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Interview with William Scott Wilson


Considered by many scholars as the most influential of all samurai treatises ever written, Hagakure, or "Hidden Leaves," remains a must-read for anyone interested in Japanese culture. Finished in 1716, the book contains the philosophy of a samurai named Yamamoto Tsunetomo of the Nabeshima clan, and was scribed by Tashiro Tsuramoto over a seven year period.

When we at think of Hagakure, we think of William Scott Wilson's Hagakure. His English translation, published in 1979, is the standard. Mr. Wilson accurately describes Hagakure for what it's not: a well-thought-out philosophy reasoned and logical. Rather, it has an "anti-intellectual and anti-scholastic bent throughout." But it is Tsunetomo's radical and unabashed analysis of the way of the "good samurai" that adds luster to an otherwise preachy book. Tsunetomo sensed the weakening of his own samurai class in a time of prolonged peace, when a devoted samurai can neither show valor in battle nor commit junshi, a ritual suicide by disembowelment when one's master has died.

Our special guest William Scott Wilson received his B.A. degree in political science from Dartmouth, and earned a second B.A. in Japanese language and literature from the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies in Monterey, California. He then undertook extensive research on Edo-period (1603-1868) philosophy at the Aichi Prefectural University, in Nagoya, Japan. Mr. Wilson completed an M.A. in Japanese language and literature at the University of Washington soon after he translated Hagakure.

His Hagakure book was prominently featured in the Jim Jarmusch film "Ghost Dog" starring Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker. He also translated The Book of Five Rings, The Life-Giving Sword, The Unfettered Mind, the Eiji Yoshikawa novel Taiko, and Ideals of the Samurai.

To learn more about William Scott Wilson and his latest books, please go to William Scott Below is's interview with Mr. Wilson. Enjoy! Do you remember your first exposure to Japanese culture? Please share with us your thoughts and what made you want to study more.

Wilson: My first contact with Japan came in the summer of 1966 when I participated in a kayak expedition . partly sponsored by National Geographic Magazine - from Shimonoseki to Tokyo. I was one of ten members of this group, and we paddled five two-man ocean-going kayaks built in Sweden of mahogany ply. The trip was one of outstanding beauty, as we first paddled our way through the island-studded inland sea, then rounded the Kii Peninsula to the open Pacific. At night we stayed primarily in farming and fishing villages, lodging in traditional Japanese inns, sleeping on the floors of village community buildings, or camping. Our route, as a number of people reminded us, took us along the historical advance of Japanese culture from the SW to the NE and, although we spent some time in the urban centers of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, our experience was, for the most part, rural. In this connection, it may be remembered that the poet Basho wrote something to the effect that "culture begins in the agricultural songs of the villages." He might well have included "the fishing songs."

The following year, I returned to Japan, secured a teaching job and, through one of my students, was lucky enough to find a small 250 year-old farm house in which to live. This thatched hut was located in a pottery and farming village in the mountains about a 1 1/2 hour commute to my job in the city. On the weekends, I read R.H. Blyth's books on haiku and anything else I could find of Japanese literature available. It was Blyth, more than anyone else, however, who turned me towards Oriental literature and translation.

I continued this life, more or less, for a little over two years, when I decided to return to the U.S. and make a formal study of Japanese language and literature. Your Hagakure translation is the best we know. What prompted you to translate the book?

Wilson: A thesis was required for a B.A. in Japanese at the college I attended for undergraduate work (the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies in Monterey, CA), and I asked a Japanese friend what he thought might be an interesting project. He replied that since I enjoyed the works of Yukio Mishima, I should translate Mishima's bedside book, Hagakure. I ordered some copies of the work from Japan, and was immediately struck by both the philosophy and the stately language of the work. I translated a small part of the book for my thesis, but was so taken by it that I then moved back to Japan, secured another farm house, and continued with the translation. Why did Yamamoto Tsunetomo write the book?

Wilson: Hagakure is, for the most part, a series of comments and opinions Yamamoto Tsunetomo dictated over several years to a young samurai scribe who, at the time, had been relieved of his duties. His topics ranged widely, but his main concern was the current mentality or disposition of the samurai class. He felt strongly that with the peace of the Tokugawa era, the samurai had lost their focus on who they were and how they should live their lives. He was not alone in this concern, and a number of other contemporaries from his class were also moved to write their thoughts on these problems. Tsunetomo's radical bushido differed from that of other writers in part because he was a poet, a romantic, and an extreme traditionalist. Hagakure was frequently quoted in the movie Ghost Dog starring Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. What are your thoughts about the movie, and did the producers or director contact you for advice?

Wilson: I think Jim Jarmusch did an excellent job of weaving Hagakure into the story of Ghost Dog, who was a traditionalist in changing times, much as was Tsunetomo. He certainly had a good understanding of bushido as it was expressed in the book, especially vis-à-vis its values of extreme loyalty and sincerity. Ghost Dog seemed to grasp these values, even as they pushed him along towards a cheerful sort of death. Like Tsunetomo, his living, or rather acting, by a philosophy was more important to him than just living on.

