75 Life Lessons From the Japanese Samurai

Hagakure (‘in the shadow of leaves’) is a book of thoughts and sayings that capture the essence of the Bushido - the Way of the Samurai warrior. These thoughts and sayings were narrated by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, (1659 - 1719) a samurai of the Saga Domain in Hizen Province, who devoted his life to his master, Nabeshima Mitsushige

As one might expect, Hagakure contains many useful life lessons, but also many passages pertaining to beheadings, and some of what I hope my readers won’t find useful such as the following:

If you cut a face lengthwise, and urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. 

I have spared you Tsunetomo’s ponderings on such matters and summarised only the most profound and applicable life lessons from the book, below. Where practical, I’ve categorized passages, and added my own interpretations and commentary.

The version of Hagakure I worked with was translated by William Scott Wilson. 


On Rationalising Our Behaviour

  1. We make our logic according to what we like.
  2. People think that they can clear up profound matters if they consider them deeply, but they exercise perverse thoughts and come to no good because they do they're reflecting with and the self interest at the centre.

On Discussions and Arguments

  1. Giving a person one's opinion and correcting his faults is important. To give a person an opinion one must first judge well whether that person is of the disposition to receive it or not. Approaching subjects that are dear to him, seek the best way to speak and to be well understood.
  2. When you are listening to a story or being spoken to, you should be mindful not to be tripped up, and if there is something that you do not agree with, to speak your mind, to show your opponent his error, and to grapple with the situation. Otherwise, others will think that you are in agreement with him.
  3. When someone is giving you his opinion, you should receive it with deep gratitude even though it is worthless.
  4. With an extremely argumentative person, after your then considerably one should I give him down with superior logic, but without sounding harsh, and in a fashion that will allow me resentment to be left afterwards. This is a function of both the hot and words.
  5. If one wraps everything with a heart of compassion, there will be no coming into conflict with people.
  6. There are two kinds of dispositions, inward and outward, and the person who is lacking one of the other is worthless.
  7. The essentials of speaking are in not speaking at all. If you think that you can finish something without speaking, finish it without saying a single word. If there is something that cannot be communicated without speaking, speak with few words, in a way that will accord well with reason. Running one’s mouth indiscriminately brings shame, and many people will turn their backs on such a person.

On Competing with Mediocrity

  1. Those who seem like real men today are few. Because of this, if one were to make a little effort, you would be able to take the other hand quite easily.
  2. It has become an age of men who are prudent and clever at making excuses.

On Righteousness and Tribalism

  1. Things like righteousness are rather shallow.  He who sees from the side has eight eyes. Thought by thought, we see our own mistakes, and find the highest Way in discussion with others.

On Learning and Knowledge

  1. At the highest level, a man has the look of knowing nothing.
  2. Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.
  3. If you can understand one way, you will understand eight.
  4. Today there are no models of good retainers (inferior rank of samurai). In light of this, it would be good to make a model and to learn from that. To do this, one should look at many people and choose from each person he's best Point only. For example, one person for politeness, one for bravery, one for the proper way of speaking, one for correct conduct and one for status of mind.

On Focus and Work

  1. Long ones affairs there should not be more than two or three matters of what one would call great concern. Thinking about things previously and then handling them lightly when the time comes is what this is all about. Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.
  2. All professions should be done with concentration.
  3. When one is writing a letter, you should think that the recipient will make it into a hanging scroll.
  4.  Human life is truly a short affair. Is better to leave doing things that you like. Is foolish to live within this dream of a world seeing unpleasantness and doing anything that you do not like. But it is important never to tell this to young people as it is something that would be harmful incorrectly understood.
  5. At first it is an impressive thing to run until one is ‘breathless. But it is an extraordinarily good feeling when one is standing around after the running. And all of life should be like this. To exert oneself to a great extent when one is young and then to sleep when he is old are at the point of death is the way it should be.To exert oneself to the end, and to end ones whole life in toil is regrettable.
  6. If you just think about what you need to do for a day, you will be able to do anything. If it is a single days work, one should be able to put up with it. Tomorrow, toó, is but a single day. 
  7. Single mindedness is all powerful.

On Suffering

  1. If one does not get it into his head from the very beginning that the world is full of unseemly situations, for the most part his demeanor will be poor and he will not be believed by others.
  2. If one were to say what it is to do good, in a single word it would be to endure suffering. Not enjoying is bad without exception.

On Having Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

  1. It is not good to settle into a set of opinions. First put in great effort to be sure that you have grasped the basics, then practice so that they may come to fruition is something that will never stop you for your whole life time. One should search throughout his whole life how best to follow the Way.
  2.  It is worthwhile just looking at the deeds of accomplished persons for the purpose of knowing our own insufficiencies. But often this does not happen. For the most part, we admire and opinions and become fond of arguing.

On Appearance and Dignity

  1.  Speaking with downcast eyes is carelessness. It is callousness to go about with ones hands inside the slits in the side of his hakama (pockets).
  2. It is said that one should rise at four in the morning, bathe and arrange his hair daily, eat when the sun comes up, and retire whenever comes dark. 
  3. Although it seems that taking special care of one’s appearance is similar to showiness, it is nothing against elegance. If you are slain with an unseemly appearance, you will show your lack of previous resolve and will appear unclean. For this reason it is said that both old and young should take care of their appearance.
  4. There is dignity in personal appearance, a calm aspect, paucity of words, flawlessness manners, solemn behaviour, and deep Insight and a clear perspective.

