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Bushido: The Soul of Japan    by Inazo Nitobe order for
by Inazo Nitobe
Order:  USA  Can
Tuttle, 2004 (1905)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This small volume was first published in 1905! Why the continuing interest? The publisher tells us that it's for answers to 'why certain ideas and customs prevail in Japan.' Bushido, 'the law written in the heart', is the code of conduct of the samurai, the aristocratic warrior class that arose in Japan in the 12th century and blossomed in the Tokugawa era.

Though the author, Inazo Nitobe, speaks to us in 'a borrowed tongue', he has more than mastered it, and is also well versed in English, French and German literature, to all of which he makes reference in explaining the 'moral precepts' he inhaled as a child, the 'Ethical System' that is Bushido. In a rather flowery 1905 Introduction, William Elliot Griffis asks 'Is it not true that, in the study of languages, ethics, religions, and code of manners, "he who knows but one knows none"?' He advises us that 'He who would understand twentieth-century Japan must know something of its roots in the soil of the past.'

What does 'Bushido' mean? Dr. Nitobe gives us the literal translation as 'Military-Knight-Ways', and tells us that it's a largely unwritten 'code of moral principles', similar in many ways to western chivalric traditions. What are the origins of 'Bushido'? Shintoism, with its strong 'Know Thyself' tenet, was a major influence, as were the ethical doctrines of Chinese philosophers - Confucius, Mencius, and Wan Yan Ming. I liked the samurai's way of telling us that knowledge is not an end in itself, i.e. that wisdom matters more - 'learning is an ill-smelling vegetable that must be boiled and boiled before it is fit for use.'

Subsequent chapters cover Bushido principles - Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Veracity, Honor, Loyalty and Self-Control. Dr. Nitobe discusses the 'ultra-Spartan' young samurai training, the position of women, and (hardest for westerners to understand) the 'Institutions of Suicide and Redress'. There are subtle shifts from other traditions' understanding of similar concepts, as in 'Gi-Ri' (the 'Right Reason') and the notion that Courage is about 'doing what is right'. In the section on Honor, the author shares the adage 'To bear what you think you cannot bear is really to bear.'

Dr. Nitobe talks of the Japanese tradition of enormous respect for a teacher who develops 'character and not intelligence', 'the soul and not the head'. He tells us that 'the best service done in education ... is not definite, tangible, or measurable.' He explains to non-Japanese that the 'apparent stoicism' of his compatriots often overlays strong emotion, as he speaks of their use of laughter and poetry to deal with sorrow. And he discusses suicide in Bushido, along with abuses of its intent, when 'hot-headed youths rushed into it as insects fly into fire'.

In discussing the 'Soul of Samurai', that is the sword, the author waxes lyrical about 'its matchless edge, upon which histories and possibilities hang'. If you have any interest in increasing your understanding of Japan and its people, then Inazo Nitobe's Bushido is a thought-provoking must read.

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