Is Bushido Still Alive?


BushidoThis is taken from Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido, The Soul of Japan.


It would be a sad thing if a nation’s soul could die so quickly, a poor soul that could succumb so easily to extraneous influences. The aggregate of psychological elements which constitute a national character, is as tenacious as the “irreducible elements of species, of the fins of fish, of the beak of the bird, of the tooth of the carnivorous animal.” In his recent book, full of shallow asseverations and brilliant generalizations, M. LeBon says, “The discoveries due to the intelligence are the common patrimony of humanity; qualities or defects of character constitute the exclusive patrimony of each people: they are the firm rock which the waters must wash day by day for centuries, before they can wear away even its external asperities.” These are strong words and would be highly worth pondering over, provided there were qualities and defects of character which constitute the exclusive patrimony of each people. Schematizing theories of this sort had been advanced long before LeBon began to write his book, and they were exploded long ago by Theodor Waitz and Hugh Murray. In studying the various virtues instilled by Bushido, we have drawn upon European sources for comparison and illustrations, and we have seen that no one quality of character was its exclusive patrimony. It is true the aggregate of moral qualities presents a quite unique aspect. It is this aggregate which Emerson names a “compound result into which every great force enters as an ingredient.” But, instead of making it, as LeBon does, an exclusive patrimony of a race or people, the Concord philosopher calls it “an element which unites the most forcible persons of every country; makes them intelligible and agreeable to each other; and is somewhat so precise that it is at once felt if an individual lack the Masonic sign.”

The character which Bushido stamped on our nation and on the samurai in particular, cannot be said to form “an irreducible element of species,” but nevertheless as to the vitality which it retains there is no doubt. Were Bushido a mere physical force, the momentum it has gained in the last seven hundred years could not stop so abruptly. Were it transmitted only by heredity, its influence must be immensely widespread. Just think, as M. Cheysson, a French economist, has calculated, that supposing there be three generations in a century, “each of us would have in his veins the blood of at least twenty millions of the people living in the year 1000 A.D.” The merest peasant that grubs the soil, “bowed by the weight of centuries,” has in his veins the blood of ages, and is thus a brother to us as much as “to the ox.”

An unconscious and irresistible power, Bushido has been moving the nation and individuals. It was an honest confession of the race when Yoshida Shoin, one of the most brilliant pioneers of Modern Japan, wrote on the eve of his execution the following stanza;—

“Full well I knew this course must end in death;
It was Yamato spirit urged me on
To dare whate’er betide.”  

Unformulated, Bushido was and still is the animating spirit, the motor force of Japan.

Mr. Ransome says that “there are three distinct Japans in existence side by side today,—the old, which has not wholly died out; the new, hardly yet born except in spirit; and the transition, passing now through its most critical throes.” While this is very true in most respects, and particularly as regards tangible and concrete institutions, the statement, as applied to fundamental ethical notions, requires some modification; for Bushido, the maker and product of Old Japan, is still the guiding principle of the transition and will prove the formative force of the new era.

The great statesmen who steered the ship of our state through the hurricane of the Restoration and the whirlpool of national rejuvenation, were men who knew no other moral teaching than the Precepts of Knighthood. Some writers have lately tried to prove that the Christian missionaries contributed an appreciable quota to the making of New Japan. I would fain render honor to whom honor is due: but this honor can hardly be accorded to the good missionaries. More fitting it will be to their profession to stick to the scriptural injunction of preferring one another in honor, than to advance a claim in which they have no proofs to back them. For myself, I believe that Christian missionaries are doing great things for Japan—in the domain of education, and especially of moral education:—only, the mysterious though not the less certain working of the Spirit is still hidden in divine secrecy. Whatever they do is still of indirect effect. No, as yet Christian missions have effected but little visible in molding the character of New Japan. No, it was Bushido, pure and simple, that urged us on for weal or woe. Open the biographies of the makers of Modern Japan—of Sakuma, of Saigo, of Okubo, of Kido, not to mention the reminiscences of living men such as Ito, Okuma, Itagaki, etc.:—and you will find that it was under the impetus of samurai-hood that they thought and wrought. When Mr. Henry Norman declared, after his study and observation of the Far East, that only the respect in which Japan differed from other oriental despotisms lay in “the ruling influence among her people of the strictest, loftiest, and the most punctilious codes of honor that man has ever devised,” he touched the main spring which has made new Japan what she is and which will make her what she is destined to be.

The transformation of Japan is a fact patent to the whole world. In a work of such magnitude various motives naturally entered; but if one were to name the principal, one would not hesitate to name Bushido. When we opened the whole country to foreign trade, when we introduced the latest improvements in every department of life, when we began to study Western politics and sciences, our guiding motive was not the development of our physical resources and the increase of wealth; much less was it a blind imitation of Western customs. A close observer of oriental institutions and peoples has written:—”We are told every day how Europe has influenced Japan, and forget that the change in those islands was entirely self-generated, that Europeans did not teach Japan, but that Japan of herself chose to learn from Europe methods of organization, civil and military, which have so far proved successful. She imported European mechanical science, as the Turks years before imported European artillery. That is not exactly influence,” continues Mr. Townsend, “unless, indeed, England is influenced by purchasing tea of China. Where is the European apostle,” asks our author, “or philosopher or statesman or agitator who has re-made Japan?” Mr. Townsend has well perceived that the spring of action which brought about the changes in Japan lay entirely within our own selves; and if he had only probed into our psychology, his keen powers of observation would easily have convinced him that that spring was no other than Bushido. The sense of honor which cannot bear being looked down upon as an inferior power,—that was the strongest of motives. Pecuniary or industrial considerations were awakened later in the process of transformation.

