Originally appeared in Philosophy East & West, 40:4 (October 1990), 511-527. Copyright © 1990 University of Hawai’i Press. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I was traveling in Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong when the Shówa Emperor passed away, and I must admit (as an American historian of Japan trained in what might be called the "Reischauer era"), I was somewhat surprised at the vitriolic reaction of so many people, in both the East and the West, toward any signs of Japanese sympathy for this man, who many still regard as ultimately responsible for Japan’s war crimes. A full-page advertisement in the New York Times on February 16th by the Committee on the Case against Hirohito, for example, referred to him as the "other Hitler" and called for his condemnation in a court of world opinion. [EN1]
The emotional reaction to the emperor’s death and funeral protocol, as well as discussions with many who were not Japan specialists, impressed upon me once again the widespread belief that the behavior of Japanese forces in World War II was conditioned by adherence to the old samurai code of ethics called bushidó, which emphasized unflinching loyalty to the emperor, even to the point of willingly sacrificing one’s life, by suicide if necessary. Bushidó in many Western minds, as represented, for example, in Baron Russell’s The Knights of Bushido, is intimately linked to the rise of Japanese imperialism, kamikaze attacks, suicide charges, and prisoner-of-war atrocities. [EN2] That this is a historical perversion – that even if there was a modern bushidó that functioned as a normative ethical code for Japanese troops, it might in fact be a modern creation, with no real link to any Japanese traditional set of ethics, real or imagined – is seldom considered.
I hope to do two things in this article. First, I want to discuss the
concept of bushidó and the term itself, for both the Western and
Japanese understandings of this term and the associated set of moral values
have been terribly distorted in the written record in both countries and
as well by the events of modern history. Then I want to examine the often
linked concepts of loyalty, honor, and death in medieval and early modern
Japan to see if in fact there is any consistent view of them, specifically
a view to which the label bushidó can be attached.
Nitobe Inazó and Bushidó
One wonders whether the modern Japanese themselves, let alone those of us in the West, would ever have heard of bushidó had it not been for the efforts of Nitobe Inazó (1862-1933). In almost every way imaginable, Nitobe was the least qualified Japanese of his age to have been informing anyone of Japan’s history and culture. The Christian son of a late Tokugawa samurai from Morioka who was educated largely in English at special schools early in the Meiji era, Nitobe was one of the "Generation of Masters of English" [EN3] who could communicate with foreigners to a degree that even the most ardent exponents of kokusaika ("internationalization") today would envy. Here was a man far more familiar with the themes and metaphors of classical Western literature than those of his native Japan, far more certain of the dates and events in Western than in Japanese history, who nonetheless set out to present to the west a view of the ethics of premodern Japan that has been accepted rather uncritically ever since. Indeed, Nitobe Bushidó: The Soul of Japan became not only an international bestseller, but served as the cornerstone for the construction of an edifice of ultranationalism that led Japan down the path to a war she could not win.
Nitobe was born in 1862 during the turbulence of the bakumatsu era, but almost immediately embarked upon an educational career that in a sense isolated him from the main events of the age. He began the study of English at age nine and, after several years of study in Tokyo, went off at fifteen to school in Hokkaido, where he became a Christian and studied primarily agricultural economics, in English, from Americans. [EN4] Hokkaido was only just becoming a real part of Japan, so Nitobe was essentially isolated spatially, culturally, religiously, and even linguistically from the currents of Meiji Japan. In the words of one observer, Nitobe was "the most de-orientalized Japanese I have ever met." [EN5] Yet at the same time, as one who had consciously embarked on a course of personal "civilization and enlightenment," Nitobe was a quintessentially Meiji man.
One need not dwell extensively on the problems this background created for Nitobe’s writings on Japan. To put it bluntly, he had a very shallow understanding of Japanese history and literature, as the numerous errors in his Japanese and English writings demonstrate, and indeed as he himself admitted to Japanese – but not to foreign – audiences. [EN6] He simply had little training in these disciplines, and had not read virtually any classical texts. [EN7] Although Nitobe achieved his goal of becoming a "bridge" between Japan and the West, the foundation of that bridge was shaky at best. His extreme erudition in English, his marriage to an American Quaker lady, his devout Christianity – these traits combined to convince Westerners, even people like President Theodore Roosevelt, to accept his pronouncements at face value. [EN8] Yet Roosevelt’s endorsement of Bushidó as a way to learn about Japan did not make the book any more accurate. Nitobe is acclaimed for his contributions to mutual understanding between the United States and Japan (the Japanese government put his portrait on the 5,000 yen note in 1984), but his writings in fact advanced this cause little because of their inaccuracies.
No work of Nitobe’s has been more highly acclaimed than his 1899 "classic," Bushidó, [EN9] yet it is perhaps the most misleading of all his writings. Nitobe was not even aware when he wrote the book that the term bushidó existed: he thought he was coining a new word, and he expressed some surprise several years later when a Japanese pointed out to him that the word actually existed in Tokugawa times! [EN10] Thus Nitobe’s contemporary, Basil Hall Chamberlain – who was virtually the only one with courage enough to challenge him at the time – was not incorrect when he referred to the excitement over Nitobe’s bushidó as the "invention of a new religion."
