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Shimadzu Iroha-no-uta - Part 7

Guiding principles from the samurai of Kagoshima

shimazu samurai sword

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 seventh 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, part five here, and part six here.

kagoshima shinto priests

 あきらけき目も呉竹のこの世より 迷はばいかに 後のやみじは

If one would stray from the way in this world full of light, then how much more one would stray on the dark path of the afterlife.

If we are led by temptation and stray from the straight and narrow in this life, then we will almost certainly do so on the narrow, dark, and winding road of the afterlife. We are cautioned to seek enlightenment while we can in this life, in order to save ourselves torment later.

 酒も水ながれも酒となるぞかし ただ情あれ 君が言の葉

Wine can turn into river water and river water into wine. The words of leaders should be measured accordingly.

The thirty seventh teaching of the Iroha-no-uta is rather cryptic and assumes a knowledge of Chinese history. This teaching refers to an incident that happened to Goujian, king of the Kingdom of Yue (reigned 496–465 BC). Goujian raised an army to suppress the State of Wu and gathered a large troop of men near a river. A toast was offered to the army, but there was only a small amount of wine available, certainly not enough for all of the men. Goujian poured the wine into the river and drank the river water with his men, who went on to win a great victory in the battle that followed. In the same way that simple river water was received as if it were fine wine, the words of a leader can greatly influence the motivation of those that follow. We are encouraged to remember this event and choose our words wisely to secure the best result from those that follow us.

 聞くことも又見ることもこころがら みな迷なり みなさとりなり

All we hear and see in this world is either confusion or enlightenment. All depends on our minds alone.

Our state of mind influences the way we see the world and that we should strive to find enlightenment in this lifetime.

kagoshima samurai archer

 弓を得て失ふことも大将の こころひとつの 手をばはなれず

Whether the hand on the bow slips or is steady depends entirely on the mind of the general.

The thirty ninth teaching of the Iroha-no-uta uses the bow as imagery for the martial way. The way of the samurai was said to be the way of the horse and bow long before the sword. To fight as a unified force instead of becoming scattered or weak requires determined single mindedness on the part of the general, much as when drawing back a bow.

 めぐりては我が身にこそつかへけれ 先祖のまつり 忠孝の道

The way of filial piety and venerating ancestors leads only back to yourself

The fortieth teaching of the Iroha-no-uta refers to the way of filial piety – respecting ones parents and ancestors. By respecting your ancestors and setting a good example to your own children, your descendants will thus respect you in turn. This teaching contains a hidden warning that being disrespectful to your ancestors will cause your own children to lose respect for you, something that will ultimately reflect on themselves and doom future generations of your family.

tsurugane shrine priest praying

 道にただ身をば捨てんと思ひとれ 必ず天の 助けあるべし

Commit yourself totally to following the true way, heaven will always lend a hand

If we try to follow the true and noble way, even if things get tough we will have good fortune from above. Of course we have to think hard about what the correct way is and work hard to achieve our goals, but heaven is always watching.

 舌だにも歯のこはきをばしるものを 人は心の なからましやは

Know the dangers posed by the minds of others as the tongue knows the dangers of the teeth.

Even the tongue knows the danger of being bitten by the teeth, yet we are lax when it comes to understanding the dangers posed by the minds of others. We are cautioned to always be aware that people may not say or do what they think and use caution accordingly.

The final part of the Iroha-no-uta is 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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