Japanese samurai in armor, 1860s. Photograph by Felice Beato

Bushido Bushidō, meaning "way of the warrior," is a Japanese code of conduct and a way of life, analogous to the European concept of chivalry. Bushido developed between the 11th to 14th centuries. The ethical and moral foundations of Bushido were formalized into Japanese Feudal Law during the opening years of the Tokugawa shogunate for the members of the Samurai class. According to the Japanese dictionary Shogakukan Kokugo Daijiten: "Bushido is defined as a unique philosophy (ronri) that spread through the warrior class from the Muromachi (chusei) period."

Inazo Nitobe (1862 - 1933), author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan describes Bushido as an unwritten code: "...Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the samurai were required or instructed to observe. It is not a written code; at best it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant. More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing all the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart. It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career."

Early historyEdit

The Kojiki is Japan's oldest extant book. Written in 712 AD, it contains passages about Yamato Takeru, the son of the emperor Keiko. It includes references to the use and admiration of the sword by Japanese warriors:

The many-clouds-rising
Izumo Takeru

Wears a Sword
With many vines wrapped around it,
But no blade inside, alas.''

or this:

Next to the maiden's
Sleeping place
I left
The sabre, the sword—
Alas, that sword.'

Yamato Takeru may be considered the rough ideal of the Japanese warrior to come. He is sincere and loyal, slicing up his father's enemies "like melons," unbending and yet not unfeeling, as can be seen in his laments for lost wives and homeland, and in his willingness to combat the enemy alone. Most important, his portrayal in the Kojiki shows the ideal of harmonizing the literary with the martial may have been an early trait of Japanese civilization, appealing to the Japanese long before its introduction from Confucian China.

The Shoku Nihongi (797 A.D.) is an Early History of Japan written in the year 797. A section of the book covering the year 723 notable for an early use of the term "bushi" in Japanese literature and a reference to the educated warrior-poet ideal:

"Again, the August Personage said, "Literary men and warriors are they whom the nation values."

The term "bushi" entered the Japanese vocabulary with the general introduction of Chinese literature and added to the indigenous words, "tsuwamono" and "mononofu".

In The Kokinshu (early 10th century), the first imperial anthology of poems, there is an early reference to "Saburau"--originally a verb meaning "to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society." In Japanese, the pronunciation would become "saburai." and the term would come to mean "those who serve in close attendance to the nobility." From the mid-Heian Period these attendants were armed and served as guardians to the higher nobility.

Attendant to nobility
Ask for your master's umbrella.
The dews neath the trees of Miyagino
Are thicker than rain.

(Poem 1091)

By the end of the 12th century, saburai became synonymous with bushi almost entirely and the word was closely associated with the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class.

Written in 1371 AD, The Heike Monogatari chronicles the struggle between the Minamoto and Taira clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century, a conflict known as the Genpei War. The Heike Monogatari is one of the longest and most beautifully composed of the genre called gunki monogatari, or war chronicles. Clearly depicted throughout the Heike Monogatari is the ideal of the cultivated warrior. This ideal is symbolized in the character 斌 or uruwashii, meaning a situation of balance and harmony between the exterior, pattern or beauty (文), and the interior essence or substance (武). Men who possess this quality will be as accomplished in the world of the arts as in the world of martial skill and courage.

One such example is Taira no Tadanori:

Friends and foes alike wet their sleeves with tears and said,
"What a pity! Tadanori was a great general,
pre-eminent in the arts of both sword and poetry."
(Kitagawa and Tsuchida, 1975)

The warriors in the Heike Monogatari served as models for the educated warriors of later generations, and the ideals depicted by them were not assumed to be beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. With the Heike Monogatari, the image of the Japanese warrior in literature came to its full maturity. (Wilson, 1982)

History 13th to 19th CenturiesEdit


"One should have restraint and deep sympathy in all things."

In the year 1256, the Shogunal Deputy in Kyoto, Hojo Shigetoki (1198-1261) wrote a letter to his son and house elders of his clan. The letter, now known as "The Message Of Master Gokurakuji," emphasized the importance of loyalty to one's master:

When one is serving officially or in the master's court, he should not think of a hundred or a thousand people, but should consider only the importance of the master. Nor should he draw the line at his own life or anything else he considers valuable. Even if the master is being phlegmatic and one goes unrecognized, he should know that he will surely have the divine protection of the gods and Buddhas....One should rely on neither age nor youth. But he who reveres the master and protects the people may be called a sage.
If one treats men roughly in this existence, he will be roughly treated by them in the next, for karma is never-ending in all things. And if one would rid himself of bad karma in this round of existence, he should treat well those who are not so kind to him. For if one is dealt with kindly by people, he can rejoice in his previous existence; but if he is handled roughly in this world, his previous existence is a matter for regret."

Written in kanamajiri style, "The Message Of Master Gokurakuji" is described as being "....basically concerned with man's moral duties and the ideal behavior for leaders of the warrior class. The predominant tone of the work is a Buddhist sympathy for all living beings and an awareness of the functions of karma. Women, children, and those of lower social standing are to be treated kindly and with regard, and even the concept of loyalty to superiors is dealt with more in a religious sense than a Confucian one."

