What is Bushido? 武士道とは何ぞや? (Part 2)


One interesting side story of samurai is that even though they were the hired soldiers they did not get paid in money. Like the ancient Roman soldiers they got paid by the necessity which happened to be rice in Japan while it was salt to the Roman soldiers. The samurais received a certain amount of rice from their war lord and they used that to exchange for other necessary things. Buke gohattoOf course in Japan we had a monetary system mostly among the merchants. Thus this barter system was a unique system but it was doable as the population of the samurai was minor, approximately 7% of the entire population. This system existed all through the Edo period until the early 19th century. What is important is that the samurais were free of the possible vices that could stem from handling the money. The samurais in fact, looked down on the money and the merchants. There were four classes or casts in the medieval Japan. Those classes were from the top or the highest; samurai, farmers, craftsmen and merchants. It is very interesting that the class of the merchants was regarded the lowest class in Japan then. Anyway, having been free from the monetary system the samurais could keep their living very clean despite the fact that many of them were indeed poor, much poorer than the merchants. That did not bother the samurai at all. The judgment of the class and the pride of their class did not change whether they are well off or poor. Of course, they could stay pure and not bothered by the money as long as they had their war lord to support them. Once one became a ronin, they had to sell even the spirit of samurai, their katana, the armor and other weapons so they could eat.

samuraiLet me share one more interesting thing about the samurais and the Japanese in general. Did you know that the samurais were discouraged to show their emotions on their face? First, they were of course expected to go through physically challenging martial arts training. At the same time they were told not to make any complaints or any negative remarks such as “tired”, “painful”, etc. To go through the treacherous training without changing their expression was the foundation of the samurai bravery. With the samurai the attitude of reticent and reserved were considered much better than eloquence. To talk back or to explain something for which a samurai was blamed or accused was considered as an act of cowardice. They would say “Look at me and do you think I did something like this?” Even if one is innocent a samurai refused to explain to prove he was innocent. He preferred to chose to do seppuku, whose concept will be discussed later. This may be something most of the westerners and many of the modern day Japanese might not be able to understand. Even in the modern day Japan, the Japanese tend to show less expressions on their faces which you might have noticed if you had visited there. It’s not because we have less emotion or feelings but we were brought up this way. For instance, we were told only a woman cries and we still consider crying as a very sissy act for a man.

Interestingly, many of the western movie actors who become famous in Japan are cynical looking ones like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood (sorry they are all from the 70s and 80s). The friendly actors with a lot of smiles typically do not make it big in Japan. So, if you visit Japan on a business trip, I seriously suggest that you will withhold a joke and a smile on your face during your business meeting. With a serious and cynical face you will win more respect, at least initially. To keep the respect you must follow up by delivering what you promised.

Anyway, the attitude of not showing the emotion has been handed down to the present day. I remember clearly that we were not supposed to show the joy or happiness when we won in a karate tournament. When you won you bow and get off the court without showing any emotion whatsoever. If I smiled when I won at a tournament my sensei would yell at me. The idea was that the losing side is already feeling bad and the winner must not make the loser feel worse by putting a smile on his face. During my competition days no one raised their hands or jumped and down to show their joy. The Japanese competitors have changed a lot since my competition days of 70s and 80s. You may see some of the Japanese competitors raising their hands up or showing their joy but many of them remain rather calm when you compare them to the non Japanese competitors who may jump up and down expressing their joy. Anton-Geesink-Here is an interesting photo and a memorable one for the Japanese people. This was from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I watched this scene on a black and white TV on that fateful day. I was 16 then and I was shodan in Judo though I had switched my martial art from Judo to Karate about a year before. In all the weight divisions the Japanese competitors won the gold medal. When I watched the final between Anton Geesink (Dutch) and Kaminaga (Japan) I had no doubt that Kaminaga would win though Geesink was huge (198cm, 120kg). The result shocked all of the Japanese spectators. The photo above shows Geesink right after the judge announced he got ippon with Osaekomi (ground holding) waza. You can see a Dutch fan is jumping up with a joy (top left). Now you notice that Geesink is raising his right hand up, almost looking like a “wait a minute”. This was a historic moment for the Japanese because we saw this non Japanese competitor not only not jumping up with joy but he was stopping his team mates from getting up on the floor who were just about to do that. This was a historic moment for the Japanese not only because this non Japanese guy won the gold medal in the heavy weight division of Judo but he demonstrated the Japanese martial art virtue of calmness and the control of the emotion. We really believed we lost to someone who understood the true spirit of budo, the samurai way.

