Bushido For Everyone: Part 3

Introduction

This is the third and final part of my Bushido series (Part 1, Part 2). In it, I'm taking the book Code of the Samurai: A Modern Translation of the Bushido Shishinshu of Taira Shigesuke, and summarizing each short lesson in it, and also giving my interpretation of how the lesson applies to real life.

This book was called Bushido Shoshinshu, meaning Bushido for Beginners. It was written during the Tokugawa period. At this time, the peace and stability won by the Tokugawa regime caused some people to be worried that the warrior class was losing its morality. This book was designed to have practical and moral instruction for members of the warrior class, outlining personal and professional standards of conduct young warriors should aspire to meet.

To this day, I think the samurai ethic has a lot to do with contemporary Japanese culture, especially the way men are expected to be so married to work in a way that seems alien to Western men. In the Tokugawa period, a lower-ranking warrior was judged based on his loyalty and the quality of his service to his daimyo, or overlord. To this day, men in Japanese society often do not ask for time off or a break from the ridiculous amount of unpaid overtime that is often dealt to them, and I think it all stems from this societal attitude that was deeply rooted in Tokugawa-era social mores.

However, I don't think that everything about bushido is necessarily negative or limiting; I wish some people in my own country took more pride in working and working well. Bushido is about respect and dignity, which are very important things. It's also about being prepared adequately for a time of emergency, which perhaps people should consider more.

Service

This one discusses how, once you have agreed to loan your overlord money in times of trouble, you should not complain about this, "even in casual conversation to your wife and children". This is because the author recognizes the need for the overlord to do his duties, which trumps the needs of his vassals. In this code, it is considered gravely wrong for anyone to conduct himself in a manner which might disgrace his lord, and money is often the first thing a lord needs in a time of crisis. The samurai are herein instructed to quietly endure any hardship imposed upon them by a reduced salary, eating miso soup, wearing simple clothing, etc. It's interesting because this mentality of austerity is still very much a part of Japanese culture today, even if it has begun to become somewhat more relaxed.

Vassalage

In the Tokugawa era, although it was a peaceful time, this is a reminder that lordship was once a military-based title and that, on paper at least, daimyo still were required whenever needed to be able to raise a militia of a certain number of men based on their sizes of land holdings. In addition to raising this militia, he would have had to also keep a number of armed men behind at his castle to guard it from siege. That's why this passage is really trying to make the reader aware that their life is not their own, but is fully devoted to their lord. This is why the warrior is instructed to avoid unhealthy habits like drinking and promiscuity, because they had to take care of themselves in preparation for that call to war that could happen at any time. This says (and I know it has been said in this book before) that it should not be a "proper aim" to die in bed, and like previous passages, it glorifies the honorable warrior's death on the battlefield.

One passage I like here says that warriors should also avoid offending one another, because under this concept that one's life truly belongs to your lord and not yourself, you must guard it by avoiding saying anything that might start a quarrel:

"Do not consider it a proper aim to die at home in bed, let alone by starting a quarrel in which you kill your comrades and lose your own life - you should abandon this sort of disloyal and irresponsible behavior. To avoid this, it is best not to speak thoughtlessly. Arguments come from speaking out, and once an argument arises, there is inevitably offensive language. When two warriors get to the point of exchanging offensive language with each other, there is no way it can end without incident."

To me, I like this practical and sensible advice. It makes for an interesting point of cultural difference with the West, which is focused on the concept of individual rights, and chief among these is the right to freedom of speech. But while people do have the right to freedom of speech, perhaps our culture could learn a thing or two from the Japanese; learn how to consider when respectful silence might also be better for everyone involved.

Military Service

This one is reminding the reader that combat and construction (by which they mean the hasty construction of militarily necessary buildings during war) are the two "essential duties of knighthood". Therefore, the author is saying that knights should never complain about their peacetime roles such as guard, escort, emissary, and so on.

"When knights born in the Era of the Warring States went into battle, in summer the blazing sun beat down on them in their armor, in winter the cold wind blew right though their armor. They were drenched by the rain, covered by the snow. In the fields and mountains they slept pillowed on the sleeves of their armor, and they had only unpolished rice and salt soup to eat. Whether in open combat, in besieging castles, or in defending citadels, they suffered and toiled; the only thing they didn't experience was simple normality."

Use that one every time your kids start whining.

Discretion

This part first talks about respecting one's lord's emblem. They say that one should never wear both a crest of their overlord on their haori (jacket) and their kimono at the same time, because the wearing of two of the lord's crests at once was reserved only for the lord's family.

It also says to avoid loud laughter, singing, etc., when there is a "serious illness or tragic event in the home of a colleague in the neighborhood". This is good advice that can apply anywhere, because it's just about being respectful towards the people around you.

Verbal Expression

This basically says that a warrior should accept their assignments without hesitancy. Hesitancy can make them look bad: if they succeed after being hesitant, it looks like you just got lucky, and if they fail, people will say they suspected you would fail from the start because of how you reacted. "To be like this is spineless and indecisive; it is a failure on top of a failure."

Family Histories

This simply instructs the reader that a warrior should keep tabs on the family history of his lord. This is so that you can tell things about your lord to others if asked, and not being able to answer questions about the lord's family you serve will make you and him look bad.

