The Annotated Bushido


Summary / Notes


Chapter XV


on the nation at large.

We have brought into view only a few of the more prominent peaks which rise above the range of knightly virtues, in themselves so much more elevated than the general level of our national life. [1905 start: Thus far we have brought into view only a few of the more prominent peaks which rise above the range of knightly virtues, in themselves so much more elevated than the general level of our national life.] As the sun in its rising first tips the highest peaks with russet hue, and then gradually casts its rays on the valley below, so the ethical system which first enlightened the military order drew in course of time followers from amongst the masses. Democracy raises up a natural prince for its leader, and aristocracy infuses a princely spirit among the people. Virtues are no less contagious than vices. "There needs but one wise man in a company, and all are wise, so rapid is the contagion," says Emerson. No social class or caste can resist the diffusive power of moral influence.

Prate as we may of the triumphant march of Anglo-Saxon liberty, rarely has it received impetus from the masses. Was it not rather the work of the squires and gentlemen? Very truly does M. Taine say, "These three syllables, as used across the channel, summarize the history of English society." Democracy may make self-confident retorts to such a statement and fling back the question--"When Adam delved and Eve span, where then was the gentleman?" All the more pity that a gentleman was not present in Eden! The first parents missed him sorely and paid a high price for his absence. Were he there, [1905: Had he been there,] not only would the garden have been more tastefully dressed, but they would have learnt without irremediable experience [1905: learned without painful experience] that disobedience to Jehovah was disloyalty and dishonor, treason and rebellion.

What Japan was she owed to the samurai. They were not only the flower of the nation but [1905: nation, but] its root as well. All the gracious gifts of Heaven flowed through them. Though they kept themselves socially aloof from the populace, they set a moral standard for them and guided them by their example. I admit Bushido had its esoteric and exoteric teachings; these were eudemonistic, looking after the welfare and happiness of the commonalty, while those were aretaic, emphasizing the practice of virtues for their own sake.

In the most chivalrous days of Europe, Knights formed numerically but a small fraction of the population, but, as Emerson says,--"In English Literature [1905: English literature] half the drama and all the novels, from Sir Philip Sidney to Sir Walter Scott, paint this figure (gentleman)." Write in place of Sidney and Scott, Chikamatsu and Bakin, and you have in a nutshell the main features of the literary history of Japan.

The innumerable avenues of popular amusement and instruction--the theatres, the story-tellers' booths, the preacher's dais, the musical recitations, the novels,--have taken for their chief theme the stories of the samurai. The peasants round [1905: around] the open fire in their huts never tire of repeating the achievements of Yoshitsuné and his faithful retainer Benkei [1905: Benkéi], or of the two brave Soga brothers; the dusky urchins listen with gaping mouths until the last stick burns out and the fire dies in its embers, still leaving their hearts aglow with the tale that is told. The clerks and the shop boys, after their day's work is over and the amado of the store are closed, gather together to relate the story of Nobunaga and Hidéyoshi far into the night, until slumbler [1905: slumber] overtakes their weary eyes and transports them from the drudgery of the counter to the exploits of the field. The very babe just beginning to toddle is taught to lisp the adventures of Momotaro, the daring conqueror of ogreland. Even girls are so imbued with the love of knightly deeds and virtues that, like Desdemona, they would seriously incline to devour with greedy ear the romance of the samurai.

Samurai grew [1905: The samurai grew] to be the beau ideal of the whole race. "As among flowers the cherry is queen, so among men the samurai is Lord [1905: lord]," so sang the populace. Debarred from commercial pursuits, the military class itself did not aid commerce; but there was no channel of human activity, no avenue of thought, which did not receive in some measure an impetus from Bushido. Intellectual and moral Japan was directly or indirectly the work of Knighthood.

Mr. Mallock, in his exceedingly suggestive book, "Aristocracy and Evolution," [1905: Aristocracy and Evolution,] has eloquently told us that "social evolution, in so far as it is other than biological, may be defined as the unintended result of the intentions of great men;" further that [1905: intentions of great men"; further, that] historical progress is produced by a struggle "not among the community generally, to live, but a struggle amongst a small section of the community to lead, to direct, to employ, the majority in the best way." Whatever may be said about the soundness of his argument, these statements are amply verified in the part played by bushi in the social progress, as far as it went [1905: so far as it went], of our Empire.

