that any contingent could hope for was that when the attack came, fellow samurai would rush to reinforce its defensive position.

The Mongols easily took two outer islands and landed on Kyushu where they were met by the nearest group of samurai warriors.

Since the samurai had never fought against anyone but themselves, they had never encountered catapults, incendiary missiles, exploding bombs, crossbows that could send an arrow through armor, poisoned arrows, or even the kind of military strategy that the Mongols excelled in. A samurai had his sword, his armor, and his horse. Always he had gone into battle to face, at worst, another samurai who had his sword, his armor, and his horse.

Although the samurai were outnumbered and had no comparable weapons, they fought valiantly. Relying on their zen-disciplined mind and the confidence that can only be acquired in the absence of ego, they fought with a fierce determination that their enemies, many of whom were Chinese and Korean conscripts, simply lacked. When night fell, both sides, needing to eat, rest, tend their horses and their wounds, retreated – the samurai to the rear of a hill and the Mongols to their ships. The samurai waited for reinforcements. The Mongols waited for dawn.

For most of the expeditionary force, dawn would not arrive. Through the night a storm lashed the coast, and the Mongol fleet, comprised of numerous boats that were actually large, difficult to maneuver floating stables and cargo vessels, were capsized or driven onto the rocks. The battle had lasted only that one day.

Kubilai Khan learned of the catastrophe and ordered that more ships be built and an invasion force many times larger be readied for another assault on Kyushu. He sent more emissaries to the Hojo Regent demanding capitulation. The Regent obliged by beheading the ambassadors.

The Bakufu immediately prepared Kyushu’s defenses. The Regent ordered a defensive wall to be built along the area of the first invasion attempt to impede the movement of horses and carts. He did not try to duplicate any of the Mongols’ weapons. The crossbow was superior to the ordinary bow, but only to foot soldiers; and the samurai were not foot soldiers. As to catapults and trebuchets, they were cumbersome to move and there was no way of knowing precisely where the Mongols would try to establish a beachhead. A well-trained cavalry – mobile and lightning fast – was deemed the best force to oppose the invaders. He ordered the training of large numbers of troops and positioned them around the expected landing sites. He also created a fleet of small warships and, in the patriotic spirit that coursed through Japan, the country’s most expert sailors, the pirates, volunteered to assist in the anticipated naval battles.

Since other military adventures were occupying the Mongols’ attention, the Hojo Regent had ample time to prepare. The first invasion attempt had occurred in November 1274: the second came in June 1281.

Kubilai Khan sent two armadas, one from Korea and one from China, carrying at least a hundred thousand troops. He had launched the largest invasion force that history had ever recorded.

Spies reported the unprecedented numbers to the Japanese court. Truly as a supplicant, the Emperor of Japan went to Shinto’s most sacred shrine at Ise and begged for divine intercedence. He would need it.

Kubilai Khan did not concern himself about the defensive wall that stood in his former landing zone. He simply landed his forces elsewhere.

The Japanese navy, with its small highly maneuverable ships, was able to damage many of the cumbersome transports; and the great number of samurai and trained foot soldiers that massed in Kyushu advanced quickly into battle.

The Mongol strategists evidently did not expect the conflict to be a long one. They had landed their forces at the end of June well in advance of the August storm season; but Japanese resistance was such that the battle continued for the six weeks required for the Emperor’s prayers to be answered. A typhoon struck the coastal areas and destroyed the Mongol fleet. It was a divine wind (kamikaze) that saved Kyushu and terminated the Mongols’ quest for Japan. It the only defeat they had known in their Pacific to Mediterranean conquest.

After the victory, the spirit of unity that had held the Japanese together for five years vanished, and the old internecine strife returned. The high cost of the defense of Kyushu left the Kamakura Bakufu in enormous debt, and the Hojo government found its power slipping in the direction of Kyoto. A new and aggressive Emperor had come to the throne, wanting more than titular power; and many daimyos, some resenting the Bakufu’s failure to repay monies they had lent to finance the war, and others, hoping to evade paying their share of the war’s cost, pledged their loyalty to the Emperor. Having an excess of warriors, they sent him military support.

Desperate, the Hojo Regent sent an army headed by General Ashikaga against Kyoto, but as the army approached the city, the general, a noble descendant of the Minamoto Clan, announced that he had switched his loyalty to the Emperor. The Kamakura Bakufu was finished.


The Ashikaga “Kyoto” Shogunate (1333 – 1575)


General Ashikaga’s sudden change in loyalty to the Emperor did not mean that he was ceding any military authority to the throne. He had himself declared the new Shogun, ending the Emperor’s hope of becoming ruler of Japan in every sense of the word. The new bakufu was established in Kyoto.

And then for the next three hundred years the old feudal conflicts plagued the country. But so did the rise of professional, mercantile, and industrial classes; and in the midst of so much devastation and violent death, so did art and architecture. (It was during the Ashikaga shogunate that the Temple of the Golden Pavilion was built.)

A farm can support a limited number of family members, and children born in excess of that number must leave to make their living elsewhere. Fortunately, there was a market for every kind of item, from lumber to leather, from ceramics to silk. Commercial centers attracted workers and merchants and they, in turn, created the need for restaurants, inns, apothecaries, scribes, brothels, artists, physicians, entertainers, and temples. And wherever there was a town there was a dojo, a sensei, and a group of young people who wanted to learn self defense. Zen Buddhism, which was the religion of choice of the samurai elite, also became the religion of choice for those who sought the advantages of subliminal reaction’s speed. Zen monasteries instructed their monks in all forms of the martial arts.

Zen was not the only religion that provided for the transcendence of the ego: all great world religions provided for such transcendence. And it was not the only religion in which a man could be both a profoundly devout practitioner and also a fierce warrior at one and the same time. But in medieval Japan it was Zen that offered short-cuts to that desired state, and a philosophy that could support both a duty to civil authority and a duty to the Dharma.

Politically weak and unable to curtail the warfare that plagued the rest of Japan, the Ashikaga shogunate contented itself to keeping the dazzling circumstances of Kyoto well polished.

