The Historical Foundations of Bushido

[Anyone who has ventured into the world of online bulletin boards knows that the quality of discussion ranges widely, not only between different boards and their various forums, but even on the same board at different times. One outstanding example of the “good stuff” appeared on E-budo earlier this year (2001). Participants were discussing the extent to which the concept of bushido accurately reflected aspects of the Japanese warrior culture and whether it was/is actually relevant to the Japanese martial arts, past and present. We’re pleased to be able to reproduce Dr. Karl Friday’s response here, together with the questions that gave rise to it. Enjoy!]

Originally posted by Scott R. Brown:
Is there anyone out there with other historical evidence that can confirm or refute these differing opinions.

The two questions are:

1) Did the Bushido code, whether written out or not, exist as a concept in historical Japan?

2) Was the Bushido code used as a means to foster yamatodamashii in the soldiery during WW II?

“Bushido” is a very tricky term, one of those we’re probably all best off just forgetting about. It was scarcely used at all until the modern period (in fact, Nitobe, whose Bushido: the Soul of Japan did more than any other work to publicize the term, thought he had invented it!).

Even as a kind of historiographic term–i.e. a modern label for warrior ideology–“bushido” is a problematic construct. There was very little discussion in written form of proper “warrior-ness,” except for legal codes developed by daimyo, until the Tokugawa period. The concept of a code of conduct for the samurai was a product of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Japan was at peace, not the medieval “Age of the Country at War.”

At this point, the role of the warrior became a major philosophical problem for the samurai, since they had stationed themselves at the top of the socio-political hierarchy, and yet effectively did no real work, since there were no longer any wars. The samurai of this period were bureaucrats and administrators, not fighting men; the motivation held in common by all those who wrote on the “way of the warrior” was a search for the proper role of a warrior class in a world without war. The ideas that developed out of this search owed very little to the behavioral norms of the warriors of earlier times.

The real problem, though, was that while there was lots of debate, there was little or no agreement. I tell my students that “bushido” belongs to the same class of words as terms like “patriotism,” or “masculinity” or “femininity.” That is, everyone pretty much agrees that these are good qualities to possess, but few agree on what they actually involve: Is Oliver North a patriot? Is Madeline Albright more or less feminine than Marilyn Monroe? Where does Madonna fit in to this scheme?

The same issues plagued the Tokugawa (and modern) participants in the debate on proper warrior values and behavior. An illuminating example of how diverse opinion really was can be found in the debate over the actions of the famous 47 ronin of Ako (memorialized in the story “Chushingura”). Among other things, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the author of Hagakure (which the Imperial Army later took as a kind of sacred text on warrior values) was heavily critical of the Ako ronin, calling them “citified samurai.” Hiroaki Sato translated and published a lot of the pieces in this debate in his Legends of the Samurai book. Definitely required reading for anyone interested in these issues.

The answer to Scott’s second question is “yes and no.” Yes, the Japanese government and the Imperial Army and Navy pushed the notion of “bushido” as a way to foster the sort of military spirit they desired from their soldiers and sailors. But no, the code they preached did not have much to do with anything the samurai believed in or practiced. The connection between Japan’s modern and premodern military traditions is thin–it is certainly nowhere near as strong or direct as government propagandists, militarists, Imperial Army officers, and some post-war historians have wished to believe. A couple of examples to make this point clearer:

One of the basic tenets that modern writers associate with bushido is that a true samurai was not only willing to risk his life when called upon to do so, but actually looked forward to the opportunity to sacrifice himself in the line of duty. This is the fundamental sentiment to be found in Hagakure, and was the inspiration for Mishima Yukio’s eloquent post-war commentary on that text. Hagakure was immensely popular among the officers of the Imperial Army and its often-quoted opening line, “I have found that the way of the warrior is to die,” was unquestionably used to inspire kamikaze pilots and the like.

But, however central the willingness to die might have been to twentieth century notions of bushido, it takes a considerable leap of faith to connect this sort of philosophy with the actual behavior of the medieval samurai.

