Bushido or Bushidon’t

In the last post I made a comment about how the bushido code wasn’t actually used by the samurai when they were warriors. This is the post where I actually back that up to the best of my ability.

While I am very interested in Japanese history, I am very far from an expert, so please feel free to point out where I got it wrong.

Japanese samurai in armor, 1860s. Photograph by Felice Beato from Wikipedia.

So, my understanding of bushido as the code of bureaucrats rather than warriors was formed through the works of Drs. Karl F. Friday, Mark J. Ravina, and Pierre Souyri, which is a limited pool of sources, so I would be thankful for anyone to expand on this. Also, any correct points come from my sources and any mistakes in understanding and interpretation are my own.

Please read everything as caveated with “to my knowledge” and “as I understand it” so that I don’t have to constantly repeat that.

First, the samurai is a class rather than an occupation. It is not dissimilar to how the “knightly” class became the knight – the medieval noble warrior. To say a king is a knight is both correct and incorrect – the king would not come from the knightly class but might undertake the occupation of knight. We tend to think of the samurai as an occupation rather than a class, but the term is properly applied to to the class.

The samurai-class has its roots in late 12th century Japan as power dispersed from the Imperial capital at Kyoto following a series of clan rivalries and outright conflicts. The samurai evolved from the small, landed gentry called jito.

This was the time of the Minamoto and Ashikaga shogun dynasties (1185-1573). While the samurai were not full-time warriors during this era, there were periods of intense violence and these conflicts were more common than they would be during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868). It was also a time when samurai mostly depended on local lords rather than the central government and the shogun. I think of this period as similar to how the legions of late Republican Rome were loyal to their general – who paid them – rather than the state.

Valour for the early samurai is as we generally understand it – prowess and loyalty. Honour was based on martial ability, yes, but it was also service to one’s lord rather than personal valour – so retreat which might make one appear cowardly might be required as one cannot serve one’s lord in death.

Miyamoto Musashi killing a giant creature, from The Book of Five Rings from Wikipedia

The concept of bushido – or at least writings explicitly discussing it – do not appear before 1603. In my estimation, there are two documents/books that generally provide us with our understanding of bushido – the Book of Five Rings and Hagakure. The Book of Five Rings is written by a renowned swordmaster who was actually involved in warfare and dueling, but it was probably written around 1645, when its author, Miyamoto Musashi, was 60 and long after he was a practicing swordsman. He had become a teacher, yes, but this is a memoir of a time long past at its writing. Hagakure, on the other hand, was written by a courtier born in 1659 who did not have Musashi’s experience.

These texts do not come from the era when the samurai were primarily warriors. The idea of bushido comes from a time when the samurai were basically a bureaucratic class. By the 1700s, daimyo were not looking for perfect warriors, they were looking for bureaucrats who could maximize their tax income. The Tokugawa shogunate was a time of insularity, in which the Japanese neither marched to war outside their borders nor faced large conflicts within. The samurai definitely had the trappings of a warrior elite – with swords and armour and martial training – but that was not their actual role in society. Bushido certainly would make them feel better about themselves, it would lend romance to their role, but would be similar to a member of the House of Lords in the UK claiming that they follow the chivalric code – it’s meaningless because it is supposed to be about conduct during war and they are not warriors.

So while bushido might encapsulate a concept of samurai that would be recognized in the Minamoto and Ashikaga shogunates, it was developed in a period in which samurai were generally not called upon primarily as warriors. It was a romantic vision of a long gone age, not unlike Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and chivalry.

This was part of a rumination on samurai cinema, known as chanbara, which led to this.

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