How the spirit of Bushido permeated all social classes is also shown in the development of a certain order of men, known as otoko-daté, the natural leaders of democracy. Staunch fellows were they, every inch of them strong with the strength of massive manhood. At once the spokesmen and the guardians of popular rights, they had each a following of hundreds and thousands of souls who proffered in the same fashion that samurai did to daimio, the willing service of "limb and life, of body, chattels [1905: chattels,] and earthly honor." Backed by a vast multitude of rash and impetuous working men, these born "bosses" formed a formidable check to the rampancy of the two-sworded order.

In manifold ways has Bushido filtered down from the social class where it originated, and acted as leaven among the masses, furnishing a moral standard for the whole people. The Precepts of Knighthood, begun at first as the glory of the élite, [1905: élite,] became in time an aspiration and inspiration to the nation at large; and though the populace could not attain the moral height of those loftier souls, yet Yamato Damashii  (the Soul of Japan) [1905: Yamato Damashii, the Soul of Japan,] ultimately came to express the Volksgeist of the Island Realm. If religion is no more than "Morality touched by emotion," as Matthew Arnold defines it, few ethical systems are better entitled to the rank of religion than Bushido. Motoöri has put the mute utterance of the nation into words when he sings:--

Isles of blest Japan!

   Should your Yamato spirit

Strangers seek to scan,

   Say--scenting morn's sun-lit air,

Blows the cherry wild and fair!



"Isles of blest Japan!

  Should your Yamato spirit

Strangers seek to scan,

   Say--scenting morn's sun-lit air,

   Blows the cherry wild and fair!"]

Yes, the Sakura [1905: sakura] has for ages been the favorite of our people and the emblem of our character. Mark particularly the terms of definition which the poet uses, the words the wild cherry flower scenting the morning sun.

The Yamato spirit is not a tame, tender plant, but a wild--in the sense of natural--growth; It [1905: it] is indigenous to the soil; its accidental qualities it may share with the flowers of other lands, but in its essence it remains the original, spontaneous outgrowth of our clime. But its nativity is not its sole claim to our affection. The refinement and grace of its beauty appeal to our aesthetic sense as no other flower can. We cannot share the admiration of the Europeans for their roses, which lack the simplicity of our flower. Then, too, the thorns that are hidden beneath the sweetness of the rose, the tenacity with which she clings to life, as though loath [1905: loth] or afraid to die rather than drop untimely, preferring to rot on her stem; her showy colors and heavy odors--all these are traits so unlike our flower, which carries no dagger or poison under its beauty, which is ever ready to depart life at the call of nature, whose colors are never gorgeous, and whose light fragrance never palls. Beauty of color and of form is limited in its showing: it [1905: showing; it] is a fixed quality of existence, whereas fragrance is volatile, ethereal as the breathing of life. So in all religious ceremonies frankincense and myrrh play an important part. [1905: play a prominent part.] There is something spirituelle in redolence. When the delicious perfume of the sakura [1905: sakura] quickens the morning-air, [1905: morning air,] as the sun in its course rises to illumine first the isles of the Far East, few sensations are more serenely exhilarating than to inhale, as it were, the very breath of beauteous day.

When the Creator himself [1905: Creator Himself] is pictured as making new resolutions in his heart [1905: His heart] upon smelling a sweet savor (Gen. VIII., 21), [1905: Gen. viii. 21),] is it any wonder that the sweet-smelling season of the cherry blossom should call forth the whole nation from their little habitations? Blame them not if for a time [1905: Blame them not, if for a time] their limbs forget their toil and moil and their hearts their pangs and sorrows. Their brief pleasure ended, they return to their daily tasks [1905: task] with new strength and new resolutions. Thus in ways more than one is the Sakura [1905: sakura] the flower of the nation.

Is, then, this flower, so sweet and evanescent, blown whithersoever the wind listeth, and, shedding a puff of perfume, ready to vanish forever, is this flower the type of the Yamato spirit? Is the soul of Japan so frailly mortal?   << continue >>


The last three chapters of Bushido: The Soul of Japan constitute the summing up, generalizing about the historical significance of bushidō and noting its continuing relevance to post-feudal (modern) Japan.

