The Cultural Myth of Bushido

samurai with their lordIn the article (the last selection in your reader) Death and Bushido, Hurst argues that a modern mythology has grown since World War II in Japan, America and elsewhere about Bushido, the supposedly suicidal samurai code.  Nitobe Inazo (1862 – 1933), who was educated by Americans and had a very poor understanding of Japanese history and culture, wrote the international best-seller Bushido: The Soul of Japan in 1899 to introduce Americans to the culture he was actively abandoning.  Nitobe believed that he was coining a new word, ‘Bushido’, for the code of the medieval samurai.  The word does appear in the Hagakure, but this is rare.  Unfortunately, Nitobe was very inaccurate and overly romantic in emphasizing a culture of honor, death and suicide as distinctly Japanese.

Yamamoto_TsunetomoThe Hagakure of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, which we will turn to shortly, was held up by Nitobe as the samurai classic, the book that tells us “the way of the samurai is found in death”, and that samurai live to serve their master and commit suicide whenever this becomes impossible.  Unfortunately for Nitobe, Tsunetomo was an eccentric who was describing his personal philosophy and teachings he hoped to pass on to his clan, not the common culture of feudal Japan.  Courage in the face of death and loyalty are prized in warriors the world over, and they were values highly prized in Neo-Confucianism, but recklessly accepting death was not.  Tsunetomo himself wished to commit suicide after the death of his lord but he was ordered not to by the Shogun.  Retiring as a Buddhist priest, he then wrote the Hagakure.  After the death of a lord, it was far more common for samurai to become ronin, wandering master-less samurai, until finding employment with another lord.  Tsunetomo says becoming a ronin is despicable, and is a practice that has unfortunately become common in his own time unlike in the glorious past, but he is likely mistaken and projecting his own views.

Samurai_on_horsebackThere was no common Japanese code for samurai, and the cultural coherence they shared was a mixture of Neo-Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and Daoism.  There were samurai who were devoted to Zen, both the Soto and Rinzai traditions, to Pure Land Buddhist traditions, as well as to orthodox Neo-Confucianism and the unorthodox Wang Yangming school, but there were none who were devoted to a tradition known as “Bushido”.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure

HagakureIn the Hagakure (In the Shadow of the Leaves) of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, there are many lessons to be learned.  Like Musashi, he repeatedly references Confucius and the Buddha.  Unlike Musashi, Tsunetomo repeatedly argues that a warrior should not be an artist or waste time rounding themselves out, but rather focus on virtue and martial arts.  Virtue includes not only courage, but also compassion for all people and being in harmony with the way of all things.

Musashi and AligatorIn the opening passages, Tsunetomo writes, “The Way of the samurai is found in death.  When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death.  It is not particularly difficult.  Be determined and advance.  To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of the sophisticated.  When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim…To die without gaining one’s aim IS a dog’s death and fanaticism, but there is no shame in this.  This is the substance of the way of the samurai.

Japanese samurai blocks arrowsTsunetomo argues that a warrior should devote himself to his lord and lose all self-interest.  This seems unobtainable, but it is “right before your eyes” and anyone can become excellent the very moment it is completely accepted.  He claims that with only two or three such devoted, an entire state can be protected.

He says that it is bad to yawn in front of others, and to stop oneself from yawning one should rub one’s forehead upwards or lick one’s lips while keeping one’s mouth closed.

In an interesting passage, he says that fish will not live in water that is too clear and prefer to hide under duckweed.  In the same way, the population will “live in tranquility if certain matters are a bit overlooked or left unheard”.

Musashi_vs._BokudenHe quotes Master Yagyu, saying, “I do not know the way to defeat others, but the way to defeat myself”.  In an almost direct quote from Laozi’s Dao De Jing, he says that matters of great concern should be taken lightly, and matters of little concern should be treated seriously.  If one takes small things seriously, then everything will be in order when disaster strikes and one will be at peace and have the patience and skill one needs.

