THE INVENTION OF BUSHIDŌ
One of the very first pieces of information you are told about the historical samurai in many websites, illustrated books, etc. is about Bushidō, defined as the traditional “way of the samurai” or the “ancient code of the warriors or bushi”. One of the largest and most comprehensive learning, information, and educational websites, owned by a famous American digital media company, writes: «Bushido was the code of conduct for Japan’s warrior classes from perhaps as early as the 8th century through modern times». This is also what you are told about samurai in many art martial schools all over the world.
Well, I’ll tell it loud and clear: bushidō is a contemporary theory with little or no historical basis. For many scholars and historians, it is simply “an invented tradition”. This position is not the personal opinion of some scholars, but the result of many rigorous historical and historiographical analyses. It was supported as early as 1912 by the renowned British Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain (1850~1935), who attacked bushidō as a modern invention with no basis in earlier history. Chamberlain recalled that bushidō was virtually unknown at the beginning of the 20th century and criticized it accordingly. He was right: the term bushidō appeared only in the 1890s and the related concept was unknown before 1900.
An important essay on this topic was written in 2014 by Oleg Benesch, a scholar who specialized in the history of Japan and China: Inventing the Way of the Samurai. Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidō in Modern Japan (published by the Oxford University Press). Benesch clearly writes: «The notion that bushidō is a modern invention has been put forth by a number of scholars over the past century, but this view has failed to make a sufficient impact on popular discourse. Both popular culture and many scholarly works continue to treat bushidō as a traditional ethic originally codified and/or practiced by samurai» (O. Benesch, cit., see Bibliography).
We’ll see in brief how this invented narrative was born, which idealized image of the samurai it produced, and how it was politically used from the late Meiji period to the end of World War II (WWII). This issue will prove to be essential not only to better understand the lost world of samurai but to grasp how ideological manipulations can occur in our current world as well.
- 1890-1895: Ozaki Yukio and the first generation of bushidō theorists
The opening to the West brought about by the Meiji Restoration was short-lived: after the first intoxication of Western culture, the late 1880s and all the 1890s saw a renewed enthusiasm for the Shinto tradition and authentically Japanese values, seasoned with a good deal of nostalgia for the lost world of samurai, watered down in contact with the West. This increasingly widespread attitude of disenchantment, a good deal of nationalism, and an open aversion to China peaked with the Sino-Japanese War (1894~95).
It is in this context, at a time when Japan is trying to present itself to the West with an ancient and authoritative face, rather than the real underdeveloped and impoverished one, that the first discussions of bushidō developed, as a true Japanese alternative to Western ideals and Chinese traditions. In these years, some writers, mostly of samurai descent, started to idealize the past and lost world of bushi, far from the mediocre and unimpressive reality of the shizoku, the name by which former samurai were defined after the Meiji Restoration. Among the first generation of bushido theorists, the most important voice was that of Ozaki Yukio.
Yukio Ozaki (1859~1954), born into a minor samurai family, was a longstanding Japanese politician of liberal signature (he served in the House of Representatives of the Japanese Diet for 63 years). In the 1890s, he wrote a series of articles on bushidō, seen as a code of behavior of the medieval bushi that could represent the Japanese version of the British “chivalric gentlemanship”.
«As traits of English gentlemen, Ozaki listed characteristics such as “never forgetting higher ideals, valuing honor and rightness, and acting for the good of the country while forgetting private interests. One must be courageous but not violent, gentle but not weak… and all actions must be based on utmost trustworthiness”. (…) Ozaki sought the roots of English gentlemanship in the feudal tradition and medieval knighthood, although the ethic had evolved since. This connection was important to him, for it provided the basis of his developing bushidō theory (…)». (O. Benesch, cit.). He believed that the Japanese equivalent of the English “knight” and “gentleman” was the feudal bushi, who valued honor, dignity, prestige. His ancient code of behavior, the bushidō, promoted six important martial virtues for Ozaki: frankness, bold thriftiness, courage, quick-mindedness, generosity, and liveliness.
On this basis, in the 1990s, he tried to develop a sort of samurai-based ethic that could be meaningful and beneficial for his contemporaries, including businessmen and traders. He saw in the traditional bushidō, stuffed with contemporary antisemitism, aversion to Chinese culture, and capitalistic values such as assertiveness, independence, and ambition, a key to Japan’s success in different areas.
«Ozaki’s bushidō theories successfully captured the zeitgeist and responses were not long in coming» (O. Benesch, cit.).
In 1891, Yukichi Fukuzawa (1834~1901), a journalist and a writer very proud of his samurai descent, wrote a text whose title was Yasegaman no setsu, an expression which has been translated in many ways, including On Fighting to the Bitter End (by William Steele). In these pages, Fukuzawa elaborated the concept of warrior ethics in a nationalistic key. He acclaimed patriotism and loyalty to the ruler as the highest virtues that have to express themselves in the ethic of yasegaman: a mix of perseverance, determination, patience, self-control, ability to endure adverse circumstances, and to maintain a patient dignity in the face of insuperable odds or defeat. Fukuzawa saw this warrior spirit as having been forged during the Sengoku period and lamentably diluted or deteriorated in the Meiji times. Moreover, he was fully convinced that its resurgence could have been of critical importance for Japan’s future development.
Uemura Masahisa (1858~1925), a Japanese Christian pastor coming from a once-wealthy family of hatamoto (former samurai of the shogunate), was another theorist of the first bushidō. In his texts, he advocated a form of nationalism tempered by Christianity (which made him reject the notion of a divine emperor) to contrast the decay in morality and vitality that he thought was a feature of the first twenty-five years of the Meiji Era. He proposed a resurgence of bushidō, namely the revival of that martial ethic and moral character fully developed under the Tokugawa shogunate: an ethic of “sacrificing oneself for the common good (…) specifically required to swiftly and victoriously smash the materialistic spirit with a spirit of responsibility, duty, loyalty, and furious righteousness”.