The Annotated Bushido

Chapter I


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 not the less scents the moral atmosphere, and makes us aware that we are still under its potent spell. The conditions of society which brought it forth and nourished it have long disappeared; but as those far-off stars which once were and are not, still continue to shed their rays upon us, so the light of chivalry, which was a child of feudalism, still illuminates our moral path, surviving its mother institution. It is a pleasure to 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.

It argues a sad defect of information concerning the Far East, when so erudite a scholar as Dr. George Miller did not hesitate to affirm that chivalry, or any other similar institution, has never existed either among the nations of antiquity or among the modern Orientals. Such ignorance, however, is amply excusable, as the third edition of the good Doctor's work appeared the same year that Commodore Perry was knocking at the portals of our exclusivism. More than a decade later, about the time that our feudalism was in the last throes of existence, Carl Marx, writing his "Capital," called the attention of his readers to the peculiar advantage of studying the social and political institutions of feudalism, as then to be seen in living form only in Japan. I would likewise point the Western historical and ethical student to the study of chivalry in the Japan of the present.

Enticing as is a historical disquisition on the comparison between European and Japanese feudalism and chivalry, it is not the purpose of this paper to enter into it at length. My attempt is rather to relate, firstly, the origin and sources of our chivalry; secondly, its character and teaching; thirdly, its influence among the masses; and, fourthly, the continuity and permanence of its influence. Of these several points, the first will be only brief and cursory, or else I should have to take my readers into the devious paths of our national history; the second will be dwelt upon at greater length, as being most likely to interest students of International Ethics and Comparative Ethology in our ways of thought and action; and the rest will be dealt with as corollaries.

The Japanese word, which [1905: word which] I have roughly rendered Chivalry, is, in the original, more expressive than Horsemanship. Bu-shi-do means literally Military-Knight-Ways--the ways which fighting nobles should observe in their daily life as well as in their vocation; in a word, the "Precepts of Knighthood," the noblesse oblige of the warrior class. Having thus given its literal significance, I may be allowed henceforth to use the word in the original. The use of the original term is also advisable for this reason, that a teaching so circumscribed and unique, engendering a cast of mind and character so peculiar, so local, must wear the badge of its singularity on its face; then, some words have a national timbre so expressive of race characteristics that the best of translators can do them but scant justice, not to say positive injustice and grievance. Who can improve by translation what the German "Gemüth" signifies, or who does not feel the difference between the two words verbally so closely allied as the English gentleman and the French gentilhomme?

Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the knights were required or instructed to observe. It is not a written code; at best it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant. More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing all the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart. It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career. It, perhaps, fills the same position in the history of ethics that the English Constitution does in political history; yet it has had nothing to compare with the Magna Charta or the Habeas Corpus Act. True, early in the seventeenth century Military Statutes (Buké Hatto) were promulgated; but their thirteen short articles were taken up mostly with marriages, castles, leagues, etc., and didactic regulations were but meagerly touched upon. We cannot, therefore, point out any definite time and place and say, "Here is its fountain head." Only as it attains consciousness in the feudal age, its origin, in respect to time, may be identified with feudalism. But feudalism itself is woven of many threads, and Bushido shares its intricate nature. As in England the political institutions of feudalism may be said to date from the Norman Conquest, so we may say that in Japan its rise was simultaneous with the ascendency of Yoritomo, late in the twelfth century. As, however, in England, we find the social elements of feudalism far back in the period previous to William the Conqueror, so, too, the germs of feudalism in Japan had been long existent before the period I have mentioned.

Again, in Japan as in Europe, when feudalism was formally inaugurated, the professional class of warriors naturally came into prominence. These were known as samurai, meaning literally, like the old English cniht (knecht, knight), guards or attendants -- resembling in character the soldurii whom Caesar mentioned as existing in Aquitania, or the comitati, who, according to Tacitus, followed Germanic chiefs in his time; or, to take a still later parallel, the milites medii that one reads about in the history of Mediaeval Europe. A Sinico-Japanese word Bu-ké or Bu-shi (Fighting Knights) was also adopted in common use. They were a privileged class, and must originally have been a rough breed who made fighting their vocation. This class was naturally recruited, in a long period of constant warfare, from the manliest and the most adventurous, and all the while the process of elimination went on, the timid and the feeble being sorted out, and only "a rude race, all masculine, with brutish strength," to borrow Emerson's phrase, surviving to form families and the ranks of the samurai. Coming to profess great honor and great privileges, and correspondingly great responsibilities, they soon felt the need of a common standard of behavior, especially as they were always on a belligerent footing and belonged to different clans. Just as physicians limit competition among themselves by professional courtesy, just as lawyers sit in courts of honor in cases of violated etiquette, so must also warriors possess some resort for final judgment on their misdemeanors.

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 virtues? 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 corner-stone 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? This desire of Tom's 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 Quakers rightly testify, brutal and wrong, we can still say with Lessing, "We know from what failings our virtue springs." "Sneaks" and "cowards" are epithets of the worst opprobrium to healthy, simple natures. Childhood begins life with these notions, and knighthood also; but, as life grows larger and its relations many-sided, the early faith seeks sanction from higher authority and more rational sources for its own justification, satisfaction [1905: satisfaction,] and development. If military systems had operated alone, without higher moral support, how far short of chivalry would the moral idea [1905: the ideal of knighthood] have fallen! In Europe, Christianity, interpreted with concessions convenient to chivalry, infused it nevertheless with spiritual data. "Religion, war and glory [1905: Religion, war, and glory] were the three souls of a perfect Christian knight," says Lamartine. In Japan there were several  [1905: In Japan there were several sources of Bushido.]  <continue>

Ethical System

In this opening chapter, Nitobe discusses the ethical basis of bushidō. He acknowledges that it is hard to identify when bushidō actually arose or to specify how the system worked through Japanese history, but he places its origin in the feudal age, when the class of bushi, or warriors, began to play an important role in society.

