Bushido was an unwritten moral code of conduct for the samurai, and today it still strongly influences Japanese thought and society. The precise content of the Bushido code varied historically as the samurai class came under the influence of Zen Buddhist and Confucian thought, but its unchanging ideals of honour and virtue are alive and well within martial arts, athletics and Japan’s defence force today.
The Bushido code consisted of seven virtues: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. Filial piety was also highly regarded, however the supreme obligation of the samurai was to his lord, even if this might cause suffering to his parents!
A feudal code of conduct
The concept of Bushido had developed through the 12th to 19th centuries during which times Samurai formed a military government and Japan entered its feudal period (1185 – 1867). The name Bushido was not used until the 16th century, but the idea of the code developed during the Kamakura period (1185–1333).
In the middle period of the 13th to 16th centuries, Japanese literature celebrated reckless courage, extreme devotion to family and to one’s lord plus cultivation of the warrior’s intellect. The great civil war known as the Genpei War (1180 to 1185), which pitted the Minamoto and Taira clans against one another, led to the foundation of the Kamakura period of shogunate rule. This war is deemed the moment when Japan moved from ancient to medieval times, from lower ranked ‘samurai’ administrators to ruling ‘samurai’ warriors, from a more peaceful unified kingdom to a more aggressive and warlike society controlled by samurai. This era of warrior samurai lasted for nearly 700 years until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867.
From warrior to noble
Bushido reached its zenith during the reign of the Tokugawa Clan (1603-1867). With the advent of the Tokugawa reign, the government became more stable, with peace lasting almost three hundred years. Slowly the precepts of knighthood became very ceremonial and samurai morphed into court nobles and scholars, their role moving from military accomplishment toward a higher philosophical plane that embraced the metaphysics of death.
The Japanese Samurai sword katana is a symbol of the samurai spirit and pride. Samurai believed that their warrior spirit was contained within their swords. It was regarded as very sacred and was only used by a warrior as a last resort. The Samurai believed that the long sword was his soul so it must only be drawn out in the name of honour. The samurai also carried smaller companion swords known as wakizashi and tanto. Wearing a long sword (katana) together with a smaller sword such as a wakizashi or tanto became the symbol of the samurai.
The period of Japanese history from the 1853 to 1868 is known as the Bakumatsu period (End of the Shogunate). This era was characterised by the fall of the reigning Tokugawa shogunate, the end of feudalism and the start of Japan’s rapid drive towards modernization.
There were many battles fought in this period, and though feudalism was rapidly vanishing, great and enduring examples of adherence to Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, emerged. This was all the more apparent on the side of the Tokugawa loyalists, where many sacrificed themselves knowing too well that they were fighting for a lost cause.
The Samurai’s death knell
The precepts of the code of the samurai evolved as a philosophy and lifestyle that was intertwined with Japan’s feudalistic form of government. After the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate the new Meiji government was installed and abolished the old feudalistic system completely. The new government began to absorb the culture of advanced western nations. The strongest blow was initially dealt to the samurai and bushido as the Meiji government issued an edict in 1872 prohibiting the wearing or the use of swords in public by anyone. As a result of the ban, the samurai were left without any source of income and bushido’s practicality began to wan in the new Japan.
By 1853 the Way of The Warrior was deeply engrained within the Japan’s psyche, with stories of heroic deeds, its philosophies inherent within martial arts and its behavioural influences felt across all of Japanese society. Though Bushido had been born out of clan rivalry and the aggression of ambitious warlords it had markedly changed to become an ethical code. This whole way of life was swept aside within several decades. The advent of the modern age and the renunciation of war by a people who thrived on it for a millennium was its death knell.
Even though the code of the samurai–bushido has died, the legacy of bushido and the stoicism of the samurai spirit live on in modern Japanese society today and within the practice of modern martial arts and in the sport of sumo wrestling.
This is the powerful last scene of the movie “The Last Samurai” that Captain Nathan Algren meets with Emperor Meiji, telling the death of Katsumoto, the Last Sumurai – the end of Samurai but its spirit lives on, so enjoy it!
Bushido’s enduring legacy
For more than 700 years the samurai had lived and taught honour, duty and service and these virtues remain in Japanese society still today. Samurai helped lay the foundations of traditional Japanese culture and this is evident by the politeness and respectfulness that Japanese are so well known for.
Bushido promoted education – writing, arithmetic and ethics – as well as an appreciation of culture, fine arts and aesthetics. A samurai was taught the simple pleasures of a cup of tea! Controlling ones emotions at all times was paramount and has become an overriding trait of all Japanese.
Bushido is still highly relevant within Japanese sport. Japanese baseball coaches refer to their players as “Samurai” and the international soccer (football) team is called “Samurai Blue”. In press conferences the coaches and players regularly invoke bushido, which is now defined as hard work, fair play and a fighting spirit. Perhaps nowhere else is bushido more regularly mentioned than in the world of martial arts. Practitioners of judo, kendo and other Japanese martial arts include within their practice what they consider to be the ancient principles of bushido. Foreign martial artists who travel to Japan to study their sport usually are particularly devoted to a historical, but very appealing, version of bushido.
There is no doubt that the samurai’s positive influence on Japan is still felt throughout Japanese society today.
The perversion of bushido in the modern era
In the lead-up to World War II, and throughout the War, the Japanese government pushed an ideology called “Imperial Bushido” on their citizens. It emphasised Japanese military spirit, honour, self-sacrifice, and an unwavering, unquestioning loyalty to the nation and to the Emperor.
Bushido was used as propaganda by the government and its military, doctoring it to suit their needs. Scholars of Japanese history agree that the Imperial Bushido that spread throughout modern Japan was not a continuation of the earlier ethical traditions. Echoes of seppuku were strong in the suicide charges that Japanese troops made on various Pacific Islands, as well as in the kamikaze pilots who drove their aircraft into Allied battleships and bombed Hawaii to start off America’s involvement in the war.
The callous disregard that the higher echelons of the Japanese Imperial Army had for their youth, and the life sacrifices that they insisted upon even when it was obvious that the war was lost, are seen as criminal. When Japan suffered its crushing defeat in that war, and the people did not rise up as demanded by Imperial Bushido and fight to the last person in defence of their Emperor, the concept of bushido seemed to be finished. In the post-war era, only a few die-hard nationalists used the term. Most Japanese were embarrassed by its connections with the cruelty, death and excesses of World War II.
It seemed like the “way of the samurai” had ended forever. However beginning in the late 1970s, Japan’s economic boom brought pride back to this defeated nation. As the country grew into one of the world’s major economic powers in the 1980s, people within Japan and outside of it once again began to use the word “bushido“. At that time it came to mean extreme hard work, loyalty to company that one worked for, and devotion to quality and precision as a sign of personal honour. News organisations even reported on a type of company employee seppuku (ritual suicide) called karoshi in which people literally worked themselves to death for their companies.