Bushido, “The Way of the Warrior” means in a common understanding of the word the samurai code. However, the term encompasses much more than a samurai warrior’s list of rules and codes he obeys. The key here is “the way” – and in this case it is also a way of life practiced by a noble warrior. Bushido is a set of principles that a warrior should pursue in his life in order to be capable to fight without losing his humanity, as well as be capable to lead and command without losing contact with important basic values.

Bushido originates from the samurai moral code and stresses frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honor until death. The Code of Bushido was developed for a warrior society driven by class and gender distinctions. Born of two main influences, the violent existence of the samurai was tempered by the wisdom and serenity of Confucianism and Buddhism.

Bushido developed between the 9th to 12th centuries and numerous translated documents dating from the 12th to 16th centuries demonstrate its wide influence across the whole of Japan.

The bushido code

The actual code was passed on verbally to each generation of samurai, but over time, seven chief virtues emerged, and became the written form of Bushido. These are:

…and above all: Honour

According to the Japanese dictionary Shogakukan Kokugo Daijiten, Bushido is defined as “a unique Ronri (philosophy) that spread through the warrior class from the Muromachi Chusei (period).” In 1899 “Bushidô: The Soul of Japan” was published, and the author Nitobe Inazo wrote: “...Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe... More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten... It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career.”

You can read “Bushido, The Soul of Japan” by clicking here.

Nitobe was really not the first person to document Japanese chivalry in this way. In his text “Feudal and Modern Japan” (1896) historian Arthur May Knapp wrote: “The samurai of thirty years ago had behind him a thousand years of training in the law of honor, obedience, duty, and self-sacrifice... It was not needed to create or establish them. As a child he had but to be instructed, as indeed he was from his earliest years, in the etiquette of self-immolation. The fine instinct of honor demanding it was in the very blood...”

Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, aspects of Bushido became formalized into Japanese Feudal Law.

Translation of documents related to Bushido began in the 1970s with Dr. Carl Steenstrup who performed a lifetime of research into the ethical codes of famous Samurai clans including Hojo Soun and Imagawa Ryoshun. Steenstrup's 1977 dissertation at Harvard University was entitled “Hojo Shigetoki (1198–1261) and his Role in the History of Political and Ethical Ideas in Japan”.

According to the editors of Monumenta Nipponica, “Tens of thousands of documents survive from the medieval period... Only a few have been translated into English, or are likely ever to appear in translation.” One of the oldest English-language academic journals in the field of Asian studies, much of Dr. Steenstrup's significant findings were written for MN.

Primary research into Bushidô was later conducted by William Scott Wilson in his 1982 text “Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors”. The writings span hundreds of years, family lineage, geography, social class and writing style, yet share a common set of values. Wilson's work also examined the earliest Japanese writings in the 8th century: the Kojiki (712 CE), Shoku Nihongi (797 CE), the Kokin Wakashu (early 10th century), Konjaku Monogatari (ca 1106 CE) and the Heike Monogatari (1371), as well as Chinese Classics: Analects, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean and the Mencius (ca 500 BC).

In May 2008, Thomas Cleary translated a collection of 22 writings on bushido “by warriors, scholars, political advisors, and educators”. The comprehensive collection provides a historically rich view of samurai life and philosophy. The book gives an insider's view of the samurai world: “the moral and psychological development of the warrior, the ethical standards they were meant to uphold, their training in both martial arts and strategy, and the enormous role that the traditions of Shintoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism had in influencing samurai ideals.” The translations, in 22 chapters, span nearly 500 years from the 14th to the 19th centuries.