Probably the most puzzling thing about the samurai way to the westerners is seppuku or harakiri. This was an important ritual that was reserved for the samurai and we must understand the philosophy or the way of thinking in order to understand the mentality and the psyche of the samurais. Wikipedia described Seppuku as following:

Seppuku-Seppuku (切腹, “stomach-cutting”) is a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. Seppuku was originally reserved only for samurai. Part of the samurai Bushido honor code, seppuku was either used voluntarily by samurai to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of their enemies (and likely suffer torture), or as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed serious offenses, or performed for other reasons that had brought shame to them. The ceremonial disembowelment, which is usually part of a more elaborate ritual and performed in front of spectators, consists of plunging a short blade, traditionally a tanto, into the abdomen and moving the blade from left to right in a slicing motion.”

There is one thing that is not included in the above explanation that must be mentioned and emphasized. It is that this ritual must be conducted in very calm and collected manner by all the participants including the seppuku samurai. Naturally it would be a challenging task for the samurai who was going to cut himself. He would be allowed to make a poem and write it down before he plunge his sword. This “death-poem” was called jisei 辞世 The poem is typically written in the Chinese poem format or in Tanka 短歌 style (a short poem with five units, usually composed of 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7 moras, respectively). Of course, you can easily guess that it would be extremely difficult to come up with a new poem at that very moment of facing death but that was expected to prove that he had a calm mind. Despite that, some of the samurai had created a poem in their peaceful time in order to avoid a very embarrassing situation if he could not come up with one at the last moment. That embarrassing situation would bring a great shame and embarrassment to him and his family name which had to be avoided. It was also very important to leave a respectable poem. As I have explained in another article “Bunbu ryodo”, a samurai was expected to have literal education including making different types of poems such as Chinese style 漢詩, waka 和歌 and kyoka 狂歌. Some of the poems are truly excellent and some are even funny. I can list many excellent Jisei poems but I only list one here for your review.

Ariwara no Narihira 在原業平 (825 – 880): a famous poet and aristocrat of the 9th century.Ariwara no Narihira



Upon this pathway I have long heard it said man sets forth at last –

yet I had not thought to go so very soon as today.

(Translation by Helen Craig McCullough)

If you are interested in learning more on Jisei 辞世, check the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_poem

Let me share another interesting point. As you can easily imagine how difficult it is to be calm if you are about to cut your own belly. What is interesting is that it was more challenging for the helper, kaishaku 介錯 whose job was to decapitate the samurai to give him a quick end. In the photo below you can see the kaishaku standing with his sword behind the seppuku samurai in white kimono. They had to select an excellent swordsman because the ritual code specified that a kaisharakirihaku must strike only once and cut the head off in a specific way. The specific way bared a kaishaku to cut the neck off completely because a decapitated head would naturally roll off and away from the body. What he had to do was to cut only 90% or so down and leave the skin towards the front of the neck. Then the head will fall but it will not roll away from the body. The head “remains” with the body thus it will keep the dignity of the samurai.

Anyway, for the western people especially the Christians the act of seppuku is not permissible as a suicide is considered to be a sin. With Christianity taking a life of someone is also considered as a sin. With the Japanese we do not have a thought process of a sin as in our main religion, Shinto our Gods (yes multiple, in fact thousands) do not judge the people and do not attach a label of “a sin” to our behaviors. We believe the separation of our body and the spirit. We also believe in the reincarnation and that our spirit is ever lasting. Our thinking of a life is there is a set time for each of us to go. So, if one feels it is his time to go then taking his own life is not an unnatural thing. This act was not only blameless but in fact it was respected. On the flip side, it was permissible for one person to take a life of another if it is according to the samurai law or his principle. There was no expectation to feel guilty for this samurai killing another as long as it is within the law. This is not a foreign concept as it is commonly done in the modern day society. If capital punishment is legal within a country such as Japan and the US, there is an officer or a prison employee who has to push the button when a capital punishment is executed. There is another example which may not be as dramatic but can be controversial. I do not support abortion, but a doctor performing a legal abortion can not be charged with the death of a fetus. The prison worker and this doctor will not be punished for doing their “work”. It is the similar concept.

