Bushido (武士道) translates to “the way of the warrior” and “samurai” means “one who serves.”
Bushido was the samurai’s equivalent of chivalry, the code samurai were trained by and expected to observe in all aspects of their lives, and consisted of 7 or 8 tenets:
Integrity (義 - gi) or moral rectitude, requiring a samurai to gain the wisdom and ability to act in a moral and just way in any circumstance.
Courage (勇 - yuki) requiring a samurai to cultivate a frame of mind that allows them to face any adversity without fear, even if the situation could cost them their lives.
Respect (礼 - rei) requiring samurai to be courteous even to one’s enemies.
Honor (名誉 - meiyo) requiring a samurai to have no judge of his character or actions besides himself, knowing and understanding that the decisions he makes and the actions he uses to carry them out are a reflection of his true self and are that which will define his reputation and legacy.
Compassion (任 - jin) requiring a samurai to build a strong character that leads him to help a fellow man when the opportunity presents itself, and to use the power and strength of his office only for good.
Honesty (誠 - makoto) requiring a samurai to uphold his word. A task accepted by a samurai was considered as good as done as speaking and doing were considered the same action.
Loyalty (忠義 - chugi) requiring a samurai to remain true to all whom they serve and protect, and to be responsible for everything they say and do because their actions reflect not only upon them but upon their masters, peers and those under their protection. The author of the book “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” Inazo Nitobe, also adds self-control (自制 - jisei or 克己 - katsumi) to the list of bushido tenets as a samurai was expected to use their own good behavior and manners as a model for others. A samurai was expected not to react to any affront regardless of its severity.
Though the Japanese concept of a warrior’s way has been around since at least 721, when references to Japan’s military values and ideals were made in The Kojiki (Japan’s oldest historical record), the word “bushido” did not appear in writing until the 17th century, in a record of the Takeda Clan’s military exploits called the “Koyo Gunkan”.
Furthermore, the word did not enter the public lexicon in Japan until the 20th century after Inazo Nitobe’s book “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” first published in English in the United States in 1899, was translated into Japanese after having enjoyed several years of popularity in the English speaking world, including enthusiastic recognition by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Though other works on the samurai and their ways had been published both inside and outside of Japan in the past, Nitobe’s book was the first to apply the bushido name and codify it into the above listed tenets.
Though Nitobe’s work was dismissed as, “too western” in Japan, it did draw information from the “Hagakure,” an 18th century collection of commentaries by a former samurai retainer asserting that the way of the samurai is really, “the way of dying” or living as though one is already dead so that they may be loyal to their lord no matter what.
The story of the 47 Ronin plotting and carrying out revenge against their former master’s murder, and the rice farmer to warlord history of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the first man to unite Japan under one flag) are often held up as perfect personifications of bushido and what it means to be a samurai.
Even if the modern idea of bushido is a concept so western that it loses some of the details and nuances particular to the original samurai, its tenets remain undeniably relevant in today’s increasingly hectic, ever-changing world.
Author: NARA Visitor Center & Inn