Hagakure (#2)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya


Part 2: The Roots of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya


Sometime during the period we call the Pax Romana, groups of asiatic horsemen, sailors, and metallurgists who, unlike their Chinese relatives, were illiterate, crossed the Korean Straits and settled in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Their technology was superior to the indigenous people and so, as powerful invaders usually do, they dominated and they prospered. Their God of gods, Amaterasu, a sun goddess, had mated with a mortal and, in this act of combining a holy spirit with a privileged human being, created an offspring who would be the founder of a great religion. The concept is not new to us.

Eventually, a descendant of this sacred union would acquire the title of Emperor. For more than sixteen hundred years of demonstrable history, this hereditary line has remained unbroken. The present Emperor of Japan carries the genes and chromosomes of the first Emperor of Japan.

The Caesars reigned contemporaneously with earlier, now legendary Japanese emperors; but the Caesars only casually claimed the genes of divine antecedents; and far from founding a new religion, they sponsored one that was in a state of decay. The wars they fought in order to preserve their official prerogatives and divine rights only hastened their imperial demise.

The Emperor of Japan, on the other hand, was not a political leader; and, in terms of longevity, this made all the difference His person was sacred and, as such, created the Shinto religion’s spiritual bridge to heaven. He did not function as a conduit for traffic between mortals. Secular power was held by an ordinary human being, a dictatorial kind of prime minister, who had no divine claims to press. This person made the decisions that provided for the luxuries of court; attended to the common weal, and committed armies to battles; and he had the power to collect taxes to support those decisions. The divine genes descended through the imperial male line; but since primogeniture was not invoked and the exclusivity of that male line obviously had to provide for marriage to outsiders, the prime minister was able to marry his daughters into the imperial family and to choose, by assassination if need be, the particular prince who would inherit the throne. The all-mortal minister who first became pre-eminent in this role was the head of the Soga clan.


Soga Clan Prime Ministry (c. 400 AD – A.D. 622.)


As the population grew, expanding northwards into coveted lands, clans and tribes condensed into fiefs that tended to regard themselves as autonomous. Distance from the Soga’s seat of power and the absence of writing made communication difficult, and the Soga could not effectively control these provinces. The attempts they made to regulate them were regarded as interference and profoundly resented as such. Without central control and the means by which disputes could be mediated, the various chieftains settled scores in the usual manner: they went to war. A perceived insult could send an army into battle, as could a marriage jealously observed. They fought for land and power and for anything else they could think of. Wars were as dependable as tides.

The Soga chief, Iname, needed to neutralize the belligerence, but only civility could do that. Civility was found in culture – in literature, art and philosophy; and there was not enough of that to be found on his islands. Religion would have eased the problem by imposing ecclesiastical law-and-order on the belligerents; but provincial religion, far from restraining aggression, abetted it.

At court, an elite few, needing to keep records, knew how to write in chinese characters; but no one in the provinces understood the Chinese writing system, and without writing, nothing could be codified; and religion, minus any ethical conformity, became an amorphous mass of shamanistic superstitions and charred-bones’ divinations. With pitiless regularity somebody would toss a tortoise shell into a brazier, and it would crack in the direction that augured well for a declaration of war. Iname presided over chaos.

And then, in 552, the king of Korea presented a solution to the problem: The king needed some of that Japanese militarism to help defeat his enemies. As an inducement, he sent Iname a large bronze Buddha statue along with Buddhist missionaries who brought not only scriptures, but a more compelling need to learn script. The trade-off was perfect. The Soga had long admired Chinese culture and now, with the interest in writing that Buddhism had inspired, came brush and ink, literature and art and an entree into China’s cultural venue – which was especially attractive. China’s terrible Warring States’ period had been brought to a close largely by the tranquilizing effects of Buddhism, and the Soga desired a similar peace.

China was making its courtly procession towards the T’ang Golden Age; and Japan began to proceed in step behind it, copying the movements until it learned them so well it could create its own improvisations.

Buddhism had split into many different sects in its thousand year history, giving the Japanese a wide variety of forms to import. The ones they chose were rich in temple art, lesser gods, and joyful liturgies. Zen was not among the forms selected.

The Japanese also picked and chose what they wanted from Confucianism, a religion known for its ritualistic honoring of ancestral spirits and for its emphasis upon standardized qualifications for civil service – a system that had contributed much to efficient government in China. The Soga wanted to institute this bureaucratic merit system; but it was rejected, both by the various, largely illiterate warlords in the provinces and by the newly rich at court who wanted to secure positions of advantage for themselves and their relatives. But everything else about China was slavishly copied, including that ornate Chinese writing system, which, in Japan, scribed the deepest line of demarcation between the classes. Only the leisure class could afford to master Chinese; and then, only the males of the leisure class were considered eligible for instruction. Women were excluded from reading or writing literature in the only extant form.

The Japanese language was only distantly related to Chinese. And the Japanese all spoke the same language – unlike the Chinese who spoke several dozen different languages. Such phonemic indications as were included in the individual characters pertained to Chinese speech Pictographs and marks that had been assigned abstract meanings could be read by any Chinese person, providing he knew which sign conveyed which meaning – a daunting task considering the volume of characters that had to be memorized and reproduced. In China, all things considered, it was an efficient system. In Japan, it was a wretched waste of time. Japanese women, realizing that there were less than 50 syllables in their native language, invented their own streamlined writing system, a syllabary that is still used today. The time they would have spent memorizing characters, they devoted to creating great literature – books that even now are considered world classics.

The rough barons in the hinterlands quickly learned the syllabary and gained the advantages of written communication. The aristocrats sneered calling their script “women’s writing” but it was “writing” not “drawing” and it suited their needs perfectly.

And now Japanese who lived in the Soga spheres of influence bustled and primped with mainland fashion, with art, architecture, and literature, with textiles and ceramics, metallurgy, and all manner of crafts.

