The Annotated Bushido


Summary / Notes


Chapter VI


that courtesy and urbanity of manners which has been noticed [1905 start: Courtesy and urbanity of manners have been noticed] by every foreign tourist as a marked Japanese trait. Politeness is a poor virtue, if it is actuated only by a fear of offending good taste, whereas it should be the outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others. It also implies a due regard for the fitness of things, therefore due respect to social positions; for these latter express no plutocratic distinctions, but were originally distinctions for actual merit.

In its highest form, politeness almost approaches love. We may reverently say, politeness "suffereth long, and is kind; envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up; doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, taketh not account of evil." Is it any wonder that Professor Dean, in speaking of the six elements of Humanity, accords to Politeness an exalted position, inasmuch as it is the ripest fruit of social intercourse?

While thus extolling Politeness, far be it from me to put it in the front rank of virtues. If we analyze it, we shall find it correlated with other virtues of a higher order; for what virtue stands alone? While--or rather because--it was exalted as peculiar to the profession of arms, and as such esteemed in a degree higher than its deserts, there came into existence its counterfeits. Confucius himself has repeatedly taught that external appurtenances are as little a part of propriety as sounds are of music.

When propriety was elevated to the sine qua non of social intercourse, it was only to be expected that an elaborate system of etiquette should come into vogue to train youth in correct social behavior. How one must bow in accosting others, how he must walk and sit, were taught and learned with utmost care. Table manners grew to be a science. Tea serving and drinking were raised to a ceremony. A man of education is, of course, expected to be master of all these. Very fitly does Mr. Veblen, in his interesting book, call decorum "a product and an exponent of the leisure-class life."

I have heard slighting remarks made by Europeans upon our elaborate discipline of politeness. It has been criticized as absorbing too much of our thought and in so far a folly to observe strict obedience to it. I admit that there may be unnecessary niceties in ceremonious etiquette, but whether it partakes as much of folly as the adherence to ever-changing fashions of the West, is a question not very clear to my mind. Even fashions I do not consider solely as freaks of vanity; on the contrary, I look upon these as a ceaseless search of the human mind for the beautiful. Much less do I consider elaborate ceremony as altogether trivial; for it denotes the result of long observation as to the most appropriate method of achieving a certain result. If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful. Mr. Spencer defines grace as the most economical manner of motion. The tea ceremony presents certain definite ways of manipulating a bowl, a spoon, a napkin, etc. To a novice it looks tedious. But one soon discovers that the way prescribed is, after all, the most saving of time and labor; in other words, the most economical use of force,--hence, according to Spencer's theory [1905: Spencer's dictum], the most graceful.

The spiritual significance of social decorum,--or, I might say, to borrow from the vocabulary of the "Philosophy of Clothes," the spiritual discipline of which etiquette and ceremony are mere outward garments,--[1905: commas next to dashes omitted] is out of all proportion to what their appearance warrants us in believing. I might follow the example of Mr. Spencer and trace in our ceremonial institutions their origins and the moral motives that gave rise to them. But [1905: them; but] that is not what I shall endeavor to do in this book. It is the moral training involved in strict observance of propriety, that I wish to emphasize.

I have said that etiquette was elaborated into the finest niceties, so much so that different schools advocating [1905: schools, advocating] different systems, came into existence. But they all united in the ultimate essential, and this was put by a great exponent of the best known school of etiquette, the Ogasawara, in the following terms: "The end of all etiquette is to so cultivate your mind that even when you are quietly seated, not the roughest ruffian can dare make onset on your person." It means, in other words, that by constant exercise in correct manners, one brings all the parts and faculties of his body into perfect order and into such harmony with itself and its environment as to express the mastery of spirit over the flesh. What a new and deep significance the French word bienséance contains! [1905: the French word biensèance comes to contain!]