Nitobe’s book and the concept of bushidó captured the minds of many Japanese during the outburst of nationalism that accompanied the nation’s victories in the Sino- and Russo-Japanese wars. Bushidó was suddenly everywhere. Nakariya Kaiten wrote, also in English, of bushidó as the "religion" of Japan. Takagi Takeshi wrote comparing bushidó and chivalry, summing up bushidó in twenty doctrines. [EN11] The well-known philosophy scholar Inoue Tetsujiró even collected together Edo period works in the Bushidó sósho, whose avowed purpose was to develop Japan’s national defense capabilities by inculcating this spirit in them. [EN12] Through such efforts, Nitobe’s bushidó was ultimately linked by ultranationalists to the movement for "national purity" (kukusui shugi).
Nitobe’s fellow Christian Uchimura Kanzó even went so far as to imagine that "Bushido is the finest product of Japan…. Christianity grafted upon Bushido will be the finest product of the world. It will save, not only Japan, but the whole world." [EN13] Ienaga Saburó’s analysis of Uchimura’s remark could apply to Nitobe as well, and he echoes my own feeling about the whole fuss made over bushidó in Meiji times: What Uchimura thought was bushidó was merely an illusion created by projecting Puritanism, which he had learned from the West, on Japan." [EN14]
Let me summarize my conclusions concerning the image of Japanese samurai ethics engendered by Nitobe’s work and that of others who built upon it. I do not argue that the moral values Nitobe discusses in Bushidó -- loyalty, veracity, honor, and so forth – were not present in the Japanese people in Meiji or pre-Meiji times, or is not today for that matter. Rather my objection to Nitobe is simply that to imagine that there was a normative system of ethical thought, a "code" of behavior that was first universal among the samurai and then in fact became the "soul" of all Japanese citizens, and that this body of ethical thought was called bushidó, whose tenets could be recited as readily as the Ten Commandments, or the Boy Scout Motto, is simply inaccurate. I tend to agree with the anonymous American reviewer of the book in 1900, who wrote that "To our mind the whole thesis is singularly destitute of historical support." [EN15]
Yet the lesson gleaned by many Westerners from Nitobe’s book is that premodern Japanese samurai behaved according to a strict and explicit code of ethics called bushidó, whose values were generally seven in number, following roughly the chapters in Nitobe’s volume: justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity, honor, and loyalty. [EN16] These values were then inculcated in the Japanese populace at large, becoming the "soul" of the people. Many in the West seem to believe that these same ethical principles were then directly transmitted to the citizenry of Meiji Japan; and when Japan began to "advance" into Asia in the name of the emperor, it was again the surviving feudal ethical code which shaped Japanese behavior. In fact, some even argue that the ethics of bushidó still motivate Japanese today. The marketing of the English translation of Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings several years ago was based essentially on the premise that the modern Japanese businessman is merely a samurai in Brooks Brother clothing! [EN17]
Unfortunately, there are few serious academic works on the samurai in history and the nature of bushidó. Most are of a popular nature, or written by nonspecialists, or present the limited, personal view of a single author from which readers form impressions of an entire class. The following description of the samurai is fairly representative of what I come across all the time.
Bushidó in History
Actually, the term bushidó appears in modern English publications, most notably martial-arts magazines, more often than it did in premodern Japanese texts. Even though unfamiliar with Tokugawa works, Nitobe imagined the term to have been his own. He was not totally wrong, In fact, it is only in the sengoku era that the term appears. Furukawa Tesshi finds it first in several sixteenth-century works, but considers the Kóyó gunkan (not actually compiled until the early seventeenth century) to be the first text to articulate something called bushidó as a behavioral pattern. [EN19] And only in the subsequent Edo period does it gain some currency, although even then it is not widely used: works like Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure and Daidóji Yúzan’s Budó shoshinsú which use the word are relatively rare. Indeed, Furukawa finds that in the sixty volumes included in Inoue’s Bushidó sósho (Collected Works of Bushidó), only ten of the volumes even use the term, and of those, only four use it with any frequency. [EN20]
Far more common in the Edo period were terms like shikó, budó, and bushi no michi. Throughout medieval Japan there were a number of house laws (kahó), house precepts (kakun), and other documents espousing a variety of moral values among samurai; but it was really during the Tokugawa or Edo period (1600-186), when samurai literacy became almost universal, that works addressing the morality of the ruling samurai class circulated widely. Some were abstruse tomes of moral philosophy, some were manuals of behavior for the warriors of a certain domain. They were written largely from a Neo-Confucian point of view, although there were, of course, a number of heterodox schools which held differing perspectives from that of the orthodox school supported by the Tokugawa family.
But within the broad range of Tokugawa intellectual discourse, which today appears to us in most studies as distinct "schools" of thought, it would be a mistake to assume that there was one school called "Bushidó" with a capital B which saw itself distinct from the orthodox Neo-Confucian School, the Wang Yang-ming School, and so forth. A Tokugawa samurai did not make a conscious choice to enter an academy whose title was something like "Hall of Bushidó Study," and when he was asked in casual conversation what set of beliefs he espoused, he would not have immediately replied, "Why, Bushidó of course."
