Books / Reviews

‘Bushido and the Art of Living’: Lessons from Japan’s ‘way of the warrior’

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

There is a sublimely convergent moment in flamenco, which the Spanish call duende, in which the musicians and dancers achieve an almost spiritual, albeit brief, synergy of sound, rhythm and movement. Perhaps something similar takes place in the Japanese martial arts, when body and mind merge to create perfect equipoise.

Bushido and the Art of Living: An Inquiry into Samurai Values, by Alexander Bennett.
184 pages
JAPAN PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FOUNDATION FOR CULTURE, Nonfiction.

Many of us dabble in the martial arts at intermittent times in our lives. My own enthusiasm propelled me to a black-belt ranking in karate before a different life took over and higher aspirations ran into the sand. Other practitioners stay the course.

Alexander Bennett is one such person. The author’s credentials — which include three decades of deep immersion in kendo and naginata, senior positions on prestigious committees and federations, the publication of several books, competing in international championships and an academic career dedicated to the advancement of research in his field — are unimpeachable. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine Kendo World. When I contacted him, asking how he managed to balance teaching, writing and research with a serious commitment to budō — the martial arts — Bennett explained that he has managed to fashion his career so that all these fields intersect, adding, “It is pretty much 24/7 doing something with budō.”

Bookshelves are positively groaning with titles on the martial arts, many of them breezy, hastily written works born of faddish, market-driven forces. Well versed on ancient texts, manuals and treatises on bushidō, the “way of the warrior,” Bennett draws from a font of knowledge on Japanese culture and religion that make his views and interpretations well worth listening to. Invoking works such as “Koyo-gunkan,” a 17th-century text that examines the attributes of the powerful daimyo Takeda Shingen and his son, Katsuyori, the author also sets aside time for “Hagakure,” an important book on Bushido. Despite its tarnished reputation as a manual of samurai-oriented ethics requisitioned by the militarists in the 1930s, and also a text strongly associated with the ultra-rightist writer Yukio Mishima, Bennett finds a good deal of merit in the work. These books bear some comparison, perhaps, to certain Roman historical texts, with their digressions on leadership, Confucian prescripts on the characteristics of ideal patriarchs, and certain Shakespearean plays, which incorporate commentaries on good and poor governance.

Japan’s samurai class are popularly portrayed in novels, manga and film as either paragons of virtue or ruthless, sanguinary thugs, given to starting brawls or testing the sharpness of their blades on the suspended corpses of prisoners. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), a time of relative peace, the samurai were at risk of being reduced to superannuated warriors.

The Tokugawa leaders inveighed them to maintain a spiritual and martial fortitude developed over centuries, but to also dedicate themselves to the promotion of social harmony and peace. Bennett examines in detail an existential dilemma, in which an honorable death in combat was no longer the supreme ideal. Perhaps the modern equivalent of this quandary might be certain indigenous peoples, like Native Americans, Aboriginals or Ainu, who are urged to preserve their customs but to participate in society according to very contemporary values.

The author draws our attention to some of the more notable ways in which Bushido has been appropriated at various points in modern Japanese history, citing its adoption, or misappropriation, by the militarists in the 1930s, and the claim that it underpinned Japan’s rapid economic growth in the postwar era. Bennett notes how Bushido is now being invoked as a means to re-energize a country that has fallen into economic malaise and social erosion.

The writer rails against the emphasis on winning medals in sporting events and other coveted trophies, over the exercise of zanshin, a word coeval with modesty in victory, humble defeat, self-dignity and control. Bennett characterizes zanshin as one of the fundamental mooring blocks for the dignity of the martial arts, one that, especially in judo, is being undermined by showy displays of triumph, immature outbursts and tantrums of pique. Zanshin obliges us to be gracious in defeat, thanking rather than cursing our victorious opponents for exposing our deficiencies. The writer contends that the practice of budō in Japan is being “reduced to a nationalistic point-scoring exercise with little evidence of its profound spiritual and philosophical continuum, which makes it so valuable to the human experience.”

Bennett contests the widely held conviction in Japan that Bushido is inherently a Japanese genetic property, one whose intrinsic elements are exclusive, and thereby excluding, to outsiders. Heightened alertness, harsh training programs and regimes, day in day out, whether adopted by Japanese or nonnative practitioners, require a degree of perseverance and will, however, that few of us are able to summon, let alone sustain. Bennett, a man who rises at 5 a.m. on bone-chilling winter mornings to train, doesn’t mince his words, stating, “It is a lifelong journey of bloody hard work, sucking it up, and self-reflection.”

What we learn by the end of this urbanely written, empirically tested book is that Bushido is not merely a set of strategies, the cultivating of a transcendent state of mind appropriate for combat, but a system of thinking eminently suited to preparing us for life and all its concealed traps and hazards.