Journal of Alternative Perspectives Mar 2005
Samurai Culture is Congenial Toward
Copyright © Hossein Karamyar 2005. All rights reserved.
Japan’s industrial advancement and economic growth is as undeniable as
its affiliation with its ancient and deep-rooted customs. Until
recently, it was hard if not impossible to accept the notion of loyalty
to both traditional culture and advanced technology. Japan, however,
invalidated the idea developed by many sociologists who contend that
tradition and cultural attachments hinder a country’s progress. Japan
with an independent traditional identity demonstrated that alongside
technological advancement one can remain loyal to cultural traditions.
A large portion of the advancements in Japan have materialized thanks
to commitment to their cultural tradition. One cannot ignore the set of
Japan’s traditional culture of liberality plus its unique power to
coordinate with incoming cultures. Japan’s cultural possessions are not
much in conflict with the modern technical and social phenomena and
currents. Without remaining aloof from its ancient behavior, it can
synchronize and harmonize with any novelties. This liberality in
dealing with new phenomena illustrates the simplicity of Japan’s
One of the traditional features of Japan, reminiscent of its noble
ancient culture, is the samurai culture. This class has been one of the
four classes in Japan, particularly in the second era of Japan’s
history known as the age of religious culture that persisted up to the
17th century; the samurai have been among the most important makers of
culture shoulder to shoulder with Buddhist priests.
The samurai were counted as representatives of culture and the
intellectual system of Japan. Although in no historical eras were the
samurai among the producers, they enjoyed spiritual and moral virtues
and special associations earning them privileges, triggering other
classes to maintain them as models of moral perfection. Their courage
and self-sacrifice brings them close to some extent to “ayyaran”
(plural of ayyar meaning hero or champion) in Iranian culture. Although
at no time in Iran did the ayyaran emerge as a distinct and unique
class separate from the other layers of society, their impacts on
spirit of bravery, generosity, fair play and selflessness in Iranian
society cannot be overlooked.
Despite an absence of sufficient sources to make an exhaustive study of
the two cultures, the study of two books entitled: The Book of the
Samurai (Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo) and This is Kendo: the Art of
Japanese Fencing (by Junzo Sasamori) allows one to find the affinity
between Japan’s samurai and Iranian ayyaran. Study of the two books
revealed the harmony of samurai culture with our moral teachings. To
investigate the reasons for this harmony is beyond the scope of this
short paper. Nevertheless, to put it in a nutshell, I believe that the
affinity of Buddhism with Iranian culture and its spread and
admissibility in major cities such as Balkh and Bukhara and finally its
high harmony and concord with Iranian mysticism is worth of study as
one of the common points.
The Hagakure’s philosophy of life and its comparison with Iranian and
Islamic mysticism represents the affinity between samurai culture and
Iranian mysticism. The author of the Hagakure believed that death is
the samurai way and where one is hanging between death and life, the
samurai unhesitingly selects death. Profound study of the Hagakure’s
philosophy of death indicates that the author meant life amid this
philosophy of death, conveying the message of true, valuable and human
existence and not nihilism as presumed by some people.
The idea of death in the sense of life shines out in Iranian and
Islamic mysticism. In Mowlavi’s mysticism death is the same as life.
The Hagakure defines a true samurai to be one who is fearless of death
and constantly prepared to die. In this light, Mowlavi has the
following paraphrased verse: A trader who is timid reaps neither
benefit nor harm. In fact, he brings harm. One who is blazing will
The samurai way was not derived from teachings of philosophy and
religion but from the spirit of courage and the bare and cutting truth
in battlefields. In the epic history of Iran, the Iranian warriors have
been admired for fighting for justice. Iran’s literature is replete
with heroic epic deeds and stories seeking justice and name and fame.
The way of Iranian knighthood emerged from religious fervor and
revolved around the duty of the strong before the weak. The samurai,
however, did not join wars in the name of gods or Buddha but in his own
name, bragging and reciting heroic verses and hollering.
As regards the culture of shame, the samurai considers shame as most
evil of all things. If a samurai fails to revenge, he reaps nothing but
shame and ill-fame. An Iranian poet has said:
"Such said the Zoroastrian priest that honorable death is better than
life in shame."
Loyalty is another element underscored in the Hagakure’s philosophy.
The author does not approve of the prudent logic of the theory of
Confucius regarding loyalty and stresses that a true samurai loyally
serves his lord irrespective of benefits or losses. This unbounded
loyalty of bushido despises death. The noble and loyal Japanese samurai
were never empty of a spirit of self-respect and confidence and never
accepted what they considered tyranny and bullying. The way of
selflessness and loyalty has a unique place in Iranian mysticism.
In the life of a samurai the virtue of selflessness associated with
self-control and one’s self-denial is in fact demonstration of all
these virtues. To this end, Mowlavi says:
"I set the musical instrument to melody in denial, as you die, death
will reveal the secret."
Among the features of loyalty in the Hagakure is the insight and
feeling of love. In ancient Japan, physical and sensual fervor existed
but they did not know love. In the west from the time of the ancient
Greeks, human love and heavenly love differed. Human love (eros)
began with physical liking. This concept developed gradually in Plato’s
philosophy. However heavenly love (agape) is a spiritual life estranged
from physical liking. Therefore, in Western thought, physical love and
spiritual love were regarded always as contradictory. However, in
Japanese fundamental thought, physical love and heavenly love were
intertwined and there is no distinction between the pure and clean love
of a man for other men and his loyalty to his lord.
A more profound concept of love is found among Iranian mystics. Love is
the opening chapter of mystics and travelers of the way. This lofty
mystical love is developed from untold feeling and wholly forgets the
beloved. He means love and his life is love and without love he is dead.
The wisdom of the Hagakure’s thought can be highlighted in the
fight against the concept of wisdom and intellect. The knowledge the
Hagakure considers noble for man is intuitive knowledge that is
separate from rational knowledge and theoretical reason. The eye of the
heart is brighter and more profound than the eye of the head and the
vision of thought. This interpretation for Buddhist mysticism and
Iranian and Islamic Sufism is familiar. In the mystics way, intellect
is the source of separation and discord. Intellect by itself is
materialist and cannot restore man’s eternal value. This value is
accommodated in divine intuition and man’s eternity. Man has always
been in quest of it after his expulsion from paradise.
Satan is the embodiment of realist intellect, while man’s essence is
love of perfection and eternity. Theoretical intellect is unable to
find a way into this simple entity. This understanding is the source of
the light of knowledge which reason cannot have access to. Man should
turn away from logic so as to discover this knowledge. Mowlavi says: "I
tested the prudent intellect and from now onward I will go mad." Hence,
the Hagakure considers resolution and effort to be superior to
In Yamamoto's moral system, he accords special significance to
education and defines it an unending current that lasts for life. The
first principle of education for a samurai is self-making and
cultivation of the spirit of courage and self-confidence. This concept
has occupied a prominent place in Iranian and Islamic mysticism called
the greater jihad or the jihad against self. In this philosophy real
victory is not to overcome the enemy but wining over one’s self. The
first step in self-making is self-knowledge.
The importance given to self-discipline in Iranian and Islamic
mysticism can be found in the following narration:
"On seeing the returning armies from the battlefront, the prophet of
God said: blessed are those who have performed the minor jihad and have
yet to perform the major one." When asked what the major jihad is, the
prophet replied, “the jihad of the self (struggle against self)."
To be a true samurai and step on the spiritual path, we should beg God
to grant us brightness of sincerity, clean the mirror of our heart from
the rust of hypocrisy and enrich our heart with the profusion of His