In 12-19th centuries in Japan, a warrior class, called in Japanese “bushi” or “samurai”, was in power. Originally, in the Heian period, they were merely self-defense groups that aimed at protecting feudal estates and maintenaning public order. Under the conditions of feudal system, in which vassals received patronage and land from suzerains as a reward for loyalty and service, samurai clan gradually gained unprecedented power (Ikegami, 1995). In the Edo period, the samurai was the highest of four classes; the other three included peasants, artisans, and merchants. Despite abolition of social class hierarchy during the Meiji Restoration, or the bourgeois revolution, former samurai took an active part in modernization of Japan (Benesch, 2011). This fact reflected ethical views that the samurai conveyed. Although the term was not used until the Edo period, moral and ethical opinions on standards of conduct of the samurai developed already in the Kamakura period. Evolving from adoption of Neo-Confucian ideas, they formed the basis of philosophical principles of life of not only warrior class, but also of all people in Japan (Benesch, 2011). This paper focuses on the origins, nature, and main principles of Bushido code. To specify, Bushido was related not only to education of martial spirit and ability to wield weapons, but also to the samurai code as a whole, which assumed absolute devotion to overlord, heightened sense of personal honor, strict adherence to official duty, and readiness to sacrifice one’s life in a battle or in accordance with a ritual suicide, called harakiri.
The Origins of Bushido and Zen Buddhism
Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China in 6th century, and has ever since had a profound influence on Japanese culture. At the end of 12th century, a Buddhist school, or rather a sect, Zen was founded in Japan (Cleary, 2011). While other Buddhist sects were engaged mainly in religious aspects of life of Japanese people, Zen school has played a crucial role in formation of Japanese national character, as well as development of certain patterns of behavior and thinking. Under the strong influence of Zen teachings, such traditional arts as tea ceremony. or “sadō”, flower arrangement, or “kadō”, and haiku poetry have appeared. In addition, Zen ideology has had a significant impact on Bushido.
Since Zen Buddhism emphasized physical training, the art of self-control, and meditation practice instead of usual training, the school mostly appealed to the warrior class, the members of which believed that the teachings of Zen gave them mystical powers that could solve the mystery of life and help in practical activities. The warriors regarded it as an essential condition for preservation of their social status (Cleary, 201). The main purpose of Zen Buddhism was to achieve spiritual enlightenment, called “satori”, through the sense of Buddha in oneself. Nirvana was considered to be liberation of a human mind from the burden of confusing thoughts and feelings of the real world. For this reason, the teaching of Zen focused on using sensations of one’s own body to acquire the knowledge of truth. To reach the state of satori meant to know the truth unconsciously. The mental state of unconscious mind was called “Mushin”, believed to be the secret of success in martial art. Such approach presupposed that the mind unconsciously performs its functions; however, when the flow of thought stops at any one point, all other points do not receive anything, which results in a slowdown (Clearly, 2011). In other words, an unconscious state connects the body with the soul. Many samurai trained hard to achieve this state through Zen Buddhism, and it reduced their fear of death. Thus, spiritual components of Bushido came from Zen Buddhism, and Zen meditation was used by the samurai for physical and spiritual exercises. With the help of Zen training, they reached the top of their skills in possession of arms and remaining calm under any circumstances.
The Influence of Confucianism on Bushido
In addition to the important influence of Zen Buddhism, the modern concept of Bushido has also embraced the fundamental principles of the teachings of Confucius. First and foremost, Confucianism is a rational and utilitarian philosophy of human nature, which considers most deserving human relationships to be the foundation of society. It establishes social order on the basis of strict ethical standards that define the central role of family and state, ruled by educated people with high moral principles and wisdom. There are four principles of Confucianism: humanity, loyalty and justice, compliance with the rules of ethics, and wisdom (Hurst, 1990). The ideas of Neo-Confucianism were developed in China by Zhu Xi. Whereas in Japan, this religious teaching was comprehended by Zen monks in Gozan monasteries in the Muromachi period and was taken into account by feudal barons in the process of laws implementation. In the Edo period, Zhu Xi school received a strong support from the Tokugawa shogunate, military rule of Tokugawa clan. They believed that Zhu Xi philosophy could be useful for justifying feudal structure of the state and society that emerged in Japan at that period (Cleary, 2011).
The samurai, who were considered the upper class during this period, were not only soldiers but also prominent politicians. Therefore, the samurai training was intended to shape the character and acquire the knowledge, required for the official career (Ikegami, 1995). It was important to instill right moral precepts in the samurai if they were meant to work in government circles. Based on this view, the Tokugawa shogunate and its feudal barons organized many schools, which gave the opportunity for their servants to explore the ideas of Confucianism.
A number of Japanese Neo-Confucian thinkers rejected the orthodox teaching of Zhu Xi, because it was difficult to adapt it to Japanese society. Instead, in the middle of the Edo period, they established religious schools, called “kogaku”. They returned to the works of classical Chinese Confucianism to thoroughly understand what the ancient wise men taught. Yamaga Sokō was one of the first among those who studied the ancient teachings. According to him, sincere and true life means following the principles of good governance (Cleary, 2011). Being a great philosopher and an expert in military affairs, Yamaga Sokō has related the Confucian concept of the higher-ranking men to the samurai class. He is considered one of the main creators of Bushido code. Sokō is the author of the book The Way of The Samurai, in which he claimed that the samurai should not only improve their physical condition as warriors, but their mind and willpower to the same extent. With the help of the samurai class, Confucianism reached the highest prosperity in the Edo period. Its fundamental principles, namely, loyalty and humanity, not only penetrated into the ruling class but also were rooted everywhere, even in common people. As a result, the existence of diehard followers of Confucianism in modern Japan became possible.
