The Annotated Bushido

Chapter V


love, magnanimity, affection for others, sympathy and pity, which were ever recognized to be supreme virtues, [1905 start: Love, magnanimity, affection for others, sympathy and pity were ever recognized to be supreme virtues,] the highest of all the attributes of the human soul. It was deemed a princely virtue in a twofold sense: princely among the manifold attributes of a noble spirit; princely as particularly befitting a princely profession. We needed no Shakespeare to feel--though, perhaps, like the rest of the world, we needed him to express it--that Mercy became a monarch better than his crown, that it was above his sceptered sway. How often both Confucius and Mencius repeat the highest requirement of a ruler of men to consist in benevolence. Confucius would say,--"Let but a prince cultivate virtue, people will flock to him; with people will come to him lands; lands will bring forth for him wealth; wealth will give him the benefit of right uses. Virtue is the root, and wealth an outcome." Again, "Never has there been a case of a sovereign loving benevolence, and the people not loving righteousness." Mencius follows close at his heels and says, "Instances are on record where individuals attained to supreme power in a single state, without benevolence, but never have I heard of a whole empire falling into the hands of one who lacked this virtue. Also,--It is impossible that any one should become ruler of the people to whom they have not yielded the subjection of their hearts. Both defined this indispensable requirement in a ruler by saying, "Benevolence--benevolence is Man." Under the régime of feudalism, which could easily degenerate into militarism, it was to benevolence that we owed our deliverance from despotism of the worst kind. An utter surrender of "life and limb" on the part of the governed would have left nothing for the governing but self-will, and this has for its natural consequence the growth of that absolutism so often called "oriental despotism," as though there were no despots of occidental history!

Let it be far from me to uphold despotism of any sort; but it is a mistake to identify feudalism with it. When Frederick the Great wrote that "Kings are the first servants of the State," jurists thought rightly that a new era was reached in the development of freedom. Strangely coinciding in time, in the backwoods of North-western Japan, Yozan of Yonézawa made exactly the same declaration, showing that feudalism was not all tyranny and oppression. A feudal prince, although unmindful of owing reciprocal obligations to his vassals, felt a higher sense of responsibility to his ancestors and to Heaven. He was a father to his subjects, whom Heaven entrusted to his care. According to the ancient Chinese Book of Poetry, "Until the house of Yin lost the hearts of the people, they could appear before Heaven." And Confucius in his Great Learning taught: When the prince loves what the people love and hates what the people hate, then is he what is called the parent of the people." Thus are public opinion and monarchical will or democracy and absolutism merged one in the other. Thus also, in a sense not usually assigned to the term, Bushido accepted and corroborated paternal government--paternal also as opposed to the less interested avuncular government (Uncle Sam's, to wit!) The difference between a despotic and a paternal government lies in this, that in the one the people obey reluctantly, while in the other they do so with "that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of exalted freedom." The old saying is not entirely false which called the king of England the "king of devils, because of his subjects' often insurrections against, and depositions of, their princes," and which made the French monarch the "king of asses, because of their infinite taxes and Impositions," but which gave the title of "the king of men" to the sovereign of Spain "because of his subjects' willing obedience." But enough!

Virtue and absolute power may strike the Anglo-Saxon mind as terms which it is impossible to harmonize. Pobyedonostseff has clearly set before us the contrast in the foundations of English and other European communities; namely, that these were organized on the basis of common interest, while that was distinguished by a strongly developed independent personality. What this Russian statesman says of the personal dependence of individuals on some social alliance and in the end of ends of the State, among the continental nations of Europe and particularly among Slavonic peoples, is doubly true of the Japanese. Hence not only is a free exercise of monarchical power not felt as heavily by us as in Europe, but it is generally moderated by parental consideration for the feelings of the people. "Absolutism," says Bismarck, "primarily demands in the ruler impartiality, honesty, devotion to duty, energy and inward humility." If I may be allowed to make one more quotation on this subject, I will cite from the speech of the German Emperor at Coblenz, in which he spoke of "Kingship, by the grace of God, with its heavy duties, its tremendous responsibility to the Creator alone, from which no man, no minister, no parliament, can release the monarch." [1905: paragraph break] We knew it was [1905: We knew benevolence was] a tender virtue and mother-like. If upright Rectitude and stern Justice were peculiarly masculine, Mercy had the gentleness and the persuasiveness of a feminine nature. We were warned against indulging in indiscriminate charity, without seasoning it with justice and rectitude. Masamuné expressed it well in his oft-quoted aphorism--"Rectitude carried to excess hardens into stiffness; Benevolence indulged beyond measure sinks into weakness."

