Rachael has been interested in many aspects of Japanese culture for a long time and hopes other people can learn her sense of appreciation.
What is Bushido?
People often think of Eastern philosophy as mystical and esoteric, like Chinese fortune telling, feng shui, yoga, etc. Bushido is the opposite, a practical and straightforward guide to living. It was originally expressed as a set of admonishments to samurai during the peaceful Tokugawa era, where samurai were seen as more decadent and less disciplined than their Warring State period forebears. Like Confucianism, Bushido gives practical advice, and the content of the advice is contingent upon one's station in life. Peasants have different duties from craftsmen, who have different duties from samurai. Men and women are to be treated differently. The young are to take care of their elder relatives. Parents are to take care of their children as well. Confucian thinkers believed that if everyone had a clear identity in life, with assigned privileges and responsibilities, society would work harmoniously, like a well-oiled machine. This idea is to this day ingrained in East Asian cultures. Bushido is a Confucian philosophy, about specifically what the assigned duties and responsibilities, as well as allotted privileges, should be for the warrior class.
Some might say bushido, or the way of the warrior, is obsolete. The samurai are gone. No one carries a sword anymore, though the Japanese once were known for the practice. Does it even make sense to follow the ethics assigned to a medieval warrior class in modern times?
However, when I read the Code of Bushido, the definitive work on the ethics prescribed for samurai, I saw it as reflecting many values that are in fact timeless. These values should be considered important to everyone. Sure, some of the stuff in there is dated, some of it is specific to the era in which it was made. But here is my list of values I found in the Code of Bushido that have universal applicability.
"For warriors, taking good care of parents is fundamental. If people do not take care their parents, they are not good, even if they are exceptionally smart, well-spoken, and handsome."
The Code of Bushido not only says it's a good idea to care for one's parents, the author says that it is essential. The reasoning is that one's parents are like the roots of a tree. A tree without roots withers and dies. Similarly, a human must maintain a good relationship with their parents in order to be a good person. This sense of duty is about appreciation for the care that one's parents gave you as a child.
Of course, the author notes that sometimes parents can just be cranky, or even abusive.
"Now, suppose there are parents who are obstreperous, cranky, and argumentative, who insist on running the household and refuse to hand over anything, who are importunate, inconsiderate, and demanding, and on top of that complain to others how vexed and troubled they are by the poor treatment they get from their sons, thus damaging their children's reputations. To honor even such unreasonable parents as parents, to humor them, to lament their aging and decline, and take care of them sincerely, without a bit of negligence - is the aim of dutiful children."
So, much like the Judeo-Christian ethic of "honor your father and mother", bushido says, even if grandpa is moody and unreasonable, you still have to take care of him because family is family. Suck it up, buttercup. Family is through thick and thin.
The Code also says employers can find dutiful employees by finding good sons. In other words, the loyalty someone gives to their family proves that they can give loyalty to their employer.
Order and Cleanliness
The Code contains many specific rules about how samurai are to dress and maintain order in their houses. Military equipment was expensive, and custodianship of swords and armor was an important duty of a warrior. They were also told to shave every day, keep their clothes clean, keep their hair groomed, etc. Bodily purity has historically been an important Japanese ethic. Samurai of this time wanted to appear diligent, organized, orderly, and civilized. They were to study a variety of arts, not simply the art of combat. They were expected to behave courteously, or at least, that was the ideal if not always the reality.
However, the most important thing was that samurai had to be prepared for an emergency crisis, such as assassination attempts or war breaking out. This prescribed order and attention to detail was seen as necessary, or else in an emergency a samurai could not perform their essential duties.
Not a warrior? Well, everyone should strive for an organized life.
Value of Things
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The passage on horsemanship is interesting and relevant today, even though we're in a post-horse economy. What it says is that, in ancient times, people chose horses as valuable tools for combat. Now, the author is saying, people try to buy untrained or hard-to-break horses and then train them and turn around and sell them at a profit. Think of flipping houses. The author's opinion is that this is worse than having no interest in horses at all. It reflects a Japanese cultural suspicion of merchants and the mercantile mindset. It's saying that things should be appreciated for their value, not seen as commodities to be bought and sold.
Women and Marriage
Marriage in Japanese culture was historically a simple matter of one partner living with the other. In this era, wives typically moved in with husbands, and divorce meant sending the wife back to her parents, which was a big disgrace to her. But even though women have little power in this system, the Code argues that the wife is to be honored as "mistress of the house", and that wife abuse is certainly unbecoming of a knight.
When it comes to loyalty to family and friendship, the Code prescribes that one take care to not abandon others during a time of hardship or need. Now, to do this is human nature, but people should try not to, to prove themselves true friends.
"To be an opportunist and a fair-weather friend, honoring the unworthy when you see them thriving and despising the worthy when you see them in decline, is the mentality of peasants and merchants; it is not right for a warrior."
I think that is a principle most people should try to live by today.
The interesting thing here is that the Code prescribes balance between saving and spending. People should not spend too much money on things they don't need, only to end up broke. A lot of people need to learn that. But it also says it's bad to be too afraid of spending money when needed. A samurai's job is to be ready to give away his "one and only life", so a knight who cannot stand to spend money now and then cannot be trusted to do that, it is reasoned. Cowardice in one area of life usually predicts cowardice in others.
Criticism and Talk
The author of the Code says warriors these days have less cause to complain, to be "big talkers" or to criticize, as they live their whole lives without ever actually seeing combat. Warriors of the past, he says, had more right to criticize and boast, because they had actually been war heroes. Basically, if you're going to talk the talk, you better earn that right. The Code makes several warnings against lies, gossip, slander, complaining, and abusive language - all of it can come back to bite you!
Contemplation of Death
The Code says that the origin of morality is to contemplate death. The idea is that this won't make you depressed, but it will help you think about your actions in the bigger picture context of your life and the kind of legacy you want to leave when you die. The idea is that people who contemplate death regularly will be morally superior in their actions, because they have a sure understanding of what kind of person they want to be remembered as. The point that warriors must be prepared to die whenever there is need of that is also emphasized throughout the book.
While there is a lot of advice in the Code of Bushido that is largely just insight into cultural conditions of the past in Japan, there is a lot of advice that is relevant for nearly everyone, even in an era where people don't brandish swords or fight brigands that often. If you're interested in learning more, you should get your own copy of the book.
Peggy Woods on August 06, 2017:
I had to read this because of the word Bushido in the title of your article. I was unfamiliar with that word.
Nice to know that some values never go out of style. Honoring one's parents is top of the list in my book. Thanks for writing this article. Will pin this to my Do You Know This? board.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 05, 2017:
A lot to digest.
Well done, thank you.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on August 05, 2017:
Feudal Japan is certainly an interesting subject and these old codes are fascinating as well. A great trip into the minds of the old warrior class of Japan, thanks!