Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bushido - The Soul of Japan.

More than 100 years ago, in the year 1900, Nitobe Inazo composed Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Even amongst the Japanese, there is a significantly large number of people who hold the mistaken notion that “It must be a book of samurai code, since there used to be samurai in Japan.”

However, at the time of its publication, Bushido was certainly not read in Japan alone. This masterpiece was in fact written in English in California, and received high praise from such affluent figures as former President Theodore Roosevelt. So then, what exactly is this book, Bushido? As you can tell from the subtitle The Soul of Japan, this book describes the temperament possessed by Japanese people, and was the first book to do so in the international community.

Nitobe asserts that the inception of a Japanese identity is based in bushido, the way of the samurai. For that reason, “bushido” was inevitably used as the optimal way to explain Japanese people. Perhaps one of the reasons why Bushido was held in such high esteem is because it was written by none other than the great Nitobe Inazo. Let’s discover what kind of person Nitobe was and how he came to write Bushido.

Who is Nitobe Inazo?

Nitobe Inazo was born in 1862 as the third son into a samurai family in what is now Iwate Prefecture. It was the end of the Edo Period, and a period of great change for Japan. The historic abolition of feudal domains and the establishment of prefectures took place in 1871, marking the end of the samurai class in society.

Nitobe was still a child when he moved to Tokyo, and two years later at the young age of 12, he entered the Tokyo Foreign Language School. Under the influence of the Westernization movement known as bunmei kaika promoted by the Meiji government, English education was extremely popular at that time, and Nitobe joined the trend himself by studying English.

Nitobe later enrolled in the 2nd graduating class of the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University), and this became a very important period in his life. The Sapporo Agricultural College had been established by the famous William Smith Clark.

In stark contrast to the Japanese education system, in which strict rules were considered the norm, the school taught each of its students to follow his own conscience and become an individual capable of voluntarily taking responsibility for his own actions.

Clark, a pious Christian, also had his students study ethics in the Bible. Although he was only employed at the school for eight months, he made a tremendous impact on the school and its students. His catchphrase “Boys, be ambitious” is still famous today. Nitobe, who enrolled the year after Clark left the school, received an education directly influenced by Clark’s efforts.

Bushido: A Preface.

In the preface to Bushido, Nitobe Inazo describes how he came to write such a work. While strolling with the esteemed Belgian jurist Laveleye, he mentioned that Japanese students do not study religion, to which an extremely surprised Laveleye inquired, “How, then, do you Japanese gain any moral education?” It was Nitobe’s turn to be surprised, and he was unable to answer, such was his astonishment. This was because the morals he was taught as a child were not learned at school. Then, where did he learn them? It was only when Nitobe began to analyze the various components that formed his conception of right, wrong, and justice that he realized his understanding of morality stemmed from bushido.

Nitobe’s wife also often asked him why such thoughts and customs took root in Japan, and he thought hard to find an answer that would satisfy both her and Laveleye. As a result, the conclusion Nitobe gave was this: “Not understanding bushido is like trying to read an unopened scroll.” With the publishing of the book Bushido in English, knowledge of bushido spread through the world and the word itself became part of the universal language.

It can be said that thanks to Nitobe Inazo, foreigners were first able to find significant answers to the vague question, “Who are the Japanese people?” However, in the present 21 st. century, it seems that the Japanese themselves are leaving bushido behind. It may seem ironic that a book written so that foreigners can understand the Japanese people is now being read by the Japanese to recall their own identity that has been cultivated through a long history. Now let’s take a look at the seven core virtues of bushido.

The seven core virtues of bushido.

1. Rectitude (gi)

Nitobe first sets forth the principle of “rectitude” (righteousness). This is the strictest and most important code in bushido. It was deemed unacceptable for samurai (bushi) to engage in foul play or improper behavior. In order for them to follow the righteous path, they had to employ decisiveness in every aspect of their lives. Even faced with their own deaths, samurai regarded the notion that “One dies when one must.” This is not the same as simply thinking “Oh well, I will just die now,” as dying in vain was deeply shameful for these warriors. Rather, this facing of death was advocated as an important way to feel the value of one’s life and live each day to the fullest. By taking responsibility for and carrying out even the smallest of duties, samurai endowed their own existence with meaning.