In 1383 the feudal lord Shiba Yoshimasa (1350-1410) wrote "The Chikubasho," a set of precepts for the young men of his clan. Shiba Yoshimasa was a warrior leader during the Namboku and Muromachi Periods, and was known as an administrator, general, and poet. William Scott Wilson, Author of "Ideals of the Samurai" describes the Chikubasho as "A short list of precepts written in a classical Japanese style, the Chikubasho displays both the ethical morality of the warrior and the tasteful lifestyle of the aristocracy. Its tone is a combination of a manly Confucian approach reflecting honesty and fairness, and a Buddhist sympathy for others."

In his writings, Shiba Yoshimasa dictated that a warrior should not hesitate to lay down his life for an important cause such as the defense of the emperor:

First, a man whose profession is the use of arms should think and then act upon not only his own fame, but also that of his descendants. He should not scandalize his name forever by holding his one and only life too dear. On the other hand, in the light of this, to consider this life that is given to us only once as nothing more than dust and ashes, and lose it at a time when one should not, would be to gain a reputation that is not worth mentioning. One's main purpose in throwing away his life is to do so either for the sake of the Emperor or in some great undertaking of a military general.

The famous warlord Imagawa Ryoshun wrote in 1412:

In governing the country, it is dangerous to lack even one of the virtues of humanity, righteousness, etiquette and wisdom. It is forbidden to forget the great debt of kindness one owes to his master and ancestors and thereby make light of the virtues of loyalty and filial piety.....There is a primary need to distinguish loyalty from disloyalty and to establish rewards and is written in the Four Books and Five Classics as well as in the military writings that in protecting the country, if one is ignorant in the study of literature, he will be unable to govern. Just as Buddha preached the various laws in order to save all living beings, one must rack one's brains and never depart from the ways of both warrior and literary man.

Imagawa Ryoshun was a leading general and strategist of his time. His writings are central to the development of Bushido and represent the "Way of the Warrior" at its maturity. Historian Carl Steenstrup describes Imagawa thusly: "He became one of the most influential literary critics of his time, a competent historian, and expert in the philosophy of government, and a prolific poet. In addition, he showed genuine talent for public administration, and gained military experience at an early age." Imagawa wrote prolifically despite being posted to military hotspots by the Shogun. His job was to suppress rebellion by rival samurai clans. Famed for his writings "Nan Taiheiki" and "Michiyukiburi", he penned "The Regulations" to his brother Tadaki in traditional kanbun script. Having taken Buddhist vows, Imagawa Ryoshun was greatly admired as having achieved the warrior ideal—striking a balance between the military and literary arts. According to Steenstrup, "...The Letter soon became a historical force in its own right. First it became a textbook of ethics for the Imagawa clan, including its retainers. From the Imagawa, an appreciation of the text spread to other clans; as early as before the outbreak of the Onin War, 1467, the Letter appears to have been used as an Office Manual for warrior bureaucrats even outside the Imagawa domains. When the Tokugawa established their hegemony in 1600, the Letter was already in use as a primer. The staff of Ieyasu included the text in the collection of the most important ‘house-laws’ which they compiled, probably for use as reference material in the drafting of the fundamental laws of the Tokugawa system which were issued in 1615." Even after Japan's feudal era, they were a required study for traditional Japanese as a guide to proper moral behavior. Widely respected, "The Regulations" remained popular until World War II.

In the 15th century, the Governor of Echizen, Asakura Toshikage (1428-1481) would also stress the importance of loyalty in his writings to his followers:

"In the fief of the Asakura, one should not determine hereditary chief retainers. A man should be assigned according to his ability and loyalty.
One should not entrust a position and land to a man who has no talent, even if his family has held such for generations."

Near the beginning of the 16th century, the Samurai general Hojo Nagauji (1432-1519) would write:

"Above all, believe in the gods and Buddhas. To worship the gods and Buddhas is the correct conduct for a man. It can be said that one will be in conformity with the feelings of the gods and Buddhas if he will simply make his heart straight-forward and calm, respect honestly and wholeheartedly those above him and have pity on those below, consider that which exists to exist and that which does not exist to not exist, and recognize things just as they are. With such a frame of mind, one will have divine protection even though he does not pray. But if his mind is not straight, he had best be prudent lest it be said that he has been abandoned by Heaven, prayerful or not.
It is hardly necessary to record that both Learning and the military arts are the Way of the Warrior, for it is an ancient law that one should have Learning on the left and the martial arts on the right. But this is something that will not be obtainable if one has not prepared for it beforehand."

Hojo concluded his list of precepts by stating: "To be a samurai is to be polite at all times".

Also known as Hojo Soun, Lord Hojo was greatly admired by other daimyo as a good general and administrator. In addition to attracting more samurai to Odawara, he cut crop taxes from one-half to two-fifths of the harvest, and generally looked out for the welfare of his people.

Hojo's Twenty-One Precepts were written some time after Hojo Soun had become a priest, and reflect the fullness of his own experiences. The articles are basically rules for the daily life of the common warrior, and show his familiarity and sympathy for those in the lower echelons. The subject matter ranges from encouraging the study of poetry and horsemanship and the avoidance of games like chess and go, to advice on how to keep one's house in better order and well-protected. There is a strong tone of self-reliance throughout, reflecting Hojo Soun's unsparingly meticulous character and his own rise to power.

