Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, September 03, 2023

What is Bushido

At Japonica Publications was an article about Bushido and was it ever a real thing? Below is an excerpt. The whole article may be read here.


Bushidō. Often referred to as “the samurai code of chivalry”, it stirs up images of noble and fearless warriors, fiercely loyal to their comrades, living and dying by the sword, choosing death over dishonour.

There is no doubt that the way of the samurai continues to have a hold on the public imagination. But what exactly was bushidō?

Whilst researching this — mostly for inspiration for my next shodō (Japanese calligraphy) project — I came across countless motivational articles exalting the samurai as the pinnacle of manly strength and dignity, almost super-human in their abilities and presence of mind. Apparently they followed a strict moral code, bushidō, which the aforementioned motivational articles suggest adopting in order to better oneself. This moral code conveniently comes with a list of eight key virtues which one can follow in order to lead a noble and successful life. Sounds pretty good, right?

After a little more research a rather different picture began to emerge. There were signs that these key virtues might be a misinterpretation or even a modern invention.

Indeed, there were signs that the entire concept of bushidō itself might be fake.

So does bushidō have roots in historical fact, or was it a modern invention? Where does the truth end and the myth begin? Was this “samurai code” ever really a thing?

I decided to investigate further. This article is the result of that.

Firstly, bushidō is composed of three Japanese characters: 武士道

武士 bushi means “warrior”

means “path” or “way” (as in jūdō, kendō, shodō, etc)

So bushidō literally means “the way of the warrior”.

According to Wikipedia, it was a philosophy and way of life used to guide samurai into correct action in all aspects of their lives.

Bushidō (according to Wikipedia) is believed to have developed in Japan sometime between the 11th and 14th centuries, and was heavily influenced by other Eastern philosophies such as Chinese Confucianism, Shintoism, and Zen Buddhism. It was formalised during the Edo era (1603–1868), a period characterised by civil order and a strict social hierarchy with samurai firmly at the top.

Wikipedia also lists the set of key virtues that I had seen in so many motivational articles. I have listed them below, with my translations.

  • 義 (gi) INTEGRITY
  • 勇 (yū) COURAGE
  • 仁 (jin) COMPASSION
  • 礼 (rei) RESPECT
  • 誠 (makoto) SINCERITY
  • 名誉 (meiyo) REPUTATION
  • 忠義 (chūgi) RESPONSIBILITY

All sources show these same seven virtues. Some sources (including Wikipedia) also list an extra eighth virtue:

  • 自制 (jisei) SELF-DISCIPLINE

So are there seven virtues or eight? More on this later (including the rationale behind my translations).

According to Wikipedia, these virtues were first codified by a chap called Nitobe Inazō who lived during the Meiji period (1868–1912). This struck me as odd because this period was well after the samurai hey-day.

Furthermore, being a samurai was essentially made illegal during this period, due to Japan’s desperate attempts to Westernise by discarding the old social hierarchies (which heavily favoured the samurai).

So were these “virtues of bushidō” really a thing? Perhaps they just been dreamt up by some guy nostalgically clinging on to the past, trying to deal with the rapid industrialisation his country was going through, a way to dampen the shock of the new?

Then I came across this article on Tofugu by “Rich”, with the intriguing title: Bushido: the Way of Total Bullsh*t.

Long story short, the article states that the virtues of bushidō, along with the very concept of bushidō itself, were flat-out made up by that Nitobe guy I mentioned just a few paragraphs back.

Nitobe wrote a book titled Bushidō — the Soul of Japan in 1899 (well after the samurai way of life had disappeared). He wrote it in English, for a Western audience, and compared samurai ideals to Christian concepts, in order to make Japanese culture more palatable for Westerners who were just starting to learn about this mysterious Asian country. It’s a highly romanticised account of samurai culture, essentially the Japanese equivalent of Victorian artists and writers idealising the European Medieval period of chivalrous knights and courtly love. It is in this book that these eight samurai virtues are first mentioned.

So, does this mean that bushidō is a load of “bullsh*t”, as the aforementioned article claims?

Yes and no. Whether or not bushidō was historically a thing is debatable. The writer of the article claims that it has no historical roots, and that the term bushidō was invented by Nitobe in his 1899 book.

However, the Wikipedia entry for Nitobe’s book Bushidō — the Soul of Japan states that “Nitobe Inazo did not coin the term bushidō”.

This term had been used before in a couple of books (both of which are mentioned in the article):

1. Kokon Bushidō ezukushi (“Images of Bushidō Through the Ages”), by artist Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694).

2. Kōyō Gunkan (a record of military exploits of a high-ranking family), published in 1616. In this text, the term bushi no michi is clearly legible. Written in Japanese, bushidō (武士道)and bushi no michi (武士の道)are basically the same. The の is a grammatical particle meaning something like “of” or “ ’s”, so it’s essentially the difference between “The Warrior’s Way” and “The Way of the Warrior”.

What these two examples show is that bushidō was a term that could be understood by the general population. However, it does not prove that bushidō was the overarching philosophy and way of life in that it was purported to be in Nitobe’s Bushidō — the Soul of Japan.

This all suggests that bushidō as a real well-known and widespread moral philosophy doesn’t have genuine historical roots. It is a nostalgic fantasy created via a very romantic and optimistic interpretation of history.

Moreover, the virtues in Nitobe’s book are not part of a well-known “samurai code”. They are merely eight virtues that Nitobe considered important in Japanese society, and that he thought the samurai ought to have lived by. In his book, Nitobe discusses each of these virtues and makes great pains to show that each one has an equivalent in Western Christian tradition. His book is not so much a historical document as a promotion of Japanese values as being congruent with contemporary (i.e. Victorian) Western values. He makes a lot of comparisons with European chivalry, and cites an impressive number of passages from the Bible.

You can read Nitobe’s book Bushidō — the Soul of Japan here at Project Gutenberg.

From reading Nitobe’s book, the reason why some sources list seven virtues and some sources list eight becomes apparent. Nitobe devotes a section to each of these seven virtues:

  • Rectitude or Justice
  • Courage, the spirit of Daring and Bearing
  • Benevolence, the Feeling of Distress
  • Politeness
  • Veracity or Truthfulness
  • Honour
  • The Duty of Loyalty

Then he talks about samurai education and training, and after this he describes an eighth virtue:

  • Self-control

Clearly, some readers thought that his talking about education marked the end of the list of virtues, whereas others chose to also include “self-control”.



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