Bushido is the code of moral principles that Japanese warriors (samurai and bushi) were required to observe.

Bushido Origin of the word

Bushidō (武士道) is a Japanese word literally meaning "the way of the warrior": bushi means "brave warrior" and dō, "the way." Bushi is sometimes divided into two terms that are said to mean bu, "to stop," "to put an end to violence by arms," and shi, "one who has obtained his knowledge through learning" (like the warrior). However, another interpretation of the etymology of the ideogram bu suggests instead "to carry the spear".

The first mention of this word is made in the Kōyō gunkan, written around 1616, but the appearance of bushido is linked to that of Japanese feudalism and the first shoguns at the time of Minamoto no Yoritomo in the xi century.

However, the moral dimension of bushido appears progressively in the warrior culture and can be found in stories and military treatises only from the 14th and 15th centuries onwards. Thus, the modern representation of its antiquity in Japanese culture and its dissemination is permanent.

For example, at the time of the Genpei War, it was called the Way of the Bow and Horse (弓馬の道, kyūba no michi ) because of the major importance of this fighting style for the warriors of the time, and the fact that it was considered a traditional method, that of the oldest samurai heroes, such as Prince Shōtoku, Minamoto no Yorimitsu and Minamoto no Yoshiie (Hachimantarō).

According to Louis Frederic, kyūba no michi emerged around the tenth century as a set of unwritten rules and customs to which samurai were expected to adhere.

"Around the tenth and tenth centuries that expressions such as the way of the man-at-arms (tsuwamon no michi), the way of the bow and arrow (kyûsen / kyûya no michi), the way of the bow and horse (kyûba no michi) began to be used. These expressions refer to practices which are the ancestors of the way of the warrior (bushidô) but they did not imply any relation to a moral.

They were merely practices centered on training for actual combat and therefore related to the samurai's way of life in the broadest sense. "The world of the warriors that was being practiced was a world that was not only a world of war, but also a world that was being practiced in a way that was not a world of war.

"The world of warriors that developed in the medieval period [seventeenth to sixteenth centuries] was placed under the domination of the Buddhist religion. Buddhism makes the prohibition of killing living beings one of its main principles. "Faced with death, some samurai thought they had inherited bad karma...others knew they were doing evil.

The Buddhist notion of impermanence [mujo] tended to express some sense of the fragility of existence. The beliefs in the pure land of Amida Buddha allowed some warriors to hope for an Amidist paradise. Zen Buddhism with its doctrine of oneness between life and death was also appreciated by many samurai.

The world of medieval warriors was still largely dominated by the supernatural, and the belief, in particular, in the tormented souls of warriors who had fallen in battle [which] returned almost obsessively in the dreams of the living. This idea ensured the success of the Noh theater.

The different editions of the Tale of the Heike shed light on the notion of the way. Thus, "in the Kakuichi version it is noted [about the statement of the vassals of the Taira when they abandon the ancient capital of Fukuhara]

'according to the custom [narai] of those who on horseback use the air and arrows duplicity and the worst shame' instead of 'as is the custom of those who follow the Way of the bow and arrow, betraying one's lord can only bring shame for one's lifetime' the "custom" [naraï] is clearly evoked here but there is no longer any question of "way".

Even in the Engyo version, the Way of the Bow and Arrow refers directly to the warriors and their way of life but the word "way" [michi] here has no moral connotation.

This is perfectly clear in the anecdote of the abandonment of the prisoner Michitsune by his brother Michikiyo who declares, "He who was caught alive deserves only death." In anger, Mitchitsune retorts, "Isn't it a habit for a warrior to be taken alive" Habit or custom narai refers to a frequent situation without moral connotations, even though it may be subject to discussion.

In fact, there is a misunderstanding of the term which designates the samurai code, residing in the mystification of certain facts by historians, especially Japanese. Among the classes there were bushi, non-commissioned officers and inferior officers, and buke, superior officers belonging to the nobility.

Samurai belong to the buke category, and their code is the buke-shô-hatto. However, there is a fiction where the term bushido is used as the code of the samurai, and it is from there that we get this definition.