2. Courage (yu)

Courage means not faltering in one’s righteousness; in other words, one must possess valor. To be righteous, one must stand up in the face of fear or threat. As Confucius said in his Analects, “Knowing what is right and not doing it is to lack courage.” This means that having “courage” is to do the right thing However, there are two kinds of courage, and that by which one goes forth recklessly into something in order to display heroic bravery is not the kind of courage advocated in bushido. Dying under such circumstances is to die in vain. Proper courage is much greater; namely, to possess the faculty of reason, or judgment. Such judgment is needed to know when to fight, and when to sacrifice one’s life. If it is not time to die, one must possess the fortitude to suppress vanity and recklessness.

3. Benevolence (jin)

“Benevolence” is one of the highest virtues of man. Having a heart full of love and compassion for others comes most quickly to mind when considering benevolence. However, this is not the only kind of benevolence in bushido. Nowadays it may be hard for us to imagine, but to the warriors of the past, benevolence was considered to be the ability to recognize one’s own strength while sympathizing with the defeated and the weak. Some might read this and think it hypocritical or arrogant to meddle in the affairs of those below oneself, but benevolence in bushido really means to realize the responsibility associated with one’s social status. It also means that if you are blessed with good fortune, you are expected to do something for those less fortunate. Thus, the application of benevolence is truly very important.

4. Politeness (rei)

The first thing Nitobe writes regarding “politeness” is that “All foreign travelers acknowledge the excellence and beauty of Japanese manners.” He also remarks that “Politeness is the outward expression of one’s consideration for others.” In following the rules of etiquette, you gain virtue. Etiquette is a set of rules that indicate when to take what kind of attitude, and minding this etiquette is to be aware of how other people are perceiving you. One should not avoid, but rather actively display his respect and feelings of modesty towards others. It can be said that the cultivation of etiquette is a natural necessity in human society

5. Sincerity (makoto)

“Sincerity” is a notion that goes hand-in-hand with politeness. Whereas politeness is an action displayed externally, sincerity is subjective and internal. In Japan today, sincerity holds the nuance of being devoted to others, but in the past, it held a profound meaning of honesty and integrity. As was mentioned in regards to “righteousness,” telling lies and cheating were considered cowardly acts. Thus, even if one merely pretends to do something honestly, if he is aware of the truth then he is just being insincere to himself. Consistently making sure one is being honest and not being ashamed of his actions is essentially the spirit of “sincerity.”

6. Honor (meiyo)

Honor is an important characteristic of in bushido, but it is not bred of vanity. Rather, a sense of honor comes from understanding shame. Being told during childhood, “Aren’t you ashamed?” or “They’re all going to laugh at you”, causes one to naturally carry that sense of shame. In other words, it is the precept of “avoiding shameful behavior.”

7. The Duty of Loyalty/Devotion (chugi)

For a samurai, servicing one’s lord with the readiness to die for him is the most important and natural act. Especially when discussing samurai, the duty of loyalty must certainly be mentioned. It is hard for us to understand this concept today, but samurai considered obedience and loyalty to their lords more important than their own lives. Even the mothers of samurai persuaded their children to sacrifice everything for their lords. If you look at stories from the Warring States Period, there are several references to those who gave their lives according to pledges they gave their lords. Devotion to their country, rather than self-profit, was a samurai’s highest calling. If asked to “show devotion” today, you may think “to whom?” Perhaps in today’s society it is best to be loyal first and foremost to oneself. By taking responsibility for one’s actions and decisions in any situation, the practice of “devotion” unfolds naturally.


What do you think after reading about these seven virtues of bushido? These virtues were not only meant for the samurai, but for all human beings as well, and should develop naturally in life. However, it seems that these ideals have been disappearing in recent times. As we enter the rainy season in June and spend more time indoors, why not take the opportunity to read through Bushido and think once more about how you live your own life? The virtues of bushido remain deeply rooted in the Japanese spirit, and the Japanese people pick them up unconsciously from their daily activities. However, many people feel that this “spirit of bushido” is fading from modern life. The “dojo” (martial arts training hall) comes to mind when thinking of a place where people can still actively learn about bushido. There are many kinds of dojo, including those for judo, karate, aikido, iaido, jujutsu, kyudo, etc.

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