The Role of Bushido in Modern Japan

Samurai style archery contest in front of modern buildings
A man competes in a samurai-style archery contest in front of modern beach-front hotel buildings. Michael Mrugalski / Getty Images

Bushido, or the "way of the warrior," is commonly defined as the moral and behavioral code of the samurai.  It is often considered a foundation stone of Japanese culture, both by Japanese people and by outside observers of the country.  What are the components of bushido, when did they develop, and how are they applied in modern Japan?

Controversial Origins of the Concept:

It is difficult to say exactly when bushido developed.

 Certainly, many of the basic ideas within bushido - loyalty to one's family and one's feudal lord (daimyo), personal honor, bravery and skill in battle, and courage in the face of death - have likely been important to samurai warriors for centuries.  

Amusingly, scholars of ancient and medieval Japan often dismiss bushido, and call it a modern innovation from the Meiji and Showa eras.  Meanwhile, scholars who study Meiji and Showa Japan direct readers to study ancient and medieval history to learn more about the origins of bushido.

Both camps in this argument are right, in a way.  The word "bushido" and others like it did not arise until after the Meiji Restoration - that is, after the samurai class was abolished.  It is useless to look at ancient or medieval texts for any mention of bushido.  On the other hand, as mentioned above, many of the concepts included in bushido were present in Tokugawa society.

 Basic values such as bravery and skill in battle are important to all warriors in all societies at all times, so presumably even early samurai from the Kamakura period would have named those attributes as important.

The Changing Modern Faces of Bushido:

In the lead-up to World War II, and throughout the war, the Japanese government pushed an ideology called "imperial bushido" on the citizens of Japan.

 It emphasized Japanese military spirit, honor, self-sacrifice, and unwavering, unquestioning loyalty to the nation and to the emperor.  

When Japan suffered its crushing defeat in that war, and the people did not rise up as demanded by imperial bushido and fight to the last person in defense of their emperor, the concept of bushido seemed to be finished.  In the post-war era, only a few die-hard nationalists used the term.  Most Japanese were embarrassed by its connections with the cruelty, death, and excesses of World War II.

It seemed like the "way of the samurai" had ended forever.  However, beginning in the late 1970s, Japan's economy began to boom.  As the country grew into one of the major world economic powers in the 1980s, people within Japan and outside of it once again began to use the word "bushido."  At that time, it came to mean extreme hard work, loyalty to the company that one worked for, and devotion to quality and precision as a sign of personal honor.  News organizations even reported on a sort of company-man seppuku, called karoshi, in which people literally worked themselves to death for their companies.  

CEOs in the west and in other Asian countries started to urge their employees to read books touting "corporate bushido," in an attempt to replicate Japan's success.

 Samurai stories as applied to business, along with Sun Tzu's Art of War from China, became best-sellers in the self help category.

When the Japanese economy slowed into stagflation in the 1990s, the meaning of bushido in the corporate world shifted once again.  It began to signify the people's brave and stoic response to the economic downturn.  Outside of Japan, the corporate fascination with bushido quickly faded.

Bushido in Sports:

  1. Although corporate bushido is out of fashion, the term still crops up regularly in connection with sports in Japan.  Japanese baseball coaches refer to their players as "samurai," and the international soccer (football) team is called "Samurai Blue."  In press conferences, the coaches and players regularly invoke bushido, which is now defined as hard work, fair play, and a fighting spirit.

    Perhaps nowhere is bushido more regularly mentioned than in the world of martial arts.  Practitioners of judo, kendo, and other Japanese martial arts study what they consider to be the ancient principles of bushido as part of their practice.  (The antiquity of those ideals is debatable, of course, as mentioned above.)   Foreign martial artists who travel to Japan to study their sport usually are particularly devoted to an ahistorical, but very appealing, version of bushido as a traditional cultural value of Japan.

    Bushido and the Military:

    The most controversial usage of the word bushido today is in realm of the Japanese military, and in political discussions around the military.  Many Japanese citizens are pacifists, and deplore the use of rhetoric that once led their country into a catastrophic global war.  However, as troops from Japan's Self-Defense Forces increasingly deploy overseas, and conservative politicians call for increasing military power, the term bushido crops up more and more often.

    Given the history of the last century, military uses of this very militaristic terminology can only inflame relations with neighboring countries including South Korea, China, and the Philippines.  

    Sources:

    Benesch, Oleg.  Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Marro, Nicolas.  "The Construction of a Modern Japanese Identity: A Comparison of 'Bushido' and 'The Book of Tea,'" The Monitor: Journal of International Studies, Vol.

    17, Issue1 (Winter 2011).

    "The Modern Re-invention of Bushido," Columbia University website, accessed August 30, 2015.