Book review: Bushido, the Soul of Japan


Bushido: The Soul of Japan

Author: Inazo Nitobe

First edition: 1908

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

ISBN: 978-1482381979

Pages: 130


Japan, in the last 100 years, and since the Meiji Restoration, has experienced an incredible revolution. With its exposure to the world, the country has acquired a position of being one of the most powerful countries from our era.

Even having a peculiar geographical situation, so it is, being an island of reduced dimensions and presenting a certain scarcity in raw materials, the country has experienced a success not seen in the evolution of other similar countries. Which are the conditions that encouraged this spectacular progress? Probably, one of the most relevant characteristics is the socio-cultural influence in economy. The Asian societies, and specially the Japanese, present some special features that differ from western countries. In order to improve our economies, increase productivities and with this, our competitiveness, maybe we should pay appropriate attention to the Japanese success and how they did this evolution.

The characteristics of its business culture are one of the central axis that have influenced the economic prosperity. Due to the situation of the country, the Japanese are taught since they are kids that they have to work tenaciously to survive. The society works in collectivism, taking strongly in consideration the opinion of the group, leaving away individualism (in contrast with the western behavior). Their social system is based in loyalty, harmony, sacrifice and obedience, and is hardly influenced by the past, specially imbued with some philosophical and religious tendencies. Furthermore, the country remained isolated from the world during 300 years; this means, that the society was evolving in a particular way without the influence of other countries. It has to be mentioned the exceptional case of Chinese culture, from where Buddhism and Confucianism thoughts were taken and assimilated, sometimes even confronting in a certain way with the original religion of Japan. During that time (feudal period), the country was ruled by the knight class, the samurais. They were admired but at the same time, dreaded. Their behavior was strictly guided by a non-written code called Bushido. This was accompanying the knighthood for almost 600 years.

It is possible that these antique codes of conduct are still present in the current Japan? Are they somehow influencing Japanese society, and into a certain extent, their concept of Business? Without having much information about the country, we could answer affirmatively. But in order to understand more the concept and its influences in the Japanese society, Inazo Nitobe has written a detailed book called Bushido: The soul of Japan. The author did an exhaustive and difficult job in trying to dismantle all what is behind the idea, which represents a big effort from one side, to put into words something that is not taught or written, is not physical, and is subconsciously in the mind of a native, and that has been somehow transmitted during generations. From another point of view, it has been also a hazardous task to translate from sources in the original language to a western one, in this case English. For the ones that like me, whom we began with the study of their language, means a substantial attempt, because usually there are no perfect translations from specific words and also because of the ancient vocabularies. Nevertheless and even being somehow explained in a romantic or idyllic way, the author did an extraordinary job also trying to let us understand some concepts with the help of similarities in our history or literature.

The book of the “Percepts of Knighthood” is divided into three parts, which will be extended in the next sections.

Which are the influences of Bushido?

As said before, it was a bit difficult to the author to describe which are the origins and influences of Bushido, mainly because there was no specific book or code from those times. In the book, Mr. Nitobe explains the main sources from which Bushido was originated.

  • Shintoism

From Shintoism, Bushido took mainly some aspects that in other schools of thought are not specifically determined: patriotism and loyalty. The country was considered more than a land that provided resources, it was the land of the ancestors, so there had to be respected with honors and loyalty; and also the respect for the ancient and the filial piety were big pillars for the Bushido base.

  • Buddhism

As mentioned in the introduction, Japan had no connection with other countries till the Meiji Restoration, with an exception of some aspects introduced by the influences of China. One of this was from Buddhism. Bushido nourished from this religion, assimilating the Zen teachings (or Dhyâna: Indian practice of meditation to reach a state of self-control) and through this, the idea of being in harmony with the world. It is important as well, the concept of believing in destiny or fate, and accepting things that are put in someone´s path.

  • Confucius and Mencius

But Bushido is mostly influenced by these two Chinese philosophers, especially Confucius. From them the importance for the social harmony and family was incorporated. Also the ideas of self-cultivation and some ethical concepts that I will describe in the next section were taken from their philosophy.

Which are the main important concepts in Bushido?

The samurais, or the Japanese knights, were required to have some specific virtues. These characteristics were not written in any code, but they were taught through generations from mouth to mouth. This privileged class, which was ruling the society, had privileges but also responsibilities with the community, and they had to behave accordingly to certain standards that were expected from them.