But while Buddhism did secure more peaceful conditions over established areas, the northward expansion of the population kept the governmental reach tantalizingly beyond its grasp. Shamanistic practices persisted; and warlords, those chieftains of distant settlements, continued to squabble and to settle their differences with swords.

When the chieftains finally did come together to agree on something, it was to join forces in order to destroy the government. And in 622, their coalition cost the House of Soga its power and the lives of most of its family members.


Fujiwara Clan Ministry (645 – 1156)


By 645, when China’s 6th Patriarch Hui Neng was a boy of seven selling firewood to support himself, the seat of government in Japan would be taken by the Fujiwara clan who would hold it for the next 500 years.

Although it had previously been the custom to move the court every time an Emperor died, the new Buddhist influence and the example of the Chinese Emperors who maintained a permanent residence in a “capital” city, inspired the Japanese to establish their first capital, Nara. Prosperous nobles flocked to Nara, becoming dandy courtiers, while pompous clerics, whose opulence befitted their exalted state, reposed in splendid temples. Living in Nara meant living lavishly in idleness – except for the energy required to maintain one’s appearance, gossip, compose a charming phrase, and participate in a ceremony of some sort or other.

But when Buddhist clerics got too numerous and too meddlesome, a new capital, sufficiently distant from Nara’s ornate temples to make travel inconvenient, was established in Kyoto. And now the aristocracy, unfettered by the only slightly more restrained Buddhist clerics, pushed the word “excess” to see how far they could extend it. For once they installed themselves in Kyoto, there was no pulling back. Fashion’s “pecuniary canons of taste” and “honorific waste” – and all the folly that attends unlimited money and insatiable vanity – proved that not only Caesars or Sun Kings knew how to live in numbing magnificence.

Etiquette and protocol, daintiness and decorum, and physical beauty of some rather extraordinary standards applied. Men and women brushed acid onto their teeth to make them black; and they painted their faces and necks white… and applied rouge liberally. Men wore lacquered black hats that were topped with a decoration that resembled a raven’s tail, and women required that their hair be full, strong, lustrous, and longer than they were tall. Coifing these pounds of hair required countless servants; and since couture also determined status, silks of astonishing color and weave were lavishly designed into fantastic costumes, sometimes worn layer upon layer, requiring cottage industries of silk worm farmers, weavers, dyers, designers and seamstresses to create, and laundresses, chambermaids and valets to maintain. The less natural and the more artificial life became, the better. Men strove to be fops, women to be mannequins.




Humanity was an inverse function of distance. In Kyoto, elegance and refinement were not only de rigueur, they were evidence of being a human being; and the farther one went from the ethereal circles of Kyoto’s paradise, the less human and more brutish were the creatures one encountered. Lower than the servants who touched their persons were the brutes who reigned as warlords in the outlying districts. The warlords did not appreciate the distinction.

In the Fujiwara court, the new elite, reveling in its fastidious sophistication, developed such a complete disdain for the lower classes that they considered it ridiculous even to attempt to educate them for positions in the bureaucracy. In their contumelious conviction, nepotism was the only possible means of selecting executives and administrators. Even more irrational than their fashion sense was their belief that brothers-in-law and bored sons could make ideal administrators. Government became cumbersome, incomprehensible, inefficient, and unjust.

It was this ingrained sense of superiority that would later become relevant in the samurai fighting style – for the samurai were drawn from these aristocratic ranks and before they would consider engaging in combat, it was necessary to determine family lineage. This was the template for honor – which was another way of saying family “face.” An opponent had to be worthy of the rules of engagement. He, too, had to value family honor above all other considerations. Those who were not related by blood – particularly the lowly agricultural workers – were obviously inferior and their lives had little meaning. Completely expendable, they were conscripted to serve as foot soldiers, regardless of the devastating consequences to their farms. Worse, they had to furnish their own weapons (which were prohibitively expensive) and they had to train themselves in combat techniques. If a man wanted to live to see another harvest, he learned “self-defense.” The noblemen sat upon their horses, arrayed wondrously in armor, and even further protected by their ancestral spirits whose names they shouted before they charged into battle. Such protective raiment was never issued to the conscript. He looked to nature and copied the strategies and tactics of birds, insects, and animals. To the unarmed man who knew no heroic lineage, stealth, speed, agility, accuracy, and constant awareness were his only protection, his limbs his only weapons. Such ordnance cost nothing but time and practice to acquire. Providing for the nobility was a bit more expensive.

Nobles and priests paid their considerable expenses from revenues raised from their farmlands – from taxes levied and collected as a portion of each farm’s produce. But though they had great respect for the finer things of life, money did not determine an individual’s significance. Lineage was the factor that enabled a man to appreciate those finer things: a fastidious daintiness, an effete charm, a languorous obsession with finesse and fashion, with poetry and perfume. Money could not purchase the innate sensitivity required to indulge in these pursuits. If money mattered, well, then those barons in the hinterlands who were very rich could not be dismissed as boors and bumpkins which they obviously were.

Being treated by the court as rude inferiors did not sit well with the barons. And so, as could be expected, while the nobles polished their calligraphy, the barons polished their armor.

In the long run, the pen would not be mightier than the sword.

In Nara’s exalted circumstance, at the summit was the Emperor, surrounded by an inner circle of royal stock; then another circle of “social acceptables” and so on down from perfection’s peak. Long before the base was reached, came the non-scalable “no-man’s-land” of aristocratic separation. At the upper reaches, however, there was intermingling of states but no confusion about status: rank was indicated by the style of the wearer’s garments – gorgeous raiment of clear distinction. Aristocratic nepotism also determined the composition of the hierarchy; and the priest class was likewise identified by garment. Each level of aristocracy had its commensurate level of ecclesiastical rank; and in these associated ranks, properly attired priests and nobles intermingled.

But some of these literate priests tended to take too seriously the scriptures they read. To the court, there was no point in favoring one religion over another: they were all inclined to inject ethics (of all things!) into social affairs. This could not be tolerated.