It is not terribly difficult to find examples of warriors who, in desperate situations, chose to turn and die heroically rather than be killed in the act of running away. By the same token, it is not terribly difficult to find examples of this sort in the military traditions of virtually any people at any time anywhere in the world. On the other hand, as one reads the military historical record of early and medieval Japan, one is struck far more often by the efforts of samurai to use deception and subterfuge to catch an opponent off guard or helpless, than by the sort of zealous self-sacrifice that Tsunetomo called for.

A second popular theme among modern commentators on bushido concerns the absolute fielty that warriors were supposed to have displayed toward their lords. The loyalty of a samurai is said to have been unconditional and utterly selfless. It is true that exhortations to loyalty were a major theme in shogunal regulations, the house laws of the great medieval feudal barons, and seventeenth and eighteenth century treatises on bushido, as well. But there are at least two problems involved in interpreting from this that loyalty was a fundamental part of the medieval warrior character.

To begin with, the unrestricted loyalty that subjects owe their rulers is a basic tenet of Confucianism and derives little or nothing from any military tradition per se. Japanese government appeals for loyalty from subjects began long before the birth of the samurai class–as, for example, in the “Seventeen Article Constitution” of Shotoku Taishi, promulgated in 603. The concept predates even the existence of a Japanese nation by hundreds of years, and traces back to the Chinese Confucian philosophers of the sixth to third centuries BC. Japanese warlords who called upon the samurai who served them to render unflinching loyalty were not so much defining proper samurai behavior as they were exhorting their subjects on a traditional and general theme of government.

Furthermore, there is a logical fallacy involved in trying to deduce norms of actual behavior from formal legal and moral codes. It is no more accurate to infer from the writings of lawmakers and moral philosophers that medieval samurai were shining examples of fielty than it is to draw conclusions about the sexual behavior of twentieth century Georgians from the state laws on sodomy. The truth is that selfless displays of loyalty by warriors are conspicuous in the Japanese historical record mainly by their absence.

From the beginnings of the samurai class and the lord/vassal bond in the eighth century to at least the onset of the early modern age in the seventeenth, the ties between master and retainer were contractual, based on mutual interest and advantage, and were heavily conditioned by the demands of self-interest. Medieval warriors remained loyal to their lords only so long as it benefited them to do so; they could and did readily switch allegiances when the situation warranted it. In fact there are very few important battles in Japanese history in which the defection–often in the middle of the fighting–of one or more of the major players was not a factor.

Much of the code of conduct for samurai prescribed by early modern and modern writers, then, was at odds with the apparent behavioral norms of the actual warrior tradition. By the same token, much of the “bushido” preached by the government and the militarists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was at best superficially derived from the “Way of the Warrior” espoused in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Modern bushido is closely bound up with the notion of a Japanese “national essence,” and with those of the kokutai, or Japanese national structure, and the cult of the emperor. It was a propaganda tool, consciously shaped and manipulated as part of the effort to forge a unified, modern nation out of a fundamentally feudal society, and to build a modern national military made up of conscripts from all tiers of society. Bushido was believed to represent much more than just the ethic of the feudal warrior class. The Imperial Rescript to the Military of 1882, proclaimed that it “should be viewed as the reflection of the whole of the subjects of Japan.” That is to say, warrior values were held to be the essence of Japanese-ness itself, unifying traits of character common to all classes. The abolition of the samurai class thus marked not the end of bushido, but the point of its spread to the whole of the Japanese population.

But, had they not been cremated, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Daidoji Yuzan, Yamaga Soko, and the other early modern figures who wrote about the idea of a code of conduct for samurai would probably have been rolling over in their graves when they heard this. One of the few things that all of these men had in common was their interest in defining–and defending–the essence of what set the samurai APART from all other classes. They were describing–or prescribing–a code of conduct for an elite; and they were arguing that it was adherence to this code of conduct and the values on which it was based that separated this elite class of warriors from the rabble of townsmen and peasants beneath them. The idea that bushido values were simply Japanese values would have appalled them.

