Bushidō – The soul of Japan

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Bushidō (武士道) means literally military – knight – ways ; the ways which fighting nobles should observe in their daily life as well as in their vocation.
Bushidō, then, is the code of moral principles which the knights were required or instructed to observe. It is not a written code; at best it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant. More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing all the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart. It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career.
In Japan as in Europe, when feudalism was formally inaugurated, the professional class of warriors naturally came into prominence. These were known as samurai (侍), meaning literally, like the old English cniht (knecht, knight), guards or attendants.
A Sinico-Japanese word buke (武家) or bushi (武士) (fighting knights) was also adopted in common use.
The military class in Japan was restricted to the samurai, comprising nearly 2 000 000 souls. Above them were the military nobles, the daimyō (大名), and the court nobles, the kuge (公家), — these higher, sybaritical nobles being fighters only in name. Below them were masses of the common people — mechanics, tradesmen, and peasants — whose life was devoted to arts of peace.
Coming to profess great honor and great privileges, and correspondingly great responsibilities, samurai soon felt the need of a common standard of behavior, especially as they were always on a belligerent footing and belonged to different clans. Just as physicians limit competition among themselves by professional courtesy, just as lawyers sit in courts of honor in cases of violated etiquette, so must also warriors possess some resort for final judgment on their misdemeanors.


In Japan there were several sources of bushidō, of which I may begin with Buddhism. It furnished a sense of calm trust in fate, a quiet submission to the inevitable, that stoic composure in sight of danger or calamity, that disdain of life and friendliness with death.
What Buddhism failed to give, Shintoism offered in abundance. Such loyalty to the sovereign, such reverence for ancestral memory, and such filial piety as are not taught by any other creed, were inculcated by the Shinto doctrines, imparting passivity to the otherwise arrogant character of the samurai.
As to strictly ethical doctrines, the teachings of Confucius were the most prolific source of bushidō.
The calm, benignant, and worldly-wise character of his politico-ethical precepts was particularly well suited to the samurai, who formed the ruling class. His aristocratic and conservative tone was well adapted to the requirements of these warrior statesmen.
Next to Confucius, Mencius exercised an immense authority over bushidō. His forcible and often quite democratic theories were exceedingly taking to sympathetic natures, and they were even thought dangerous to, and subversive of, the existing social order, hence his works were for a long time under censure.
Bushidō made light of knowledge as such. It was not pursued as an end in itself, but as a means to the attainment of wisdom.


Rectitude, or justice, is the most cogent precept in the code of the samurai. Nothing is more loathsome to him than underhand dealings and crooked undertakings.
A well-known bushi defines it as a power of resolution ; — “ Rectitude is the power of deciding upon a certain course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering;—to die when it is right to die, to strike when to strike is right. ”
Even in the latter days of feudalism, when the long continuance of peace brought leisure into the life of the warrior class, and with it dissipations of all kinds and gentle accomplishments, the epithet gishi (義士) (a man of rectitude) was considered superior to any, name that signified mastery of learning or art. The Forty-Seven Faithfuls — of whom so much is made in our popular education — are known in common parlance as the Forty- Seven Gishi.


Courage was scarcely deemed worthy to be counted among virtues, unless it was exercised in the cause of Righteousness. In his “ Analects ” Confucius defines courage by explaining, as is often his wont, what its negative is. “ Perceiving what is right,” he says, “and doing it not, argues lack of courage.” Put this epigram into a positive statement, and it runs, “ Courage is doing what is right.”


Love, magnanimity, affection for others, sympathy and pity, were ever recognized to be supreme virtues, the highest of all the attributes of the human soul.
We knew benevolence was a tender virtue and mother-like. If upright rectitude and stern justice were peculiarly masculine, mercy had the gentleness and the persuasiveness of a feminine nature. We were warned against indulging in indiscriminate charity, without seasoning it with justice and rectitude. Masamune expressed it well in his oft-quoted aphorism — “ Rectitude carried to excess hardens into stiffness; Benevolence indulged beyond measure sinks into weakness.”
Fortunately mercy was not so rare as it was beautiful, for it is universally true that “ The bravest are the tenderest, the loving are the daring.” “ Bushi no nasake ” (武士の情け) — the tenderness of a warrior — had a sound which appealed at once to whatever was noble in us; not that the mercy of a samurai was generically different from the mercy of any other being, but because it implied mercy where mercy was not a blind impulse, but where it recognized due regard to justice, and where mercy did not remain merely a certain state of mind, but where it was backed with power to save or kill.
Benevolence to the weak, the downtrodden or the vanquished, was ever extolled as peculiarly becoming to a samurai.


Politeness is a poor virtue, if it is actuated only by a fear of offending good taste, whereas it should be the outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others. It also implies a due regard for the fitness of things.
In its highest form, politeness almost approaches love. We may reverently say, politeness “ suffereth long, and is kind ; envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up; doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, taketh not account of evil.”
Politeness will be a great acquisition, if it does no more than impart grace to manners; but its function does not stop here. For propriety, springing as it does from motives of benevolence and modesty, and actuated by tender feelings toward the sensibilities of others, is ever a graceful expression of sympathy.


Without veracity and truthfulness, politeness is a farce and a show. “ Propriety carried beyond right bounds, ” says Masamune, “ becomes a lie.”
Lying or equivocation were deemed equally cowardly. The bushi held that his high social position demanded a loftier standard of veracity than that of the tradesman and peasant. Bushi no ichigon (武士の一言) — the word of a samurai — was sufficient guaranty of the truthfulness of an assertion. Many thrilling anecdotes were told of those who atoned by death for nigon (二言), a double tongue.
To sacrifice truth merely for the sake of politeness was regarded as an “ empty form ” (kyorei 虚礼) and “ deception by sweet words, ” and was never justified.


