CLASSIC WORKS: Bushidō by Inazo Nitobe

Bushido: The Soul of JapanBushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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On the whole, people are ambivalent about feudal times. On the one hand, it was a horrible time to be alive for 99.5% of the population. Chances are that if you’d lived during that time you’d be toiling ceaselessly on the land with no hope of improving your lot in life. Everything was determined by heredity, with merit having little to do with anything. This added insult to injury because that person you’d have had to suck up to was as likely to be putz as not.

On the other hand, there is widespread nostalgia for those times because one can’t help but feel that they were the golden days of virtue. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, we think that society is ever advancing, but, in reality, we advance like a wave–losing as much on the backside as we gain on the front.

Inazo Nitobe’s book gives us an accounting of the chivalric virtue practiced by the samurai, the warrior class of feudal Japan. Bushidō means the way of the warrior. Nitobe lived after Japan’s feudal era, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nitobe was an educator, and the book has a feel of erudition. Interestingly, the author was a Quaker and received education in the West, and, therefore, is able to contrast the Japanese worldview with that of Westerners.

The book is built around discussion of the seven virtues of bushido: justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, and loyalty. Each of these virtues has a chapter devoted to it (Ch. 3 through 9.) But first the book introduces bushido as an ethical system, and then it explains the effect that Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism played in the development of this system.

Later chapters outline the education and training of a samurai, the importance of stoicism, the institution of suicide (seppuku), the symbolism of the sword in Japanese society, the role of women, the role of bushido as an ethical system in the present-day (his present), and its proposed role in the future. It is interesting that the book begins by discussing those things that influenced the development of bushidō, and it ends with discussion of how bushidō influences the larger world.

Our views of virtue have changed, but at some level remain consistent. The seven virtues are all still considered virtuous, but we don’t regard them in the same way today. In some cases we are undoubtedly better off with today’s views, but that’s not always the case.

Consider the seventh precept, loyalty. We still value loyalty, but in today’s world the rule of loyalty has an ever-present Shakespearean addenda: “to thine own self be true.” In other words, we no longer believe in loyalty that is blind as was valued in the days of old.

Sincerity, by which Nitobe generally means honesty, is also seen in a different light today. As depicted in the Jim Carey movie, Liar Liar, there’s a widespread view that it’s better to fib and make someone feel better than it is to tell the truth and hurt that person’s feelings.

One of the most intriguing chapters is the one that deals with seppuku. This is a concept that has never been well-understood in the West, and it’s a major point of cultural disconnect. While the Japanese have tended to see suicide as a means to restore honor that was lost in failure, in the West we tend to see it as a more pathetic and cowardly affair. I’ve recently been reading Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, and this is one of many points of diverging attitudes between “Tiger” Tanaka and James Bond.

Bushidō is definitely worth a read. It’s thought-provoking, and is one of those books to be read slowly and conscientiously.

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