Today’s Understanding of Warrior Virtues of Old

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.

Many generals in Sengoku period are said to have expressed the concept of gojō during their military career, especially during the 1500s. Date Masamune is one of those generals, who also had his ow way of expressing this. His version was called gojōjun (五常順), where he warns not to be over-absorbed in the 5 virtues of gojō, possibly hinting the need of ruthlessness at times.

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
  • (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.

Pic of the 1st cover design for “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”

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.


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.

Dispelling the Misconceptions of Bushido

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.


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.


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.


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