Loyalty and Honor as the Main Bushido Principles
According to a samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the author of the book Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai, Bushido is a relentless desire to die. The implication of this argument is that all the samurai should live decently and honorably, feel no regret when death comes to them, and regard death as an ordinary matter (Hurst, 1990). The samurai followed a strict code of ethics, which prescribed to behave in a dignified manner, as well as to be fair and modest. Moreover, according to Nitobe, personal loyalty is a moral link between people of all classes, but only in the code of chivalry honor it is at the forefront (Nitobe, 2014). Thus, loyalty was a defining feature of relations in feudal Japan: relationship between a suzerain and a vassal in the Kamakura period was characterized as responsibility and service. The economic aspect of the samurai life depended on land: the master assigned his servants a certain territory and gave them extra possessions or estates in accordance with their feats. A servant and a master were connected spiritually: an overlord gave land to his vassals in accordance with what they deserved, and vassals, without hesitation, sacrificed themselves in the name of their master. However, it was often challenging for the samurai to choose between the desire for independence and devotion to their suzerain. In fact, the nature of relationship between feudal barons and their samurai was very different, depending on the size of possessions (Ikegami, 1995).
The samurai also valued honor above all; it was better for a warrior to die than dishonor himself. The samurai who died in a battle were awarded the military honors and glory, which passed from generation to generation. In a combat, they tried to be the first and led the soldiers to attack, shouting their names to show the enemy their fearlessness and courage. Honor meant a lot to the samurai; it was the subject of their pride, and the samurai death meant that his descendants would receive care and respect of the overlord. For example, once, the troops of Uesugi Kagekatsu fought against the soldiers of Oda Nobunaga. When Uesugi was in a critical situation and one of his fortresses was ready to fall, the samurai who were defending it took the following decision: before the fall of the fortress, the vassals considered it unworthy to be taken into the enemy’s captivity alive, so they decided to commit seppuku, or harakiri. As a result, they died with dignity and their names remained in history. All their descendants were rewarded by Uesugi (Turnbull, 2013).
As the example above shows, seppuku, harakiri, penetrating puncture in an abdomen, or voluntary liberation of the soul from the body, was the most honorable kind of death for every samurai. An abdomen was considered the place, where the soul lived, and in this way the samurai demonstrated their honesty and integrity of their nature (Hurst, 1990). The samurai also exhibited their courage and resistance and experienced the sense of complete satisfaction when killing themselves with their own swords, which were the most valuable and important of their possessions.
The Commandments of the Samurai
A set of rules of the Bushido code was written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in his book Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai. First of all, the book includes four principal commandments that teach the samurai the following: not to allow others to surpass themselves in the way of the samurai, be always helpful and loyal to the master, remember the duty of a son and respect parents, and show great compassion and help to people (Nitobe, 2014).
Warriors also had to comply with the rules related to their behavior in the society and in wartime, as well as have specific attitude to life and death. Even if the samurai knew that he could be defeated, he had to adequately meet his death and mind his appearance. The samurai had to avoid drinking too much sake and having luxury. It was important for Japanese warriors to study throughout the whole life and become more skillful every day, as perfection was considered endless. Courage and willpower were necessary features for the samurai. It was believed that if a man could not cope with his body and mind in the first place, he would never overpower an enemy. When faced with difficulties and failures, one should not worry; instead, he should “boldly and joyfully rush forward” (Nitobe, 2014).
Bushido in the Modern Era
The samurai class has ceased to exist after the collapse of feudal system, as Japanese nation has abused the concept of devotion and suppressed fanatical patriots. However, certain moral values which they followed, including loyalty, fairness, honesty, and honor remain highly valued nowadays. The spirit of Bushido as a distinctive feature of Japanese national character hardly exists today. However, some signs of Bushido code can still be found in martial and aesthetic arts, in which certain exercises, called “kata”, are performed repeatedly till the performer has mastered them to perfection and reached the state of non-existence. The manners and rules of conduct are also very important; the students of martial arts schools show devotion to their teachers and treat them with great respect (Friday, 1994).
Loyalty and devotion sometimes had the effect of overwork, which sometimes resulted in death when people worked tirelessly, thus demonstrating their efforts to teachers. Moreover, nowadays some Japanese resort to committing suicides when they want to restore a tarnished reputation or apologize for mistakes or misconduct in relation to their family or company. The Japanese tend to justify or even glorify suicide.
To summarize, it should be noted that Bushido had a vast influence on Japanese society, and the spirit of the samurai remained the most important factor in the formation of Japanese national character. Being formed in medieval Japan under the influence of Zen Buddhism and Confucianism, this ethical code of conduct of the samurai demanded unconditional submission to the overlord and acceptance of military affairs as the only occupation worthy of the samurai. The samurai were professional warriors, for whom war was the way of life, the main means of achieving respect and high status in society, and the main source of prosperity. Japanese feudal lords taught their soldiers to be protectors, whose existence was justified by their willingness to sacrifice personal interests, or even life, for the benefit of their country, Japan. The ability to self-sacrifice demanded the formation of a certain morality and virtues, such as loyalty to suzerain, respect to parents, honor, courage, willpower, and total devotion to masters and country. Bushido code is nationalistic to such an extent that it is called the soul of Japan.