Bushido (武士道) describes the ethical code of the Samurai warriors in Japan. The ethical code was developed over hundreds of years. It only became known outside of Japan through the book of Inazo Nitobe: Bushido, the Soul of Japan. In his book, written in 1899, Nitobe investigates what makes up the virtues of the Japanese culture.
The hakama, a traditional garment, used in Iaido and Aikido, has seven pleats (five in the front and two in the back), representing the seven virtues. Nitobe describes them in his book. I’m using interesting quotes from the book to describe the virtues, as a short summary wouldn’t do it much justice. For a good understanding I recommend getting a copy of the book.
1. Rectitude or justice
power of resolution
Rectitude is the power of deciding upon a certain course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering;—to die when it is right to die, to strike when to strike is right.
A derivation of rectitude is giri (or literally: Right Reason):
In its original and unalloyed sense, it meant duty, pure and simple,—hence, we speak of the Giri we owe to parents, to superiors, to inferiors, to society at large, and so forth.
An interesting blog about giri in the dojo can be found here
2. Courage, the spirit of daring and bearing
Confucius: “Perceiving what is right,” he says, “and doing it not, argues lack of courage.”
Plato, who defines courage as “the knowledge of things that a man should fear and that he should not fear.”
Of course the Samurai lived in different times, and Nitobe also describes various aspects of Bushido which are pretty cruel or as he writes “Ultra-spartan system of drilling the nerves”:
In the days when decapitation was public, not only were small boys sent to witness the ghastly scene, but they were made to visit alone the place in the darkness of night and there to leave a mark of their visit on the trunk-less head.
Nitobe also describes a spiritual aspect of valor though:
A truly brave man is ever serene; he is never taken by surprise; nothing ruffles the equanimity of his spirit. In the heat of battle he remains cool; in the midst of catastrophes he keeps level his mind. Earthquakes do not shake him, he laughs at storms. We admire him as truly great, who, in the menacing presence of danger or death, retains his self-possession; who, for instance, can compose a poem under impending peril or hum a strain in the face of death.
3. Benevolence, the feeling of distress
Mencius: “the feeling of distress is the root of benevolence, therefore a benevolent man is ever mindful of those who are suffering and in distress.”
“The bravest are the tenderest, the loving are the daring.” “Bushi no nasaké”—the tenderness of a warrior—had a sound which appealed at once to whatever was noble in us; not that the mercy of a samurai was generically different from the mercy of any other being, but because it implied mercy where mercy was not a blind impulse, but where it recognized due regard to justice, and where mercy did not remain merely a certain state of mind, but where it was backed with power to save or kill.
Politeness is a poor virtue, if it is actuated only by a fear of offending good taste, whereas it should be the outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others.
Nitobe describes ceremonious etiquette as part of politeness, with an example of etiquette in the tea ceremony (cha-do):
The tea ceremony presents certain definite ways of manipulating a bowl, a spoon, a napkin, etc. To a novice it looks tedious. But one soon discovers that the way prescribed is, after all, the most saving of time and labor; in other words, the most economical use of force
The end of all etiquette is to so cultivate your mind that even when you are quietly seated, not the roughest ruffian can dare make onset on your person.” It means, in other words, that by constant exercise in correct manners, one brings all the parts and faculties of his body into perfect order and into such harmony with itself and its environment as to express the mastery of spirit over the flesh.
5. Veracity or truthfulness
Sincerity is the end and the beginning of all things; without Sincerity there would be nothing.
The word of a Samurai, carried such weight with it that promises were generally made and fulfilled without a written pledge, which would have been deemed quite beneath his dignity. When Japan was opened for trade (during the meiji restoration), the Samurai were effectively removed from political power, and given bonds to be able to use in trade. Nitobe describes:
Those who had eyes to see could not weep enough, those who had hearts to feel could not sympathize enough, with the fate of many a noble and honest samurai who signally and irrevocably failed in his new and unfamiliar field of trade and industry, through sheer lack of shrewdness in coping with his artful plebeian rival.
That samurai was right who refused to compromise his character by a slight humiliation in his youth; “because,” he said, “dishonor is like a scar on a tree, which time, instead of effacing, only helps to enlarge.”
7. The duty of loyalty
Loyalty lingers latest among the people where feudalism has lasted longest.
The individualism of the West, which recognizes separate interests for father and son, husband and wife, necessarily brings into strong relief the duties owed by one to the other; but Bushido held that the interest of the family and of the members thereof is intact,—one and inseparable.
The future of Bushido
Bushido, and the era of Samurai formally ended in 1870, when feudalism was abolished, and two years later the carrying of swords was officially forbidden. Nitobe writes the following on the future of Bushido.
Scratch a Japanese of the most advanced ideas, and he will show a samurai. The great inheritance of honor, of valor and of all martial virtues is, as Professor Cramb very fitly expresses it, “but ours on trust, the fief inalienable of the dead and of the generation to come,” and the summons of the present is to guard this heritage, nor to bate one jot of the ancient spirit; the summons of the future will be so to widen its scope as to apply it in all walks and relations of life.
120 years after Nitobe’s book was first published, this still holds true in my opinion. Obviously we don’t live in the age of Samurai anymore, but there are universal truths in the learnings of Samurai that will serve us today as much as it did hundreds of years ago.
Photo by Mattia Serrani on Unsplash