Top positive review
2 people found this helpful
An Enlightening Read
on 27 August 2016
Bushido: The Soul of Japan was written at the turn of the century (1900) by Inazo Nitobe, to give Westerners a greater understanding of the unique values and influences that lie at the heart of Japanese culture. It was originally published in English and later translated into Japanese. It is clearly a book of its time, both in terms of the language used and attitude towards Japanese society and gender roles, but many of its core moral values and traditions are still relevant today.
According to Nitobe, the phrase Bushido literally means Military-Knights-Way, or as it’s more commonly known, The Way of the Warrior. The concept originated from a set of moral values that were upheld by the Samurai (Bushi), a privileged class of knights, who believed that the path of the warrior was one of honour, duty and loyalty until death. The phrase Bushido was first coined in the 18th century and is often compared to the chivalric code of European Knights, though its roots can be traced as far back as feudal Japan. Although the guiding principles of Bushido stemmed from military custom and tradition, they were gradually tempered by the religious influences of Zen Buddhism, Shintoism and, in later centuries, western culture and ideology. Over time, the practice of Bushido became not just a discipline of combat, but a spiritual way of life.
Throughout the book, Nitobe draws many parallels between Eastern and Western philosophies, religion and literature, thus providing a deeper insight into the conduct and teaching of the samurai, as well as the distinct attributes that define his character, such as: respect, wisdom, politeness, benevolence and self-control. From the author’s explanation of each of these moral values, we’re given a greater appreciation of the life of a samurai and the essential role that education and culture played in his intellectual training.
It was not enough for a samurai to learn skills of swordsmanship, martial art and military strategy. Mental discipline such as calmness of the mind and mastery of emotion through the teaching of Zen Buddhism was of equal importance in his training. Education also played a key role in shaping the samurai culture. Literacy, the art of calligraphy, etiquette of the tea ceremony, poetry and music were all considered essential skills of a samurai. Many of these practices eventually filtered into the general population, and grew to become an innate part of Japanese heritage.
From a modern perspective, some parts of the Bushido training may seem shockingly unacceptable, in particular, the value that was placed on self-sacrifice (Seppuka), where a disgraced warrior could regain his honour through ritual suicide. However, it could also be argued that western opinion on this subject has been partially clouded by the misinterpretation and corruption of its use e.g. by the Japanese military in WW2. To live and die by the sword was ingrained into a samurai’s sense of honour and duty from an early age, but it was also counterbalanced by the equally prized Bushido virtues of fortitude, endurance and patience. In certain circumstances, it was considered more courageous to endure personal suffering than to hasten one’s own death, as highlighted by Nitobe, ‘’Bear and face all calamities and adversities with patience and a pure conscience.’
Similarly, Nitobe could be criticised for his anti-feminist attitude towards women, but it’s important to remember that this book was written at a time before women’s rights hadn’t yet come to the fore. Whilst its true that the wife or daughter of a samurai were seen as subservient to men, they did wield some control over the household affairs, finances and upbringing of their children. Samurai women were also well educated, accomplished in several art forms and trained in knife skills, (tantojutso) in order to protect their family, home, and even their chastity if the need arose. In samurai culture, the devotion a wife placed on her family was considered as honourable a duty as her husband’s loyalty to his lord and country. ‘She was no more the slave of man than was her husband of his liege-lord, and the part she played was recognised as Naijo, ‘the inner help’.
At just over 100 pages, this book is a short read, though not a quick one. Some readers might find the academic style of writing overly dry and dense, however there are many poetic descriptions woven into the narrative to balance this out. If you’re keen to gain a greater understanding of the founding principles of bushido, and discover the true spirit behind this fascinating country, you should find this book an enlightening read.