For anyone interested in Japanese culture or feudal Japan, the term Bushidō is not unfamiliar. Indeed, it refers to the name given to the warrior's code and ethical principles followed by all samurais. Based on seven moral values, it guided the entire life of Japanese samurais and could even lead to death. But where does this term come from, what does it mean? And, most importantly, what does it advocate? Is it still relevant in Japanese society today? Let's answer these questions to shed light on this fundamental concept in the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Origin of Bushidō
The Etymology of the Word Bushidō
Bushidō, written in rōmaji or 武士道 in kanji characters, is a term derived from the Chinese "wu shi dao," which literally means the way of the warrior. Translated into Japanese, it consists of 3 characters, the first two, 武士, form the term bushi, the brave warrior, and the last character, 道, dō, the way. The term perfectly reflects its meaning, as it is a manual of the path that warriors must follow.
The Beginnings of Bushidō
This term first appeared around 1616, in a work entitled "Kōyō Gunkan," but it had already existed before that. Initially passed down orally, it was closely linked to feudal Japan, a period that lasted from 1185 to 1867. During this time, the country was under the military government of the shogun, a military warlord who also played a political role. The shoguns recruited samurais into their armies. These warriors were entirely devoted to their family, clan, and leader. Their code of conduct was primarily based on martial culture. In fact, this guide was called the "way of the warrior," the "way of the bow and arrows," or the "way of the bow and horse," depending on the most popular combat styles of the time.
Under the influence of Shintoism, Zen Buddhism, and Confucianism, the moral dimension gradually gained importance. This shift was further accelerated during the Edo period or the Tokugawa dynasty, a time of relative peace and less militarism. It contributed to a more moral and less warlike perspective on the way of the warrior. At this time, samurais became more literate, refined, and engaged in various artistic activities, such as calligraphy or the tea ceremony.
Shintoism, the oldest religion in Japan, placed great emphasis on family, parents, and ancestors in relationships. To be an integral part of this lineage, death had to be honorable: it was better to die with honor than to live in disgrace.
Zen Buddhism, the very religion of the samurai since the Kamakura era, brought inner peace, self-transcendence, and a thirst for harmony. This required a moral and benevolent attitude towards others, essential for personal spiritual elevation.
As for Confucianism, it contributed to the evolution of the samurai by introducing values such as integrity and benevolence. Loyalty and fidelity to the lord were indispensable qualities. Let's remember that the original meaning of samurai is "one who serves." This complete respect for hierarchy imposed a commitment that could lead to death.
The Seven Principles of Bushidō
The warrior's code of honor, Bushidō, is based on seven principles that all samurais must follow scrupulously.
義 gi: Rectitude
The samurai warrior must act justly; they do not attack an opponent without reason. They act with rectitude and without hesitation, doing what is right and fulfilling their mission. This principle is epitomized by a well-known quote from a renowned samurai, Taira Shigetsuke (1639-1730): "To live when it is right to live, and to die when it is right to die."
勇 yū: Courage
The samurai fears nothing and can fight to the death because they do not fear it. They know their fight is honorable and wholeheartedly believe in it. Their heroic valor is not reckless; it comes from self-control, mastery of weapons, confidence in their abilities, and prudence.
仁 jin: Benevolence
Empathy and benevolence towards others are qualities that a samurai must possess. They should be animated by compassion and use their strength and skills for the greater good. The feudal system that binds them to their daimyō, their lord, contributes to a society of mutual obligations within voluntary allegiance. The ruler, in turn, must show benevolence and compassion towards their people.
礼 rei: Politeness
Courtesy is essential and a part of the virtues advocated by the Bushidō code. This politeness goes hand in hand with profound respect. Thus, samurais are considerate towards their opponents before, during, and after combat. Despite their well-known fierceness, samurais always respect the corpse of their enemy.
誠 makoto: Sincerity
A samurai never lies. They remain sincere in their words and actions, ensuring that their actions align with their words. They do not deceive their enemies with false words. It is a form of respect for others. A samurai who is not sincere would be plunged into dishonor, which is inconceivable for them.
名誉 meiyō: Honor
Perhaps the greatest virtue of Japanese warriors, it is a demanding and rigorous honor that allows no room for failure. For samurais, a life without honor is not worth living. If a samurai has failed in their honor, there is only one way to redeem themselves: ritual suicide. Known in the West as hara-kiri, it is more accurately referred to as seppuku. This act allows them to cleanse their fault and regain their honor.
義 chūgi: Loyalty
The samurai's loyalty to their daimyō is unwavering. It is the most important concept along with honor. The samurai is willing to sacrifice their life to remain loyal to their leader. In case of conflicting loyalties, such as between legitimate family and lordly obligations, the rule is simple: the interest of the greater number prevails. Therefore, a samurai will prioritize loyalty to their nation over their loved ones. They see the individual as a part of the whole.
The Influence of Bushidō on Modern Japan
From the end of the Tokugawa shogunate around 1869, the Japanese emperor put an end to the feudal system and, therefore, the rule of the shoguns. The new government, influenced by the Western world, issued a decree in 1872 that banned the carrying or use of swords in public. In practice, this decree put an end to the way of life of Japanese samurais by depriving them of their income. Despite the disappearance of the warrior caste, their way of thinking and living has deeply influenced Japanese culture. Politeness and respect are deeply ingrained in all Japanese traditions. As for the values of Bushidō, they are particularly evident in the domains of education and business. Young Japanese are known for their respect for authority and their pursuit of constant improvement, driving them towards excellence. The taste for effort, the ability to work in teams, discretion, and impeccable organization are also recognized qualities of Japanese employees. These values stem from the moral code of Bushidō and are truly integral to the Japanese mentality.
But where the Bushidō code still retains its original, both moral and warrior, meaning is in the practice of sports, particularly martial arts. Self-mastery, concentration, fair play, and combativeness are actively practiced in disciplines such as judo, aikido, kendo, and karate bushidō.
Furthermore, the Bushidō code and its valiant warriors continue to influence other sports. Baseball is a very popular sport in Japan, and the country ranks number one worldwide in this discipline. An eagerly awaited match will take place between Japan and Australia in September 2022, and these upcoming matches are titled the "Samurai Japan Series." Quite symbolic!
After reading this, you will understand that the Bushidō code is, above all, a philosophy and a state of mind. Intimately connected to the history of feudal Japan and its samurais, it has had a lasting impact on society up to our current era. Undoubtedly, its high ethical value has contributed to its success. The Bushidō code drew from the thirst for excellence and personal fulfillment sought by Japanese warriors. It is an echo that each of us can feel and aspire to put into practice: aspiring to become a better version of oneself.