History of the Bushido Code

The Bushido code of conduct, closely tied to Samurai culture, played an important role in the expansion of Asian art, Japanese values, and many important traditions like tea ceremonies and the art of samurai sword-making. An unwritten code of chivalrous behavior, Bushido later became the basis for the teaching of ethics in Japan, with principles that still remain relevant today. Below, our editors explore the history of the Bushido, or Samurai code, along with modern interpretations of how the code can be applied to everyday life.  

What is Bushido?

Bushido is a code of conduct that emerged in Japan from the Samurai, or Japanese warriors, who spread their ideals throughout society. They drew inspiration from Confucianism, which is a relatively conservative philosophy and system of beliefs that places a great deal of importance on loyalty and duty. The code contains eight key principles or virtues that warriors were expected to uphold.

The Eight Principles

  1. Justice: Justice is a core value of the Samurai. Incorporating the Bushido principle of justice into your life requires reflecting on what is fair and upholding the value of upstanding moral character. 
  2. Courage: Courage, like justice, entails deciphering what is right and wrong. Courage requires the strength not only to perceive but also to act.  
  3. Compassion: Compassion is the ability to manifest love and sympathy through patience. It also requires attempting to see the world from the perspective of another. This is an especially important trait for those in a leadership role.
  4. Respect: Respect means that you acknowledge your regard for the experiences and feelings of others. In order to collaborate with another person, politeness must be employed.  
  5. Integrity: In order to practice many of the other principles listed, one has to maintain integrity. This mean living honestly and sincerely.   
  6. Honor: Samurai were warriors who upheld a sense of self worth and lived by the highest code of conduct. In order to abide by the principle of honor, you must acknowledge your moral responsibilities.
  7. Loyalty: First, stay true to yourself. When fealty is given to another, this must not be abandoned even under difficult circumstances.
  8. Self-control: Self-control in the Bushido code means adhering to this code under all circumstances, when with others and when alone. Not every iteration of the Bushido code includes self-control, but the book Bushido: The Soul of Japan written by Inazo Nitobe highlights its importance.  

Origin of the Bushido Code

The word “bushi,” a  synonym for warrior, serves as a root for the word “Bushido.” The word Samurai roughly translates to “those who serve,” but has come to mean warrior. To understand the foundation of the Bushido code, one must examine the history of the Samurai.

The history of the Samurai begins in the eighth century, when armed supporters of wealthy landowners began to be known as Samurai. Toward the end of the 12th century, power in Japan shifted and the Kamakura Shogunate military dictatorship was established. During this time, leaders popularized the use of Samurai and codified their privileged status.

Following a period of unrest, when Mongol invasion destabilized the government leading to the end of the Kamakura period towards the end of the 14th century, there was a long era of peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate. During this period of peace and prosperity, the Samurai were no longer required to provide military force; instead, they were asked to lead civil governance. Slowly, their role transitioned from being a type of knight to encompassing the responsibilities of a government official.

In the Tokugawa period, the Japanese art forms popular among the Samurai began to flourish. These included tea ceremonies, rock gardens, flower arranging, and a unique Japanese painting style that was developed during Edo period.

The ordinance of the Military Houses or the Buke shohatto, was issued in 1615 and the Samurai were called upon to train not only in strength, but also in civility and politeness. It was during this time that the Bushido principles emerged as the code of conduct for Japanese people at large, influenced heavily by the Samurai as well as Buddhism and Confucianism. The notion of the Samurai was cemented as the epitome of refined manhood. 

Overall, the Bushido code calls for an appreciation and respect for life, and teaches that people should lead by example, express benevolence, and show mercy.

Importance of the Bushido Code in Modern Society

In the early 1900s, Shinto was made the state religion of Japan and Bushido was its ruling moral code. The strong sense of honor, discipline, loyalty, and devotion can still be seen in Japanese culture today. These tenets made the country one of the “Big Five” powers alongside the U.S., Britain, France, and Italy during the World War I. Following World War II, the country was able to rebuild in part by drawing on Bushido principles, emerging as a great economic and industrial power.  As the Samurai transitioned from warriors to esteemed gentlemen, at times residing in both plains, lessons are still applied in today’s society and are upheld by many leaders across the world.

Sources: History.com | Art of Manliness | Bushido: The Soul of Japan | Britannica