Now back to a suicide or its occurrence is not a strange or uncommon thing in the modern society. According to Suicide.org (www.suicide.org) the facts of the suicides in the world are shown below:

  • Over one million people die by suicide worldwide each year.
  • The global suicide rate is 16 per 100,000 population.
  • On average, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds somewhere in the world.
  • 1.8% of worldwide deaths are suicides.
  • Global suicide rates have increased 60% in the past 45 years.

Isn’t this information shocking? It is to me. According to the statistics shown at Wikipedia, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate) the highest suicide rate is found in Greenland (83.0 per 100,000). Japan ranked
as the 10th highest rate at 21.7, the US at 33rd with the rate of 12.0 and UK being at 36th with 11.8. Interestingly, the last five countries included Grenada, Haiti and Nepal (from 106th to 110th) show zero suicide rate. I am not sure how accurate their statistics are in those countries but the figures must be negligible. So out of 110 countries around the world, more than 100 countries experience some kind of suicide among their citizens. I know that many more than 30,000 (in fact 31, 690 according to The World Post report: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/04/japan-suicide-rate-still-_n_831430.html) committed suicide in Japan last year. There were less than 6,000 kamikaze pilots total during the WWII (1944 and 1945) so this number is staggering. Though the causes and the reasons were quite different in most cases, those people decided to take their own life.

I am not justifying or glorifying the suicide act. In fact I am strongly against this idea and the act. I brought up the statistics to show that suicide is not a strange or uncommon occurrence in the modern day world. I must add one fact with the samurai philosophy that the desire to die young or before his destined time was regarded as the sign of cowardice. This is not a surprise as the samurais were expected to endure against all the difficulties and the challenges till the end. The true honor was believed to come only when he finds and chooses to die on the destined time or situation. To die too soon was called “dog death” and a very dishonorable act. It was dishonorable to escape from a death if it was a destined moment as well as dying too soon. For a samurai to find and choose the right moment was his life time objective.

katana_3Here is a small mystery. In the 16th century (1543 to be exact) a gun, an old style Musket gun, was introduced to Japan by the ship wrecked Portuguese merchants. It became popular very quickly for the obvious reason and it was used by many war lords in the battles. Despite this trend, the katana sword remained as the spirit of samurai until the end of the feudal period. I think this can be a small mystery why it remained so. Of course, katana was a symbol but the samurais really believed no other weapons can replace it. What is important for us to remember is that the samurais believed that the sword was a tool permitted by the martial art god only for the samurais to use. In fact, making a sword was a religious event (many smiths were shinto priests) and they believed that the will of a god was tempered into a sword and lived there.
See the following video if you are interested in katana making:

h so much respect that a samurai had, he would not draw his sword too easily. Many people, including the modern day Japanese, got a wrong impression from the samurai movies where the samurais would draw their swords very often. Naturallythe movies have to be an entertainment and most of them need to show the actions. The truth is that the samurais believed that the only time they drew a sword was when they were facing a death. It would happen only once and possibly twice in his life time.

Of course, these seven virtues were learned and practiced very strictly by all the samurais. The rules and customs were exercised and handed down for hundreds of years among the samurai class. What is interesting is that these virtues and the customs were also respected by the other classes including the lowest class, the merchants. In other words, the samurais were the excellent model and they maintained such well organized and regulated life, the common people naturally imitated. Though they did not and could not follow all the virtues they tried to follow suit in most of the customs such as the etiquette, honesty, respect, honor, etc. It is not an exaggeration that Bushido has developed into the nationwide culture during the Edo period. Though the people may not recognize such an influence nowadays in Japan but it still exists. Some of the virtues are difficult to document or prove but let me give you a few examples.

