Bushido: The Ancient Code of the Samurai Warrior

The Samurai Code

Japanese Samurai with Map, attributed to Felice Beato
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Bushido was the code of conduct for Japan's warrior classes from perhaps as early as the eighth century through modern times. The word "bushido" comes from the Japanese roots "bushi" meaning "warrior," and "do" meaning "path" or "way." It translates literally to "way of the warrior."

Bushido was followed by Japan's samurai warriors and their precursors in feudal Japan, as well as much of central and east Asia. The principles of bushido emphasized honor, courage, skill in the martial arts, and loyalty to a warrior's master (daimyo) above all else. It is somewhat similar to the ideas of chivalry that knights followed in feudal Europe. There is just as much folklore that exemplifies bushido—such as the 47 Ronin of Japanese legend—as there is European folklore about knights.

What Is Bushido?

A more elaborate list of the virtues encoded in bushido includes frugality, righteousness, courage, benevolence, respect, sincerity, honor, loyalty, and self-control. The specific strictures of bushido varied, however, over time and from place to place within Japan.

Bushido was an ethical system, rather than a religious belief system. In fact, many samurais believed that they were excluded from any reward in the afterlife or in their next lives, according to the rules of Buddhism, because they were trained to fight and kill in this life. Nevertheless, their honor and loyalty had to sustain them, in the face of the knowledge that they would likely end up in the Buddhist version of hell after they died.

The ideal samurai warrior was supposed to be immune from the fear of death. Only the fear of dishonor and loyalty to his daimyo motivated the true samurai. If a samurai felt that he had lost his honor (or was about to lose it) according to the rules of bushido, he could regain his standing by committing a rather painful form of ritual suicide, called "seppuku."

Illustration of samurai preparing for public ritual seppuku
A public ritual suicide or seppuku. ivan-96 / Getty Images

While European feudal religious codes of conduct forbade suicide, in feudal Japan it was the ultimate act of bravery. A samurai who committed seppuku would not only regain his honor, he would actually gain prestige for his courage in facing death calmly. This became a cultural touchstone in Japan, so much so that women and children of the samurai class were also expected to face death calmly if they were caught up in a battle or siege.

History of Bushido

How did this rather extraordinary system arise? As early as the eighth century, military men were writing books about the use and the perfection of the sword. They also created the ideal of the warrior-poet, who was brave, well-educated, and loyal.

In the middle period between the 13th to 16th centuries, Japanese literature celebrated reckless courage, extreme devotion to one's family and to one's lord, and cultivation of the intellect for warriors. Most of the works that dealt with what would later be called bushido concerned the great civil war known as the Genpei War from 1180 to 1185, which pitted the Minamoto and Taira clans against one another and led to the foundation of the Kamakura Period of shogunate rule.

The final phase of the development of bushido was the Tokugawa era, from 1600 to 1868. This was a time of introspection and theoretical development for the samurai warrior class because the country had been basically peaceful for centuries. The samurai practiced martial arts and studied the great war literature of earlier periods, but they had little opportunity to put the theory into practice until the Boshin War of 1868 to 1869 and the later Meiji Restoration.

As with earlier periods, Tokugawa samurai looked to a previous, bloodier era in Japanese history for inspiration—in this case, more than a century of constant warfare among the daimyo clans.

Illustration of samurai recruits training for the Satsuma Rebellion
Samurai recruits training for the Satsuma Rebellion. Three Lions / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Modern Bushido

After the samurai ruling class was abolished in the wake of the Meiji Restoration, Japan created a modern conscript army. One might think that bushido would fade away along with the samurai who had invented it.

In fact, Japanese nationalists and war leaders continued to appeal to this cultural ideal throughout the early 20th century and World War II. Echoes of seppuku were strong in the suicide charges that Japanese troops made on various Pacific Islands, as well as in the kamikaze pilots who drove their aircraft into Allied battleships and bombed Hawaii to start off America's involvement in the war.

Today, bushido continues to resonate in modern Japanese culture. Its stress on courage, self-denial, and loyalty has proved particularly useful for corporations seeking to get the maximum amount of work out of their "salarymen." 

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Bushido: The Ancient Code of the Samurai Warrior." ThoughtCo, Oct. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-bushido-195302. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, October 7). Bushido: The Ancient Code of the Samurai Warrior. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bushido-195302 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Bushido: The Ancient Code of the Samurai Warrior." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bushido-195302 (accessed June 8, 2023).