Japanese History Essay – The Samurai and Bushido

“It would be difficult to find any facet of Japan’s cultural heritage that exercises as powerful a hold on the world’s popular imagination as the samurai (Friday 1994, 339).” One aspect of Japan’s cultural development which can show how extraordinary Japan is as a nation can be seen in the “Way of the Warrior,” or “Bushido.” This essay will present why I believe Bushido is a paramount exemplification of the fact that what makes Japan remarkable as a nation is the way in which aspects of other nations have been assimilated and adapted over time. Firstly, I will show the power and impact Bushido has had on Japan, its people and the world; then show how it was influenced by other cultures and religions, focusing on the end of the Heian period and the Gempei War.

Nitobe Inazō (2002, 35) is said to have been one of the first writers to popularise the word Bushido, and he describes that the concept is so unique, it is difficult to portray it completely using any other English word as a translation (Friday 1994). Nitobe (2002, 35) also explains that Bushido is quite complicated in its formation and definition, since it was formulated by many people over a large span of time, not detailed in writings, but lived out in moral principals in the warrior’s life and heart. In my opinion, I see that since this concept is so unique to Japan, that it isn’t comparable to other cultural essences in other nations, that it shows how remarkable the nation of Japan truly is. Though the article by Karl F Friday (1994) is critical of the later evolution of Bushido as a negative force, it begins with the sentiment that Samurai warriors have had an impact as role models and their traditions have been objects of intrigue in media and public thought around the world. I see this adding gravity to the role Bushido plays demonstrating how noteworthy the Japanese culture is; that though Bushido is a foreign concept on the global stage, it is not rejected, shunned or feared; but honoured and valued.

Another notable aspect of Bushido and its influence is the fact that it moved away from being a warrior code to impacting the culture and thought of all people in Japan (Friday 1994, 342). This is quite different to how Samurai would have foreseen the future in the time of the Heian Period and the Gempei War, since there was a divide between the superior warrior class, and all other classes (Friday 1994, 343). I believe this shows us two things; firstly, that the essence of Bushido had a lasting impact on Japan and its people, transcending many political, economic and cultural changes (Morton and Olenik 2005). Secondly, this shift in classes shows that Bushido was more than a warrior code, but a deeper philosophy and way of life that could be incorporated into the lives of all people. Nitobe (2002, 19) compares his experience with Bushido to the gleaning of morals from religious education in the west. In my view, one of the prominent identifying marks of a society and culture is the way in which morals are gained by citizens, and it is interesting that Bushido has taken that place of what religion has added to so many other countries.

The ideals of loyalty and bravery, being principal areas of Bushido code, have heavily influenced the Japanese people all the way into the twentieth century (Morton and Olenik 2005, 63). The ideals were included in the traditional artistic and culturally significant theatrical plays of Kabuki and Nō (Morton and Olenik 2005, 63). These plays are still performed in Japan and abroad as a legacy to past culture (Wells 1991, 118). Because of this, the characters and themes of chivalrous and virtuous Samurai are ever within reach of both the Japanese people and those in other countries (Wells 1991, 119). This adds to what has already been stated, that the long lasting impact and widespread nature of Bushido adds to the remarkable nature of the Japanese nation.

Through history Bushido changed and evolved, being summarised at times into seven traits: loyalty, decorum, faith, obedience, courage, frugality and honor (Friday 1994, 340). Karl F Friday (1994, 339) contrasts his initial analysis of Bushido being a highly regarded code with the observation that it also had a “sinister side.” Swinson (1968, 15) writes that the samurai class had been abolished for seventy four years, but the Bushido warrior code was still incorporated into army affairs and also used as propaganda (Friday 1994, 340). The fact that Bushido was attributed to all people rather than just warriors of soldiers was also used as a form of propaganda as described in the 1882 document “The Imperial Rescript to the Military” (Friday 1994, 342). Another way in which past warrier practices were used to manipulate people in ways which were not originally intended was the thought that the prime purpose was to die for the cause, as seen in the Kamikaze pilots (Friday 1994, 341). This was not the exact original intent when considering the Bushido code of the Heian period and Gempei War, but was used for military gain in World War Two (Friday 1994, 341). Though this is a darker side to the Bushido code, I still believe that it can’t be ignored when considering how powerful an influence Bushido has been on the world. I believe that it is not the Bushido code that is to be looked down on, but on the way it was used in the Second World War.

It is easier to consider Bushido at its later forms of development than the origins, because it was formally defined and solidified as a concept in the 17th and 18th centuries, when there was peace, and the Samurai were more bureaucrats and administrators rather than practicing warriors (Friday 1994, 340). Nitobe (2002, 36) postulates that perhaps Bushido started forming at the time of Minamoto Yoritomo, who lived at the time of political shift from the gentle scholars of the Japanese courts to the warrior class which became the most prominent (Morton and Olenik 2005, 62). Nitobe (2002, 36) also suggests that Bushido could be tied in with feudalism, which existed before this time, so there could have been some other influences from earlier history. Shinto, the native religion of the Japanese people added a lot to the Bushido, such as loyalty to the sovereign, reverence for ancestors and the teaching of inner godliness that exists within all Nitobe (2002, 40). This shows how Bushido was indeed Japanese from its origins, however, it was not completely uninfluenced in its creation.

Nitobe (2002, 39) claims that it may all start with Buddhism, with a “calm trust in Fate, submission to the inevitable, that stoic composure in the sight of danger or calamity, that disdain of life and friendliness with death.” Buddhism originally being from India, and coming to Japan from China shows that indeed Bushido was not solely a domestic creation, but something from abroad that had been assimilated into Japanese culture and adapted over time to become something new in Japan (Morton and Olenik 2005, 65). Zen Buddhism in particular was important in Bushido development, focusing on practicing the way, not just studying teachings and writings (Morton and Olenik 2005, 65, Nitobe 2002, 42). Zen Buddhism was influenced by the Chinese Taoism and another contributor to Buhido was also Chinese Confucian philosophy (Morton and Olenik 2005, 65). Confucius teachings had entered Japan before the Samurai existed, and brought the strong belief of loyalty to the country, which is so prominent in Bushido and the Samurai (Friday 1994, 341, Morton and Olenik 2005, 65). Through these many different examples of religious and philosophical beliefs, traditions and teachings we can see that Bushido would not exist, save that these international influences had been incorporated into the way.

Through the aforementioned characteristics of uniqueness, impact on cultural heritage and international image of Japan, lasting impact on the Japanese people and influential power in military propaganda, we can see that Bushido is in fact one aspect of historical development that shows how remarkable Japan is. We have also seen the influence of Buddhist teachings, the Taoist influenced Zen Buddhism and Chinese Confucian influences on Bushido and Japanese culture, proving that Bushido was not wholly a domestic Japanese development, but an innovation in which aspects other nations have been assimilated and adapted over time.

Reference List

Friday, Karl F. 1994. “Bushidō or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition.” The History Teacher 27 (3): 339-349.

Morton, W. Scott and J. Kenneth Olenik. 2005. Japan: Its History and Culture. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Nitobe, Inazō. 2002. Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.

Swinson, Arthur. 1968. Four samurai: a quartet of Japanese army commanders in the Second World War. London: Hutchinson

Wells, Marguerite. 1991. “The road to Tokyo! A Kabuki review.” Japanese Studies 11 (1): 118-122