In these modern times, warrior virtues are associated with Japanese martial arts. These virtues are said to help build character, fine tune one’s spirit, and make you an exemplary being in modern day society. The fact that these are taught in many martial schools around the world is a good thing, as it helps us to be a better neighbor to those around us in these relatively peaceful times. Yet, were virtues also valued the same way during times of war & strife many centuries ago in Japan’s history? Let’s look at the different listings of virtues, their origins, their roles from a historical standpoint, as well as how they are interpreted in today’s generation.
One of the earliest set of virtues is said to be based on the theme of 3 simple principles called “santoku” (三徳). This concept called santoku¹ originally comes from Confucianism, a belief developed first in China way before Japan started developing its culture as we know it. Within 4 major texts used in the study of Confucianism, such as the 10-volume series called “Lúnyǔ” (論語), and “Zhōngyōng” (中庸) are examples of values people are instructed to follow. When Confucian teachings were brought over to Japan in its earlier years, it slowly was integrated into the lifestyles of nobles and the Imperial household. They also were adapted by those in the warrior class.
There are 3 virtues that stand out the most, which are said to make up santoku as known in Japan. They are the following:
- Chi (知) = Knowledge
- Jin (仁) = Benevolence
- Yū (勇) = Bravery
These were virtues that were highly regarded, and expected to be followed not only by warriors, but those in leadership positions. When analyzing these, one can see how influential and essential they can be, especially for those who have to deal with conflict. Those involved in military activities stress the necessity of knowledge in many things concerning going to battle, including strategies, preparing troops, scouting, and so on. For benevolence, despite taking up a violent profession, a warrior was expected not to lose their humanity, as well as keep order for those around them and when entering other lands. As for bravery, this is a valued virtue necessary to go into battle and face the enemy that threatens their border. This scope ranges within the different territories in Japan when the military clans were becoming a powerful group as early as 1100s.
The idea of santoku doesn’t just stop here, as the concept of “3” continued to have a great influence in Japanese culture. Religious systems like Buddhism and Confucianism are known to employ 3 principles related to food, personality, and so on. There are even modern-day usages as well.
Next is another set of virtues said to be followed by those who took up military profession during the Medieval period in Japan, called “gojō” (五常)². Translated as “the 5 natural habits”, gojō also comes from Confucianism. The concept of 5 habits were devised by Dong Zhongshu, who was known as a philosopher, politician, and Pro-Confucian supporter in the early Han Dynasty.
The 5 virtues under gojō are the following:
- Jin (仁) = Benevolence / Humility
- Gi (義) = Righteousness
- Rei (礼) = Respect
- Chi (智) = Understanding
- Shin (信) = Belief
Like many lessons influenced by religious beliefs, gojō was meant as an example everyone must follow, as it outlines the most natural traits of humans that must be maintained. Depending on those interpreting it, how these 5 virtues play a role in one’s daily lives is different. For warriors during the Sengoku period, they were outlined in a way in which how to conduct themselves both on and off the battlefield. On another note, gojō is an example of how the number 5 was a significant number in Asia, as there is plenty of other examples similar to gojō. For example, there is “gogyō” (五行), which outlines five elements that represent the creation of life, cycle of death, parts of the body, medicine, and so on. There is also “gorin” (五倫), which is seen as a precursor of gojō, as it has a similar focus on values based on a person’s relationship other people in their lives.
Interestingly, gojō was paired with santoku at some point in time, for while gojō was a set of virtues a warrior mustn’t forget, santoku was a set of virtues a warrior needed to ingrain within his/her being.
Last, we come to a very well known and popular set of virtues known as “bushidō” (武士道). Usually interpreted as “the code of the samurai”, it is a word 1st seen in the “Kōyō Gunkan” (甲陽軍鑑), a historical recordings of the Takeda clan which was compiled by Kasuga Toratsuna during early 1600s of Edo period. The following are the 7 virtues of bushidō:
- Gi (義) = Righteousness
- Yū (勇) = Bravery
- Jin (仁) = Benevolence / Humility
- Rei (礼) = Respect
- Makoto (誠) = Honesty
- Meiyo (名誉) = Honor
- Chūgi (忠義) = Loyalty
There are a few not-so-well known facts that are important even today when referring to bushidō as representing 7 virtues of the warriors in the past³. For starters, the word was written after wars were rampant, and when the Tokugawa shogunate ushered in centuries of relative peace. Whether or not the word was actually in use beforehand can be debated. Also, since it only appeared in this sole documentation known as Kōyō Gunkan, it may have been a specialty word made up for use by the feudal lord Takeda Shingen and his retainers. Furthermore, there was no list of virtues accompanying the term bushidō, so what was it truly dotting on in terms of what made an exemplary warrior is pretty much a mystery.
