Eight Difficult, Outdated Ways to Excel
— The Eight Virtues of the Samurai —
The extraordinary text was entitled Bushido: The Soul of Japan. In this slim volume of less than 35,000 words, author Nitobe Inazo interprets Bushido, the samurai code of behavior, which explains how ethical people (samurai in particular) should act in personal and professional life. This was the first time that these millenniums-old, unspoken precepts of Japanese chivalry had been codified and published in a comprehensive work.
Bushido turned into the most important modern philosophical preachment ever published by a Japanese writer and became a global bestseller. It was translated into ten languages, and Nitobe went on to become the world’s most famous Japanese citizen of the early twentieth century. He later became an influential bureaucrat and an undersecretary of the League of Nations. His likeness was featured on the 5,000 yen note from 1984 through 2004.
Some scholars have criticized Nitobe’s work as romanticized yearning for a non-existent age of samurai chivalry. I believe Bushido contains extraordinary thousand-year-old precepts that did, in fact, originate in chivalrous behavior on the part of some—certainly not all—samurai. But more important, I believe Nitobe’s book captures the Japanese ethic of life—as the author himself put it, “an exposition of Japanese thought.” Ten years living in Japan convinced me that Bushido’s Eight Virtues are not only real practices, but a potent way to understand Japanese society. One thing is certain: None of Nitobe’s critics ever published an international bestseller translated into ten languages.
Here are brief overviews of Bushido’s Eight Virtues.
I. Rectitude or Justice
Here Nitobe refers to martial rectitude, but later and often he refers to personal rectitude: of behaving in accordance with an absolute moral standard, one transcending logic.
Rectitude or Justice, is the strongest virtue of Bushido. A well-known samurai defines it this way: ‘Rectitude is one’s power to decide upon a course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when to die is right, to strike when to strike is right.’ Another speaks of it in the following terms: ‘Rectitude is the bone that gives firmness and stature. Without bones the head cannot rest on top of the spine, nor hands move nor feet stand. So without Rectitude neither talent nor learning can make the human frame into a samurai.’
Courage is worthy of being counted among virtues only if it’s exercised in the cause of Righteousness and Rectitude. In his Analects, Confucius says: ‘Perceiving what is right and doing it not reveals a lack of Courage.’ In short, ‘Courage is doing what is right.’
III. Benevolence or Mercy
Again we see the strong influence of ancient Chinese philosophers (one wonders when China will again become as successful a wisdom-exporter as it was thousands of years ago):
Love, magnanimity, affection for others, sympathy and pity, are traits of Benevolence, the highest attribute of the human soul. Both Confucius and Mencius often said the highest requirement of a ruler of men is Benevolence.
Courtesy and good manners have been noticed by every foreign tourist as distinctive Japanese traits. But Politeness should be the expression of a benevolent regard for the feelings of others; it’s a poor virtue if it’s motivated only by a fear of offending good taste. In its highest form Politeness approaches love.
V. Honesty and Sincerity
True samurai, according to Nitobe, disdained money, believing that “men must grudge money, for riches hinder wisdom.” Thus children of high-ranking samurai were raised to believe that talking about money showed poor taste, and that ignorance of the value of different coins showed good breeding. He wrote that:
Bushido encouraged thrift, not for economical reasons so much as for the exercise of abstinence. Luxury was thought the greatest menace to manhood, and severe simplicity was required of the warrior class. The samurai earned his income from land and could even indulge in amateur farming if he had a mind to; but the counting machine and abacus were abhorred. This social arrangement kept the distribution of wealth more equitable, preventing riches from accumulating solely in the hands of the powerful.
The sense of Honor, a vivid consciousness of personal dignity and worth, characterized the samurai. He was born and bred to value the duties and privileges of his profession. Fear of disgrace hung like a sword over the head of every samurai … To take offense at slight provocation was ridiculed as ‘short-tempered.’ As the popular adage put it: ‘True patience means bearing the unbearable.’ The great Ieyasu left to posterity a few maxims, among which are the following: ‘Reproach none, but be forever watchful of thine own shortcomings … Forbearance is the basis of length of days.’
Among Japan’s salaried workers, the hard economic realities of the past two decades have dealt a body blow to corporate loyalty. Nevertheless, compared to the U.S.’s free-roaming, free agent business culture, loyalty remains important in Japanese society:
Loyalty to a superior was the most distinctive virtue of the feudal era. Personal fidelity exists among all sorts of men: a gang of pickpockets swears allegiance to its leader. But only in the code of chivalrous Honor does Loyalty assume paramount importance.
The first objective of samurai education was to build up Character. The subtler faculties of prudence, intelligence, and dialectics were less important. Intellectual superiority was esteemed, but a samurai was essentially a man of action.
So there you have them: Eight difficult, outdated ways to achieve excellence and success—from a foreign country, no less! (a future post will share thoughts on why I believe Japan is earth’s most prosperous nation).
I find Nitobe’s preachments inspiring, and wanted to share them with new generations of readers. So Mark and I decided to include an abridgment of the entire text of Bushido in The Prosperous Peasant.
To accomplish this, we trimmed the text to 5,000 words, modifying archaic punctuation and spelling in the process (Nitobe’s century-old language is dated and flowery, and he cites dozens of philosophers and writers unfamiliar to today’s readers).
By the way, full-color PDF posters of the Eight Virtues, designed by Keiko Onodera with the original kanji characters, can be downloaded from the “Gifts of Wisdom” section of The Prosperous Peasant Web site.
So enjoy! And please take refuge at Soul Shelter again on Monday, when Mark writes about American Prosperity.
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