What is Bushido? 武士道とは何ぞや? (Part 1)

bushido 3

Many karate people mention and talk about Bushido. I think they understand that it is a way of samurais but without the full understanding of the complex philosophical thoughts, the virtues and the influence by religions and the culture behind this popular word. I am not referring only the western karatekas but the lack of knowledge and understanding is rampant among the Japanese people including the martial artists. I am very sad about this and I am very happy to have this opportunity to explain what Bushido is all about.

I wish to include the in-depth explanation of the philosophy behind this Japanese word. As I mentioned earlier, this important word and the philosophy are, sadly, almost dying in Japan. After Japan lost the war nearly 70 years ago, Bushido was taught as an undesirable philosophy as it, supposedly, had driven Japan to the war. I may be one of the few exceptions who believe in the great value of Bushido. It is not nationality specific thus it can benefit not only the Japanese but anyone who understands and respects it.

In Wikipedia Bushido 武士道, is explained as “literally “military scholar road“, it is a Japanese word for the way of the samurai life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry.”

For more reading Wikipedia URL, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushido

So we know that Bushido is related to samurai and their code or their way of living.

Before we go into their code, Bushido, let us take a quick look at the meaning of samurai and bushi. Though they are used interchangeably they are different. I will quote a section from Wikipedia:

Shibata Sadataro Takenaka 2Samurai (), usually referred to in Japanese as bushi (武士) or buke (武家), were the military nobility of medieval and early-modern Japan. According to translator William Scott Wilson: “In Chinese, the character was originally a verb meaning to wait upon or accompany persons in the upper ranks of society, and this is also true of the original term in Japanese, saburau. In both countries the terms were nominalized to mean ‘those who serve in close attendance to the nobility’, the pronunciation in Japanese changing to saburai. According to Wilson, an early reference to the word ‘samurai’ appears in the Kokin Wakashu (905–914), the first imperial anthology of poems, completed in the first part of the 10th century.

By the end of the 12th century, samurai became almost entirely synonymous with bushi, and the word was closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class. The samurai followed a set of rules that came to be known as Bushido. While the samurai numbered less than 10% of Japan’s population, their teachings can still be found today in both everyday life and in modern Japanese martial arts.”


Then what is their code, a set of rules or the samurai way?

We find that the foundation of Bushido is a complex one and is supported by three main religious and philosophical pillars; Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism.

Shintoism is the native religion and it existed from the pre historic time. It taught the respect for the ancestors and the parents as well as the loyalty to one’s lord. In the late 6th century Buddhism arrived from China. It brought the idea of mu , emptiness and an idea that death is not to be feared. Then Confucianism was introduced in the late 7th century which had the big impact to bushi.

I would like to focus our attention to the teaching of Confucianism, Gojo no toku 五常の徳, five Confucian virtues. The five virtues are Jin 仁、Gi 義、Rei 礼、Chi and Shin . These five virtues are also called Gorin no michi 五倫の道, five ethics. In addition, they adopted two more ethics of Chu and Kotei 孝悌. However, they dropped Chi and Shin, and consolidated the idea of Kotei with Chu. They kept four virtues; Jin, Gi, Rei and Chu from this list and added the new virtues of Yu , Makoto and Meiyo 名誉 to complete the Samurai spirit.五常 絵

I will explain each word and the concept behind each virtue: 1) Gi , 2) Yu , 3) Jin , 4) Rei , 5) Makoto , 6) Meiyo 名誉 and 7) Chu or Chugi 忠義.

Two most important virtues for samurai were Gi and Yu . They were considered to be the twin concepts that cannot be separated.

1) Gi means justice, righteousness or morality. Samurai considered their duties, obligations and responsibilities as something that they had to defend and execute even risking their life.

2) Yu means bravery, courageous and decisiveness. The concept of Yu is unique as it not only demands enough bravery to face a battle or death but at the same time the decision process must be quick. Indecisiveness and procrastination are considered not meeting Yu.bushi no seishin

The samurais were taught the difference between 大義の勇courage for the true principle and匹夫の勇courage for a meaningless cause. The courage to act for a true cause or a principle was considered an honorable thing for a samurai. On the other hand, a bravery action for a meaningless or senseless cause did not receive any respect or honor.