The Fujiwara moved the Emperor’s court to Kyoto, sufficiently distant from Nara to discourage travel. All the priests were supposed to stay behind in Nara, ensconced in their sumptuous temples. The nobles had deluded themselves into believing that Nara was an immovable object and that they were safely removed from it. They did not reckon upon the irresistibility of their own wealth. Nara clerics, like so many iron filings, turned their negative poles to the positive attractions of Kyoto’s life. They could not help themselves. (Prestigious vows of poverty do not sufficiently compensate the alluring pain of wealth.) As soon as the clerics showed up in Kyoto, zoning laws were enacted. It was prohibited by law to construct a religious building within a given radius of aristocratic residences and gathering places.

Nothing can stand for long between a priest and his flock, and before long the priests not only got close to the source of their calling, but in their common effort they became more congenial; and Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism formed an elastic accommodation. The ecumenical approach had something for everyone.

While armies guarded Kyoto, nobody guarded the rest of the country. Nepotism had its inevitable result: anarchy was the law of the land. Highwaymen robbed travelers on the roads; pirates robbed them on the seas. Roving gangs of thugs invaded homesteads, helping themselves to cattle and kin. There was no governmental protection against the raping, burning, killing, and pillaging. The only hope the individual homesteader had was to pledge his allegiance and his land to the local warlord in exchange for the warlord’s protection. The warlord levied his own taxes, but the farm and the farmer, while still in the feudal system, gained a more caring owner.

Temples were invaded as frequently as homes. No building or property was safe; and since the greatest concentration of wealth was in Kyoto, the roving bands of thugs moved relentlessly closer to the prize. The Fujiwara had always seen the Emperor’s divine origins as a shield against mortal attack. For so long as the emperor’s person was sacred and it was they who guarded the emperor, there existed a pleasant symbiotic relationship . They would provide all the pomp an emperor could possibly want, and the divine aura would surround them like a shining steel net.

To support the steel barrier; the Fujiwara had forged an alliance with two powerful clans, the Minamoto and the Taira, who happily became the marines and infantry of the regime. As such they had the power to enter any of the Imperial lands and conscript the farmer and his sons. Small landholders resisted by forming unions whose boundaries expanded to meet the ever-increasing boundaries of the warlords, who then, by making them an offer they couldn’t refuse, simply absorbed them into their fiefs.

Further exacerbating the problem was the tax-exempt status conferred upon the numerous family estates. As these estates proliferated and as warlords expanded their fiefs, imperial revenue sources began to disappear. Due to civil strife in China, trade with the mainland had ceased, curtailing foreign exchange, and though the government tried hard to squeeze income from warlords and tax-exempt estates, the efforts failed. The warlords and aristocrats needed all the funds they had to finance the costs of fighting each other. The tax base had shrunk, but the government’s expenses had not. Such a situation never bodes well for governments.

And from the middle of the 900s through the entire 1100s there was nothing but war, internecine squabbling, and lawlessness outside the nervous capital.

The treasure house may have been empty; but the treasure house itself was still a prize; and the the Minamoto and Taira clans that had once protected the capital, now fought over it. The day of the House of Fujiwara was over.

Noble families rushed to the frontiers to barter with the only possessions they had: their noble lineage. It brought new blood to the bloodshed.

And so it came to pass that a brutal warlord gained a genteel “daimyo” rank and a noble scion became a servant; a “samurai” – which means “one who serves.”

The year given for the end of Japan’s Golden Age of poetry and flowers, fashion and foppery, and its entrance into the Age of the Samurai is 1156. For that was the year that the Minamoto and Taira clans confronted each other in Kyoto.

A new era had begun.

Hagakure (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya


Part 1: The Extraordinary Yukio Mishima
by Ming Zhen Shakya


“Today I am not going to see skeletons beneath flesh. They are only a concept. I will see and remember things as they are. It will be my last pleasure, my last effort. My last good look. I must look. I must take in everything with an unoccupied heart.”
Honda’s unrealized promise to himself – from the final section of The Decay of the Angel, completed hours before the author’s death.


Late in November of 1970, Japan announced that Yukio Mishima, one of its finest authors, had committed suicide at a military base. Why he did this was a mystery. How he did this was shocking. The entire incident, somehow, someway, had something to do with theHagakure and The Way of the Samurai and, of course, Hara Kiri, the method he used to kill himself.

Since there were eye-witnesses to the event, we do know what he at least thought he was doing: he wrote a speech, stating his purpose. He had scripted a tragic drama, a theatrical experience that he intended would move a nation with its pathos. But despite the event’s meticulous planning, what he produced was a dark, surreal Three Stooges’ comedy.

Immediately, literary detectives began to rummage through Mishima’s life, looking for a clue, a dot they could connect to another dot, a discernible trail that led from cause to effect. Some thought they found the cause in his childhood The usual suspects were rounded up: a cold and disagreeable father, a domineering, smothering grandmother, et al. Some hazarded a guess that the cause might be depression induced by his having failed to win the Nobel Prize in literature – which he surely deserved. Some focused on homosexuality. All the investigations came to nothing. To this day nobody knows why he did what he did. And nobody bothered to do an autopsy – as if a man’s suicide is sufficient to understand the cause of his death.

We did learn that Yukio Mishima, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka,(1926 – 1970), had had a troublesome childhood, but so had 99.9% of the people on the planet.

Childhood is troublesome not because adults make it so, but because, for the child, himself, the period is a long confusing struggle to make order out of chaos, using a brain that is not fully formed and is therefore incapable of doing the job well.

His physical condition, however, could reasonably be described as “fragile.” He suffered from a condition known in those days as “autointoxication,” a nebulous malady which arose from the quack notion that the contents of the large bowel were toxic and therefore dangerous to human health. Both prophylactically and as treatment for this condition, “colonic cleansings,” i.e., enemas, were prescribed. Whether his fragility was caused by symptoms that suggested autointoxication or was merely the effect of its debilitating treatment, we do not know. It is safe to guess that if, in fact, he was subjected to frequent enemas – the universally accepted nostrum for this curious diagnosis, his doting grandmother administered or supervised them. Nobody, in those days, escaped this “all-purpose home remedy” which lingers, even now, in many alternative-medicine regimens.

