One of the most exquisite texts I’ve ever read is Inazo Nitobe’ Bushido: The Soul of Japan. He wrote this book as Japan underwent deep transformations of its traditional lifestyle while being forged (painfully) into a modern nation. When a western observer asked him about the basis of morality in Japan Nitobe thought long and hard on the subject – this book was the result of his meditations. It is beautifully written, and many ways is written to provide a western audience with a better understanding of Japan, Nitobe went to great lengths to use the Bible and other Western literature as examples of common points of reference, to explain the origins and sources of Bushido, its character and teachings, its influence, and its continuity and permanence.
I recently purchased this as an AudioBook on iTunes, and have been listening to it on my journey to and from work. I recall how much the book influenced me when I first read it, so much so that I fell in love with the romantic view of the Samurai Tradition – I even went as far as learning how to make swords! (something some of colleagues at Talis are beginning to worry about, since I bought a couple more at the weekend to restore).
To give you a sense of both Nitobe’s eloquence, and also the profound wisdom in his words, I have copied below his examination of Giri, or Duty. Regardless of how many times I read this, or listen to it, his words still have a profound effect on me.
Giri primarily meant no more than duty, and I dare say
its etymology was derived from the fact that in our conduct,
say to our parents, though love should be the only motive,
lacking that, there must be some other authority to enforce
filial piety; and they formulated this authority in Giri. Very
rightly did they formulate this authorityâ€”Giriâ€”since if love
does not rush to deeds of virtue, recourse must be had to
man's intellect and his reason must be quickened to convince
him of the necessity of acting aright. The same is true of any
other moral obligation. The instant Duty becomes onerous.
Right Reason steps in to prevent our shirking it. Giri thus
understood is a severe taskmaster, with a birch-rod in his hand
to make sluggards perform their part. It is a secondary power in
ethics; as a motive it is infinitely inferior to the Christian doctrine
of love, which should be the law. I deem it a product of the
conditions of an artificial societyâ€”of a society in which accident
of birth and unmerited favour instituted class distinctions, in which
the family was the social unit, in which seniority of age was of
more account than superiority of talents, in which natural affections
had often to succumb before arbitrary man-made customs. Because
of this very artificiality, Giri in time degenerated into a vague sense
of propriety called up to explain this and sanction that,â€”as, for
example, why a mother must, if need be, sacrifice all her other
children in order to save the first-born; or why a daughter must sell
her chastity to get funds to pay for the father's dissipation, and the
like. Starting as Right Reason, Giri has, in my opinion, often stooped
to casuistry. It has even degenerated into cowardly fear of censure.
I might say of Giri what Scott wrote of patriotism, that "as it is the
fairest, so it is often the most suspicious, mask of other feelings."
Carried beyond or below Right Reason, Giri became a monstrous
misnomer. It harbored under its wings every sort of sophistry and
On the subject of swords, Nitobe devoted an entire chapter. I have had an obsession with Japanese Swords for many years now. I used to own a large collection some of which I restored myself before selling them on. There are a few I still have, I only kept those that that I have a profound sentimental attachment to, so much so that my friends (especially Richard, Alex and Alan as well as the rest of my family) all laugh at the fact that regardless of where I am in the house, I have this small TantÅ blade which seemingly follows me around everywhere, I carry it unconsciously – I guess when I say it like that it does sound a bit scary. Anyway I digress, the point was that Nitobe’ opening paragraph in his Chapter on Swords describes the strong attachment between a Samurai and his sword in a way that no-one else has ever come close to articulating, in fact it’s very poetic:
Bushido made the sword its emblem of power and prowess.
When Mahomet proclaimed that "the sword is the key of
Heaven and of Hell," he only echoed a Japanese sentiment.
Very early the samurai boy learned to wield it. It was a
momentous occasion for him when at the age of five he was
apparelled in the paraphernalia of samurai costumes placed
upon a go-board and initiated into the rights of the military
professions by having thrust into his girdle a real sword instead
of the toy dirk with which he had been playing. After this first
ceremony of adoptio per arma, he was no more to be seen
outside his father's gates without this badge of his status, even
though it was usually substituted for everyday wear by a gilded
wooden dirk. Not many years pass before he wears constantly
the genuine steel, though blunt, and then the sham arms are
thrown aside and with enjoyment keener than his newly acquired
blades, he marches out to try their edge on wood and stone. When
he reaches man's estate, at the age of fifteen, being given
independence of action, he can now pride himself upon the
possession of arms sharp enough for any work. The very possession
of the dangerous instrument imparts to him a feeling and an air of
self-respect and responsibility. "He beareth not the sword in vain.
What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his
mind and heart, -- loyalty and honour. The two swords, the longer
and the shorter, -- called respectively daito and shoto or katana and
wakizashi, -- never leave his side. When at home, they grace the
most conspicuous place in the study or parlour; by night they guard
his pillow within easy reach of his hand. Constant companions, they
are beloved, and proper names of endearment given them. Being
venerated, they are well-nigh worshipped.
If you want to understand Bushido, or the very nature of Japan, or even if you just want to have your own ideas of morality and ethics challenged then you should read this book. In fact you can read the entire book online at Project Gutenburg, here.