Bushido: Now and Zen
Japan History

Research Report
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    Out of feudal Japan arose an unwritten code of Samurai warriors.  The Bushido code guided the samurai in life and death, and stressed loyalty to the leader and honor in every aspect of life.  The Bushido code arose from Zen-Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism, and taught the importance of service to master and country.  After the fall of the Samurai, the bushido code remained an integral part of Japanese tradition, and spurred the growth of the large Japanese companies that became a dominating power in the world economy for years.

Historical Background

    In 8th century Japan, Chinese influence from the Tang dynasty ushered in a period of Buddhist infused Japanese nationalism.  The Sun Line Emperor was powerless, controlled by the powerful Soga family regency.  The hallmark of this Nara period was the jori system, the collection and distribution of all lands-taxable to the government.  The jori system was expensive to administer, but attempted to take control from the powerful landowners and return it to the Emperor.  Buddhism was the central unifying bond, however it became out of control and threatened to destroy the reformed government.  In the late 8th century, the Japanese capital was moved to Kyoto in hopes to rid Buddhist control.  The Heian period begins, and once again, Japan’s Emperor becomes weak to the control of the Fujiwara families, one of the most powerful Regencies in Japanese history.  All wealthy landowners moved to Kyoto, completely isolated from the agricultural life force of Japan.  The landowner’s estates, called shoen, were established and the Uji were appointed to run day-to-day activities.  Percentages, or shikis, were paid to all that worked, and the Uji raised armies for protection.  By the end of the Heian period, almost half of all the land were shoen estates.  Money was not getting to the government, rather making the Uji increasingly powerful.

    Samurai, Japanese warriors, became the protectors of the shoen, and power began to grow for some families.  In the late 12th century, fights between powerful shoen estates end the Heian period, and the power of the Emperor diminishes.  By 1156, a new system was established, the shogun system.  The Shogun system was a feudal system in which the shogun, or powerful military dictators, controlled the peasants with the use of force.  Japan becomes a military country, run by powerful Shogunate.  This military system was brought in under the Kamakura period, and was also known as the bakufu.  Powerful families and the new warrior class under the Shogunate control this military government.  This military system lasted until 1868, when the Meiji reforms brought back the power of the Emperor and abolished all the Shogun leaders and samurai warriors.  The samurai developed a code of principles that would live on past the Shogunate system.  “Japanese history until the 16th century was marked by the gradual expansion of the samurai’s power and the corresponding decline of the aristocracy’s,”  (Ikegami 48).

    Bushido in Japan was important for many reasons.  In a time of civil wars and regional battles, the Bushido principle of nationalism led to the unification of Japan.  The powerful shugo, or provincial governor, Oda Nobunaga gained control of Kyoto in the 16th century and eventually gained control of one third of Japan.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi comes to power as Oda Nobunaga's general, and continues to unify Japan.  Finally, in 1600, Tokagawa Ieyusa wins a great battle, and Japan becomes entirely unified.  Japan enters into a period of isolation from the outside world, and the samurai class of the Tokagawa period reach their high point of culture.  The samurai train less in the arts of military, but more in education and in service.  This leads to great tension between samurai; those who accept the change from military to service, and those who cannot.  In 1702, the 47 Ronin make one last display of their resentment of the new class of samurai.  Until the return of the Emperor during the Meiji restoration, the samurai had become not more warlike but the cultural elite.

Research Report

    The Samurai code, Bushido, guided the Japanese warriors in life, battle, and death.  It was the unwritten code of principles and morals, and taught obligation and honor.  Although the samurai were all but gone at the turn of the 20th century, Bushido remains as a system of pride and valor in Japanese society.

    The samurai were fighting men skilled in the martial arts, especially in sword fighting.  Their loyalty to their Daimyo was above all else.  “The samurai’s loyalty to the emperor and his overlord, or daimyo, was unsurpassed,” (http://mcel.pacificu.edu).  Samurai began as mercenaries hired by local landowners to defend land and conquer new land.  They lived meager lives with no interest in riches and material possessions, but rather honor and pride.  Honor in battle was a top priority, not only for the samurai but also their family and lord.  Samurai had no fear of death; in fact death in battle was glorious.  The feudal system of the Kamakura period was one of man-to-man fighting.  Samurai would announce their name and rank to their opponent, who was honored and respected as an equal. (www.aikido-world.com)

    Samurai bore two symbols to represent their role in life.  The cherry blossom is no less a symbol of Japan than it is of the samurai.  It represented chivalry, a code of honor sacred to the samurai.  The cherry blossom also represented the course of their life.  Cherry blossoms bloom to a beautiful flower, however they quickly wilt and die.  This temporary beauty symbolized the life and death of the samurai, quick but full of principle. (Nitobe 1)

    The other symbol is the sword, the soul of the samurai.  “Bushido made the sword its emblem of power and prowess,” (Nitobe 131).  A samurai was trained with the sword as early as boyhood, and at age five was given the sword to have always at his side.  At 15, the Samurai was at the age of independence, and was able to seek out of a life of his own.  The sword was in his mind and heart, a symbol of loyalty and honor.  Swordsmiths were not mere blacksmiths, rather artists who committed their soul and spirit into forging the blade.  As deadly and beautiful as the weapon were, bushido taught the samurai self-control and the proper use of their sword.  Shame was giving to those who drew their blade on undeserved occasions.