The great Warlord Takeda Shingen (1521AD-1573AD) wrote in his house codes:

"Everyone knows that if a man doesn't hold filial piety toward his own parents he would also neglect his duties toward his lord. Such a neglect means a disloyalty toward humanity. Therefore such a man doesn't deserve to be called 'samurai'."

Several famous sengoku daimyo mention Bushido in their writings. In a set of precepts addressed to "All samurai, regardless of rank" the feudal lord Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611) orders his men to follow it:

If a man does not investigate into the matter of Bushido daily, it will be difficult for him to die a brave and manly death. Thus it is essential to engrave this business of the warrior into one's mind well.....One should put forth great effort in matters of learning. One should read books concerning military matters, and direct his attention exclusively to the virtues of loyalty and filial piety.....Having been born into the house of a warrior, one's intentions should be to grasp the long and the short swords and to die.

Kato Kiyomasa was one of the most ferocious Samurai who ever lived. The son of a blacksmith, he joined Toyotomi Hideyoshi at age 18 and became legendary for his ferocity in combat, distinguishing himself at the battle of Shizugatake. A senior general, he was awarded lordship of Kumamoto castle in Higo at the age of 26. Awarded a large fief of 250,000 koku in Higo province, Kato ruthlessly suppressed Christianity. A follower of Nichiren Buddhism, he soon came into conflict with the lord of a neighboring province, a Christian named Konishi Yukinaga. In 1592, Kato Kiyomasa led part of Hideyoshi's army in his campaigns in Korea--along side his rival, Lord Konishi. He occupied the city of Seoul and later crossed the Tumen River into China. Historian Stephen Turnbull describes the horror and destruction of the Korean Invasions in several of his books as seen through the eyes of the Priest Keinen who accompanied the samurai during the campaign. Keinen's diary "Korea Day by Day" was so controversial that it remained unpublished until 1965. Turnbull also described Kato Kiyomasa's motivation for attacking the Jurchens of Manchuria in 1592 was 'to show the savages the mettle of the Japanese'. Kato stood poised to conquer all of Asia, but a Korean naval blockade prevented him from receiving reinforcements and provisions necessary to support his 150,000 man army. In 1597, Kato again lead Hideyoshi's forces in Korea. The second invasion did not proceed well for the Samurai, but Kato's reputation for valor only increased. Surrounded at Yolsan, the Samurai army held out against incredible odds. Konishi Yukinaga had run into fierce fighting and tried to negotiate a peace treaty with the Korean and Chinese forces surrounding him. Kato was infuriated by the surrender attempt and upon his return to Japan, he ravaged the Konishi family's neighboring domain in retaliation. Konishi was mercilessly executed in the aftermath of Sekigahara and his domain was awarded to Kato, bringing his total fiefdom to 540,000 koku. Known for hunting tigers for sport armed with only a spear, the Koreans greatly feared Kato Kiyomasa and called him "Kishokan"--"The Devil General". William Scott Wilson describes Kato Kiyomasa thus: "He was a military man first and last, outlawing even the recitation of poetry, putting the martial arts above all else. His precepts show the single-mindedness and Spartan attitudes of the man, (they) demonstrate emphatically that the warrior's first duty in the early 17th century was simply to "grasp the sword and die." Contemporary accounts of Kato describe him as awe-inspiring, yet not unfriendly, and a natural leader of men."

In August 1600, Torii Mototada, a feudal Lord in the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu was forewarned by spies that an army of 40,000 battle hardened followers of Toyotomi Hideyoshi were annihilating everything in their path on their march to Fushimi Castle. The garrison at Fushimi Castle was badly outnumbered, yet escape for the men inside was still possible. In an act of loyalty to his lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, Torii chose to remain behind, pledging that he and his bastion would fight to the finish. He cited Bushido as his reason for doing so and encouraged Tokugawa to flee with the main force of his army. In a moving last statement addressed to his son Tadamasa, Torii described how his family has served the Tokugawa for generations and how his own brother has been killed in battle. In the letter, Torii stated that he considered it an honor to die first so that he might give courage to the rest of the Tokugawa warriors. He requested that his son raise his siblings to serve the Tokugawa Clan "In both ascent and decline" and to remain humble desiring neither lordship nor monetary reward. Lifelong friends, Torii Mototada and Tokugawa Ieyasu parted ways sadly knowing that they would never see each other again:

It is not the Way of the Warrior to be shamed and avoid death even under circumstances that are not particularly important.....For myself, I am resolved to make a stand within the castle and to die a quick death. It would not take much trouble to break through a part of their numbers and escape, no matter how many tens of thousands of horsemen approached for the attack or by how many columns we were surrounded. But that is not the true meaning of being a warrior, and it would be difficult to account as loyalty. Rather, I will stand off the forces of the entire country here, and...die a resplendent death.

In the end, with the castle in flames around him, Torii ordered his men to charge headlong into battle over and over again until only ten men remained. The castle defenders fought heroically to the last man. As was custom, Torii killed himself rather than be captured alive.

The siege of Fushimi Castle stalled the advancement of the 40,000 troops by ten days, allowing Tokugawa to escape.

