Bushidō, or the Idealized Way

Bushidō, or the Idealized Way

The Myth of the Japanese Samurai
Piotr Żelazny
time 16 minutes

When Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States, read Bushido: The Soul of Japan, he had 60 copies of the book delivered to him so that he could distribute them among his friends. Several decades later, the title fascinated yet another American leader, John F. Kennedy. The founder of the Scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell, also lists Bushido as one of his most important inspirations. What charm lingers around the samurai code? And how does it relate to history?

Samurai constituted a social class from the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries, when feudal structures subordinate to governors began to form in Japan. The emperor quickly ceased to hold sway over them, even while landowners retained private units of qualified warriors. The modern name ‘samurai’ derives from the Old Japanese verb saburau, which through phonetic evolution became samurau over time, meaning ‘to serve the master’. From the 12th century and the reign of the shoguns, the importance of warriors grew steadily.

And yet the book Bushido (from Japanese: bushi – ‘warrior’, dō – ‘way’) was not printed until 1899. The most important set of samurai rules saw the light of day three decades after the outlawing of this community and the banning of warriors from wearing the most important sign of belonging to the caste: a sword known as the katana. Japan was going through a major transformation and accelerated modernization at the time. The country, which had been closed and isolated for over 200 years, was forced to open its borders, and thus came a sudden change of social mores. In 1853, four American steam ships, led by Commander Matthew C. Perry, entered the port of Edo (today’s Tokyo). The Americans brought the emperor a letter from the president demanding the opening of ports and trade. The mere ability to navigate without sails, as well as the thick smoke coming from the chimneys, terrified the Japanese, therefore Perry’s crew did not even have to fire the guns on their ‘black ships’, as they were christened by the local people.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the European and American elites still knew little about the Japanese. Bushido: The Soul of Japan showed them in a new light and immediately became an international bestseller. The image of the samurai emerging from it painted them as noble warriors who follow a code in their lives (similar to the codes of honour and chivalry well-known in Western culture). The English lords and French counts could find motivations that they understood in the war-like actions of the Japanese. Of course, the bushi code differed from those known in the Old World – the text implied, for instance, that the samurai put absolute loyalty to his master above all else. He obeys him to such an extent that he does not consider orders on the basis of the categories of good and evil that are traditional for European ethics, but instead carries them out. It is precisely these types of details that were so attractive to Europeans.


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An economist writes about history

The author of the first written samurai code was Inazō Nitobe – a Japanese economist, diplomat and politician, who converted to Christianity during his agricultural studies at the University of Sapporo in the early 1880s. He continued his education in Tokyo, where he studied English language and literature. However, he was so disappointed with the low level of instruction that in 1884, at the age of 22, he left for the US. There, he not only studied economics and political science at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, but also joined the Religious Society of Friends – a community better known as the Quakers. It is a radical group of purists; pacifists who claim that they have direct contact with God, and therefore do not build temples and do not need priests. In 1947, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It was in the Philadelphia Quaker community that Nitobe met his future wife, Mary Patterson Elkinton. He completed his education in Germany, at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, where in December 1890 he graduated in agricultural economics. In 1901, he became an advisor to the colonial government in Taiwan, which was occupied by Japan at the time.

In the meantime, he travelled and wrote – although he had several publications in German, he wrote mainly in English. It was in this language that he wrote the major part of Bushido while he was staying in California. Although in the book the name of the town of Malvern, Pennsylvania appears under the preface, Nitobe only added the final touches and wrote the introduction in that location.

The book was translated into other languages and published in subsequent countries. Very soon, in 1904, the Polish version was published in Lwów, and Nitobe wrote a special preface addressed to his Polish readers. In it, he emphasized the similarities between Poles and the Japanese – he wrote that both nations love honour and attachment to ideals above all else, and that a reader from along the Vistula river would easily understand what bushidō was. The Polish edition was ‘corrected’ in several places by Austrian censorship, but the book still remained very popular.

As the author emphasized, despite the fact that the samurai code concerned the warrior class, for centuries it was binding among the entire Japanese society and functioned in the consciousness of all classes – hence the book’s subtitle, ‘The Soul of Japan’. He compared the role played by bushidō to religion or ethics in Western societies. Nitobe also wrote that in the contemporary Meiji era – the period of restoration of imperial power and great transformations – the bushidō code became something akin to a constitution.

All this appealed to Europeans perfectly. Notions such as ‘constitution’, ‘code’ (like those among knights or the nobility) and the introduced ethical categories could be easily understood. Additionally, references to Christianity brought the mysterious samurai and their rich culture closer. Soon, the virtues of Japanese warriors became well-known to members of the elite of the Old Continent and the New World. Among them, the most important were: righteousness and justice, bravery, courage and perseverance, virtue and compassion, kindness, truthfulness, honour, self-control and – quite exotic for Europeans – the absolute duty of loyalty to the feudal lord.

