BUSHIDŌ , the Japanese warrior's code, cannot be defined by a single neat formula. Every age can be said to have had notions of acceptable warrior behavior, but apart from certain core values—of which the most obvious were skill at arms, courage, hardihood, and a serious demeanor—the criteria varied substantially. It was until recent times an unwritten code, in the sense that no one document contained a complete formulation; rather, the code was reflected in literature, regulations, and decrees. Even when it was committed to writing, it was subject to periodic change.
Origin and Development
The bushi emerged as a class during the tenth century, when a militia system controlled by the central government broke down in the provinces. Local bands brought together by blood ties and geographic propinquity were formed under the leadership of a provincial governor or large holder of land rights, with few exceptions sprung from the lower echelons of the aristocracy. A bond of mutual loyalty, heavily weighted in the leader's favor, emerged: unspecified protection in exchange for unlimited military service.
It has been plausibly suggested that these warriors inherited their fighting spirit from the continental immigrants who had established themselves as the dominant racial strain centuries earlier. These had been mounted fighting men, whose ethos may well have survived on the frontier during the Sinicization of the Japanese heartland. Certainly, the indomitable warrior spirit is portrayed in Japan's earliest surviving literature, which dates from the eighth century. During the eleventh century, however, although the silken aristocrats of the capital used them to settle their power contests, they looked down on them as inferior relations, rebels, or uneducated rustics. But by the end of the twelfth century, the bushi had become indispensable in keeping order in the capital. Eventually they took over the effective administration of the whole country, with a consequent enhancement of status.
Thenceforth, terms attesting the existence of a concept of Bushidō began to appear, although the word itself is not noted in literature until 1604. Phrases signifying "the warrior's charisma" and emphasizing the special fighting qualities of the warriors of the eastern provinces proliferated. These extolled their physical strength, superb skill at arms and daring horsemanship, resourcefulness, fearlessness, ferocity, readiness to die, and generosity of mind.
Not all bushi could have equaled the paragons depicted in the medieval war tales, but they all shared a clearly defined ideal. Most prominent was their obsession with the honor of the family name. This gave rise to the pre-battle ritual of self-identification, recital of ancestors' exploits, and boasts of personal valor. Expectation of personal reward earned in individual combat, attested by eyewitnesses or by trophies of severed enemy heads, was a concomitant phenomenon. Bestowal of rewards nurtured the notion of loyalty between lord and vassal that became the essence of Bushidō. But an attempt was made to separate the ethic of loyalty from material considerations by generous recognition of high-minded conduct, whether displayed by friend or by foe.
Inevitably, the age of civil war (1467–1568) led to an eclipse of the loyalty central to the unwritten code. A morally and financially bankrupt central government changed gradually to a system of decentralized administration, dangerously lacking in check or balance, and accompanied by gross disorder. The military prestige (iegara ) of a family—its ability to afford protection—rather than possession of an ancient name became all-important. Traitors and turncoats abounded, for some bushi did not scruple to desert or oust an incompetent or unfortunate lord. The hereditary military classes were also diluted by the recruitment of peasants as infantry and by the rise of men of low birth to the ranks of feudal lords. Within a century most of the old leadership had been replaced by new blood.
To survive, a warlord had to mold his followers into an efficient, reliable fighting force. Discipline was upgraded and regulations issued enjoining frugality, vigilance, conscientiousness, and other useful virtues. An ideal of unremitting and self-sacrificing service was created, and the bond between lord and vassal was formalized by oaths of allegiance. New weapons and defense measures leading to the building of fortresses and castles made it necessary for the feudal lord to keep his vassals near at hand rather than domiciled on scattered holdings. The process of the separation of the bushi from the soil and his development into a full-time fighting man was under way.
This new spirit had been generally discernible from about 1500. From then on, the struggle for the acquisition of land gradually came to be motivated more by considerations of power politics than mere greed. National hegemony became a general dream.