Torii Mototada's actions changed the course of Japanese history. Tokugawa Ieyasu would raise an army of 90,000 and confront Pro-Toyotomi forces at Sekigahara in open battle on the Kanto plain—-where he had the advantage. In a massive bloodletting, more than 200,000 warriors would clash violently. Forty-thousand heads would be taken in the first hours of battle and 70,000 would perish in the next two days as the remnants of Ishida Mitsunari's vanquished army were hunted down and executed. The leaders of Toyotomi's western army were quickly apprehended, tortured and executed at the Rokujô-ga-hara execution grounds in Kyoto. Konishi Yukinaga was offered the opportunity to commit honorable seppuku, but he declined because his Christian religion forbade it. He was later beheaded as a common criminal. The battle of Sekigahara was a decisive one, resulting in the unification of Japan. Tokugawa’s family would rule the entire country for the next 268 years.

In 1622, the Daimyo Kuroda Nagamasa (1568-1623)would emphasize the balance of the arts of peace (Confucian learning and literature) with the arts of war, and encourages fairness and sympathy toward the other three classes of people in his writings:

"If a general who is to maintain the province does not have a special consciousness, his task will be a difficult one to attain. His attitudes must not be the same as the ordinary man's. Firstly, he must be correct in manners and etiquette, must not let self-interest into government, and must take care of the common people...... he should not forget even for a moment that he is the model for the four classes of people.
Generally speaking, the master of a province should discharge his duties with love and humanity, should not listen to slander, and should exercise the good. His governing should be as clear as the bright sun in the bright sky, and he should think things over deeply in his mind and make no mistakes.
The arts of peace and the arts of war are like the two wheels of a cart which, lacking one, will have difficulty in standing.....When one has been born into the house of a military commander, he should not forget the arts of war even for a moment..... it is essential that he know the Way of Truth, that he be particular about his efforts in the scrutinizing of every matter, that he be just in all affairs and make no mistakes, that he be correct in recognizing good and evil and demonstrate rewards and punishments clearly, and that he have a deep sympathy for all people. Again, what is called cherishing the Way of the Warrior is not a matter of extolling the martial arts above all things and becoming a scaremonger. It is rather in being well-informed in military strategy, in forever pondering one's resources of pacifying disturbances, in training one's soldiers without remiss, in rewarding those who have done meritorious deeds and punishing those who have committed crimes, in being correct in one's evaluation of bravery and cowardice, and in not forgetting this matter of "the battle" even when the world is at peace. It is simply brashness to make a specialty of the martial arts and to be absorbed in one's individual efforts. Such is certainly not the Way of the Warrior of a provincial lord or military commander.

Kuroda Nagamasa was the son of a Christian daimyo, Kuroda Josui, and was baptized Simeon in 1583. He was to become well known as a great strategist. While still young, Kuroda was put under the auspices of Oda Nobunaga and later served under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1592 and again in 1597 he shared command of the vanguard invasion troops in Korea with Konishi Yukinaga and Kato Kiyomasa. Although he had helped Konishi out of some military tight spots in Korea and was—like Konishi—a Christian, Kuroda supported Tokugawa Ieyasu during the fighting at Sekigahara, and for his efforts was enfieffed at Chikuzen becoming Lord of Fukuoka Castle.

Both Kuroda Nagamasa and his father Josui were well known for their regard for the advice of others, and Nagamasa even set aside one night a month when he would sit with a number of his trusted retainers and allow all to talk freely with the mutual promise that none would become angry over what was said, or gossip about it later. These were called the "Meetings Without Anger." The Regulations given here were written a year before Kuroda's death to his eldest son, Tadayuki.

In the late 16th century, the feudal lord Nabeshima Naoshige (1538-1618 A.D.)would write a set of wall inscriptions for his followers. Historians describe the wall inscriptions as "Everyday wisdom, rather than house laws proper" Lord Nabeshima's written works also include a mention of bushido:

"Bushido is in being crazy to die. Fifty or more could not kill one such a man"

In 1584, Nabeshima Naoshige was the chief retainer for the Lord of Hizen until he was killed in battle by the forces of the powerful Shimazu Clan. After his lord's death, Nabeshima became the true leader of the fiefdom and fought against the Shimazu again in 1587. A Sengoku era warlord, Nabeshima distinguished himself in battle by killing hundreds of men. He was later sent on Hideyoshi's Korean campaigns where he struck up a friendship with Kato Kiyomasa and upon his return to Hizen, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

At Sekigahara, Lord Nabeshima's son, Katsushige, was convinced to take sides against Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nabeshima wisely recalled him to attack Tokugawa's enemies in Kyushu, thus saving the clan from disaster. Historians describe Nabeshima as "a survivor and a man of quick intelligence" who saved his domain from invasion several times. His actions and sayings are immortalized in the third chapter of the Hagakure by writer Tsunetomo Yamamoto, a close attendant of Nabeshima Naoshige's grandson, Mitsushige.

In 1645, the swordsman Miyamoto Musashi wrote in his famous book Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings):

It is said the warrior's is the twofold way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. Generally speaking, the way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.