However good or bad his childhood was, he emerged from it as an articulate, educated, well-mannered, presentable, self-disciplined, and talented young man. He began to write, and because he wrote well, he got noticed.

His literary output was prodigious. Right up to the last day of his 45 years on earth he produced 40 novels, a few of which were turned into successful films, numerous plays, short stories, and essays. In accordance with the “new literary freedom” of the time, he was properly scandalous in his subject matter: homosexuality, obsession; sadism…. themes popular throughout the world in post-war years.

At twenty-six, using money he had earned from his published works, mainly from his sensational Confessions Of A Mask , he traveled to Brazil, the U.S., Greece. He so admired Greek sculpture’s celebration of the human form that he resolved to develop his own frail body. He returned to Japan and learned how to swim. After this, he took lessons in boxing, a sport which he abandoned, and weight lifting, to which he was devoted for the rest of his life.

It is in 1955, when he was twenty-nine, that the distress that would pursue him to his early death makes its unambiguous appearance. In John Nathan’s uncompromising biography, we learn that Mishima is becoming seriously worried about his own mental health, that as he reads a text on schizophrenia he recognizes his own symptoms of a “stiff as leather” psychological encapsulation, a numbness to the external world’s stimuli.

Also, in that same year, of perhaps even greater significance, Nathan quotes a friend who had stayed in a hotel room that adjoined Mishima’s. During the night, awakened by loud groans coming from the adjoining room, he went in and found his friend writhing on the floor. “Mishima pointed to a hypodermic needle on the table and when Mayuzumi [the friend] handed it to him, he gave himself an injection. The pain quickly subsided.” Mishima then explained that these “cramps” had plagued him all his life and, holding his friend to secrecy, promised that he would cure the problem on his own – by which it was assumed he meant by the physical training of weight-lifting. He also confessed that the pains had been getting worse and, since they were now occurring at night, had begun to interfere with his nocturnal writing routine.

The pains, whatever their origin, must have been both recurrent and severe for him to travel about with his own syringe and a ready supply of what was undoubtedly an opiate. We can only wonder that if the pains continued to worsen and if, as is likely, he had been unable to cure the problem with weight lifting, drug use of some kind may have contributed to his worsening grasp of reality.

In 1955, despite the sober post-war reassessment of the Hagakure that led the Japanese to regard the book with disgust, Mishima writes an article about it; and, in glowing terms, lauds it as a “book of peerless morality.” It is apparent that although he senses that the book contains eternal truths, his spiritual lexicon does not yet contain the necessary words for him to comprehend those truths. He repeats the line that had become an anathema to his countrymen following the Kamikaze desperation of the War’s end, “A samurai must take great pride in his military valor; he must have the supreme resolution to die a fanatic’s death.” And he comments, “There is no such thing as correctness or propriety in fanaticism.” Thousands of young men, spouting such “Holy War” bravado, had seduced themselves into believing that a man was heroic when he boasted, “I am unafraid of death,” and then proved his ego’s strength by throwing his life away.

Mishima applies mundane definitions even to the term “death” When the Zen monk Jocho, the Hagakure’s author, says, “I found that the Way of the Samurai is death,” Mishima comments, “…he is expressing his Utopianism, his principles of freedom and happiness. That is why we are able to read Hagakure today as the tale of an ideal country… But what actually existed is merely Jocho’s dream.”

He continues to write successful plays and novels, to develop his upper body strength, and to travel, his literary successes having gained him an international following.

By the tine he reaches thirty-two, his masterpiece, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, appears, guaranteeing his place in world literature. The book is based upon the true story of a young Buddhist monk who deliberately burned down an ancient temple of unrivaled beauty, Kyoto’s Golden Temple. The story’s Zen background requires Mishima to examine in greater detail aspects of Buddhist theology which previously he had not understood.

Yet, by this same year, 1958, no one can doubt that despite his continuing ability to write with a clear, insightful vision, he was regressing into a murky childhood world of comic book superheroes. Perhaps, as a kid, like most Japanese kids, he had fantasized about becoming a chivalrous samurai warrior, the unattached Ronin, the hero of countless action movies made in Japan throughout the 1930s and 40s, the counterparts of U.S. cowboy westerns.

Most kids outgrow childhood fantasies. Mishima never did. His actions leave little doubt that as a samurai warrior he would preserve and defend the one great love of his life: Japan – and, of course, the Emperor – which to him were one in the same thing. But he would not be an itinerant Ronin. His daimyo lord would be none other than the Emperor Hirohito.

A samurai had a “house” – a family and a home-base. He builds himself a house and negotiates for a wife. He has two children and is a good, attentive husband and father.

A samurai could also handle a sword; and his weight-lifting regimen, assimilated to this purpose, gives him the necessary upper body strength to wield the weapon. He begins rigorously to train in Kendo, the samurai art of the sword, practiced as a dramatically costumed, medieval form of fencing with staves.

By the time he turns forty, in 1965, he is, in his mind, a samurai warrior. It is in these last five years of his life that his mind oscillates between cogency and irrationality. Professionally, he writes with penetrating realism. Privately, he is living out a fantasy. He begins his master work, a tetralogy he calls The Sea of Fertility.

We don’t know why Mishima chose to use as his title the name of an arid and lifeless expanse of the moon ironically called The Sea of Fertility. It lies adjacent to what is to an American, at least, the more appropriately named Sea of Tranquility. Given his love for Japan, it is reasonable to suspect that he felt enormous regret that there would be no Japanese footprints in mankind’s “giant leap” onto the lunar surface. Japan had been excluded from the greatest adventure of the age.

The central character of The Sea of Fertility is Honda, a man who squanders his intelligence on absurd superstition and erroneous hunches. Although he enjoys the social status that attends both his accumulation of wealth and his respected position as a judge, he is an impotent voyeur, a gullible fool who is obsessed with his own “discovery of a proof of reincarnation.” He has recognized three moles located in the armpit of four successive characters born throughout his long lifetime. These characters determine his pointless destiny as he struggles, staking reputation and fortune, to fulfill the terms of his ludicrous “proof.”

