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The Beginner's Guide to Bushido


  • The Beginner's Guide to Bushido

    By Alex Bennett

    All graphics courtesy of the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, Kyoto.

    Bushidō1 and the warrior culture of Japan are viewed with fascination, not only by modern Japanese, but by non-Japanese as well. The most visible vestige of Japanese warrior culture is the overwhelming international popularity of the martial arts (budō), which are undoubtedly Japan's most successful cultural export. People around the world practise these arts, not only for self-defence or as sports, but also as a lifelong pursuit for spiritual development. Another motivation, although by no means a driving force now, was based on widespread opinions that Japan's economic and business success was based on management practices stemming from samurai strategy. This prompted a surge in popularity of famous warrior books such as Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure, and Nitobe's Bushido.

    More recently, there have been a number of popular movies about the bushi, notably The "Last Samurai" starring Tom Cruise and Watanabe Ken. This has sparked a major resurgence of interest in bushi ethics. In many ways the reverence of bushidō is glorified nonsense. Some scholars have described bushi as having been no more than "valorous butchers". Nevertheless, people around the world are searching for ethical anchors in this day and age where honour, integrity, bravery, sincerity, and self-sacrifice for the greater good is well and truly hidden by the tidal-wave of political scandal, corruption, crime, and greed. Reinterpretations of bushidō are being considered as one of those possible anchors. In this brief article I will attempt to outline the history and basic components of the seemingly timeless and possibly borderless culture of Japan's bushi warriors.

    Honour, Violence and Death
    Japan's professional warrior class evolved from around the late 9th and 10th centuries. Men from powerful provincial families entrusted with governmental titles formed bands and took up arms to defend their estates or those of their courtier patrons, and to help quell other local disputes with the impending threat of violence. Provincial bands of bushi eventually formed a common sense of identity as warriors. They maintained intense bonds of loyalty born of their shared experience in combat, as well as the promise of financial reward for services rendered. By the time the warriors had set up their first tent government or bakufu in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) they had already developed their own unique culture based on a ferocious appetite for fame, glory, and honour. Although it was not codified at this early stage, warrior culture was referred to by an array of terms such as bandō musha no narai (customs of the Eastern warriors), yumiya no michi (the way of the bow and arrow), kyūba no michi (the way of the bow and horse), and so on. Actually, the term bushidō was not coined until the late 16th century, and only became the prevalent term referring to bushi ethics from the early 20th century.

    Terminology aside, the driving force behind bushi culture has always been the concept of honour, and it was utilised in a number of ways. Firstly, honour formed the basis of a unique cultural style for the bushi's collective identity. Without implying that nobles and peasants lacked a sense of honour; although not unheard of, it was unlikely that a peasant would care much about his personal honour to the extent that he would forfeit his life. This attribute made the bushi sense of honour distinctive. Bushi created unique rules for interaction utilising honorific expression, and these rules directed the relationships between bushi of all ranks. It was the adhesive for bushi politics and social life. They also developed an unquenchable desire to enhance the name of their family or ie, and were fiercely competitive in ensuring that their name or na would last into posterity.

    As expressions of honour were demonstrated through martial prowess and violence, the question of death has always been central to the bushi's sense of identity. As was the case with the Western knights, the job of killing was certainly not condoned as a moral act in itself; although it could be justified or vindicated in a number of ways. In the case of Japan's warriors, a yearning for posthumous fame, and an obsession for personal glory was justification enough to kill and die for. This provided the emotional drive to fight bravely for one's lord (along with the promise of financial reward), and lo any bushi who was seen by his peers to act in a cowardly manner. In the world of the bushi a stigma of "spinelessness" was black mark that transcended generational boundaries.

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