The Modern Re-invention of Bushido
In one of the many
changes that followed the Meiji Restoration, the leaders of the newly established
Meiji government formally abolished the samurai class and eliminated their
privileges. Despite this fact many former samurai continued to play
an active role in Japanese society. Many of the government leaders were
themselves former members of the samurai class.
Bushido, too, survived the transition
to modern Japan, but not without significant innovation or indeed invention.
For instance, the loyalty to one’s lord that had been a keystone in previous
articulations of bushido was transformed into loyalty to the nation, to
the emperor, or (in the case of several influential Christians) to Jesus
Nitobe Inazô’s English language
book explaining bushido to the West represents perhaps the most well known
Meiji reinvention of bushido. His book, widely read after the Japanese
victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), played a significant role in
shaping Western and Japanese notions of bushido. It also helped spark
an interest in bushido among Western writers and scholars, which resulted
in the production of a number of bushido-related materials available in
English. Nitobe’s work and several other English texts are explored
Modern Bushido for the English Language Reader
The Soul of Japan by Inazô Nitobe (10th rev. ed, New York, London:
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905)
a scholar and educator, spent several years living, studying, lecturing, and
working in the United States. During his time as a graduate student
at Johns Hopkins University he became a Quaker and met his wife Mary Passmore
Elkinton, who was also a Quaker. Nitobe also studied in Germany and
held several teaching positions in Japanese Universities. He wrote Bushido:
The Soul of Japan while recuperating from exhaustion in Monterey.
Nitobe later came to the United States as an exchange professor, and in 1920
he also served as Under-Secretary of the League of Nations. Nitobe wrote
extensively in both Japanese and English and published several books about
Japan for Western audiences.
Nitobe completed Bushido:
The Soul of Japan in 1899. Written in English and first published
in the United States, the book was clearly addressed to a Western audience.
Bushido, as presented in Nitobe’s work, was stripped of its most militaristic
aspects and redefined along lines similar to Western notions of chivalry.
Nitobe highlighted all of Japanese society’s most positive attributes as the
core of bushido: loyalty, politeness, generosity, honor, self-control, endurance,
and bravery. He argued that bushido, a code once limited to the samurai,
had spread and permeated all of Japanese society after the Meiji Restoration.
Nitobe’s re-articulation of bushido received increased attention among foreigners
after the Japanese defeated Russia in 1905. Many felt that bushido,
as Nitobe described it, was one of the keys to Japan’s success in the war
and its success in modernizing more generally. By the time the 10th
edition was printed in1905, Bushido: The Soul of Japan was available
or in the process of being translated in a total of seven languages.
The first full Japanese translation of the work, however, did not appear until
1908, though partial translations became available as early as 1900.
Bushido: In The Past and in The Present
Rev. John Toshimichi Imai (Tokyo: Kanada, 1906)
John Imai was a member
of the Japanese clergy associated with the South Tokyo diocese of the Anglican
Church. While his work, like Nitobe’s, was aimed at painting bushido
in a way that was understandable to the Christian West, it is important to
note that it was also meant to downplay the significance of bushido, which
some British Anglicans were beginning to see as an acceptable alternative
to Christianity in Japan.
This short book was
originally written to be an article for the English quarterly journal The
East and The West. In many ways it is similar to Nitobe’s book,
though Imai’s writing style is more direct and concise than Nitobe’s lengthy
prose and grandiose rhetoric. It is clear that Imai built and improved
upon many of Nitobe’s themes and concepts. Imai’s work is superior to
Nitobe’s in that it refers to various historical texts on bushido. However,
Imai never achieved the popularity of Nitobe.
The book consists of
four sections. The first section of the book, titled “Bushido—What It
Is and What It Is Not,” asserts that bushido, being difficult to define, is
best defined by what it is not. Imai convincingly argues that although
bushido is often viewed as philosophy, this in fact is what it is not.
The second section of
the book, “Bushido as Represented by a Typical Master” provides an analysis
of Yamaga Sokô’s life and writings. The third section explores
bushido as it was represented in historical dramas. Imai cites several
dramas of the Jôruri genre in his analysis and gives special
attention to the Chûshingura play when discussing the role of
In his fourth and final
section Imai deals with the topic of “Bushido in the Present,” which seems
to have become a topic of interest for Japanese as well as Westerners in the
years following the Russo-Japanese War. In this section Imai gives an
interesting explanation of how bushido fits—and does not fit—into the social
and governmental structures of Meiji Japan. In his conclusion, Imai
states that the ethics of bushido and the greater concept of Yamatodamashii
(the spirit of Japan), “cannot suffice but must be purified, renewed and
perfected in its union with Christ” (72). Though clearly reflecting
his larger goal of ensuring continued support for Christian mission work in
Japan, this conclusion seems a bit awkward since Christianity was rarely mentioned
in previous sections of the text.
What Is Japanese Morality? by James Scherer (Philadelphia: The Sunday
School Times, 1906)
was an American Lutheran Missionary who lived in Japan from 1892 to 1897.
He also founded the Japan Mission of the Lutheran Church in America.
Scherer’s essay provides a glimpse into Western perceptions of Japanese culture
at the turn of the century and represents an interesting response to Nitobe’s
ideas about bushido.
saw bushido as the key to Japan’s rapid development during the nineteenth
century. He believed that the samurai ethic was behind the Japanese
fondness for Western weapons. He also thought that bushido’s emphasis
on an almost maniacal loyalty made the Japanese great soldiers. However,
Scherer overlooked the fact that the emperor-centered sense of devotion was
a new invention in the history of bushido. In addition, his anecdotes
on the subject of bushido lack credibility. His account of the Akô
Incident, in particular, is rather inaccurate and differs dramatically from
other variations on the story of the 47 rônin.