Fortunately mercy was not so rare as it was beautiful, for it is universally true that "The bravest are the tenderest, the loving are the daring." "Bushi no nasaké"--the tenderness of a warrior--had a sound which appealed at once to whatever was noble in us; not that the mercy of a samurai was generically different from the mercy of any other being, but because it implied mercy where mercy was not a blind impulse, but where it recognized due regard to justice, and where mercy did not remain merely a certain state of mind, but where it was backed with power to save or kill. As economists speak of demand as being effectual or ineffectual, similarly we may call the mercy of Bushi effectual, since it implied the power of acting for the good or detriment of the recipient.

Priding themselves as they did in their brute strength and privileges to turn it into account, the samurai gave full consent to what Mencius taught concerning the power of Love. "Benevolence," he says, "brings under its sway whatever hinders its power, just as water subdues fire: they only doubt the power of water to quench flames who try to extinguish with a cupful a whole burning wagon-load of fagots." He also says that "the feeling of distress is the root of benevolence, therefore a benevolent man is ever mindful of those who are suffering and in distress." Thus did Mencius long anticipate Adam Smith who founds his ethical philosophy on sympathy.

It is indeed striking how closely the code of knightly honor of one country coincides with that of others; in other words, how the much-abused oriental ideas of morals find their counterparts in the noblest maxims of European literature. If the well-known lines [1905: the well-known lines,]

Hae tibi erunt artes--pacisque imponere morem,

Parcere subjectis, et debellare superbos,

were shown a Japanese gentleman, he might readily accuse the illustrious bard [1905: the Mantuan bard] of plagiarizing from his own countryman's literature [1905: from the literature of his own country].

Benevolence to the weak, the down-trodden or the vanquished, was ever extolled as peculiarly becoming to a samurai. Lovers of Japanese art must be familiar with the representation of a priest riding backwards on a cow. The rider was once a warrior who in his day made his name a by-word of terror. In that terrible battle of Suma-no-ura, (1184 A.D.) which was one of the most decisive in our history, he overtook an enemy and in single combat had him in the clutch of his gigantic arms. Now the etiquette of war required that on such occasions no blood should be spilt, unless the weaker party proved to be a man of rank or ability equal to that of the stronger. The grim combatant would have the name of the man under him; but he refusing to make it known, his helmet was ruthlessly torn off, when the sight of a juvenile face, fair and beardless, made the astonished knight relax his hold. Helping the youth to his feet, in paternal tones he bade the stripling go: "Off, young prince, to thy mother's side! The sword of Kumagaye [1905: Kumagayé] shall never be tarnished by a drop of thy blood. Haste and flee o'er yon pass before thy enemies come in sight!" The young warrior refused to go and begged Kumagaye, [1905: begged Kumagayé,] for the honor of both, to dispatch him on the spot. Above the hoary head of the veteran gleams the cold blade, which many a time before has sundered the chords of life, but his stout heart quails; there flashes athwart his mental eye the vision of his own boy, who this self-same day marched to the sound of bugle to try his maiden arms; the strong hand of the warrior quivers; again he begs his victim to flee for his life. Finding all his entreaties vain and hearing the approaching steps of his comrades, he exclaims: "If thou art overtaken, thou mayest fall at a more ignoble hand than mine. O, thou Infinite! [1905: O thou Infinite!] receive his soul!". [1905: receive his soul!"] In an instant the sword flashes in the air, and when it falls it is red with adolescent blood. When the war is ended, we find our soldier returning in triumph, but little cares he now for honor or fame; he renounces his warlike career, shaves his head, dons a priestly garb, devotes the rest of his days to holy pilgrimage, never turning his back to the West, where lies the Paradise whence salvation comes and whither the sun hastes daily for his rest.

Critics may point out flaws in this story, which is casuistically vulnerable. Let it be: all the same it shows that Tenderness, Pity and Love, were traits [1905: Tenderness, Pity, and Love were traits] which adorned the most sanguinary exploits of the samurai. It was an old maxim among them that "It becometh not the fowler to slay the bird which takes refuge in his bosom." This in a large measure explains why the Red Cross movement, considered so peculiarly Christian, so readily found a firm footing among us. Decades before we heard of the Geneva Convention, Bakin, our greatest novelist, had familiarized us with the medical treatment of a fallen foe. In the principality of Satsuma, noted for its martial spirit and education, the custom prevailed for young men to practice music; not the blast of trumpets or the beat of drums,--"those clamorous harbingers of blood and death"--stirring us to imitate the actions of a tiger, but sad and tender melodies on the biwa, soothing our fiery spirits, drawing our thoughts away from scent of blood and scenes of carnage. Polybius tells us of the Constitution of Arcadia, which required all youths under thirty to practice music, in order that this gentle art might alleviate the rigors of the inclement region. It is to its influence that he attributes the absence of cruelty in that part of the Arcadian mountains.