The questions for us today, then, interested as we are in Japanese morality in the premodern period are: was there in fact no universal "code" of behavior for the samurai class, whatever you wish to call it? Was there something called bushidó, and if so, what was it? Was it a "religion of the samurai," to use a term employed by people from Nakariya Kaiten in the Meiji era to Professor Bloomberg today? [EN21]
The few Tokugawa works which explicitly use the term bushidó turn out, in fact, to be a very narrow stream of thought essentially out of touch with the broader spectrum of Confucian ideas to which most of the samurai class adhered. There was no well-articulated series of six or seven values; the primary emphasis in the Hagakure, Budó shoshinshú, and similar writings is an excessive attachment to the ideals of the late sixteenth century, focusing especially on loyalty, duty, and courage. [EN22] They also idealize a reckless death offered up in the lord’s name: as Tsunetomo put it "The way of the samurai is found in death," or, even more bluntly, "simply become insane and die as though mad (shinigurui)." [EN23]
The formulation of a "way" of the warrior was seen by mainline Confucian
moralists as an essentially outdated feudal ideology, what Ogyú
Sorai called an "evil custom from the sengoku era." [EN24]
Saitó Setsudó, in his Shidó yóron, saw
these ideas as incomplete, out of touch with the "Way of the Sages" as
enunciated by Mencius, and in need of alteration. While Sorai, Setsudó,
and other scholars were equally concerned with good Confucian moral principles
like loyalty, honor, and duty, they disagreed with people like Tsunetomo
over the meaning and application of these values. And they certainly disagreed
over the idea of a reckless, irrational death. They had their own ideas
of the proper "way" of the samurai, but then it was not the bushidó
of the Hagakure.
The Value of Loyalty
In my courses, I always ask students for their impressions of Japan and the Japanese. Without question, the most frequently mentioned characteristic of the Japanese is their "loyalty." This loyalty goes beyond mere conditioned behavior in the minds of many students, who seem to have the impression that the Japanese are almost "genetically" loyal: it is somehow implanted in their chromosomal makeup to be loyal. The two most commonly cited examples of loyalty are that of the samurai to his lord, based upon the bushidó code, and the loyalty of the contemporary Japanese worker to his company. The latter impression can be regarded as a victory for the Foreign Ministry’s public relations campaign, but both instances present us with problems.
Are the Japanese "genetically" loyal, any more so than other peoples? To whom and to what? Why? In fact, are not most of the Japanese ethical statements – whether taken from Nitobe’s Bushidó, the Buke shohtto, or the various slogans espoused by Japanese firms – similar to those statements found in Western sources such as the Ten Commandments, Samuel Smiles, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and the Boy Scout Motto? In fact, it occurs to me that the "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent" moral standards of the Boy Scouts are fully consistent with Nitobe’s ethics, suggesting that full application of them would have made one a damn fine Tokugawa samurai. In one sense, Nitobe was correct, insofar as what he tried to do in his work was suggest that medieval European chivalry and Japanese bushidó were not so different after all. Thus Nitobe’s cluster of ethical principles is inclusive enough to be almost universal, making it at the same time not too useful in assessing samurai behavior. In fact, the values he lays out in his book are no more than those found in almost any Confucian work, and there is no reason to lump them together as something called bushidó.
What about loyalty as a part of a samurai code of ethics, whatever we wish to call it? Clearly, from as early in Japanese history as the period when Chinese writing and its corresponding philosophy entered Japan, loyalty was regarded as perhaps the prime virtue that a Japanese, soldier or otherwise, could possess. The theme of loyalty runs throughout Prince Shótoku Seventeen Article Constitution of 603. Loyalty is indispensable to state-building, and the entire Japanese structure of legitimacy – the official histories which enshrined the imperial mythology, the Ise Shrine, the imperial regalia, the biological basis of kingship, the rituals of reenactment – was originally designed to achieve acquiescence to this absolutist rule, that is, to inculcate loyalty in the Japanese.
Long before there were samurai in Japan, one encounters the first idealized loyalist in Yorozu, the "Emperor’s Shield." [EN25] But Yorozu’s story is unusual in the history of samurai and bushidó, since it espouses loyalty of a specific imperial nature, something one finds again in the Taiheiki with Kusunoki Masashige’s unflinching loyalty to Emperor Go-Daigo.
In fact, it has nothing to do with something called bushidó and everything to do with a basic acceptance of the Confucian principle of the loyalty of subject to sovereign that a Masahige – despite his abrupt end and largely failed career – should be revered by Japanese as a paragon of ethical behavior, and that Ashikaga Takauji, a man of foresight and vision who established a warrior polity that endured for two and a half centuries should be considered one of Japan’s "three great villains." [EN26]
In fact, one of the most troubling problems of the premodern era is the apparent discrepancy between the numerous house laws and codes exhorting the samurai to practice loyalty and the all-too-common incidents of disloyalty which racked medieval Japanese warrior life. It would not be an exaggeration to say that most crucial battles in medieval Japan were decided by the defection – that is, the disloyalty – of one or more of the major vassals of the losing general. In other words, Takauji, twice disloyal for having first turned against his feudal lord and then his sovereign, was far closer to the prototype of the medieval Japanese warrior than was Masashige. Ironically, this behavior explains the great lengths to which moralists in premodern and modern times have gone to praise Masashige and vilify Takauji.
