The Beginner’s Guide to Bushido


Bushidō (literally ‘the Way of the warrior’. ‘bushi’ is the common Japanese word denoting warrior, although ‘samurai’ is more well-known in the West. Nowadays both terms are used interchangeably, however, in this article I refer to the Japanese warriors mainly using the word ‘bushi’) 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 thebushi sense of honour distinctive. Bushi created unique rules for interaction utilising honorific expression, and these rules directed the relationships betweenbushi 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 orie, 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.

The Good Old Days?
Despite the honourable depictions of bushi in the popular medieval war tales, the insatiable desire for land, power, and self-advancement was always prevalent in the larger picture. Particulalry during the Warring States period of the 15th and 16th centuries, multitudes of rival daimyō warlords vied to conquer and eventually rule over a united Japan, and the end always justified the means. This was a period where unquestioned loyalty to one’s overlord was often conveniently overlooked in favour of personal gain, and alliances and promises were broken as often as they were made. It was a volatile period where the rise or demise of a great daimyō, his “ie” (house) and its members was only a treacherous backstab away. These precarious situations lead to a proliferation of house rules (kakun), laws (hattō), and prescripts outlining model bushi behaviour. This is an indication that “model behaviour” was far from the status quo, but it did signify a codification of the ‘way’ of the warrior.

Bushi of the medieval era lived a precarious lifesyle, was revered by future generations of bored warriors in the peaceful Tokugawa period (1600-1868) as ‘the good old days’ where bushi were real men, and those who dared won, or died in the process.

The Problem of Peace
When Japan was ushered into a new era of stability under Tokugawa rule, bushi found themselves in a rather perplexing if not utterly frustrating predicament. Here was a minority warrior class ruling the nation by virtue of their martial prowess, but the ‘threat’ of peace afforded little if no opportunity to demonstrate their effectiveness and prowess in battlefield, and to accrue the “cultural currency” of honour. How could they justify their existence at the top of the new shi-nō-kō-shō2 social strata? What exactly was a professional warrior supposed to do in times of peace?

A number of scholars came to the rescue by formulating and refining a code of ethics for warriors now referred to as bushidō. The groundwork for a new system of political thought and bushi awareness evolved, and convincing arguments were circulated among the upper echelons of government justifying bushi hegemony in affairs of state even though peace prevailed.

For example, Yagyū Munenori (1571-1646) in his famous military treatise “Heihō Kadensho” clarified how a virtuous ruler has the ability to use military force solely for protecting the masses. Thus, maintenance of a benevolent military government was deemed vital for the continued wellbeing of the nation.

“At times because of one man’s evil, ten-thousand people suffer. So you kill that one man to let the masses live in peace. Here, truly, the blade that deals death becomes the sword that saves lives.”

In other words, the way of war was the way of peace. Such arguments were quickly accepted by Japan’s ruling elite. Later in the Tokugawa period, it was the lower echelons of bushi, now fully transformed into non-combatant salaried civil servants, who were desperate to clarify their raison d’être. Prominent scholars such as Yamaga Sokō (1622-85) and Daidōji Yūzan (1639-1730) providedbushi withmoral guidelines for how to live their lives. Yamaga Sokō observed rhetorically “the bushi eats food without growing it, uses utensils without manufacturing them, and profits without selling.What is the justification for this?” His solution – the role of a warrior in a peaceful society was to serve his lord loyally, and to act as an exemplary moral example worthy of emulation by the other classes. In other words, to live in strict observance of correct moral behaviour and etiquette, always maintaining a high level of military preparedness through practising and perfecting the military arts, counter-balanced with mastery of the arts and scholarly pursuits. Leading such a refined lifestyle and “dedication to duty” was judged to be just as glorious as fighting bravely in battle. It was a less exciting substitute for war, but it served to satisfy the needs of a growing number of frustrated bushi, unable to rationalize their own existence.

Interestingly, even though death in the literal sense was no longer a reality per se, the concept of ‘death’ was idealised and channelled into the virtue of selfless dedication to duty and one’s lord. One of the most controversial books on bushidō to appear in the Tokugawa period was Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure” (1716) which contains the infamous phrase “I have found that the Way of the warrior is found in death”. Tsunetomo ideas were a reaction to what he saw as the moral deterioration of bushi into selfish, lilly-livered cowards who had forgone their honourable heritage of confronting death without fear or regret.

