Samurai have been the most powerful social class in Japan for centuries. From the 12th century and on, the warrior class known in Japanese as ‘bushi’ or ‘samurai’, started having power within the social structure and even within the political sphere. Samurai followed a lifestyle, an ethos, certain rules, a code, which spread to all levels of society and even today it affects the way Japanese people think and behave. This code is known as the ‘Bushi-do’- 武士道; where the last character (do = 道) could be translated as ‘way’. Therefore, we have ‘bushi’ (warrior) and ‘do’ (way). This way was based on certain values, such as loyalty, justice, sacrifice or honor. I’ll go on to talk in more depth about all aspects that the ‘do’, ‘the way’, may include.
Bushido takes its influences from two religious disciplines, Zen Buddhism and Confucianism. Buddhism came through China during the 6th century and ever since it has greatly influenced Japanese culture. Specifically, a sect called Zen was the one that settled in Japan with greatest strength. The main goal of Zen is to achieve enlightenment by freeing one’s mind, searching the way to unite soul and body, in order to calm the soul until there is no thoughts in one’s mind. Steming from Zen Buddhism, a series of disciplines have been developed to encourage those principles, including the tea ceremony (Sa-do) or calligraphy (Sho-do). Note that both words also include the particle -do = 道 ; ‘way’. In the case of samurai, the practice and understanding of Zen was used to remain calm and patient in battle even in the most extreme circumstances, so they didn’t give in to fear. This is still alive in the culture today. Those of you who know Japanese people will agree with me that most of them are calm and patient people. Sometimes too much, I would say.
Confucianism also came through China during the 12th century. According to Confucianism, relationships among human beings are the core of society, so we must respect our ancestors, our relatives, our superiors. It defended the values of loyalty, justice and honor. Confucianism is still in the mind of the Japanese people today, making them respect their superiors very much, as well as their families and their enterprises, as we saw in the articles devoted to their structure: Structure of Japanese companies – Part 1 and Structure of Japanese companies – Part 2.
Carlos and I in the mountains in Nikko some years ago.
Loyalty might be one of the most important values for the samurai. They were completely loyal to their “feudal lord”, and they risked their lives for him on a daily basis. Samurai didn’t mind dying as long as they didn’t regret anything they had done during their lives. Meaning they always had to try to be loyal and free their minds of any “stain”.
In the case of honor, they were really strict. “Better to die before being a disgrace” was their philosophy. Samurai always tried to be in the first line of battle, and if they failed any mission they committed “seppuku” (suicide), cutting their abdomen with their sword. Other Bushido values that I haven’t talked about are sincerity, compassion, courtesy, honesty, etc.
From the Meiji Restoration onwards, samurai haven’t existed in Japan anymore, but many aspects of their life philosophy are still present in society. Students are loyal to their teachers; workers are loyal to their companies by working many extra hours. Even today there are many Japanese who commit suicide to remain honorable when they make a very serious mistake in order to safeguard their family’s or their company’s reputation, etc.
To sum up, Bushido is still present in Japanese society, in the Japanese mind, in their families, in their companies and in Japan in general. Bushido may have been one of the factors that has helped in the restoration of the country several times after destruction in the last 150 years.
To complete this post, I highly recommend the movie Shichinin no samurai to those of you who haven’t seen it, as it contains many of the elements of “Bushido” and from which it is said that George Lucas got his inspiration to create the Star Wars saga.
Yes! This is a message in space-time, dear master.