Nor was Satsuma the only place in Japan where gentleness was inculcated among the warrior class. A Prince of Shirakawa jots down his random thoughts, and among them is the following: "Though they come stealing to your bedside in the silent watches of the night, drive not away, but rather cherish these--the fragrance of flowers, the sound of distant bells, the insect hummings of a frosty night." And again, "Though they may wound your feelings, these three you have only to forgive, the breeze that scatters your flowers, the cloud that hides your moon, and the man who tries to pick quarrels with you."

It was ostensibly to express, but actually to cultivate, these gentler emotions that the writing of verses was encouraged. Our poetry has therefore a strong undercurrent of pathos and tenderness. A well-known anecdote of a rustic samurai illustrates a case in point. When he was told to learn versification, and "The Warbler's Notes" was given him for the subject of his first attempt, his fiery spirit rebelled and he flung at the feet of his master this uncouth production, which ran

"The brave warrior keeps apart

The ear that might listen

To the warbler's song."

His master, undaunted by the crude sentiment, continued to encourage the youth, until one day the music of his soul was awakened to respond to the sweet notes of the uguisu, and he wrote

"Stands the warrior, mailed and strong,

To hear the Uguisu's [1905: uguisu's] song,

Warbled sweet the trees among."

We admire and enjoy the heroic incident in Körner's short life, when, as he lay wounded on the battle field [1905: battle-field], he scribbled his famous "Farewell to Life." Incidents of a similar kind were not at all unusual in our warfare. Our pithy, epigrammatic poems were particularly well suited to the improvisation of a single sentiment. Everybody of any education was either a poet or a poetaster. Not infrequently a marching soldier might be seen to halt, take his writing utensils from his belt, and compose an ode,--and such papers were found afterward in the helmets or the breast-plates when these were removed from their lifeless wearers.

What Christianity has done in Europe toward rousing compassion in the midst of belligerent horrors, love of music and letters has done in Japan. The cultivation of tender feelings breeds considerate regard for the sufferings of others. Modesty and complaisance, actuated by respect for others' feelings, are at the root of [1905: Modesty and complaisance, actuated by respect for others' feelings, are at the root of politeness.]  <continue>

Benevolence (jin)

Nitobe here confronts the challenge of reconciling the martial "way of the warrior" with the compassionate Confucian virtue of benevolence. He is rather more successful in resolving this paradox insofar as it concerns the behavior of samurai with other samurai (as bushi no nasake) than when it comes to the hierarchical relationships that obtain between sovereign/lord and subject/vassal. This is because Nitobe is forced to argue that monarchs can be democratic, an oxymoron he attempts to justify, first, by asserting that the paternal concern of a ruler like Frederick the Great is actually based on having the best interests of his subjects at heart, and second, by invoking the Chinese notion of the Mandate of Heaven, under which emperors are held accountable for their moral failings -- this despite the fact that it would be unthinkable for the Japanese emperor to be stripped of his semidivine status.

The less problematic discussion of benevolent behavior among samurai themselves is based primarily on literary examples. The "casuistic vulnerability" of such stories is acknowledged by Nitobe even as he attempts to deflect potential criticism by appealing to the ability of literature to reflect genuine ideals. However, it does not really help his argument that he is willing to offer up such facile generalizations as "everybody of any education was either a poet or a poetaster."

Much of the opening account of Confucian philosophy and European history was added to the chapter in 1905. In fact, as indicated by the tooltip at "an utter surrender," a large portion of the first two paragraphs has simply been transposed from Chapter IX of the first edition -- loyalty, that is, has been transformed into benevolence. It is a telling editing decision.

A number of editing slips are apparent in the added section, beginning with the use of quotation marks in the selections from Mencius. There is also a period missing after "(Uncle Sam's, to wit!)," and a number of words that are routinely capitalized elsewhere appear in lowercase here. Additional corrective editing was undertaken in later editions, and several sentences added in 1905 were later omitted (those including the Confucian quotations preceding "Uncle Sam").

"Benevolence" and "virtue" are written with different Chinese characters, and so should presumably be considered separate moral qualities. Perhaps because Nitobe cannot avoid mentioning Confucius when discussing Confucianism generally, he has conflated the two qualities here; however, "benevolence" may perhaps be considered more distinctively characteristic of the philosophy of Mencius than of Confucius.

