Bushido (武士道, lit. “the Way of the Warrior”; 武士 bushi “warrior”) refers to a set of norms constituting a code of conduct for the Japanese warrior class. Influenced by Confucianism, Zen Buddhism and Shintoism, bushidō had not been formally codified prior to the Edo period.
The Principles of Bushido
Bushidō believes man and the universe were made to be alike in both the spirit and ethics. Along with these virtues, bushidō also holds justice, benevolence, love, sincerity, honesty, and self-control in utmost respect. Justice is one of the main factors in the code of the samurai. Nefarious ways and unjust actions are thought to be lowly and inhumane. Love and benevolence were supreme virtues and princely acts. Samurai followed a specific etiquette in every day life as well as in war. Sincerity and honesty were as valued as their lives. Bushi no ippun (武士の一分), or “the honour of a samurai,” amounted to a pact of complete faithfulness and trust. With such pacts there was no need for a written pledge: it was thought beneath a warrior’s dignity. The samurai also needed self-control and stoicism to be fully honored.
Bushidō was a strict code that demanded loyalty, devotion, and honor to the death. Under bushidō, if a samurai failed to uphold his honor he could regain it by performing seppuku (ritual suicide).
Bushidō is therefore based on the following principles:
- Loyalty or devotion (忠義 【ちゅうぎ】 chūgi): referring to a samurai’s total allegiance and loyalty to his feudal master.
- Morality or rectitude (義 【ぎ】 gi)
- Honour (名誉 【めいよ】 meiyo)
- Respect or gratitude (礼 【れい】 rei)
- Honesty or fidelity (誠(P); 実 【まこと】 makoto)
- Courage or bravery (勇 【ゆう】 yū)
- Benevolence or humanity (仁 【じん(P); にん】 yū)
- Filial piety (孝 【こう; きょう】 kō, kyō)
- Respect for the elderly (悌 【てい】 tei)
- Wisdom (知; 智 【ち】 chi)
The first seven principles make up the core of the Japanese warrior code, while the three others can be considered associated virtues; in their entirety, they are akin to the notion of chivalry in medieval Europe. The idea of bushidō has first been mentioned in 8th-century literature and became prevalent as a philosophical concept during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods (11th-16th century), when the fundamentals of warrior conduct were referred to as “the way of the horse and bow” (弓馬の道 kyūba no michi). The ideal of a warrior was epitomised in poetry and literature of that period, such as the Heike Monogatari , which portrays the Genpei War (源平合戦 Genpei kassen) between the Minamoto (源) and the Taira (平氏) clan.
The Edo Period opened an unprecedented chapter of peace in Japanese history. The samurai, while formally military, took over the administration of and the policing in their fiefs all over Japan, on behalf of the Tokugawa regime. The bushidō literature of this time contains much thought relevant to a warrior class seeking more general application of martial principles and experience in peacetime, as well as reflection on the land’s long history of war. Yamaga Sokō (山鹿 素行, 1622–1685), a philosopher, strategist and stout Confucian, became a central theoretician in matters of samurai conduct. Focusing on a more general form of bushidō, based on pure Confucianism and emperor worship and to be adhered to be the common populace, not just the samurai class, he soon fell out with the bakufu and was exiled.
After the Meiji Restoration, the advocates of bushidō focused on the central role of the Emperor and the allegiance
expected of his subjects. Bushidō turned into a propaganda tool by the government and military, who tailored it to suit their political needs. Nitobe Inazō (新渡戸 稲造, 1862-1933) was a Japanese agricultural economist, author, educator, diplomat, politician, and Christian, who became famous for his book “Bushido, The Soul of Japan” (1900). He wrote his work originally in English, in order to introduce Western readers with samurai ethics and Japanese culture.
Yamaga Sokō (山鹿 素行; image credit)