Learning from the samurai

by Andrew Lansdown

Anyone who has seen The Last Samurai can easily understand why it has been nominated for four Academy Awards (best art direction, best costume design, best sound and best supporting actor). It is an outstanding film about a disillusioned American soldier, Captain Algren (played by Tom Cruise), who goes to Japan in 1876 to help modernise and train an army for the Emperor. He knows nothing of the samurai, the enemy he is about to face. Then in his first battle against them he is taken captive. Thus begins his (and our) discovery of the samurai and their way of life.

And what a discovery it is! I doubt that anyone could watch the film without feeling a sense of admiration for those warriors of ancient Japan.

While the film idealises the samurai and glosses over their shortcomings, there can be no doubt that in real life they were in many respects a noble class of men. And one of their noblest characteristics was their sense of loyalty – loyalty not only to their ideals and the Emperor (as depicted in the film), but also to their feudal lords.

I became aware of this samurai virtue some time ago while reading a collection of anecdotes and reflections by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai retainer of the Nabeshima Clan, Lords of Hizen province in 17th and 18th Century Japan. Yamamoto’s utterances were arranged as a book titled Hagakure (“In the Shadow of Leaves”) just three years before his death in 1719.

Hagakure is a study on the Way of the Samurai. Throughout the book, Yamamoto often uses the term “retainer” for “samurai” because a samurai was by definition a man “retained” in the service of someone of rank. (Indeed, the word “samurai” means literally “those who serve”.) A masterless samurai, a ronin, was an oddity, and was generally viewed either with pity (his master having died) or with misgiving (his master having dismissed him from service).

Throughout Hagakure, Yamamoto insists that loyalty to one’s lord is the supreme goal of the samurai. According to Yamamoto, this is the Way of the Samurai in relation to his lord:

• “Every morning one should first do reverence to his master … For a warrior there is nothing other than thinking of his master.”

• “Not to forget one’s master is the most fundamental thing for a retainer.”

• “Being a retainer is nothing other than being a supporter of one’s lord, entrusting matters of good and evil to him, and renouncing self-interest.”

• “Whatever you do should be done for the sake of your master … Doing something for one’s own sake is shallow and mean and turns to evil.”

• “Loyalty is … important in the pledge between lord and retainer.”

• “[I]f a warrior makes loyalty and filial piety one load, and courage and compassion another, and carries these twenty-four hours a day until his shoulders wear out, he will be a samurai.”

• “[W]hen it comes to the point of throwing away one’s life for his lord, all get weak in the knees. This is rather disgraceful. The fact that a useless person often becomes a matchless warrior at such times is because he has already given up his life and has become one with his lord.”

• “Concerning martial valour, merit lies more in dying for one’s master than in striking down the enemy.”

• “Even when the children in his family were very young, Yamamoto Jin’emon would draw near to them and say, ‘Grow up to be a great stalwart, and be of good use to your master.’ He said, ‘It is good to breathe these things into their ears even when they are too young to understand’.”

• “A person who serves when treated kindly by the master is not a retainer. But one who serves when the master is being heartless and unreasonable is a retainer.”

• “To try [by fawning or forwardness] to enter the good graces of the master is unbecoming. One should consider first stepping back and getting some understanding of the depths and shallows and then working without doing anything the master dislikes.”

• “A man is a good retainer to the extent that he earnestly places importance in his master.”

• “But even a person who is good for nothing and exceedingly clumsy will be a reliable retainer if only he has the determination to think earnestly of his master.”

• “If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one’s body and soul to his master.”

Yamamoto presents an astonishing picture of the thinking of the ancient samurai in relation to their lords. With our emphasis today on individuality and independence, such thinking is utterly alien to us. And yet it is precisely the sort of thinking the Bible encourages in relation to Jesus Christ.

The great declaration of Christianity is, “Jesus is Lord!” Jesus is the rightful Lord of heaven and earth. He is the rightful Lord of every person in the world, demanding and deserving our entire loyalty.

The lords of ancient Japan were merely human and were often “heartless and unreasonable”. Yet the samurai gave them unreserved loyalty and devotion.

The Lord Jesus Christ, however, is God as well as man, and He is always reasonable and kind. How much more, then, should we revere and serve Him?

The way to start out with Jesus is simply to acknowledge His lordship. The Bible, which is the definitive treatise about Him, says, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Once we acknowledge Jesus as Lord, we should accommodate Him as Lord. We should name and revere Him when we wake in the morning, think about Him all day long, endeavour to understand the depths of His mind and will, defer to His judgment in all matters of good and evil, support Him in His cause, be prepared to lay down our lives for Him, do everything for His sake rather than our own, devote body and soul to Him, and seek to become one with Him. In short, we should follow the Way of the Samurai in relation to Him.

Humans were never meant to be ronin, masterless samurai.

We need a lord – we need the Lord – in order to live with honour and high purpose in this life and the next.

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