    The Samurai were bound to their feudal obligation to their Daimyo, the regional military lords.  The unwritten code of the Samurai is called the Bushido code, translated as the “Way of the Warrior.”  Bushido is a system of standards that became the life force of the samurai during the feudal periods in Japan.  Bushido was not written on paper, but in the heart and soul of the samurai.  Honor and integrity was so important to the samurai, that if any action could bring shame upon them and their family, they would perform a ritual suicide, known as seppuku, to “cleanse” their shame away.  Death was honorably, many times more honorable than life.  “Whenever a cause presented itself which was considered dearer than life, with utmost serenity and celerity was life laid down,” (Nitobe 81).

    The code of the Bushido had five main requirements.  First, fidelity towards their master and fatherland, respect towards parents and siblings, and steadiness in all aspects of life.  Second, samurai were always polite and respected all in the form of etiquette.  Third, samurai were to always show valor, courage, and bravery while maintaining self-control.  The forth requirement is the pursuit of truth, sincerity, and justice.  Fifth, simplicity of life and purity were to keep the samurai dedicated to their obligation, while ignoring material ideas.  (www.bushido-online.com)

    Bushido developed over the centuries through the influences of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism.  Buddhism taught stoicism, a genuine respect for life and death.  The samurai did not fear death because it completed the cycle of life, and did not let emotion complicate its understanding.  “Zen Buddhism lent to the samurai a very
Stoic disposition.  This Stoicism was realized out of a genuine respect for life and also for death,” (www.aikido-world.com).  Zen meditation also taught samurai to focus and to reach a higher level of thought.  Zen also taught the love and respect of nature, and the order of all things.  Confucianism bonded community and family relationships.  These relationships had different levels of obligation, but to all the samurai were faithful.  The most important relationship was one of servant to master, as samurai were most loyal to their Daimyo.  Shintoism stresses the purification of one's soul and the removal of everything that plagues the psyche.  Nationalism and patriotism are important parts of Shintoism in they represent loyalty to family and homeland.  These different influences shaped the warrior code of Bushido. (www.aikido-world.com)  (http://mcel.pacificu.edu)

    “The training of the samurai class was considered one of the most important tasks of the culture,” (Cleary 21).  Warriors were trained in the martial arts, but also in cultural arts. The samurai in time became the cultural and military elite.  In times of peace, samurai were educated in different philosophies.  Times of war fueled the demand for weapons and armor, called keiko.  This demand created a profitable industry for merchants.  Samurai were influenced by the refined culture in Kyoto.  The Zen-influenced culture centered on order and nature.

    The principles of the Bushido code could still be seen in the 20th century.  Japanese suicide pilots in World War II shocked and demoralized westerners with their blatant disregard for their own life.  The term for these pilots was “kamikaze,” a Japanese term meaning “the divine winds.”  These winds prevented Mongolian invasion in the 11th century, and led the Japanese to believe that the Gods protected them.  Just as in the past, “The Japanese believed these pilots were sent to save Japan.”   Without a fear of death, these pilots believed in something greater than their life.  Their loyalty to Japan gave them a far greater victory just as the samurai who believed in honor through death. (http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/bushido/b2day.html).

    The onset of war created a large demand for war goods and technology. Many families, some direct descendants of the samurai, began to organize into business units that supplied Japan with the goods they needed.  These companies, called zaibatsu, were run in the same fashion as Japan’s feudal estates. Bushido ideals were directly applied to the industrialization of Japan, especially in the creation of the zaibatsu.  Zaibatsu were a large collection of diversified companies, owned by a single family and governed by a council of family members.  The executives in these corporations applied Japanese traditions to business life.

    The aftermath of World War II led to the disbanding of the Japanese Imperial military and the rise of a new era of Bushido influence.  Japan used modernization and industry to become a world power in commerce and industry.  The zaibatsu had directly profited from the war, and their assets were frozen by the Allied Powers and forbidden to resume their business functions.  After the termination of the Zaibatsu, U.S. looked to Japan to become an economic ally and to provide an industrial base to onset the hostilities created with China and Soviet Russia.  The keiretsu emerged as the new zaibatsu, and shared many of the same principles.  However, the keiretsu were publicly and privately owned corporations, rather than the family owned zaibatsu.  They dominated Japan’s recovery influenced South Korea to form similar organizations, called chaebols.  The keiretsu had strong ties with politics and government that exist to this day.

Historical Significance

     The understanding of the Bushido code is an important asset when studying Japanese history.  Bushido shaped the lives of the samurai, who in turn shaped the rest of society.  Culture and the bushido code met on many levels, and often fused to make a powerful cultural statement.  The most important aspect of the Bushido code is the Confucian relationship of the peasant to the master.  This devout loyalty maintained the Shogun system for years, and after it was finally disbanded bushido still continued.  Throughout the imperialization of Asia, Japan maintained an ideal of being the powerful master obligated to care for the weak peasants.  Soldiers in the war mimicked many Samurai traditions.  During and after the war, Japan made the move towardsindustrialization, the large companies that became world conglomerates practiced many bushido principles.
 Although the Bushido code was the standard of the Japanese Samurai, its influence will remain.  “It is still a living object of power and beauty among us; and if it assumes no tangible shape or form, it not the less scents the moral atmosphere, and makes us ware that we are still under its potent spell, “ (Nitobe 1).


Nitobe, Inazo.  Bushido The Soul of Japan:  Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland; 1969.

Cleary, Thomas.  The Japanese Art of War:  Shambhala, Boston; 1991.

Friday, Karl F.  Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Power in Early Japan:  Stanford University Press, Stanford; 1992.

Ikegami, Eiko.  The Taming of the Samurai:  Harvard University Press, Cambridge; 1995.

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