In fact, there is no discrepancy between these two things at all. We have simply misinterpreted the data. That is, we often read both premodern and modern exhortations to loyalty as representations of what is rather than what ought to be. This is a classic mistake of assuming that a system of normative ethics describes an actual field of behavior. Thus, my students want to assume that contemporary Japanese workers are somehow "genetically" loyal to Mitsubishi, not realizing that the modern Japanese company system was consciously established in the late 1910s precisely because Japanese workers were not loyal but in fact changed employers at will to suit their own economic interests.
In a somewhat similar vein, we often fall into the same trap when confronted with examples of the apparent willingness with which the Japanese endured wartime sacrifices for emperor and nation – the banzai charge and the kamikaze attack – in World War II. Wishing to ascribe this willingness to some innate ethical imperative, we easily forget the great lengths to which the imperial state had to go, legally and ideologically, to create the idealized tennósei ("emperor system"), in which the emperor functioned effectively as the supreme focus of patriotic loyalty.
It was little different in medieval times as well. Sakaiya Ta’ichi, in a recent essay entitled "Debunking the Myth of Loyalty," designed to illustrate how much Westerners had overvalued what I have been calling the "genetic loyalty" of the Japanese, compared the sengoku warrior to a modern baseball player. [EN27] He claims that the samurai was essentially playing "for the team." "If a baseball player is traded to another team, he is expected to give his all to his new team and to give no thought to ‘yesterday’s friend.’" Similarly, Sakaiya claims, "the samurai was not bound by any ethical premise that one cannot serve two masters." In fact, he did it all the time.
Sakaiya may be overstating his point. The ideals of the age did expect that a warrior would serve but one master, but feudal loyalty had lost much of the psychological implications of earlier times. The lord-vassal bond of Heian and Kamakura warriors is often characterized as involving deep personal commitment, even extending over generations. Although material considerations were not unimportant – essentially trading military service for economic reward – many Japanese scholars have emphasized the "human-heartedness" (the much revered bushi no nasake) of the bond and deny that warrior and master were linked "contractually." Personally, I regard the war tales upon which much of this speculation is based with great suspicion, and feel that such scholars emphasize the unqualified nature of the feudal bond of loyalty far out of proportion to what actually occurred. The difficulty encountered by the Hójó regents in institutionalizing the loyalty of early Kamakura vassals, for example, supports this view.
But be that as it may, at least by sengoku times, there was no doubt that the one-dimensional kind of emotion-laden loyalty, even if exaggerated in medieval tales, was no longer operative. Loyalty was a highly personal and contractual arrangement between samurai and lord, conditional on both parties fulfilling their mutual obligations. With Japan divided into several hundred heavily armed independent domains, each lord was concerned with surrounding himself with skilled strategists and fighters. Effective administration of the domain demanded that he establish codes to regulate the behavior of warrior and peasant alike. That in those codes a lord would strongly emphasize the loyalty that his samurai owed him is hardly surprising. The first of Takeda Nobushige’s ninety-nine house rules warns the retainer never to be treacherous to his master. But, as Sakaiya reminds us, "however a certain quality is considered desirable is no guarantee that it actually prevails." [EN28]
In fact the converse may be true. That is, the frequency with which warrior codes stress the virtue of loyalty is due precisely to the fact that it did not obtain in the violent "world without a center." Great generals of the sixteenth century in fact, in a manner not unlike that in which a George Steinbrenner goes about acquiring the best baseball players available, tried to hire away skilled archers, swordsmen, and military strategists from each other all the time. Loyalty was thus purchased, and exhortations to the contrary, samurai frequently changed masters to improve their immediate and future circumstances. In an age, however, which apparently produced more charismatic individuals than Japan had even seen before (or has since, for that matter), it is hardly surprising that some samurai might develop extremely deep, emotion-laden ties with their lords. That is the kind of loyalty Tsunetomo aspires to in the Hagakure.
But the situation had changed entirely (and for the worse) with the "centralized feudalism" of Tokugawa times, in which the bakufu set certain legal limits on daimyó control over their domains and their samurai. With the exception of many rónin ("masterless samurai) created by bakufu action, samurai were unable to market their talents around from domain to domain, seeking advantage, charisma, or both, but were born into a rigidly stratified society with little chance for mobility. They and their descendants were, for two and a half centuries, hereditary retainers of the lord of the House of X or Y.
Their status was hereditarily determined and a material stipend set, not unlike the salary set for federal bureaucrats today. Consequently, Tokugawa samurai loyalty was unconditional and often highly impersonal. The emotional nature of the bond of loyalty could thus be very weak for many warriors, who might have little or no personal association with their theoretical lord. However incompetent or remote from them, the lord was the lord and they were stuck with him. Under such circumstances, frequent moral exhortations to the obligations of loyal service were all the more necessary.
