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Shimadzu Iroha-no-uta - Part 6

Ancient code of the samurai of Satsuma

samurai at shrine

The Shimadzu Iroha-no-uta is a collection of short poems written by Shimadzu Tadayoshi in the mid-1500s.

These precepts each beginning with a letter of the traditional Japanese alphabet were used to educate the samurai of Kagoshima in basic morals for over 300 years.

This is the sixth part of a series of eight articles on the Iroha-no-uta.

Part one can be found here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here.

old samurai archer kagoshima

 賢不肖用い捨つるといふ人も 必ずならば 殊勝なるべし

It is said one should employ the wise and discard the foolish. Do this with certainty and success will be certain.

While it is easy to say “surround yourself with wise people and discard the foolish”, in practice it is much more difficult to achieve. What seems wise may not be so, and a foolish idea may sometimes turn out to be the best piece of advice. By learning to judge who we should listen to and associate with we increase our chances of success.

 不勢とて敵を侮ることなかれ 多勢を見ても 恐るべからず

Never be contemptuous of enemies few in number, nor have fear in the face of overwhelming odds.

We should never underestimate our enemies, even if we outnumber them. We should also never be afraid when outnumbered ourselves.

This advice proved valuable to Tadayoshi’s grandson Yoshihiro, who defeated a Ming army of 37,000 with only 7,000 men, earning him the nickname “Demon Shimadzu”. Yoshihiro later escaped from the battlefield at Sekigahara by charging through the middle of the 30,000 Tokugawa troop with only 1,500 men.

kagoshima samurai marching

 心こそ軍する身の命なれ そろふれば生き 揃はねば死す

The minds of men are the life of an army. Together they live, scattered they die.

The strength of an army lies in the minds of the men that form it and their will to work together. Any loss of this cohesion will result in weakness and result in failure on the battlefield. This teaching should resound well with leaders, who must evaluate the motivation of their staff and their unity of purpose.

 廻向には我と人とを隔つなよ 看経はよし してもせずとも

Whether you read a sutra or not, never distinguish between friend and foe when mourning the dead.

We should not distinguish between friend and foe when mourning the dead. Whatever circumstance brought both sides into conflict remains in this world, and the dead leave this behind when they slip off the mortal plane. This attitude can clearly be seen in the “rokujizo” statues that the Shimadzu clan used to leave on battlefields to pray for the salvation of allies and enemies alike.

 敵となる人こそ己が師匠ぞと 思ひかへして 身をも嗜め

Think of your enemy as your mentor, reflect on yourself and improve.

We should see our enemies as teachers who can show us our weaknesses. We can then reflect on these weaknesses and improve ourselves. This general sense of respect even for a bitter enemy is an underlying theme in the iroha-no-uta and gives us a glimpse into the mindset of warriors striving for a sense of morality in a time ravaged by war.

Part seven of the Iroha-no-uta is available here.

Alex Bradshaw

Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.

He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.

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