The Annotated Bushido


Summary / Notes


Chapter IV


to the consideration of which we shall now return. [1905 start:] Courage was scarcely deemed worthy to be counted among virtues, unless it was exercised in the cause of Righteousness. In his "Analects" Confucius defines Courage by explaining, as is often his wont, what its negative is. "Perceiving what is right," he says, "and doing it not, argues lack of courage." Put this epigram into a positive statement, and it runs, "Courage is doing what is right." To run all kinds of hazards, to jeopardize one's self, to rush into the jaws of death--these are too often identified with Valor, and in the profession of arms such rashness of conduct--what Shakespeare calls "valor misbegot"--is unjustly applauded; but not so in the Precepts of Knighthood. Death for a cause unworthy of dying for, was called a "dog's death." "To rush into the thick of battle and to be slain in it," says a Prince of Mito, "is easy enough, and the merest churl is equal to the task;" but, he continues, [1905: equal to the task; but," he continues,] "it is true courage to live when it is right to live, and to die only when it is right to die." [1905: to die only when it is right to die"-- and yet the Prince had not even heard of the name of Plato, who defines courage as "the knowledge of things that a man should fear and that he should not fear."] A distinction which is made in the West between moral and physical courage has long been recognized among us. What samurai youth has not heard of "Great Valor" and the "Valor of a Villein?"

Valor, Fortitude, Bravery, Fearlessness, Courage, being the qualities of soul which appeal most easily to juvenile minds, and which can be trained by exercise and example, were, so to speak, the most popular virtues, early emulated among the youth. Stories of military exploits were repeated almost before boys left their mother's breast. Does a little booby cry for any ache? The mother scolds him in this fashion: "What a coward to cry for a trifling pain! What will you do when your arm is cut off in battle? What when you are called upon to commit hara-kiri?" We all know the pathetic fortitude of a famished little boy-prince of Sendai, who in the drama is made to say to his little page, "Seest thou those tiny sparrows in the nest, how their yellow bills are opened wide, and now see! there comes their mother with grains [1905: worms] to feed them. How eagerly and happily the little ones eat! but for a samurai, when his stomach is empty, it is a disgrace to feel hunger." Anecdotes of fortitude and bravery abound in nursery tales, though stories of this kind are not by any means the only method of early imbuing the spirit with daring and fearlessness. Parents, with sternness sometimes verging on cruelty, set their children to tasks that called forth all the pluck that was in them. "Bears hurl their cubs down the gorge," they said. Samurai's sons were let down to steep valleys of hardship, and spurred to Sisyphus-like tasks. Occasional deprivation of food or exposure to cold, was considered a highly efficacious test for inuring them to endurance. Children of tender age were sent among utter strangers with some message to deliver, were made to rise before the sun, and before breakfast attend to their reading exercises, walking to their teachers with bare feet in the cold of winter; they frequently--once or twice a month, as on the festival of a god of learning,--came together in small groups and passed the night without sleep, in reading aloud by turns. Pilgrimages to all sorts of uncanny places--to execution grounds, to graveyards, to houses reputed of being haunted, were favorite pastimes of youths [1905: favorite pastimes of the young]. In the days when decapitation was public, not only were small boys sent to witness the ghastly scene, but they were made to visit alone the place in the darkness of night and there to leave a mark of their visit on the trunkless head.

Does this ultra-Spartan system of "drilling the nerves" strike the modern pedagogist with horror and doubt--doubt whether the tendency would not be brutalizing, nipping in the bud the tender emotions of the heart? Let us see what other precepts Bushido provided for its followers. [1905: Let us see in another chapter what other concepts Bushido had of Valor.] << continue >>

Courage (yū)

Courage might be considered the quality most readily associated with being a warrior, which may be precisely why Nitobe chooses to discuss it after Rectitude -- that is, he may have wanted to approach the martial side of bushidō only after placing it in a clear moral context (he refers to courage, after all, as a quality likely to appeal to "juvenile" minds, suggesting that it is actually of a lower order).

Courage, too, is subject to abuse, but because of its immediate appeal to youth, it can be used to inculcate basic samurai values among the young. It is true that the outcome is an extraordinarily strict form of moral education, but this is apparently justifiable in that courage is essential to the exercise of righteous behavior.

This slight chapter was greatly expanded in 1905 by the addition of a lengthy footnote near the end (the tooltip at "ultra-Spartan system") detailing various Japanese historical and literary examples. This may have been at least partly a response to early Japanese readers like Tsuda Sōkichi and Inoue Tetsujirō, who criticized Nitobe's lack of historical awareness.