An interesting part of courage by samurais is that it must come with a calm mind. In other words, they sought bravery in tranquility thus they disrespected the barbaric bravery. The true bravery comes from the calm mind especially when you face a calamity or a life and death situation.

3) Jin means benevolence, kind and humane but what does it really mean? It means that you have the kindness to all kinds of people including the poor, sick and handicapped. This character does not seem to fit a typical samurai because he seems to be ruthless. This character was selected for the ruling layer of the samurai class. They believed the most important virtue for the ruling class is the benevolence and kindness to the common people. Samurai ruling could have become a tyrannic ruling where the common people suffer and hate their rulers. However, due to the adoption of Jin in their ruling manner, the governing by the samurai class was enjoined by the loyal and peaceful followers, most of the time.Miyamoto_Musashi_Self-Portrait

I must explain a popular concept (in Japan) of Bushi no nasake 武士の情or Jin of bushi. This was an important character of a samurai who was supposed to have a kind consideration for the weak and the lost party or even a guilty party. The expression of this feeling and also the behavior that accompanies it is often times confusing or surprising to the westerners. Let me give you an example. In a battle when two samurais are fighting and they happen to know and respect each other or they may be close friends or even relatives. When one samurai knows he is going to win (the other is already injured or his swordsmanship is so much inferior, etc), he will tell the other guy to commit seppuku (Seppuku will be explained more towards the end of this article) for the kindness of samurai, Bushi no nasake. If the losing guy dies from seppuku he can keep his honor whereas if the other guy cuts him to death then he simply becomes a lost samurai. Now in the western world, many may think this way. If there is such a kindness and respect to the other guy, wouldn’t the winning guy let the losing guy live and escape? In the samurai world, escaping is simply an act of cowardice and that option would never cross the mind of either of the samurais. Another puzzling thing for the westerners is when they see a winning guy put a sword in the hand of the lost samurai if he had dropped it. For the samurai to die without a sword in his hand is dishonorable and very regretful. If you have watched the famous samurai movie, Kagemusha Kagemushayou will see this action in one of the battle scenes. Some of the samurais who were surrounding the war lord get shot and killed. They died without holding a sword. After the battle was over, they gathered all the fallen samurais then they drew out their swords and placed them in the hands of the dead soldiers. Maybe you remember this scene. That consideration and treatment even to the dead samurai showed the Bushi no nasake.

4) Rei is something we karate practitioners are very familiar. Thus the general explanation is not necessary here, however, the concept of rei is much more than showing respect so I want to explain.

reigi saho with katana

One thing we must remember is that Rei is not only to express the respect but also the consideration for the others. A good example is the act of the Japanese spectators at the World Cup game in Brazil. They cleaned up the stadium after the game (I will mention about this later in this article). The Japanese people consider trashing the stadium as disrespectful to the football teams and the game itself. We, the karate practitioners, understand this as we would consider it disrespectful if it happened in our dojo. As we clean our dojo after our training, the Japanese spectators cleaned the stadium as they do in the other games. This is the act of Rei though nobody may see it or recognize it.

Reigi kanjiA related word with Rei is Reigi 礼儀 which means etiquette. We find this word in our Dojo Kun, Reigi o omonjiru koto 礼儀を重んじること. It is translated as “Respect others” but it is not an accurate translation. It is saying that we must value or uphold the etiquette. When we talk about Rei in karate or in the dojo we think of bowing. Of course bowing is a part of etiquette, reigi but it is much deeper than this. The samurais had very complex and detailed rituals and the system of etiquette manners. These manners are very graceful and impressive to watch, however, they were not created for the looks. There were some specific reasons behind them. One is, of course, for the self defense purpose. For instance, when you do the line up in your dojo, do you pay much attention to how you sit down to seiza, to bow and to stand up again? There is a specific way to do these moves. From musubi dachi you will kneel down always with your left leg first. From the seiza position you will put your left hand first to bow and after bowing you will retrieve your right hand back then followed by the left hand. When you stand up you must always start with your right leg. It is simply because the samurais had their swords on their left hip and those moves were best suited in the case they had to draw their swords. Another reason for the etiquette was again the consideration to the others. In Japan, the traffic runs on the left side. In many countries it is on the right. Why? The samurais used to walk only on the left side of a street because the end of his sword would stick out to his left side. If he walked in the right side of a street someone would run into the sword. If two samurais’ swords hit each other, that was a serious enough reason to have a duel. In order to avoid such a senseless accident the samurais walked on the left (a consideration to the others). All the common people respected that and they followed suit. Though the samurais are gone in Japan, you will find this habit still very alive in Japan when you visit even the metropolitan cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

