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Japanese samurai in armor, 1860s. Photograph by Felice Beato Samurai.png
Japanese samurai in armor, 1860s. Photograph by Felice Beato

Bushidō ( 武士道 , "the way of warriors") is a Japanese collective term for the many codes of honour and ideals that dictated the samurai way of life, [1] loosely analogous to the European concept of chivalry. [2]


The "way" originates from the samurai moral values, most commonly stressing some combination of sincerity, frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honour until death. Born from Neo-Confucianism during times of peace in the Edo period (1603–1867) and following Confucian texts, while also being influenced by Shinto and Zen Buddhism, allowing the violent existence of the samurai to be tempered by wisdom, patience and serenity. Bushidō developed between the 16th and 20th centuries, debated by pundits who believed they were building on a legacy dating back to the 10th century, although some scholars have noted that the term bushidō itself is "rarely attested in pre-modern literature". [3]

Under the Tokugawa shogunate, some aspects of warrior values became formalized into Japanese feudal law. [4]

The word bushidō was first used in Japan during the 17th century in Kōyō Gunkan, [5] [6] [7] but did not come into common usage until after the 1899 publication of Nitobe Inazō's Bushido: The Soul of Japan . [8] In Bushido (1899), Nitobe wrote:

Bushidō, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe ... More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten ... It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career. In order to become a samurai this code has to be mastered. [9]

Nitobe was the first to document Japanese chivalry in this way. In Feudal and Modern Japan (1896), historian Arthur May Knapp wrote:

The samurai of thirty years ago had behind him a thousand years of training in the law of honor, obedience, duty, and self-sacrifice ... It was not needed to create or establish them. As a child he had but to be instructed, as indeed he was from his earliest years, in the etiquette of self-immolation. [10]

Historical development

Early history to 16th century

Many early literary works of Japan talk of warriors, but the term bushidō does not appear in text until the Edo period. [11]

From the literature of the 13th to 16th centuries, there exists an abundance of references to military ideals, although none of these should be viewed as early versions of bushidō per se.[ citation needed ] Carl Steenstrup noted that 13th- and 14th-century writings ( gunki monogatari ) "portrayed the bushi in their natural element, war, eulogizing such virtues as reckless bravery, fierce family pride, and selfless, at times senseless devotion of master and man".[ citation needed ]

Compiled over the course of three centuries, beginning in the 1180s, the Heike Monogatari depicts a highly fictionalized and idealized story of a struggle between two warrior clans, the Minamoto and the Taira, at the end of the 12th century—a conflict known as the Genpei War. Clearly depicted throughout the epic is the ideal of the cultivated warrior. [12] The warriors in the Heike Monogatari served as role models for the educated warriors of later generations, although the ideals depicted by them were assumed to be beyond reach.[ citation needed ] Nevertheless, during the early modern era, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms.[ citation needed ] The influence of Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in the Bushido's early development instilled among those who live by the code a religious respect for it. Yamaga-Soko, the Japanese philosopher given credit for establishing Bushido, said that "the first and surest means to enter into communion with the Divine is by sincerity." [1]

The sayings of Sengoku-period retainers and warlords such as Katō Kiyomasa and Nabeshima Naoshige were generally recorded or passed down to posterity around the turn of the 16th century when Japan had entered a period of relative peace. In a handbook addressed to "all samurai, regardless of rank", Katō states:

"If a man does not investigate into the matter of bushidō daily, it will be difficult for him to die a brave and manly death.[ citation needed ] Thus, it is essential to engrave this business of the warrior into one's mind well."[ citation needed ]

Katō was a ferocious warrior who banned even recitation of poetry, stating:

"One should put forth great effort in matters of learning. One should read books concerning military matters, and direct his attention exclusively to the virtues of loyalty and filial piety....Having been born into the house of a warrior, one's intentions should be to grasp the long and the short swords and to die." [13] [ clarification needed ]

Naoshige says similarly, that it is shameful for any man to die without having risked his life in battle, regardless of rank, and that "bushidō is in being crazy to die. Fifty or more could not kill one such a man". However, Naoshige also suggests that "everyone should personally know exertion as it is known in the lower classes". [13]

17th to 19th centuries

Miyamoto Musashi killing a giant creature, from The Book of Five Rings Miyamoto Musashi killing a giant nue.jpg
Miyamoto Musashi killing a giant creature, from The Book of Five Rings

Japan enjoyed a period of relative peace from 1600 to the mid-19th century. During this period, the samurai class played a central role in the policing and administration of the country.[ citation needed ] The bushidō literature of this time contains much thought relevant to a warrior class seeking more general application of martial principles and experience in peacetime, as well as reflection on the land's long history of war.[ citation needed ] The literature of this time includes:

The Hagakure contains many sayings attributed to Sengoku-period retainer Nabeshima Naoshige (1537–1619) regarding bushidō related philosophy early in the 18th century by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659–1719), a former retainer to Naoshige's grandson, Nabeshima Mitsushige. The Hagakure was compiled in the early 18th century, but was kept as a kind of "secret teaching" of the Nabeshima clan until the end of the Tokugawa bakufu (1867). [14] His saying, "I have found the way of the warrior is death", was a summation of the focus on honour and reputation over all else that bushidō codified. [15]