The anomalies in the nature of Tokugawa loyalty, as well as a number of other contradictions in the sociopolitical system, ultimately led to a "transmuted form" of loyalty, what Albert Craig has termed "han nationalism," in which loyalty was effectively transferred from the person of the lord to the domain itself. [EN29]
Shinigurui, Crazy for Death
Let us turn now to samurai ideals concerning death, remembering our warrior who is able to "kill with inner peace – and die with inner calm." I am reminded of the television miniseries made of James Clavell’s Shogun, and especially of the protest by Japanese American citizens against the portrayal of Japanese as bloodthirsty and eager to die. In fact, in a discussion on our campus the week it aired, I remember making a similar criticism. I noted that all the Japanese in the film were apparently "dying to die," since they reached for their swords to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) at a moment’s notice.
This connection with death is another part of the image we have of the samurai. If it is not part of Nitobe’s formulation of bushidó, it is basic to that found in the Hagakure: "The way of the samurai is found in death." There are two types of death involved here. Perhaps primary in our minds is the idea that the samurai commits suicide readily, either to atone for a crime, to follow his lord in death, or to accept responsibility for some error. Secondly, we tend to think of him as conditioned to cutting down others, especially rude peasants, with equanimity. This is, I suppose, an idea which sprang from an awareness of the concept of kirsute gomen, literally "exemption to cut down and cast aside" a member of the lower orders who failed to show a samurai proper respect. Both of these aspects of the samurai connection with death figured prominently in Shogun.
Seppuku has a long history in Japan, dating at least to the late Heian period. But it was not exactly a widespread custom, and was limited primarily to situations in which a warrior faced certain death at the hands of his enemies. Since torture was expected in premodern Japan, suicide, either by throwing oneself headlong off one’s horse with the point of one’s sword in one’s mouth, or increasingly, by disembowelment, was considered preferable to capture. Over time, seppuku came to be associated with honorable death. The stomach was considered the seat of one’s emotions, so that cutting the belly and exposing one’s entrails was a means of demonstrating the purity of a samurai’s honor.
And while war tales are fond of glorifying the practice – one is reminded or the Taiheiki story of virtually the entire Hójó clan committing seppuku at the fall of Kamakura – few warriors actually took their own lives except under circumstances of imminent defeat and death at the hands of the enemy. Yoshitsune and Nobunaga are two prime examples of suicide under such conditions.
There were other forms of seppuku as well. Occasionally a warrior might take his own life in order to remonstrate with his lord, a form of suicide known as kanshi. The sengoku period does record a number of instances of junshi, the practice of following one’s lord in death. It was theoretically limited to a few especially close retainers, but there are records of twenty or thirty samurai committing junshi upon their lord’s demise. But most were content to live on, or Japan would soon have been bereft of warriors had all the zealots like Tsunetomo been "allowed" to follow their lords in death.
Given the reality of Pax Tokugawa, what Professor Reischauer has referred to as the longest period of protracted peace in history, the "classic" works like the Hagakure, which emphasize loyalty to the lord to the point of death, and in fact which stress the eager sacrifice of one’s life for one’s feudal lord, appear terribly anachronistic. The idea that a samurai ought either rashly to throw away his life for his lord, or that he ought to follow his lord in death by ritual suicide (tsuifuku) struck mainline warrior moralists as – in Sorai’s words – "an evil custom of the sengoku age."
In fact, the Hagakure’s pronouncements about the readiness of a vassal like himself to rush headlong into battle for his lord, with no calculation of profit and loss, or concern for personal safety or family security, was anachronistic in the extreme; but it serves to demonstrate what may be the central Tokugawa intellectual dilemma. Prompted by the refusal of his lord, Nabeshima Motoshige, to allow Tsunetomo to follow him in death in 1700, Tsunetomo retired from the world in utter despair and, from 1710 to 1716, recounted the text which appears as the Hagakure to Tsuramoto Tashiro.
Tsunetomo was a throwback in many ways. First, he wished to commit junshi, an action which had been expressly forbidden by both bakufu and Nabeshima han legislation – samurai law, it should be noted, written by and for the warrior class. Thus his ideals linking loyalty and death were not shared by the dominant group within the warrior class. Second, he urged a kind of rash action on behalf of one’s lord which was virtually unimaginable to most warriors. That is, the last major military campaign – the Shimabara Rebellion – had concluded over sixty years previously, and Tokugawa peace was so firmly established by the Genroku period (1688-1700) in which Tsunetomo lived that many social commentators decried the decline of the warrior class, and their attendant martial training. [EN30]
There were simply no longer any arenas where would-be zealots like Tsunetomo, a weekend warrior who never engaged in combat, could demonstrate either his military prowess, his loyalty, or his courage. Furukawa expresses great admiration for Tsunetomo’s words: "The intensity and profundity of passion that strike us as we read these expressions in the original Japanese are past all translation and leave us in sheer wonder and admiration. What a single-hearted loyalty." [EN31] Personally, I read Tsunetomo somewhat more cynically. I am suspicious both of the degree of Tsunetomo’s disappointment at being denied the right of tsuifuku and of his many passionate expressions of loyalty. I believe that Tsunetomo was truly attached to Motoshige and was devastated by his death; but I suspect that in his remorse he was whipped into a high degree of emotion, which young Tashiro recorded, by the realization that he was unable to be the kind of "real" samurai of the sengoku era whom he admired so much. But if he could not live like one, perhaps through a noble seppuku he could have died like one. Tsunetomo was a GS-12 who longed to be something more.