Sources of bushido

This code of life borrowed from Buddhism stoic endurance, respect for danger and death; from Shintoism, religious worship of the homeland and the emperor; from Confucianism, a certain literary and artistic culture as well as the social morality of "relationships": parents-children, master and servant, spouses, brothers, friends.

Mencius was also a great source of inspiration for bushido.

Bushido is in the continuity of kyuba-no-michi, it has been structured over the centuries, just as Seneca's stoicism was necessarily different from Zeno's. I there is a major difference between bushido and the earlier texts describing the samurai way.

At the time of the kyuba no michi, samurai were in the service of the kuge nobility and of imperial princes of high lineage (for example, the samurai in the Tale of Genji). When the transition to bushido takes place, samurai (i.e., mainly buke and peasant soldiers) seize their own destinies in their own hands through the phenomenon of gekokujō, or begin serving other buke members.

Thus, during the time of the Genpei War and the Minamoto bakufu, it was referred to as the "Way of the Bow and Horse" simply because it was the traditional way of fighting for samurai. The martial art called yabusame (Japanese archery technique practiced on horseback), kept a great importance through the centuries, until the Sengoku period and even in the Edo period.

The yabusame was used in ceremonies to the glory of the gods and the emperor and was also, by default, the way of fighting of the great samurai heroes of the early Middle Ages in Japan such as Minamoto no Yorimitsu, Hachiman Taro, Minamoto no Yoshiie and Minamoto no Tametomo.

In the same way, the founder of the Heki-ryu Kyujutsu is linked to Hachiman, tutelary god of the Seiwa-Genji lineage and therefore god of horse archery (moreover, some of Hachiman's shintai are samurai stirrups). We speak then about "Way of the bow and the horse" because the samurais are in the first place archers on horseback with chivalrous temperament.

However, warfare in Japan evolved gradually. If sieges already existed in the Yoshiie period, melee combat became more and more important as the number of soldiers increased and the importance of the bow declined.

From the Kamakura period onwards, the importance of the sword, and later the spear, became clear. In Kyoto during the Ōnin War, huge crowds are brought in, which later disperse throughout Japan as they return home, ushering in the period of chaos of the Sengoku period.

In the Edo period, with the nation at peace (tenka taihei), the samurai lost all source of income, as mercenaries without a war and therefore without a potential employer. Those who did not become rōnin worked in castles or in urban areas.

The goshi, the country samurai and soldier-peasant, were the norm before the reform of Oda Nobunaga, who forced his samurai to live in the city in order to mobilize them more quickly and easily for military expeditions. Eventually, this approach spread throughout the country and the Tokugawa made Japan a sophisticated, urban culture. Martial arts were largely unnecessary.

Many pre-Edo daimyos performed tameshi giri (real cutting exercises with sword). We can mention Date Masamune and Hosokawa Tadaoki, fought in the front line (Kato Kiyomasa, Maeda Toshiie, Saitō Dōsan, Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen) or are even the subject of legendary martial feats (Honda Tadakatsu, never wounded in battle in his life;

Tachibana Dōsetsu slicing through a bolt of lightning with his sword; Satake Yoshishige slicing through a rider in full armor from head to saddle; Yagyū Munetoshi slicing through a rock).

If we go back even further, we find an abundance of legendary heroes and warriors, generals or simple samurai. So, in the eyes of a man of the old school like Yamamoto Jocho Tsunetomo, their descendants of the Edo period are rather spoiled and picky. They lack the warlike temperament of their forefathers.

For example, the daimyos of the Edo period employed experts to make tameshi giri (the most famous being Yamada Asaemon). The katana must be wielded by a master who is able to determine the weapon's abilities without being influenced by the user.

On the other hand, one cannot grasp the essence of the sword without practicing battōjutsu or tameshi giri, as imitating the movements during katas or a few weapon passes with bamboo toys does not give the feeling of slicing human flesh, which is what swords and their martial techniques are ultimately intended for.

In fact, daimyos reject tameshi giri as barbaric. Even if this exercise is necessary, they avoid it and entrust it to experts of low social rank.

