Good Reads: Hagakure, The Code of the Samurai

Anyone who’s visited my house knows I keep a small library of books on a shelf in the bathroom. At the moment, there’s Siku’s The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation, and National Geographic’s Through the Lens. At the moment, however, it’s a manga edition of Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai that’s got my attention. In fact, I’ve blogged about this unique “self-help” book before. 

I’ve learned a lot about seppuku, assisted ritual suicide (“Depending on the head, there are cases when even the trunk of a body will give you trouble.”) Here’s a  Wikipedia page on seppuku if you don’t happen to have a copy of the Hagakure lying around.

Today I read for the first time about oibara, the practice of loyal retainers killing themselves on the death of their master. Here’s a brief entry with a quote from the Hagakure on Wiktionary.

Reading some of the entries, such as the one on oibara, makes me wonder if some of these practices weren’t more common in word than deed.

It reminds me of a lesson learned in my undergraduate classes in mediaval history and literature about the chivalric code. About how such codes, and such stories, are not created out of a vacuum, but serve a present need in the society that creates them. Thus, in the European Middle Ages, the code of chivalry, with knights riding about Lancelot-like defending the virtue of maidens, was created to temper the behaviour of well-armed knights who were bored to distraction during times of peace, becoming a threat not just to the aforementioned maidens but to society as a whole.

It’s hard to believe that oibara, cutting open one’s belly at the death of one’s master,  was much put into practice. Then again, Japan is a different culture, with a different history. I never would have believed karoshi, death by overwork, existed, yet as recently as 2007 The Economist was reporting on the phenomenon.

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