The first two quotations are from the Confucian classic the Great Learning (Daxue) 10.6-7 and 10.21, respectively. The Great Learning was a chapter in the Classic of Rites (Liji) that began to be treated as an independent text in the Song period (960-1279).

The first of the following quotations comes from the Mencius 7B13.

The quotation comes from the Mencius 4B16.

Nitobe appears to be referring to Doctrine of the Mean 20:5 (Benevolence is the characteristic element of humanity, and the great exercise of it is in loving relatives. -- Legge translation) for Confucius, and to the Mencius 7B16 (Benevolence is the distinguishing characteristic of man. -- Legge translation) for Mencius.

The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong) -- like the Great Learning -- was originally a chapter in the Classic of Rites (Liji) that began to be treated as an independent Confucian text during the Song period (960-1279).

Much of the following passage was transferred here from its original location in in "Chapter IX: Loyalty." More specifically, the section from "an utter surrender of 'life and limb'" up to "whom Heaven entrusted to his care" in the next paragraph is from the original Chapter IX; the three sentences after that, along with "Thus also," have been newly inserted; the transposed Chapter IX then continues from "in a sense not usually assigned" up to "But enough! (in 1900 actually "But enough!--").

Frederick II ("The Great,"1712-1786) was king of Prussia and one of the "enlightened despots" of 18th-century Europe. He wrote "the sovereign is the first servant of the state" in his Political Testament of 1752.

A reference to Uesugi Yōzan (1751-1822), daimyo of the Yonezawa domain (in the southern part of present-day Yamagata Prefecture), known for his reformist policies.

The Book of Poetry -- also called the Book of Songs, the Classic of Poetry, or the Classic of Odes -- is the earliest existing collection of Chinese verse. It contains 305 poems and songs, supposedly selected and edited by Confucius, covering a time span between roughly 1100 and 600 BC. Ode 235, "King Wen," describes the Shang Dynasty (with its capital at Yin) losing the Mandate of Heaven. It seems likely, however, that Nitobe is quoting secondhand from the Great Learning, to which he refers immediately below. Chapter 10.5 of that source reads as follows in the Legge translation:

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, "Before the sovereigns of the Yin dynasty had lost the hearts of the people, they could appear before God. Take warning from the house of Yin. The great decree is not easily preserved." This shows that, by gaining the people, the kingdom is gained, and, by losing the people, the kingdom is lost.


Great Learning, 10.3.

Burke, French Revolution. [Nitobe's note, 1900] Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish political philosopher and statesman whose book criticized the destabilizing radicalism of the French Revolution.

The following characterizations of European monarchs are taken from Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha (1680), Chapter II, Section 18. Filmer (1588-1653) was a strong advocate of absolute monarchy. An online version of Patriarcha can be found at the website of the Constitution Society.

Konstantin Petrovich Pobyedonostsyev (1827-1907) was a Russian public official who -- especially under Tsar Alexander III (r. 1881-1894) -- promoted autocracy and opposed democracy. He also recommended child labor over universal education for the majority of the nation's youth.

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was the statesman largely responsible for the unification and shaping of the modern German state, first as Minister President of Prussia from 1862 and then as Imperial Chancellor from 1871 to 1890. The quotation comes from "Chapter I" of the first volume of Bismarck's memoirs, Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman, which was published in 1889.

Presumably a reference to Emperor Wilhelm (William) I (1797-1888), who served at Koblenz as Prussian military governor for the Rhine province from 1850 to 1858, and who in 1862 appointed Bismarck as his prime minister (Minister President) after becoming King of Prussia the previous year. Under Wilhelm and Bismarck, the formal unification of Germany took place in 1871, at which time Wilhelm became the first German Emperor. The source of the quotation remains to be identified.

Date Masamune (1567-1636) was the founding daimyo of the Sendai domain. Nitobe's "aphorism" includes two of the five precepts supposedly left behind by Date at the time of his death (the others deal with the qualities of politeness. wisdom, and trust). There does not appear to be any documentary basis for claiming these precepts to be Date's.

The quotation is from the 1863 poem "The Song of the Camp" by Bayard Taylor (1825-1878). Taylor, of Quaker descent, was a peripatetic poet, travel writer, translator, and lecturer who sailed with the Perry expedition from China to Japan in 1853. He won considerable fame for his 1870-71 translation of Goethe's Faust.

The quotation comes from the Mencius 6A18.