Moreover, these daimyos never take themselves the position of kaishakunin (person appointed to carry out the execution) during a seppuku, because it is outrageous for a samurai to point his blade in the direction of his daimyo (since the kaishakunin waits behind the seppuku-sha, the condemned).

When it comes to martial arts and vigilant attitude, the lords do not really set an example, but the lower-ranking samurai have to live with it and serve as best they can.

In other words, it is not bushido that Yamamoto Jocho complains about, on the contrary, his bitterness comes from the fact that he feels that the form bushido takes in the Edo period is inappropriate, imperfect. Bushido flourishes on the battlefield, and in a peaceful world it is cut off from its roots.

And this is also the problem at the heart of bushido: who to serve and how to do it best? This problematic itself finds its continuity in modern Japanese society (gendai), whether in the menial tasks of the hotel business, the butlers of the bourgeoisie or even the aides-de-camp of the Japanese emperor.

This is the time when bujutsu (technique to defeat and kill one's enemy), starts the transition to budo, modern combat sport to have fun with one's opponent or to do self-defense. In fact, although budo did not officially exist until the Meiji period, already the first shinai appeared, as well as special "armors" used during gekiken exercises.

It is in this context that bushido is theorized, sometimes by individual initiative, sometimes by "theorists of the regime" such as Hayashi Razan, Taira Shigetsuke or the monk Nankobō Tenkai, a close advisor to Tokugawa Ieyasu.

For Ieyasu and the shoguns, bushido is the fundamental social myth that will keep the nation in place, and like all such people, they use the state apparatus to shape it. This is where the modifications, regulations and standardizations come from.

For example, before the Edo period, the daishō (the traditional pair of swords) was not quite standardized. In fact, armored samurai very often preferred the tachi and tantō, and during the Sengoku era, samurai preferred the katateuchi to the wakizashi.

The katana and uchigatana were more often worn by low-ranking samurai and ashigaru. But during the Edo period, the Tokugawa bakufu imposed the banzashi-daishō in the sumptuary laws of the samurai caste. These kinds of details are typical of a late codification of bushido, but this is not to say that bushido was "invented" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The sources of bushido are therefore drawn abundantly from the three major religions of Japan, Shintoism, Buddhism (Zen in particular, considered to be the religion par excellence of the samurai since the Kamakura period and the introduction of Soto and Rinzai Zen), and Confucianism.

This last element brings a social aspect to the warrior caste, which is transformed into a kind of feudal police and reserve army (in its capacity as a feudal ost who knows that it will not be called any time soon).

One will note the contribution of great scholars for each of these three philosophies, such as Takuan Soho (who disserted much with the great ones of his time) or Motoori Norinaga, great specialist of the "way of the gods".

Also, many koryu bujutsu (ancient martial arts schools), which had the term "kami" in their names, became popular in the Edo period. The styles of kashima and katori, in particular, meant that they followed the teaching of the gods.

This writing of bushido, the books and codes of conduct written at that time, aimed not at creating but at maintaining and regulating, and theorizing about what the samurai warrior should be, his ideal form and attitude, which had long been left unwritten by their ancestors.

Thus, when young people asked their elders why, in this context of lasting peace, they should undergo the difficult martial arts training, the elders replied that it was their duty as samurai to be ready for war.

In these kinds of revealing details of the essence of bushido, one can only see how similar it is to the kyuba no michi of the ancestors. For example, in the Kamakura period, if a samurai of a certain standard of living (a landowner, for example) was called by his lord, he had to gird up his tachi, saddle his horse and go to join the ost.

There was no time to take a bath, put on his armor, say goodbye to everyone or pick up his weapons, and if he was eating, he had to put down his chopsticks immediately.

The samurai would leave immediately and his own direct vassals, of too low a rank to receive a call in their own names, would have to gather all the logistics and join their liege as soon as possible, either on the way or at the destination. The important thing was for the samurai to show his loyalty and indomitable spirit by this warlike attitude.

Another example related to the sumptuary laws of the samurai are the mage buns. In ancient times (Yayoi period or earlier), the Japanese adopted the bun, the shape of which changed over time.

