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Bushido

Updated on November 30, 2016

Bushido, meaning the "Way of the Warrior", was a Japanese code of ethics and feudal behavior often likened to the chivalry of the medieval European knights. The name is a compound of two words: bushi (a synonym for samurai), meaning "warrior"; and do, meaning "the way."

Bushido is the traditional code of honour of the Japanese military class. The term was first used in the 17th century. It roughly corresponds to European chivalry, and had a similarly feudal origin in the 12th century.

The term "Bushido" was rarely used by the samurai themselves. It seems rather to have been coined by Inazo Nitobe, the foremost interpreter of Japanese customs to the West, at the turn of the 20th century. The meaning and practice of the code changed as samurai standards evolved, but Nitobe lent the term a romantic coloring which it has retained ever since.

Bushido is actually a blend of two systems of values. The earlier was a reflection of samurai attitudes that developed during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Japanese politico-military organization and warfare induced members of the warrior class to extol and reward valor on the battlefield, as well as proper relations between superiors and retainers. Obedience was commended, and great stress was placed on honor. Thus, such customs as hara-kiri and the vendetta were glorified. These customs and attitudes are illustrated in The Tale of the Forty-seven Ronin, Japan's most famous feudal story.

During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Japan entered a long period of domestic peace, when Chinese Neo-Confucianism was officially upheld. The samurai integrated many of its teachings into their code, especially emphasis on loyalty to one's ruler, acceptance of authority, and social harmony. Bushido became the established code until after the Meiji Restoration, when, in 1871, the samurai were legally abolished. As an ideal, it contributed to the growth of Japanese nationalism.

Its governing principles are simplicity, probity, fortitude, justice, and allied virtues. During the 13th and 14th centuries Bushido was profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism; in the 20th century it still exerted considerable influence on the Japanese morality, in spite of the impact of Western influences.

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