According to Nitobe, as the samurai class grew larger and its relations more complex, its members sought a more rational justification for their function in society. Consequently, as with Christianity in Europe, an ethical code -- bushidō -- was developed on the foundation of three sources, as explained in the next chapter.

In the first edition of Bushido (and in all subsequent Japan-published editions), chapter headings after the first one were incorporated into the text to form part of a continuous whole (headings are capitalized and placed on separate lines, but no chapter numbering is used and, in effect, the headings simply highlight key expressions in the text). The 1905 Putnam edition adjusted the text so that each chapter was self-contained, added chapter numbers, removed the punctuation surrounding chapter titles, and used italics rather than quotation marks (in most cases) to indicate book titles. Only the first two of these changes are noted on this site. In addition, the 1905 edition adopts British spelling ("honour," "valour," "brutalising," "harmonise," "analyse," and the like) and largely but inconsistently reduces key nouns ("valour," "politeness," "veracity") to lowercase forms; however, to avoid needless clutter, American spelling and the original capitalization have been retained throughout (with some indicated exceptions).

Nitobe's original notes are identified as such within each corresponding tooltip. Satō Masahiro's Japanese translation of Bushido has helped me identify a number of Biblical allusions I would have otherwise passed over.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish political philosopher and statesman whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) criticized the destabilizing radicalism of the French Revolution.

George Miller (1764-1848), D.D., was a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and published a number of theological works. A short biography is available here.

History Philosophically Illustrated (3rd Ed. 1853), Vol. II, p. 2. [Nitobe's note]

Matthew C. Perry (1794-1848) was the American naval commander whose arrival with a fleet of four "Black Ships" in 1853 led to the opening of Japan to the West. Perry returned in 1854, resulting in the signing of the Convention of Kanagawa with the Tokugawa shogunate.

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher and economist who, with the German socialist and political philosopher Friedrich Engles (1820-1895), founded modern Communism. Important publications include The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Capital (or Das Kapital), the first volume of which came out in 1867. The other two volumes of Marx's masterwork, which appeared in 1885 and 1894, were prepared by Engles from Marx's notes.

Now usually spelled Magna Carta, this was a charter obtained from King John of England in 1215 by his barons that compelled the king to recognize the rights of both nobles and ordinary Englishmen. It is considered the foundation of English constitutional practice.

The Habeas Corpus Act, passed by the English Parliament in 1679, required authorities to bring a detained person before a court of law to determine whether the detention was legal or not. It was eventually interpreted as the guarantee of a legal right to challenge detention by the authorities.

Buke hatto (now usually called Buke sho-hatto) is a term that refers to the 13 "articles" formulated by the second shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, in 1611. The code was subsequently revised by five other shoguns, up to Tokugawa Yoshimune in 1717.

Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) established the Kamakura bakufu in 1192, marking the start of Japan's feudal period (the Kamakura period itself is often dated back to 1185, when Yoritomo instituted the shugo-jitō system of military governors and land stewards).

William the Conqueror (c. 1028-1087) invaded England in 1066, establishing Norman control over the country and shaping its history during the Middle Ages.

Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), the famous general and statesman of ancient Rome, was assassinated shortly after becoming dictator for life.

Aquitania was a province of the Roman Empire that now lies in southwestern France.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56 AD–c. 120 AD), was a Roman politician and historian whose Annals and Histories span the years between 14 AD and 96 AD. The Germanium (98 AD) describes the fiercely independent nature of the German tribes that had moved into central Europe.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American Transcendentalist, essayist, and poet. The quotation comes from the "Land" chapter of English Traits (1856).

A reference to the title character in Tom Brown's Schooldays, a novel written in 1857 by Thomas Hughes (1822-1896). In the novel, set at Rugby School in England, little Tom must confront a bully. The quotation comes from Part II, Chapter VI ("Fever in the School").

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was a central figure of the German Enlightenment. The following quotation is a line, variously translated, taken from Act IV of his play Nathan the Wise (1779), about religious tolerance.

Ruskin was one of the most gentle-hearted and peace-loving men that ever lived. Yet he believed in war with all the fervor of a worshipper of the strenuous life. "When I tell you," he says in the Crown of Wild Olive, "that war is the foundation of all the arts, I mean also that it is the foundation of all the high virtues and faculties of men. It is very strange to me to discover this, and very dreadful, but I saw it to be quite an undeniable fact. . . . I found, in brief, that all great nations learned their truth of word and strength of thought in war; that they were nourished in war and wasted by peace; taught by war and deceived by peace; trained by war and betrayed by peace; in a word, that they were born in war and expired in peace." [Nitobe's note] John Ruskin (1819-1900) published The Crown of Wild Olive -- a collection of three public lectures -- in 1866.

Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (1790–1869) was a French writer, poet, and politician of moderate, pacifistic views who supported the founding of the French Second Republic.