For anyone who is interested in Japanese samurai codes of ethics, and even much of Japanese life philosophy
(at least for those who have not become too westernized), this book is an easy and interesting read, written in very clear and uncomplicated language.
Nitobé first gives us a little background, comparing samurai warriors to European knights, then takes us
through the virtues by which Samurai were bound to live and operate. Many Westerners may find much to admire about Japanese discipline and ethics, and
will probably also find some of it disagreeable. In any case, though the author is a bit biased, he has simply written a philosophical history, and leaves it
to the reader to form an opinion. The only thing that I found disappointing is his rather strong Christian opinions, when I was expecting more Buddhist
philosophy to be interwoven.
Nitobé's writing is very organized, and he has categorized what he wishes to emphasize into short and neat little chapters. He begins with a little of the history of Bushido, meaning "Military-Knight-Ways." He traces it back to the days of feudalism in Japan, from the late twelfth century, or perhaps earlier, and compares it to knighthood in Europe. He makes a point of supporting war, not as brutishness and savagery, but as a source of courage and strength.
I took pages of notes as I read because there was so much material condensed into a relatively short book. I will share some of the more important points to give you an idea of the philosophy as perceived by this writer. And I do have to comment on my perceptions before I go further. I have known Japanese people, especially back when I was in the arts, and I admire their sense of discipline immensely. Although perhaps now, even they are becoming more westernized, which unfortunately means distracted. But even back in the years when I was in music, I was beginning to see anger and resentment building within the young people toward not just the strictness of their parents, but often cruelty. Woven throughout this book, it seems that Nitobé constantly is thinking like a Westerner and defends—makes arguments in favor of the harshness of the rules and expectations, and the farther along I got in my reading, the less convincing his arguments became. Toward the end, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable. The book was first published in 1906, and by that time, of course, feudalism was no longer a way of life in Japan, and that is good.
Nitobé begins by stating that it was Shintoism, not Buddhism that imbued loyalty to the sovereign and love of country. He also takes information from the teachings of Confucius and his "five moral relations between master and servant, father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, and friend and friend." He makes it clear that the samurai, those that lived by the rules of Bushido were the ruling class, and they, like the European knights were set apart from the rest of society.
He then goes on to cover the virtues, beginning with Rectitude or Justice:
"Rectitude is the power of deciding upon a certain course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; "to die when it is right to die, to strike when to strike is right."
He also states that to the samurai, "nothing is more loathsome to him than underhand dealings and crooked
In the chapter on Courage, The Spirit of Daring and Bearing, he again draws from the teachings of Confucius:
"Perceiving what is right and doing it not, argues lack of courage."
He then quotes from the Precepts of Knighthood which say that "Death for a
cause unworthy of dying for , was called a "dog's death" and the "merest churl is equal to the task." More important is "to live when it is right to live, and
to die only when it is right to die."
This is also the chapter which started to make me uncomfortable, especially the way children were treated. They were forced to do things to build their courage that today of course would send the child welfare agents out to have the children removed and the parents arrested. This included depriving them of food, or making them go out in the winter barefoot, and forcing them to watch decapitations in anticipation of their own hara-kiri (which I will discuss later).
Amidst the seriousness of this book, there are also stories that make one smile. For instance, in the description of a particular battle where the samurai foes recited poetry to each other as they fought, and even as they died, making the point that battles were intellectual as well as physical. What a different perception these people had of life and death!
The chapter on Benevolence, The Feeling of Distress, makes a case for the rightness of sovereigns. The chapter is filled with quotes, for instance, yet another by Confucius:
"Let but a prince cultivate virtue, people will flock to him; with people will come to him lands; land will bring forth for him wealth; wealth will give him the benefit of right uses. Virtue is the root, and wealth an outcome."
Well, maybe, but it seems to me the people still end up being he equivalent of
slaves and don't get to share in that wealth. . .
The chapter on Politeness is one that could do some good in modern society! Particularly interesting is the description of the tea ceremony, described as "a fine art." The "scrupulously clean" tea room is set apart and quiet, with no distracting ornaments, meant to calm the mind—a soul discipline, where the cares of the world were left outside.
No texting. . .
The chapter on Veracity and Sincerity makes an interesting point, not only for Bushido culture, but as a rule for ancient civilizations. It is the separation of power and riches. The rulers were not allowed to be merchants or handle money. They could engage in amateur farming if they wished, but the idea was to keep the wealth from "accumulating in the hands of the powerful. The separation of power and riches kept the distribution of the latter more nearly equable." He also points out that the fall of the Roman Empire began when the nobility were allowed to engage in trade. How interesting, and probably very true, especially seeing what the world has become now that the powerful are also the ones who possess nearly all the wealth.
There is much more to discuss on the virtues, but I will let you read the book for further information. The last thing I want to mention is the chapter on suicide—hara-kiri.
Now I have known for a long time that suicide for "honorable" reasons in Japan has been considered the virtuous thing to do. What I did not realize was the hara-kiri is a particular type of suicide, which has a ceremony attached to it. It is actually self-disembowelment. I have to say that this chapter truly made me sick, especially a case mentioned where all three of the sons, the youngest age eight, were condemned to it. There is nothing, no argument ever that would change my belief that this is a truly abominable act. Though much can be said against modernization and "westernization" of these ancient societies, anything that would cease a practice like that would certainly have its positive points.
This book is really a quick and easy read, and, even if it gets you aggravated, provides a wealth of easy-to-grasp information on a way of life that, to most of us alive today, would seem very remote.
G H R G H R
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