And that brings us to the dilemma I alluded to before. That is, what is the role of the warrior in an age of peace? From at least the time of Yamaga Sokó (1622-1685), writers had wrestled with the problem; but the adoption of Neo-Confucianism as the official "civil religion" of the bakufu inevitably led scholars to cast the warrior as a Japanese version of the Chinese gentry. Thus for Sokó, just as the sage (in the Confucian conception) had a "mein of moral superiority," the samurai internalized the Confucian virtues and served as a sort of moral exemplar for the farmer, artisan, and merchant, "who have no leisure from their occupations, and so they cannot constantly act in accord with (fundamental moral obligations) and fully exemplify the Way." [EN33]
Clearly, Sokó and other Confucian samurai moralists agreed with Tsunetomo that the samurai owed unflinching loyalty to his lord, but recklessly throwing away one’s life and contemplating ritual suicide to follow the lord in death were considered totally in opposition to the values of the "Way" which they talked about incessantly. And that Way was the way of the sages, the way of Confucius and Mencius, or one of several reformulations of Confucian thought – not a call to reckless action, which in fact some followers of the Wang Yang-ming school advocated.
One can in fact distinguish between the "way" for most samurai – and let us call that by Sokó’s term, shidó, since it is actually inaccurate to link his thought casually to bushidó, as we tend to do, following the discussion in Tsunoda’s The Japanese Tradition – and the view of bushidó as expressed in the Hagakure. The former tended to emphasize results while the latter was more concerned with motive. In essence, what we can say is that Tsunetomo is far more concerned that a warrior live so as to transcend any real attachment to this life, to take life as though one might die at any moment. Then he can react to the situation immediately, rushing crazily into death (shinigurui, in his terms) in the service of his lord without any calculations of an emotional sort clouding his mind. Purity of motive, sincerity in the extreme, seems to be what Tsunetomo is after. And as Ivan Morris so poignantly reminds us in his work on Japan’s veneration of failed heroes, this is perhaps the supreme virtue for which the Yorozus, Yoshitsunes, and Masashiges are admired.
I should also note here that seppuku was essentially a form of punishment under Tokugawa law. A daimyó suspected of disloyalty to the shogun could be forced to commit suicide, for example, as could a lesser samurai for breaking the law. It was far more likely to be a sentence imposed upon one rather than a willful act to demonstrate one’s nobility, honor, or loyalty, although there were of course such instances.
Furthermore, if warriors were not always "dying to die" for the slightest mishap, they were also not likely to dispatch hapless peasants on the road without so much as a by-your-leave. Search as they do in the literature for actual cases of kirisute gomen, Japanese historians have managed to find only a few. While there were times when criminals (or at least the dead bodies of criminals) were used to test the blade of a sword in semi-scientific experimentation, and while ambush, bushwhacking, and duels of honor ending in death and/or dismemberment were not unknown, not all samurai of Tokugawa times were the bloodthirsty killers some films and popular literature would have us believe.
But was the samurai of Tokugawa times, or any period of premodern Japanese
history for that matter, really like the type of character that has been
portrayed in popular literature? Was uncalculated purity of motive and
unconditional loyalty universal among samurai? Or is this simply the conclusion
reached by non-specialists who have been "introduced" to Japan by "bridges"
like Nitobe and the selective translation of interesting, but not necessarily
representative works like the Hagakure? Let me close with a brief
look at one celebrated incident of Tokugawa history to demonstrate the
diversity of opinion on the ethics of the samurai. This is the famous Akó
Incident, or "Tale of the Forty-Seven Rónin".
Legal Implications of the Akó Incident
The story is well known and need not detain us here. [EN34] The daimyó of Akó domain, Lord Asano, was charged with the arrangements at Edo Castle, to receive the emissaries of the emperor from Kyoto. For whatever reason, the Master of Ceremonies, Lord Kira, refused to inform Asano of the proper protocol, and was attacked by his younger colleague within the shogun’s castle. The two sword wounds proved not to be fatal, but this breach of shogunal law could not be overlooked; and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku on the very next day, the fifteenth day of the third month of Genroku 14 (1701).
The problem comes with the subsequent behavior of the samurai of the domain. Several strategies – from immediately committing suicide themselves (which, as I have noted above, was strictly forbidden by shogunal law) to attacking and killing Kira in revenge – were considered. Unfortunately, action was somewhat preempted by an extensive bakufu investigation that dragged on for a year and four months, during which time the Akó samurai were neither no longer fully retainers of the domain – whose status was being considered – nor full-fledged rónin either. But at length the expected decision declared Asano’s domain confiscated, and the warriors became rónin. Having already parted from their families, they now went their separate ways.
The primary drama in the many stories, plays, and films based upon the event ensues following a pact between the samurai to take revenge against Lord Kira: to deflect suspicion by both Kira, who naturally anticipated a vendetta, and the bakufu, the warriors, led by Óishi Kuranosuke, go about their business in a variety of occupations or – like Kuranosuke – give themselves up to drink and debauchery. Exaggeration and hyperbole, all of it very poignantly presented, abound in the fictionalized versions. But ultimately, on the night of the fourteenth day of the twelfth month of 1702, a year and nine months to the day after the initial incident, the remaining forty-seven loyal retainers broke into Kira’s Edo mansion and killed him in revenge.
