Bushido: the soul of Japan

Chivalry is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom; nor is it a dried-up specimen of an antique virtue preserved in the herbarium of our history.  It is still a living object of power and beauty among us, and if it assumes no tangible shape or form, it none the less scents the moral atmosphere and makes us aware that we are still under its potent spell…It is a pleasure for me to reflect upon this subject in the language of Burke, who uttered the well-known touching eulogy over the neglected bier of its European prototype.

Fair play in fight!  What fertile germs of morality lie in this primitive sense of savagery and childhood.  Is it not the root of all military and civic virtue?  We smile (as if we had outgrown it!) at the boyish desire of the small Britisher, Tom Brown, “to leave behind him the name of a fellow who never bullied a little boy or turned his back on a big one.”  And yet, who does not know that this desire is the cornerstone on which moral structures of mighty dimensions can be reared?  May I not go even so far as to say that the gentlest and most peace-loving of religions endorses this aspiration?  The desire of Tom is the basis on which the greatness of England is largely built, and it will not take us long to discover that Bushido does not stand on a lesser pedestal.  If fighting in itself, be it offensive or defensive, is, as the Quakers rightly testify, brutal and wrong, we can still say with Lessing, “We know from what failings our virtue springs.”

— Inazo Nitobe, from Bushido:  The Soul of Japan (1905)

Dr. Nitobe was a man of impressive broad-mindedness:  a Japanese convert to Quakerism who wrote this study to help Westerners appreciate the spiritual grandeur of a martial code that his adopted faith would not let him completely share.

Self-consciously modern people will not tolerate a good word for European chivalry, but they can sometimes be tricked into feeling some respect for the samurai.  I actually found this book at my university’s bookstore among the required reading for an “Asian Studies” course.  It may be one of the few books they read in college that leave them better (and more open to forbidden thoughts) than it found them.

Nitobe has a delightful trick of granting a modernist’s objection in a way that exposes its pettiness.  For example

I am not entirely ignorant of Mr. Spencer’s view according to which political obedience–loyalty–is accredited with only a transitional function.  It may be so.  Sufficient unto the day is the virtue thereof.

And I’m going to remember to use this one

Democracy may make self-confident retorts to such a statement and fling back the question–“When Adam delved and Eve span, where then was the gentleman?”  All the more pity that a gentleman was not present in Eden!  The first parents missed him sorely and paid a high price for his absence.  Had he been there, not only would the garden have been more tastefully dressed, but they would have learned without painful experience that disobedience to Jehovah was disloyalty and dishonor, treason, and rebellion.

One last quote

I have noticed a rather superficial notion prevailing among half-informed foreigners, that because the common Japanese expression for one’s wife is “my rustic wife” and the like, she is despised and held in little esteem.  When it is told that such phrases as “my foolish father”, “my swinish son”, and “my awkward self”, etc., are in current use, is not the answer clear enough?

To me it seems that our idea of marital unions goes in some ways farther than the so-called Christian.  “Man and woman shall be one flesh”.  The individualism of the Anglo-Saxon cannot let go of the idea that husband and wife are two persons–hence when they disagree, their separate rights are recognized, and when they agree, they exhaust their vocabulary in all sorts of silly pet-names and nonsensical blandishments.  It sounds highly irrational to our ears, when a husband or wife speaks to a third party of his or her other half–better or worse–as being lovely, bright, kind, and what not.  Is it good taste to speak of one’s self as “my bright self”, “my lovely disposition”, and so forth?  We think praising one’s own wife is praising a part of one’s own self, and self-praise is regarded, to say the least, as bad taste among us–and I hope, among Christian nations too!

Nitobe goes over the main facets of the samurai way:  loyalty, politeness, stoicism, suicide, the virtues appropriate to women.  He predicts that Bushido as an explicit code will not survive the modernization of Japan, that in the end materialism and Christianity will divide the world between them.  Nevertheless, his hope is that Bushido might live on as a moral sensibility in (presumably) Christian Japan as Stoicism does in Christian Europe.

One Response

  1. >but they can sometimes be tricked into feeling some respect for the samurai

    This is one of the most heavily-abused tricks in contemporary philosophy… and one has to think that many of its practitioners know exactly what they are doing.

    This generalizes to lost European values more generally; for every forbidden European value X, there is a corresponding Japanese value, X’, which is permissibly cosmopolitan. Many of the young right-wingers believe there is elective affinity between right-wing politics and Japanese film/television for exactly this reason.

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