If the premise is true that gracefulness means economy of force, then it follows as a logical sequence that a constant practice of graceful deportment must bring with it a reserve and storage of force. Fine manners, therefore, mean power in repose. When the barbarian Gauls, during the sack of Rome, burst into the assembled Senate and dared pull the beards of the venerable Fathers, we think the old gentlemen were to blame, inasmuch as they lacked dignity and strength of manners. Is lofty spiritual attainment really possible through etiquette? Why not?--All roads lead to Rome!

As an example of how the simplest thing can be made into an art and then become spiritual culture, I may take Cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony. Tea-sipping as a fine art! Why should it not be? In the children drawing pictures on the sand, or in the savage carving on a rock, was the promise of a Raphael or a Michael Angelo. How much more is the drinking of a beverage, which began with the transcendental contemplation of a Hindoo anchorite, entitled to develop into a handmaid of Religion and Morality? That calmness of mind, that serenity of temper, that composure and quietness of demeanor which are the first essentials of Cha-no-yu, are without doubt the first conditions of right thinking and right feeling. The scrupulous cleanliness of the little room, shut off from sight and sound of the madding crowd, is in itself conducive to direct one's thoughts from the world. The bare interior does not engross one's attention like the innumerable pictures and bric-a-brac of a Western parlor; the presence of kakemono [1905: kakémono] calls our attention more to grace of design than to beauty of color. The utmost refinement of taste is the object aimed at; whereas anything like display is banished with religious horror. The very fact that it was invented by a contemplative recluse, in a time when wars and the rumors of wars were incessant, is well calculated to show that this institution was more than a pastime. Before entering the quiet precincts of the tea-room, the company assembling to partake of the ceremony laid aside, together with their swords, the ferocity of battle-field or the cares of government, there to find peace and friendship.

Cha-no-yu is more than a ceremony--it is a fine art: [1905: a fine art;] it is poetry, with articulate gestures for rhythm: it is a modus operandi of soul discipline. Its greatest value lies in this last phase.

[1905: no new paragraph] Not infrequently the other phases preponderated in the mind of its votaries, but that does not prove that its essence was not of a spiritual nature.

Politeness will be a great acquisition, if it does no more than impart grace to manners; but its function does not stop here. For propriety, springing as it does from motives of benevolence and modesty, and actuated by tender feelings toward the sensibilities of others, is ever a graceful expression of sympathy. Its requirement is that we should weep with those that weep and rejoice with those that rejoice. Such didactic requirement, when reduced into small every-day [1905: everyday] details of life, expresses itself in little acts scarcely noticeable, or, if noticed, is, as one missionary lady of twenty years' residence once said to me, "awfully funny." You are out in the hot glaring sun with no shade over you; a Japanese acquaintance passes by; you accost him, and instantly his hat is off--well, that is perfectly natural, but the "awfully funny" performance is, that all the while he talks with you his parasol is down and he stands in the glaring sun also. How foolish!--Yes, exactly so, provided the motive were less than this: "You are in the sun; I sympathize with you; I would willingly take you under my parasol if it were large enough, or if we were familiarly acquainted; as I cannot shade you, I will share your discomforts." Little acts of this kind, equally or more amusing, are not mere gestures or conventionalities. They are the "bodying forth" of thoughtful feelings for the comfort of others.

Another "awfully funny" custom is dictated by our canons of Politeness; but many thoughtless [1905: superficial] writers on Japan have dismissed it by simply attributing it to the general topsy-turvyness of the nation. Every foreigner who has observed it will confess the awkwardness he felt in making proper reply upon the occasion. In America, when you make a gift, you sing its praises to the recipient; in Japan we depreciate or slander it. The underlying idea with you is, "This is a nice gift: if it were not nice [1905: "This is a nice: gift if it were not nice] I would not dare give it to you; for it will be an insult to give you anything but what is nice." In contrast to this, our logic runs: "You are a nice person, and no gift is nice enough for you. You will not accept anything I can lay at your feet except as a token of my good will; so accept this, not for its intrinsic value, but as a token. It will be an insult to your worth to call the best gift good enough for you." Place the two ideas side by side; and we see that the ultimate idea is one and the same. Neither is "awfully funny." The American speaks of the material which makes the gift; the Japanese speaks of the spirit that prompts [1905: which prompts] the gift.

