Connect with us


Bushidô, the code of the Samurai by Inazo Nitobe – Chapter 1

Pierre Waterschoot



Preface by Inazo Nitobe

About ten years ago, while spending a few days under the welcoming roof of the eminent Belgian economist - the late Mr. de Laveleye – during one of our walks, our conversation turned to the subject of religion: “Are you saying,” the venerable professor asked me, “that there is no religious instruction in your schools? When I answered in the negative, he suddenly stopped, dumbfounded, and in a voice that I am not ready to forget, he repeated: “No religion! But how do you teach moral education? The question left me speechless. I had no ready-made answers. The moral precepts I had learned as a child had not been instilled in me at school, and it was not until I began to analyze the various elements that had formed my notions of good and evil that I discovered that was the spirit of Bushido who inspired me with these ideas.

This little book was created following frequent questions from my wife, who wanted to know why certain ideas and customs prevailed in Japan.

In my attempts to provide satisfactory answers to Mr. de Laveleye and my wife, I discovered that without a deep understanding of feudalism and Bushidô, the moral notions of present-day Japan were as accessible as information recorded in a book. sealed.

Taking advantage of the forced rest following a long illness, I have put down on paper, as I present them today, some of the answers I gave during our private conversations. They were above all inspired by what I had been taught and told in my youth, when feudalism still reigned.

It is very daunting to write anything about Japan in the English language in the towering shadow of Lofcadio Hearn and Mrs. Hugh Fraser on the one hand, and Sir Ernest Satow and Professor Chamberlain on the other. The only advantage I have over them is that I can take on the role of defender of my cause, whereas these distinguished writers are lawyers and prosecutors at best. I often thought, "If I had their command of the language, I would present Japan in more eloquent terms!" But one who speaks in a borrowed language should be grateful if he even manages to make himself understood.

Throughout my text, I have tried to illustrate the points I have discussed with examples taken from European history and literature, with the aim of facilitating understanding for the foreign reader.

Inazo Nitobe, Malvern, Pennsylvania, December 1899

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Ghost - Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Ghost – Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Bushido as an ethical system

chivalry (Bushido) is a flower born on the soil of the Japan, of which it is no less representative than its emblem, the Cherry flower. However, it is in no way the dried up specimen of an ancient virtue preserved in the herbarium of our history. She is still alive among us, in all her power and beauty, and though she has no tangible shape or outline, her fragrance still floats in the moral atmosphere and makes us aware that she still wields over us her powerful spell. The social conditions that spawned and nurtured it are long gone, but just like those distant stars that once existed and are no more, it continues to shine on us. In this way, the light of chivalry, daughter of feudalism, always illuminates the paths of our morality, thus surviving the institution that gave birth to it. It is a pleasure for me to meditate on this subject in the language of Burke. (Edmund Burke, Irish politician and philosopher), who, at a time when European chivalry was falling into oblivion, delivered a famous and touching eulogy over his remains.

When a man as learned as George Miller (History Philosophically Illustrated, 1853) does not hesitate to affirm that chivalry, or any other similar institution, never existed, either among the nations of antiquity or in the modern Eastern world, this testifies to a sad lack of information on Far East. Such ignorance is, however, quite excusable, since the third edition of Miller's work appeared the same year that Commodore Perry (Commodore Perry, at the head of an American squadron, anchored in Edo Bay in 1853. The following year, he succeeded in obtaining a commercial treaty from Japan and the opening of 'a port) was knocking on the doors of our isolationism. More than ten years later, around the time when our dying feudalism was living its last moments by writing The capital, Karl Max drew the attention of his readers to the importance of studying the social and political institutions of feudalism, which at that time only lived in Japan. I, in turn, would like to invite Westerners who are interested in history and ethics to study Bushido in present-day Japan.

As attractive as the historical comparison between feudalism and chivalry in Europe and Japan may be, my aim is not to develop this subject in this book. Rather, I wish to relate: 1) the origins and sources of our chivalry; 2) its nature and teaching; 3) his influence on the people; 4) the continuity and permanence of this influence. Among these various points, the first will be brief and synthetic, to avoid dragging my reader into the tortuous meanders of our national history. The second will be more developed, because it is the one that will be most likely to interest those who want to know our ethics and our mores, our way of thinking and acting. The rest will be treated as a corollary.

The Japanese expression that I have roughly referred to as chivalry is much more expressive in its original language. Bu-shi-dô literally means "Warrior's Way" - the way noble warriors should conduct themselves in their daily life, as well as in their vocation; in other words, the "Precepts of Chivalry", the "nobility obliges" of the warrior class. Now that I've given it the literal meaning, I can now use the word in its original form: Bushido. The use of the original term is also desirable for another reason: such a circumscribed and unique teaching, which has engendered a real turn of mind, such a particular and local character, must display the badge of its singularity. Moreover, some words have a timbre so expressive of the characteristics of a nation, that even the best translators cannot do them justice. Who can, through translation, best communicate the meaning of the German word “Gemüth” (Noble heart, beautiful soul in German) ? Who does not feel the difference between two words so closely linked that the gentleman english and gentleman French?