In Timon of Athens 3.5.24-36, the First Senator berates Alcibiades as follows:

You undergo too strict a paradox,

Striving to make an ugly deed look fair:

Your words have took such pains as if they labour'd

To bring manslaughter into form and set quarrelling

Upon the head of valour; which indeed

Is valour misbegot and came into the world

When sects and factions were newly born:

He's truly valiant that can wisely suffer

The worst that man can breathe, and make his wrongs

His outsides, to wear them like his raiment, carelessly,

And ne'er prefer his injuries to his heart,

To bring it into danger.


A reference to Mito Mitsukuni (1628-1700). More properly referred to as Tokugawa Mitsukuni, he was the third son of Tokugawa Yorifusa (1603-1661, himself the 11th son of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu) and the second daimyo of the Mito domain. Mitsukuni was responsible for initiating the compilation of the History of Great Japan (Dai Nihon shi), a Neo-Confucianist reworking of Japanese history that (under Mitsukuni himself) was concerned with the legitimacy of imperial succession and the question of loyalty to the emperor.

The quotation comes from the Protagoras of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) and is often found online as "Courage is knowing what not to fear." In the Benjamin Jowett translation of 1892, the quotation appears as part of a question asked by Socrates: "And the knowledge of that which is and is not dangerous is courage, and is opposed to the ignorance of these things?" The Protagoras may thus be taken to address the unresolved doubt over the nature of courage raised in the Laches, where Socrates deconstructs the assent of Nicias to the following question (without offering an alternative): "Do you mean to affirm that courage is the knowledge of the grounds of hope and fear?"

Harakiri, referring to ritual disembowelment, is a colloquial Japanese reading of the compound made with the Chinese characters for "cut" and "stomach," in that order (in this reading of the compound, the second character is pronounced first). The Sinicized pronunciation of the same compound -- with the characters sounded in the order they are written -- is seppuku.

A reference to the character Tsuruchiyo in the 1777 Kabuki play Meiboku sendai hagi (two scenes of which have been translated into English by Matthew Johnson under the title The Precious Incense and Autumn Flowers of Sendai [in James R. Brandon and Samuel L. Leiter, eds., Kabuki Plays on Stage, Volume 2]). The play is based on an Edo-period succession dispute in the Date clan, transposed to the Muromachi period. In the main scenes, the nursemaid Masaoka sacrifices her equally loyal son Senmatsu to protect the young lord Tsuruchiyo. Nitobe's characterization of the scene seems rather loose, since the baby sparrows are being kept in a cage as pets, Tsuruchiyo makes a stoic comment about enduring hunger earlier in the play rather than at this point, and here Masaoka in fact admonishes Senmatsu, as a samurai, not to cry. The Japan Arts Council has a brief description and summary of the play here.

Satō Masakazu, in his Japanese translation, substitutes the actual Kabuki lines for Nitobe's version, providing a literal translation of Nitobe's text in a footnote. It is, of course, highly unlikely that worms would be kept so close at hand to feed the baby sparrows (in the play Masaoka provides rice), so the substitution of "worms" for "grains" in 1905 can perhaps most charitably be considered a concession to Western sensibilities (as with "bear," below).

An apparent reference to the lion-like shishi (shih tzu), a mythological Chinese creature resembling a lion and considered the King of Beasts. The Noh drama Shakkyō (Stone Bridge, date uncertain) concerns the shishi, as does the Kabuki dance Renjishi ("The Father and Son Shishi Lions," as it is translated on Shōchiku's official Kabuki website, which also provides a YouTube trailer). The dance -- first performed in 1861 and a staple of modern-day Kabuki -- is based on a traditional belief that a shishi would throw its cub into a ravine and only rear it if the cub could demonstrate its fortitude by climbing back up on its own. Nitobe probably changed the creature to a bear out of consideration for his Western readers, although the reference certainly loses something in translation. An English translation of Shakkyō can be viewed here.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king condemned by the gods to forever roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again.

A reference to Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), early-Heian-period aristocrat and scholar who was exiled to Kyushu in 901 and whose spirit was enshrined at Kitano Tenmangū in Kyoto after various calamities were recorded in the wake of his death. He is regarded as the patron saint of learning.

The spiritual aspect of valour is evidenced by composure--calm presence of mind. Tranquillity is courage in repose. It is a statical manifestation of valour, as daring deeds are a dynamical. A truly brave man is ever serene; he is never taken by surprise; nothing ruffles the equanimity of his spirit. In the heat of battle he remains cool; in the midst of catastrophes he keeps level his mind. Earthquakes do not shake him, he laughs at storms. We admire him as truly great, who, in the menacing presence of danger or death, retains his self-possession; who, for instance, can compose a poem under impending peril, or hum a strain in the face of death. Such indulgence betraying no tremor in the writing or in the voice is taken as an infallible index of a large nature--of what we call a capacious mind (yoyū), which, for from being pressed or crowded, has always room for something more.