Forty-six of them then took his severed head to Sengakuji temple, the site of Lord Asano’s grave, where they surrendered to the Abbot of the temple, having decided to abide by the verdict of the bakufu. Their sentence came down over a month later, on the fourth day of the second month of 1703, when they were ordered – perhaps allowed is the proper term – to commit suicide, which they did. The temple today attracts the considerable traffic of curious and respectful tourists, Japanese and foreigners alike.
But public opinion as to both the actions of the Akó retainers and the subsequent actions of the authorities was mixed, suggesting that in fact there was not a uniform set of ethical precepts to which even all samurai, much less all Japanese, subscribed.
Several laws were violated by the Akó side. Lord Asano himself broke the prohibition against drawing one’s weapon within the shogun’s castle. The retainers then broke the law by failing to report their intention to avenge the death of their lord to the authorities. (Private vendettas could be officially sanctioned if the case was an appropriate one and it was reported to the officials, who could grant permission to proceed. Such action, needless to say, would seriously hinder the efforts of those seeking revenge, since their intended victim would either flee into hiding or constantly surround himself with armed guards.)
On the other hand, public opinion in Edo seems to have been overwhelmingly in favor of the so-called "loyal retainers" (gishi). In the first place, Lord Kira’s actions toward Asano – surely highly distorted in fictional accounts, which perhaps reflect popular perceptions at the time – were seen as inappropriate. And there can be no doubt that the sentiments of most Japanese, both those who actually espoused the narrow Hagakure version of bushidó as well as ordinary citizens imbued with popular moral values, approved of Asano’s motives when he attacked Kira, whether or not it was against the law. Likewise, there was a similar popular sympathy for the gishi’s revenge against Kira on behalf of their master, perhaps due both to the generalized ancient Confucian dictum about not living under the same heaven as the killer of one’s father (or in this case, lord) and the tendency to sympathize with such actions – especially if they ended in the suicide of the proponents – carried out with great sincerity (purity) of motive.
But clearly the authorities could not react with leniency without risking potential anarchy: a blanket endorsement of private vendettas could open a Pandora’s box. Therefore, it was decided by the authorities that the Akó retainers should be condemned to death rather than pardoned.
But Confucian scholars were divided on their approval or disapproval of the gishi actions. Ogyú Sorai, Dazai Shundai, and Sató Nobukata among others condemned them, primarily because they violated the law. These scholars placed bakufu law and a concern for public order above the pure motives of the Akó retainers. But Hayashi Nobuatsu, Muro Kyúsó – who wrote a two-volume account of the affair entitled Akó giginroku – Miyake Kanran, and other Confucians supported the nobility of the gishi’s intentions. Among most of those who condemned the actions, and it is generally thought that Sorai’s opinion was the critical one as far as the bakufu’s decision was concerned, there was considerable ambivalence between censure based upon the results of their action and an admiration for the motive behind it.
Interestingly, among those who also criticized the Akó retainers was none other than Tsunetomo, who in the Hagakure notes that they should have taken their revenge against Lord Kira immediately without any thought of the consequences; such was the essence of his shinigurui form of bushidó. It was pure in motive, not calculating and rational in Confucian terms. For similar reasons, he was equally critical of the Soga brothers, who in the Kamakura period waited some seventeen years to carry out a vendetta against their father’s killer.
Thus we have the curious situation that the primary exponent of bushidó in Tokugawa times opposed the actions of the loyal retainers of Akó, who captured the imaginations and hearts of Japanese both at that time and later for their embodiment of the very ethical actions we have come to associate with bushidó! Tsunetomo found himself, albeit for different reasons, in the same camp as the mainline Neo-Confucianists who also condemned the actions of the famous forty-seven. While they – some grudgingly – accepted the higher claims of public law, Tsunetomo remained consistent in support of his ideal of spontaneous, unconditional, non-rational loyalty to one’s lord above all else as the way of the samurai. If nothing else, Tsunetomo’s stand in this case demonstrates clearly that there was not a single code of ethics for the samurai to which all warriors held, much less one which had become the "soul" of the entire Japanese populace.
And that seems to be the major difference between the ethical ideals of that narrow brand of Tokugawa-period people, who espoused something which could be called "bushidó," from the mainline Neo-Confucian thinkers, who espoused a more conventional "shidó." I agree with Furukawa, who characterizes the former as emphasizing "purity of motive" and the latter as concerned with "results" – dóki shugi versus kekka shugi, in his words. That both ways of thought have long been, were then, and indeed remained opposed to one another in prewar Japan is clear from the events of history.
One of the interesting parallels to the Akó Incident is the February 26 Mutiny of 1926, right down to the snowfall which blanketed Tokyo on both occasions. In the modern gishi incident, members of a radical military faction, claiming ultimate loyalty to the emperor, murdered a number of military and civilian bureaucrats and raised a "righteous rebellion" against what they regarded as misguided policies. Once the rebellion was quieted, the authorities felt an obligation to condemn the rebels to death, since they could not afford to sanction such unlawful activities. But public sentiment clearly lay with the rebels, the purity of whose actions could not be faulted, whose "motives" in Hagakure bushidó terms were correct.