Christian background and larger goals were clearly reflected in the text.
He devoted an entire chapter to discussing the compatibility of Christianity
with Japanese society and values. Scherer argued that even though the
notion of the Emperor as a divine being ran contrary to Christianity, the
Japanese impassioned sense of loyalty could be transferred to religious devotion.
This argument was clearly related to his desire to encourage the continuation
of missionary activities in Japan.
Proposals for a Voluntary Nobility by Maurice Browne (Cranleigh, Surrey:
Samurai Press, 1908)
Browne was a British
poet and schoolteacher who played an active role in theatre and poetry circles
in Chicago during the 1910s. In 1906, after having read H.G. Wells’
A Modern Utopia while traveling in India, he and Harold Monro, Browne’s
fellow poet and brother-in-law, founded an organization called the Samurai
Order and the avante-garde Samurai Press. The purpose of both the Order,
which soon dissolved, and the Press was to promote the development of what
Wells’ had termed a “Voluntary Nobility,” which was itself exemplified by
a group of men he called the “Samurai.”
Browne’s short essay
outlines the criteria necessary for the establishment of a voluntary nobility
of Samurai, along the lines presented in Wells’ work. What is most interesting
here in terms of bushido is Browne’s numerous references to Nitobe’s notion
of bushido as a kind of exemplary model for the would be Voluntary Nobility.
While this work tells us little about bushido in Japan, it sheds some light
on how it was being thought of and even applied in the West.
The Invention of a New Religion by Basil Hall Chamberlain (London:
Watts & Co., 1912)
Chamberlain first came
to Japan in 1873 and remained for many years serving as a translator, researcher,
and teacher. He was one of several British diplomats, officials, and
missionaries living and working in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He wrote several works related to Japan, most notably the book Things Japanese,
first published in 1890.
This short essay offers
a scathing, though insightful, critique of what Chamberlain called “the twentieth-century
Japanese religion of loyalty and patriotism” (6). Chamberlain points
out that this “religion” was not only “new” but was also “still in the process
of being consciously and semi-consciously put together by the official class”
(6). By referring to historical evidence he highlights the newness of
several aspects of this religion, including general patriotism, Shinto, the
notion of loyalty to the Emperor, and bushido, which he notes does not appear
in any dictionary before 1900. In critiquing bushido Chamberlain declared,
“Chivalrous individuals of course existed in Japan, as in all countries at
every period; but Bushido, as an institution or a code of rules, has never
existed. The accounts given of it have been fabricated out of whole
cloth, chiefly for foreign consumption” (13-4). It is clear that Chamberlain
was taking aim at Nitobe and others, who he saw as having quite literally
invented the idea of bushido as a way of gaining support for Japan’s new religion.
Chamberlain’s clear language and well-crafted argument make this piece a refreshing
and significant read.
An Inquiry into the Japanese Mind as Mirrored in Literature: The Flowering
Period of Common People Literature translated by Fukumatsu Matsuda (Tokyo:
Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, 1970)
As a historian specializing
in ancient Japanese and Chinese history and thought, Tsuda Sôkichi is
perhaps best known for his critical studies of the Kojiki and Nihon
Shoki, the ancient chronicles of Japan which date from the 8th century.
His analysis revealed that the chronicles did not represent historical facts
but rather that early court officials had fabricated them in an attempt to
justify imperial rule. His scholarly work on these texts brought him
into conflict with rightists who felt he was desecrating the imperial family.
Later, several of his publications were banned, and Tsuda and his publisher
ended up serving three months in prison.
An Inquiry into the
Japanese Mind as Mirrored in Literature: The Flowering Period of Common People
Literature was first published in Japanese from 1916 through 1921.
The sections in this work related to bushido, like Chamberlain’s essay, represent
more of a critique of bushido than they do a reinvention. Tsuda later
revised and republished the book between 1951 and 1954. It was this
later edition that was used for the English translation published in 1970.
The later edition softens his earlier criticisms of bushido to some extent.
This change reflected Tsuda’s own political and ideological shift. Viewed
as a progressive in the pre-WWII period, he began producing works during the
early postwar years that advocated anti-communism and respect for the emperor.
The English translation
of Tsuda’s work proves a bit dense. The sentences and paragraphs are
extremely long, and the wording is sometimes a bit awkward. Nevertheless,
there are a number of ideas in the text that make it well worth reading.
Two chapters in the translation are devoted to bushido.
The first focuses on
the prominent role of samurai in the literature of the common people.
Tsuda makes several key points about bushido in this chapter. First,
he explains that bushido was a product of a period of perpetual civil wars
and that this fact resulted in conflicts with the goals of preserving peace
and order which defined the Tokugawa period. Focusing his attention
on the contradiction inherent in being a warrior during a time of peace, he
explored the significance of quarrels, vendettas, notions of loyalty, honor,
and duty, and the warriors’ preoccupation with death particularly as they
appear in literature. Among his more interesting observations, Tsuda
suggests that samurai concerns about shame, honor, and duty were all rooted
in fear of “town talk,” or in other words, the samurai were constantly worried
about “keeping up appearances before the public” (119). The last
few paragraphs in the chapter list the “merits” of samurai morals and may
have been added in the later revised addition in an attempt to soften his
critique of bushido.
In the second chapter
Tsuda focused on the Tokugawa intellectuals' attempts to rework bushido.
The bulk of the chapter consists of a critique of Confucian interpretations
of bushido or attempts to reconcile Confucian ideas with the anachronistic
ideas of a bushido that originated during a period of civil war. The
chapter concludes with a brief critique of the connection between Zen Buddhism
and bushido, with Tsuda claiming, “Bushido and the teachings of Zen decidedly
contradict each other” (158).