Recently, I came across a conversation while watching a video about Bushido. Much is mentioned, from its interpreted image to how it should truly be understood. Bushido, as a topic, is one that is mainly misinterpreted, especially outside of Japan. For this post we will look at the various angles concerning Bushido, and try to define it from a historcal point of view.
Let’s first set our attention to the conversation regarding Bushido. It comes from the video “Way of the Warrior -The Samurai Way”¹, which features the martial tradition called Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō ryu. During the video, the leading head instructor, Ōtake Risuke, gives a lecture to his students regarding Bushido, as it relates to their training. Below is the full Japanese text of his lecture which was transcribed from the audio, followed by my translation in English².
This lecture on the topic of Bushido can be directly compared to a book called “Hagakure³”, which is possibly well known amongst many practitioners of Japanese martial arts. The contents of this book features the memoirs of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, and his views on both Bushido and the way samurai should live. Although he was a samurai in his younger days, it should be noted that he was so during peaceful times. Not only did he never step foot on the battlefield, but was disgruntled at how the samurai class had became burdened with bureaucratic work. On top of that, his opinions on the topic of Bushido was solely on his romanticize belief on what Bushido should be, which includes his views on death and the use of suicide⁴.
The purpose of today’s post is to hopefully bring some light on a topic that has been misunderstood, even in its native country. To get a clear understanding on what Bushido was, as well as the samurai who followed it, one needs to look into the pages of history.
My copy of “Hagakure”, which was bought many years ago.
WHAT IS BUSHIDO
The formalizing of the word Bushido is much recent than one would imagine. It was first discovered in a military journal call “Koyo Gunkan”, a historical recordings of the Takeda clan which was compiled by Kasuga Toratsuna⁵ during early 1600s of Edo period. In the Koyo Gunkan, the use of Bushido was as a label in referencing to qualities those who were considered bushi, or warriors in English, should follow both in lifestyle and profession. This term was not any different from older terms⁶ serving the same purpose, although some changes and adjustments made over the centuries in accordance to how the society of Japan evolved.
Bushido was, at the time, a philosophical view, albeit abit romanticized in its own rights. The “traits” that a true warrior was supposed to possess in accordance to this included being loyal and true to his lord, humble yet virtuous, brave under extreme conditions, and striving to do his best. While an honorable philosophy at best, Bushido was not the official term throughout Japan, as warriors belonged to different areas, served different lords of completely different domains, and followed their own rules and ethics according to which groups they belong to. There were probably similarities between the way warriors conducted themselves in general, and Bushido (if it could serve as a universal label) may possibly describe these similarities in one nice package. On another note, it’s also important to understand that this word wasn’t commonly known even to the general public until early 1900s.
Looking through the pages of history, you’ll find many accounts of how warriors handled their lifestyle that should attest to what Bushido represents. During times of war they had a role, and that was to ensure their side were the winners. In times when battling a rivaling warlord, warriors had to do their part to see victory, from executing proper formations on the battlefield, ensuring supplies and equipments were at hand, and defending their forts and castles. They worked together as a unit, and were trained to avoid rash and egotistical behavior. No warrior was perfect, but the groundwork placed for them was strict.
THE ROLE OF DEATH
Within the philosophy of Bushido, there is the notion of death, as this is a topic warriors would most likely face early in their career during the warring periods in Japan. Did they acknowledge death? Most likely, yes. However, not in the sense of killing themselves when they messed up or have failed in their duties. Instead, it was treated as a means to put their all into their life. In other words, they needed to be willing to die for what they believed in. This in turned not only allowed them to abandon fear, thus allowing them to accept the possibility of death, but to put their heart & soul into their tasks 100%, and continue to live. In a way, they learned to appreciate life and live to their utmost fullest…until their last breath. This understanding is what propeled famous warriors such as Miyamoto Musashi and Tsukahara Bokuden to be so successful in their careers as warriors when engaging with opponents both on and off the battlefield, and live long enough to talk about it.
With the acknowledgement of death, they could feel the need to do everything in their power for success while they were still alive. Many warriors had families they needed to care of, so working hard in gaining employment under a powerful warlord, earning merits through fighting fiercely on the battlefield, and receiving rewards was top priority. Bushi had much to live for, as they weren’t any different from warriors of other countries.
ABOUT THE SAMURAI
The term samurai did not become a permanent label for those of the elite warrior class until during Edo period⁷ (early 1600s). There were always those elite warriors who served a lord and received better living conditions & exclusive martial training, but their status evolved over time, which meant their roles in society, how they engaged on the battlefield, and the luxuries they could acquire changed. It was a responsibility that those priviledged in being born in a samurai family took pride in, and those not born to bear such title sought to earn. A prime example is Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was born the son of a poor farmer, but rose up to enter the warrior class and become one of Japan’s most powerful and influential warlords during the 1500s.
