The Annotated Bushido

Chapter XIII


and made it [1905 start: Bushido made the sword] the emblem of power and prowess. When Mahomet proclaimed that "The sword is the key of Heaven and of Hell," he only echoed a Japanese sentiment. Common people had ample reason to fear it, and the samurai boy early [1905: Very early the samurai boy] learned to wield it. It was a momentous occasion for him when at the age of five he was apparelled in the paraphernalia of samurai costume, placed upon a go-board and initiated into the rights of the military profession, by having thrust into his girdle a real sword instead of the toy dirk he had been playing with. [1905: with which he had been playing.] After this first ceremony of adoptio per arma, he was no more to be seen outside his father's gates without this badge of his status, even if it was usually substituted for every-day [1905: everyday] wear by a gilded wooden dirk. Not many years pass before he wears constantly the genuine steel, though blunt, and then the sham arms are thrown aside and with enjoyment keener than his newly acquired blades, he marches out to try their edge on wood and stone. When be reaches man's estate at the age of fifteen, [1905: man's estate, at the age of fifteen,] being given independence of action, he can now pride himself upon the possession of arms sharp enough for any work. The very possession of the dangerous instrument imparts to him a feeling and an air of self-respect and responsibility. "He beareth not his sword [1905: the sword] in vain." What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind and heart,--Loyalty and Honor. The two swords, the longer and the shorter,--called respectively Daito and Shoto or Katana and Wakizashi,--never leave his side. [1905: the longer and the shorter,--called respectively daito and shoto or katana and wakizashi,--never leave his side.] When at home, they grace the most conspicuous place in study or parlor; [1905: in the study or parlour;] by night they guard his pillow within easy reach of his hand. Constant companions, they are beloved, and proper names of endearment given them. Being venerated, they are well-nigh worshipped. The Father of History has recorded as a curious piece of information that the Scythians sacrificed to an iron scimitar. Many a temple and many a family in Japan hoards a sword as an object of adoration. Even the commonest dirk has due respect paid to it. Any insult to it is tantamount to personal affront. Woe to him who carelessly steps over a weapon lying on the floor!

So precious an object cannot long escape the notice and the skill of artists nor the vanity of its owner, especially in times of peace, when it is worn with no more use than a crosier by a bishop or a sceptre by a king. Sharkskin and finest silk for hilt, silver and gold for guard, lacquer of varied hues for scabbard, robbed the deadliest weapon of half its terror; but these appurtenances are playthings compared with the blade itself.

The swordsmith was not a mere artisan but an inspired artist and his workshop a sanctuary. Daily he commenced his craft with prayer and purification, or, as the phrase was, "he committed his soul and spirit into the forging and tempering of the steel." Every swing of the sledge, every plunge into water, every friction on the grindstone, was a religious act of no slight import. Was it the spirit of the master or of his tutelary god that cast a formidable spell over our sword? Perfect as a work of art, setting at defiance its Toledo and Damascus rivals, there was more than art could impart. Its cold blade, collecting on its surface the moment it is drawn the vapours [1905: vapour] of the atmosphere; its immaculate texture, flashing light of bluish hue; its matchless edge, upon which histories and possibilities hang; the curve of its back, uniting exquisite grace with utmost strength;--all these thrill us with mixed feelings of power and beauty, of awe and terror. Harmless were its mission, if it only remained a thing of beauty and joy! But, ever within reach of the hand, it presented no small temptation for abuse. Too often did the blade flash forth from its peaceful sheath. The abuse sometimes went so far as to try the acquired steel on some harmless creature's neck.

The question that concerns us most is, however,--Did Bushido justify the promiscuous use of the weapon? The answer is unequivocally, no! As it laid great stress on its proper use, so did it denounce and abhor its misuse. A dastard or a braggart was he who brandished his weapon on undeserved occasions. A self-possessed man knows the right time to use it, and such times come but rarely. Let us listen to the late Count Katsu, who passed through one of the most turbulent times of our history, when assassinations, suicides, and other sanguinary practices were the order of the day. Endowed as he once was with almost dictatorial powers, chosen repeatedly as an object for assassination, he never tarnished his sword with blood. In relating some of his reminiscences to a friend he says, in a quaint, plebeian way peculiar to him:--"I have [1905: way peculiar to him: "I have] a great dislike for killing people and so I haven't killed one single man. I have released those whose heads should have been chopped off. A friend said to me one day, 'You don't kill enough. Don't you eat pepper and egg-plants?' Well, some people are no better! But you see that fellow was slain himself. My escape may be due to my dislike of killing. I had the hilt of my sword so tightly fastened to the scabbard that it was hard to draw the blade. I made up my mind that though they cut me, I will [1905: would] not cut. Yes, yes! some people are truly like fleas and mosquitoes and they bite--but what does their biting amount to? It itches a little, that's all: [1905: that's all;] it won't endanger life." These are the words of one whose Bushido training was tried in the fiery furnace of adversity and triumph. The popular apothegm--"To be beaten is to conquer," meaning true conquest consists in not opposing a riotous foe; and "The best won victory is that obtained without shedding of blood," and others of similar import--will show that after all the ultimate ideal of knighthood was Peace.