Possibly the biggest fact worth mentioning is bushidō was not a general term publicly known in Japan, so it didn’t have any real influence on the populous. Instead, the word first was introduced in an English book from the early 1900s called “Bushidō: The Soul of Japan”, which was written by Nitobe Inazō. Mr. Nitobe’s intentions was to teach the West about Japan, and how they were both civilized and peaceful to the world. He also included a list of virtues that outlined what bushidō stands for. At a later date, the book would be translated into Japanese and sold in Japan.
THE BAD…AND THE GOOD
One of the issues primarily with bushidō is that it is a modern invention, yet is declared as being the virtues followed by Japanese warriors during warring times. This isn’t true at all. There was much criticism even by the Japanese after the book came out, which still exists today. For starters, Mr. Nitobe, despite descending from a samurai family, was not raised as a warrior, but instead as a scholar⁴. He also studied much about Western culture, and made his faith in Christianity. Some critics express that the virtues made for bushidō and how they were presented were inspired by his Christian beliefs, and how the West viewed soldiers at war at the time. On top of this, Japanese scholars, and later many of the general public in Japan, did not sit well with bushidō and what it stood for, as it was a contradictory of the factual behavior of warriors and those of the samurai class, as there was plenty of examples from historical documents & stories of uncivilized behavior they have shown. This even proves true up till the mid 1800s right before the samurai class was finally abolished due to the violent end of the Tokugawa reign, followed by the induction of Imperial control through the Meiji Restoration.
Despite whether or not the virtues mentioned above where truly influential historically, they play a very large role in today’s world. As many countries have governments that focus more on non-violent means for economical growth and citizens live together in environments that promote peace & prosperity, having santoku, gojō, and bushidō act as vehicles that can inspire people to be humane and live together in harmony, whether they are your neighbors or from overseas, is definitely a good thing. This holds true for those who study martial arts; where a person learns skills that can be lethal if used for the wrong purpose, being taught alongside with virtues designed for warriors can help to keep practitioners on the straight path and become exemplary individuals within their community. Even bushidō has been accepted in Japan society today, as the term, along with its virtues, are beneficial in promoting Japanese culture to other countries around the world.
From a different perspective, it can be argued that bushidō and the virtues that represent it are nothing more than a collection of the same virtues revered in the past. While this is actually true (excluding meiyō and chūgi), it is still argued that warriors did not actually have a list as such that they had to live their lives by. This can be said even for santoku and gojō; while these virtues were built into Japanese society and valued by certain military experts, how warriors behaved during war and how leaders engaged in power struggles against one another were not guided by these virtues many times. Although virtuous praise of certain famous warlords and legendary fighters are often written in stories and recited in songs & theatrical plays, it is usually done so by those who are the victors and by those who support them.
Warrior virtues, although considered a piece of history, can be very inspiring and help guide people to be civil amongst one another in these modern times. Like most things from the past, however, certain pieces of history may become romanticized, thus taken out of context. While warrior virtues may have been conceived in the past, it is important to understand their factual use on a historical level, lest we view them in a skewed manner today. This wraps up this discussion on warrior virtues. I hope this helps clear the air and bring light on understanding warrior virtues associated with Japanese martial arts.
1) There is a santoku from Buddhism, but the ideas in this version is different
2) Also known as “gojō no michi” (五常の道)
3) There is actually an 8th virtue associated with bushidō, which is called “jisei” (自制). Jisei is the final product of those who uphold the 7 virtues by exhibiting restraint and self-control. While it is a demonstration of a fine quality, jisei (self-control) is said to not stand on its own like the other 7 virtues, thus it tends to be omitted from the list.
4) Nitobe Inazō was about 7 years old when the Meiji Restoration took effect (1868), which came along the end of the samurai class.