It passes current among us as a piece of authentic history, that as Ota Dokan, the great builder of the castle of Tokyo, was pierced through with a spear, his assassin, knowing the poetical predilection of his victim, accompanied his thrust with this couplet--

"Ah! how in moments like these

Our heart doth grudge the light of life";

whereupon the expiring hero, not one whit daunted by the mortal wound in his side, added the lines:

"Had not in hours of peace,

It learned to lightly look on life."

There is even a sportive element in a courageous nature. Things which are serious to ordinary people, may be but play to the valiant. Hence in old warfare it was not at all rare for the parties to a conflict to exchange repartee or to begin a rhetorical contest. Combat was not solely a matter of brute force; it was, as, well, an intellectual engagement.

Of such character was the battle fought on the banks of the Koromo River, late in the eleventh century. The eastern army routed, its leader,Sadato, took to flight. When the pursuing general pressed him hard and called aloud, "It is a disgrace for a warrior to show his back to the enemy," Sadato reined his horse; upon this the conquering chief shouted an impromptu verse:

"Torn into shreds is the warp of the cloth" (koromo).

Scarcely had the words escaped his lips when the defeated warrior, undismayed, completed the couplet:

"Since age has worn its threads by use."

Yoshiie, whose bow had all the while been bent, suddenly unstrung it and turned away, leaving his prospective victim to do as he pleased. When asked the reason of his strange behaviour, he replied that he could not bear to put to shame one who had kept his presence of mind while hotly pursued by his enemy.

The sorrow which overtook Antony and Octavius at the death of Brutus, has been the general experience of brave men. Kenshin, who fought for fourteen years with Shingen, when he heard of the latter's death, wept aloud at the loss of "the best of enemies." It was this same Kenshin who had set a noble example for all time, in his treatment of Shingen, whose provinces lay in a mountainous region quite away from the sea, and who had consequently depended upon the Hōjō provinces of the Tokaido for salt. The Hōjō prince wishing to weaken him, although not openly at war with him, had cut off from Shingen all traffic in this important article. Kenshin, hearing of his enemy's dilemma and able to obtain his salt from the coast of his own dominions, wrote Shingen that in his opinion the Hōjō lord had committed a very mean act, and that although he (Kenshin) was at war with him (Shingen) he had ordered his subjects to furnish him with plenty of salt--adding, "I do not fight with salt, but with the sword," affording more than a parallel to the words of Camillus, "We Romans do not fight with gold, but with iron." Nietzsche spoke for the Samurai heart when he wrote, "You are to be proud of your enemy; then the success of your enemy is your success also." Indeed valour and honour alike required that we should own as enemies in war only such as prove worthy of being friends in peace. When valour attains this height, it becomes akin to Benevolence. [Nitobe's note, 1905]

Ōta Dōkan (1432-1486) built Edo Castle in 1457 and was renowned for his scholarship and poetry as well as for his martial skills. Ōta's lord, Uesugi Sadamasa, killed Ōta apparently after growing suspicious of his fame and ambition.

Abe no Sadatō (?-1062) was a warrior from the powerful Abe clan in what is now the Tohoku district. After a lengthy imperial campaign led by Minamoto no Yoriyoshi (988-1075) against the Abe, Sadatō was killed in battle at Kuriyanosaku, in present-day Iwate Prefecture. The incident mentioned  -- which took place at what is properly called Koromonosaku -- comes from an anecdote in the ninth volume of the 13th-century collection of folktales Kokon chomonjū (Collection of Writings and Tales from Times Past and Present).

Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106), the son of Yoriyoshi, helped his father vanquish the Abe clan, thus establishing the influence of the Minamoto clan in the east of Japan.

Marcus Junius Brutus (85-42 BC) was one of the Roman senators who conspired to assassinate Julius Caesar. He committed suicide after his defeat in the Battle of Philippi at the hands of Octavian and Marcus Antonius.

Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578) was daimyo of the Echigo domain (roughly corresponding to modern Niigata Prefecture), famed for his courage and strategic skill. He is known as a fierce rival of Takeda Shingen.

Takeda Shingen (1521-1573) was daimyo of the Kai domain (modern Yamanashi Prefecture). A fierce rival of Uesugi Kenshin, the two fought a celebrated series of battles at Kawanakajima in what is now southern Nagano City.

Hōjō Ujiyasu (1515-1571) was daimyo of the Odawara domain in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture. He made his name by defeating a force of 80,000 at Kawagoe Castle with just 8,000 men.

The anecdote about sending salt to the enemy also appears in Bushō kanjōki (Encomiums to Military Generals, 1716) and Meishō genkōroku (Records of the Words and Deeds of Famous Generals, 1854-1869).

Camillus Marcus Furius (?-365 BC) was a Roman statesman and soldier -- and five times dictator of Rome -- who was named the "Second Founder of Rome." The quotation comes from Livy's History of Rome (5.49.3) and usually takes the form "With iron, not with gold, Rome buys her freedom."