A short video clip to show the etiquette of the samurais for those who are interested in this subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCvK2CseMq8

Makoto 25) The concept of makoto is an important but also a difficult one to understand. Many of the readers know Dojo Kun in Japanese and that it’s the second principle is Makoto no michi o mamoru koto. The translation is “Be faithful”. I have already written about the full translation of Dojo Kun so you may want to look for this article in my blog. In any case, the translated word of faithful can be confusing and misleading so the true meaning of Makoto must be explained here. Makoto refers to a figure without a lie, falsehood but with truth and sincerity. So, an overt or an excessive action in greetings or behavior is considered not Makoto thus lacking the true essence of Rei which must be performed with sincerity and without falsehood. Interestingly, lying was considered

as weakness rather than as an evil. Now, weakness was considered by the samurais as dishonorable thus a Bushi was expected to deliver what he promised. This is what Bushi ni nigon wa nai 武士に二言は無い means. There is no taking back of a samurai’s statement.

I have to add another kanji haji to understand the mindset of the samurais here. This word means shame or disgrace. It was extremely important for the samurais not to get in a situation where they would feel haji. So, they would rather kill themselves than to lie or not to keep their promises.

Meiyo kanji6) Let us continue to another virtue, 名誉 Meiyo. It means reputation and fame but it is not necessarily tied to popularity. A samurai did not look for or make an extra effort to earn Meiyo. Simply, being a samurai was Meiyo so most of the time all they had to do was simply to uphold the samurai way, Bushido and completing his task or responsibility. Of course, going to a war and fighting for his lord were important in the 16th century but the world (Japan) became very peaceful after Tokugawa won the last reign winning battle in 1600. For nearly 250 years of Edo period the samurais lived without any major battles. Their official task was to be ready in case of a war like a modern day reserve soldier. In actuality, the lucky ones had other non combatant jobs to work in a castle. Many of them did not. So they earned very meager earnings and could not run the family finances without doing some non official jobs such as fixing the umbrellas with the help from their wives and children. In fact, most of them were very poor especially towards the end of Edo period. Once a samurai became a ronin it was very difficult to find a new lord in Edo period thus much fewer samurais would break the relationship to become a ronin. This binding structure as well as the financial hardship naturally brought down and degraded Bushido in many situations. For instance, many samurais failed to practice kenjutsu (swordsmanship) and other martial arts. They spent their free time in practicing musical skills and poetry. They went down as far as selling their swords to supplement their living expenses. Now this was almost unbelievable in the 16th and the 17th centuries when you consider that a samurai’s sword was the spirit of samurai which meant it was the most important possession for a samurai. The down trend made many lords worry that their samurais would lose their virtues unless something could be done. Of course, they promoted the martial arts and even banned many of the entertainments such as dancing and singing as well as practicing them. HagakureOne other thing one war lord, Nabeshima in Saga prefecture ordered his retainer, Yamamoto Tsunetomo to write a book about the spirit of samurai. The famous book, Hagakure was published in the middle of the 18th century. Probably the most noticed saying is “the way of the warrior is death”. Yamamoto 葉隠れ was saying that Bushido is really the “Way of Dying” or living as though one was already dead. This is ironic that he had to write this down as this idea or the concept was given and commonly shared among all the samurais in the 16th century and before. It shows how much the spirit of samurai, Bushido had declined towards the latter half of Edo period.

Even though all seven virtues were important, the most effort they made was to avoid all the negative things that would bring haji to him and to his family name. The negative things included showing fear, acts of cowardice and failing in his task or responsibility whatever he received from his lord. In such a case a samurai would chose seppuku to keep his honor or Meiyo.

Chuugi7) The next virtue is Chugi 忠義 which means loyalism. Towards a samurai’s lord, Rei and Chugi were two unique and important requirements. A lord’s order was an absolute that could not be declined or rejected by a samurai. A loyal samurai would follow the order even if it would end up killing his friends, relatives, or even himself. In order for a lord to have this much authority he must first win the respect and the confidence of his samurais by demonstrating his leadership by having all their qualifications and the samurai virtues. If the lord was not respected and could not win the trust, the samurais would either rebel or break the relationship and leave the domain. A samurai would prefer to become a ronin (a lord-less samurai). That was very common in the 16the century and before as there were many wars and the samurais were in great demand. However, once the peaceful Edo period started the opportunities disappeared very quickly. Thus it became extremely difficult for a samurai to choose to be a ronin especially in the 18th century. I have already mentioned this earlier.

One thing I need to add is that the samurais were taught that the value and the judgment had to be measured by the country (the war lord’s territory), family and individual (in that order). This is something that would not be accepted by the western world, but it was that way then and in some ways the trend still exists in Japan. Let me give you an example of the old time and another for the modern day Japan.

dog-shogun-tokugawa-tsunayoshiThe fifth shogun of the Tokugawa Dynasty, Tsunayoshi (1646 – 1709) was secretly nicknamed “the dog shogun” because he instituted animal protection laws, particularly for dogs. He may be considered to be a “nice” ruler on the surface by the western standard. The Green Peace group may have invited him as the honorary member. Anyway, this shogun went to an extreme. He banned all fishing and hunting of any kind as it was against the law to kill the animals (ironically it was ok to kill a person). In Edo (now Tokyo), the groups of the dogs roamed around without getting any punishment. Even if you were bitten you could not hit one back. If someone was caught hitting or even just chasing a dog that person would be imprisoned or even executed if he happens to kill a dog even by accident. Who had to enforce the law? Of course the low class samurais were the unlucky ones. They had to catch those people even if they believed the law was crazy and unfair.

Let’s take a look at the modern day Japan. If you wish to obtain the citizenship in Japan, you have to be ready to lose your given birth name as you need to use either kanji or kana (Japanese letters) and the foreign letters such as alphabets, Hangul, Persian, etc. I suspect that many of the kuro obi practitioners have purchased their belts from Japan. Of course, you could ask them to embroider your name in alphabet but most likely you asked them to use either kanji or kata kana. I am not sure how many of them had tried to find out exactly how your name was written. Most of them do not sound like the original names. In many cases, the government officers will recommend you to take on the Japanese sounding names that are totally different from your real name. If you like the Japanese names then this requirement will not be an issue for you but many people are proud of their family and their given names. This policy is a kind consideration of the Japanese government for the future Japanese citizens. They want to help you in your effort to assimilate into the Japanese society by changing your name to something more of a “Japanese” name. In fact they forced this policy to the millions of Taiwanese and Koreans after Japan annexed Taiwan in 1895 and Korea in 1910.

Let me give you a few examples to the famous non Japanese who naturalized and in the process they had to assume the different names.

Patrick Lafcadio Hearn was a Greek writer best known for his books about Japan. He naturalized in 1896 and had to assume a Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo 小泉 八雲.

oyama-bullOK that was in the 19th century. How about now? I am sure you have heard of the name, Masutatsu Oyama 大山 倍達, more commonly known as Mas Oyama? He founded Kyokushin Kai, full contact karate. Did you know he was a Korean? He was born in Korea and his original name was Choi Yeong-eui. He acquired Japanese citizenship in 1964 and Oyama became his legal name. In addition, there are many non Japanese sumo wrestlers because they can make some big money if they are good. Those wrestlers come not only from the Asian countries such as Mongolia but some are from the European countries. If they decide to retire in Japan and to naturalize themselves they also have to take on the Japanese names. OK enough of the examples.

(Will continue to Part 2)

4 Responses to What is Bushido? 武士道とは何ぞや? (Part 1)

  • 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

  • Thank you for this post, I found it really enjoyable and informative.

  • I’m sure your heart is where it needs to be, but I’ve lost all trust in your ability to present information early on when you source and quote wikipedia. Wikipedia is not a source, only a tool and starting point. I hope this benefits your continued writing. Cheers.

    • Thank you very much for your comment. I agree with you 100%. When I first wrote and published in 2010, I was ignorant about Wikipedia. After the second book, you can see that I no longer use Wikipedia as a reference. Once again thank you for your suggestion.

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