The ghosts of Christianity

Japan under Emperor Mutsuhito – who was called Meiji after his death (like the period of his reign) – grew in strength, forming an empire in the Pacific and the Far East. First it succeeded in its war with China (1894–1895), and then 10 years later it defeated Russia, thanks to which it could occupy Korea and Taiwan, and strengthen its influence in Manchuria. This triumph of Japan made it one of the most important countries in the world. Military victories were accompanied by accelerated modernization in all possible areas of life, and the government promoted and fuelled nationalism that was to justify military aggression against other states. Japan was supposed to be a superpower and was becoming one.

In these circumstances, in 1908 – four years after the Polish publication, nine after the premiere of the original – Bushido finally appeared in the Land of the Rising Sun, translated into Japanese. At first, the publication, having received such wide coverage outside Japan, initially went practically unnoticed in the country, and was criticized in the academic circles of historians. All that caused Bushido to be fantastically received in the West aroused controversy in the author’s homeland. Describing the samurai code along similar lines to European knightly codes not only defied tradition, but was also simply incomprehensible for Nitobe’s compatriots.

References to Christianity, omnipresent in the text, turned out to be similarly incomprehensible. Japan is a country where many religions function simultaneously. The two main ones are Shintoism and Buddhism. Both are seasoned with Confucianism and Taoism – philosophical systems that do not bear the character of religion in textbook terms. Faith is a private matter for every Japanese person, and Japan has hardly ever had a state denomination. No-one is surprised by religious syncretism – marriage in a Shinto temple, a funeral according to Buddhist rite, belief in fortunate and unlucky phenomena straight from Taoism, worshipping nature. Many Japanese describe themselves as mushūkyō, or religiously unaffiliated. However, this is not a word for being an unbeliever. People who speak of themselves as mushūkyō believe that having one religion is extreme, foreign, and very Western. Today, 69% of the country’s population say they practise Shinto, and 66% practice in line with Buddhism. The fact that the sum is well over 100% says it all about religion in Japan.

Nitobe’s numerous references to Christianity were also out of place because for the most part the samurai followed the social teachings of Confucius. One of the guiding principles of Confucianism is filial piety – that is, absolute obedience to parents and older siblings, giving them respect.

Literary fiction?

When Bushido was released in Japan, academics first and foremost questioned Nitobe’s competence. They asked what a diplomat, an economist who graduated in agriculture, who left the country as a young man, could know about the ‘Soul of Japan’ and about the samurai. While Nitobe did come from a bushi family, his father Jūjirō was one of the Edo-era samurai who had never seen a fight with their own eyes. At the time, Japan was isolationist: there were no wars, and the country was ruled by the Tokugawa shogun family. Peace reigned in the country for over two centuries. The samurai, of course, were still trained in martial arts, and a golden age was experienced by blacksmiths who forged swords – works of art that symbolized status and belonging to the class. Warriors were engaged in poetry, art, brewing tea, and most of all, held high official functions. And so Jūjirō Nitobe dealt with the irrigation system of rice fields, and together with his father, Tsutō Nitobe (the grandfather of the author of Bushido), developed the urban concept of the modern city, today known as Towada. All of this for the Nanbu clan, whom the family served.

The first devastating review of Bushido, however, was published in Japan long before the 1908 edition. Its author was the historian Sōkichi Tsuda, specializing in the Taishō and Shōwa periods. He wrote that Nitobe had very little idea of the topic he was dealing with. He proved that the author was confusing the historical epochs (which he could not distinguish from one another), and also – this was the most important objection – that the attempt to present bushidō as a code common to all of Japan is historically unjustified. The samurai were the ruling class, which meant that they had the right to kill by beheading anyone who had disrespected them and was lower on the social ladder, which they luckily did not take advantage of often. The social system of mediaeval Japan did not differ much from other feudal orders – peasants had to labour under serfdom, were tied to the land, worked for the aristocracy, which they had to cap, and in principle they had no possibility of social advancement. When the samurai class was dissolved during the Meiji Restoration, the peasants celebrated because it was the end of slavery for them. Meanwhile, Nitobe approached the feudal system apologetically.

Not so ideal

In 2014, a book entitled Inventing the Way of the Samurai was published by Oleg Benesch, a historian at the University of York. Benesch is a specialist in Japanese and Chinese history. He proves that the term bushidō did not appear at all in mediaeval Japan and that the concept of the ‘way of a warrior’ was created at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. He is not alone in making such a claim – other contemporary scholars of mediaeval Japan agree with him, including the late G. Cameron Hurst (former head of the East Asian Studies Centre at the University of Pennsylvania).

