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.


Good Reads: sumo, samurai, cormorants, and snow monkeys

The author at has included five sites in Japan under the “Best Places” category: the snow monkeys of Nagano, cormorant fishing in Gifu, samurai on horseback at the Nikko Grand Spring Festival, sumo (broken link), and the Onbashiri (in the works).

Some great photographs on the site, and useful, photographer-friendly travel advice to some amazing locations in Japan and the world. Check it out:

An attendant rushes into a burning house…

… to save his master’s genealogy. Finding the prized document, what has become known as “the blood genealogy,” but being unable to escape the burning house, the previously unremarkable attendant “cut open his stomach and placed the genealogy inside, tightly wrapped in cloth — it was not damaged at all.”

The anecdote comes from Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai, which is currently at the top of the book pile in my bathroom, and was presumably the Who Moved My Cheese? for the self-help crowd in early 18th century Japan.

I don’t think I’ll be bringing any of the lessons learned from this read into the classroom….

The particular edition I’m reading is The Manga Edition, published by Kodansha International – which has just gone out of business. Here’s the press release on the Kodansha USA website.