It is perverse reasoning to conclude, because our sense of propriety shows itself in all the smallest ramifications of our deportment, to take the least important of them and uphold it as the type, and pass judgment upon the principle itself. Which is more important, to eat or to observe rules of propriety about eating? A Chinese sage answers, "If you take a case where the eating is all-important, and the observing the rules of propriety is of little importance, and compare them together, why merely say that [1905: why not merely say that] the eating is of the more importance?" "Metal is heavier than feathers," but does that saying have reference to a single clasp of metal and a wagon load of feathers? Take a piece of wood a foot thick and raise it above the pinnacle of a temple, none would call it taller than the temple. To the question, "Which is the more important, to tell the truth or to be polite?" the Japanese are said to give an answer diametrically opposite to what the American will say,--but I forbear any comment until I come to speak of [1905: until I come to speak of veracity and sincerity.]  << continue >>

Politeness (rei)

Nitobe again follows his customary pattern of starting from relatively familiar Western sources to pave the way for a detailed examination of a similar -- yet distinctive -- Japanese moral quality. Although the preponderance of Western sources in Bushido has been taken to indicate Nitobe's own lack of familiarity with Japanese history, the fact is that his intended audience was Western, and approaching the unfamiliar through the familiar is undeniably effective as a discursive strategy.

The model for Japanese politeness is taken from the tea ceremony, where the surface formality both impose and give expression to the sort of spiritual discipline necessary for a samurai. In terms of physical action, this leads to efficiency and gracefulness; in terms of moral behavior, it leads to considerate respect.

The modern visitor to Japan -- no less than the tourists and "superficial" writers of Nitobe's day -- may be tempted on occasion to judge the forms of Japanese etiquette as both elaborate and empty. Nitobe urges such a person to look beneath the unfamiliar "funny" surface to discover the serious underlying (and universal) moral purpose.

The "All roads lead to Rome!" exclamation that appears about halfway through the chapter seems quite abrupt and even cryptic. The meaning would appear to be that without etiquette, all societies risk meeting the same fate as the Romans.

The editor, perhaps, of the 1905 Putnam edition has introduced potential confusion into the final paragraph of the chapter by changing the first-edition question "Why merely say that the eating is of the more importance?" to read "Why not merely say that the eating is of the more importance?." Mencius' purpose in the original is to ask, "Why stop merely by saying that eating is more important? If eating is of the utmost importance and otherwise you will have nothing to eat, why not take food from your older brother by twisting his arm?" Nitobe is presumably attempting to follow his source in emphasizing the true nature of propriety: he is not affirming the importance of satisfying bodily needs. Granting the difficulty of the original Chinese -- and acknowledging that Nitobe might have exercised greater care in explaining it -- has the editor fallen prey to the very attitude among Westerners that Nitobe is describing here?

1 Corinthians 13:4-5, although the stated Biblical subject is charity or love rather than "politeness."

Amos Dean (1803-1868) served as the first president of the University of Iowa but apparently spent little of his time time on campus (he had obligations at other colleges in New York), and when he was asked to take up residence in Iowa following a university financial crisis, he resigned. Dean's seven-volume History of Civilization was published in Albany, New York, in 1868-69. The six elements of humanity he mentions in Volume I are industry, religion, government, society, philosophy, and art. With respect to society, Dean writes, "Society is founded upon the agreeable. It is embodied in the manners and customs of a people. It culminates in the principles of politeness. Its mission is to gratify the social instinct."

The Internet Archive contains a scanned copy of the first edition of Volume I; the six elements are listed and defined on pp. 3-4.

