Bushido: The Code of the Samurai

By George W. Alexander, Ph.D.

Japan’s medieval warrior nation was dominated by military rule and samurai philosophy for centuries. This produced a warrior culture and code of military discipline whose vestiges survive until the present day in the practice of modern martial arts. The code of the samurai–bushido is the foundation of Japan’s warrior culture. Sometimes bushido is translated as knightly ways. These knightly ways were the code of conduct; a set of moral principles adhered to by the samurai class known as “the code of the samurai!”


In the broadest perspective, the history of mankind seems to be the history of warfare itself and the history of conflict over power and resources veiled by the fog of war and punctuated by political hegemony. It is necessary to go back to man’s earliest beginnings in order to reconcile the evolution and development of warrior culture and the act of war itself and the need for a code of military conduct. The martial arts and warfare are as old as mankind. Conflict, warfare and individual combat provide the genesis for the evolution and development of warfare. Surely, the evolution of warfare begins with Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man, the cavemen who in prehistoric times had spread over Africa, Asia and Europe. Perhaps the first martial art, which was little more than a flung rock or a strike with a crude club, is attributable to this period. Since then every culture has developed some means of warfare or martial arts either for the mere act of self-preservation or for the conquest of its neighbors. According to the often-quoted dictum of Clausewitz, “War is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse with an admixture of different means”.


Throughout history, strong leaders such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan have imposed their will on other nations. In the case of Japan, it has been warlords such as General Yoshimitsu Minamoto (also, Yoshitsune d. 1120), Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1538-1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1615) who waged war and shaped the destiny of Japan. Such a setting in medieval Japan required a strict code of military discipline–the code of the Samurai!


The Japanese culture has always been militaristic and imbued with stoic military discipline. This culture developed more or less in isolation from the mainland. Although, since ancient times Japan learned much about warfare from China by way of Korea in addition to its indigenous development of weapons, tactics and strategy. Additionally, Japan developed its own unique approach to warfare and produced tenacious fighters known as samurai warriors or bushi. These early warriors were knights who rode into battle mounted on horseback. The samurai fought chiefly as individuals with little regard for battlefield tactics. Oftentimes, a samurai would engage another samurai from the opposing army in individual combat while members of both armies looked on. In this prelude to battle, they often observed a ritual in which one samurai proudly announced to the other his name and family lineage before their combat began. Ultimately, the entire force each picked a foe from the other side and then a bloody melee erupted on the battlefield.


The code of the samurai, similar in some ways to the code of chivalry of European knights, was basically an unwritten set of precepts. There is no particular text to serve as a biblical reference so to speak. The precepts were largely transmitted by word of mouth in the form of maxims in the educational process of a samurai and as anecdotes recorded by famous samurai warriors. Bushido, the code of the samurai, has been one of the greatest driving social forces in the molding of the nation of Japan.


Three significant virtues imbued in bushido were honor, loyalty and courage. Factors, which seemed to embellish all the individual virtues of bushido and this code were the samurai’s stoic nature, his calm indifference to his environment, especially in battle, and his seriousness of purpose. One’s honor was a trait highly esteemed and care was taken to safeguard one’s reputation and dignity. So much care in fact that this defensiveness of one’s honor had to be counterbalanced by stressing the merits of patience. The counter effect was to prevent swords from being drawn at the slightest friction in dealing with others. A strong code of conduct was necessary to insure that these intense and energetic individuals could work together in a social setting with adequate cooperation and cohesion.


Loyalty to one’s master or daimyo was a characteristic, which was considered one of the supreme attributes of a samurai. As evidence of this, Japan’s history recounts how the lines of samurai served the lines of feudal lords for generations. Conversely, Ronin (wave men or floating men) were roving samurai whose services were not retained by a liege lord and were despised as renegades. Loyalty was epitomized by a certain ideology in which, life or the forfeiture of it was regarded as a means by which to serve the master. This blind obedience or bizarre devotion is characterized throughout Japan’s literature. Perhaps the most famous account of this is the story or the 47 Ronin. Where 47 of a lord’s retainers avenged their lord’s enemy and then disemboweled themselves in order to follow their deceased master into the next world.


Courage, needless to say, is a prerequisite for any combatant or professional warrior. But as far as the code of the samurai and bushido was concerned, courage was only recognized as a virtue if it was “exercised in the cause of righteousness.” In bushido the precepts implied “death for a cause unworthy of dying for was called a dogs death”. Hence, to know when to die and to know when to live is the mark of true courage. Accompanying this ideal was the discipline of composure in the face of death.


Courage became so highly refined as a virtue of the samurai it was expounded upon in many different anecdotes. It seems as though a certain amount of finesse was required to exercise courage properly. The samurai of old Japan prided himself on the possession of brute strength. However, battles did not involve shear force alone. There is a certain sportive element in a courageous nature. Things that are serious to ordinary people may be but play to the valiant. Therefore, sometimes in old warfare it was not uncommon for the parties to a conflict to exchange repartee. Combat was not solely a matter of brute force; it was as well, an intellectual engagement.