He argues that one should not promote those who have not committed mistakes, but promote those who have made and corrected their mistakes.  Those who have never made mistakes are dangerous, while those who have corrected their mistakes show repentance and have gained valuable experience.

rainstormTsunetomo says there is something to be learned in a rainstorm that applies to everything in life.  If a person doesn’t want to get wet, they hurry and try to walk under shelter but get soaked anyway.  The person who knows and accepts they are going to get soaked gets just as wet, but walks without fear and concern.  Accepting the inevitability of mistakes, pain and betrayal frees the mind to see the immediate.  This is a wonderful mix of Buddhist tranquility and Daoist non-action.

sunriseHe argues that when something strange happens, it is ridiculous to say that it is a mystery or an omen of something to come.  All things, including solar eclipses, are simply the natural activities of Yin and Yang, so an eclipse happening every one hundred years is no more mysterious or ominous than the sun rising and setting every day.  A sunrise would seem strange and mysterious if it happened only every hundred years.  Mystery is created in the mind.

He argues that calculating people are contemptible, and all decisions should be made within the space of seven breaths.  In the most trivial matters one’s heart can be clearly seen, and the way to handle anything is found in the smallest of things.

Kamikaze Japanese PlaneWhen Japanese Nationalism surged between WWI and WWII, when Japan was fighting wars with China and Russia, Nitobe’s book based on the Hagakure became popular with Japanese nationalists who embraced Bushido as a new religion.  This reached its peak in WWII, when Japan was fighting America in the Pacific, sometimes using suicidal kamikaze pilots to take out battleships and aircraft carriers.  This encouraged the belief in America that the Japanese are a culture obsessed with death and willing to commit suicide at the drop of a hat, views that fit nicely with a racist understanding that Asian culture, unlike Western culture, finds the individual entirely dispensable.  This is found in James Clavell’s novel Shogun, where many samurai characters kill cruelly with little emotion and often see suicide as an honorable solution to political problems.

Japanese Kamikaze Planes Attack US Battleship

Hearts and Minds CoverIn the documentary Hearts and Minds, a film about American propaganda during the Vietnam war, a general tells the television camera that in the Orient, life is cheap and not valued as in the West, which is why bombing villages of women and children is unfortunate but necessary in a battle against Asian people.  There are similar things being said about Muslims by generals and pro-war pundits in America today.  One news anchor said that suicide bombers show us that Muslims do not care about their children the way that Western people do, and so they are unfortunately put in war’s way and become casualties of bombing runs.

Ronin crossing bridgeAs Hurst points out, many of the most famous battles of feudal Japan were decided by a defection, of a major player switching allegiances.  Just as Sunzi says, in war defectors, especially nobles and their houses, are highly prized, encouraged and rewarded.  It appears that the medieval Japanese valued both loyalty and abandoning loyalty for personal gain, just like the rest of humanity.  It is often forgotten that when particular values such as loyalty are highly praised it is precisely because their opposite vices are all too common.

sepuku japanSeppuku, Japanese ritual suicide, did exist but was uncommon.  It was not a solution to political disgrace, but typically practiced as a way of avoiding enemy capture, torture and execution.  Some samurai did practice junshi, committing suicide to follow their lord in death, but this was also rare.  Seppuku was a punishment in the Tokugawa period, and samurai who had or were suspected of committed crimes were sometimes ordered to commit suicide, but this was hardly embraced by the samurai.  Similarly, much has been made of kirisute gomen in Tokugawa times, the practice of testing a blade on a random peasant passing by as if samurai had this common privilege, but historians today find almost no credible instances of this practice.  Rather, it is something cruel said about one’s enemy.

Musashi’s Book of Five Rings

MusashiMiyamoto Musashi (1584 – 1645) is possibly the most famous samurai in Japanese and world history.  He is famous for his dueling record (supposedly only losing once), his invention of a two sword fighting style, and as the author of his strategy guide The Book of Five Rings.  A follower of Zen Buddhism, he practiced zazen sitting meditation for decades.  His life was celebrated in the famous but somewhat fictional 1935 novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa.  My father had a copy of this gigantic book (three inches thick) when I was growing up and he would tell me stories of Musashi’s duels.