The Tokugawa Bushi: New Functions, New Ideals
When unification was finally attained and peace firmly established, the function of the bushi changed. The Confucian scholar Yamaga Sokō (1622–1685) set out specifically to define an appropriate role for the bushi in peacetime. Concerned that they should earn their keep not only as a standing army and police force but as administrators, he urged the raising of their educational standard. Additionally, he saw them as eminently qualified to fulfill the function of political and intellectual leaders. Ingeniously, Yamaga grafted onto the traditional feudal virtues of self-sacrifice and readiness to die a selection of Confucian qualities: moral and intellectual superiority, prudence and good judgment, a cultivated mind and a humane heart. He thus produced a blend of the Confucian "superior man" with the traditional Japanese warrior temperament—what has been called "the heroic man." He did not merely codify hitherto unwritten notions of chivalrous conduct; he created a new ideal.
Of a more hectic temper was the thinking of Yamamoto Tsunetomo's manual for bushi, Hagakure (1716), which emphasized total self-dedication and constant preparedness. Because it was written during an age of peace, this work has been inappropriately labeled "escapist"; it was, in fact, essentially revivalist. Yamamoto's aim was the moral rearmament of the bushi by the cultivation of a resolute will to right action regardless of the consequences. The dangers inherent in such a fundamentalist attitude are obvious, but clearly it supplies a powerful stimulus to purposeful conduct.
An important aspect of Bushidō that now received special emphasis was its elitism. This had early emerged. During the twelfth century, the warrior's obsession with protecting the honor of his name had distinguished him sharply from the court nobles who hankered after high rank and title. Further, that canny general Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199) sought to burnish the warrior image by setting up criteria for the recruitment of vassals. Very early also, the bushi attempted to distance themselves from the populace by acquiring refinement. Devotion to aesthetic pursuits was particularly prominent during the period of the civil wars. A sword hunt in 1588, by disarming the populace, greatly strengthened the self-image of the "two-sworded" bushi as a superior caste. Similarly, the codification of Bushidō during the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) gave the warrior a sense of separation from the emerging commercial classes. The combination of the concept of bun (learning) with that of bu (martial arts) as the new Tokugawa ideal emphasized Confucian education as the monopoly of the military classes, and reinforced the cachet of elitism. Inevitably, arrogance was nurtured along with self-pride.
The central government and local lords employed Confucian scholars to lecture to the bushi on the ethic, and subsidized popular preachers to carry the same message to other classes in a form suitable to their station. Bushi values were thus widely disseminated throughout the whole Japanese people, so that the bushi ideal drew strength from its congruence with the core values of society.
Through such constant exhortation, the bushi were in some measure preserved from becoming parasites. They did not produce, but they provided essential services with a high degree of efficiency. For two and a half centuries they supplied administrators, magistrates, judges, police, firechiefs, supervisors of public works, and so on—functions they had been trained to perform since at least the thirteenth century. They also became doctors, teachers, researchers, advisers, theorists, and advocates of new ideas.
The recent wholesale denigration of the Tokugawa bushi as urbanized and emasculated, mere hirelings, is not supported by fact: they engineered the Meiji restoration and the dismantling of feudalism, and, as the bulk of the educated class, they contributed substantially to the modernization of the state. That a class comprising 6 percent of the population provided 23 percent of the Meiji entrepreneurs is significant.
Modern BushidŌ: An Enduring Ideal
Debate on the relative positions of emperor and shogun in the body politic has been aroused by the application to the Japanese situation of the Confucian tenet that function should fit title. Also, Tokugawa encouragement of learning revived the study of ancient emperor-centered literature. The result was a movement honoring the emperor as the ultimate focus of loyalty. The amalgamation of this idea with the newly formulated bureaucratic bushi ethic penetrated the Japanese mind and prepared the way for Meiji Bushidō (after 1868).
This "new" Bushidō was created by the deliberate utilization of traditional values to strengthen the modern state. Though the bushi as a class were abolished, a Meiji statesman, Itō Hirobumi, described Bushidō as "our ancient feudal chivalry," which defined the conduct of "man as he ought to be" and constituted "moral education of the highest type." The discarding of the identification of Bushidō with the warrior made clear the intention to transform it into a mass religion.
By 1937 Kokutai no hongi (Fundamentals of our national polity), published by the Ministry of Education as the bible of nationalism, apotheosized Bushidō as the central tenet of morality and the mainstay of society, transcending Confucianism and Buddhism. This form of Bushidō enjoined total suppression of self-interest, with death as its supreme expression. It implied the shift of unquestioning loyalty from an immediate superior to the sovereign, substituting unconditional service to the state for a bond depending on personal gratitude, and Shinto mythology for Confucian rationalism. There were available exemplars of devotion to the legitimate imperial court in exile during its unsuccessful struggle (1336–1390) against a puppet court supported by the presiding military power. Of these, the general Kusunoki Masashige (1294–1336) was the most illustrious. Inevitably, he became the focus of a new cult.
Although loyalty to a superior had always been central to Bushidō, it had never been blind loyalty. Confucianism emphasized the necessity of thinking things out for oneself. This implied the duty of remonstrance if the conduct of superiors was considered culpable. Earlier ages had provided notable illustrations, but when this obligation was democratized during Meiji, it led to admonitory assassinations anticipating the horrors of modern terrorism.
The bushi' s contempt for death, strongly reinforced by his predilection for Zen, had been constant throughout. Trained to kill or be killed, he made indifference to it a point of honor, giving the attitude its most succinct expression in the saying "Bushidō lies in dying." Translated into practical peacetime terms, this simply meant total and selfless dedication. Coincidentally, since death was always regarded as the final proof of sincerity, it gave rise to a cult of suicide. This could take the form of self-disembowelment to accompany one's lord in death or, when faced with defeat, the throwing away of life by a feat of reckless daring. Modern extreme extensions of this view were the hopeless charges of the so-called human bullets in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and the kamikaze pilots in World War II.
World War II imparted a sinister meaning to the idea of Bushidō. The code was identified with war atrocities, many of which arose from a fanatically held conviction that death was preferable to surrender. This engendered contempt for, and hence ill treatment of, prisoners of war. On the other hand, it also triggered gruesome mass suicides by captured Japanese soldiers.
Some say Bushidō expired with Japan's defeat in 1945. Yet not long after the war, historical novels elucidating the viewpoint of the bushi of the civil war period became best-sellers among businessmen. They saw the magnates of that competitive age as excellent models for successful leadership in the world of modern international commerce. The stage-managed suicide of the modern novelist Mishima Yukio (1925–1970) was a lurid example of how susceptible even a modern Japanese mind is to Bushidō's perennial glamour.
From the seventeenth century to modern times, Bushidō has come under sharp criticism as illogical, irrelevant, and morbid. It is true that excesses have been committed in its name through adherence to its anachronistic aspects. Yet it has by and large been a dynamic concept. To the original core values, others were added from time to time in a continuous process of merging and synthesizing. But always Bushidō carried the implication of some kind of sinewy superiority, of effort beyond the capabilities of the ordinary man. And the durability of its appeal surely furnishes some justification for the Meiji scholar Inazo Nitobe's claim in his famous essay of 1905: "Bushidō is the soul of Japan."
Three small books provide a simple historical background and a succinct introduction to the study of Bushidō: Peter Duus's Feudalism in Japan (New York, 1969); H. Paul Varley, Ivan Morris, and Nobuko Morris's The Samurai (London, 1970); and Conrad Totman's Japan before Perry: A Short History (Berkeley, 1982). Three large and lavishly illustrated volumes give detailed expositions of bushi lifestyle and way of thought: George Richard Storry's The Way of the Samurai (New York, 1978), Stephen R. Turnbull's The Samurai: A Military History (New York, 1977), and Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook's Secrets of the Samurai (Tokyo and Rutland, Vt., 1973). Sources of the Japanese Tradition, 2 vols. (New York, 1958), compiled by Ryusaku Tsunoda, Wm. Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, presents valuable source material on the formulation of Bushidō.
