Every age breeds its own morality. One era’s good is another’s evil. Today’s virtue is tomorrow’s vice, today’s wisdom tomorrow’s stupidity, today’s sanity tomorrow’s madness.

For 700 years, from the late 12th to the mid-19th centuries, Japan’s highest ideals were embodied in the samurai. Unflinching courage, unshakeable loyalty, murderous proficiency with the sword, a serenity in the face of death that to a modern eye can seem macabre, with its culminating ideal of agonizing self-disembowelment — such are the distinctive features of what came to be known as Bushido, the “way of the warrior.”

One doesn’t know whether to be awed or appalled by the following story, told by Nitobe Inazo in his English-language classic “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” (1900):

A certain high-ranking warrior is unjustly exiled from the capital. Not satisfied with his removal, his enemies are bent on destroying his family. His young son attends a village school incognito. The enemies discover his whereabouts and order the schoolmaster to surrender him. Surrender the son of his lord? Unthinkable. Defy the command? Impossible.

Fortunately, another pupil, also a samurai but lower in rank, observing his physical resemblance to the boy marked for death, knows his duty — and his mother knows hers. At home that night the boy, with his mother’s approval, sacrifices his life. Next day his head is ceremonially presented to the authorities. The deception goes unnoticed. The young lord is saved. Nitobe comments, “‘What an atrocious story!’ I hear my readers exclaim. ‘Parents deliberately sacrificing their own innocent child to save the life of another man’s!’ But this child was a conscious and willing victim.” The tale, says Nitobe, is “not more revolting than the story of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac.”

That bland comparison masks three important differences. The sacrifice of Isaac was for God’s sake, not for a feudal overlord’s. It dates back 4,000 years, to long before the taming of mankind’s darkest, most irrational impulses.

And, of course, the sacrifice of Isaac did not take place.

One more brief story, also courtesy of Nitobe, who quotes a diary left by a physician present on the occasion of the seppuku (ritual disembowelment) of three brothers following a failed plot to kill a lord they believed had wronged their father. The brothers are Sakon, 24; Naiki, 17; and Hachimaro, 8.

“When they were all seated in a row for final dispatch, Sakon turned to the youngest and said, ‘You go first, for I wish to be sure that you do it properly.’ Upon the little one’s replying that, as he had never seen seppuku performed, he would like to see his brothers do it and then he could follow them, the older brothers smiled through tears: ‘Well said, little fellow!’

“Sakon thrust his dagger into the left side of his abdomen and said, ‘Look, brother. Do you understand now?'” The two older brothers die. “The child looked from one to the other, and when both had expired, he calmly half denuded himself and followed the example set him.”

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was the last nail in the traditional samurai’s coffin. The past was dead, the future was “Western” — capitalist, industrialist, acquisitive, “rational,” “civilized.” Few nations in history have transfigured themselves more dramatically. The novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) depicts the agitations of his time in his 1909 novel “Sorekara” (“And Then”). One either threw oneself headlong into the new life, with its grubby, unscrupulous vulgarities, or one clung, somewhat futilely, to the past. Daisuke, Soseki’s protagonist, is unable to do either. He is 30, rich, idle, scornful of the samurai ideals of his upbringing, no less so of the soulless materialism seething and surging around him.

His father, a samurai of the old school, tries to fire his son’s spirit — in vain. “Daisuke felt an unpleasant taste in his mouth every time he had to listen to such speeches. Courage might well have been an important prerequisite to survival in the barbaric days of his father’s youth, when life was taken right and left, but in this civilized day and age, Daisuke regarded it as a piece of equipment primitive as the bow and arrow. … Needless to say, Daisuke was cowardly. He could feel no shame in this. There were even occasions when he proudly styled himself a coward.”

Cowardice doesn’t seem much to be proud of. But to Daisuke, evidently, it’s synonymous with enlightenment. His father, had Daisuke spoken frankly to him, would have recoiled in horror. But his view of life was already dead. Good riddance, is the modern verdict. We today don’t call our lifestyle cowardly. We call it “the pursuit of happiness,” and tend to agree with Daisuke that murderous vengeance and seppuku are more repulsive than admirable.

Nitobe, writing in English and addressing precisely the modern, negative perspective on Bushido, is at pains to show that its ideals are at bottom little different from those of the West. Heroism is heroism, East or West, he seems to say. Think of the Roman Cato the Younger, he says, ripping out his entrails rather than live under the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. Think, for that matter, of Christ, whose martyrdom, no less than a samurai’s, showed “that the vilest form of death assumes a sublimity and becomes a symbol of new life.”

The Christian injunction against self-slaughter seems to blunt somewhat the force of that last example, and it would be hard indeed to find a Western equivalent to the early 18th-century military treatise known as the “Hagakure.” Among its aphorisms are encomiums of death that make a modern reader shudder: “A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death.” “The way of the warrior is death. This means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death.”

Two centuries of civil war ended in 1615. An exhausted nation settled slowly into peace. But death retained its uncanny hold. Not warriors now but lovers were its most fervent devotees — as we shall see in this space next month.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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