As the samurai, while still active as warriors, became a status and class within the social caste, following what is generally labeled as bushido was imperative. They took it seriously until the very end. Along with understanding the ways of war, they were also educated, and learned in the arts. Some made contributions through poetry, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. This is a testament that for the samurai there where avenues that promoted a sense of balance in their lives.
In Japan, there is an old saying that goes as so: “nanakorobi yaoki⁸”. Translated it states “when you fall 7 times, you get back up 8 times”. Simple to understand, no matter how many times you fail at something, you try again and again until you get it right. Everyone fails at one point or another in life. Even warriors of the samurai class were not exempt from failure.
Famous figures from history books are great examples, for not only was their accomplishments recorded, but their loses were documented as well. Like the old saying above, they picked themselves up, learned from their mistakes, and tried again, which in turn allowed them to accomplish amazing things. If Yamamoto Kansuke were to have ended his life early from failure in gaining employment due to his physical imperfections, would this not prevent him from becoming one of Takeda Shingen’s most reliable military strategists? If the skilled warrior Yagyu Munetoshi were to have killed himself due to shame after losing several duels against Kamiizumi Hidetsuna, would this not have prevented the birth of Yagyu Shinkage ryu Heiho? If Tokugawa Ieyasu regretted retreating due to the big lost faced during the Battle of Mikatagahara and commited seppuku⁹ instead of having his portrait taken, would this not prevent his successful unification of Japan years later?
It is unfortunate that the modern interpretation of Bushido is misleading outside of Japan, especially for many years. In learning about Bushido, one must look to sources that have a connection to the past, as well as to those who can properly interpret it from its native language. I hope this post may contribute to promoting a clearer understanding regarding this topic, as well as help guide those who wish to research further.
1) “Way of the Warrior” was a 7-part series filmed by BBC, and aired on TV in the 80s. Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō ryu’s part was the 7th and final one of the series.
2) The original video already had translations of the lecture. However, as there are some nuances that differ from the original Japanese in that particular translation, I chose to provide my own to give a clearer understanding to what Mr. Ōtake is discussing.
3) Here is some background information. The book “Hagakure” (葉隠) is a collection of commentries by Yamamoto Tsumetomo (1659-1719), who was a retainer of the Saga Domain ruler Nabeshima Mitsushige during the Edo period (1603-1868). The contents of this book primarily deals with Tsumetomo’s life, his issues under his lord, and his dismay regarding the decline of the samurai class. What really draws attention to this book are his beliefs of what Bushido is; for the most part, he defines Bushido as the way of death, and that the samurai should live not only as if they are dead, but be willing to die at a moment’s notice, including alongside their lord. At the time these memoirs were written, Tsunetomo was an elderly monk, and had long removed himself from the samurai class.
4) The use of suicide by samurai here refers to the ceremonial-like method of taking one’s life, which is called “seppuku” (切腹). Seppuku is conducted with a person going into a kneeling position, plunges a knife into the gut, then cut across the stomach. Note that this is referred to as “harakiri” (腹切り) outside of Japan since modern times, which in turn the Japanese have also accepted the use of this word.
5) 春日虎綱. Also known under the name of Kōsuka Masanobu (高坂昌信) .
6) Like Bushido, the older concepts that outlined the ways of the warrior were based on different time periods and defined by the way warfare was conducted. Some examples are “Kyūba no Michi” (弓馬の道) and “Buke Shohatto” (武家諸法度).
7) The label “samurai”, as it is known now, was used late in Japan’s history. In fact, the conception of the word went through different transformations. Dating back to the Heian period (794-1185), its roots come from the colloquial term “one who serves”, which was primarily reserved for those who were employed by nobility. It had different pronunciations over the centuries, from “samorau/samora(h)i” to “saburau/sabura(h)i”. The final transformation to “samurau/samurai” came sometime around mid-century, and into early Edo period.
For a few centuries, it had no implication of those servants having any relations to the warrior class, or even a person studying martial combat as a profession. There were other terms that defined those following the path of the warrior, from the older term “mononofu” (モノノフ), to more medieval terms such as “bushi” (武士) and heihōsha (兵法者). “Bushi” was predominantly the universal term, which did not make much distinction between elite warriors and low-ranking warriors (there were other titles for that).
As for when the term “samurai” first came into use, it also was a universal term for “warrior”. However, this was later changed sometime early Edo period (1603-1868), where it became reserved for those warrior families that served as retainers for the nobility and warlords.
8) 七転び八起き. There is another way (possibly older) to read this, which is “shichiten hakki” (七顚八起). Other than a difference in pronunciation, the 2nd kanji is also different, albeit having the same meaning in this case.
9) See #4