It was a great pity that this high ideal was left exclusively to priests and moralists to preach, while the samurai went on practicing and extolling martial traits. In this they went so far as to tinge the ideals of womanhood with Amazonian character. Here we may profitably devote a few paragraphs to the subject of [1905: to the subject of the training and position of woman.]  <continue>


One might note the anachronistic use of foreign sources to "echo" Japanese sentiments, and Nitobe's avoidance of the phrase "common people."

It is also worth remarking on the paradox of a samurai's having the sword always at the ready even though it is of no more use than a bishop's crozier!

Muhammed (c. 570-632), the Arab prophet through whom the Qur'ân (Koran) was revealed and who founded Islam. The quotation is a Hadith, or recorded saying of Muhammed. Nitobe may have taken it from Chapter L of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), where Gibbon (1737-1794) writes as follows:

"The sword," says Mahomet, "is the key of heaven and of hell: a drop of blood shed in the cause of God, a night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months of fasting or prayer: whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven; at the day of judgment his wounds shall be resplendent as vermillion, and odoriferous as musk; and the loss of his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim."


The game of go is sometimes called Japanese checkers, but is much more intricate than the English game. The go board contains 361 squares and is supposed to represent a battle-field--the object of the game being to occupy as much space as possible. [Nitobe's note]  Nitobe reveals himself here to be unfamiliar with the game of go, since there are in fact only 324 squares on the go board. These squares are created by 19x19 intersecting lines, meaning that there are 361 intersections or points on the board, and stones are placed on these points in the attempt to surround or control as much space as possible ("space" is counted by the number of intersections occupied or controlled). Furthermore, although there is a "battle" involved, it is thought that the game has its origins in divination, so that the battle is between night (black stones) and day (white stones) over the course of a year (about 361 days).

"Adoption by arms." A ceremony of investing with arms by means of which one party is symbolically "adopted" by another. It appears to be the origin of dubbing in knighthood.

Romans 13:4. The first four verses of Romans 13 read as follows in the King James Version:

1) Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2) Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3) For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4) For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.


A reference to the Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC), who wrote the first great history of the ancient world. The relevant passage is Herodotus Histories 4.62, which describes the akinakes (which is short and straight rather than curved like a medieval scimitar) as an image of the god Ares (Mars). The following passage is from the 1862 translation by George Rawlinson (1812-1902):

Such are the victims offered to the other gods, and such is the mode in which they are sacrificed; but the rites paid to Mars are different. In every district, at the seat of government, there stands a temple of this god, whereof the following is a description. It is a pile of brushwood, made of a vast quantity of fagots, in length and breadth three furlongs; in height somewhat less, having a square platform upon the top, three sides of which are precipitous, while the fourth slopes so that men may walk up it. Each year a hundred and fifty waggon-loads of brushwood are added to the pile, which sinks continually by reason of the rains. An antique iron sword is planted on the top of every such mound, and serves as the image of Mars: yearly sacrifices of cattle and of horses are made to it, and more victims are offered thus than to all the rest of their gods. When prisoners are taken in war, out of every hundred men they sacrifice one, not however with the same rites as the cattle, but with different. Libations of wine are first poured upon their heads, after which they are slaughtered over a vessel; the vessel is then carried up to the top of the pile, and the blood poured upon the scymitar. While this takes place at the top of the mound, below, by the side of the temple, the right hands and arms of the slaughtered prisoners are cut off, and tossed on high into the air. Then the other victims are slain, and those who have offered the sacrifice depart, leaving the hands and arms where they may chance to have fallen, and the bodies also, separate.


No specific source has been identified.

Both Toledo (in Spain) and Damascus were famous for their steel and swords, although the latter location was not necessarily where the swords were made ("Damascus steel" has come to refer to a technique of swordmaking rather than to the origin or quality of the steel itself).

A reference to Katsu Kaishū (1823-1899), the Tokugawa vassal who captained the Kanrin Maru on its famous voyage to the United States in 1860. He also negotiated the bloodless surrender of Edo Castle during the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and served in a number of imperial-government positions afterward.

A quotation from Kaishū yoha (Kaishū's Influence), a collection of oral reminiscences taken down by educator and critic Iwamoto Yoshiharu (1863-1942) and published in 1899 shortly after Kaishū's death. An expanded version of this book was published in 1930 under the title Kaishū zadan (Conversations with Kaishū, in the Iwanami Bunko series). The (second) friend mentioned by Kaishū in the quotation is Kawakami Kensai (1834-1872), a fervid opponent of opening Japan to the Western "barbarians" who was executed by the new Meiji government ostensibly for assassinating two officials. The vegetable Nitobe for some reason translates as "pepper" -- kabocha -- is more accurately rendered "pumpkin" or "squash." Perhaps he thought that peppers were more conducive to producing a fighting spirit.

The Amazons were a legendary race of female warriors believed by the ancient Greeks to live at the outer boundary of the known world. There are myths about the Amazons involving such Greek heroes as Heracles and Theseus.