The printing of the actual text and the use of over-voice accented the book as being a real work, although this seems not to have been entirely understood by viewers of the film. My choice of excerpts from the book would have differed a little from Jarmusch's, but I am not a film director, and he is a very successful one. In that light, he did not contact me for advice, but was kind enough to send me an autographed poster for the film, which I treasure. How would you describe bushido to most Americans who have little to no knowledge of Japanese martial arts?

Wilson: Perhaps because I am a translator, I feel that you should have an understanding of the individual Chinese characters that make up bushido (???) in order to have a basic grasp of the concept.

The first character, bu ?, is a compound of two radicals meaning "to stop" and "spear." Here you have a choice of two meanings: either to "stop (the aggression of) the spear," or to "stop (aggression with) a spear;" both of which contain a nuance of pacification rather than aggression.

The second character, shi ?, is an ancient Chinese character for "educated gentleman," and it should be noted that such a gentleman was expected to be fully educated in the arts of literature as well as in the arts of war. Interestingly, it can be read samurai in Japanese.

The last character of this word, do ?, is again a compound showing an eye, or fully, a head indicating intelligence, and the radical for "motion." It can mean street or way, or the Great Way of the universe, but is primarily a way living with continual intelligent observation or thought. Or, perhaps, intuition. It is never static or totally defined. This is the same do you find in karate-do, kendo, sado (tea ceremony), and any number of other "ways" of active and conscious disciplined living in Japan. Bushido, then, might be defined as a thoughtful way of living, using both the literary and the martial arts in keeping the peace. Its detailed definition is not the property of anyone. What is your assessment of Sun Tzu's Art of War? What effect do you think the book had on Japanese culture or military history?

Wilson: Sun Tzu's work has often been summarized in the phrase, "winning without fighting," and I think that any thorough reading of the book will substantiate this assessment. Time and time again, Sun Tzu emphasizes that the less blood shed the better, that intelligence trumps direct conflict, and that deception works far better than brute force. Unmistakably, the book is about defeating the enemy, and is directed to people who in part, kill for a living. But for a book written entirely about war, it is remarkable that its undercurrent concerns the preservation of life rather than its annihilation.

The book was likely read by or read to everyone from warlords like Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu to individual master swordsmen like Yagyu Munenori and Miyamoto Musashi. This is plainly seen in the campaign strategies of the former two and in the books written by the latter. But the effect of the book on Japanese history and culture certainly reaches beyond the realm of the martial, and into those of business, politics and even sports and board games like go and shogi. Broadly speaking, it has been an essential study of strategies for anyone or any group in Japan that wishes to survive. Tell us about one of your latest books, The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi.

Wilson: After finishing a translation of The Book of Five Rings, I was asked by my editors at Kodansha International to write a book about its author, Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest of all of Japan's many master swordsmen. Although my experience in "writing" was limited to the introductions of books that I had translated, I agreed to the project, only to realize that I had no idea of how to go about it. I then reasoned that, as a translator, I should probably just go ahead and translate all of the documents I could locate about Musashi, arrange them chronologically, and voila! there would be my book. After more than a year's work and my editors' rejection of this first effort, I turned to a bookseller/ writer/ translator friend in Seattle, and asked for advice. He gave it in three words - "Tell the story." . and took the blinders off of my eyes. I then spent another year or so both in research and in finding my way through Musashi's life. With this, I humbly submitted my manuscript to my wife for partial editing and, much due to her efforts, the publishers gave it their stamp of approval.

During this process, I found that to tell the story, the research involved would have to include not only the "facts" of Musashi's life, which are several but often contradictory, but a good look into every art that he practiced, which, as is well known, included India ink painting (suibokuga), calligraphy, formal gardening and poetry, just to name a few. This became a sort of tour through the art world, both martial and literary, of Musashi's time, and indicated a depth to his life that we have often missed. And it gives a re-reading of The Book of Five Rings yet another dimension.

As mentioned, the historical material on Musashi is various and often contradictory, not the least contradictory of which is his own statement,

When I had passed the age of thirty, and thought back over my life, I understood that I had not been a victor because of extraordinary skill in the martial arts.

when juxtaposed to his life and works (which indicate that he was astonishingly skilled in almost every art he practiced). In this way, the real problem of the work was to find as much of the real Musashi as I could. He had both admirers and detractors both during his life and after, and their statements presented themselves collectively as a sort of maze I would have to wander in trying to arrive at the goal. Then there were the dramatizations created by the professional storytellers, playwrights, painters, novelists and movie-makers who all had their own Musashi to create, and who further blurred the line between "fact" and fiction. In this sense, it could be said that telling the story turned out to be an exercise in judicious weeding.

After completing the book, perhaps my strongest feeling was that Musashi's life was exemplary to us all. He was both single-minded in pursuing his art of swordsmanship, and broad-minded in including a number of other arts in his life. "Do not have preferences," he said. At the same time, although very well read in the classics, he made the rules to his life based on the bedrock of his own experience, and advised each of us to do the same.

As a final note it might be mentioned that among Musashi's paintings is a sumi-e of a cormorant, looking off as though seeing something we cannot on the other shore. It brings to mind the Japanese saying that "the crow that imitates the cormorant is going to drown." The Lone Samurai is the story of a man who lived his life in his own genuine way, but always with his eyes wide open to what that life might include.

[End of interview]

Make sure you purchase our two recommended books by William Scott Wilson:

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