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Thursday, October 27, 2016

“The Code of the Samurai: The Spirit that Drives Japan”, by Daidoji Yuzan, translated by A.L. Sadler

108 pages, Tuttle Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-0804815352

The Code of the Samurai: The Spirit that Drives Japan was originally written by Daidoji Yuzan (1639–1730), a samurai and military strategist of Edo period for the novice bushi, whom he feared would lose their basic purpose and essential character (this edition was translated by the late Arthur Lindsay Sadler, the one-time Professor of Oriental Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia). I found this book educational, comical, and well worth reading; in a hundred pages or so it taught me a lot about medieval Japan. In a time of peace – specifically, during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1867) – the Samurai extended their duties into the administrative class, developing from mere warriors and attendants into philosophers, scholars, physicians and teachers, creating along the way a concise system of mental and moral training. This class influenced the country’s culture in profound ways which continue to be felt and seen in modern-day Japan. The book includes subjects ranging from education, familial duty, frugality, courtesy and respect, laziness, discretion, military service, vassalage, loyalty, and how to deal with one’s superiors. What is so invaluable about this book for the modern western reader is that it provides age-old ethical guidelines that are exceedingly practical and relevant to the present day, even to decadent foreign devils like myself. Central to the Samurai philosophy is the notion of concerning oneself daily with death; as Yuzan emphasized from the outset, “[a]s long as you keep death in mind at all times, you will also fulfil the ways of loyalty and familial duty” (in other words, everything else follows from this basic attitude: a long life and a character that will improve and virtue that will grow). This makes sense, of course, because as the author points out, when you think your time here will last, you’re inclined to take it for granted, thereby saying things you shouldn’t say and letting important matters slide because “…it can always be done tomorrow”. What I enjoyed most about this work, however, is the way in which Yuzan’s voice comes shining through in the text, even after all the years and the translation from one language to another. His condescension, his bluntness, his matter-of-fact statements, all make for a hilarious introduction to the mind of the samurai. Some of the statements that come out of Yuzan’s mouth are a world apart from what we hear in textbooks today, as he has no problem telling the student that he is lazy, a moron, a coward…unless he applies himself and becomes exactly what a warrior should be. Beneath it all, there is timeless wisdom here.

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