On Mindset and Virtue

  1. It is essential to become of the mind that is right now pure and lacking complications. People in general all seem to be dejected. When one has a fewer and uncomplicated mind, his expression will be lively. 
  2. There is nothing outside the thought of the immediate moment.
  3.  Play inconsistency and frivolity wish prayer from the way and show ourselves to be beginners, in this we do much harm
  4. Everyone let's the present moments lived by a, then looks for it as though he thought it would have somewhere else.
  5. Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, answer into nothing else, the go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.
  6. Covetousness, anger and foolishness are things to sort out well.
  7. A heart of a virtuous person has settled down and he does not rush about at things. A person of little merit is not at peace but works about making trouble and he's in conflict with all.
  8. To be prideful about your strength while you're mettle is not yet stablished is likely to bring your shame in the midst of people. You are weaker than you look.
  9. Money is a thing that will be there when asked for. A good man is not so easily found.
  10. Walk with a real man 100 yards and he'll tell you at least seven lies.

On Emotional Intelligence

  1. The etiquette of a Samurai is to calm himself and deal with the person in a good manner.
  2. There is something to be learnt from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you will still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, and you still get the same soaking. 

On Practicing What We Preach

  1. He was probably a man who always spoke big words for acted differently when facing the real thing.

On Parenthood

  1.  The child of parents with a bad relationship will be unfilial. This is natural. Even the birds and beasts are affected by what they are used to seeing and hearing from the time they are born.

On Luck and Action

  1.  Good and bad fortune are a matter of fate. Good and bad actions are man's way.
  2.  First intention, then enlightenment.

On Mistakes and Faults

  1.  When I was young, I kept a diary of regret and tried to record my mistakes day-by-day, but there was never a day when I didn't have 20 or 30 entries. As there was no end, I gave up. Living without mistakes is truly impossible. But this is something that people who live by cleverness have no inclination to think about.
  2.  What was person is one who withdraws from affairs.

On Preparing for and Overcoming Adversity

  1. During happy times, pride and extravagance are dangerous. If one is not prudent in ordinary times you will not be able to catch up. A person who advances during good times will falter during the bad.
  2. It is said that much sake, self-pride and luxury are to be avoided by a samurai. There is no cause for anxiety when you are unhappy, but when you become a little elated, these three things become dangerous.
  3.  A person who becomes fatigued when unhappy is useless.
  4. Bravery and cowardice I'm not things that can be connected in times of peace. They are in different categories.
  5. Young men should discipline themselves rigorously in intention and courage.

On Love

  1.  Our feelings go to one person for one lifetime.

On Decisiveness

  1. When one has made a decision to kill a person, even if it will be very difficult to succeed by advancing straight ahead, it will not do to think about going at it in the long way round about way. The way of the samurai is one of immediacy, and  it is best to dash in headlong.
  2. There are four kinds of people. Quick then lagging. Lagging then quick. Continually quick. Continually lagging. Most people are continually lagging.

On Dreams

  1.  Dreams are truth for manifestations.

On Being a Samurai

  1. The three conditions of being a samurai are: 

i) Intelligence: nothing more than discussing things with others. Limitless wisdom comes from this. 

ii) Humanity: something that is done for the sake of others, simply comparing oneself with them and putting them in the fore. 

iii) Courage: gritting one’s teeth - it is simply doing that while moving ahead, paying no attention to the circumstances.

On Jumping to Conclusions

  1.  A certain priest said that if one thoughtlessly crosses a river of unknown depths and shallows, he will die in its current without ever reaching the other side or finishing his business.

On The End in Mind

  1.  The end is important in all things.

On Decision Making

  1.  The truth will be arrived at in one's own heart.
  2. A retainer was going to commit seppuku. But his master told him that he could cut his stomach open later. “Go and get me something to drink” said the master. The retainer got water to drink and in the process calmed down.
  3. There are a few people who will make mistakes with fire after having once been burnt. Of people who regard water lightly, mini have been drowned.

On Gossip

  1. To talk about other people's affairs is a great mistake. To praise them too is unfitting. In any event, it is best to know your ability well, to put forth effort in your endeavours, and to be discrete in speech.

On Judgment

  1. It is not good to make rash judgements concerning good and evil.
  2. When the crime itself is unclear, the punishment should be light.

On Feeding the Subconscious

  1. It is good to breathe things into the ears even when they are too young to understand.

On Servitude

  1. A person who serves when treated kindly by the master is not a retainer. The one who served with the master is being heartless and unreasonable is a retainer. You should understand this principle well.

On Praise and Applause

  1. It is not a good idea to praise people carelessly. When praised, both wise and foolish become prideful. To praise is to do harm.

On Materialism

  1. “I feel no regret about the house and all it's furnishings, even if they burn to the very last piece, because they are things that can be replaced later on.”

On Preparedness

  1. Win first, fight later. Win beforehand. Resourcefulness in times of peace is a military preparation for times of war. 

On Overnight Success

  1. People will become your enemies if you become eminent too quickly in life, and you will be ineffectual. Rising slowly in the world, people will be your allies and your happiness will be assured. In the long run, whether you are fast or slow, as long as you have people's understanding there will be no danger of conflict.

On Regret

  1. There is nothing so painful as regret.

On Sleep

    75.  The times of deep sleep and dreaming are very important. One should             be mindful of this.