The sense of honor, implying a vivid consciousness of personal dignity and worth, could not fail to characterize the samurai, born and bred to value the duties and privileges of their profession.
Though the word ordinarily given nowadays as the translation of Honor was not used freely, yet the idea was conveyed by such terms as na (名) (name) menmoku (面目) (countenance), gaibun (外聞) (outside hearing), reminding us the term “ reputation.” A good name — one’s reputation — assumed as a matter of course, any infringement upon its integrity was felt as shame, and the sense of shame (renchishin 廉恥心) was one of the earliest to be cherished in juvenile education.


Of the causes in comparison with which no life was too dear to sacrifice, was the duty of loyalty, which was the key-stone making feudal virtues a symmetrical arch.
Other virtues feudal morality shares in common with other systems of ethics, with other classes of people, but this virtue — homage and fealty to a superior — is its distinctive feature.
Bushidō did not require us to make our conscience the slave of any lord or king. A man who sacrificed his own conscience to the capricious will or freak or fancy of a sovereign was accorded a low place in the estimate of the precepts. Such an one was despised as neishin (佞臣), a cringeling, who makes court by unscrupulous fawning or as chōshin (寵臣), a favorite who steals his master’s affections by means of servile compliance.


The first point to observe in knightly pedagogics was to build up character, leaving in the shade the subtler faculties of prudence, intelligence and dialectics.
Intellectual superiority was, of course, esteemed; but the word chi (知), which was employed to denote intellectuality, meant wisdom in the first instance and placed knowledge only in a very subordinate place.
The tripod that supported the framework of bushidō was said to be chi (知), jin (仁), yū (勇), respectively wisdom, benevolence, and courage.


Self-control, discipline of disciplines, was universally required of samurai.
The discipline of fortitude on the one hand, inculcating endurance without a groan, and the teaching of politeness on the other, requiring us not to mar the pleasure or serenity of another by manifestations of our own sorrow or pain, combined to engender a stoical turn of mind, and eventually to confirm it into a national trait of apparent stoicism.
It was considered unmanly for a samurai to betray his emotions on his face. “ He shows no sign of joy or anger,” was a phrase used in describing a strong character. The most natural affections were kept under control.
Discipline in self-control can easily go too far. It can well repress the genial current of the soul. Be a virtue never so noble, it has its counterpart and counterfeit. We must recognize in each virtue its own positive excellence and follow its positive ideal, and the ideal of self-restraint is to keep our mind level.
The acme of self-control is reached in the institution of suicide.


To begin with suicide, let me state that I confine my observations only to seppuku (切腹) or kappuku (割腹), popularly known as harakiri (腹切り) — which means self-immolation by disembowelment.
The choice of this particular part of the body to operate upon, was based on an old anatomical belief prevalent among the Japanese that in the abdomen was enshrined the soul. This view of mental physiology once admitted, the syllogism of seppuku is easy to construct. “ I will open the seat of my soul and show you how it fares with it. See for yourself whether it is polluted or clean.”
Seppuku was not a mere suicidal process. It was an institution, legal and ceremonial. An invention of the middle ages, it was a process by which warriors could expiate their crimes, apologize for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity. When enforced as a legal punishment, it was practiced with due ceremony. It was a refinement of self-destruction, and none could perform it without the utmost coolness of temper and composure of demeanor, and for these reasons it was particularly befitting the profession of bushi.
In redress — or call it revenge, if you will — there is something which satisfies one’s sense of justice.
Our sense of revenge is as exact as our mathematical faculty, and until both terms of the equation are satisfied we cannot get over the sense of something left undone. The ratiocination is simple and childish, nevertheless it shows an innate sense of exact balance and equal justice “ An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Though Lao-tse taught to recompense injury with kindness, the voice of Confucius was very much louder, which counselled that injury must be recompensed with justice; — and yet revenge was justified only when it was undertaken in behalf of our superiors and benefactors. One’s own wrongs, including injuries done to wife and children, were to be borne and forgiven.
Both of these institutions of suicide and redress lost their raison d’être at the promulgation of the criminal code.


Bushidō made the sword the emblem of its power and prowess.
Very early the samurai boy learned to wield it. What the samurai carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind and heart — loyalty and honor.
The two swords, the longer and the shorter— called respectively daitō (太刀) and shōtō (小刀) or katana (刀) and wakizashi (脇差) — never leave his side.


Bushidō praised those women most “ who emancipated themselves from the frailty of their sex and displayed an heroic fortitude worthy of the strongest and the bravest of men.” Young girls therefore, were trained to repress their feelings, to indurate their nerves, to manipulate weapons, — especially the long-handled sword called naginata (薙刀), so as to be able to hold their own against unexpected odds.
Yet the primary motive for exercises of this martial character was not for use in the held; it was twofold — personal and domestic. Woman owning no suzerain of her own, formed her own bodyguard. With her weapon she guarded her personal sanctity with as much zeal as her husband did his master’s. The domestic utility of her warlike training was in the education of her sons.
Girls, when they reached womanhood, were presented with dirks (kaiken 懐剣, pocket poniards), which might be directed to the bosom of their assailants, or, if advisable, to their own.
Domesticity guided their education. It may be said that the accomplishments of the women of Old Japan, be they martial or pacific in character, were mainly intended for the home; and, however far they might roam, they never lost sight of the hearth as the center. It was to maintain its honor and integrity that they slaved, drudged and gave up their lives. As daughter, woman sacrificed herself for her father, as wife for her husband, and as mother for her son. Thus from earliest youth she was taught to deny herself.


Bushidō – The soul of Japan, Inazo Nitobe, Tokyo, 1908.
Summary by Christophe Delmotte – International Kyokushin Organization Tezuka Group – 2021