Analects 17.11 (in the Legge translation) says the following:

It is not the external appurtenances which constitute propriety, nor the sound of instruments which constitute music.


The Master said, "'It is according to the rules of propriety,' they say. -- 'It is according to the rules of propriety,' they say. Are gems and silk all that is meant by propriety? 'It is music,' they say. -- 'It is music,' they say. Are bells and drums all that is meant by music?"


Theory of the Leisure Class, N.Y. 1899., p. 46. [Nitobe's note] Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857-1929) was an American economist and a leader of the institutional economics movement. He published The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions in 1899. The Internet Archive has copies, such as this one, dating from 1912. Googling will lead to a number of online versions. The quotation comes from Chapter III, "Conspicuous Leisure."

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a British philosopher and sociologist who attempted to apply Darwinism to philosophy and the study of society. In Spencer's view, sympathy derived from humankind's "innate moral sense." An introduction to Spencer can be found at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Spencer discusses gracefulness in Chapter VIII of Essays: Moral, Political and Aesthetic (1865).

A further reference to Sartor Resartus (1833-34) by Thomas Carlyle. The title of Chapter V of Book I is "Clothes in the World."

The Ogasawara clan branched off from the Seiwa Genji -- the main Minamoto clan -- under the samurai general Ogasawara Nagakiyo (1162-1242). During the Muromachi period (1392-1573), the clan's rules regarding samurai deportment (originally focusing on archery and horsemanship) were expanded and codified by Ogasawara Nagahide (1366-1424) and began to be adopted more widely, including eventually by the Tokugawa shogunate itself. This "Ogasawara School" of etiquette was a major influence on the education of girls in schools (and of women in society) following the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

The quotation comes from Ogasawara Kiyokane (1846-1913), 28th head of the Ogasawara School and co-author of the textbook Etiquette for Primary School Girls (Shōgaku joreishiki, 1881), although the precise source remains to be identified. Kiyokane put on a display of archery on horseback for former American president Ulysses S. Grant when the latter visited Japan in 1879. A short profile in English on the rather haphazard NPO site of the school can be found here.

Etymologically well-seatedness. [Nitobe's note, 1905]

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520) was an Italian painter and architect who, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, was one of the major figures of the Renaissance.

Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, 1475-1564 ) was -- among other talents -- an Italian sculptor and painter who was one of the premier figures of the Renaissance (and of European culture generally).

Presumably a reference to Bodhidharma (?-ca. 530), the Indian monk credited with establishing Chan (Zen) Buddhism in China. The use of "anchorite" (meaning "religious recluse") should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

Hanging scrolls, which may be either paintings or ideograms, used for decorative purposes. [Nitobe's note]

The reference is to Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), usually regarded as having perfected the austere wabi-cha style of tea ceremony. It is questionable whether Sen no Rikyū should actually be called a "contemplative recluse," although much about his life is vague.

B.H. Chamberlain (Basil Hall Chamberlain, 1850-1935, first mentioned in the Preface) refers to Japan as "the land of topsy-turvydom" in his Things Japanese (first published in 1890), and also includes an entry on that topic.

This incident, in which a stumped disciple of Mencius asks his master about the relative importance of propriety, is related in the Mencius 6B21 (the incident may be read in full here). Mencius in effect replies that politeness is a predisposition to be nourished rather than an external principle to be imposed upon human conduct.

Although the sense of the original Chinese is somewhat cryptic, Nitobe's abbreviated rendering further clouds the issue. He has left out much of the original episode, and even in the brief section mentioned here, the "metal" is actually gold rather than, say, iron, and the piece of wood is a scant square inch in size rather than being "a foot thick." The contrast thus becomes even more extreme than Nitobe indicates, and by upping the ante in this fashion, Mencius appears to be suggesting that the premise of the question is itself mistaken. (It may also be noted that Nitobe reverses the original order of the examples: in the Mencius, the piece-of-wood/building-top comparison comes before the gold/feathers comparison.)