Bushido: The Way of the Samurai

by Alex Fraser


What exactly is bushido?  Put simply, bushido is what makes a samurai a samurai.  It is their ethics.  The way they lived as well as died.  Before going any further, I think it is necessary to give a quick overview on just what is a samurai.
    A samurai is, "a military retainer of a Japanese daimyo practicing the chivalric code of bushido" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1987).  When did the samurai class emerge?  "It was in the eleventh century that two warrior houses, the Taira and Minamoto, emerged as leaders of what we can now begin to call samurai society" (Storry, 1978: 21-22).
    What would a samurai be without weapons, besides dead?   Some of the weapons that were used  were bows and arrows, spears, halberds (a battle-ax mounted on a six foot long handle), a war fan (when closed could be weapon or parrying device), armour, muskets (after 16th century), and of course the two swords taht samurai are famous for carrying.  The picture below is an example of the swords.  The longer of the two known as the katana, was used in battle.  The shorter sword, or the wakizashi, was used for seppuku.

Religion also played a significant role in the lives of the samurai.  The three religions practiced by these warriors were Shintoism, Confucianism, and a form of Buddhism called Zen.  Each of these had a separate role. "Shinto supplied inherited ambience, Confucianism provided the ethical code, and Zen shaped his style in peace and war" (Storry, 1978: 48).

    Now that we have a better understanding of what a samurai was, let us turn our focus on the concept of bushido and how the idea of seppuku came about.  "As to the 'Warrior's Code' or the 'Way of the Warrior' it may be argued that a warrior's code must have existed in the 16th century for the sheer sake of survival.  However, fighting cannot be learned from textbooks..." (Turnbull, 1977: 286).  The idea of bushido is kind of complicated.  " Though  the name Bushido was not used until the 16th ccentury, the idea of the code developed during the Kamakura period (1192-1333)"  Bushido   Bushido is a contradiction of its self.  It is both complicated and simple.  Some of the ideas behind it are having athletic and military skills, fearlessness toward the enemy in battle, frugal living, kindness, honesty, and filial piety.  Here is where it gets complicated is when duty to one's lord took precedence over family life.  It also got a little confusing because "Obedience to authority was stressed, but duty came first even if it entailed violation of statute law."  A perfect example of bushido is the story of the 47 ronin (Chushingura).  It was written around 1748 as a puppet play, and later turned into  kabuki and television series.  The following is a brief summary of the story.

                On the night of the fourteenth day of the twelfth month of the fifteenth year of Genroku, or January 30, 1703, by the Western calendar, forty-six former retainers of the late Lord Asano Naganori of Ako burst into the mansion of Lord Kira Yoshinaka in Edo and killed him.  They immediately carried his head to  Sengaku-ji, the Buddhist temple where Asano was buried, and offered it before his  grave.  March 20, 1703, they committed seppuku

(Keene, Donald. Chushingura, 1971).

Part of the code says that you will die for your lord, so that is what happened to these ronin.

As I said earlier, bushido was a way to die, so I thought I would switch over to the topic of seppuku.  Seppuku is more commonly known to foreigners as hara (belly) kiri (cutting).  The japanese like using the word seppuku because death in Japan at the time of the samurai was to supposed to be athing of beauty, but saying hara kiri just turned it into a crude act of fanaticism.  Sepuku is a "means of death in four different sets of circumstances.  It was resorted to in order to avoid disgrace, act of junshi (suicide on the death of one's lord), ultimate way of remostrating with an erring superior, and finally, it was the capital sentence imposed on a warrior by the authorities.  It is also the case that in Japan the abdomen was thought to be the very core of a man's being, in which were stored his spirit, will, and emotions" (Storry, 1978).  I thought I would finish this section with a passage from a book that was written by Yukio Mishima entitled Sun and Steel.  It gives a new "twist" to the concept of seppuku.

Let us picture a single, healthy apple...The inside of the apple is naturally quite invisible.  Thus at the heart of the
apple, shut up within the flesh of the fruit, the core lurks in its darkness, trembling, anxious to find some way to
reassure itself that it is a perfect apple.  The apple certainly exists, but to the core this existence as yet seems to
yet seems inadequate; if words cannot endorseit, then the only way to endorse it is with the eyes.  Indeed, for
the core the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time.  There is only one method of
solving this contradiction.  It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core
is exposed to the light-to the same light, that is, as the surface skin.  Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls
into fragments; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.

    For those who are not aware of who Yukio Mishima was, he was a Japanese author pretty much bent on his own destruction.  He ended his life on November 25, 1970, b committing seppuku.  As you can see the tradition of seppuku isn't just a thing of the past.  People to this day still practice this.

 Other sites on bushido and seppuku

 warrior's code
 ritual death