The precise source is uncertain, but perhaps Nitobe is referring to the famous child-at-the-well parable related in the Mencius 2A6. Bryan W. Van Norden has translated the key sentence as follows:

"The reason why I say that humans all have hearts that will not bear [the suffering of] others is this. Suppose someone suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well: everyone [in such a situation] would have a feeling of alarm and compassion -- not because one sought to get in good with the child's parents, not because one wanted fame among their neighbors and friends, and not because one would dislike the sound of [the child's] cries."


Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a Scottish social philosopher who pioneered political economy as a discipline. Although Smith is most often associated with the notion that people are motivated by self-interest, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) he asserts that the happiness of others is necessary to an individual no matter how selfish he or she may be.

A discussion of sympathy in Smith can be found at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The reference here is to the Roman poet ("the illustrious bard") Virgil (70-19 BC). The quotation comes from the Aeneid (6.852-853), and has been translated in The Cambridge Companion to Virgil as follows (p. 210, with minor modifications):

These shall be your skills: to combine peace with morality

to spare the conquered and to subdue the proud.


The motif of a priest riding backward on a "cow" is used by Nitobe to introduce the famous anecdote -- related in The Tale of Heike and dramatized in Noh and Kabuki -- concerning Kumagai and Atsumori at the Battle of Ichinotani. As Nitobe goes on to explain, Kumagai discovers the young Atsumori retreating on horseback toward a boat in the offing and goads him into returning to shore to do battle. Kumagai defeats Atsumori and removes his helmet to behead him, only to discover that his opponent is a handsome young man about the age of his own son. Kumagai wants to spare the youth, but fellow samurai are approaching, so Kumagai slays Atsumori both to preserve the youth's honor and because Kumagai will be able to perform penance for the deed. While the historical Kumagai (?-1208) did eventually become a priest, the anecdote is, as Nitobe acknowledges, factually suspect. 

It should be noted that the motif of a monk riding backward on an ox (rather than a cow) is a common one in Zen-influenced art, where it represents the paradox of attaining of one's goal by relinquishing the intention to achieve it -- that is, trusting in the ox to find its way home without guidance from its owner. Kumagai here should be seen as one concrete embodiment of the ideal; he is not the actual source of the motif.

This is currently referred to as the Battle of Ichinotani. Ichinotani ("First Valley") runs inland from the Sumanoura ("Suma Inlet") coast of Honshu, near present-day Kobe.

This "maxim" can be found in the "Family Instructions of the Yan Clan" (Yanshi jiaxun; Ganshi kakun in Japanese) compiled by Yan Zhitui (531-591; Gan Shisui in Japanese). Satō Hirokazu deserves credit for identifying this source in his Japanese translation of Bushido.

Takizawa Bakin (also known as Kyokutei Bakin, 1767-1848) was a prolific writer in a number of Edo-period literary genres. One of his most famous works was Nansō satomi hakkenden (Biographies of Eight Dogs, 1814-42).

Present-day Kagoshima Prefecture, in Kyushu.

Macbeth 5.6.10-11:

Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath,

Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.


A musical instrument, resembling the guitar. [Nitobe's note]

Polybius (203-120 BC) was a Roman historian of Greek birth whose work focused on describing the expansion of the Roman Empire.

A reference to Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758-1829), daimyo of the Shirakawa domain in northern Honshu and the senior councillor (rōjū) of the Tokugawa shogunate at the time of the Kansei Reforms of 1787-93. The source of the following quotations remains to be identified.

A reference to the character Ōwashi Bungo in the puppet drama and Kabuki play Kanadehon chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, first performed in 1748), about the 47 loyal rōnin (masterless samurai) who waited a year and a half to avenge the death of their daimyo lord. To deflect the suspicion of authorities the rōnin resorted to a number of ruses, and Ōwashi was advised to take up poetry. The character was based on the historical Ōtaka Gengo (1672-1703), who was said to have exchanged poems with Sakurai Kikaku, a disciple of Matsuo Bashō, the night before the rōnin took their revenge.

The University of Virginia has a convenient introduction to the Kabuki play.

The Uguisu or Warbler, sometimes called the nightingale of Japan. [Nitobe's note] In modern-day translations, the bird is usually called the "bush warbler."

A reference to the character Ōboshi Yuranosuke, the leader of the group of masterless samurai in the same play. The character was modeled on Ōishi Yoshio (or, more properly, Ōishi Yoshitaka, 1659-1703), who is more familiarly known as Ōishi Kuranosuke.

Karl Theodor Körner (1791-1813) was a German poet and soldier who lost his life in the Napoleonic Wars. He composed "Farewell to Life" after being severely wounded in June 1813. He recovered from that wound, but was killed in August. Wikipedia offers a translation of the sonnet.