Bushido

Yesterday I made an attempt to weave together the story of a dancer turned FTE and Japan’s warrior period transformed into administrative rule. While bboys and warriors are/were motivated by the expectation of upcoming battles, tenured employment in post- and pre-industrial organizations can quickly become a drudging routine. Many great thinkers have argued that the human soul has a creative dimension that should be nourished. Likewise, it has been argued that bureaucratic work organization saps the life out of human beings. In Edo Japan, samurai scholars problematized the identity crisis of the warrior class. Some found solace in the arts or intellectual pursuits, while others rejected the reality of their circumstances and idolized the past.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo for instance was very upset about the fact that he was not allowed to use his swords like in the old days. In primary sources he is described as rash and hot-headed, although fiercely loyal to and affectionate with his master. When his lord died, he got upset to the point of being butt hurt for not being allowed to commit ritual suicide – his master had purposely enforced that law before passing away. Tsunetomo then decided to become a hermit. He was not a real hermit, because a trusted companion stayed by his side to record disappointed utterances of the malnourished and frustrated man. As bitter and pessimistic he was about his own life, as enchanted he was by the past. The Hagakure, commonly known as Bushido, is largely based a collection of idolizations and fantasies of what samurai-hood was like before Japan’s unification. Unfortunately Tsunetomo’s ideas are not supported by more objective historic accounts. Few primary sources on samurai and ronin were recorded and survived the ravages of time. Existing accounts from the Muromachi and Sengoku periods however describe samurai in general as risk-averse opportunists.

The code of ethics and superhuman capabilities – committing seppuku is a medical impossibility – grafted onto samurai and ronin alike served a political purpose. In the first instance, Nitobe Inazo elaborated on the code of conduct described in the Hagakure to convince invading powers that the Japanese had a cultural heritage on par with Western nobility. His convoluted attempt to overcome an acute inferiority complex is understandable. For centuries, Japan had sealed off its borders and revelled in the unchecked certainty that they were the chosen and superior people under the sun. Then, black ships appear at their borders with superior technology, a globally more successful political and economic model, and an air of quasi-fascist cultural superiority. Nitobe conjured up a system of ethics for samurai, one he admits did not exist formally. His widely influential work on the popular conception of Bushido is best understood by taking into account the situational factors of his time and critically examining the reliability of his sources. In the second instance, during WWII the Japanese military employed the Hagakure to invigorate the spirits of an outnumbered army. Both instances largely increased the popularity of Tsunetomo’s collection of thoughts; in his time the compilation was circulated in no more than three provinces.

The most important realization on the truth of Bushido is that our popular understanding of the samurai code is largely informed by the writings of two untrained and frankly incompetent historians. This is not to say that the warriors of post-Heian and pre-Edo Japan were not exceptionally skilled. Simply by competitive drive, the level of mastery in any discipline increases when the number of participants in the field increases. Heroes like Musashi were very real. He made an impact by taking the road less travelled. While common samurai at the time routinely resorted to cutting off the heads of corpses on battlefields – hardly a display of honour, but they were remunerated for military performance by “head count” – others pledged their lives to a higher goal.

I’m not really comfortable with the term soul, I don’t know if I have one. One thing is for sure though, between meeting objective but flawed performance appraisal systems and making your own path, I’d rather do it my way. It is a romantic idea, one that screams adventure. While we have a romantic understanding of Bushido altogether, comparable to Asians thinking all European knights were like Sir Lancelot, the real lessons lie in personal accounts of warriors who aspired greatness. They became great because they chose their own journey with confidence. 

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