Bushido: the Soul of Japan, which US President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), bought copies of for his friends, is still probably the most famous book about samurai ethics and the so-called way of the Japanese warrior gentleman.
It was published initially in English in 1900, and subsequently, after its international success in Japanese in 1908, helped encourage a Bushido publishing boom in Japan that flourished between 1905 and 1914.
Bushido: the Soul of Japan was penned by Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933) a prominent figure from an elite samurai background who later became an international diplomat.
The books published during this period helped define and brand Japan’s unique samurai-spirit within Japan and throughout the world.
They were published in a period when there was growing international interest in Japan following the nation’s victory over Russia in the Russo-Japan War (1904-1905) and the nation’s long period of self-imposed international hibernation during its Edo period (1603-1868).
The actual provenance of the term Bushido, The Way of Warrior, is, however, much less clear. Some, including apparently Nitobe himself, thought that the term was coined in Japan’s Meiji period (1868-192) by Nitobe.
However, the term is said to actually date back to the 17th century and was also used in Japan’s Meiji period before Nitobe’s book was published, for example, in 1898 when a martial arts group in Japan published a journal titled: Bushido Zasshi.
That said, despite thousands of books being written and published about Japanese swords and samurai over a very long period in Japan, the definition of the ideal samurai, and Japan’s so-called fighting spirit, has constantly evolved and there is probably actually no historical basis of a single defining and unifying code of samurai ethics.
The term and all it encompasses is probably nothing more than a romantic repositioning of the past that tries to connect the perceived chivalry of European knights with those of Japanese samurai. Thereby making a rising Japan and its civilization seem less threatening.
Importantly, the role of the samurai had actually changed significantly in Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), the period that preceded the Meiji period, when the roles of many samurai transitioned from that of warriors to bureaucrats, for example, and even into authors and poets.
During this Shogun-run unusually long peaceful period, the authorities encouraged publishing and many new pursuits flourished. All international activities were heavily restricted creating what some have called Japan’s Galapagos syndrome when the nation evolved independently in glorious hermit-like isolation from the rest of the world.
The most famous true warrior samurai author is probably Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645). He is primarily known in the West as the author of The Book of Five Rings. The book, which he wrote at the end of his life, is a guide to swordsmanship strategies.
The subsequent Bushido publishing boom took place in a period when Japan was changing, opening up to the West, as well as trying to figure out what it meant to be a modern industrialised international open nation-state.
This included reconsidering how as a nation it dressed, wore its hair, and ate – not to mention the right kind of sports Japan’s youth should play, in order to create the right type of menfolk a nation, which aspired to be compared with other leading nations, apparently required.
An example of this debate can be glimpsed in 1911 in the pages of the Tokyo edition of the Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper, which published a series of ‘anti-baseball articles’ and argued that Rugby was the better sport for Japan and its samurai spirit.
One article quotes comments from Nitobe saying: “Playing baseball could be likened to picking a pocket”. “To play baseball, you must be able to deceive the opposing team and lead them into a trap”, and “you must always sharpen your senses so that you will never miss the chance to steal a base”. Although Americans can play such a sport, he argued: “British and German people cannot play it. The British national sport is football, and to play football, you have to be strong and brave enough to keep the ball without fearing injury. You must keep the ball even if your nose is crooked, or your jawbone is fractured”. Americans, he believed, “cannot play such a tough sport”.
Not everyone embraced this Meiji period cultural branding, decoding and positioning of Japan and its warrior class. Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), after whom one of Japan’s most important literary prizes is named, poured scorn on the concept in his 1916, somewhat cynical short story, The Handkerchief, hankachi.
The story, which has the following opening line: “Hasegawa Kinzo, professor in the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial University, was sitting in a rattan chair on the veranda, reading Stringberg’s Dramturgy”, was published in Chuokoron, an influential monthly magazine that is now one of Japan’s oldest continuously published magazines.
The Handkerchief is a story replete with cynicism and scorn about a Japanese professor of colonial policy married to an American woman who adores Japanese culture.
The professor is said to be modeled on Nitobe, and the short story, which Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) loved, a criticism of Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which had been published 16 years earlier.
Nitobe was a prolific writer of papers, books and articles but his literary legacy is now tightly bound to his short book, Bushido. A book that has very successfully defined the lens through which many have and continue to view Japan. A lens that some thought even at its time of publication was inaccurate and inappropriate.
His Bushido book triggered literary responses from other Japan-based authors, not just Akutagawa. Another excellent example is Representative Men of Japan by the Christian author Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930) who wanted to make the world aware of other types of Japanese men and their values, views, philosophies and ways of living.
Uchimura’s collection of essays published in 1908, written in English introduced five wise men, some of whom have been called sages, to readers; Saigo Takamori (1828-1877), Uesugi Yozan (1751-1822), Ninomiya Sontoku (1787-1856), Nakae Toju (1608-1648) and Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282).
Interestingly, this thoughtful 231-page book was translated into German from the original English in 1908 by Johannes Hesse (1847-1916) the father of the Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), an author who was himself influenced by Japan, initially by the nation’s poetry. Extracts of his works have been included in Japanese translation in school textbooks and Hesse has an almost cult-like status within Japanese literary circles.
In the 1980s, before the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble and so-called lost decades, when the world’s gaze fell on Japan again as the nation experienced another expansive period (this time limited to the economic front), there was another mini-boom in Bushido related publishing.
And books on Bushido and all things samurai are still published today and used as promotional tools to brand Japan as an exciting tourist destination and many other things besides.
So even if the provenance of the word, bushido, and its original meaning are murky, the term has still managed to wrap itself around Japan and its perceived national identity encompassing values such as; self-control, honour, stoic-resolve, politeness and endurance.
An enduring legacy that perhaps brave and loyal sword-swinging samurai of the past might actually be proud of and aspire to even if they weren’t actually aware of the moral code of the Japanese warrior gentleman when they were alive.