Finally, three essays throw additional light on significant aspects of the topic: Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure: A Code of the Way of Samurai, translated by Takao Mutoh (Tokyo, 1980); Mishima Yukio's The Samurai Ethic in Modern Japan, translated by Kathryn Sparling (Tokyo, 1978); and Inazo Nitobe's Bushidō: The Soul of Japan (Tokyo, 1980).
Cleary, Thomas F. The Japanese Art of War: Understanding the Culture of Strategy. Boston, 1991.
Ikegami, Eiko. The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.
Katchmer, George A. Professional Budo: Ethics, Chivalry, and the Samurai Code. Jamaica Plains, Mass., 1995.
Newman, John. Bushido: The Way of the Warrior: A New Perspective on the Japanese Military Tradition. New York, 1989.
Turnbull, Stephen, ed. The Samurai Tradition. Surrey, U.K., 2000.
Joyce Ackroyd (1987)
Literally translated as "way of the warrior," Bushido evolved into a clearly defined ethical system of the bushi, or warrior class of Japan, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the term first appeared in the Kōyō gunkan in about 1625. In his 1899 Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Nitobe Inazō, the first to articulate the concept in English, enumerated seven essential values of the warrior class: justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity and sincerity, honor, and loyalty. More recently, Bushido has been credited with fueling Japanese atrocities in World War II, through "the unassailable rule that death is preferable to dishonour" (Edwards, p. 5). In fact, neither of these popular conceptions accurately represents the codes of warrior behavior that developed over the course of six centuries.
The Warrior Governments of Japan
In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo established the first bakufu, or "tent government," to counter the growing inability of the imperial family and aristocracy to control the provinces. From that time until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 Japan was governed by its warrior class.
Yoritomo's Kamakura government was later idealized as the warrior's "Golden Age," when "selfless loyalty unto death" characterized relations between warlords and their samurai retainers. Modern scholarship has uncovered a different picture, however. According to Dr. Karl Friday, "From the beginnings of the samurai class and the lord/vassal bond in the eighth century to at least the onset of the early modern age in the seventeenth, the ties between master and retainer were contractual, based on mutual interest and advantage, and were heavily conditioned by the demands of self-interest" (p. 342). There was no single prescriptive code of behavior; instead each warrior clan had its own behavioral norms, sometimes listed in formal "house precepts," or kakun, or in admonitory epistles to a lord's heirs and retainers.
These early warrior documents varied considerably—some had a decidedly Buddhist cast, others insisted on a thorough education in the arts, while still others advised a single-minded focus on strategy and skills for battle. Some were written in a highly stylized Chinese form; others were composed in a more natural Japanese manner. The Chinese-influenced theme of balance between bun (literature) and bu (martial skills), bunbu ryōdō, appears frequently. So do the reciprocal admonitions of loyalty to the lord and benevolence toward retainers. Maintaining martial skills is so important that Shiba Yoshimasa writes, "Insofar as martial arts are concerned, it goes without saying that one should practice …" (Hurst, p. 218).
From War to Peace
Prior to the Edo period (1600–1868), the primary function of a warrior was to fight. Writing about how to behave as warriors was of less immediate concern than actual battlefield skills. Tokugawa Ieyasu changed all that, through the unification of the country and his establishment of the third and final bakufu in 1603. Suddenly the bushi, who had been engaged in almost continual warfare for one hundred years, were left without any battles to fight. By the eighteenth century, the gap between name and role had widened to the point that the bushi experienced a full-fledged identity crisis. The samurai were now primarily administrators and bureaucrats searching for an understanding of their proper role in a warless age.
Unlike their predecessors, who had been writing for fighting men and clan leaders, thinkers such as Yamaga Sokō and his student Daidōji Yūzan wrote about Bushido in an attempt to define and encourage behaviors that would distinguish warriors from the other classes of farmers, artisans, and merchants. Incorporating a more traditional Confucianism than the state-favored Neo-Confucianism, Yamaga argued that the primary duty of the warrior was to serve as an exemplar for the rest of society, through deeply cultivated sincerity of action.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo, in the Hagakure, saw a very different purpose for the eighteenth-century warrior—"The Way of the Samurai is found in death" (p. 17). This anachronistic view—warriors had not died in battle for more than a century—is frequently misunderstood. In order to control the armed warriors, Tokugawa Ieyasu established a series of inviolable laws; these at times came into conflict with the warrior's individual loyalties or sense of honor. In particular, both parties in any conflict between samurai were to be punished equally; in this context, Yamamoto urged that if warriors were forced to break the Shogun's law they might as well fight to the death.
