Bushido, meaning “Way of the Warrior”, is a Japanese code of conduct and a way of life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry. It originates from the samurai moral code and stresses frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery and honor unto death. Born of two main influences, the violent existence of the Samurai was tempered by the wisdom and serenity of Confucianism and Buddhism. Bushido developed between the 9th to 12th centuries and numerous translated documents dating from the 12th to 16th centuries demonstrate its wide influence across the whole of Japan.
According to the Japanese dictionary Shogakukan Kokugo Daijiten, “Bushido is defined as a unique philosophy (ronri) that spread through the warrior class from the Muromachi (chusei) period.” Nitobe Inazo, in his book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, described it in this way. “…Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe… More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten… It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career.”
Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, aspects of Bushido became formalized into Japanese Feudal Law.
Translation of documents related to Bushido began in the 1970’s with Dr. Carl Steenstrup who performed a lifetime of research into the ethical codes of famous Samurai clans including Hojo Soun and Imagawa Ryoshun. Steenstrup’s 1977 dissertation at Harvard University was entitled “Hojo Shigetoki (1198–1261) and his Role in the History of Political and Ethical Ideas in Japan”. Steenstrup holds two Phd’s in Japanese History–one from Harvard in 1977 and another from The University of Copenhagen in 1979.
According to the editors of Monumenta Nipponica, “Tens of thousands of documents survive from the medieval period… Only a few have been translated into English, or are likely ever to appear in translation.” One of the oldest English-language academic journals in the field of Asian studies, much of Dr. Steenstrup’s significant findings were written for MN.
Primary research into Bushido was later conducted by William Scott Wilson in his 1982 text “Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors” . The writings span hundreds of years, family lineage, geography, social class and writing style–yet share a common set of values. Wilson’s work also examined the earliest Japanese writings in the 8th century: The Kojiki (712AD), Shoku Nihongi (797AD),the Kokinshu (early 10th century), Konjaku Monogatari (CA 1106ad), and The Heike Monogatari (1371) as well as the Chinese Classics. (the Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Mencius.(CA 500BC)). Wilson holds a Master’s Degree in Japanese Language and Literature from the University of Washington at Seattle in 1979 and served as a Consular Specialist for the Consulate General of Japan in Seattle in 1980. Mr. Wilson recently received Japan’s Foreign Minister’s Commendation from the Consulate General of Japan in Miami, Masakazu Toshikage on November 15, 2005.
Early history to 12th centuries
According to Wilson, the four Confucian classics: the Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Mencius, are mentioned specifically in the warrior’s own precepts as suggested reading. Takeda Nobushige included examples of what was considered proper reading for the educated warrior. His “Ninety-Nine Articles”, lists the Analects of Confucius as one of the main texts of study. Wilson describes Confucianism as “Basically a philosophy of humanism which places much emphasis on education, rationalism, sincerity of action, and the relationships of people involved in society, rather than spiritual affairs or speculation on life after death.”
The stylings of Bushido have existed in the Japanese literature from the earliest recorded literary history of Japan, predating the introduction of Confucian ethic from China. The Kojiki is Japan’s oldest extant book. Written in AD 712,it contains passages about Yamato Takeru, the son of the Emperor Keiko. It provides an early indication of the values and literary self-image of the bushido ideal, including references to the use and admiration of the sword by Japanese warriors. Yamato Takeru may be considered the rough ideal of the Japanese warrior to come. He is sincere and loyal, slicing up his father’s enemies “like melons,” unbending and yet not unfeeling, as can be seen in his laments for lost wives and homeland, and in his willingness to combat the enemy alone. Most important, his portrayal in the Kojiki shows that the ideal of harmonizing the literary with the martial may have been an early trait of Japanese civilization, appealing to the Japanese long before its introduction from Confucian China.
This early conceptualizing of a Japanese self-image of the “ideal warrior” can further be found in the Shoku Nihongi, an early history of Japan written in the year 797. A section of the book covering the year AD 721 is notable for an early use of the term in Japanese literature and a reference to the educated warrior-poet ideal. The term bushi entered the Japanese vocabulary with the general introduction of Chinese literature and added to the indigenous words, tsuwamono and mononofu.
In Kokin Wakash? (early 10th century), the first imperial anthology of poems, there is an early reference to Saburau — originally a verb meaning “to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society.” In Japanese, the pronunciation would become saburai. By the end of the 12th century, saburai, an old word for samurai, became synonymous with bushi almost entirely and the word was closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class.
13th to 16th centuries
From the Bushido literature of the 13th to 16th Centuries, there exists an abundance of literary references to the ideals of Bushido.
Compiled in 1371, the Heike Monogatari chronicles the struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century—a conflict known as the Gempei War. Clearly depicted throughout the Heike Monogatari is the ideal of the cultivated warrior. The warriors in the Heike Monogatari served as models for the educated warriors of later generations, and the ideals depicted by them were not assumed to be beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. By the time of Imagawa Ryoshun’s Regulations at the beginning of the 15th century, the Bushido ideal had already reached its balanced state.