The influence of Bushido is still so palpable that he who runs may read. A glimpse into Japanese life will make it manifest. Read Hearn, the most eloquent and truthful interpreter of the Japanese mind, and you see the working of that mind to be an example of the working of Bushido. The universal politeness of the people, which is the legacy of knightly ways, is too well known to be repeated anew. The physical endurance, fortitude and bravery that “the little Jap” possesses, were sufficiently proved in the China-Japanese war. “Is there any nation more loyal and patriotic?” is a question asked by many; and for the proud answer, “There is not,” we must thank the Precepts of Knighthood.

On the other hand, it is fair to recognize that for the very faults and defects of our character, Bushido is largely responsible. Our lack of abstruse philosophy—while some of our young men have already gained international reputation in scientific researches, not one has achieved anything in philosophical lines—is traceable to the neglect of metaphysical training under Bushido’s regimen of education. Our sense of honor is responsible for our exaggerated sensitiveness and touchiness; and if there is the conceit in us with which some foreigners charge us, that, too, is a pathological outcome of honor.

Have you seen in your tour of Japan many a young man with unkempt hair, dressed in shabbiest garb, carrying in his hand a large cane or a book, stalking about the streets with an air of utter indifference to mundane things? He is the shosei (student), to whom the earth is too small and the Heavens are not high enough. He has his own theories of the universe and of life. He dwells in castles of air and feeds on ethereal words of wisdom. In his eyes beams the fire of ambition; his mind is athirst for knowledge. Penury is only a stimulus to drive him onward; worldly goods are in his sight shackles to his character. He is the repository of Loyalty and Patriotism. He is the self-imposed guardian of national honor. With all his virtues and his faults, he is the last fragment of Bushido.

Deep-rooted and powerful as is still the effect of Bushido, I have said that it is an unconscious and mute influence. The heart of the people responds, without knowing the reason why, to any appeal made to what it has inherited, and hence the same moral idea expressed in a newly translated term and in an old Bushido term, has a vastly different degree of efficacy. A backsliding Christian, whom no pastoral persuasion could help from downward tendency, was reverted from his course by an appeal made to his loyalty, the fidelity he once swore to his Master. The word “Loyalty” revived all the noble sentiments that were permitted to grow lukewarm. A band of unruly youths engaged in a long continued “students’ strike” in a college, on account of their dissatisfaction with a certain teacher, disbanded at two simple questions put by the Director,—”Is your professor a blameless character? If so, you ought to respect him and keep him in the school. Is he weak? If so, it is not manly to push a falling man.” The scientific incapacity of the professor, which was the beginning of the trouble, dwindled into insignificance in comparison with the moral issues hinted at. By arousing the sentiments nurtured by Bushido, moral renovation of great magnitude can be accomplished.

One cause of the failure of mission work is that most of the missionaries are grossly ignorant of our history—”What do we care for heathen records?” some say—and consequently estrange their religion from the habits of thought we and our forefathers have been accustomed to for centuries past. Mocking a nation’s history!—as though the career of any people—even of the lowest African savages possessing no record—were not a page in the general history of mankind, written by the hand of God Himself. The very lost races are a palimpsest to be deciphered by a seeing eye. To a philosophic and pious mind, the races themselves are marks of Divine chirography clearly traced in black and white as on their skin; and if this simile holds good, the yellow race forms a precious page inscribed in hieroglyphics of gold! Ignoring the past career of a people, missionaries claim that Christianity is a new religion, whereas, to my mind, it is an “old, old story,” which, if presented in intelligible words,—that is to say, if expressed in the vocabulary familiar in the moral development of a people—will find easy lodgment in their hearts, irrespective of race or nationality. Christianity in its American or English form—with more of Anglo-Saxon freaks and fancies than grace and purity of its founder—is a poor scion to graft on Bushido stock. Should the propagator of the new faith uproot the entire stock, root and branches, and plant the seeds of the Gospel on the ravaged soil? Such a heroic process may be possible—in Hawaii, where, it is alleged, the church militant had complete success in amassing spoils of wealth itself, and in annihilating the aboriginal race: such a process is most decidedly impossible in Japan—nay, it is a process which Jesus himself would never have employed in founding his kingdom on earth. It behooves us to take more to heart the following words of a saintly man, devout Christian and profound scholar:—”Men have divided the world into heathen and Christian, without considering how much good may have been hidden in the one, or how much evil may have been mingled with the other. They have compared the best part of themselves with the worst of their neighbors, the ideal of Christianity with the corruption of Greece or the East. They have not aimed at impartiality, but have been contented to accumulate all that could be said in praise of their own, and in dispraise of other forms of religion.”