So the Bushido is the code of moral principles that knights were required to observe. It is not written code; it is at best made up of a few maxims transmitted by word of mouth, or sometimes born from the pen of some famous knight or scholar. Most often, this code is neither spoken nor written, which only gives it more authority. And this authority is law, engraved on the very heart. It is not the fruit of the creation of a single brain, however brilliant, nor from the life of a single character, however renowned. It grew on the fertile soil of decades and centuries of military career. It occupies perhaps the same place in the history of morals as the English Constitution in the history of politics; however, it has nothing to compare with Magna Carta or Habeas Corpus. Admittedly, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, military laws (Buke Hatto) have been enacted; but their thirteen short articles were mainly concerned with marriage, castles, alliances, etc. And moral rules were only touched on succinctly. So we can't point to a specific time and place and say, “That's where it all started. It is only because it reached people's consciences during the feudal era that its origin can be associated with feudalism. But feudalism is itself woven with many threads, and Bushido shares its complex nature. If we consider that in England the political institutions and feudalism date from the Norman conquest, we can say that in Japan, its rise coincided with the accession to power of Yoritomoto, at the end of the twelfth century. And if, in England, the seeds of feudalism are much older and go back to before William the Conqueror, it is the same for Japan, where it has its source well before the period I have just mentioned.

Moreover, in Japan as in Europe, when feudalism was officially inaugurated, the professional class of warriors naturally took on importance. We knew them as samurai, which literally means – like the Old English word cniht (knecht, knight) – “guards” or “servants”. They are comparable to soldurii, whose existence Caesar mentions in Aquitaine, or in committees who, according to Tacitus, followed the military leaders of their time, or to draw a parallel with a more recent period, to medii militants which appear in the history of medieval Europe. The Sino-Japanese term buke ou bushi (knights fighting) has also been adopted into common parlance. They belonged to a privileged class, and being of a fiery temperament, they had made fighting their vocation. This class was naturally fed, during a long period of incessant warfare, by the most virile and adventurous men, and while the process of elimination was at work, casting aside the timid and the weak, only "a tough race, powerful men driven by animal strength,” to borrow Emerson's phrase, surviving to form the class of samurai. They acceded to the honors and great responsibilities that come with them and soon felt the need for common rules of conduct, particularly because they were always on a war footing and were divided into different clans. Like doctors who limit competition among themselves by ethics, or lawyers who sit on the court of honor for a violation of etiquette, the misconduct of warriors must also be judged.

The fight in the rules! What fertile germs in this primitive feeling which is the prerogative of savagery and childhood. Is this not the origin of all military and civic virtues? We smile (as if we've grown and evolved!) at the boyish desire of little Englishman, Tom Brown, "to leave behind the reputation of a boy who never bullied a smaller one or turned his back on a bigger one. big. And yet, who does not know that this desire is the cornerstone on which the greatest moral edifices can be raised? And without going that far, can we not say that the gentlest and most pacifist of religions cherishes this aspiration? Tom's desire is the main foundation upon which England's greatness was built, and it won't be long before we discover that Bushidō doesn't rest on a less prestigious pedestal. If the fight itself - whether offensive or defensive - is, as the Quakers rightly declare, brutal and evil, we can nevertheless say, like Lessing, that "We know from what faults our virtue. "Traitors" and "cowards" are the most demeaning epithets for simple and wholesome natures. Childhood begins life strong in these notions, and so does chivalry, but as life grows more complex and relationships multiply, primitive faith seeks approval from a higher authority. and from more rational sources that can justify it, satisfy it and help it to develop. If military interests had worked alone, without reference to a higher morality, warriors would never have achieved the ideal of chivalry! In Europe, Christianity was able to make some concessions to chivalry, which did not prevent it from infusing it with its spiritual values. "Religion, war and glory were the three souls of the perfect Christian knights", according to Lamartine. In Japan, the sources of Bushidô were multiple.

bushido samurai

Author Notes: Who is Inazo Nitobe?

Born in 1862, Inazo Nitobe started learning English at the age of nine. He was a student at the agricultural school in Sapporo, then entered the Imperial University of Tokyo in 1883, where he studied astronomy and English literature. He then traveled to the United States, where he studied politics and international relations at John hopkins University, between 1884 and 1887. He resided in Germany from 1887, where he studied at several universities and obtained a doctorate in agricultural economics. When he returned to Japan in 1891, he had already published books in English and German. Nitobe taught at the Sapporo Agricultural School from 1891 to 1897, before taking a sabbatical. During this period, he spent time in California and Pennsylvania, where he wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which was published in 1900.

Between 190 and 1919, he held a professorship at Kyoto Imperial University and became a teacher at Tokyo's first high school. He also worked in diplomacy, working as an administrator of a colony in Taiwan between 1901 and 1903. After the end of the First World War, he participated in the international peace conference of Versailles in 1918, then became Deputy Secretary General of the newly created League of Nations. He was also appointed President of the Council for the Pacific Ocean from 1929 to 1933. In 1933, while leading a Japanese delegation to an international conference in Canada, he fell victim to pneumonia, and died in Victoria Hospital, British Columbia.

Nitobe was a prolific writer. He has published numerous academic texts, as well as books intended for a wider audience. In the West, Bushido: The Soul of Japan has been a bestseller since the start of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and has been translated into dozens of languages.

Inazo Nitobe portrait
Inazo Nitobe

Continue reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *


Translate »