Bushido: The Soul of Japan

Some thoughts on the book Bushido: The Soul of Japan (The Way of the Warrior Series) by Inazo Nitobe.

Bushido is a philosophy and unwritten code of virtue and ethics that has permeated not just the warrior class, but all of modern Japanese society.  There is no singular founding or creative document that placed its thought and practice into the Japanese mindset like a constitutional document might have for which we are most familiar with in the West.  Mr. Nitobe touches upon these topics in his classic essay on Bushido in addition to the relevant principles that are commonly associated with the Bushido “code.”  Indeed, it is not a philosophy in the manner that we usually think of, nor is it derived from the great Western philosophers that may be more commonly reviewed.  However, it is a fitting one to review as a requirement for philosophical study when considering the warrior arts that lie within any study of historical martial arts and koryu lineages.

Nitobe notes that Bushido is very much influenced by Confucius, and he makes other philosophical comparisons to include the religious variety to include Christianity.  However, as previously noted, there is no foundational document or moment in time that marks the creation of Bushido.  It is one that evolved over time and continues to influence Japanese society even today.  Although it is not exhaustive or expansive; it is impactful and simple enough to guide common lives through complex challenges and ethical dilemmas when implemented and followed.

There are several common virtues that are associated with Bushido.  For this writing I will only focus on the selection of courage, honor, and self-control as they apply within Bushido.  The first of these, courage, is described by Nitobe by citing Confucius.  He explains that it is, “perceiving what is right, and doing it not, argues lack of courage.”  Simply put into a positive connotation as doing what is right.  He continues to cite several comparisons and distinctions from otherwise ‘like’ terms such as valor, fortitude, bravery, etc.  The summation of the discussion of courage in Nitobe’s writing can be described through the examples of stories and tales of bravery that exemplify this concept of courage and how it was developed or attained by the samurai at a young age.  “What a coward to cry for a trifling pain!”  A young samurai should be resolute and unfazed by adversity; it should be his character to bravely face challenges in a stoic manner without complaint or fear.

Honor is a characteristic that is typically used to describe how a samurai lived his life.  A person’s reputation and name was (and is) extremely important within Japanese culture as it is something that is everlasting and remaining even upon one’s death.  This is emphasized in a description, “dishonor is like a scar on a tree, which time, instead of effacing, only helps to enlarge.”  Conversely, honor that was gained in youth would amplify as the samurai grew older.  Therefore, the consideration of effects on one’s honor was considered as a part of the decision-making processes for each young, noble samurai before action was taken for serious matters.  The life of a samurai felt no benefit from quick and emotional decisions that would ultimately be harmful for their and their family’s reputation.  Thus, the consideration of honor was a serious matter for the samurai.  It was of utmost importance as effects could be felt for generations.

Self-control is another virtue that was of importance to a young noble warrior.  When shared among the others it allowed the warrior to not show outward emotion that could ultimately lead to his demise.  In unison with courage and a stoic nature, it would allow the samurai the ability to act without telegraph and with surprise.  This would deny his enemies any knowing advantage through the proper application of self-control with the hidden intent of planned kyojutsu (truth, lies, deception).  Calm and calculated composure was a powerful ally to the samurai.  It is an important virtue that is worth the consideration of all even today.

These three examples of the virtues within Bushido are only a sampling.  There are others to be examined in due time.  It is of importance to note that these virtues are still very much ingrained in modern Japanese society.  Social norms are shifting; however, there are many aspects of this code that will be hard to budge in times of acceptance and equality…especially in Japan.  A simple highlight of Bushido’s importance is a concluding thought that I pull from Nitobe’s writing: “What Japan was she owed the samurai.”  I offer that it still owes the noble samurai, and its reach extends beyond Japanese borders.

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