Thus do the ideas of the bushidó enthusiasts of Edo times connect
with the kokusui shugi zealots of the modern era, linked unintentionally
by the ground-breaking and, I believe ultimately innocent work of Nitobe
Inazó in his "classic" Bushidó volume, which, rather
than bridging the Pacific, in fact helped to bridge the gap between two
expressions of irrational loyalty, both of which were at odds with the
dominant intellectual trends of the time. Unfortunately for the modern
world, Nitobe succeeded far beyond his wildest imagination…
EN1. Among the many errors in the text, one was especially noteworthy. Under a picture of a Japanese soldier about to decapitate a Chinese youth, the text chastised "bonsai shouting" Japanese soldiers. Somehow, the image of a Japanese soldier charging a machine-gun nest screaming "Bonsai!" totally undermined the serious intent of the article.
EN2. Edward Russell, The Knights of Bushido (London: Cassell, 1958).
EN3. Óta Yúzó, "’Bridge Across the Pacific’ – an Evaluation of Nitobe Inazo’s Self-Imposed Role as a Mediator of Japan and the West" (Paper presented at Nitobe Conference, Vancouver, October 1983), 5.
EN4. Suchi Tokuhei, Nitobe Inazó to bushidó (Tokyo: Seijisha, 1984), 19-32.
EN5. Óta, "Bridge Across the Pacific," 3.
EN6. Ibid., 7
EN7. Ibid. Óta quotes Nitobe: "To my shame I cannot discuss with confidence literature of the East. I regret this very much. When I read books – when my appetite for reading was the strongest – Japanese literature was out of vogue. So was Chinese literature. When we were young, we virtually never heard of Tsurezuregusa [Essays in Idleness]. I was about twenty years old when I first learned of its existence."
EN8. Bushidó was written in English, but was soon translated into German, Polish, Norwegian, French, Chinese, Russian, Hungarian, Japanese, and several other languages. Roosevelt bought dozens of copies to give to friends.
EN9. The book went through ten editions in just fifteen years, and is still widely used today, even in my own classes.
EN10. Óta, "’Bridge Across the Pacific,’" 11-12.
EN11. This strange 1914 book was translated into English by Tsuneyoshi Matsuno, A Comparison of Bushi-do and Chivalry (Osaka: T. Matsuno, 1984).
EN12. Inoue Tetsujiró, ed., Bushidó sósho, 3 vols. (Tokyo: Hakubunkan, 1905).
EN13. "Bushido and Christianity," Uchimura Kanzó zenshú (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1933), vol. 15, 393.
EN14. Quoted in Óta, "’Bridge Across the Pacific,’" 17.
EN15. Ibid., 22.
EN16. See, for example, Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith, Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts (Tokyo: Kódansha International, 1981), 98-99.
EN17. G. Cameron Hurst III, "Samurai on Wall Street: Miyamoto Musashi and the Search for Success," UFSI Reports, 1982/No. 44 Asia, reprinted at http://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_Hurst_0101.htm.
EN18. Appearing on book jacket (writer unknown) of The Book of the Samurai, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, trans. William Scott Wilson (New York: Avon Books, 1981).
EN19. Furukawa Tesshi, Bushidó no shisó to sono shúhen (Tokyo: Fukumura Shuten, 1957).
EN20. Ibid., 3.
EN21. Catharina Bloomberg, Samurai Religion: Some Aspects of Warrior Manners and Customs in Feudal Japan, 2 vols. (Upsala, Sweden, 1976).
EN22. Furukawa, Bushidó no shishó, 57.
EN23.Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (Tokyo: Jinbutsu Óraisha, 1968), vol. 1, 76.
EN24. Furukawa, Bushidó no shishó, 23, quoting Sorai.
EN25. Ivan Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975), 14-40.
EN26. The other two villains were considered to be Dókyó and Taira no Kiyomori. The three were especially singled out by Confucian-minded historians for their lack of loyalty to the throne.
EN27. Sakaiya Ta’ichi, "Debunking the Myth of Loyalty," Japan Echo, 8:2 (Spring 1981), 17-29.
EN29.The classic formulation is Albert Craig, Chóshú in the Meiji Restoration (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1961).
EN30. Sorai and many others were critical of the kata-focused (bugei) of the Genroku and later eras, which hey ridiculed as "sports of a peaceful age." See G. Cameron Hurst III, The Martial Arts of Japan, vol. 1 (Yale University Press, forthcoming).
EN31. Furukawa Tesshi, "The Individual in Japanese Ethics," in Charles A. Moore, ed., The Japanese Mind (Honolulu: University Press of Hawii, 1967), 233.
EN32. Quoted in Ryusaku Tsunoda, et al., The Sources of Japanese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 402.
EN33. Ibid., 399.
EN34. A good English-language treatment is Bloomberg, Samurai Religion (see note 21 above), vol. 2, The Akó Affair: A Practical Example of Bushidó.