Honour, bravery and truthfulness were indeed the chief virtues of warriors, but on the other hand, they were important in every latitude. At least in theory, because in practice – as long and wide as the world – wars entailed plunder and suffering. Japan was no exception in this regard.

Confucian filial piety, in turn, lay at the root of the legendary obedience to lords. And ‘Loyalty above all’ is one of the biggest myths about the samurai. Most of the civil wars and power struggles in mediaeval Japan resulted from a change of alliances – that is, common betrayal. A legendary battle in the history of the Land of the Rising Sun is the one at Sekigahara, which took place in 1600. The victory of the eastern army brought the Tokugawa family to power and ended the period of unrest. The Shogun concentrated the rule in his hands, and the country entered a period of isolationism, which was associated with peace. There would have been no spectacular victory, however, if it had not been for the betrayal of the generals of the Western army, who, by going over to the enemy’s side during the battle, changed its fate. In fact, more than 250 years later, the reign of the Tokugawa was ended by another civil war, today known as the Boshin War (1868–1869). It was caused by rebellious samurai who decided to overthrow the shogun and restore imperial power. So much for the exceptional loyalty of Japanese warriors.

As to honour, things were not always clear cut, either. One of the most famous samurai in the history of Japan is Musashi Miyamoto, the founder of the two-sword school of fighting. He is known for not having lost any of the more than 60 duels he was said to have participated in. Meanwhile, it turns out that he would turn up deliberately late to the places designated for the duel and sneak in stealthily to suddenly attack his unprepared opponent.

Benesch claims that Nitobe had no intention of publishing Bushido in Japan at all and had long resisted having it translated into his native tongue. He emphasizes that the author in the book cites, among others, Mencius, Frederick II the Great, Edmund Burke, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, William Shakespeare, James Hamilton and Otto von Bismarck. None of them had anything to do with Japanese culture, of course, and yet they are to introduce the reader to the samurai code of honour and the ‘Japanese soul’.

Another University of York expert, history professor Joshua A. Fogel, states: “In Japan, it was understood that modernization was needed because the West was extremely strong in political and military terms. But many Japanese despised Western culture, religion, even society.”

A politicized myth

Nitobe idealizes and justifies ritual suicide – seppuku (also known as harakiri). According to tradition, the samurai preferred to take his own life rather than stain his honour by losing a duel or surrendering. This is another myth about Japanese warriors, which found its way into the extremely fertile soil of European and American culture (and pop culture), and remains popular today. Of course, seppuku is not Nitobe’s literary invention. Honorary suicide did exist and there are many documented cases of this practice. Most often, however, it was a form of capital punishment. Convicted samurai could save face by committing seppuku. If they refused, they were executed anyway.

Seppuku, however, was not as popular in feudal Japan as kamikaze (suicide mission pilots) was during World War II. Until October 1944, deliberate smashing of planes against important targets was a last resort. It happened when the plane was damaged during fighting and it was known that it would crash into the ground anyway. The pilot had a choice to catapult and be taken prisoner, or die in an accident while inflicting losses on the enemy. Already during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the pilot Fusata Iida announced before take-off that if he was shot down, he would try to target the damaged plane in an important position for the Americans. He remained true to his word, but similar incidents were later incidental.

That changed in the autumn of 1944, when Japan lost the Pacific War. It was an act of desperation to create units of suicide pilots who, with explosives attached to the aircraft, would deliberately crash into Allied ships. More than 3500 pilots sacrificed their lives and Japanese aviation companies produced special ‘flying bombs’ – planes whose sole purpose was to cause as much damage as possible on impact during a crash. Despite the initial shock of the Allies, who did not know how to defend themselves against the kamikaze, suicide missions could not change the course of the war.

The ethos of the pilots drew handfuls from the Europeanized bushidō, which by then had already become known to the Japanese for good. Following the example of samurai committing seppuku, suicide pilots created jisei – a pre-death haiku in which they tried to describe their whole life in three lines before departing on a mission. Some of them would bring a katana – the samurai sword – with them when entering the plane. They were firmly convinced that they were following the way of the warrior, and their superiors reassured them in this belief.

After all, the concept of bushidō found here the extremely fertile ground of Japanese nationalism. The first half of the Shōwa period (from 1926 to the end of World War II) was marked by a wide-ranging propaganda campaign aimed at ‘improving’ the new Japanese: an absolutely obedient and loyal citizen who prefers death to loss of honour. In other words – a Japanese person straight from Nitobe’s book. Earlier, before the Meiji period, patriotism concerned the local prefecture, and the superior to whom submission and loyalty was to be shown was the feudal lord (the daimyō). There was no such thing as a unified state in the minds of the islanders. After abolishing the feudal classes and equalizing all citizens (with the exception of the imperial family) before the law, the government wanted to replace loyalty to the daimyō with allegiance to the Japanese Empire.

