A Brief Overview of Bushido
Bushido. BOOSH-ee-DOE. The way (do) of the warrior (bushi). The written code of the samurai, as most people believe.
They are wrong.
Bushido was a way of life, but it was unwritten for most of its history. Nor was it limited to just the samurai. Bushido was a code that permeated all levels of Japanese society. Every man and woman in feudal Japan was expected to follow its tenets, whether they were a daimyo (lord), a samurai (warrior), a craftsman, a peasant, or a shogun (overlord). Each class in the society had its own requirements, its own demands, its own duties. The peasant was expected to give total obedience and respect to his betters, but nothing else was expected of him. An artisan could demand respect from a peasant, while in turn honoring those above him.
Many people also believe that Bushido was uniform and applied equally over every level and location.
It was not.
Bushido has its roots in the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era. The Japanese rulers of the time were trying to copy the Chinese-model of military service and ordered society- since at the time China was the most advanced society of which they knew. Naturally, conditions in Japan were different that in China, so some changes were necessary- they could not copy the Chinese model blindly.
To these roots, the local daimyos (lords) added their own house codes. These house codes were literally written onto the walls of the ruling daimyo’s home- hence the name. Most had items in common, stemming from the emperor’s code as they were, while others were specific only to a certain daimyo house. Some would be very specific- such as this Takeda law:
Without a secret understanding with the daimyo, no one is permitted to send messages and letters to another province. However, of necessity, communications by the samurai residents (kokujin) of the Province of Shinano may be continued, as long as they are known to us to be engaged in devising a stratagem. Those who live on the border, who are accustomed to exchanging letters, need not be prohibited from doing so.
While others would be more general, as shown in this Chosokabe example:
It is only natural that services are demanded of those who hold fiefs, and they must be carried out to the letter regardless of whether they are large or small. Anyone late for logging or construction work will be required to repeat the duty period as punishment. And anyone who comes short of the food and provisions requested of him for work detail will be required to supply as much again.
While yet others were more philosophical, such as this Hojo declaration:
Don’t think your swords and clothes should be as good as those of other people. Be content as long as they don’t look awful. Once you start acquiring what you don’t have and become even poorer, you’ll become a laughingstock.
Or this one:
Whenever you have a little bit of time for yourself, read a book. Always carry something with characters written on it with you and look at it when no one’s looking. Unless you accustom yourself to them, asleep or awake, you’ll forget them. The same is true of writing.
This house rules became codified, and influenced by various religions as well. One of the house rules for Takeda even go so far as to categorically state “Pay proper reverence to the gods and the Buddha. When your thoughts are in accord with the Buddha’s, you will gain more power.” In addition to Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism also had influences on the development of Bushido.
This resulted in the seven virtues of Bushido:
The Zen and Confucian influences also resulted in these virtues becoming associated with the code:
In addition, almost every house code stressed utter loyalty and total obedience. Honor jumped to the forefront of the virtues over time, to the point where one’s honor was considered more valuable than one’s life.
When applied to the warrior caste, the samurai, the code of Bushido was the most applicable and detailed. A peasant must follow unquestioning the commands of his better and show them respect. In return, little was expected of him otherwise. A samurai, on the other hand, had much expected of him. He must be utterly fearless in battle, accepting of death as it is his trade, and totally obedient to those above him. Honor and glory were the results of courage and obedience in battle. It was determined once that the samurai made up over ten percent of the entire Japanese population- that is a very high proportion of men dedicated to warfare for a feudal society.
These warriors were honored with the right to wear at all times the daisho- the paired swords of a samurai. The longer katana was used in battle as the main sword, while the shorter wakizashi was used to behead enemies- or to kill oneself. Failure or disgrace were hard blows to a man raised in a society which raised honor and respect to such heights. The loss of honor was worse than the loss of life, yet Bushido evolved a way to regain lost honor- the act of seppuku.
Seppuku was ritual suicide. A dishonored man would kneel and drive his wakizashi through his abdomen, then cut crosswise to sever the abdominal aorta. He would then sit still and show no sign of remorse or pain, his mind holding the pain at bay until death came. It was a terribly painful death until the exsanguination kicked in, and only one who truly intended to take his life in this manner could perform it properly. In later eras, a second may assist in the act by striking off the head of the mortally-wounded man before he could tarnish the act by showing pain.
Seppuku was not a right. If one failed or dishonored oneself, leaving seppuku as the only means to regain one’s honor, one must applied to his lord for permission to perform the act. Mostly it could be granted, but it could be refused.
Another aspect of Bushido was that almost everybody had a master. It was necessary to the system- one could not demonstrate obedience without a master to obey. The peasants served the samurai, who served the daimyos, who served the shogun, who served the emperor. The emperor, being a direct descendant of Heaven, had no master, nor did he need one.
Samurai, however, sometimes ended up with no master. It was a price of a warrior profession that one must occasionally fight, and in battle, men die. It was a disgrace to survive one’s master in battle. If your lord died, you were expected to follow him into death- either one the field of battle, or in seppuku soon after. Other samurai were fired, or dismissed by their lords. And yet others lost their lands due to a shake-up or restructuring, and with their lands they also lost their master. These men, these masterless samurai, were known as ronin, and were looked down upon by true samurai.
Ronin could sometimes be accepted by another house, but most often not. In the seventeeth century, the Tokugawa shoguns passed an edict forbidding ronin to serve new masters. Many became thus bandits, while others formed bands and launched the occasional revolt. One of these revolts forced a changed of policy, allowing ronin to find new masters. Others relinquished their caste and turned their lives to other pursuits than war- such as commerce, or the arts, or became teachers like Musashi or writers like Kyokutei Bakin- anything other than remaining a masterless samurai!