During military campaigns, samurais from the buke (but not from the kuge) shaved part of their head, otherwise an iron or steel helmet would have been unbearable because of the heat of the Japanese summer. Of course, there was no question of getting rid of the helmet.

So they would make a tonsure called sakayaki on the top of the head, sparing the sides and the back. Often, the bun itself was folded over the top of the head, the famous chonmage.

In the Sengoku period, samurai were in perpetual war and therefore had no time to shave their hair. One of the prevailing fashions was to keep the sakayaki on at all times, so they were always ready for war.

After the unification and pacification of Japan under the Tokugawa, keeping the sakayaki became unnecessary. But the bakufu and its theorists still made it a sumptuary law of the samurai. However, very few of them fought or killed anyone or anything during their life. Some have never even practiced martial arts.

"If bushido teaches the warrior in a harsh way the supreme value, victory on the battlefield without worrying about loyalty or honesty towards his opponent. The establishment of a pacified society with the Tokugawa [metamorphoses] the professional fighting groups into a bureaucratic structure of political control.  what spreads at the time is the shido, that is to say the Way of the scholar.  Even if the shogunal government encourages the study of Confucianism, the nostalgic feeling of the previous era remains among the samurai. This tendency can be seen in the introduction of bushido elements into the way of the scholar by Yamaga Soko (1622-1685) such as self-denial or some form of abstinence.

Despite these efforts, there may have remained "a latent discontent among the samurai against the fact of idealization" of the Confucian scholar-official. The Hagakure (1710-1719), strongly "influenced by the bushido heritage", is a demonstration of this. Famous today for its description of the "extreme sense of loyalty, the attraction of death, all in a very conceptual way.

Yet this work had almost no readers in its time. The first time this work was read by people who were not vassals of the Saga fief was in 1906 when Nakumura Ikuichi published a reproduction of the text at his own expense. Thereafter, the work became famous with the bushido fashion launched from Nitobe Inazo's (1862-1933) work, Bushido, Soul of Japan, "until it became a work that represented its spirit.

In the eyes of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, surely, this kind of practice could be likened to a cult of appearances and self-righteousness: these so-called warriors show that they are always ready to go to war by getting a tonsure, but in reality, it is to please older samurai of a higher social rank than themselves, who have become bald with age.

If they are asked to take up arms, can they be counted on? Hagakure respects human relations and gives them great importance in order to establish harmony among the lord's vassals, but does not support this kind of attitude.

Another example: if the bushido of the Edo period is often accused of being an idealization of the past, the Genpei and Kamakura periods were very chivalrous.

The low-ranking samurai were mainly there to escort the high-ranking samurai, who were supposed to duel each other. It was unseemly to fight between warriors of different ranks if one could avoid it. When attacking the enemy or before a duel (in armor or in civilian clothes), the samurai announces his name, because he is proud of it, then holds up his katana, yari or naginata, and fights heroically.

A similar attitude is found in the death of the legendary patron saint of the yakuza, Shimizu No Jirocho (1820-1893)11 , asking to die at the hands of an enemy of equal status.

On the other hand, the Sengoku period had become more realistic and desperate; taking the heads of enemy samurai and generals was even an opportunity for promotion, especially for ashigaru, even though they did not kill the victim.

Samurai duels and sword fights are not an invention of the ideologists of the Edo period. Simply, during the Sengoku period and since the Mongol invasion in fact, warfare practices had taken a more realistic and vicious turn; mass combat tactics and soldiering formations were emerging relegating individual warriors to the background (yet the spear is more useful for teamwork than the sword or saber, even if it is Japanese).

Nevertheless, duels and heroic feats remained at the heart of the samurai ideal, even at that time, the sword was already perceived as the soul of the warrior, i.e. the essence of the bushi profession. As in Europe - and even more so - the Japanese sword is exalted for its nobility, despite its relative inefficiency compared to other weapons (spear, rifle, cannon, bow...).