Still, there were celebrated episodes during the Tokugawa period, such as is the revenge of the forty-seven rōnin, which demonstrated the virtue of loyalty to the point of death. In 1701, Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, a young daimyō in attendance at the Shogun’s castle in Edo drew his sword and assaulted, Kira Yoshinaka on the basis that his honour had been insulted. The Asano was ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) for this serious breach of etiquette. Asano’s now master-less retainers plotted and carried out a vendetta, culminating in the successful assassination of Kira in the name of their master, the house of Asano, and to vindicate their own personal honour in the ever-mocking eyes of Edo’s warrior society. This in turn led to the order of their own termination by ritual suicide. The propriety of their action attracted praise and criticism from all quarters. Legally, it was a reprehensible act; but popular opinion lauded the rōnin for acting out of selfless loyalty and fulfilling their duty even though it would lead to their own demise.

Post Bushi Bushidō and Beyond

Although the bushi class was abolished during the Meiji period (1868-1912), it did not mean the end of bushidō as a gripping emotive force, especially from the mid 1880’s, as the cultural pendulum began to swing in a more blatantly nationalist direction in which Western technology was complimented by the indomitable “Japanese spirit” (wakon-yōsai).

Prominent scholars such as Inoue Tetsujirō sought to bind bushidō to the service of the state by associating it with patriotism and devotion to the emperor. However, perhaps the most influential commentator on bushidō of all time was undoubtedly Nitobe Inazō. In 1899, he published “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” in English in which he portrayed bushidō to the Western world as anagolous to Christian ideals. He stressed such virtues as, honesty, justice, polite courtesy, courage, compassion, sincerity, honour, duty and loyalty, and self-control. He argued that bushidō had spread from the bushi class and permeated the moral outlook of all echelons of Japanese society, being discernible in the physical endurance, fortitude, and bravery of the Japanese people.

A more martial interpretation of bushidō came into vogue in the militarist 1930’s, and many Japanese soldiers reputedly read copies of the aforementioned “Hagakure”, or “Bushido” to find solace and strength as they faced their own mortality as warriors of the “empire of the rising sun”. In the aftermath of WWII, bushidō fell into disfavour. Foreign and Japanese critics alike lambasted militaristic ideals bushidō as representing all that was most loathsome in Japanese wartime behaviour. Many Japanese renounced bushidō as part of the misguided militaristic ideology resulting in Japan’s defeat, and as unsuited to a new post-war democratic society.

Nevertheless, the ever-increasing popularity of samurai films and books suggests that however old-fashioned or unrational the bushidō tradition seems at the conscious level, it still wields considerable appeal. A quick perusal of bookshops throughout Japan will reveal a plethora of recent literature urging a reassement of traditional Japanese values and moral codes such as bushidō to alleviate the ethical woes of today. Indeed, the bushi warrior is possibly more revered today than he has ever been before. In many ways this is nonsense based on romatically charged historical fiction. Even so, the ideal bushidid face his mortality with unyielding resolve; and it stands to reason that the wisdom he discovered in the precarious game of life and death served to illuminate the very essence of humanity. In this way, the vestiges of bushi culture can surely offer we moderns clues into the meaning of our own existence as we try to navigate our lives thought the tumult of the 21st century.

Bushido à la ‘The Last Samurai’

Gi (Honesty and Justice) Be acutely honest throughout your dealings with all people. Believe in justice, not from other people, but from yourself. To the true Samurai, there are no shades of gray in the question of honesty and justice. There is only right and wrong.

Rei (Polite Courtesy) Samurai have no reason to be cruel. They do not need to prove their strength. A Samurai is courteous even to his enemies. Without this outward show of respect, we are nothing more than animals. A Samurai is not only respected for his strength in battle, but also by his dealings with other men. The true inner-strength of a Samurai becomes apparent during difficult times.

(Heroic Courage) Rise up above the masses of people that are afraid to act. Hiding like a turtle in a shell is not living at all. A Samurai must have heroic courage. It is absolutely risky. It is dangerous. It is living life completely, fully, wonderfully. Heroic courage is not blind. It is intelligent and strong. Replace fear with respect and caution.

Meiyo (Honour) A true Samurai has only one judge of his honour, and that is himself. Decisions you make and how these decisions are carried out are a reflection of who you truly are. You cannot hide from yourself.

Jin (Compassion) Through intense training the Samurai becomes quick and strong. He is not as other men. He develops a power that must be used for the good of all. He has compassion. He helps his fellow man at every opportunity. If an opportunity does not arise, he goes out of his way to find one.

Makoto (Complete Sincerity) When a Samurai has said he will perform an action, it is as good as done. Nothing will stop him from completing what he has said he will do. He does not have to give his word. He does not have to promise. The action of speaking alone has set the act of doing in motion. Speaking and doing are the same action.

Chū (Duty and Loyalty) For the Samurai, having done some thing, or said some thing, he knows he owns that thing. He is responsible for it and all the consequences that follow. A Samurai is immensely loyal to those in his care. To those he is responsible for, he remains fiercely true.