Musashi was one of the greatest swordsmen who ever lived. Fighting in more than 60 duels from the ages of 13 to 29, he was never defeated. Noted for his style of wielding two swords at once, Musashi fought his last sword match in his early thirties. In nearly all of his duels, he used a wooden rather than a steel blade. After the age of thirty, he dedicated his life to teaching martial arts and fine arts. Musashi became a designer of castle towns and the Zen temple gardens within them. In addition to being a swordsman and strategist, he became one of Japan's most respected ink wash painters (suibokuga). His fine paintings are coveted items in museums and in private collections in Japan. Musashi was considered the ultimate Renaissance man, excelling in calligraphy, sculpture, metallurgy, poetry, tea ceremony, Noh drama, and carpentry. He wrote his final work "Dokkodō" (The Way of Walking Alone) in a cave called Reigando before passing away at the age of 60 in the year 1645 AD. Musashi's last request was to be buried in full armor and bearing his sword, guarding the Tokaido road to Edo (present day Tokyo).

Japan's National Tale of Duty and Honor

In the 15th year of Genroku, the 47 Ronin of Ako cited Confucian edict as the reason for their famous vendetta. (As Translated by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford (1837-1916), Lord Redesdale, British Ambassador to Japan in his book Tales of Old Japan.)

"...still we, who have eaten of your food, could not without blushing repeat the verse, 'Thou shalt not live under the same heaven nor tread the same earth with the enemy of thy father or lord,' nor could we have dared to leave hell and present ourselves before you in paradise, unless we had carried out the vengeance which you began."

The 47 Ronin were retainers of Lord Asano Takuminokami Naganori, Daimyo of Ako Castle. A man 35 years of age, his family was a branch of the powerful Asano Clan. Strict followers of Confucianism, the Asano Clan was a proud and traditional family.

By the year 1700, Japan had been at peace for a hundred years, unified under the sword of Tokugawa Ieyasu. In the absence of warfare, society prospered and the samurai had become more like government bureaucrats. In the capital of Edo, they preoccupied themselves with literature, artwork and fine clothing. They had even begun to lose their fighting skills. The more traditional families like the Asano looked upon the city samurai with disdain.

In order to prevent warfare, the Shogunate's law of Sankin Kotai (Alternate Attendance) required all Daimyo to spend every other year in the capitol of Edo as hostages. While in Edo, Lord Asano was chosen to host a very important Imperial envoy during the holidays. Because he was from the countryside he wasn't accustomed to the manners required for such a fancy ceremony. The Tokugawa shogun's master of ceremonies, Lord Kira Kozukenosuke was appointed to teach Asano the required etiquette. Although it was his job to do so, Lord Kira demanded a bribe of Asano. Asano refused to pay the bribe, offering only a token gift. Kira refused to teach Asano the correct manners and so he made embarrassing mistakes during the ceremony. Lord Kira began taunting Asano's mistakes and so Lord Asano lashed out with his short sword, injuring Kira.

The drawing of a sword inside Edo castle was a capital offense and so Asano was ordered to commit seppuku. Asano's bodyguards rushed home with the bad news, covering more than 425 miles in five days.

Asano's men later learned that Kira had survived the attack. A member of a powerful family, Kira had surveillance placed on Lord Asano's followers.

The leaders of the Ako Domain met to discuss their options. "They discussed siege, capitulation, vengeance and self-immolation." The Bakufu (military government) ordered that Asano's han (domain) be forfeit to the Shogunate. "Oishi Kuranosuke decided on capitulation, and about 50 or so ageed with him." The loss of reputation of their lord and the thought of life as ronin was unbearable to the samurai of Ako. In a solemn and dramatic ceremony, the 322 retainers of Lord Asano secretly swore a blood oath to avenge their dead lord after the surveillance ended.

(note: in Japanese, the word "ronin" means "wave man", a person destined to wander aimlessly forever, like the waves in the sea. The word came to mean a samurai who was no longer in the service of a lord for some reason or another. It was considered undesirable to be a ronin, because it meant being without a stipend from a lord, measured in "koku" of rice. A koku being equal to a roughly 180 liters/150kg, enough rice to feed a man for one year.)

The warriors of Ako disbursed as Ronin with Kira's spies watching their every move. They lay in wait for years before attacking. Spies carefully noted the layout of Kira's house. One man married the daughter of the architect who designed Kira's manor, in order to obtain copies of the floorplans. Some of the men divorced their wives and sent them back to their parents. The ronin endured incredible humiliation. Because they walked in disgrace, they could not enter the service of another lord. Many of the men would even refuse to consider serving Lord Asano's brother, Asano Daigaku, stating "The brother of my lord is not my lord." Some of the Ronin worked at non-warrior occupations and some even pretended to be drunks. Samurai from other provinces would happen upon the men laying drunk in the streets and ridicule their inaction. The drunken and unruly behavior of the Ako Ronin fooled the spies into lowering their guard after two years.

On a dark and snowy December night (December 14, 1702), disguised as firemen, the 47 men attacked the fortress of Lord Kira. A member of a wealthy family, Kira was surrounded by an armed retinue of 60 samurai bodyguards.

Using a giant sledge, the ronin stormed the front and back gates at the same time. Archers were posted on the roof tops to kill any escaping samurai. Because no one liked him, none of Kira's neighbors or his nearby family came to his aid.

(note: The 47 Ronin are always depicted wearing clothing with a zig-zag pattern on them meant to symbolize eternal fidelity, the faithfulness of night following day.)

Lord Kira was captured and members of his clan were put to the sword. Kira was presented with the same knife which Lord Asano used for his seppuku. Instead of killing himself, he knelt trembling and Oishi was forced to behead him. The Ronin marched through the snow with Lord Kira's head in a firebucket. People along the path praised the men and offered them food.

"The forty-six retainers without Terasaka Kichiemon arrived at the Sengakuji Temple at 10 o'clock. They placed Kira Kozukenosuke's decapitated head on the tomb of Asano Takuminokami." Also placed on the tomb is the knife used by Lord Asano in his seppuku ritual. The same knife was used to kill lord Kira. The 46 men then prayed for the soul of Asano to rest in peace.

Gathering all of the money they had left, the Ronin of Ako begged the Abbot of Sengaku-ji for a proper burial after death. Normally a stern and stoic man, it is said that he had tears in his eyes when he heard their final request. After a months long debate among legal scholars, the Ronin of Ako were condemned to Hara-kiri.

In the 1860s, Lord Redesdale lived in a house within sight of Sengaku-ji where the 47 Ronin were buried. Impressed by the loyalty displayed by the ronin, he toured Sengaku-ji and finding tattered and yellowed letters amongst the relics, he translated them for his book "Tales of Old Japan." Each of the ronin carried letters spelling out their intentions in case they were captured or killed. Also translated were the receipt provided by the relatives of Lord Kira for the return of his severed head and the final statement placed by the men on Lord Asano's tomb before surrendering for court martial.

Each of the men were aware of the seriousness of their actions. Onodera Junai would state in a letter to his wife in Kyoto:

"..Even if my dead body is shown, I think my duty will be fulfilled because my dead body will demonstrate Samurai loyalty to the entire country and it will strengthen their resolve."

In John Allyn's book, "The 47 Ronin Story", the leader of the 47 Ronin Oishi Kuranosuke is quoted as saying:

Some people live all their lives without knowing which path is right. They're buffeted by this wind or that and never really know where they're going. That's largely the fate of the commoners--those who have no choice over their destiny. For those of us born as samurai, life is something else. We know the path of duty and we follow it without question.

In describing the 47 Ronin's sense of duty, Author Inazo Nitobe made a comparison to Egyptian mythology in "Bushido: The Soul of Japan":

"What is the most beautiful thing on earth?" said Osiris to Horus. The reply was, "To avenge a parent's wrongs," -- to which a Japanese would have added, "and a master's."

(Nitobe, 1899, p. 128)

Today, Sengakuji is a national shrine. Visitors to the temple at first notice what appears to be fog around the temple, but it is actually smoke from the incense burning before the graves. It is said that the incense at the site has never gone out in the hundreds of years the men have been buried there. Each year, thousands of people from around the world come to pay respects before the headstones of the faithful men. The 47 Ronin are considered national heroes, forever guarding the honor of their beloved Lord Asano. "Sengakuji Temple (Resting Place of the 47 Ronin)"

Uncommon Valor: On December 14, 2002, More than 130,000 people gathered at Sengaku-ji to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the attack on Lord Kira's Mansion by the warriors of Ako. [1]

Bushido ethicsEdit

Bushido expanded and formalized the earlier code of the samurai, and stressed frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and honor to the death. Under the Bushido ideal, if a samurai failed to uphold his honor he could regain it by performing seppuku (ritual suicide).

In an excerpt from his book "Samurai: The World of the Warrior", historian Stephen Turnbull describes the role of Seppuku in feudal Japan:

"Seppuku is a more correct expression for an act of suicide performed by the process of cutting open the abdomen. Seppuku is better known in the West as hara kiri (belly-cutting), and is a concept so alien to the European tradition that it is one of the few words from the world of the samurai to have entered foreign languages without a need for translation. Seppuku was commonly performed using a dagger. It could take place with preparation and ritual in the privacy of one’s home, or speedily in a quiet corner of a battlefield while one’s comrades kept the enemy at bay.
In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced. The cutting of the abdomen released the samurai’s spirit in the most dramatic fashion, but it was an extremely painful and unpleasant way to die, and sometimes the samurai who was performing the act asked a loyal comrade to cut off his head at the moment of agony."

According to Inazo Nitobe, Author of "Bushido: The Soul of Japan", "As to strictly ethical doctrines, the teachings of Confucius were the most prolific source of Bushido.....Next to Confucius, Mencius exercised an immense authority over Bushido. His forcible and often quite democratic theories were exceedingly taking to sympathetic natures, and they were even thought dangerous to, and subversive of, the existing social order, hence his works were for a long time under censure. Still, the words of this master mind found permanent lodgment in the heart of the samurai."

Bushido ethics were also influenced by Shintoism, the Chinese Classics, and the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, which promoted austerity, detachment and "no-mind" concentration as an ultimate approach to combat situations as well as daily life, and considered martial arts as a way to self-realization and to the expression of one's Buddha-nature.

Bushido was widely practiced and it is surprising how uniform the samurai code remained over time, crossing over all geographic and socio-economic backgrounds of the samurai. The samurai represented a wide populace numbering between 7 to 10% of the Japanese population, and the first Meiji era census at the end of the 19th century counted 1,282,000 members of the "high samurais", allowed to ride a horse, and 492,000 members of the "low samurai", allowed to wear two swords but not to ride a horse, in a country of about 25 million. ("Japan. A historical survey" Mikiso Hane). Although Japan enjoyed a period of peace during the Sakoku ("Closed country") period from the 17th to the mid-19th century, the samurai class remained and continued to play a center role in the policing of the country. The status of the samurai was abolished after the Meiji Restoration, but the former samurai continued to play a key role in the industrialization of Japan and its traditions remain alive today, seen in cultural features as mundane as the outfit worn by Japanese firefighters.

Bushido ethics enjoyed a revival during World War II as a way to build up Japanese fighting spirit. It was particularly reinforced among the fighting forces as a means of portraying the value of self-sacrifice and loyalty, and reached its apotheosis with the self-sacrifice of the kamikaze pilots.

Seven virtues associated with bushidoEdit

-Translations from: Random House's Japanese-English, English-Japanese Dictionary

Others that are sometimes added to these:

  • 忠 - Chū - Preservation of ethics
  • 孝 - - Filial piety
  • 智 - Chi - Wisdom
  • 悌 - Tei - Care for the aged

Major figures associated with bushidoEdit

See alsoEdit


Further readingEdit

  • William Scott Wilson, "Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors" (Kodansha, 1982) (ISBN 0897500814)

"Translator William Scott Wilson offers us something unique with this book, first published in 1982 by Ohara. I can't recall any other source which includes this many specific writings on bushido (the warrior-gentleman's path) --there are 12 documents in this book, all written by different members of the warrior classes, dating from the 13th century (Hojo Shigetoki's "Message of Master Gokurakuji") to the 17th century (Kuroda Nagamasa's "Notes on Regulations")....Throughout the course of Wilson's translation, it is clear to see that the Samurai (serving warriors) were a people to whom consideration of others, polite manners and conduct were important.... In "Ideals of the Samurai", not only are many of the writings centuries apart, but they are from different families and different geographical areas of Japan. If you're curious about how the "old heads" ~really~ lived and what they thought about, this work is a must..."

This is the story of Lord Asano, and how 47 of his samurai retainers, led by the brave Oishi, demonstrated the ultimate loyalty... with their lives. "The story of the 47 ronin is THE national story of Japan.....As a Japanese citizen and modern day kendoist I find this story, regardless of the version, to be very stimulating, inspiring, and thought provoking.....The popularity of the story comes from the fact that the heroes had become an ideal. They embody all that a Nihonjin, a Japanese person strives to is one of the most impressive examples of men who refuse to compromise their honor or integrity at any cost....This is a very moving book, and is much better than I had expected. The author does an excellent job of painting Japan as it then existed, and really brings the characters to life. I really enjoyed this great book, this stirring tale of honor, and highly recommend it to you...."

"Just as water will conform to the shape of the vessel that contains it, so will a man follow the good and evil of his companions...This is simply saying that one should not love those who are evil. This is not limited to the man who governs the country, for without the love and respect of the masses, all matters are difficult to achieve."

"For myself, I am resolved to make a stand within the castle and to die a quick death. It would not take much trouble to break through a part of their numbers and escape, no matter how many tens of thousands of horsemen approached for the attack or by how many columns we were surrounded. But that is not the true meaning of being a warrior, and it would be difficult to account as loyalty....."


"Every day that we waited seemed as three autumns to us....Asano Takumi no Kami died without having avenged himself, and this was more than his retainers could endure. It is impossible to remain under the same heaven with the enemy of lord or father; for this reason we have dared to declare enmity against a personage of so exalted rank. This day we shall attack Kira Kotsuke no Suke, in order to finish the deed of vengeance which was begun by our dead lord. If any honourable person should find our bodies after death, he is respectfully requested to open and read this document."

  • The Message Of Master Gokurakuji--Hojo Shigetoki (1198A.D.-1261A.D.) [3]

Hojo was known for the selfless help he provided his higher-placed relatives in the administration of the bakufu, and for his deep faith in Buddhism. Of his writings, two are extant: The Precepts of the Lord of Rokuhara, a set of practical precepts he wrote for his son, Nagatoki, in 1247; and The Message of Gokurakujidono, from which the present text is taken, written sometime after 1256 for his son and the house elders in general. This latter consists of 100 articles written in the kanamajiri style, and is basically concerned with man's moral duties and the ideal behavior for leaders of the warrior class. The predominant tone of the work is a Buddhist sympathy for all living beings and an awareness of the functions of karma. Women, children, and those of lower social standing are to be treated kindly and with regard, and even the concept of loyalty to superiors is dealt with more in a religious sense than a Confucian one

  • Sunset of The Samurai--The True Story of Saigo Takamori. Military History Magazine [4]

'Too much blood had been spilled, but honor forbade surrender.' On a muddy field outside Kagoshima on September 25, 1877, the feudal system that had dominated Japan for 700 years died, not with a whimper but with a defiant roar. At 6 that morning, the 40 remaining warriors of the last traditional samurai army in Japanese history rose from their foxholes, drew their swords and charged into the guns of the 30,000-man-strong imperial army.

  • Onoda, Hiroo. No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War. Trans. Charles S. Terry. New York: Kodansha International Ltd., 1974 (ISBN 1557506639)

No surrender. These words were drilled into young Hiroo Onoda's head by parents, peers, and superior officer. Onoda learned his lesson well. As a Japanese army lieutenant, he continued to fight World War II until 1974. Like a samurai of old, Onoda suffered through 30 grueling years carrying out his final orders--to gather intelligence and direct guerrilla warfare on the tiny Philippine island of Lubang. "My orders were to fight to the finish...." With this attitude and the government's ideals before them, many young soldiers ended their lives to preserve their honor. Onoda's own mother gave him an ancestor's dagger, before he left for Lubang Island, in case he had to commit suicide to avoid surrender." Onoda ignored the pleas of search parties and members of his own family to give up. Finally, his former commanding officer, Major Taniguchi was summoned from Japan and gave Onoda his formal orders to stand down. On March 10, 1974, he formally surrendered at the Lubang Radar Base to Maj. Gen. J. L. Rancudo of the Philippine Air Force. He ceremoniously presented his sword to the major general. As a mark of respect, it was immediately returned to the surprised Onoda. The following day the ceremony was repeated for the world's press when President Ferdinand Marcos again returned Onoda's sword to him. He also pardoned Onoda for his crimes on Lubang, much to the disgust of the islanders Onoda had raided and shot at for the last 30 years.

Onoda was mobbed when he returned to Japan; 4,000 people swarmed into the airport to welcome him home. Onoda struck a responsive chord in his countrymen. They had watched the proceedings in the Philippines on TV and were impressed by the dignified old warrior. He had done his duty with true samurai spirit, fighting against hopeless odds until relieved by a superior. To modern, materialistic Japan, Onoda embodied the old, prewar ideals of duty and tradition.

History of Survivor Hiroo Onoda The Last Samurai Part 1

External links and further readingEdit

"The main phases of Japan's pre-modern legal development are first, the indigenous customary law of the Yamato state. Next, the import and adaptation of Chinese codes from the 7th century onwards. Third, the use of Chinese legal techniques to bring order to the indigenous feudal law, culminating in the thirteenth century, and leading to the independence of Japan's legal system from that of China. Fourth, the mature system of written law and custom of the Tokugawa state. It is owing to the existence of well-functioning channels of law that Japan was able to modernise rapidly."

"...Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the knights were required or instructed to observe. It is not a written code; at best it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant. More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing all the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart. It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career."

"The man who would be a warrior considers it essential to keep in mind the spirit of battle 24 hours a day. Our country is different from others, for here, even the lowliest merchant, farmer, or artisan is attentive enough to carry with him a rusty old sword. This is the custom of the people of the warrior nation of Japan, and is the Way of the gods, unchanged for ten thousand generations."

"...if you are slain in battle, you should be resolved to have your corpse facing the enemy."

"Reading the Hagakure chronicles we should not be put off by the fact that Yamamoto had led a peaceful life. His loyalty to his Lord was unquestionable. Most of the orations by Yamamoto in Hagakure refer to his Lords father and those before him. For example, the Lord Naoshige had, in battle, by himself, slain over 200 men. He, most brave, renowned, and distinguished as a samurai would well have known wherein the essential secret of facing an opponent in war would lie."

"I have climbed mountain Iwato of Higo in Kyushu to pay homage to heaven, pray to Kwannon, and kneel before Buddha. I am a warrior of Harima province, Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Genshin, age sixty years."

"Bury my body in the mountain behind the temple, cover it with dirt and go home. Read no sutras, hold no ceremony. Receive no gifts from either monk or laity. Let the monks wear their robes, eat their meals, and carry on as on normal days." Takuan Soho — At his final moment, he wrote the Chinese character for "yume" (dream), put down the brush, and died.

The author, Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford (1837-1916), Lord Redesdale, was in the British Foreign Service as a young man. He was assigned to the legation in Japan for several years and acquired a life-long fascination with Japanese culture. This book has been a standard source of information about Japanese folklore and customs since its original publication in 1871 and has been in print ever since.

This anecdote was recorded by western judo pioneer E. J. Harrison in his book The Fighting Spirit of Japan, published in 1913. The speaker is Sakujiro Yokoyama, one of the greatest judoka from the founding days of Kodokan Judo. This is a fascinating eye witness account to an actual duel of samurai.

  • Death Before Dishonor By Masaru Fujimoto--Special to The Japan Times: Dec. 15, 2002 [5]
"In their willingness to die for their master, the ronin exhibited the true spirit of samurai, living in accordance with the Bushido.... Above all, a samurai was loyal and obedient to his master....The news immediately spread throughout Edo; the public and the samurai class alike, including Shogun Tsunayoshi, praised their prowess and their loyalty to their lord.
There is, however, another admirable aspect of the behavior of the Ako ronin: They showed isagiyosa, which can be interpreted as "grace with pride." The attack was carefully planned, certainly no spur-of-the-moment event, and the ronin all knew they faced death. When their time to die did come, they did so gracefully with pride -- as samurai."
'The study of literature and the practice of the military arts, including archery and horsemanship, must be cultivated diligently. "On the left hand literature, on the right hand use of arms" was the rule of the ancients. Both must be pursued concurrently. --'The Buke Sho-Hatto ("Rule for the Military Houses")1615AD'