Japanese Patterns of Design
Seven Samurai

Bushido: Origin and History of Samurai Code of Conduct

The detail of the cover and DVD of the collector's box of the film The Seven Samurai, by director Akira Kurosawa.
Rome, Italy – March 09, 2022, detail of the cover and DVD of the collector’s box of the film The Seven Samurai, by director Akira Kurosawa.

Bushido – What Bushido, “the way of Samurai”, meant when samurai class was born, was a simple enough ethic to survive and achieve military results. However, nowadays we can say it is the soul of Japan, which Japanese people have as a moral standard in a broader meaning. Bushido can mean different from a different mouth in different times. We will take a look at changes of meaning of Bushido and Bushido today.

Bushi and Samurai – Bushido

The word “Bushi” merely meant warriors and military officers in the Nara period (710-794). In the late period of the Heian era (794-1185), Bushi began to have more meaning. Tsuwamono, who were professional soldiers, Saburai (Samurai) who served as guard men to the nobles, Mononofu who served officially, we call all of them as Bushi.

However, in this era, there’s no ethical loyalty to the feudal lords in Bushi’s spirit. This is because they kept master-and-servant relationship with a contract. Bushi works for lords for reward and no other way around.

Bushido in the Tokugawa Shogunate

5 Samurai warriors
5 Samurai warriors (blogs.yahoo.co.jp)

In the Edo era (1603-1868), Bushi lost its battleground for reward and promotion. Under Ieyasu’s rule, varieties of culture developed in this era thanks to the state of no wars.

Their occupation became out of date. The Tokugawa shogunate divided people into four classes. Warriors, farmers, craftsmen, and tradesmen.

Instead of vanishing its class, the Tokugawa shogunate changed the spirit of Bushido from working for a reward to be royalty to the lord even without rewards.

Instead, they bestowed Bushi to have the privilege and honor, which comes with great responsibility just like noblesse oblige in the western world. So that this Bushido is called particularly called “Shido”, the way of a will.

Samurai warrior
Samurai warrior (blogs.yahoo.co.jp)

Bushido came to be a more moral standard with reasoning by Confucianism. Philosophers like Soko Yamaga worked on explaining its value, which is said to be the first time Bushi were required to act on the Confucious way of ethics.

Idealized Bushido as a moral standard, its spirit spread not just among Bushi and Samurai but also among general people by means of entertainment like plays, lectures, and books.

Both adults and kids were excited about hearing stories of Civil Wars and learned the honor risking one’s life for its lord, nobleness of courtesy and actually doing one’s duty and put importance on cultivated character.

The Book of Five Rings: Winning Strategy for Life by Musashi

Hagakure – Bushido

Hagakure, cover
Hagakure by Tsusnetomo Yamamoto (google.com)

“The Way of the Samurai is found in death.” You may have heard this line if you know Hagakure dictated by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, and written by Tsuramoto Tashiro in 1716. This line had a great impact on the perception of Bushido, hugely a negative impact.

Tsunetomo was born in 1659, the time there were no more wars, therefore the existence of Bushi came into doubt. Obviously, Tsunetomo had a sort of admiration for Bushi, the way they lived vividly on the battlefield.

The most part he explained kind of business manners today like how to decline the boss’s offering you to have a drink or how not to give a yawn where people are around. Tsunetomo himself said we all want to live, it is not the essence of Bushido to die in vain.

Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Author), Alexander Bennett (Author)
Get your copy on Amazon: Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo (Author), Alexander Bennett (Author)

Sunset over cherry trees forest in blossom at Yoshino, Nara province, Japan
Sunset over cherry trees forest in blossom at Yoshino, Nara province, Japan

There might be some DNA, which is attracted by noble death in Japanese people just like cherry petals fall off silently, yet strikingly beautiful. But dying for a stupid order or lord is not considered to be Bushido. Bushi/Samurai had to choose his lord carefully and sometimes speak against to his lord if his lord is not thinking right.

Incidentally, the title of the book Hagakure (behind the leaf) comes from love poem of Saigyo Hoshi (Buddhist monk) (1118-1190) who is well-known for poems about his love of the moon and cherry blossoms. He wrote a poem about forbidden love saying he was glad when he found a flower behind the leaf as if he met his loved one.

Samurai Code of Conduct: Bushido by Inazo Nitobe

bushido by Inazo Nitobe, cover
bushido by Inazo Nitobe (google.com)

After Meiji Restoration (1868-), Japanese people were in chaos by a rapid inflow of westernization in every aspect. It was hard to keep one’s identity as Japanese.

In 1900, Inazo Nitobe, an educator, and philosopher, published Bushido: The Soul of Japan in the United States. Inazo felt an urge to query about the ethos of Japanese people and compose the Japanese spirit in the time of transformation of the country.

Samurai warriors
Samurai warriors (admin.xpatnation.com)

He found in Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, the sources of the eight virtues most admired by his people: rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, loyalty and self-control.

Inazo explained how the Japanese people have been living and Bushi’s attitude and moral have formed by the influence of the four seasons on an island. Although there was a heavy critique of his writing about Bushido questioning his qualification

A best-seller in its day, it was read by many influential foreigners, among them President Theodore Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy and Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts.

However, even before Bushido was published, the unwritten Samurai code of conduct, the spirit of Bushido, held that the true samurai must hold that loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honor as important, above all else.

An appreciation and respect for life were also imperative, samurai could be deadly in combat and yet so gentle and compassionate with children and the weak.

Bushido: The Soul of Japan (The Way of the Warrior Series) by Inazo Nitobe (Author)
Get your copy on Amazon: Bushido: The Soul of Japan (The Way of the Warrior Series) by Inazo Nitobe (Author)

Genuine Bushido Spirit

Portrait of Nogi Maresuke (乃木希典, 1849 – 1912)
Portrait of Nogi Maresuke (乃木希典, 1849 – 1912) (Wikipedia)

When we talk about the Bushido, we have to mention Count Nogi Maresuke, who was a general in the Imperial Japanese Army and a governor of Taiwan.

“Meeting of Stoessel and General Nogi upon the Surrender of Port Arthur”
“Meeting of Stoessel and General Nogi upon the Surrender of Port Arthur” (https://ocw.mit.edu)

There is a picture which shows General Nogi seated in the center next to Russian general Anatoly Stessel after Russian forces surrendered at Port Arthur on 2 January 1905. Notice Russian general Stessel wore a sword.

General Nogi ordered his men not to treat Stessel as the defeated. Also, he prohibited journalists to take photos at first.

General Nogi allowed Stessel to wear the sword, which is a life of the soldier. This honorable action was praised by numerous countries as “Bushido at its best”.

Bushido Today

Bushido has been influenced by the social conditions and other culture’s thoughts and religions. One thing we can be assured is Bushido is the way to control oneself. We can see the Bushido spirit in daily life as Japanese people keep their calm and not to be too emotional under any circumstances since they put importance on being calmer rather than expressing one’s emotion, good or bad to others and making others feel unpleasant.

Why we live and what we can die for? While having a conflict inside, those who have found something they can die for, something they can risk their own lives, that’s the way to go in Bushido. You don’t have to be Samurai to live Bushido.

Bushido spirit, which reminds us of memento mori, is inherited in Japanese people from generation to generation.


武士道とは何か (思想の哲学)
世界が尊敬するサムライ「武士道」とはなんなのか?サムライスピリットとは? (fs-astrology.com)
「葉隠」の説く武士道を考える (www.st.rim.or.jp)

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Hiroko Matsuyama

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