When in 1967 Mishima writes again about the Hagakure in his book, The Way Of The Samurai , he shows that his spiritual vocabulary has increased but is still inadequate to explain important Zen concepts, particularly the differences between the death of the ego in the material world of illusion and the death of the body in the same world. (By the last day of his life, he will have grasped what had so long eluded him.)

He is openly determined to serve Japan with the same valor and integrity any other samurai would show his daimyo . There were samurai nobles on his grandmother’s side of the family so the claim to such lineage, while tenuous, did have a basis in fact.

But now that he has become the Emperor’s retainer, he needs an army to lead and a war to fight. He decides that he’ll lead a crusade to restore Japan’s rightful heritage, the samurai tradition. The spirit of the samurai haunts him. It begs to be allowed to inhabit the flesh and bones of the near moribund Japanese military; and it promises that this revival will inspire the entire nation to greatness. The plans are all laid out in the Hagakure – a book that teaches the philosophy of all forms of conduct: love, ethics; action – even the honor in death.

According to his understanding of the book, his course is clear: if he fails in his mission, he will commit seppuka. His messianic fervor was not so outrageous then as it seems now; for this was the age of religious and political cults, an age in which charismatic individuals (of which he was surely one) could initiate a movement that would influence events. We have, as examples, The John Birch Society; Reverend Moon’s Unification Church; Hari Krishna; SDS (Students for a Democratic Society); Jim Jones’ People’s Temple; among many others.

He grows more reckless, posing for photographs – bizarre shots of him, naked with roses, in an album entitled, Torture by Roses. He also poses as the arrow-pierced martyr Saint Sebastian, who happened also to be an erotic interest of the narrator of Mishima’s Confessions Of A Mask. (We do not know if the saint’s life held any interest for him beyond his initial inspection of Guido Reni’s fortuitously sensual depiction.)

Personally paying for all of its expenses, Mishima creates a new military unit, The Shield Society, even engaging one of Charles deGaulle’s tailors to design its uniform. He lectures at universities to recruit members, enlisting as many as a hundred young men who possess the requisite samurai “purity of character” – though infighting and boredom quickly thin the Society’s ranks. He obtains permission from the Japanese Self-Defense Force authorities to participate in basic training programs, to bivouac with “other” soldiers and experience the hardships and routines of boot camp, and to use certain facilities to drill the Shield Society warriors who would become his army of morally unimpeachable retainers. The authorities accommodate him, expecting that they can exploit his literary abilities for favorable public relations’ articles. He has training sessions on his beloved Mount Fuji and administers blood oaths, vowing to die for the man-god who sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

As October 1969 approaches, he agitates against the ratification of Japan’s “no-military” treaty with the U.S., joining his voice with the increasingly violent Left who also do not want the treaty ratified. Renewable every ten years, the treaty requires that the Japanese not create any military units beyond those needed for self-defense. The Leftist opposition comes from wanting Japan to join Asia’s immense communist block. Mishima’s opposition comes from his belief that the treaty already has converted samurai warriors into meter maids.

The Left is not so interested in creating a new Japanese military as it is in getting rid of an old American one. But the prosperous Right that holds elective power has no intention of surrendering its burgeoning industry to communist control, or of invoking Bushido or the Samurai ethic or in listening to anything the Hagakure has to say.

To the U.S., the protests are irrelevant. The Allies are not going to tolerate even the thought of another Rape of Nanking, Death March of Bataan, horrendous medical experimentation of Unit 731, or any of the atrocities committed in the cause of Japan’s bellicose ambitions; and many of the men who orchestrated those atrocities are still alive and influential. Mishima cannot understand this. Neither can he see that his countrymen are thriving in 1969’s peace and do not want to go back to 1944… or 1544. He has no constituency. Yet, though the treaty is extended, he remains obsessed with repudiating it.

The Hagakure requires a samurai to be a man of action. But how could he act? If the Shield Society were ever to develop into a samurai elite, into men who could guide the ordinary soldier, he would need the army’s moral support. The very soldiers that he considers inert would have to explode with enough force to produce Constitutional change.

While he ponders this problem, he begins a close and possibly homosexual relationship with a young, unsophisticated member of his Shield Society, a recruit named Morita. He takes pains to teach Morita western table manners as he grooms him for an honorable life as a samurai “man of action.” Within the Shield Society’s four dozen members, Morita and three others become his inner circle.

But when the Shield Society fails to attain the critical mass required to provoke the reaction he seeks and becomes, instead, a “toy soldiers” laughingstock, he despairingly forms a death pact with Morita. They would show the world true Japanese courage and honor. There was glory in failure, too. With cameras flashing, Mishima would commit hara kiri, Morita would decapitate him in a coup de grace, then Morita would commit hara kiri, and one of the other three would administer the coup to Morita.

So that was the plan. Mishima, Morita, and the three others would meet early. They’d first be formally photographed and then they’d proceed to the post where they would “visit” the commanding general, take him hostage, and demand that he summon the garrison to stand at the base of the balcony outside his second storey office. From the balcony Mishima would rally the garrison with a passionate speech. He’d plead with the men to mutiny… or to overthrow an elected government… or to follow him down the path of Death before Dishonor. All of the remaining Shield Society members, in their spiffy uniforms, would also be in attendance. (It is unclear whether he expected his junior samurai to participate in the event or merely to observe it.) Then, at the climax of this orgy of service to his Imperial Majesty, he’d commit hara kiri and be beheaded by Morita who would commit hara kiri, and be himself beheaded. Fin.