In contrast, the European development of a military code took place over a long period of time in western culture. Originally the Romans who had one of the most cruel and brutal armies taught the virtue of bravery in battle. However, the Romans were merciless towards their enemies and they had no respect for their defeated foes. In fact, they were either killed or taken as slaves to serve in Rome. One famous expression in the Roman army was Vae victis! or “Woe to the vanquished!’ Later, the Normans and the knights of Britain were taught a code of chivalry that was similar to the code of the samurai. It taught the Roman idea of bravery but also kindness to the weak and respect for women and defeated enemies. These codes were similar in that the need for bravery in battle and loyalty were common to both.


Additionally, as a practical matter, the samurai had little regard for the weak even though the classical literature of the samurai mentions that in bushido or in old warfare the warrior had compassion for the weak. It was more likely that their heads would be taken. The similarities of the two codes are that both these codes evolved from feudal systems in that land was held with the obligation of returning military service to a feudal lord for his protection. In accordance with the code of the samurai, two things–the obligation to the liege lord, motivated the heroic deeds of the samurai and the honor and pride instilled in the samurai by the code of bushido.


Within the philosophy of Japanese swordsmanship and the code of the samurai is the concept of the resolute acceptance of death. Or to put it another way, “Swordsmanship is an art at the meeting of life and death”. This is embodied in the samurai’s code of bushido i.e., the way of the warrior. The way a samurai kept his mind in accordance with the highest principle of bushido was to keep his spirit accustomed to and resolved on his own death. In this way, by considering himself already dead, he could perform his duties without fear of failure.


Seppuku (AKA hara kiri) or disembowelment was a form of Japanese ritual suicide. It became the focal point of the ferociousness of will that was necessary for the mastery of bushido and the code of the samurai. It came to be called “The Flower of Bushido”, primarily because of the samurai’s preoccupation with the preparation for his demise. Seppuku was a traditional, legal and ceremonial institution. Its purpose was to allow the warrior to absolve himself from any dishonor, escape disgrace or prove sincerity. It was often awarded to a perpetrator of an offense as a form of honorable punishment. The offender would be “invited” to commit seppuku. Since it required great composure it suited the stoic nature of the samurai. As time went on a suicide assistant or kaishaku was added to the ceremony. After the offender made his abdominal cut the assistant would deliver the final blow decapitating the offender. However, the slicing action of the sword was stopped just short of cutting all the way through the neck so that a small flap of skin remained at the throat in order keep the head attached to the body. In this way, a head rolling across the floor would not offend onlookers!


To the samurai the sword was not regarded as an instrument of death but rather as an instrument of spiritual self-discipline. The code of the samurai gave no support to the wanton use of the sword. In fact, it vehemently stressed its proper use and discouraged its misuse. The possession of the weapon imparted a grave responsibility. Its power provided a great temptation and allowed it to be easily misused. Therefore, with regard to this aspect, the code of the samurai and bushido were necessary in order to establish a mode of conduct and an ethical framework for the samurai.


By the thirteenth century the samurai reached a status of nobility as rulers and bushido flourished. Bushido as an ethical system became ornamented with ceremony as it reached its zenith during the reign of the Tokugawa Clan (1603-1868). With the advent of the Tokugawa reign, the government became more stable and peace lasted almost three hundred years. Slowly, the precepts of knighthood began to become very ceremonialized and the trend moved from military accomplishment toward a higher philosophical plane that embraced the metaphysics of death.


The precepts of the code of the samurai evolved as a philosophy and lifestyle paralleled and supported by the feudalistic form of government. After the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the new Meiji government was installed and abolished the old feudalistic system completely. The new government began to absorb the culture of advanced western nations. The strongest blow initially dealt to the samurai and bushido came as a result of the Meiji government issuing an edict in 1872 prohibiting the wearing of swords in public. This ban strictly forbade the wearing or the use of swords in public by anyone. As a result of the ban, the samurai were left without any source of income and bushido’s practicality began to wan in the new Japan.


The setting for the heroic deeds of the samurai, which influenced all of Japan’s martial arts and martial philosophy, and the precepts of the code of the samurai were engulfed by a rapidly expanding society in little more than a century. bushido, born out of clan rivalry and the aggression of ambitious warlords, was destined to die with the advent of the modern age and the renunciation of war by a people who thrived on it for a millennium. Even though the code of the samurai–bushido, has died certainly the legacy of bushido and the stoicism of the samurai spirit lives on in modern Japanese society today and the practice of modern martial arts.


Dr. George W. Alexander, 9th Dan has excerpted his forthcoming book Japan’s Warrior Nation – The Samurai in the Twentieth Century in order to write this article. He can be reached at (423) 338-4972 or email alexyama@mindspring.com


Authors note: The story of the origin of man is still unknown. A former theory is that the human race developed in Africa and spread throughout the rest of the world. This “Out of Africa” theory has now been replaced by another theory that purports that man developed in various locations around the planet simultaneously. Additionally, the origin of the races including Mongoloid man in Asia, Negroid man in Africa and Caucasoid man located in Europe and other areas of Western civilization is also unclear. See the Oxford Companion toArchaeology (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1996), pp. 50-52.


Authors note: I once tried to communicate this idea to Shizuya Sato, the president of the International Martial Arts Federation (Kokusai Budo Renmei). I believe he felt that western martial arts couldn’t possibly equal or be compared to Japanese martial arts.

3W. Scott Morton, Japan Its History and Culture. (New York, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1994),  p. 63.

Trevor Leggett, Zen and the Ways, (Rutland, Vermont, Charles E. Tuttle & Company, 1987), p.191.



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