Escort

This is, obviously, about how to be a good escort in a lord's retinue of knights when traveling. Tips are given such as to talk to local people and familiarize oneself with the territory. It is also a rule that the escort is to follow behind the lord when going downhill and to walk ahead of him going uphill. I guess the best advice to glean from this for modern times is, know your role and what is required of it, and try your best to fulfill it well. Sometimes small details can make a big difference.

Officials

"There is a common saying that white jackets and officials are best when new." This part deals with the ways in which officials had a known habit of becoming more corrupt with age.

"This corruption is equivalent to the sight of that white jacket turning ratty gray.

However, since the jacket is soiled by body oil, dirt, and dust, all you have to do is wash it with a good detergent and it comes clean. When a human heart is affected by all sorts of things that dirty it, in contrast, a simple wash and rinse, so to speak, will not get it clean."

To clean a human heart, the author recommends the constant practice of virtues; loyalty, duty, and courage. "This is the warrior's ultimate secret of cleaning the heart."

Borrowing and Stealing Authority

This one reminds me of a recent episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. In it, princess Twilight Sparkle is asked to make a lot of decisions to do with the management of a summit, but unfortunately, she needs to rest before she can get to answering every pony's questions. Spike, her little dragon assistant, starts at first by "borrowing" the princess' authority for good reasons, to make decisions on her behalf to help her and the ponies needing advice. But then he starts using this power for his own gain, which is what this author would call "stealing authority" from one's lord.

The importance is stressed again of humility in this lesson, saying "... it is essential that we be ever deferential, prudently restraining excessive pride and serving in such a way as to highlight the authority and dignity of the overlord in every respect."

Exactions

This one deals with the need for those in charge of his lord's financial matters to avoid "the sickness of greed". The needs of the overlord must be weighed against those of the townspeople surrounding the castle, which is a difficult task. Since greed and corruption hurt many people's lives, the author doesn't play around here: "Therefore, if the punishment for a thieving minister is decapitation, then the penalty for an extorting minister ought to be crucifixion." Who doesn't wish that we lived in such a world, where greed that harms society could be punishable by death, a worse death the worse the consequences of the greedy behavior?

Watch Commanders and Superintendents

This part is simply counseling warriors to not let it go to their heads when they get promoted. Which I think applies to anyone.

Laziness

This one talks about a vice that is very dear to my heart, procrastination. Like in the beginning of the book (read about it here), the constant awareness of death is prescribed as the vaccine for immorality. In this case, awareness that "life is here today, uncertain tomorrow" leads to not putting things off, but doing every task that day. They also caution against lateness.

"If you dawdle over tea, tobacco, and family talk, leaving home late for a post that you have to work in any event, suddenly you are in a blind rush, galloping to your post in a big sweat. Fanning yourself even in winter, you may try to quip that you were late because you had a little bit of bothersome business. That is moronic. The watch duty of a warrior is security duty; no one should show up late for work for any personal reason whatsoever."

Dealing With Emergencies

This is reminding the warriors that even in a time of peace, there can still be emergencies that require a lord's escorts to be vigilant. These can include riots and squabbles between retainers of two different lords, which might end up resulting in a full-blown duel between the overlords themselves.

Self-Expression

This one is about not boasting or speaking as if you deserve a reward or praise for something you did. "Whether that deserves any special reward as something extraordinary is entirely up to the overlord - all you have to do is be sure to do your own professional duty, and you have no reason to express dissatisfaction." Basically, this explains why Japanese people are quite hesitant to speak highly of themselves or their own house, children, etc. to others.

Dying Loyally

While prior to this time, warriors had been in the habit of committing seppuku, a kind of ritual suicide by disemboweling oneself, whenever their lord died, to follow him to the grave. This author thinks that that is no longer necessary, and it's illegal besides. However, if some knight is deluding the overlord and causing a lot of trouble for everyone, this author suggests that you kill that person, and then kill yourself with seppuku. The author says, "Then there will be no government inquiry, and the overlord's position will not be affected. Thus the personnel of the establishment will be secure, and the country will be peaceful."

Cultural Refinement

While strength is important to a warrior, the author cautions that "... if strength is all you have you will seem a peasant turned samurai, and that will never do." So this part discusses why it's important for samurai to become well educated and cultured. However, he also says that one should not look down on the uneducated and illiterate. At this time, it was especially a good idea for samurai to learn the ways of the tea ceremony, in case they were required to participate. This part tells about what the tea ceremony means in detail, saying, "Even the tea utensils and furnishings are not supposed to be beautiful; the idea is to disdain the materialistic world and just enjoy pure, free naturalness." However, the author warns not to get too involved in tea, lest you become some kind of obsessed tea-drinking otaku about it. He says, "Rather than become a devotee of that kind, it is better to know nothing about tea at all."

Conclusion

So here we have the final third of the book completed. Many of the attitudes expressed by this author of the Tokugawa period are still prevalent beliefs in Japanese culture today, such as stressing the group over the individual and the resistance to bragging and material extravagances. I hope that many of these attitudes remain and spread to the West in the future, although I'm also glad that the extremism of some of these words has been dampened by time somewhat. Not that I wouldn't love to see a few more embezzler's heads on pikes now and then.

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