On the morning of November 25th, having already alerted the press to attend the finale at the army base, Mishima completes The Decay of the Angel, the final book of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The last section is one of the most astonishing pieces of literature ever to have issued from his prolific pen. Whereas the other three books give garbled versions of Buddhist theology – seen mostly through the befuddled eyes of his central character, Honda, the fourth book, written in the extremity of Mishima’s scheduled suicide, closes with the elegant simplicity of Zen Truth. Honda, in his eighties, desiccated and spent by his own waste, trudges up a hill to a Buddhist monastery to keep an audience with an old friend who is now the abbess. He climbs with difficulty, bearing burdens of illness and ignorance. There, surrounded by the landscape’s beauty, he must often stop to rest. Mishima has always been eloquent in his descriptions of Japan’s natural beauty; but in these final poignant passages, the love he feels for Japan is painful to read.

We watch Honda climb, not knowing whether his steps are a “Stations of the Cross” journey to redemption or whether they are a “Dead man walking” stumbling trip to meaningless extinction.

When Honda at last sits with the Abbess, he is given one more opportunity to dispel samsara’s phantom images. Zen’s Inner Truth is revealed, but it is an epiphany that Honda is too blind to see. The Abbess, enlightened in her Real world, ends the interview, letting Honda remain in what she calls “that other world,” the ego’s world of illusion from which he will never escape.

“What Honda had missed,” Mishima had written, “had been the dark, narrow path through the flesh to holiness. To travel it was of course the privilege of few.”

He puts his manuscript into an envelope, dispatches it to his publisher, and prepares his costume for the final scene of his life. Under his Shield Society uniform he is naked except for a samurai loincloth. He carries an antique samurai sword of exceptional quality. The tragi-comedy begins.

With Morita hiding a dagger under his jacket and Mishima boldly carrying the sword, the five men enter the General’s office, so congenially that a major thinks it is appropriate to serve them tea. The general comments on the sword and Mishima unsheathes if for him to inspect. On cue, one of the young men walks behind the general’s chair in order to gag him with a long thin towel. But the general suddenly stands up to get a better look at the sword, and the young man, not knowing what to do, hands the towel to Mishima, who uses it to polish the blade.

The young man, without a gag to use, again goes behind the now seated general and wraps his fingers around the startled officer’s neck, while another Shield member binds the general’s arms and legs to his chair. Morita, whose job it is to wrap wire around the door knob of each of the room’s two doors to prevent them from being opened, discovers that there is nothing to use to anchor the wire. He resorts to pushing the general’s desk against one door and some chairs against the other door. The major looks through an interoffice peephole and sees the young man standing behind the general – and for a moment thinks that he’s giving him a shoulder massage. When he realizes that the general is being attacked, he summons an assortment of officers; and they decide to storm the office.

The officers push back the flimsy barricades, enter the room, and engage the five invaders. Mishima knows how to use his sword and quickly wounds several of the officers. He demands that they follow his orders, swearing that if they don’t, he’ll kill the General. He wants to make a speech to the assembled garrison; and if they arrange this, there will be no further injury to any of them. They agree. He is slightly behind schedule and lunch time is approaching.

The loudspeakers summon the soldiers, and Mishima nervously waits for his audience to arrive. He does not realize that the officers have called the police who have sent cars and three helicopters to the scene.

All five Shield Society invaders put on headbands that pledge undying loyalty to the Emperor. The garrison assembles, and Mishima goes onto the balcony, leaps up onto a platform, and begins his impassioned call to arms or… something. Nobody is sure. The soldiers have seen their wounded officers being carried out, but they have no idea what is going on. The helicopters and the police car sirens have drowned out Mishima’s voice.

The few dozen Shield Society members who came to the parade grounds are told by an army officer that Mishima wants them to join the men’s ranks; but discretion being the better part of valor, they insist that without specific orders from him, they will not join the assembly. They stay in the background, unable to give him any support.

On the balcony, the Shield members unfurl “purpose” banners that are supposed to hang down for the garrison to read; but the helicopters churn the air and the banners wave unintelligibly. Pamphlets are released, but these too swirl about, and those that are caught and read, clarify nothing.

Mishima continues his inaudible harangue.

It is now past noon and the crowd is confused about everything except missing lunch. Angry, they shout obscenities at him. Mishima, seeing the uselessness of continuing, salutes the Emperor three times and returns to the general’s office.

Inside, he strips off his uniform, kneels, and with Morita standing over him ready to administer the coup de grace, plunges the dagger into his abdomen and draws it sideways. Morita raises the sword and with a mighty blow brings it down intending to behead his friend. But Morita is short and the blade is long and the point hits the rug on the other side of the figure bent in agony on the floor. The blade does manage to slice Mishima’s shoulder, increasing his agony. Morita’s comrades shout at him to strike again, and again with a mighty blow he strikes the carpet and cuts the writhing man’s body. The third time he tries to behead his friend he succeeds only in slashing his neck. Now one of the Shield members, who knows how to wield a blade, takes the sword and with one stroke beheads Mishima. As the men kneel in prayer, the dagger is taken from Mishima’s hand and given to Morita who kneels but can do no more than scribe a superficial line across his abdomen. He looks up helplessly at the man with the sword. Then he bends his head forward in the beheading position, and the sword finishes the job. The head rolls across the floor. The stench of Mishima’s of intestines fills the room. Blood is everywhere. The general is demanding that he be untied before the indignity of his capture can be seen by any other subordinates. And the remaining three members of the Shield Society sob like babies amidst the pandemonium. Life does not necessarily imitate art.

In Confessions of a Mask, the narrator recalls emerging from an air raid shelter one night during the war: “The winter of 1945 had been a persistent one. Although spring had already arrived, coming with the stealthy footsteps of a leopard, winter still stood like a cage about it, blocking its way with gray stubbornness. Ice still glittered under the starlight.”

For the world that had so long admired a man who could write like this, 1970’s winter would be another persistent one.

Hagakure (#0)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya


A series of commentaries on selected entries
by Ming Zhen Shakya



Much wisdom lies hidden by the leaves. We read the Hagakure as if we’ve entered an uncharted cave and find on the floor the scattered pages of an old and valued book; and then, as we explore the unfamiliar setting, to our delight we discover that the antique sheaves have concealed a cache of wisdom’s treasures.

