Shinto and the Warrior

The way of the gods has from the beginning been easily reconcilable with the way of the warrior. In fact, the affinity of Shinto with the warrior’s way was long ago made clear in the code practiced by the samurai, the military class of the feudal period of Japan. This code was called Bushido, literally “the warrior-knight-way.” It was the Japanese equivalent of the code of chivalry of medieval Europe and had a comparable influence. Indeed, when its general provisions became known, the entire nation came under its spell, to the extent at least of applauding those who adhered to it.

The Bushido Code

Bushido did not consist of finally fixed rules. It was a convention; more accurately, it was a system of propriety, preserved in unwritten law and expressing a spirit an ideal of behavior. As such, it owed something to all the cultural and spiritual forces of the feudal clan. Shinto supplied it the spirit of devotion to country and overlord. Confucianism provided its ethical substance. Zen Buddhism its method of private self-discipline, and the feudal habit of life contributed to it the spirit of unquestioning obedience to superiors and a sense of honor that was never to be compromised.

A missionary who knew the Japanese well has set forth the Bushido ethical code in the following eight attitudes:

1. Loyalty.

This was due first of all to the Emperor and under him to the lord whom one more immediately serves. One of the most familiar proverbs says, “A loyal retainer does not serve two lords.”

2. Gratitude.

It may surprise some to hear that this is a Japanese characteristic, but the Christian doctrine that the spring of a right life is not duty, but gratitude, is one that is readily appreciated by the Japanese.

3. Courage.

Life itself is to be surrendered gladly in the service of the lord. An American cannot fail to be touched by the noble words of a young warrior of ancient times to the effect that he wanted to die in battle for his lord and feared nothing so much as dying in bed before he had a chance to sacrifice his life for the object of his devotion.

4. Justice.

This means not allowing any selfishness to stand in the way of one’s duty.

5. Truthfulness.

A knight scorns to tell a lie in order to avoid harm or hurt to himself.

6. Politeness.

It is the mark of a strong man to be polite in all circumstances, even to an enemy.

7. Reserve.

No matter how deeply one is moved, feelings should not be shown.

8. Honor.

Death if preferable to disgrace. The knight always carried two swords, a long one to fight his foes, a short one to turn upon his own body in the case of blunder or defeat.

The readiness to commit suicide last mentioned is perhaps the most startling feature of the Bushido code. Yet suicide was the accepted form of atonement for failure or misjudgment. The warrior-knight was always preparing himself in thought and in mood for it. The kind of suicide he mentally rehearsed was harakiri a ceremonial method of disembowelment, carried out cooly and deliberately according to rule, without any expression of emotion. (Women in similar action cut their jugular veins by a method called ngai.)

No story better illustrates the Bushido spirit than the famous tale of old Japan, known as “the Forty-Seven Ronins.” A certain lord, we read, was repeatedly insulted by a superior, till, goaded beyond endurance, he aimed a dagger at his tormentor, and missed. A hastily summoned council of court officials condemned him to commit harakiri and ordered his castle and all his goods to be confiscated to the state. After the noble lord had ceremonially killed himself, his samurai-retainers became ronins, that is, men cast adrift by the death of their lord but in duty bound to avenge him. The court official who had brought on the tragedy and was the object of their vengeance thereafter kept to his castle, surrounded by a heavy guard. His spies reported that the leader of the ronins had embarked on a career of drunkenness and debauchery, evidently too craven to do his duty by his dead lord. They did not suspect that this was a ruse adopted by the ronin leader to throw the enemy off guard. The ruse succeeded. A less strict watch began to be kept in the enemy castle and finally half of the guard was sent away. Then the forty-seven ronins secretly came together and on a snowy night stormed the castle and captured the enemy of their dead lord. The leader of the ronins respectfully addressed the captive saying, “My lord, we are the retainers of Asano Takumi no Kami. Last year your lordship and our master quarreled in the palace, and our master was sentenced to harakiri, and his family was ruined. We have come tonight to avenge him as is the duty of faithful and loyal men. I pray your lordship to acknowledge the justice of our purpose. And now, my lord, we beseech you to perform harakiri. I myself shall have the honor to act as your second, and when with all humility, I shall have received your lordship’s head, it is my intention to lay it as an offering upon the grave of Asano Takumi no Kami.” But the enemy lord say speechless and trembling, unable to perform the act required of him, so the leader of the ronins leaped upon him and cut off his head with the same dagger with which his own lord had killed himself. All the ronins then went in a body to the grave of their dead lord and offered to his spirit the washed head of his enemy. After that they waited quietly for some days until the government sent word that they should atone for their crime by committing harakiri themselves, and this they all did, without exception. The whole of Japan rang with their praises, and ever since they have lived in Japanese imagination as peerless exemplars of the Bushido spirit. “ quoted from Noss and Noss, A History of the World’s Religions, (formerly Man’s Religions)