Readers of Mishima's novels may not be familiar with this charming (well, charming for me) little book, but should be. The format is a bit different than his quasi-autobiographical portraits thinly disguised as novels; here, Mishima in commentary expresses his fascination with death utilizing the teachings of an obscure 18th-century samurai named Tsunetomo Yamamoto, with whom Mishima shared many attitudes toward life and death. Tsunetomo became a feudal archetype to Mishima for his rather extreme views of a samurai's perception of death. Indeed, the samurai life to Tsunetomo was a "Way of Dying", and since one is already figuratively "dead" by virtue of one's duty to one's lord, one should be willing to give up one's life at any moment. Whether one's actions are right or wrong is not to be dwelt upon; what really matters is that one act immediately, with resolution, in all that one does. Hence, the Hagakure praises spontaneous action and resolve as the keys to a samurai's life, which for Tsunetomo translated into accepting death without hesitation or thinking. It doesn't take a genius to see here why the philosophy of the Hagakure was attractive to Mishima and his troubled psyche. And also why it was attractive to Japanese right-wingers and the military ideologies of Japan leading up to W.W. II.
The Hagakure (lit. "in the shadow of the leaves") has traditionally been seen as an extremist segment of samurai culture. To be sure, elements of Tsunetomo's philosophy are commonly seen throughout centuries of samurai literature, but these elements were rarely expressed with such a fascination with death that Tsunetomo had. Most battleground samurai were probably more interested in survival than how to die quickly...look at Musashi's combat strategy, for instance. Most of Japan's famous swordsmen didn't think in terms of dying, they thought in terms of training and a winning strategy. The real battle warriors wanted to win, not lose :-). The irony here in talking about what it meant to be a true "bushi" is that Tsunetomo himself, for all of his "warrrior" posturing, had no actual battle experience and lived in a time of peace. Basically, he was in a situation where absolute devotion to a lord had to be re-interpreted for peaceful times, and so this "willingness to die" for one's lord became more of a personal philosophy than any reality on a battlefield.
The irony between ideals and reality doesn't end with Tsunetomo. Mishima wanted to visualize himself as a "warrior" too, as evidenced in his work "Sun and Steel", so he took up bodybuilding and karate and kendo to forge his body and attempt to escape the "corrosion of words". Alas, as for any actual "battlefield" experience, after Mishima received a draft notice for W.W.II, he happened to go to his induction interview with a cold and lied to the army doctor about having symptoms of tuberculosis. He was declared unfit for service. So we seem to have here another idealized vision of being a warrior more than any real willingness to face combat. However, it could probably be argued that for Mishima, reality was never the main concern anyway; what mattered to him most was his idealized vision of how a modern Japanese male should live and die, and Mishima indeed expressed those sentiments with great clarity and poetic beauty. For all his attempts to get away from "words", i.e., his literary greatness, it is precisely that literary greatness that makes him famous today, not his bodybuilding efforts nor his taking up some martial arts :-). Ah, so much for "sun and steel"... Mishima probably wouldn't be pleased that his legacy, ironically, was in his "words".
As for the Hagakure itself, somehow, probably when the yen was strong and Western businessmen were fascinated with anything remotely resembling Japanese samurai culture, the Hagakure made its way over to the West and sparked interest among Western fans of samurai culture. One finds it rather hard to explain how this unorthodox work, written by an undistinguished samurai expressing feudal views on the absolute devotion of vassels to their lord, nonetheless became a popular work among Western fans...My explanation is that Westerners went through a phase where anything remotely resembling samurai culture became a fad. Especially among the business crowd. Now that the yen isn't at the top of the world financial markets anymore, however, we see interest in Japanese business practices (and perceived relationships to samurai culture) diminishing somewhat, and new business management fads have taken their place. Western business managers have moved on to other pop philosophies. Poor old Tsunetomo and his buddies were relegated back to the scrap heap in the business world.
But it's hard to kill Western interest in obscure samurai musings completely..witness the movie "Ghost Dog", which is a modern re-imaging of Tsunetomo's philosophy. I thought the movie was disjointed and largely unsuccessful, but go figure...the old samurai peacetime-warrior has found new life after all, in Hollywood of all places.