Tokugawa-era rōnin, scholar and strategist Yamaga Sokō (1622–1685) wrote extensively on matters relating to bushidō, bukyō (a "warrior's creed"), and a more general shidō, a "way of gentlemen" intended for application to all stations of society. Sokō attempts to codify a kind of "universal bushidō" with a special emphasis on "pure" Confucian values, (rejecting the mystical influences of Tao and Buddhism in Neo-Confucian orthodoxy), while at the same time calling for recognition of the singular and divine nature of Japan and Japanese culture. These radical concepts—including ultimate devotion to the Emperor, regardless of rank or clan—put him at odds with the reigning shogunate. He was exiled to the Akō domain, (the future setting of the 47 Rōnin incident), and his works were not widely read until the rise of nationalism in the early 20th century.[ citation needed ]

Painting of Oishi Yoshio committing seppuku, 1703 Kuranosuke Harakiri no zu.jpg
Painting of Ōishi Yoshio committing seppuku, 1703

The aging Yamamoto Tsunetomo's interpretation of bushidō is perhaps more illustrative of the philosophy refined by his unique station and experience, at once dutiful and defiant, ultimately incompatible with the laws of an emerging civil society. Of the 47 rōnin—to this day, generally regarded as exemplars of bushidō—Tsunetomo felt they were remiss in hatching such a wily, delayed plot for revenge, and had been over-concerned with the success of their undertaking. Instead, Tsunetomo felt true samurai should act without hesitation to fulfill their duties, without regard for success or failure.[ citation needed ]

This romantic sentiment is of course expressed by warriors throughout history, though it may run counter to the art of war itself. This ambivalence is found in the heart of bushidō, and perhaps all such "warrior codes". Some combination of traditional bushidō's organic contradictions and more "universal" or "progressive" formulations (like those of Yamaga Sokō) would inform Japan's disastrous military ambitions in the 20th century.[ citation needed ]

19th to 21st centuries

Recent scholarship in both Japan and abroad has focused on differences between the samurai caste and the bushidō theories that developed in modern Japan. Bushidō in the prewar period was often emperor-centered and placed much greater value on the virtues of loyalty and self-sacrifice than did many Tokugawa-era interpretations. [16] Bushidō was used as a propaganda tool by the government and military, who doctored it to suit their needs. [17] Scholars of Japanese history agree that the bushidō that spread throughout modern Japan was not simply a continuation of earlier traditions.

More recently, it has been argued that modern bushidō discourse originated in the 1880s as a response to foreign stimuli, such as the English concept of "gentlemanship", by Japanese with considerable exposure to Western culture. Nitobe Inazo's bushidō interpretations followed a similar trajectory, although he was following earlier trends. This relatively pacifistic bushidō was then hijacked and adapted by militarists and the government from the early 1900s onward as nationalism increased around the time of the Russo-Japanese War. [18]

The junshi suicide of General Nogi Maresuke and his wife on the death of Emperor Meiji occasioned both praise, as an example to the decaying morals of Japan, and criticism, explicitly declaring that the spirit of bushidō thus exemplified should not be revived. [19]

Japanese war crimes against Chinese POWs in Nanjing, c. 1937 Photo 11 (The "Shame" Album).jpg
Japanese war crimes against Chinese POWs in Nanjing, c. 1937

During pre-World War II and World War II Shōwa Japan, bushido was pressed into use for militarism, [20] to present war as purifying, and death a duty. [21] This was presented as revitalizing traditional values and "transcending the modern". [22] Bushidō would provide a spiritual shield to let soldiers fight to the end. [23] As the war turned, the spirit of bushidō was invoked to urge that all depended on the firm and united soul of the nation. [24] When the Battle of Attu was lost, attempts were made to make the more than two thousand Japanese deaths an inspirational epic for the fighting spirit of the nation. [25] Arguments that the plans for the Battle of Leyte Gulf, involving all Japanese ships, would expose Japan to serious danger if they failed, were countered with the plea that the Navy be permitted to "bloom as flowers of death". [26] The first proposals of organized suicide attacks met resistance because although bushidō called for a warrior to be always aware of death, they were not to view it as the sole end. Nonetheless, the desperate straits brought about acceptance [27] and such attacks were acclaimed as the true spirit of bushidō. [28]

As Japan continued its modernization in the early 20th century, her armed forces became convinced that success in battle would be assured if Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen had the “spirit” of Bushido. ... The result was that the Bushido code of behavior “was inculcated into the Japanese soldier as part of his basic training.” Each soldier was indoctrinated to accept that it was the greatest honor to die for the Emperor and it was cowardly to surrender to the enemy. ... Bushido therefore explains why the Japanese in the NEI so mistreated POWs in their custody. Those who had surrendered to the Japanese—regardless of how courageously or honorably they had fought—merited nothing but contempt; they had forfeited all honor and literally deserved nothing. Consequently, when the Japanese murdered POWs by shooting, beheading, and drowning, these acts were excused since they involved the killing of men who had forfeited all rights to be treated with dignity or respect. While civilian internees were certainly in a different category from POWs, it is reasonable to think that there was a “spill-over” effect from the tenets of Bushido.