Even Kato Kiyomasa, when stating his precepts, disserting on the true way of the warrior, declares from the second sentence of the text: "A samurai must get up at 4 o'clock in the morning, train in kenjutsu, have breakfast, and then train in bow, gun and horsemanship." As can be seen, the sword comes first.

Further on, he states without the slightest ambiguity: "The purpose of an individual born into the buke - into a bushi family - must be to wield the long sword and the short sword, and to die."

The great warlord mentions neither the rifle, the new weapon that opens the gates of the future, nor the spear, which allows for teamwork or cavalry charges (although he himself is a famous spearman, having hunted tigers in Korea), nor the bow, the weapon that claims the most victims. The daitō and shōtō, that is, the daishō itself, is the essence of a bushi's way of life, that is, bushido.

The importance of the sword to bushido was certainly not invented by theorists of the Edo period. But some people used it as a decoration, without ever drawing it and wielding it in combat, as their ancestors did (depending on the period, the samurai population varies from 5% to 10%).

This attitude is exactly the same as the one revealed in the impetuous and revolutionary young samurai of the Bakumatsu period, that is to say, throughout the history of samurai.

Bushido A very strict code?

"The warriors did not only fight for concrete advantages. Their existence stemmed from their social recognition as combat specialists. They therefore had to maintain their prestige, to assert their merits. Merit, as evoked in the Tale of the Heike, raises two problems.

The first is linked to the use of the word ko no mono, the valiant ones, which symbolizes a certain use of force. The other stems from the loyalty or love one feels for one's fellow soldiers.

The first can be translated into psychological strength even if the conduct is undoubtedly treacherous in order to save his life, whereas surrendering like Munemori to stay alive is decried. Samurai were willing to put their lives on the line to defend their prestige or reputation.

This reputation stemmed from their ability to display courage and cold blood on the battlefield, and since these were necessary virtues for those who wanted to win, they were perhaps imposed as respectable values. Strength, including psychological strength, refusal to betray one's companions or to be intimidated, became the central values that ensured the fame of the warriors.

Most samurai dedicated their lives to bushido, a strict code that demanded loyalty and honor until death. If a samurai failed to keep his honor, he could regain it by committing seppuku (ritual suicide), better known in the West as "hara-kiri" or "cutting open one's belly" (hara, "belly," the seat of ki, "power, energy," and kiri, "cutting").

However, there is a significant difference between seppuku and hara-kiri. Seppuku allowed a defeated warrior to kill himself and thus die with his honor (the victor then put an end to his suffering). The hara-kiri was a way to kill oneself in order to regain one's honor after an event considered as dishonorable (cowardice, treachery...).

In feudal Japan, one would speak of hara-kiri for a person who killed himself following, for example, a humiliation (adultery for example) and of seppuku for a person who accepted a defeat and killed himself, in the case of a warrior losing a battle. This nuance is sensitive and important in the understanding of bushido.

In its purest form, bushido requires its practitioners to effectively judge the present moment in relation to their own death, as if they were already gone from this world. This is especially true of the early forms of bushido.

"Today many idealize medieval warriors as embodying a morality as defined by Nitobe Inazō and believe that samurai as they appear in the Tale of the Heike must have been so. But these representations of Japanese warriors of the past are based on a fictional tradition invented in the nineteenth century."

The seven virtues of bushido described by Nitobe Inazô

There are seven major Confucian virtues associated with bushido:

  • uprightness (義, gi, sometimes also translated as "rectitude" or "rigor") ;
  • courage (勇, yū) ;
  • benevolence (仁, jin, sometimes also translated as "greatness of spirit", "compassion" or "generosity") ;
  • politeness (礼, rei, corresponding to the etiquette that appeared in France at the same time or more generally, respect) ;
  • sincerity (誠, makoto, or "honesty") ;
  • honor (名誉, meiyō) ;
  • loyalty (忠義, chūgi).

Important personalities in the development of bushido

Yamaga Sokō, who founded and codified it (before the Edo period, bushido was generally expressed informally and rarely written, but even afterwards some details could vary according to the clans).