Musashi Battleship 1944

In WWII, the Japanese named one of their most powerful battleships the Musashi, and today there is a Playstation game by the same name.

musashi-by-yoshikawa coverMusashi’s two sword style was invented as he was fleeing a fortress and fighting off a crowd, as he was forced to draw his second sword to defend himself.  Traditionally, the second sword would only be drawn if the first sword was lost.

Musashi was known to keep his opponents waiting and arrive late to make them upset and give them time to be unsettled by the thought of possible death.  Duels were fought with a variety of weapons, but Musashi always chose the sword.  Several of his duels were fought in front of the Shogun.  Most duels would not be fought to the death but ended after the first blow was successfully struck, unless a duel to the death was agreed upon by both opponents.

b287d-musashiandsasakikojiroduelschulptureMusashi’s most famous duel was with Sasaki Kojiro, known as the demon of the western provinces, on Funajima Island.  There are conflicting stories about the duel, much which may be myth.  Today there is a statue on the island commemorating the duel, as well as a statue of a boat at the place Musashi set sail for the island.  According to the legend, Musashi agreed to duel Kojiro to the death, and the duel preoccupied him so much that he hopped in the boat without his swords.  As he was rowed to the island, he carved a wooden sword out of a spare oar.  He arrived late, as usual, infuriating the comrades of Kojiro.

Musashi duel with KojiroAccording to one account, Musashi stepped of the boat, wordlessly charged at Kojiro, struck him in the head with a single blow, killing him, then stepped back onto the boat and left with the turning tide to avoid Kojiro’s comrades.  In the novel, Kojiro throws his sheath away into the surf as Musashi steps off the boat.  Musashi says, “Kojiro, you’ve already lost”.  Kojiro, perplexed, asks why.  Musashi replies that Kojiro must not think he has any more use for his sword.  Clearly, Kojiro meant to intimidate Musashi with his show of total disregard, but Musashi, playing the mental game as Sunzi recommends, turns this confidence into doubt to use his opponent’s show against him.

Musashi Kingfisher perched in a dead treeIn his Book of Five Rings, Musashi says that a great warrior is a well rounded person who studies the arts and tea ceremony as well as a wide variety of martial arts.  Musashi was himself a painter, and there are several of his works that remain today including his famous Kingfisher Perched in a Dead Tree.  He argues that learning many things enriches and compliments each particular skill.  There is the Buddha’s way of salvation, Confucius’ way of learning, and the many ways of the arts and the martial arts.  Each individual practices the ways that they find pleasing.  Musashi writes that the way of the warrior is the way of both the pen and the sword, of studying strategy as well as physical fighting.  The warrior uses the pen and sword to gain resolute acceptance of death, to be able to die for the cause.  Anyone of any station in life can die for a cause, but it is the warrior’s profession.  Musashi compares a master carpenter planning and building a house to a warrior who strategically plans and physically fights battles and duels.


tsunami hokusaiThe five rings, each a chapter of the work, are the five elements of Buddhist cosmology.  Earth concerns strategy, like a map of the terrain.  Water concerns spirit, to become fluid to react to the situation.  Fire concerns fighting, having the courage and skill to win.  Wind concerns the past traditions and schools of strategy, the things said by those of the past.  Finally, Void, the fifth element that binds the others together as particular things, the highest element, is the eternal way of things, what one must become like to act naturally.

musashi statue graveMusashi says that timing is critical to everything, and that all five books are chiefly concerned with timing.  Learning and training allows one to gain the ability to win with the eye as well as the arm.  This is interesting advice from a guy who purposefully arrives late.  Opponents, like Kojiro’s comrades, would say Musashi is dishonorable and irresponsible, a poor teacher of timing, but Musashi would say that using lateness as a strategy, developing patience and using inaction (a good example of Daoist wu-wei) is mastery of timing.

Finally, as a bonus, a depiction of octopi samurai: