From as early as the eighth century through to modern times, bushido was the code of conduct for Japan’s warrior classes. The word “bushido” comes from the Japanese roots “bushi” meaning “warrior,” and “do” meaning “path” or “way, when translated bushido means “way of the warrior.” Bushido was followed by Japan’s samurai warriors and their precursors in feudal Japan, as well as much of central and east Asia. Let’s take a look at what bushido is, and how it came to be.
What is bushido?
Bushidō is a Japanese collective term for the many codes of honour and ideals that dictated the samurai way of life. Those who follow bushido believe in an elaborate list of virtues including frugality, righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, sincerity, honour, loyalty, and self-control.
Bushido focuses on ethics, rather than a religious belief system. In fact, many samurai soldiers believed that they were excluded from any reward in the afterlife or in their next lives, according to the rules of Buddhism, because they were trained to fight and kill in this life. Nevertheless, their honour and loyalty had to sustain them, in the face of the knowledge that they would likely end up in the Buddhist version of hell after they died.
The ideal Samurai warrior was supposed to be immune from the fear of death. With the only fear they had being the fear of dishonour and loyalty to his daimyo, a feudal lord in shogunal Japan, motivated the true samurai. If a samurai felt that he had lost his honour, or was about to lose it, according to the rules of bushido, he could regain his standing by committing a rather painful form of ritual suicide, which was called “seppuku.”
The honourable history of bushido
Many early literary works of Japan talk of warriors, but the term bushido didn’t appear in any text until the Edo period. From the literature of the 13th to 16th centuries, there exists an abundance of references to military ideals, although none of these were viewed as early versions of bushido. During the early modern era, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper levels of warrior society, and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. The sayings of Sengoku-period retainers and warlords were generally recorded or passed down to posterity around the turn of the 16th century. In a handbook addressed to “all samurai, regardless of rank”, Katō states:
“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.”
Between the 16th and 19th century, the samurai class played a central role in the policing and administration of the country. At this time there was bushido literature that contained much thought relevant to a warrior class seeking more general application of martial principles and experience in peacetime, as well as a reflection on the land’s long history of war.
Bushido in modern times
After the samurai ruling class was abolished in the wake of the Meiji Restoration, Japan created a modern conscript army. Although you might think that bushido would fade away, Japanese nationalists and war leaders continued to appeal to this cultural ideal throughout the early 20th century and World War II. Even today the morals of bushido continue to resonate in modern Japanese culture.
An insight into bushido
- Righteousness (義 gi)
Be acutely honest throughout your dealings with all people.
- Heroic Courage (勇 yū)
Hiding like a turtle in a shell is not living at all.
- Benevolence, Compassion (仁 jin)
Through intense training and hard work the true warrior becomes quick and strong.
- Respect (礼 rei)
True warriors have no reason to be cruel.
- Honesty (誠 makoto)
When warriors say that they will perform an action, it is as good as done.
- Honour (名誉 meiyo)
Warriors have only one judge of honor and character, and this is themselves.
- Duty and Loyalty (忠義 chūgi)
Warriors are responsible for everything that they have done and everything that they have said and all of the consequences that follow.
- Self-Control (自制 jisei)
There are many areas of Japanese culture that have come and gone, but some, like bushido, have stayed for generations. Atelier Japan aims to keep traditional Japanese craft alive for as long as possible. Visit our website to browse our collection of handcrafted tea, silverware, pottery, jewellery and fans, and add a piece of Japanese history to your home.