  • Taira Shigetsuke
  • Yagyū Munenori
  • Miyamoto Musashi
  • Yamamoto Tsunetomo
  • Yukio Mishima
  • Nitobe Inazō, who described its spiritual aspects in his book Bushidō, the Soul of Japan.

Bushido also served as the spiritual basis for kamikazes during World War II. For this reason, many martial arts rooted in bushido were banned by the Americans during the postwar occupation, and many old and new Japanese swords were destroyed.

The Empire of Japan

"If, during the Middle Ages, letters became the cultural prerogative of the aristocrats of the imperial court, during the Edo period, they were that of Confucian scholars. If letters are the sign of the teaching of Confucianism, that is to say of Chinese culture, the profession of arms embodies the values that are specifically Japanese.

The Opium War (1840-1842) was a trauma for Japan since it ended with the invasion of China by the British. With the sense of urgency, one of the consequences created by the crisis was the rise of nationalism, voices are raised in favor of the need to value again the profession of arms.

The revival of bushido was thus linked to nationalism. The term became very frequent and positive in connotation by the thinkers of the xenophobic movement of the years 1853-1867, who were in favor of the imperial restoration, and it took on a nationalist coloring that was absent in the late Middle Ages.

It disappears again during the Meiji summer until it reappears from the 1880s to symbolically express the loss of traditional values during the rapid introduction of Western civilization from 1868 and the sense of urgency, once again, to defend the magnificent Japanese tradition.

Confucianism and Buddhism are embedded, then, in the traditional values to be defended against the West18 while in the Edo period bushido as a Japanese tradition was used rather as an alternative to Confucianism.

Japan's victory over China in 1895 "changes the paradigm, it is no longer the urgency but the pride of the bushido tradition that is at the origin of military successes self-sacrifice and surpassing oneself" are put forward while forgetting "the moral hesitations of the warrior on the means of victory ".

In Nitobe Inazô's work, Bushido, Soul of Japan, published in the United States in 1900, "it was a discourse that was different from that of the nationalists on Bushido, but in a certain way, it joined them because it contributed to increasing its prestige and participated in the prevailing fashion for the renewal of the Way of the Warrior.

Subsequently, after the defeat  nationalist theories on bushido were denounced, but not Nitobe Inazaö's work, which escaped disavowal to the point where it became in Japan itself the best representative of essays on bushido.

With the radical modernization of the country under the Meiji Reform (1868), the existence of social classes was banished and the samurai lost their special status, which had made them a kind of feudal policemen, the only ones entitled to carry a white weapon.

Infed to the emperor, many samurai followed the reform and became mainly leaders of the Japanese Imperial Army in training as well as politicians and later captains of industry.

Thus, at the end of the nineteenth century, many members of the great families of the nobility were given, at the urging of the government, the reins of what were to become the zaibatsu (the great industrial and trading conglomerates) such as Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, etc.

These economic enterprises were the first real modern capitalist structures in Japan and the backbone of Japan's Shōwa expansionism. These leaders, former samurai, organized their companies according to the values of their reference corpus: bushido.

This concept, joined with that of hakko ichi'u was one of the foundations of the rise of militarism in the early Shōwa era.

Bushido today

Bushido can be considered to be still very present in the social and economic organization of Japan today, as it is the way of thinking that historically structured capitalist activity in the 20th century.

Business relations, the close relationship between the individual and the group to which he belongs, the notions of trust, respect and harmony within the Japanese business world are directly based on bushido.

Bushido is therefore at the origin of the ideology of industrial harmony in modern Japan, which has allowed the country to become, with the post-war Japanese economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s, the leader of the Asian economy.

Bushido in combat sports and martial arts

Iaidō, in its transmission and practice, is the martial art that embodies bushido in its entirety in etiquette, code of honor, dress, sword carrying, and fighting against oneself rather than against the opponent.

Modern combat sports such as kendo derive their philosophy from bushido; unlike other martial arts, prolonged contact or multiple strikes tend to be disfavored in favor of simple, clean attacks on the body. Bushido has also inspired the code of honor of disciplines such as aikijutsu, aikido, aikibudo, judo, jujitsu, karate or chanbara.

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