Other examples of the evolution in the Bushido literature of the 13th to 16th centuries included:
Hojo Shigetoki (1198-1261 A.D.)
- THE CHIKUBASHO
Shiba Yoshimasa (1350-1410 A.D.)
Imagawa Sadayo (1325-1420 A.D.)
- THE SEVENTEEN ARTICLES OF ASAKURA TOSHIKAGE
Asakura Toshikage (1428-1481 A.D.)
- THE TWENTY-ONE PRECEPTS OF HOJO SOUN
Hojo Nagauji (1432-1519 A.D.)
- THE RECORDED WORDS OF ASAKURA SOTEKI
Asakura Norikage (1474-1555 A.D.)
- THE IWAMIZUDERA MONOGATARI
Takeda Shingen (1521-1573 A.D.)
- OPINIONS IN NINETY-NINE ARTICLES
Takeda Nobushige (1525-1561 A.D.)
- LORD NABESHIMA’S WALL INSCRIPTIONS
Nabeshima Naoshige (1538-1618 A.D.)
Torii Mototada (1539-1600 A.D.)
Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611 A.D.)
- NOTES ON REGULATIONS
Kuroda Nagamasa (1568-1623 A.D.)
This period of early development of Bushido, as depicted in these various writings and house codes, already includes the concepts of an all encompassing loyalty to their master, filial piety and reverence to the Emperor. It indicates the need for both compassion for those of a lower station, and for the preservation of their name. Early Bushido literature further enforces the requirement to conduct themselves with calmness, fairness, justice, and politeness. The relationship between learning and the way of the warrior is clearly articulated, one being a natural partner to the other. Finding a proper death in battle, for the cause of their lord, also features strongly in this early history.
17th to 19th centuries
Although Japan enjoyed a period of peace during the Sakoku (“closed country”) period from the 17th to the mid-19th century, the samurai class remained and continued to play a central role in the policing of the country. It has been suggested that this period of relative peace led to the refinement and formalism of Bushido that can be traced back through the era of feudal Japan, or the Edo Period. Literature of the 17th to 19th Century contains many ideas of the philosophy of Bushido. This includes:
- The Last Statement of Torii Mototada (1539-1600 AD)
- Kuroda Nagamasa (1568-1623 AD)
- Nabeshima Naoshige (1538-1618 A.D.)
- Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645 AD)
- Budoshoshinshu by Taira Shigesuke Daidoji Yuzan (1639-1730 AD)
- Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo
Bushido expanded and formalized the earlier code of the samurai, and stressed frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and honor to the death. Under the Bushido ideal, if a samurai failed to uphold his honor he could regain it by performing seppuku (ritual suicide).
In an excerpt from his book Samurai: The World of the Warrior, historian Stephen Turnbull describes the role of Seppuku in feudal Japan:
In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced. The cutting of the abdomen released the samurai’s spirit in the most dramatic fashion, but it was an extremely painful and unpleasant way to die, and sometimes the samurai who was performing the act asked a loyal comrade to cut off his head at the moment of agony.
Bushido was widely practiced and it is surprising how uniform the samurai code remained over time, crossing over all geographic and socio-economic backgrounds of the samurai. The samurai represented a wide populace numbering from 7% to 10% of the Japanese population, and the first Meiji era census at the end of the 19th century counted 1,282,000 members of the “high samurais”, allowed to ride a horse, and 492,000 members of the “low samurai”, allowed to wear two swords but not to ride a horse, in a country of about 25 million.
Other parts of the Bushido philosophy cover methods of raising children, appearance and grooming, and most of all, constant preparation for death. One might say that death is at the very center of Bushido as the overall purpose- to die a good death and with one’s honor intact.
Seven virtues of Bushido
The Bushido code is typified by seven virtues:
- “Gi” – The Right Decision. Rectitude.
- “Yu” – Valor
- “Jin” – Benevolence
- “Rei” – Respect
- “Makoto” – Honesty
- “Meiyo” – Honor
- “Chugi” – Loyalty
Some people in Japan as well as other countries follow the same virtues listed above under the philosophical term modern bushido. The idea was derived from the fact that the Japanese male should be able to adapt his beliefs and philosophies to a changing world.
In an excerpt of James Williams’ article “Virtue of the sword”, a fairly simple explanation of modern bushido can be found:
The warrior protects and defends because he realizes the value of others. He knows that they are essential to society and, in his gift of service, recognizes and values theirs… take the extra moment in dark parking lots at night to make sure that a woman gets into her car safely before leaving yourself. Daily involvement in acts such as these are as much a part of training as time spent in the dojo, and indeed should be the reason for that time spent training… When faced with a woman or child in a situation in which they are vulnerable, there are two types of men: those who would offer succor and aid, and those who would prey upon them. And in modern society, there is another loathsome breed who would totally ignore their plight!