I once posted this on the internet.

What kind of a samurai are you?
1. Life is a long uphill road. Never speak of death as long as you live.
Tokugawa Ieyasu
2. To rush to death is as much cowardice as running from it.
Nitobe Inazo
3. When in doubt, choose the course most likely to end in your death.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo
4. Believe yourself to be already dead and you shall know no fear.
Miyamoto Musashi

Bushido is the philosophy of the samurai. But it encompasses a wide spectrum of how samurais thought, and taught their offspring to think. Most books on bushido are educational, recording the life lessons of some warrior for posterity. Nitobe Inazo’s book Bushhido: The Soul of Japan, originally published in English for the Western audience, was an exception in that it tried to introduce Japanese culture to the world as refined and civilized, worthy of inclusion in a world then dominated by Caucasians.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a battle hardened warrior, had differences with his peacetime master after his older lord died, and he secluded himself in retirement where he dictated his beliefs to a younger samurai, which became the book known as Hagakure. Miyamoto Musashi was a mercenary who never quite found a master to serve, wrote the Book of Five Rings while drifting as a masterless warrior. Both are reminisces of disgruntled old men who were misfits in a pacified world, and are somewhat cynical, not to mention radical. Meanwhile, the Testament of Ieyasu is the words of a successful man who reached the zenith of power and authority, but it is merely a short verse. The story behind the verse is told in the volumes of Mikawa Monogatari by Okubo Tadataka who also happened to be a disgruntled old misfit in a world of peace.

The idea of bushido was actually distilled and perfected during the time of peace between 1603 and the 1868 when Japan was largely without war, and consequently without need for warriors. In the early 18th century, a hundred years after the last of the wars, the samurai could no longer justify their position in society, and their right to collect taxes, on the grounds that they bled for the other classes of the nation. They consequently had to justify their position by imposing a higher moral standard for themselves. The idea was refined by the philosopher Ogyu Sorai who fused Confucianism with bushido and preached what some people would call blind obedience. His thoughts on the forfeit of self interest was so extreme, even hardliners later criticized his teachings as impractical, but his ideas, in one incarnation or another, survived.

The thing bushido philosophies tend to have in common is the deadly serious nature in which people are encouraged to apply themselves in everything. The samurai made a matter of life and death out of serving tea. Failure was never an option and the bar for a perfect success was always impossibly high. A samurai was never good enough in life or death. If you need to sum it up in a few words, bushido was fanatical perfectionism backed by relentless self-criticism. Being a samurai was not about being happy.

I can tell you first hand that being raised in a samurai household is no fun. Most people in Japan, even of the samurai class, have abandoned this way of thinking and this way of living. I certainly did not raise my children this way. I recently went to a funeral of a 92-year-old man, a doctor, who lived his life according to the philosophy of Hagakure. He gave his life to his work and waged his life on perfection throughout his living days. As noble as that lifestyle is, I feel a dissonance with the man. There was a slide show introducing the man’s life during the ceremony. By all accounts he was a stern man who took everything, particularly his work, very seriously. Every time a photograph with him smiling with his grandchildren was shown, the speaker said the picture revealed “an unexpected facet of his life”. Think about that. The man lived the sort of life in which the unknown secret side of him was him smiling with his grandchildren.


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