Furthermore, the abstract, transcendent loyalty to the emperor and the kokutai demanded of Japanese subjects by modern bushido was a far cry from the particularized, feudal loyalty valued by Tsunetomo and his contemporaries. The former was intangible, institutional, and more akin to nineteenth century German patriotism than to the lord/vassal bond of premodern Japan. The latter was direct and personal: for Tsunetomo the relationship between a samurai and his lord was grounded in a kind of platonic homosexual love; for Yuzan, it derived from an extension of filial piety. In short, twentieth century and early modern commentators on bushido may have been using many of the same words, but they were NOT speaking the same language.

[Later in this same thread…]

Originally posted by socho [Dave Drawdy]:

I understand that the Hagakure was written specifically for westerners by someone who did not practice a martial tradition. It was delibrately comparable to the code of chivalry. Do you think it possible that it may be romanticized to reflect well on Japan’s traditions? By the 18th century, after about 200 years of relative peace, much of the samurai and bushido traditions were legend and history. Again, interesting reading, but not to be taken as completely, historically accurate.

Oops! You’re confusing Hagakure with Nitobe Inazo’s 1905 Bushido: the Soul of Japan (which was originally written in English by Nitobe, a scholar of European culture who knew very little about Japanese history). Hagakure was compiled sometime in the mid 1700s, based on the recollections of Tashiro Tsuramoto of informal conversations and rants by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. But you’re quite right that Hagakure is a rather anachronistic, and somewhat romaticized text.

Tsunemoto was kind of an odd character–sort of the Mishima Yukio of his age, but without the literary talent. He was a middle-ranked retainer of Nabeshima Motoshige who had been born into an age of peace but dreamed of glorious days that he really knew nothing about. He was a bureaucrat who fantasized about being a warrior, and turned himself into a self-proclaimed expert on proper warrior behavior. G. Cameron Hurst summed him up very well when he called him “the G-12 who would be more.”

When Motoshige died in 1700, Tsunetomo wanted to follow him in death–commit junshi–but this action had been forbidden by both shogunate and Nabeshima domain law. So he settled instead for retirement to a hut in the mountains–a kind of social death, symbolic of the real thing. After a time, some of the young retainers of the Nabeshima domain began to visit him, to hear him pontificate on what was wrong with samurai today and what things were like–or, more accurately, what he imagined things OUGHT to have been like–in the good ol’ days. After Tsunemoto’s death, Tsuramoto put together what he could remember of the old man’s lectures in the text he called Hagakure (literally, “Hidden among the leaves”). One important point to keep in mind about this text, BTW, is that it hardly circulated at all outside the Nabeshima domain–that is, it was virtually unknown–until modern times, when it became VERY popular with the new Imperial Military.

Scott asked about English sources for more info on this topic. There really isn’t very much by way of explanatory or analytical work out there, other than the stuff you find in martial art books or survey textbooks (most of which just repeats the mythology popularized by the Japanese government and military in the early part of this century. Two places to start, though, are: G. Cameron Hurst, III, “Death, Loyalty and the Bushido Ideal,” in Philosophy East and West 40.4 (1990); and my article, “Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Pacific War & the Japanese Military Tradition,” in The History Teacher 27.3 (1994). The articles by Hurst, Thomas Conlan, and Paul Varley in The Origins of Japan’s Medieval World, (Stanford, 1997; edited by Jeffrey Mass) are also good places to look for information on early warrior values. And Eiko Ikegami offers an interesting, albeit heavily jargon-laden and often problematic, discussion of the evolution of samurai values in her The Taming of the Samurai (Harvard, 1995).

There are also good translations of many of the most famous “bushido” texts–like Hagakure and Budo shoshinshu–and of some of the house laws of various daimyo available (Joachim already mentioned the translation of the Takeda house codes in Sword and Spirit, for example).

Copyright ©2001 Karl Friday. All rights reserved.