Fred Borch, Military Trials of War Criminals in the Netherlands East Indies 1946-1949 [29]

Japanese propaganda during World War II claimed that prisoners of war denied being mistreated, and declared that they were being well-treated by virtue of bushidō generosity. [30] Broadcast interviews with prisoners were also described as being not propaganda but out of sympathy with the enemy, such sympathy as only bushidō could inspire. [31]


Bushidō expanded and formalized the earlier code of the samurai, and stressed sincerity, frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and honour to the death. Under the bushidō ideal, if a samurai failed to uphold his honor he could only regain it by performing seppuku (ritual suicide). [32]

In an excerpt from his book Samurai: The World of the Warrior, [33] historian Stephen Turnbull describes the role of seppuku in feudal Japan:

In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced. The cutting of the abdomen released the samurai’s spirit in the most dramatic fashion, but it was an extremely painful and unpleasant way to die, and sometimes the samurai who was performing the act asked a loyal comrade to cut off his head at the moment of agony.

Bushidō varied dramatically over time, and across the geographic and socio-economic backgrounds of the samurai, who represented somewhere between 5% and 10% of the Japanese population. [34] The first Meiji-era census at the end of the 19th century counted 1,282,000 members of the "high samurai", allowed to ride a horse, and 492,000 members of the "low samurai", allowed to wear two swords but not to ride a horse, in a country of about 25 million. [35]

Some versions of bushidō include compassion for those of lower station, and for the preservation of one's name. [13] Early bushidō literature further enforces the requirement to conduct oneself with calmness, fairness, justice, and propriety. [13] The relationship between learning and the way of the warrior is clearly articulated, one being a natural partner to the other. [13]

Other pundits pontificating on the warrior philosophy covered methods of raising children, appearance, and grooming, but all of this may be seen as part of one's constant preparation for death—to die a good death with one's honor intact, the ultimate aim in a life lived according to bushidō. Indeed, a "good death" is its own reward, and by no means assurance of "future rewards" in the afterlife. Some samurai, though certainly not all (e.g., Amakusa Shirō), have throughout history held such aims or beliefs in disdain, or expressed the awareness that their station—as it involves killing—precludes such reward, especially in Buddhism. Japanese beliefs surrounding the samurai and the afterlife are complex and often contradictory, while the soul of a noble warrior suffering in hell or as a lingering spirit occasionally appears in Japanese art and literature, so does the idea of a warrior being reborn upon a lotus throne in paradise [36]

Eight virtues of Bushidō (as envisioned by Nitobe Inazō)

The bushidō code is typified by eight virtues: [37]

Be acutely honest throughout your dealings with all people. Believe in justice, not from other people, but from yourself. To the true warrior, all points of view are deeply considered regarding honesty, justice and integrity. Warriors make a full commitment to their decisions.

Hiding like a turtle in a shell is not living at all. A true warrior must have heroic courage. It is absolutely risky. It is living life completely, fully and wonderfully. Heroic courage is not blind. It is intelligent and strong.

Through intense training and hard work the true warrior becomes quick and strong. They are not as most people. They develop a power that must be used for good. They have compassion. They help their fellow men at every opportunity. If an opportunity does not arise, they go out of their way to find one.

True warriors have no reason to be cruel. They do not need to prove their strength. Warriors are not only respected for their strength in battle, but also by their dealings with others. The true strength of a warrior becomes apparent during difficult times.

When warriors say that they will perform an action, it is as good as done. Nothing will stop them from completing what they say they will do. They do not have to 'give their word'. They do not have to 'promise'. Speaking and doing are the same action.

Warriors have only one judge of honor and character, and this is themselves. Decisions they make and how these decisions are carried out are a reflection of who they truly are. You cannot hide from yourself.

Warriors are responsible for everything that they have done and everything that they have said and all of the consequences that follow. They are immensely loyal to all of those in their care. To everyone that they are responsible for, they remain fiercely true.

Associated virtues

Modern translations

Modern Western translation of documents related to bushidō began in the 1970s with Carl Steenstrup, who performed research into the ethical codes of famous samurai including Hōjō Sōun and Imagawa Sadayo. [38]

Primary research into bushidō was later conducted by William Scott Wilson in his 1982 text Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors. The writings span hundreds of years, family lineage, geography, social class and writing style—yet share a common set of values. Wilson's work also examined older Japanese writings unrelated to the warrior class: the Kojiki, Shoku Nihongi, the Kokin Wakashū and the Konjaku Monogatari, as well as the Chinese Classics (the Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Mencius).

In May 2008, Thomas Cleary translated a collection of 22 writings on bushidō by warriors, scholars, political advisers, and educators, spanning 500 years from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Titled Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook, it gave an insider's view of the samurai world: "the moral and psychological development of the warrior, the ethical standards they were meant to uphold, their training in both martial arts and strategy, and the enormous role that the traditions of Shintoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism had in influencing samurai ideals".

Major figures associated with Bushidō

See also

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