Opinions are divided when it comes to Japan’s current Constitution, issued during the U.S. Occupation of 1945 -52: Is it an American imposition that unfairly refuses to recognize the nation as a “normal country” or a precious war-renouncing document that reflects Japan’s unique status as the only country to have experienced the horrors of a nuclear bomb?
The crisis over the Constitution is the latest manifestation of a debate about the true nature of the “soul of Japan” that has been running continuously from the early 1890s. It was in 1889 that Japan promulgated its first modern Constitution, one that consciously imitated the constitutions of 19th-century European states. Around this time the word “Bushido,” a little-known name given to the samurai code, was first used in scholarly essays as a key to understanding the Japanese character. As the Constitution declared Japan’s modernity, theories about Bushido pushed the idea that Japan could also match the “civilized” West. Bushido was presented as the equivalent of European “chivalry” and the code of the British “gentleman.”
Critics have pointed out that no such word as Bushido existed before the Edo Period (1603-1868). Confucianism predominated at that time, and there was no uniform moral code among the samurai class.
Nitobe Inazo’s “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” first published in English in 1900, played an important role in the spread of the word. Over the past century, his book has been reprinted more than 100 times and translated into dozens of languages. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed by it that he bought 60 copies to give to friends and family.
For the West, “Bushido” offered a completely new, revelatory insight into Japan. Until it was published, Western perceptions of Japan tended to merge with those of China: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” (1885), for example, comically presented Japan as an effeminate land of mincing courtiers with Chinese-sounding names. Nitobe changed all that when his text established Japan as a masculine, dynamic and poetic land with a unique warrior culture.
By 1905, five years after it was first published, “Bushido” had become such a smash hit that it was been translated into Marathi, German and Polish (the Polish edition was censored by the Russian government, who feared its incendiary contents). French and Norwegian translations were on the way and a Chinese version was “under contemplation.” But, as historian Oleg Benesch argues in “Inventing the Way of the Samurai,” although “Bushido” may have quickly become an international best-seller, it wasn’t initially embraced with the same enthusiasm in Japan, where a profusion of other theories about Bushido had sprung up in the wake of Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. Nationalist critic Tetsujiro Inoue bitterly denounced Nitobe and established an alternative Emperor-worshipping form of Bushido — the version of the concept that would ultimately take root in Japan.
Nitobe’s book was first translated into Japanese in 1908, but it wasn’t until 1985 — when his portrait was placed on the ¥5,000 note — that his account of Bushido became widely read and influential in Japan.
Nitobe, born into a samurai family in 1862, was one of Japan’s great Renaissance men during the late 19th century. He was variously an author, diplomat, agriculture expert, politician, educator and economist who held five doctorate degrees and wrote in Japanese, English and German. He also studied abroad in America and Germany, and converted to Christianity.
Reading “Bushido” today, Nitobe’s writing style seems dated and florid, and he succumbs to some of the racial prejudices of the era. But it’s also dazzlingly clear why this slim text caused such a sensation when it was first published. For a 37-year-old native Japanese writing in flawless English, the book is a tour-de-force of erudition.
Nitobe begins by explaining how the concept of Bushido absorbed elements of both Confucianism and Shintoism (“This religion — or, is it not more correct to say, the race emotions which this religion expressed? — thoroughly imbued Bushido”), especially reverence for the Emperor, love of the nation and ancestor worship. He explains how the fundamentals of Bushido lay in paying homage and pledging fealty to a superior. In China, Confucian ethics made obedience to a parent the primary human duty, but in Japan precedence was given to a lord.
Modern studies of the Edo Period invariably discuss the samurai class’ mismanagement of the burgeoning market economy. But Nitobe manages to make their economic cluelessness sound like a virtue. We are told that, for the samurai, “the counter and abacus were abhorred” and that “the debarring of the nobility from mercantile pursuits was an admirable social policy in that it prevented wealth from accumulating in the hands of the powerful.”
Throughout the book, Nitobe attempts a difficult balancing act: He tries to simultaneously promote Bushido as evidence of the uniqueness of Japan’s martial code and at the same time as embodying universal ideals. This is partly because, as a latecomer to the world of 19th-century imperialism, Japan did not want to be seen as a second-class imitator of the West. It was important for the nation to show that it could challenge and compete with the West — that it had its own highly sophisticated ethical system. “Bushido” implicitly provided this framework. For those who had eyes to see, the book heralded a change in the world order.
The 20th century was going to be very different to the 19th. Nitobe advanced Bushido as the only ethical framework — apart from Christianity — powerful enough to challenge capitalist orthodoxy. He writes that Bushido, like Roman Stoicism, is “dead as a system; but is alive as a virtue.”
The irony was that although the huge international success of Nitobe’s “Bushido” was a great source of pride to the Japanese, coinciding with their victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the interpretations of Bushido that found official acceptance and popularity in Japan during the early 1900s were not Nitobe’s, but far more chauvinist and xenophobic versions.
Nitobe may have excavated his vision of the past to write “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” but as Japan moved toward the 1930s, the nation began to align itself to a far more fanatical, self-destructive understanding of samurai code.
This is the first in a three-part series on Bushido. Damian Flanagan is the author of “Yukio Mishima (Critical Lives)” and “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature.”