Clean up1) Most recent event is the World Cup which is still happening. On June 14th the Japan team played against Cote D’ivoire and lost 2 to 1. Though our team lost the spectators in the stadium stayed after the game and cleaned up the area around them. They have been doing this since the first World Cup game Japan played in 1998. This is not too much of a surprise to the karate practitioners as many of you are used to cleaning the dojo after the training. We had to do the wet rag clean up after each training when I was training there in the 60s. In our elementary school the students clean the class room after the school is over. It is still done in most of the public schools. There are not too many non-

Japanese students who go to the Japanese public elementary school but a few do. I have heard of a few incidents when their parents protested to the school management that their child or children were engaged in the custodian work and requested that to be stopped. They thought that the school was trying to save the salary of the custodians and engaging their children in child labor. They really did not see the true objective of the public school teaching.

Line up 32) If you have visited Japan you have seen the people lined up neatly at the station even at a huge station like Tokyo Station (photo left).

The photo below (need a photo) is from 2011 after the earthquake and the tsunami in the northern part of Japan. It shows the customers waiting for their turn to get into a convenience store so they can buy some essential things after most of the facilities were destroyed. What is amazing thing was that the customers who could get inside first used their judgment and consideration for the others and did not buy up all the goods. They bought only what they needed for that day and left the things for the others. It is quite different from other countries where the people turn into a mob and break into the stores to steal things after a disaster. I do not have to tell you where as we have seen such a riot and looting everything from the food to TVs and furniture. 

ichiro 礼3) Suzuki Ichiro is a major league baseball player (now playing for New York Yankees). I do not have to list up all the amazing records he has established and he is still playing at the age of 41 which is fairly “old” for a professional baseball player. Anyway, he is a big star and definitely a celebrity even in the US. He does not need to bow to the ground. No one else in his team does this. Why? He learned to pay the respect to the ground where he plays from his father who was his coach when he was in his high school. He kept his father’s teaching well. Once again we can relate to this as we bow to the dojo floor each time we enter and when we exit from the dojo. By the way, I consider him to be one of the most talented baseball players of all time. It is not because he is a Japanese player. By evaluating and judging from the way he handles his body I found him to be at the master level of body use. I should write about him and explain why he is talented. It is easy to list his accomplishments and prove he is talented. But anyone can do that. I would analyze this from his body movements. Maybe some day…..

Oh I need to add one more thing about Ichiro. Sensei O’Neill is the hidden helper to make my article readable. He lives in New York and he mentioned the following after having read the draft. I will quote his remark about Ichiro;

Now that he is part of thIchiro kamaee Yankees I get to see him a lot. Not only is he a great player but he carries that samurai mentality onto the field. He treats his bat like a katana. It is never put in the bat rack with the other bats. His bat stands in the corner of the dough-out by itself. He plays at a different level than the rest of the team. His bat and body control is way beyond comprehension. It is a pleasure to watch him operate. Others play the game he attacks the game.”

Sensei O’Neill’s observation on Ichiro was excellent and his input is appreciated. I agree with his opinion of Ichiro’s performance. He does play at a different level than the other players. As I said earlier I may tackle this subject some day. It may be interesting to evaluate his performance and find why he is different.

OK enough of the examples of the Japanese behaviors that are very common and show the influence of Bushido in the modern day Japan. I am sure the readers will agree that the philosophy and the virtues I described above are respectable and honorable despite they may not agree with how their virtues were practiced. I am very proud of this heritage and culture. I truly believe that all the Japanese people can and should feel the same way.

As a closing I need to share the fear I have. It is about the continuation or disappearance of Bushido in Japan. I posted a quote by Uchimura Kanzo 内村鑑三 in my Facebook page on June 22nd. Uchimura was an important formative influence on many of the intellectual leaders in the 20th century Japan. He wrote;

Japan will prosper as long as we have Bushido among the people.

Japan will perish when the people forget Bushido.” 



