Bushido: the backbone of samurai and the Japanese ?


Three kinds of bushido

• Three periods when samurai lived

Samurai lived for about one thousand years beginning from the late ninth century. For this website's purposes, not from an academicl viewpoint, those years are very roughly divided into three major periods:

1. The first six hundred years when samurai were born and grew in strength. In this period, major samurai families gradually gained power, and finally Taira no Kiyomori succeeded in establishing the first military government in the 1160's. Since then, major samurai families run the country along with court nobles and religious forces, but the samurai's governments, being short of strong power base, were uable to rule the country stably. We call these years the period of rising samurai.

2. The next one hundred years starting from the late 15th centry, which is called the period of warring states or Sengoku. Major samurai warlords spent their time struggling for power leadership throughout the country.

3. The last peaceful three hundred years, which is called the Edo period.

• Different meanings of bushido in different periods

Bushido is generally regarded as the spirit of samurai, but the first appearance in the literature is late as the end of Sengoku. That means the samurai in the periods of rising samurai and Sengoku fought and lived without knowing the existence of the word, bushido.*
*"Bushi" is synonymous with samurai and "do" means way. Thus, bushi-do is the way of samurai.

In the Edo period, scholars constructed the ethical standard for the samurai ruling class by uniting the samurai's way of life in the past and their family tradition with Confucian ethics. This way, the word bushido or shido became widely accepted and the bushido ethics and code of conduct were shared among samurai bureaucrats around the country.

And in the following Meiji period, the government officials praised bushido and popularized it internationally as the Japanese spiritual backbone in order to counter the mounting pressures from the western powerful countries.

As a part of this trend, Dr.Nitobe Inazo, a Japanese Christian and not a historian, published an epoch-making book in English, Bushido: the soul of Japan, an exposition of Japanese thought(1900-the 33rd year of the Meiji period).

The book first boomed in popularity overseas, and a little later the Japanese edition became the bestseller in Japan. The success of Nitobe's "Bushido" dictated the understanding of bushido in Japan and abroad in the following years.

• Website's main focus

As above, bushido has several historical meanings and connotations so that even many Japanese themselves do not know what it actually was. For descriptive purposes, this website divides bushido into three kinds:

1. Sengoku bushido ; the way of life of the samurai in the periods of rising samurai and Sengoku, who survived the worn-torn era driven by lust, honor, and fear of death and collapse of the whole family.
2. Edo bushido ; the teachings used as the code of conduct for the samurai bureaucrats in the Edo period.
3. Meiji bushido ; the idealistic bushido advocated by the Meiji government officials, military men and scholars.

This website, as hinted by the main picture of our homepage, focuses on what bushido actually was, namely, Sengoku bushido. Sengoku bushido seems to have a universal value as a guiding principle for the people who tries to attain their aims in a heavily competitive environment. And its defying power against the status quo is still full of appeal.

Although Edo bushido and Meiji bushido were rather a creation than a historical research into the past samurai's principles in life, they provided the spiritual backbone to the Japanese and their positive impact have been great. In view of this, those two kinds of bushido will also be discussed in this page. And of course, we will make a comment on Hagakure, that very radical Edo bushido.

Sengoku bushido

• Prototypal spirits leading to bushido


The origin of Sengoku bushido may be traced back to the armed people's simple and strong feeling to the credit given to powerful men and champions of human bonds. What drove them from inside was sometimes antisocial, different from the generally accepted morals. This explains why we see many common things between samurai and yakuza (Japanese gangsters) in modern days.

• Winning is life

Granted it is a badge of honor to carry out justice. But the honor brought in by justice pales when compared to the honor of winning. If you are to make a choice between justice and winning, take winning without hesitation.
Develop your real power and go radical to wipe out any sign of weakness like meanness, regrets, and cowardice.

• Face yourself as it really is

Really strong samurai never embelish themselves. Discipline yourself, pursue real strength of character with which to stand your ground alone.
In the period of gekokujou* (the low overcome the high), it is not enough for samurai warlords to win out over the enemy or take the place of their own lords. They also had to have the clout to fend off the pressure from within, from the low. Without strength in reality and name, they could hardly survived the Sengoku period.

*For more about gekokujou, visit SamuraiWiki.

• Emphasis on obvious fact

For samurai, the fact that is backed by evidence is everything. That is one of the samurai's necessary accomplishments to survive in Sengoku filled with plots and betrayals.
For samurai, there are no themselves other than those that are apparent outside. Do not make excuses without hard evedence.

• Sense of honor

Samurai felt ashamed in the light of their internal moral code as well as the eyes of respectable others in the same trade, unlike the facile statement made by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict.
Doubtless having a high official rank from the court is an honor, but that rank has to be backed up by real power. Whereas the honor of court nobles is formal and secular, that of samurai is real and eternal. Their sense of honor was so strong that it sometimes went beyond the borders of the feudal master-subordinate relationship.

• Death without regrets

When you were ever humiliated, you should not endure the humiliation even if it might turn out to be disloyalty to your lord. When you feel your existence as a samurai was at stake, chopper your opponent on the spot without thinking ahead.
Samurai's determination to die may be close but not the same as the selflessness of Buddhism. Samurai were second to none in pursuing material success, but they are prepared to cut it off if necessary. One might be able to say Samurai were the people who died a hero's death.

