Old College Papers: Once Upon a Samurai…

For the next month, I will be posting old college papers that I have written over the years.  Keep in mind, I have attended a lot of college, so have written a bunch of papers.  Since I was just going over my old college papers, I wondered if anything would ever come of them –that was until I started thinking of this blog.  I came upon this one.  I still try to live my life in the way of the Bushido.  I am no samurai by any means, but the practices and customs of these long lost warriors has been something I have admired.

The most memorable book I ever read was Hagakure, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo.  More than just a book, Hagakure is a philosophy of a bygone era, that of the Japanese samurai.  Written by a Buddhist monk, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who was once a samurai Hagakure epitomizes the glory of what was once feudal Japan.  Brutal and harsh, it also harbors a simple message of the need for common sense and humility.  Depicting life in 17th century Japan, Hagakure proclaims the names of those who died in the service of Japanese lords and masters with the clarity of a gong.  It is the paradox of the Japanese samurai and the bushido culture that is depicted in this book, their self-discipline, their demeanor, the way they were raised and the way that they died.  Hagakure held a place for me in my heart, helping me to understand a philosophy and way of life that longed to course through my heart.  For though I consider myself an American, this book helped me to understand a wanton resignation to discover the roots that made up part of the blood that flowed in my veins and a reason why I looked, felt and acted so differently from everyone else I knew as a child – a lesson in history that was never taught in school.

The philosophy of Japanese culture has always been steeped in mystery, even today; many people of western thought often find its inherent simplicity difficult to understand.  17th century Japan was fraught with problems, issues and politics that continue to affect our modern societies of the day.  Crime was prevalent, though justice was often swift – certain death for the offender in the guise of a beheading or torture.  Much like our national guard, police and army wrapped up into one, the samurai warriors were the knights of Japan, employed in roles as judges, juries and executioners.  More often than not, it was the samurai who were executed or ordered to execute themselves in the name
of honor to their liege and lord. 1
When Lord Katsushige was young, his father, Lord Naoshige, instructed him “For practice in cutting, execute some men who have been condemned to death.” Thus, in the place that is now within the western gate, ten men were lined up, and Katsushige continued to decapitate one after another until he had executed nine of them. When he came to the tenth, he saw that the man was young and healthy and said, “I’m tired of cutting now. I’ll spare this man’s life.” And the man’s life was saved.
2“If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one’s body and soul to his master.” The self-discipline inherent in the Japanese samurai and the bushido code were learned from childhood. The Spartan way of life was the destiny of a samurai warrior; feelings of pride and lust for luxury were emotions to be avoided.  Elation when one was happy was a sure sign of danger, while feelings of pride and extravagance when things were going well: sinful and unseemly. Bitterness was the panacea for a hyperactive disposition, while intelligence, humanity and courage, worthy goals to achieve.

The Way of the Samurai was an eye-opening description of bushido belief, a window into the heart of the samurai warrior.  3“To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he pains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”  Contrary to my western thought, it took time for me to digest what was being said, but when I realized the simplicity of this tenet, I suddenly realized just how this kind of thinking could change my life.  Almost epitomizing Machiavellian theory, what I realized was that the need in Japanese culture for complete obedience to the noble ruler.  It was expected to be an obedience that required no hesitation, but quick-thinking action in service of one’s master, a servant class that held a province in abeyance in regard to the noble’s wishes.
Yet, within this code, I found a certain tug of familiarity and warmth, a willingness to give my life in service to my country as a U.S. serviceman with dignity and honor.

It was Hagakure that helped me form a bond with my personal identity – a shadowy, existential entity I never found as an American.  It was within this code that I uncovered a certain understanding of myself, a piece to a jigsaw puzzle
that I had trouble comprehending since my pubescent adolescence.  A teenager from a troubled childhood, I drank and smoked at 14, sampling drugs to find my inner self.  Filled with anger, my journeys left me filled with nothing but ambivalence and frustration in the futility of finding my calling in life.
Hagakure evoked a slow change for me in the course of time.  Littered with entrails of broken relationships and scraps of knowledge from a hardened life, it helped me see the beauty and magnificence of what life has to offer.  Throughout our culture, so many young men and women of diverse backgrounds have traversed the tumult of their teenage years in search of an inner identity.  I did not find mine until I was well into my mid-thirties.  My search was over, my hunger for inner guidance sated with the knowledge that being half-Japanese, I was not so different after all.  Little did I know that I would find my answers nestled in the pages of a book written 500 years ago, in 17thcentury Japan, by a man born on June 12, 1659.

1 Hagakure: The Book of the
Samurai, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, William Scott Wilson
(Translator), Reissue
edition (March 1992) Page 57

2 1 Hagakure:
The Book of the Samurai, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo,
William Scott Wilson (Translator), Reissue
edition (March 1992) Page 129

3 1 Hagakure:
The Book of the Samurai, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo,
William Scott Wilson (Translator), Reissue
edition (March 1992) Page 3

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