  • Justice or rectitude

In the author´s words “is the power of deciding upon a certain conduct in accordance with the reason, without wavering”. It was considered the base from where samurais built other abilities.

  • Courage

This virtue was considered when was followed by righteousness, so it is, doing the correct things when needed. Other qualities connected with this were valor, fortitude, bravery or fearlessness. Since kids, samurais were taught in strictness, in order to build these values. But also it was required to act with temperance, with a calmed mind in front of situations that involved courage.

  • Benevolence

They had also to cultivate benevolence to others, to respect the enemy, to have affection, and to be merciful when applying justice. These qualities were extremely admired, especially for a good ruler of a society.

  • Politeness

Courtesy and modesty were also high attributes. Samurais had to learn about the correct behaviors in society. This could include how to bow, walk, sit, table manners or tea serving and drinking. The correct use of bodies was seen as a way “to express the mastery of spirit over the flesh”.

  • Sincerity

The last quality would have no meaning without sincerity. Lying was seen as an act of cowardice. There was no need for a samurai to write their promises or obligations; their simple word was enough, and not acting according to this was a dishonor.

  • Honor

The samurais had to learn to “value the duties and the privileges of their profession”. Connected with the last characteristic, they had to be loyal to their words and acts, and any deviation from these would be considered a shame, for the individual but also in front of society. This is one of the most valued traits that defines the Japanese society, according to the author.

  • Loyalty

The duty of loyalty, to the family or the superiors, and even to die for, was also of sum importance in the Bushido philosophy.

Which was the education and training of a samurai?

Apart from the characteristics explained above, there were certain concepts that one samurai had to be aware of.

  • Self-control

It was really important to find a balance between acting with courage in front of extreme situations, but also to perform in a polite way. That is why self-control and discipline played a strong role. For this purpose, it was necessary to avoid the influence of personal feelings that could disturb rationality.

  • Institution of suicide and redress

This institution could be the most surprising aspect for westerns to be understood. Dying for honor was a common practice in the samurai’s world. Seppuku or kappuku (hara-kiri popularly) it was conceived as committing suicide after a traditional ceremony, and by disembowelment. This body area was known as being the carrier of the soul, and after that the soul could be “seen” and noticed if it was pure or not. They believed that this was a way to return their reputation after a dishonorable act.

  • The sword

It was the symbol of samurais. Since the age of five, they were required to bring it always, even sometimes substituted by a wooden representation. At home, also there was a special place for it. The meaning of this appreciated instrument was the reflection of the samurai’s character; a mixture of responsibility and self-respect, loyalty and honor.

  • Women role

It is not a big surprise to notice that the role of women was basically a domestic one. They had to take care of the family and kids, especially when men were in battle. They were responsible of their education and that is why they were also taught the arts of the sword. This was a useful ability also in order to protect themselves and the family in case of difficult moments.

Influence of Bushido in the society and its future

Bushido is considered as the root and motor of Japan. As the author noticed, after the restoration and the modernization of the country “the country evolved as a phoenix, rising from its ashes”, and the ashes (or base) are the Bushido precepts. So this code surrounds the society with its moral standards, in a subtle and unconscious way. Some words to describe Japanese people could be, politeness, honor, loyalty, hard-workers, bravery; and these were forged by the Knighthood Percepts.

Some authors point that how Japan changed was caused by the influence of Western countries and Christianism. Even for others, Bushido somehow died. On the other side, for Mr. Nitobe, this is far from being the truth. In his opinion, how the country evolved was decided by the society in a conscious exercise to adapt themselves to the world, incorporating when needed certain things like technologies or methods of organization from Europe, but with this, they did not forget who they were and their roots. For him, the soul of Japan is still alive; and with it, their qualities and defects. But he agrees that such philosophy of life will face difficulties in our times and in the future.

One of the first obstacles for the author is the confrontation of the concept in our times with democracies. Bushido was originated in the feudal times, which means, being based on the power of some exclusive hands that were organizing the society. So in the modern times, seems difficult to see the society being ruled by structures similar to the ones in feudal times. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the problem is not the antagonism of the concepts, I strongly believe that the percepts of Bushido could still be alive, but maybe the concept has to adapt to the society of our times in a certain way, without losing its original meaning.

But the author and also me, we are still positive with the survival of the concept. Something that is that rooted through generations cannot die that fast. Even also having some conflicts with the changes in society, for example, the individualism or the vulgarization of life, which can be contradictory with the ideals in Bushido, its power is still strong, and is reflected in the character of Japanese and the business culture.



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