Lesson 5 Fundamental thoughts in the Japanese mindBushido: The Soul of Japan


Excerpted from Nitobe Inazo[新渡戸稲造]Bushido: The Soul of Japan(1899)



Chivalry[武士道] is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom; nor is it a dried-up specimen of an antique virtue preserved in the herbarium of our history. It is still a living object of power and beauty among us; and if it assumes no tangible shape or form, it not the less scents the moral atmosphere, and makes us aware that we are still under its potent spell. The conditions of society which brought it forth and nourished it have long disappeared; but as those far-off stars which once were and are not, still continue to shed their rays upon us, so the light of chivalry which was a child of feudalism, still illuminates our moral path, surviving its mother institution.


The Japanese word which I have roughly rendered Chivalry is, in the original, more expressive than Horsemanship. Bu-shi-do means literally Military-Knight-Waysthe ways which fighting nobles should observe in their daily life as well as in their vocation; in a word, the “Precepts of Knighthood,” the noblesse oblige of the warrior class[武士階級].



Here we discern the most cogent precept in the code of the samurai. Nothing is more loathsome to him than underhand dealings and crooked undertakings. The conception of Rectitude[] may be erroneous it may be narrow. A well-known bushi[林子平:江戸時代の経世家] defines it as a power of resolution;―“Rectitude is the power of deciding upon a certain course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering;to die when it is right to die, to strike when to strike is right.



Courage[] was scarcely deemed worthy to be counted among virtues, unless it was exercised in the cause of Righteousness. In his Analects Confucius defines Courage by explaining, as is often his wont, what its negative is. “Perceiving what is right,” he says, and doing it not, argues lack of courage.” Put this epigram into a positive statement, and it runs “Courage is doing what is right.”


We knew benevolence[] was a tender virtue and mother-like. If upright Rectitude and stern Justice were peculiarly masculine, Mercy[仁愛] had the gentleness and the persuasiveness of a feminine nature. We were warned against indulging in indiscriminate charity, without seasoning it with justice and rectitude. Masamune[伊達政宗:戦国大名、初代仙台藩主] expressed it well in his oft-quoted aphorism―“Rectitude carried to excess hardens into stiffness; benevolence indulged beyond measure sinks into weakness.”

Fortunately mercy was not so rare as it was beautiful, for it is universally true that “The bravest are the tenderest, the loving are the daring”. “Bushi no nasake”the tenderness of a warriorhad a sound which appealed at once to whatever was noble in us; not that the mercy of a samurai was generically different from the mercy of any other being, but because it implied mercy where mercy was not a blind impulse, but where it recognized due regard to justice, and where mercy did not remain merely a certain state of mind, but where it was backed with power to save or kill.



Feudal morality shares other virtues in common with other systems of ethics, with other classes of people, but this virtuehomage and fealty to a superioris its distinctive feature. I am aware that personal fidelity is a moral adhesion existing among all sorts and conditions of men,a gang of pickpockets owe allegiance to a Fagin; but it is only in the code of chivalrous honour that loyalty[] assumes paramount importance.


Loyalty as we conceive it may find few admirers elsewhere, not because our conception is wrong, but because it is, I am afraid, forgotten, and also because we carry it to a degree not reached in any other country. Griffis[グリフィス:アメリカの牧師でReligions of Japanを著した] was quite right in stating that whereas in China Confucian ethics made obedience to parents the primary human duty, in Japan precedence was given to loyalty.



In our minds this mode of death is associated with instances of noblest deeds and of most touching pathos, so that nothing repugnant, much less ludicrous, mars our conception of it.


Now my readers will understand that seppuku was not a mere suicidal process. It was an institution, legal and ceremonial. An invention of the middle ages, it was a process by which warriors could expiate their crimes, apologies for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity. When enforced as a legal punishment, it was practiced with due ceremony. It was a refinement of self-destruction, and none could perform it without the utmost coolness of temper and composure of demeanour, and for these reasons it was particularly befitting the profession of bushi.



He beareth not the sword in vain”. What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind and heart, loyalty and honour. The two swords, the longer and the shorter,called respectively daito and shoto or katana and wakizashi,never leave his side. When at home, they grace the most conspicuous place in the study or parlour; by night they guard his pillow within easy reach of his hand. Constant companions, they are beloved, and proper names of endearment given them. Being venerated, they are well-nigh worshipped.


The swordsmith was not a mere artisan but an inspired artist and his workshop a sanctuary. Daily he commenced his craft with prayer and purification, or, as, phrase was, “he committed his soul and spirit into the forging and tempering of the steel.” Every swing of the sledge, every plunge into water, every friction on the grindstone, was a religious act of no slight import. Was it the spirit of the master or of his tutelary god that cast a formidable spell over our sword? Perfect as a work of art, setting at defiance its Toledo and Damascus rivals, there was more than art could impart. Its cold blade, collecting on its surface the moment it is drawn the vapour of the atmosphere; its immaculate texture, flashing light of bluish hue; its matchless edge, upon which histories and possibilities hang; the curve of its back, uniting exquisite grace with utmost strength;all these thrill us with mixed feeling of power and beauty, of awe and terror.


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