I’ve been fascinated with Japanese history for a while now, particularly with the samurai and their code of Bushido. They dedicated themselves to ‘the way of the warrior’ and lived by its principles in the pursuit of a perfect death. After reading Bushido: The Way Of The Samurai I feel like I’ve got a broader view of what Bushido stands for. Here are my review of a book that charts the history of one of Japan’s most enduring belief systems.
Introducing the principles of Bushido
The book, based on Tsunetomo Yamamoto’s Hagakure, was edited by Justin F Stone. Yamamoto was a member of the Nabeshima clan and lived during the Shogunate Rule, which was a time of peace in Japan. After serving Lord Mitushige Nabeshima for many years, he retired to the mountains and had his close friend Tsuramoto Tashiro write down his teachings. This became Hagakure, which translates as ‘Hidden Behind The Leaves’ and Yamamoto refused to have his work published. Hagakure eventually became the foundation for Bushido and during the time it was written, Yamamoto felt samurai were neglecting their military practices.
Stone’s forward of the book goes into detail about how he worked with a Japanese translator called Minoru Tanaka. Stone states that “it is necessary for the reader to abstain from judging while reading this sometimes strange book. I suggest it be read as the important document it is, without praise or condemnation.”
The book begins by explaining the essence of Bushido, a choice between life and death that promotes the latter as a courageous act of a warrior.
“In order to master this essence, you must die anew, every morning and every night. If you continually preserve the state of death in every day life, you will understand the essence of Bushido, and you will gain freedom in Bushido.”
This perspective ties into the samurai belief of owing fealty to a lord and can be applied to the modern day as well. For example, a Japanese employee will feel they have a duty to their manager.
The “marrow of service” is also explained.
“In order to preserve the name of samurai, you must offer your life to the service of your Lord. You must become a ghost after the completion of a frenzied death. You must always keep the Lord’s affairs in mind. You also must report to the Lord about affairs that you have arranged. Then you can help to lay a firm foundation for the state.”
The book chronicles the different castes of Japan and how the samurai were one of the top tier groups. The relationship between a samurai and his master was complex, echoed by the Japanese proverb of “my master is human, and so am I.”
I was under the impression that a student needed to treat his master with absolute respect, but Bushido taught that the master could be just as fallible as the student. Yamamoto covered the idea of being a ‘ronin,’ which was to serve as a masterless samurai. Yamamoto contradicts himself several times by praising and condemning a ronin.
Selective lifestyle advice
The idea of harakiri, ritual suicide, is explored as well. Bushido makes it seem like an honourable approach to death, while the modern world struggles to understand such a concept. The book also mentions some useful advice that can be applied to daily life.
“Virtuous people are relaxed in their minds. They do no seem to be busy about anything. The little men are very noisy; they make a fuss, argue and rattle around.”
Another passage that stuck out to me was:
“A samurai once said, ‘there are only two kinds of will-power: one is within and the other is without. If you don’t show it at the right moment, then it is useless.’ Let me draw an analogy, that of the sword blade: when you occasionally draw the sword to wipe it, you had better whet the blade, hold it at eyebrow height, and then put it back again in its sheath. On the other hand, if you always keep your sword out of its sheath and swing it about, then no one will come near you and you will have no friends. But if you keep it always in its sheath, then your sword will become dull with rust; then people will underestimate you.”
The book brings up a lot of interesting points and you can pick and choose the kind of lessons you want to take away. I’ll admit to having a romanticised view of Bushido. Reading the book gave me a better understanding of it. Now I see ‘the way of the warrior’ as being a complicated system that has many different sides.
If you’re interested in learning more about the samurai and a critical period in Japanese history, then I’d recommend reading Bushido: The Way Of The Samurai. You can buy it on Amazon now.