This is what I fear the most that more and more Japanese people may be forgetting that we have a heritage we can be proud of. The strong influence of the capitalism and solipsism is changing the Japanese. Though it is safe to walk outside at midnight even in Tokyo, we have many crimes. Bullying is common in high school and many young children commit suicide because of this. Many high school girls sell sex under the name of enjo kosai 援助交際 helping relationship”. They are not all poor who do this. They want to buy the brand name bags and other expensive stuff so they need a part time job. So they say it is not prostitution it is a relationship to help a high school girl buy something she wants.So, if you have visited Japan recently, what did you see and experience? Did you see or feel the Samurai virtues not only in a dojo but in the life style of the Japanese people? Does bushido still exist in Japan? I would like to hear from the readers who have visited Japan recently.

Then I need to ask myself the last question. What do I need to do if I want Bushido to survive in Japan provided it still exists there? I want to believe some remnant of Bushido is still there in the general culture of the Japanese and many of them, without being aware, are conducting their life according to many of the virtues. I have decided to do at least the following two things. One is that I will live like a samurai and die like one. Of course, I will not carry around a sword, but by being a samurai I will conduct my daily life according to the samurai virtues. My belief is I can only prove this when I die. I do not know when I will take my last breath but I promised myself that I will not die in a bed or laying down. I will be sitting up or hopefully standing and die as I teach my last karate lesson. That is my dream. Remember this and tell me when I am 90 years old.

The second thing I promised to do is to teach and help educating the western people in the budo specifically karate-do. I no longer live in Japan and I cannot teach the Japanese students any more. Thus, I am thinking of a reverse importing of Bushido back to Japan. By producing the western instructors I am hoping that they will be able to bring Bushido spirit back to Japan some day in the future. I want to produce many excellent karate instructors who will be not only excellent in the art of karate but also well educated. They will have the knowledge of these Bushido virtues and exhibit those virtues with their behavior. I want some of those instructors to go to Japan and teach the Japanese students just like Funakoshi migrated to Japan almost 100 years ago to teach karate to the Japanese university students.

Do I sound crazy? Maybe so but I believe this will happen some day. Though I may not be around to see it with my own eyes but it does not matter. I will be happy as I will be watching that from the spirit world. It is my dream and my motivation.Bushido kakejiku


A few more video sites for those who want to learn more about Bushido and Samurai.

Bushido (History Channel)


Samurai history (History Channel)


Discover Japan video; Samurai


History channel: Code of the legendary Samurai:


Lost Treasures Of The Ancient World: “Samurai Japan”



One Response to What is Bushido? 武士道とは何ぞや? (Part 2)

  • R;e What is Bushido 1&2

    As usual I thought your research and explanation into your “Bushido article, 1&2” was another great piece of work and it was delivered at a level especially well for the Westerner and non Japanese person to enable them, not only to understand but to encourage them to see much more in the thing which binds us all together. It is a very complex and traditional topic from your homeland and I feel as a reader it was treated and written with the utmost respect, but at the same time you managed to create a teaching and education tool to transfer more than one message to many different people from all walks of life regarding “Bushido” and the spirit of the Samurai.
    I enjoyed it very much and I think personally you might just have achieved maybe a little more than what you set out to do with it, but this of course my personal opinion. It is a very readable & informative and maybe, just maybe… might just encourage a change in behaviour, habits or practices of some in the Shotokan Karate world!

    Below is a copy of the fb post in which I gave my first impression after reading it at work, I don’t know if you saw it or not but I will include it anyway so you can see my immediate reaction of thought.

    Shihan Yokota, you have done great a great job in covering such a really complex topic from your homeland and treated it with the utmost respect and at the same time managed to transfer more than one message to many different people in many walks of life, that “Bushido” and the spirit of the Samurai is, on one hand a very difficult topic to understand and a state of mind to achieve but on the other hand you have managed to communicate the message that if only the individual just looks only slightly deeper that they will see so much already around them and it could easily be added to by their own (or our own) efforts.
    Maybe it’s closer than what they/we think and the blueprint has already transcended into so many communities and cultures throughout the world. I have only managed a quick read on my phone whilst at work and look forward to going over it again and hopefully adding to your blog page (before I get all romantic over it) at:www.asaikarate.com. I feel it deserves, and that I would like to give it some more attention and thought. Please keep up the great work I enjoyed both pieces …”Bushido” … oss

    With Respect Always
    Mr Andrew JM Nightingale

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