Almost two weeks ago, I suddenly ran out of reading material in Japan, and I knew that I had long train and bus rides ahead of me. What better reason to pick up one of the many famous books that cover the cultural background of Japan? I picked Bushido, written by Inazo Nitobe in 1905 (originally published in English, not a translation). Having already read another book from the same time (The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura in 1906), I had high hopes and wasn't disappointed.
Bushido is sometimes translated as "chivalry", but it's much more than that, it's an ethical system that transcents Japan to this day. Nitobe covers the Samurai code, the role of women, Suicide and many other fascinating topics.
Before I begin, I want to point out that this book, as well as the Book of Tea are now in the public domain, and the links I provided above lead to the full text of these books!
Some background, that Nitobe provides himself in the book: He is a converted Christian. In the chapter entitled "The Training and Position of Woman" he excused the fact that the woman was serving the man by the fact that she is thereby ultimately serving god: "In the ascending scale of service stood woman, who annihilated herself for man, that he might annihilate himself for the master, that he in turn might obey heaven. I know the weakness of this teaching and that the superiority of Christianity is nowhere more manifest than here, in that it requires of each and every living soul direct responsibility to its Creator. Nevertheless, as far as the doctrine of service - the serving of a cause higher than one's own self, even at the sacrifice of one's individuality; I say the doctrine of service, which is the greatest that Christ preached and is the sacred keynote of his mission - as far as that is concerned, Bushido is based on eternal truth."
This passage shows two things about this book: First, it is specifically written for the Westener, to understand the Japanese. And second, it's written from the late 19th century perspective. Feudalism was just abandoned in 1870!
I want to talk about a few things that I experienced today in Japan, in 2005, that made so much more sense to me after reading this book.
Samurai didn't engage in commerce.
"Of all the great occupations of life, none was farther removed from the profession of arms than commerce. The merchant was placed lowest in the category of vocations, - the knight, the tiller of the soil, the mechanic, the merchant." - I was surprised to hear this - but separating commercial power (money) from military power (arms) was probably doing a lot of good to the country. "Montesquieu has made it clear that the debarring of the nobility from mercantile pursuits was an admirable social policy, in that it prevented wealth from accumulating in the hands of the powerful." Isn't it tempting to contemplate for a minute about the fact that, while we do have separation of power, the commercial and political forces these days tend to grow closer together? Would we be better off to disallow alliances (e.g. by prohibiting lobbying altogether)?
From this book I learned, that Japanese commerce had a bad reputation for a while, shortly after Japan was forced to open up its market. Nitobe acknowledged this, but explained it by the fact that, as mentioned above, merchants were of the lowest social standing, and as such attracting some shady characters. But he also points out that over time, Bushido ideas were gaining momentum: "Now-a-days we hear comparatively little of (...) dishonesty in trade. In twenty years [Japan's] merchants learned that in the end honesty pays. Already our merchants are finding that out. "
Harakiri, ceremonial suicide, is one of those things that is fascinating in a creepy way, and somehow we want to know more about it, even though we don't want to admit it. Nitobe starts off with pointing out that suicide is not unknown in the West, and even though the Church condemns it, there are many cases where it was respected, or even accepted.
Nitobe provides two graphic eye-witness accounts of harakiri. It's the very deliberate act of stabbing oneself below the waist, drawing the dagger all the way across and up, and pulling it out again. This procedure doesn't kill immediately but is extremely painful, and often the deliquent is beheaded after the operation to shorten his suffering.
Giving one's live for honour or a greater cause was not seen as such a big deal - in the end, we all have to die, so may as well die for something worthy, especially as there was no stigma attached to suicide. In fact, due to the glorification, harakiri was committed for reasons entirely undeserving of death: "Life was cheapcheap as reckoned by the popular standard of honor."
Personally this reminds me of the suicide wave that Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther created. I also have been intruiged for a long time by Socrates' death, which I would categorize as suicide. Nitobe picked that one up as well: "If suicide meant no more than dying by one's own hand, Socrates was a clear case of suicide. But nobody would charge him with the crime; Plato, who was averse to it, would not call his master a suicide." Fact is, nobody wanted to put Socrates to death, and he was given many options to escape that fate, which he stubbonly rejected. I believe that he knew that only by dying as a matyr, he would become immortal. Had he not drunken the poision, he probably wouldn't be remembered the way he is being remembered today.
This book has been a great aid for me to understand Japan - I encourage you to browse through the book online, or pick up a copy. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did.