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Excellent Perspective on Samurai Bravery and Etiquette
on August 27, 2000
This book features sayings and anecdotes from an aging Samurai who died around 1700.
It is a quick and entertaining read, and offers great perspective both on the individual who wrote it, and on the general theory of being a samurai.
There is an obvious sense of loss in many of the passages which comment on how things in contemporary society (of the 1700s) are so different from years past. This book, intentionally or not, captures the spirit of those older days, and serves both as a manual for younger samurai, and as a historical document for people who are interested in "The Way of the Samurai" today.
In his excellent introduction, the translator makes the very relevant point that this book is not a rigorous philosophical treatise, at least not in the way that Western scholars would define it. Instead, it is a collection of stories and phrases about a certain way of living. It doesn't hold up to scientific cross-examination (the author contradicts himself frequently), but it shouldn't have to. Yamamoto gives the impression that if faced with a philosophical attack on his "way", he would shrug his shoulders and say, "Yes, but that doesn't change a thing." In other words, his examples and aphorisms speak for themselves, and are not meant to either exclude other points of view or force others into conformity. Yamamoto even states that the Way he advocates is specific to his region of Japan -- samurai of neighboring regions are free to develop their own Ways.
The passages in the book usually focus on one of two topics: bravery, or etiquette. Yamamoto offers a lot of advice on charging into battle, seeking revenge, executing others, etc. The main thrust of most of it is: the Samurai does not spend a lot of time thinking about killing his enemy. He just rushes in and gets it over with. On matters of etiquette, Yamamoto discusses the proper way to hold a Tea Ceremony, how to cover up a yawn, how to pay attention to people you are talking to, and so on. One of the charming aspects of this book is that right after discussing the swiftest way to cut off someone's head, he'll discuss how to make yourself look nice even if you have a hangover. This could be a result of the editing, but it still makes for entertaining reading.
The other theme that permeates almost every paragraph of the book is loyalty to one's master. Yamamoto never tires of discussing the extremes that a samurai should go to so that he may honor his master and show his loyalty. He gives the example of a samurai who was being beaten by his master: during the course of the beating, the master dropped his staff down a hill, so the samurai immediately ran down to retrieve it, and return the staff to his master so he could continue to be beaten. Of course, the ultimate act of loyalty to one's master is to kill oneself after his death. Yamamoto spends a great deal of time discussing various aspects of this tradition, and regrets that his own master forbade him to commit suicide in such a way.
The book reads very quickly (it took me about 4 hours), in part because it is organized into brief paragraphs and anecdotes (much like a book of sayings), and in part because the underlying material is almost inherently fascinating. It gives a very complete picture of the state of mind of an aging samurai, and depicts the world of the samurai as it existed in the 17th century.
The translation flows very well, though I cannot attest to its accuracy, and the translator includes a somewhat useful glossary in the back of the book, as well as the introduction which I mentioned. I should also mention, for the curious, that this is the translation that Jim Jarmusch used as the source of his aphorisms in the recent film "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai."