... and the Bushido Deal
The ‘medieval’ period of Japan, specifically the late 12th century to the end of the Sengoku period of the 16th century, is a time period mostly left untouched by Western historians until the 1970s – and yet, these formative years of history provide contemporary media with one of the most recognisably Japanese icons; the medieval warrior of Japan, the Bushi.
Once a dominant elite class that monopolised the Japanese government in the 12th-17th century, now constructed in popular history and by popular ‘historians’ such as Nitobe Inazo, as eager to die and eager to follow the Bushidō code; a Tokugawa (c.1603-1868) description for the “way” of the samurai warrior, a “rather amorphous ideological concept” (Vaporis, pg. 224). Was this idealistic code the reality for the medieval warrior? Was such a code the universal standard across the centuries? These are difficult questions to answer, especially considering the conscious or unconscious historical perspectives that permeate most English literature upon the subject. Nonetheless, the warriors of medieval Japan have, to a great extent, been shaped by the simplistic Bushidō ideals of the Tokugawa age and the ideals enforced by contemporary popular perspectives.
Bushidō, or the “Way of the Warrior”, was a term first used by the Jusha (Neo-Confucian) Yamaga Soko (1622-85) in his writings on the creed and way of the samurai in the first century of the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, the term “Bushidō” is sparsely used in the Tokugawa period; The Koyo Gunkan, compiled in the early 17th century, is the first (according to Furukawa Tesshi’s research) to identify Bushidō as a distinct pattern of ethical behaviour. Even so, within the 60 volumes of the Bushidō Sosho (works of Bushidō) collected by Japanese philosopher scholar Inoue Tetsujiro in c. 1902, only ten volumes, four volumes with any frequency, use “Bushidō”. As a result, the evidence for the concept of Bushidō emerges as the ideal of a small philosophical branch of thought “essentially out of touch with the broader spectrum of Confucian ideas” (Hurst, pg. 515) and thus already conflicts the ideals of the Tokugawa era, let alone the universal standard of morality for the samurai in the medieval period.
The Bushidō values (loyalty, duty, courage) can be viewed as reactionary; an attempt to justify the nullified role of the samurai class in an era of peace in Japan. As a result, Karl Friday goes as far as to suggest that the Bushidō ideals of the Tokugawa era “owed very little to the behavioural norms of the warriors of earlier times” (Friday, pg. 340), which is justifiable to an extent; perhaps the values of the compiled volumes contradict the Gunki Monogatari (Tales of Warfare from the late 12 century Kamakura period), but can it be said they contradict the previous warrior ideals held in the Kamakura and Sengoku periods? Indeed, Tokugawa historians such as Ogyu Sorai called the values idealised in the Bushidō philosophy “evil custom[s] from the Sengoku era” (Hurst, Furukawa quoting Sorai pg. 63), which seemingly suggests otherwise.
However, Friday establishes an effective point; the “way” of the warrior could not even be clarified within Tokugawa thought, and thus to assume a particular philosophy’s ideas as a summation of the history of Bushi ethics is unreasonable and unjustified by modern populists, who depict the samurai as “some sort of spiritual killing machine, absorbed in loyalty and death, the death not only of others… but also of himself” (Hurst pg 514). However, it is through these ideals that historians until the 70s, spurred by Inazo Nitobe’s startlingly inaccurate book Bushidō: The Soul of Japan (c. 1900), appraised the period from the Kamakura Shogunate (c. 1185) to the Sengoku jidai (Warring States Period c. 1467-1615).
The samurai’s obsession with death, in particular, is strongly debated; even suggesting evidence of a moral code in Japan during the Sengoku jidai has been criticised, with extreme arguments calling Japanese history from the 6th century to the 17th century a “mere welter of blood” with warriors of “brutal and essentially unmeaning ambition” (Frances pg. 229). It is true that these centuries are defined by war, but Frances is perhaps over-exaggerating (especially concerning the short but relative stability of the late 14th century). Despite this, several popular samurai and historical works, such as Tsukemoto’s Hagakure c.1716, characterise the samurai as “dying to die” (Hurst, pg. 519) expressing ideals of Utopianism and potentially reading as “tales of an ideal country” (Mishima, pg. 8).
It is important to examine all evidence for the possible influences upon the Bushidō ideals that shape the construction of the Samurai warrior; was it indeed the reality for warriors of the late 12th century that “the way of the samurai is found in death”? (Tsukemoto pg.76). The Gunki Monogatari [Tales of Warfare] were five texts part of a genre that developed in the fourteenth century, sourced by historians as the earliest accounts concerned primarily with the Bushi (warriors) themselves.
Texts within this literary canon, such as the Heike Monogatari, an epic detailing a collection of war tales from the Gempei Battles (1180-1185) of the late 12th century, purported moral tales and idealised warriors; to the extent that their personalities became “cultural metaphors” (Oyler, pg. 310). Most modern historians believe (in agreement with the neo-Confucianists) that these texts, particularly the Heike, were foundational for the attitudes and standards of conduct for warriors of medieval Japan.
The Heike, over the centuries, has undergone hundreds of revisions; following the fall of the Heike family, the narrative developed into a recited epic, culminating in the Kakuichi work of c. 1371, which, up until the 1970s, most historians inclined to the view that it was essentially “identical with the original version” (Butler, pg. 94). However, evaluation has shown this to be a gross underestimation; supposedly accurate historical sources such as the Azuma Kagami draw upon the Heike for accuracy rather than the opposite, and thus it can be concluded that the Kakuichi Heike and its earlier Kamakura version (composed between 1300-1340) in comparison to the original tales written in the time of Emperor Go Toba (1198-1221), have several fabricated stories and extensive epithetic language; most likely fashioned by biwa hōshi (wandering lute priests, similar in profession to the Homeric poet/s). Ironically, these particular tales seem likely as the inspiration behind later samurai ethics, thus manifesting in contemporary perspectives of the warriors.
Butler notes the actions of a significant individual in stories that don’t appear until the Kamakura text, or are reframed to better suit the evolved ethical codes. It’s interesting to note that these actions, located in Book 7 of the Kakuichi version, succeed a battle description between the Heike and Genji forces that emphasises retreat from the Heike soldiers and thus cowardice “as the better part of valour” (Butler pg. 98) directly contradicting not only the tales that follow, but also the Bushi ethics that manifest in the Sengoku period; highlighting an interesting perspective on the historical emphasis on the actions of individual warriors rather than the actions of the multitudes (100 000, if the Kakuichi is to be believed).
This perspective is thus reflected in the construction of the warrior Saitō Bettō Sanemori, whose actions function as a transition between general battle and individual focus within the narrative. He is first introduced suggesting to 20 leading warriors that “it appears that the Genji are the stronger party… what do you think about going over to Kiso Yoshinaka?" (Heike, pg 32). Despite being an English translation and thus inherently the translator’s perspective, it captures the spirit; the warriors move to agree with Sanemori.
Of course, this is revealed to be a test of their loyalty to their lord; a “classic expression” (Butler, pg. 99) of the ethical codes embedded within the later Bushidō compilations. Sanemori also demonstrates these codes when he refuses to surrender to the Gempei forces, leading an opposing force despite his older age and the retreat of his surrounding warriors; again demonstrating a classic example of sacrificial loyalty, and a dedication to “honourable” death that would inspire accounts of exaggerated ritualistic sacrifice; theorists like Yamaga Sokō (1622-1685) would later reject this “ideal”. However, this account can be opposed completely by earlier versions of the Heike; the Shibu Kassenjo text of 1221, composed significantly earlier, fails to mention Sanemori’s test, and completely recontextualises his fight to the end. Instead, he too is retreating, but his old age allows the younger opposition to outstrip him, and he is decapitated; a very different picture to the courageous, ideal soldier in the Kamakura and Kakuichi texts.
The answer to why has already been outlined; the Heike is an epic text, recited by oral singers whose formulaic language contributed significantly to “dressing the hero”, undoubtedly manipulating the story to build intrigue in the tale. These texts, first and foremost, are literary, and thus it is through this example that the inherent paradox of the Bushidō ideal can be observed; the warrior Tokugawa theorists idealised were conceived by biwa hōshi, achieved only through the techniques of oral composition. Therefore, the Gunki Monogatari, already idealised through oral tradition, were saturated with a “liberal dose of Confucian teachings” (Hurst, pg. 101) before the Tokugawa theorists decided upon their representations. It can thus be concluded that the foundational paramours of warrior ethics were fabricated; this is very significant as it highlights the overarching idealisation that permeates the construction of the medieval Bushi.
Does this present the viewpoint that the ethics of the Tokugawa Bushidō cannot be considered accurate sources, considering their falsified beginnings? Perhaps. This, unfortunately, has not stopped the application of Bushidō to medieval history, but it certainly highlights very strong evidence indicating the overall idealisation that this application creates and thus the inherent idealised perspective presented by any and every historian who consults the Tokugawa and, or including, the Gunki Monogatari.
Whilst literary representations are interesting to examine, perhaps the most important influence of the construction of a warrior emerges from studying their representations in times of instability. Sengoku General Asakura Soteki Nuihage was quoted as saying “The warrior doesn’t care if he’s called a dog or a beast [for ruthlessness]; the main thing is winning,”, (Elison, pg. 57) succinctly highlighting the key problem of applying the Bushidō ideal as the universal ethic in medieval times.
The Sengoku Period, also known as the Warring States period (c. 1467 to 1615), despite paradoxically being the bloodiest and most ethically immoral time in Japanese history, can be considered the most formative period in shaping contemporary perspectives of the Samurai, and the codes they adhered to. It is the ideals of the sixteenth century that significantly inspired modern works such as the Hagakure and Budo Shoshinshu (c. 1941), but do these ideals have any observable basis in history, or have historians again reached for the narrow perspective of the Tokugawa philosophers; history altered to suit ideals?
The Sengoku era certainly appears to deserve the description of a “welter of blood” (Frances, pg. 229). Beginning with the Onin War, this period seemingly exemplifies the opposite of the Bushidō ideal; accounts of deflection and ruthlessness permeate the historical record, and yet contemporary historians draw out values of loyalty and courage. This is partially due to the existence of kakun (house precepts determined by a samurai’s lord or daimyo) which were popularised by Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (shogun, 1368-1394); these traditional ethical values, even in socio-political upheaval, were “by and large adhered to… there was no questioning of its [Bushidō’s] principles” (Blomberg, pg. 10).
However, there were “frequent violations” (Blomberg, pg. 10), which suggests the unquestionable values were indeed questioned, or at least ignored. It also doesn’t help Blomberg’s case that she provides no examples, and although she suggests Bushidō's continued existence thus proves its continued adherence, this is a relatively weak argument. In examining the Ikki Keijo (written pacts) within the articles of Sengoku house codes, the influence of the milieu of political anarchy can be observed; directly contradicting not only Blomberg, but contemporary constructions of the Bushi as blindly loyal.
Only the fudai (established retainers) were socially expected to commit to the extremity of following their lords into death (giri), and the tozama, newly bound vassals, were controlled through pacts; their hoko (service) limited and determined by the favours their daimyo lord presented them (Katsumata, pg. 105). This reveals, at least within the Sengoku era, that loyalty was not all-encompassing, and the tozama’s right to repudiation directly challenges the construction of all medieval Bushi as dedicated. However, the existence of fudai resonates with the contemporary ideal of warriors; perhaps there is some accuracy to the ideals presented by the Tokugawa philosophers, despite their representation of a particular warrior as the Japanese standard. Unfortunately, it cannot be ignored that hundreds of daimyo developed kakun, and discrepancies undoubtedly exist between them, further purporting the ridiculousness of the contemporary Bushi archetype.
Furthermore, in the Sengoku jidai, they were focused on winning, not chivalry (see Nuihage as evidence); and the shinigurui (craze for death) was not quite what the Hagakure and recent texts might construct it as. The famous passage in the Hagakure, that “I have found that the way of the samurai is death… in a life or death crisis, simply settle it by deciding on immediate death.” (Hagakure, book 1) is described as “a delightful verdict” (Mishima, pg. 22) by Yukio Mishima c. 1978; a sentiment I’m sure Nitobe shared, and ironically, a discrepancy between Tokugawa and modern era interpretation.
As aforementioned, the ideals pertaining to suicide and sacrificial death were mostly rejected by the Confucianists, who saw them as barbaric Sengoku custom. Interestingly, very little recorded cases from the Sengoku period indicate seppuku (ritualistic death) being committed; this is an ideal that perhaps can be sourced once again from the emphasis Tokugawa and contemporary historians place on the actions of individuals, as the famous generals Oda Nobunaga and Minamoto Yoshitsune were described as doing so. Therefore, despite drawing significantly from the Sengoku period for their ethical codes, evidence demonstrates that Tokugawa and contemporary historians once again choose to represent particular warrior codes and ideals in their definitions of Bushidō, contributing to the construction of a Japanese samurai who cannot possibly come to symbolise all the ethical codes of medieval Japan, and yet does so in contemporary history.
Ultimately, the Bushidō ideals emerge as a palimpsest of narrative erasing historical fact. Historians, when constructing the Japanese medieval warrior, are guided by the idealistic Bushidō ethical codes formulated by the philosophers of the Tokugawa era, attempting to justify the warrior’s purpose rather than accurately represent Bushi ethical codes throughout medieval Japan. The medieval samurai archetype in popular media and history thus represents a particular Sengoku warrior, who in turn was inspired by idealistic medieval literature. Although the ethical codes of the Bushi throughout medieval Japan cannot be completely represented by the Bushidō ideal, contemporary constructions continue to do so, therefore reinforcing that the construction of the medieval warrior of Japan has indeed been, to a large extent, influenced by the Bushidō ideal.