The history of Bushido 武士道

Bushido 武士道

For any martial art practitioner and Japanese history fans the word bushido is well-known, but for many people this word means nothing. What is bushido? In this post I will try to write and explain to you the meaning and the virtues associated to this term. Bushido could be simply referred as the feudal code of the Japanese knights, but in my opinion and for many historian it would be over simplifying things.

Bushido in English could be translated as the way of the warrior, a stat of mind and conduct a warrior should follow. The first concept of bushido appeared around 712 AD, back then it was meer poetic writing about the ideal comportment of an educated warrior. It is only at the beginning of the Muromachi era (1336-1573) that the concept of bushido started to take form.

Back in 1371 two major clan were warring to gain control over Japan. This conflict is known as the Genpei war, opposing the Minamoto and Taira clans. Ultimately the Minamoto clan won and created the kamakura shogunate. But this event changed the face of war and warriors in Japan. This war helped produce a document called the Heike Monogatar 平家物語,  the story is episodic in nature and designed to be told in a series of nightly installments. It is primarily a samurai epic focusing on warrior culture an ideology that ultimately laid the groundwork for bushido.

Here is a passage if that tale:

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.

祇園精舎の鐘の声、諸行無常の響きあり。娑羅双樹の花の色、盛者必衰の理をあらわす。
おごれる人も久しからず、唯春の夜の夢のごとし。たけき者も遂にはほろびぬ、偏に風の前の塵に同じ。

During  the Sengoku-period 戦国時代 (Warring States period from 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century), bushido was only directed towards the pursuit of military knowledge. A famous samurai by the name of Kato Kiyomasa stated :

If a man does not investigate into the matter of Bushido daily, it will be difficult for him to die a brave and manly death. Thus, it is essential to engrave this business of the warrior into one’s mind well. One should put forth great effort in matters of learning. One should read books concerning military matters, and direct his attention exclusively to the virtues of loyalty and filial piety….Having been born into the house of a warrior, one’s intentions should be to grasp the long and the short swords and to die.

In the 1600 to the mid-19th century Japan entered the Sakoku period under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate. During this time Japan was changing and the position of the samurai also changed. There were no real wars going on during  this period and the role and the code of the samurai had to change. The bushido literature of this time contains much thought relevant to a warrior class seeking more general application of martial principles and experience in peacetime, as well as reflection on the land’s long history of war.

Bushido expanded and formalized the earlier code of the samurai, and stressed frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and honor to the death. Under the bushido ideal, if a samurai failed to hold his honor he could regain it by performing seppuku (ritual suicide). Bushidō also includes compassion for those of lower station, and for the preservation of one’s name.Early bushidō literature further enforces the requirement to conduct oneself with calmness, fairness, justice, and propriety. The relationship between learning and the way of the warrior is clearly articulated, one being a natural partner to the other. Other parts of the bushidō philosophy cover methods of raising children, appearance, and grooming, but all this may be seen as part of one’s constant preparation for death, to die a good death with one’s honor intact, the ultimate aim in a life lived according to bushidō.

Bushidō, while exhibiting the influence of Dao through Zen Buddhism, is a philosophy in contradistinction to religious belief, with a deep commitment to propriety in this world for propriety’s sake.

To finish this post i will leave you with the 5 virtues of bushido, but just before let me clarify some thing about those virtues.

Many western web site or even book talk about bushido and it’s 7 virtues and they are a bit different of the ones I’m going to share with you. But from my long martial arts experience and many long discussion with Japanese expert on the subject I came to learn that those 7 virtues are not the real ones of bushido.

The 5 virtues are:

仁  jin Benevolence
義 gi Rectitude
礼  rei Respect
智  chi Wisdom
信  shin Honesty

One material proof of those virtues being really important in bushido, martial arts and Japanese society is the fact that every one of these virtues represent the 5 folds that you can find on the traditional trouser like pants called Hakama.

4 Comments

  1. With books titled “Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai” and “Budo Shoshinshu: The Code of the Samurai” flooding the market, one generally comes to think that the samurai ALL followed the Bushido, or else they weren’t really samurai. This just isn’t the case.

    Bushi-do is correctly translated as “The Way of the Warrior”. However, the Bushido was nothing more of an invention of the Edo Jidai (Edo era 1603-1868) meant to keep samurai subservient to their employing daimyos. The Edo Jidai was the 250 year long peace ruled over by the last shogunate, which directly proceeded the Warring States era (better known as the Sengoku Jidai). The shogunate was very paranoid during this period; it was, after all, the third shogunate, the first two having collapsed into warfare. Several new practices came into play during this time period; for example, daimyo were expected to spend part of their time in Edo (now known as Tokyo), the seat of the shogunate’s power. This was to keep unruly daimyo (like Shimazu or Mori daimyo, who would later tear down the shogunal government) in check.

    Another practice was a serious enforcement of a samurai’s loyalty to his daimyo. During the Sengoku Jidai, there were several instances of samurai turning on their daimyo, most often to disastrous affects. The shogunate made turning on one’s daimyo the most serious offense for a samurai.

    Also, during this time of peace, the samurai no longer had as much purpose in Japanese society. They became administrators and small time government officials. With this pretty much ‘excuse’ for existence, a ronin named Yamaga Soko took the Confucian principals that had been governing Japanese life for centuries and gave the samurai a new reason for existence. Soko’s codices later became the foundation for the bushido, which received great support from the shogunate. Remember, as stated earlier, the shogunate was looking for ways to insure that the samurai did not rise up against their daimyo. As one of Soko’s rules was a complete, sincere devotion to one’s feudal lord, this fit perfectly into the shogunate’s paranoid attempts to suppress all possible revolts… and it worked.

    Samurai before the Edo Jidai did NOT follow any “Bushi-do”, then. In fact, there are so many examples of betrayal, uncouthness, and other acts completely contrary to the bushido in the Sengoku Jidai that it becomes blaringly obvious. This isn’t to say that there weren’t noble samurai. In fact, Uesugi Kenshin is renowned for his honor in his battles with Takeda Shingen, many actions which would later become impossible under the bushido.

    • Really good pointer! like your comment
      I did not want to go there since I wanted to keep the post simple, but you’re right. Most people think that the bushido was the laws of the samurai. When in fact it was the code of conduct in peace time for samurai. And when we think about it’s the Edo jidai that killed the samurai’s or at lest killed their main purpose.
      Thank you a lot for posting this comment I really appreciate it.
      Yugo

      • No problem. Your site seems interesting. I think I’ll check it out.

  2. Thank you! It’s still not very old only one month but I’m trying to work on it as much has I can to make it good!


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