Every now and again, I dip my toes into the deep-running waters of the East, and I am reminded at every turn just how clear those waters are compared to some of the murk and sludge I experience around me. As clear as the waters are, I’m also struck by how heavily-perfumed the atmosphere is. The East cultivates beauty in its philosophies and mindsets. The understanding of that beauty is sometimes at odds with what we in the West might appreciate beyond fundamental levels.
I have often credited Bruce Lee with the honorific of being the one who truly opened Eastern culture to the Western mind. On the pop culture level, the ripples he created resonate even today. Some might argue Godzilla, but hey, that’s open to interpretation. While those ripples run wide, they don’t run nearly as deep. And I’m certain a great many people can point to even earlier examples. But what it comes down to is that there is a division of mindset between East and West that creates a kind of mystique.
Nitobe Inazō was a Japanese educator and philosopher who came to the United States in 1884 after being disappointed with the level of research in his native Japan. I won’t go into his illustrious career; feel free to look that up if you’re curious. Suffice it to say, he was an ambassador, a teacher, and a prolific writer during a time of great social upheaval in Japan. The age of the Samurai was in its twilight. Modernization began with the establishment of trade and naval schools through the involvement of American forces beginning in the 1850s. In 1873, Emperor Meiji abolished the Samurai’s right to be the only force permitted to bear arms in favor of a conscripted army with modern firearms. The right to wear the katana in public, as well as the right to execute commoners who paid the Samurai disrespect, were likewise abolished. In a short series of years, the idea of the Samurai was whittled down to a legend after standing for upwards of 700 years as the exemplars of honor and duty in that culture. The changes within Japanese social structure transformed that culture into something both heavily romanticized and as equally reviled. But no matter how much the idea was condemned, the heart of the culture ran deep within the Japanese soul, forever intertwined as part of a heritage that respected its ancestry.
Nitobe, affected by these social dissonances as much as any, tried to explain this to a Western audience. That’s where this book comes into play. It was written first in English in 1899, comparing the Samurai culture and the way of Bushido to the Western ideas of knighthood and chivalry. The book was well-received in the United States where it was published, praised by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and founder of the Boy Scouts of America John Badan-Powell. As popular as it was, it was heavily criticized in Japan for virtually the same reasons, which lends itself to an exercise in meditation on what’s in this book that the Japanese culture felt the need to oppose. Indeed, it was only after several years of popularity in the West that the book was eventually translated into Japanese, and not until the 1980s that it achieved a foothold in the popular mindset of that culture, long after the traditions and those who remember them firsthand have turned to so much dust. Today, Bushido: The Soul of Japan is revered alongside Hagakure by Tsunetomo Yamamoto as the leading texts of Bushido Japan and Samurai culture.
To understand Samurai culture on any level, one needs to build a foundation with precepts from Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism. Nitobe offers the barest of foundations, but for the Western mind, it is enough to grasp the ideas in play. From there, the author compares Japanese culture and institutions alongside the philosophies and institutions of Western civilization, going back to Ancient Greece, Rome, and Feudal Europe. Shaping as near a 1:1 comparison as can possibly be, the Code of Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, is outlined according to the eight virtues admired by the Japanese people: rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, loyalty, and self-control. And from there, the social structure — the rituals, expectations, duties, and hierarchies that define the life of a Samurai — are codified for a Western mind, including the concepts of suicide, the place of women, and the meaning of the sword.
As a Westerner who stylizes himself in the mindset of European knighthood and chivalry, a book like this is difficult for me to resist. It’s an invaluable aid for peeling back the layers of the proverbial onion. With it, I find there’s a nostalgic sadness inherent in the text, which seems to be a common theme among my reads lately. There’s a line from a Doctor Who episode about how sad is happy for deep people. That’s the exact sense I get from this book. It’s absolutely appropriate too, for the romantic conventions and lofty ideals of a culture do not always line up with the historical realities. It’s easy to point fingers at those realities, in both East and West, and lay bare the atrocities that people are capable of perpetrating. For a text such as this, the ideal needs to be understood and appreciated for what it is. Only then can history be challenged with an eye towards the shortcomings of the society that failed to achieve the perfection they sought. Honor speaks for itself, and the only ones truly capable of judging it on its own terms are those who follow that path with awareness.
This is a short book — less than 100 pages — a quick read for anyone who wants to breeze through and hit the highlights. Should one opt to do that, I feel that would be a short-sighted mistake. Dynamite comes in small packages, and as with a great many classic texts both Eastern and Western, a single passage can be the foundation of days or even years of contemplation. It allows a Westerner, preferably one who is already educated and accustomed to the history and philosophy of their own heritage, to approach Japanese waters with a sense of clarity. Obviously, the “classical liberal education” in the West has since become an elusive goal for many, so this might be a heftier expectation than was originally intended. But I think as with any culture, there are enough ideas, even faulty ones, that can be used as a basis for understanding for a beginner. As with anything, interest and enthusiasm for the material will drive one to learn. From an outsider’s perspective, this book is about as easy as it comes for getting a foot in the door.