The values of the bushi, both actual and idealized, have permeated all levels of Japanese society. In the Edo period, members of the merchant class deliberately adopted samurai standards of behavior to identify themselves more closely with the ruling class. After the Meiji Restoration, unemployed samurai became doctors and educators, and brought their written codes with them. The Imagawa kabegaki, by the fourteenth-century poet-warlord Imagawa Ryōshun, was even used as a textbook in Edo-period schools. During the years prior to the Meiji Restoration, the samurai's spirit of sincerity in action, loyalty, and self-sacrifice allowed them to take leadership in the revolt that would lead to the abolition of their class.
Bushido's most tragic legacy is the warped version ultranationalists used in formulating propaganda to encourage and sustain the Japanese solider before and during World War II. The spirit of the Hagakure incited young Japanese men to become kamikaze suicide pilots; death was promoted as preferable to surrender.
In the early twenty-first century the term Bushido appeared more frequently in English-language martial arts publications than it ever did in early warrior texts. And even though Nitobe's list of virtues was not directly derived from actual warrior codes, it did reflect romanticized warrior ideals that the rapidly modernized Japanese recognized as noble and found comforting to call their own.
Precepts of the Fighting Man (Kamakura, Muromachi, Azuchi-Momoyama periods, 1185–1600)
Rokuhara-dono gokakun (The precepts of the lord of Rokuhara, 1247), by Hōjō Shigetoki
Gokurakuji-dono goshōsoku (The message of the master of Gokurakuji, 1256), by Hōjō Shigetoki
Tōjiin goisho (Last testament from the Tōjiin Temple, 1357), attributed to Ashikaga Takauji
Chikubashō (Bamboo stilt anthology, 1383), by Shiba Yoshimasa
Imagawa kabegaki (Imagawa's wall inscriptions, 1395–1409), by Imagawa Ryōshun
Yoshisadaki (The records of Yoshisada, c. 1338), attributed to Nitta Yoshisada
Jūshichikajō (The seventeen articles, c. 1479), by Asakura Takakage
Nijūikkajō (Twenty-one precepts, c. 1495), by HōjōSōun
Soteki waki (The recorded words of Asakura Soteki, c. 1553), by Asakura Soteki
Kyūjūkyū kakun (Ninety-nine precepts, 1558), by Takeda Nobushige; collected in the Kōyō gunkan. Redefining the Warrior: the Tokugawa peace (1600–1868)
Kōyō gunkan (A military history of the great men of Kai, c. 1625), compiled by Kōsaka Danjō and Obata Kagenori
Bukyōyōroku (Essentials of military studies, 1656), by Yamaga Sokō
Budō shoshinshū (Introduction to the way of the warrior, 1716), by Daidōji Yūzan
Hagakure (In the shadow of leaves, 1716), by Yamamoto Tsunetomo
See also Chinese Warlordism .
Edwards, Bernard. Blood and Bushido: Japanese Atrocities at Sea 1941–1945. New York: Brick Tower Press, 1991.
Friday, Karl F. "Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian's Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition." The History Teacher 27, no. 3 (1994): 339–349.
Hurst, G. Cameron III. "The Warrior As Ideal for a New Age." In The Origins of Japan's Medieval World: Courtiers, Clerics, Warriors, and Peasants in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Jeffrey P. Mass, 209–233. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Wilson, William Scott, trans. Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors. Edited by Gregory N. Lee. Burbank, Calif.: Ohara, 1982.
The central virtue of bushidō is loyalty. The noblest way to die was in battle, but bushidō included more than training in martial arts. Other values in bushidō, like austerity, self-control, and contempt for possessions or personal gain, all served to reinforce the core virtue of loyalty. See further MARTIAL ARTS.