BUSHIDO – And how it is still alive today

In the movie, “The Last Samurai”, when Tom Cruise’s character “Captain Nathan Algren” rode alongside Ken Watanabe’s “Katsumoto” in a suicidal charge, and they were cut down by Gatling guns, it was suggested that on that day, Bushido died a noble death. However, this could not be further from the truth as Bushido, the “motor force of Feudal Japan”, the animating spirit of the nation is still very much alive and kicking today.

What is Bushido really?

“Bu Shi”. It is a Sinico-Japanese word meaning “Fighting Knights”; in Feudal Japan, it came to denote the Samurai as a privileged class. The samurai were selected from the heroic and strongest. Through a series of arduous tests and through natural selection, ranks of the samurai were formed. With the establishment of such an institution, the need for a common standard of behavior was felt and thus Bushido was given tangible form.

Bushido, thus is a code of moral principles which Japanese Samurai developed and were obligated to observe. It is not a written code, but something that has been passed from mouth to mouth through the generations. It is the end product of the “organic growth” of decades of military career. Bushido attained its full fledged form in the feudal age of Japan, at the same time the Samurai class had come into prominence.

Through the turbulence of time, the precepts of Bushido remained at the core of the Japanese people and their civilization, surviving the Meiji Restoration and wars fought on a global scale. It can be seen and heard in the lives of the modern Japanese citizen.

The Sources of Bushido

At the core of Bushido lays the tenets of Buddhism. When Buddhism fell short, Shintoism offered in abundance. Then there were the teachings of Confucius and Mencius that can be regarded as prolific sources of Bushido.

Buddhism taught how to resign oneself to Fate while loyalty to the sovereign, reverence for ancestral memory, filial piety were inculcated by the Shinto doctrine. It emphasizes self knowledge much like the old Delphic saying “Know Thyself.” Feudal Japan hence regarded the Imperial family as the fountainhead of the whole nation and considered it sacred duty to respect that position as the head of the nation.

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Confucius and Mencius illustrated five moral relations between master and servant, father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, and friend and friend; these were said to characterize the “racial instincts” of the Japanese. These words made their way inside the heart of the samurai. However, a superficial understanding of these sages was derided; it is only when the knowledge becomes apparent in the actions of the disciple that the understanding is said to be complete. Otherwise intellect alone was subordinate to action. These ideas served as the blood-life of the samurai; it invigorated them and showed them the ideal “wholly militant and wholly resistant” warrior race. Not only that, it inculcated in the Japanese the spirit of individualism taking their civilization further ahead.

“To live when it is right to live and to die when it is right to die”

In such a backdrop, values of righteousness, valour, justice and benevolence came to be revered. Right should reason coexist with courage and valour. In the words of a Japanese prince “to rush into the thick of the battle and to be slain in it is easy…but it is true courage to live when it is right to live and to die only when it is right to die.” But Bushido also calls for such valour to be sprinkled with benevolence. A leader should possess such combination of valour and benevolence that the people submit themselves to them with “pride” and “dignified obedience”.

Bushido prized loyalty over everything else. In cases of conflict between personal interests and the duty of loyalty, the latter was prioritized each time by the teachings of Bushido. Devotion, subordination to one’s leader was exalted. Stoicism, tranquility defined by Bushido as “courage in repose” to keep their emotions at bay even during a catastrophe eventually was assimilated into the national character.

Bushido in modern Japan

Bushido had a tremendous impact on the culture of Japan. These values are still visible today. In the mega companies of Japan, in their workplaces etc., employees often chose to work for the entirety of their life under the same managers where they can devote all their energy to the success of their industry. The piety, devotion and loyalty once reserved for the Imperial Family still echoes in the relationship of the Japanese.  

Japanese culture puts great stock in politeness. The same sources that gave birth to Bushido also extolled politeness as a virtue of the highest order. It was from the teachings of Confucius that regarded propriety as essential as “sound is to music”. An elaborate system of etiquette was thus developed that still exists in modern Japan. Tourists often marvel at the extremely polite mannerisms of the Japanese. One might still remember the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia where the Japanese fans left only after cleaning the stadium despite a heartbreaking loss to Colombia. It served as the defining character of the Japanese people. It is in accordance with this philosophy that the Japanese tea ceremony, “Cha nu yu was developed which later ascended into art and became a part of the spiritual culture of Japan. It is much more than the strict observance of a few rules; it is a moral training that disciplines ones soul.

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Japanese fans clean the Mordova Arena at Saransk, Russia after a Japanese loss to Colombia at the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Bushido is still relevant to the Japanese culture. As a nation, as a civilization, it continues to define them and our perception of their culture as one of the most unique in the world.

Source: Bushido: The Soul of Japan (author Inazō Nitobe)