Nationalism explained and facilitated wars and encouraged hatred towards enemies – both real and imaginary. From 1931 to 1934, the minister of war was General Sadao Araki, son of a samurai and leader of the Kōdō-ha (Imperial Way Faction), a radical, fascist bloc within the Japanese army. In 1938, he became head of the Ministry of Education and one of his first decisions was to introduce bushidō into the school curriculum.

Nationalism combined with worship of the samurai penetrated not only the army – the idea also gained popularity at the highest levels of government. One of the most important politicians of the Empire of Greater Japan was Seigō Nakano. His vision of the ‘true rebirth of Japan’ was based on a mixture of samurai ethics with neo-Confucianism and populist nationalism modelled on Nazism. The personification and model of the Japanese was for Nakana one of the most famous samurai living at the turn of the Edo and Meiji periods: Takamori Saigō. It was his biography that formed the basis of the script for the film The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise in the lead role. In 1943, Nakano – in conflict with the actual dictatorial prime minister, Hideki Tōjō – was placed under house arrest and forbidden to speak in public. True to his ideals, he committed seppuku.

Pop warriors

After losing the war, Japan underwent another great transformation. Occupied by the US, it was first disarmed and then forced to adopt a pacifist constitution. However, the fascination with the samurai and bushidō never faded away. Thanks to the work of Akira Kurosawa, Japanese warriors were soon discovered by America, too. His films from the 1950s and 1960s – those glorifying the feudal times and showing the samurai as honourable, defending the weaker, faithful, fighting until the last drop of blood – gained great popularity and contributed to the fame of noble warriors.

Today, the 1954 film Seven Samurai enjoys cult status. The action of the film takes place in the 16th century. A village inhabited by poor farmers is constantly attacked by bandits who take most of their crops. The inhabitants are threatened with starvation, so they hire a group of poor rōnin (masterless samurai) to fight the plunderers. The film was not only recognized around the world, but was also adapted to the needs of the West – the famous Western The Magnificent Seven from 1960 is an American remake of Kurosawa’s work. Based on the production from 1954, an anime series – Samurai 7– was also created 50 years later.

In Kurosawa’s later films, the world is no longer black and white, and the guy wearing a katana with his belt is a priori good and admirable. In 1985, the director made an adaptation of King Lear: the film Ran. It contains numerous plot twists of betrayal and murder within aristocratic families. Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior), a film Kurosawa directed five years prior, is a critique of the feudal system in a similar vein. These Kurosawa films, however, are known to a rather small group of cinema enthusiasts.

The figure of the honourable and loyal samurai introduced by the Japanese director to the salons has made itself at home in Hollywood for good and does not plan to leave the party any time soon. In Ghost Dog (1999), a film by Jim Jarmusch, Forest Whitaker plays the titular modern-day black samurai serving a sassy gangster named Louie, who saved his life a few years earlier. Absolute obedience is the trait that defines Ghost Dog. A soulful samurai who loves meditation, reading books and breeding pigeons arouses much more sympathy for the viewer than the lumpish criminal and turns out to be a much better warrior than him. However, when the samurai has to fight the last duel with his master, he does not even raise his fist.

Immortal ethos

The samurai character appears today in cartoons (Samurai Jack), video games, comics and pop music, while Suzuki makes a car bearing the name. Bushidō is also present in Japan’s corporate business world. Unquestionable loyalty – no longer to the feudal lord, not even to the empire, but to the company – forces the Japanese to work beyond their strength, which all too often results in death from overworking (karōshi). Although awareness in Japanese society is growing, and employees are increasingly organizing and fighting for their rights, karōshi is also a testament to success. The tradition of bushidō respects people who disregard death – the samurai committed seppuku because he did not care about life and was not afraid to die. Karōshi becomes therefore – by analogy – a source of pride for the family of the deceased. One of the victims of overwork was Japanese Prime Minister Keizō Obuchi, who died in April 2000.

In 1984, a portrait of Inazō Nitobe, the author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan, was placed on the 5000 yen banknote (since 2004, it has born the image of the writer Ichiyō Higuchi). 85 years after Bushido was first published, it bothers no-one that he studied agricultural economics and English, and that he left Japan as a young man. It was his version of the way of the warrior that entered the canon for good, and the samurai idealized by him became a model to follow.


Translated from the Polish by Karolina Sofulak

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