Professor's Blog

Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Nitobe Inazō

Bushido is a philosophy and unwritten code of virtue and ethics that has permeated not just the warrior class but all of modern Japanese society.  No singular founding or creative document placed its thought and practice into the Japanese mindset like a constitutional document might have for which we are most familiar in the West.  However, it remains prevalent within Japanese society and survives the downfall of the samurai and the eventual adoption of more Western ways.  The different branches and lineages of Gracie or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, having their roots in Japanese Judo, spend varying degrees of attention on these virtues as a part of their curriculum and philosophy.  Some ignore them completely, while others embrace them ultimately to bring the roots of the Brazilian martial art and combat sport back to the philosophical roots of budo and bushido.

Mr. Nitobe briefly explores the essential virtues of Bushido in his classic essay on the topic and the relevant principles commonly associated with the Bushido “code.”  Indeed, it is not a philosophy in the manner that we usually think of, nor is it derived from the great Western philosophers that may be more commonly reviewed.  However, it is fitting to review as a requirement for philosophical study when considering the warrior arts within any study of historical martial arts, koryu lineages, and even the historical roots of the more popular Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu of today.

Nitobe notes that Confucius influences Bushido and makes other philosophical comparisons to include the religious variety, including Christianity.  However, as previously mentioned, there is no foundational document or moment in time that marks the creation of Bushido.  It is one that evolved and continues to influence Japanese society even today.  Although it is not exhaustive or expansive, it is impactful and straightforward enough to guide everyday lives through complex challenges and ethical dilemmas when implemented and followed.

Several virtues are associated with Bushido.  For this post, I will focus only on the virtues of courage, honor, and self-control as they apply to Bushido.  The first of these, courage, is described by Nitobe by citing Confucius.  He explains that “perceiving what is right, and doing it not, argues lack of courage.”  Put into a positive connotation as doing what is right.  He cites comparisons and distinctions from otherwise ‘like’ terms such as valor, fortitude, bravery, etc.  The summation of the discussion of courage in Nitobe’s writing can be described through the examples of stories and tales of bravery that exemplify this concept of courage and how it was developed or attained by the samurai at a young age.  “What a coward to cry for a trifling pain!”  A young samurai should be resolute and unfazed by adversity; it should be his character to face challenges stoically without complaint or fear.

Honor is a characteristic that is typically used to describe how a samurai lived his life.  A person’s reputation and name were (and are) extremely important in Japanese culture as it is everlasting and remains even upon death.  This is emphasized in a description, “dishonor is like a scar on a tree, which time, instead of effacing, only helps to enlarge.”  Conversely, the honor gained in youth would amplify as the samurai grew older.  Therefore, considering effects on one’s honor was considered a part of the decision-making processes for each young, noble samurai before action was taken for serious matters.  The life of a samurai felt no benefit from quick and emotional decisions that would ultimately harm their and their family’s reputation.  Thus, the consideration of honor was a serious matter for the samurai.  It was of utmost importance as the effects could be felt for generations.

Self-control is another virtue that was of importance to a young noble warrior.  When shared among others, it allowed the warrior not to show outward emotion that could ultimately lead to his demise.  In unison with courage and stoic nature, it would enable the samurai to act without telegraph and with surprise.  This would deny his enemies any knowing advantage through the proper application of self-control with the hidden intent of planned kyojutsu (truth, lies, deception).  Calm and calculated composure was a powerful ally to the samurai.  It is an important virtue that is worth the consideration of all, even today.

These three examples of the virtues within Bushido are only a sampling.  It is important to note that these virtues are still ingrained into modern Japanese society.  Social norms are shifting; however, many aspects of this code will be hard to budge in times of acceptance and equality…, especially in Japan.  A simple highlight of Bushido’s importance is a concluding thought that I pull from Nitobe’s writing: “What Japan was she owed the samurai.”  I offer that it still owes the noble samurai, and its reach extends beyond Japanese borders.