The things written here are true of those first-rate samurai. Narurally, there're outrageous rogues and bandits up and down who called themselves samurai. In hindsight, the periods of rising samurai and Sengoku may have been a kind of field where armed men, high and low alike, competed on the samurai manliness.
--The Phantom of Sengoku--

Edo bushido

• Confucian bushido or Shido


In the Edo period, when the Tokugawa family put an end to the country-wide warfare and brought order to chaos, the spirit of samurai and the manners of battlefield were refined as the moral code that the samurai ruling class should obey. Yamaga Soko, a Confucian and militarist in the early Edo period, redefined the samurai as the role model who observe such Confucian virtues as tyu (loyalty), shin (honesty), and gi (righteousness). His Confucian version of bushido which he called "Shido"* contributed a great deal to the later understanding of bushido. *Shi-do means the way of samurai too.

The moral code such as honor and loyalty which samurai could share easily without talking much had been aged and matured during the reign of the Tokugawa family to become the Japanese ancient virtues dating back even to the dawn of history.

• Bushido in Bakumatsu (end of the Edo period)

Thus the peaceful age of samurai had lasted, with the dwindling samurai spirit, more than two hundred and fifty years until the steamship of the foreign powers appeared off the coast of Japan. Those foreign powers pressed for the opening of the Eastern island nation with tough stance while showing off the advanced military capability.

On this national crisis, local samurai officials, both humble and famous, rose to resist the foreign pressure and helped Japan remain independent. And it was the revitalized Edo bushido that drove those samurai to the lethal act even against their lords' will.
In the midst of the melee, the Tokugawa military government was forced to transfer power and the democratic Meiji government was born.

Japan's independence was largely a result of the samurai's strong independent spirit and great pride taught by Edo bushido. But it's a twist of irony that Japan started the Pacific War and lost it largely because of Meiji bushido, isn't it?
--The Phantom of Sengoku--

Meiji bushido

• Admirable bushido

book cover

Most Japanese historians believe that it is only after the Meiji period that bushido represented the admirable, strict moral code of samurai.
The original bushido (Sengoku bushido) was, as stated before, filled with rough values which tended to conflict with the values in the peace time. Why was it that it became a national spirit representing the old Japanese ethical values?

The open-door policy of the Meiji government facilitated rapid Westernization. As a result, Japan experienced an onrush of Western civilization such as scientific approach, machinery, railroad, materialism, egotism, insistence of rights, etc. The Westernization was so rapid and pervasive that some government officials and cultural figures with a sense of crisis looked at bushido and aggressively promoted its revival.

• Bushido: the soul of Japan

As part of this trend, Nitobe Inazo, Ph.D. in agricultural economics, published a book called "Bushido: the soul of Japan" in English in the 33rd year (1900) of the Meiji period, which sold very well first in overseas and then in Japan.

Nitobe, a Japanese Christian, wrote this book to introduce unique and proud Japanese tradition to counter Western civilization based on his limited knowledge about Japanese history. Although the bushido of his understanding was too much glamorized and his book might be called the Christian message grafted on bushido, the book remains the biggest contributor to the popularity of bushido.

The table of contents of the book is shown below.

  • Bushido as an Ethical System
  • Sources of Bushido
  • Rectitude of Justice
  • Courage, the Spirit of Daring and Bearing
  • Benevolence, the Feeling of Distress
  • Politeness
  • Veracity of Truthfulness
  • Honor
  • The Duty of Loyalty
  • Education and Training of a Samurai
  • Self-Control
  • The Institutions of Suicide and Redress
  • The Sword, the Soul of the Samurai
  • The Training and Position of Woman
  • The Influence of Bushido
  • Is Bushido Still Alive?
  • The Future of Bushido

• Discovery of Hagakure

Six years after the "Nitobe bushido" was published, an old document called Hagakure was "discovered" by chance and it spread rapidly throughout Japan. Hagakure is a dictation given by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai clerk of the Saga Domain, one of the southernmost domains in the Japanese peninsula. its completion was in the middle of the Edo period, but, being a classified document, it had never crossed the border of the domain, having no impact on Edo bushido at all.

With pursuing and pure mind, Hagakure speaks of the samurai's expected behavior. Its big-boned view of life and death is extremely unique. In the Meiji period, when people are wanting traditional values and bushido was gaining in popularity, Hagakure played a large part, together with "Nitobe bushido" in spreading and strengthening the supremacy of bushido.

Mishima Yukio, a nominee for the 1963 Nobel Prize in Literature, was so fascinated with Hagakure that he wrote the introduction to it. In 1970, he burst into the Headquarters of the Self-Defense Forces with his followers to agitate the SDF members. But his action was not answered. He committed hara-kiri suicide on the spot in frustration.

The webmaster himself feels a strong attraction to Hagakure's way of thinking as a thought experiment. The following is my translation of the famous second paragraph.

*Hagakure literally means a shadowed area made by leaves.

The way of samurai is found in death. When you are to choose life or death, just take death. Be determined and advance. The question of whether it is a dog's death or not is the frivolous way of sophisticates. At a critical moment of life or death, the value of your death should be out of the domain of your consideration.

Granted, we all want to live, and in large part we make our logic according to what we like, but to continue to live without having attained out aim is cowardice. To die without gaining one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the way of samurai. Practice death in your head every morning and evening. Live with the death all the time. And then you will gain freedom in the way of life as samurai, your whole life be without blame, and you succeed in your calling.

-- Hagakure, Part of 1st Chapter : Yamamoto Tsunetomo --

• Summary

Meiji bushido is different from Edo bushido, and considerably so from Sengoku bushido. But it had a positive effect on the national pride as a spiritual backbone to face the overwhelming Western civilization. Although Meiji bushido lost its influence at the time of Japan's defeat in the Pacific War, it remains to be the mainstream of people's understanding of bushido.