Nitobe's interest in Japanese literature (at least in Bushido) seems limited to those works dealing with samurai and military exploits. To restrict the main features of Japanese literary history, as Nitobe does, to those found in the works of Chikamatsu Monzaemon and Takizawa Bakin is reductive in the extreme, and Nitobe is overstating his case even with respect to these two writers.

Below is a scan of the footnote in an 1827 paper by Thomas Knight in which Knight mentions the plant classified by John Lindley as "Prunus Pseudo-Cerasus" (download to view at original size):

Knight on Lindley

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was an American philosopher and poet who was a major figure in transcendentalism, a movement that stressed the existence of a spiritual reality that can be apprehended through intuition. The quotation comes from "Uses of Great Men," one of the seven lectures contained in Representative Men (1850). A text is available from the website Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains an entry on transcendentalism.

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828-1893) was a French historian and critic best known for attempting to ground the interpretation of literature on the three elements of race, milieu, and moment. The quotation comes from "Landed Proprietors and English Gentleman," Chapter XII of Notes on England (Notes sur l'Angleterre, 1871; English translation 1872), available from the Internet Archive.

One of the oldest known nursery rhymes in English, associated with the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The rhyme forms an ironical rhetorical question: "What gentleman existed when Adam tilled the soil and Eve spun thread?" It is attributed to the rebel priest John Ball (c. 1338-1381); sources can be found in the Wikipedia entry for Ball.

The quotation comes from Emerson's "Manners," in Essays: Second Series (1844). An online version of the essay is available at the American Transcendentalism Web website.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was an exemplary Elizabethan courtier, poet, and soldier. A fairly detailed online biography can be found at the site of the Poetry Foundation.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), prolific and immensely popular Scottish writer known especially for his historical novels.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) was the foremost Japanese playwright of his day and instrumental in establishing the enduring popularity of the puppet theater (jōruri or bunraku). Major works include Kokusen'ya kassen (The Battles of Coxinga,1715) and Shinjū Ten no Amijima (The Love Suicides at Amijima, 1720).

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).

The historical Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189) was the half-brother of Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the Kamakura shogunate. After successfully defeating the Heike at Ichinotani and Dannoura, Yoshitsune fell from Yoritomo's favor and was ultimately forced to commit suicide. Yoshitsune's exploits (enhanced by legend)  were recounted in such military tales as the Gikeiki (Account of Yoshitsune, 14th century), in which the priest Benkei (?-1189) serves as a supremely loyal follower.

The Soga brothers -- Soga Sukenari (1172-1193) and Soga Tokimune (1174-1193) -- carried out a vendetta against Kudō Suketsune, their father's killer, giving rise to a popular literary recounting of the incident in Soga monogatari (The Tale of the Soga Brothers, late Kamakura period).

Outside shutters. [Nitobe's note]

Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 or 1537-1598) were the first two of the three great unifiers of Japan in the 16th century.

Momotaro ("Peach Boy") is the hero of one of the most popular Japanese children's stories. He famously leads a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant into battle against the ogres (oni) of the Island of Ogres (Onigashima). The story appears to have originated in the Muromachi period (1392-1573).

Desdemona is the wife of Othello in Shakespeare's play of the same name (c. 1604). She is unjustly accused of faithlessness.

A proverb that actually forms part of a longer saying often attributed to the Zen priest Ikkyū (1394-1481): "The cherry among flowering tress, the samurai among men, cypress for spears, the sea bream for fish, autumn leaves for kimono, and Yoshino for cherry blossoms" (hana wa sakuragi, hito wa samurai, yari wa hinoki, sakana wa tai, kosode wa momiji, hana wa Miyoshino).

William Hurelle Mallock (1849-1913) was an English novelist and writer on economics whose Aristocracy and Evolution: A Study of the Rights, the Origin, and the Social  Function of the Wealthier Classes appeared in 1898. The quotations come from Book I, Chapter IV, and Book II, Chapter II, respectively.

These words form part of the oath of allegiance to the King of England as described by the English clergyman and historian William Stubbs (1825-1901) in Chapter XXI of The Constitutional History of England, in Its Origin and Development (1874-1878). The complete version of the oath as administered during the reign of Edward I (r. 1272-1307) is given by Stubbs as follows:

I will be foial [faithful] and loial [loyal] and bear faith and allegiance to the king and his heirs, of life and limb and worldly honour, against all people who may live and die.

