When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death

The Way of The Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim.

The words above are by Yamoto Tsunetomo, taken from his treatise Hagakure on Bushido, the Way of the Warrior. The way of Yamoto is extreme; but his birth in 1659 is 59 years after the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate ended the warring states period in Japan and 21 years after the last major rebellion. There were no wars to fight. Practices such as junshi, sympathetic suicide on the death of one’s master, were outlawed. He died as a monk without facing either.I have been thinking about dissidents. Hagakure presents a philosophy starkly different from modern Western standards, yet it retains a curious appeal even now: the strange admirability of a life lived without compromise. It is not sufficient to ascribe the appeal of Dissident Republicanism to base emotions. It too offers place and purpose, certitude and continuity. To try and understand we need to feel the weight of Pearse’s words about Ireland unfree beating down, the fear of breaking a link with a tradition that extends back generations. If history is the enemy of abstraction, how much more so a history that in a real sense has yet to truly pass?

Such extremism cannot be defeated by pointing out internal contradictions or chances of success. The appeal extends beyond the rational, indeed it revels in the anti-intellectual. For those that know, no explanation is needed. In order to challenge it you must imbibe some of its strength, retain enough of the continuity it offers. But in doing so you also absorb some of its darkness; echoes of civil war can still be discerned in the politics of the Republic, in US election rallies whipping up the spectre of socialism revolutionary sensibilities still live. In this we can perhaps understand the reluctance of many within the mainstream Republican to repudiate even the parts of its history that were unambiguously wrong. Republicanism has a fractious tendency, and the current outcome is presented a work in progress rather than a final accord.

There are other points in here too. Hagakure represents the extreme end of a philosophical continuum rather than forming an outlier. The ideas it expressed bubbled in different parts of contemporary Japanese society to greater or lessor degrees. The feudal system formalised some of the notions of familial piety, sepukku was formally banned but remained an option for disgraced retainers, lip service paid to the warrior ideal. Japan under the Shogunate became insular, limiting trade and banning foreigners from Japan on threat of execution. Without wars to occupy them, the Samurai became bureaucrats rather than warriors and gradually lost position and effectiveness. In the end, it was military intervention by the West that forced a divided and weakened Japan to open up and it was not Japan that had the advantage in the exchange. It would be trite to suggest that all of this was the result of the underlying ideology. But that ethical framework contained the seeds that allowed that outcome to happen. Within it too were the seeds of Japenese militarism that followed; in the Kamikaze fighters we see Tsunetomo’s words made flesh. Those outcomes could not be produced solely from attitudes that existed purely on the periphery; it had to have some level of mainstream acceptance to sustain it.

The temptation is to dismiss the entire ideology as fatally flawed, violent or irredeemable. However, it is worth bearing in mind that Japan fought with the Allies in World War I; Western treatment and the refusal to include a racial equality clause in the League of Nations charter greatly influenced the direction and development of Japan towards militarism. The same ethical foundations combined with the reforms of the Americans post World War helped propel Japan to become one of the most advanced, successful and socially coherent nations on the planet. External pressures and actions have significant impact on development too.

Still though, the darkness lingers. Things to ponder there for all players here, perhaps.

Further Reading

Tokugawa Shogunate
Japanese Militarism

  • Gael gan Náire

    “the Kamikaze fighters we see Tsunetomo’s words made flesh”

    One quick point, it is a common misconception that the Kamikaze pilot intended to committ suicide. They didnt.

    They simply wished to deliver ordnance to the target by whatever method that neccesitated without regard to their own survival – which normally entailed suicide.

  • Dave

    Don’t tell him that or he’ll make one of his trademark appeals to authority by citing a Nobel Prize winner who holds a different opinion, thereby concluding the debate in his mind.

  • Dewi

    Thanks Kensei – fascinating stuff. For a comprehensive study of Samurai traditions in medieval Japan I recommend “Shogun” by Clavell – fab!!

    Wonderful from Kensei’s link to the Hagakure

    “Furthermore, during the last thirty years customs have changed; now when young samurai jeer together, if there is not just talk about money matters, loss and gain, secrets, clothing styles or matters of sex, there is no reason to gather together at all. Customs are going to pieces”

    The youth of today heh !!!!

  • Kensei


    You are right. But it would be wrong to think that Tsunetomo is advocating suicide here. The demand is that the Samurai fulfil his obligations regardless sof consequence to himself. The best outcome would be to win; but it doesn’t matter, he must do his duty. That quote continues:

    We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaming 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.

    Hopefully the parallel is more clear.


    Beats mouthing off with the usual rants without thought or evidence. And 1. Don’t play the man 2. Don’t derail completely separate threads playing the man.


    It is a brilliant book. It is not really a philosophy, it is the collected sayings and random thoughts over a period of seven years. It ranges form the crazy to the insightful to the mundane. I think there are better ebooks kicking about, and paper copies are eays to find.