Wisdom is a universal gift. Knowledge and belief tend to be parochial favors; but wisdom is conferred ecumenically . However certain we are of this, we are still startled to encounter its presence in such an unexpected place – in a Buddhist monk’s recollections of his days practicing the arts of war.

Forbidden by law to follow samurai tradition and end his own life when his feudal lord, or Daimyo, died, Yamamoto Tsunetomo retreated to a monastery where, had he not agreed to dictate his memoirs to a young correspondent, he would have remained in quiet obscurity until his death in the year 1719. For a better appreciation of his time, it may help to know that he was a contemporary of William Penn, who died the year before, in 1718.

Throughout several years of interviews in placid temple halls, the monk “Jocho” related his colorful morality tales of warlords and battles which became, collectively, the Hagakure.

Buddhism, the haven of non-violence, is an odd theater for these dramatic anecdotes of slaughter and suicide. It is as confounding as trying to find a justification for the Inquisition in Christianity’s history, or a convincing motive for the Old Testament’s account of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac. Yet within the motives of both human and divine actions there are sad but satisfactory explanations.

So, too, in Zen Buddhism there are reasons behind the militaristic approach to the enlightened conduct which theHagakure references. What, after all, are the stages of development of the spiritual warrior? Are they any different from the stages of the spiritual seeker of peace?

In either case, before ascending through monastic or through military orders to reach the rank of master or samurai, one requirement has to be fulfilled: the ego must be slain. A man must be emptied of his own sense of self, his old material-world identity.

In Zen this requirement is colorfully illustrated in the following story:

A master has become famous for the delicious quality of the tea he brews. All who hear about his tea wish to sample it.

Affecting the air of superiority that we often find in those who are not truly ready to begin the spiritual ascent, a visiting cleric comes to the master’s quarters, carrying a cup of tea that he casually sips as he inquires about the master’s famous brew. “I’d like to taste that tea of yours,” he says. And the master, smiling at the present impossibility, replies, “Before I can put my tea in your cup, you must empty your cup.”

Emptying our ego – and all those old shreds of belief that cling to it – is always problematic. The desperation that moves us to consider such a “leaf-turning” experience is usually felt in secret, just as the action we take to accomplish it is usually quite public. We announce our commitment while quietly wondering if the enthusiasm we feel will last. And will we really be delivered? The death of the material-world ego does not automatically provide for the rebirth of a new spiritual identity. Many of us will simply find ourselves bereft of any meaningful sense-of-self, reduced to compensating the loss with drugs or alcohol or with any of the more respectable but equally useless Six Worlds’ strategies known in Zen asAnimal, Devil, Angel, Human Being, Hungry Ghost, and Titan forms of “false Zen.”

Proving that we’ve truly been reborn in the spirit may require as bold an action as amputating an arm, as Second Patriarch Hui Ko taught us. And that may not be enough. The ability to imitate a correct demeanor is a common talent to the ambitious. We may convince ourselves that our performance is not acting at all – that we are genuinely enlightened. We may even fool a few masters.

As to these Six Worlds’ strategies in military ranks, a genuine samurai was not a common and otherwise unemployable mercenary who worked in exchange for food and shelter; nor did he crave the thrill of being seen in the costumes of rank. He did not use his position to create an audience for his art, or seek approbation for his organizational skills. Neither did he pledge undying loyalty to one Lord and then capriciously affix himself to another. And he did not become a warrior in order to be brutal.

The monk or samurai-in-training underwent the disciplines of acquiring humility, of wiping his identity slate clean, called “dying to self” or “killing the fool.” He accepted responsibility for his previous failures, and did not brag about his successes. In monastery or dojo he practiced the necessary skills: the chants, the prayers, the proper care and wear of clerical garb; the temple protocols; or the drills in weaponless combat and in the arts of archery, sword, and horsemanship.

As he advanced spiritually, he no longer strove to receive the praise of superiors or the admiration of peers; but rather to please his interior Judge, an immortal who held out to him the reward of life in a realm of infinite bliss.

He acquired power over himself, suppressing any resurgence of ego by mastering his senses. He conquered his own preferences and aversions – all things in the material world that tried to entice or disgust him. All were stripped of their emotional value. He could readily tell the difference between good food and common rations; but he would not connive to procure one or to avoid the other. One meal had to be as acceptable as another. One bed had to be as comfortable as another. One day as warm or as cold as another. He conquered hunger, pain, fatigue, lust, and greed. He permitted no anger or envy to influence his actions. His own equanimity and poise served to maintain balance and harmony despite any material-world disturbances.

By depriving material objects and emotions of their power over him, he would attain power over them. Without the conscious ego’s obstructive filters, his senses would grow more acute, his reflexes quicker. It would then be his inner Self who acted and reacted subliminally, automatically, unencumbered by the need to consult the hampering, prejudicial ego.

As a trainee, he may have served his Daimyo or master with devotion, the necessary phase of hero projection; but as he matured in his service, this projection would be integrated, assimilated to his inner Self; and with spiritual conviction he would fully and dispassionately discharge his duties.

The samurai, detached emotionally from earthly times and places and exposed to constant physical danger, viewed death differently from other men. Before he went into battle, he was already martyred to an unseen cause.

As to Japanese history, it is necessary only to know that during the time the Hagakure was written the Emperor had a purely spiritual function in linking the Japanese people to heaven; that Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 6th Century; and that temporal power resided in a group of squabbling territorial lords called Daimyo – who each had a substantial military force, the cream of which was the largely aristocratic class of highly trained warriors, the samurai. Over these Daimyo ruled the political, all powerful Shogun.

In all of the pages of dictation, we discover that the Monk Jocho clearly recognized the universal character of causes and effects – that peculiar eternal quality which truth illuminates. The view of the enlightened does not vary with time and place; and knowing this we can better appreciate the eternal wisdom of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the samurai monk called Jocho.

For these Hagakure discussions we will refer to William Scott Wilson’s fine translation of the work of the original chronicler, Tashiro Tsuramoto, and also to Yukio Mishima’s loving tribute, The Way of the Samurai.