Nitobe appears to be relying on a fuller version of the oath (with the word "chattels") that Stubbs also provides in a footnote, but for some reason Nitobe has reversed the usual order of "life and limb."

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was a British poet and critic who, in Chapter I of Literature and Dogma (1873), wrote, "Religion, if we follow the intention of human thought and human language in the use of the word, is ethics heightened, enkindled, lit up by feeling; the passage from morality to religion is made when to morality is applied emotion. And the true meaning of religion is thus, not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion."

A complete online text of Literature and Dogma is available from Wikisource.

Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) was a kokugakusha (scholar of Japanese classics) who affirmed a native basis for the production and interpretation of such early literary and historical works as the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) and The Tale of Genji. The poem appears as a legend on a hanging-scroll self-portrait of 1790 (Japanese title: Motoori Norinaga rokujūissai jiga jisan zō). The painting can be viewed online at the Museum of Motori Norinaga website.

Cerasus pseudo-cerasus, Lindley.   [Nitobe's note]

John Lindley (1799-1865) was an eminent English botonist whose later writings included The Vegetable Kingdom (1846) and Theory and Practice of Horticulture (1855). Lindley uses the term Prunus pseudo-cerasus to refer to the "Chinese Cherry" in, for example, the 1839 third edition of An Introduction to Botany (p. 75). Lindley, who relied on specimens sent from China, apparently used Cerasus pseudocerasus and Prunus pseudocerasus as synonyms to refer to the plant the Japanese call ōtō(桜桃, the English vernacular name for which is "Chinese sour cherry" (also called "Yingtao cherry"). In other words, Nitobe's classification appears to be suspect. See Wikispecies for an entry on Prunus pseudocerasus (referencing Lindley 1826) that lists Cerasus pseudocerasus (George Don 1830, following Lindley) as a homotypic synonym. The current English name for Prunus pseudocerasus accepted by the British Royal Horticultural Society is "bastard cherry."

Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops (2001, pp. 509-510) has an entry on Cerasus pseudocerasus (referencing the 1830 article mentioned above) that further cites an 1852 article by Lindley referring to it as Prunus pseudocerasus and using the common name "Chinese fruiting cherry." Current taxonomy classifies the Japanese flowering cherry as family "Rosaceae," genus "Prunus," and subgenus "cerusus," but beyond that the speciation of flowering cherries becomes extremely complicated and (because of frequent spontaneous hybridization, for example, and the thorny distinction to be made between wild and cultivated species) problematic. The binomial designation Prunus serrulata (also originating with Lindley) is perhaps the one most frequently used to refer to the "typical" Japanese flowering cherry, but consistency remains elusive. For example, The Oriental Flowering Cherries, a circular first issued in 1934 (revised 1938) by the U.S. Department of Agricultural and written by botanist Paul Russell (this circular may be viewed or downloaded from the Internet Archive), notes that the plant introduced into Britain in 1822 and identified by Lindley in 1930 as Prunus serrulata was a cherry with double white flowers, and that a double-flowered cherry with pink flowers labeled "Prunus pseudo-cerasus" was reported by an "A. Jacques" (apparently Aimé Jacques Alexandre Bonpland) in France in 1832 (p. 3). As if all this were not challenging enough, it appears that Chinese nomenclature differs from Japanese nomenclature with respect to the classification of flowering cherries, so that even at the beginning of the 21st century, substantive taxonomic issues remain.

Google Books has a digitized version of the 1841 book A Selection from the Physiological and Horticultural Papers Published in the Transactions of the Royal and Horticultural Societies by the Late Thomas Andrew Knight, Esq., in which a footnote to a paper from 1827 (see the scanned image in the side panel) explains that Lindley used the name "Prunus Pseudo-Cerasus" for a plant originally introduced from China in 1819. The footnote references Horticultural Transactions, Vol. IV, p. 90 in the first series of the Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London. For a clear (if inconclusive) discussion of an actual specimen in the Lindley herbarium at Cambridge University said to date to Lindley's time (and hand-labeled "P. pseudocerasus" by Lindley himself), see this page at the Bean's Trees and Shrubs website.