Bushido: A Universal Code for the 21st Century

Recently I began writing another book about the Shinsengumi. Their symbol (shown here) was the character makoto, which means “sincerity,” one of the three cardinal virtues of bushidō, along with loyalty and courage. Bushidō of course means “the way of the samurai.” And while men such as Kondo Isami, commander of the Shinsengumi, lived by the code of bushidō, these three virtues are by no means exclusive to the samurai.
Consider the meaning of the symbols used to express two of these concepts in the Japanese language:
sincerity (誠), pronounced makoto
loyalty(忠), pronounced chū

Makoto is a combination of the characters for “to say” and “to do” (or “to accomplish”). “To do what one says” is to be sincere. Chū is a combination of the characters for “inside” and “heart” (or “mind”): A loyal samurai keeps his heart and mind within the fold of his feudal lord, or daimyo. This may be directed at one’s country, or even family or friends.

But even the most loyal person of the best intentions might lack the guts do what he says. It might be too dangerous. Or perhaps the sacrifice would be too great. Which is one of the reasons why courage, both physical and moral, is so important.

So if you think about it, these basic bushidō virtues are not exclusively “of the samurai” or even Japanese. Rather, it seems, “the way of the samurai” is to a certain extent universal.

Giri: Is It Alive in Japanese Society Today?


In Samurai Revolution (Chapter 5) I wrote the following: “Giri was integral to bushidō, the code of the samurai, a basic tenet of which was “strictness with superiors, and leniency with subordinates.” Based on loyalty to one’s feudal lord (i.e., obligation for favor received from one’s lord) and integrity founded on shame, giri, to a great extent, accounted for the harmony in samurai society, and it was an inherent element of both the aesthetics and the moral courage of the samurai caste.


Takechi Hanpeita (武市半平太), leader of the Tosa Loyalist Party in the 1860s, wrote: “to be born a human being and not to have a sense of giri and gratitude is to be less than a beast.” (人と生まれて義理と恩とをしらざれハちくしょふにもおとり申し候)

In Samurai Revolution (Chapter 5) I reported that Katsu Kaishū, in his history of the Japanese navy (海軍歴史), compared the Japanese navy to the navies of other countries. He implied that in the Japanese system severe punishment of sailors by commanding officers was probably unnecessary because, “We sustain the hearts and minds of our people only through obligation and justice, and integrity and shame.” (「皇国は属殊にして外国の風に似ず、ただ恩義と廉恥を以て衆心を維持」する)
Sakamoto Ryoma
When Sakamoto Ryoma famously led a Chōshū warship against the Tokugawa Navy at Shimonoseki, more than the danger of battle he feared that he might encounter his former mentor, Katsu Kaishū, in command of the enemy fleet. “I could never fight against him,” he later told Tosa’s minister of justice, Sasaki Sanshirō (later Sasaki Takayuki) (僕は房州[海舟]には非常に恩顧を受けて居るから,之を敵にすることは出来ぬ).
Clearly from the above, giri was alive in Japan during the Bakumatsu era. But I wonder if it survives in the 21st century.

Takechi Hanpeita is the focus of Part II of my forthcoming Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” and the Meiji Restoration, 1853-1868, to be published by McFarland this spring.

Saigo Takamori’s “kindness, gentility and modesty”

“I don’t know about difficult things such as affairs of state.” Saigo Takamori  「私は天下の大勢なんどいふやうなむつかしいことは知らない」西郷隆盛

[With the election of one as unworthy as Donald Trump as president, and the state of American politics at an historical low, I felt the need to publish the following about the Japanese hero, general, and statesman Saigo Takamori. (トランプが当選してアメリカの政治がこれほどのひどい状態に落ちた今、西郷隆盛のことを思い出す。)]

Saigo Takamori

Katsu Kaishu told an anecdote illustrating Saigo‘s kindness and gentility—and his modesty. It has to do with a man named Hitomi Yasushi, who had been among those in the Bakufu opposing Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s abdication. Hitomi had fought against the Satsuma troops at the outbreak of civil war at Toba-Fushimi in Keio 4/1 (1868), and later against the forces of the Imperial government at Hokodate. Not long after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Hitomi visited Kaishu at his home. Saying that he wanted to meet Saigo, he asked for a letter of introduction. “But it seemed that he intended to kill Saigo,” Kaishu recalled:

“I wrote the letter for Hitomi, but included the following warning: ‘This man intends to kill you. But please meet with him anyway.’ So Hitomi went down to [Saigo’s home in] Satsuma. The first person he met there was Kirino [Toshiaki]. Kirino . . . had a discerning eye. . . . So when he opened and read my letter to Saigo, he understood the situation. Even the fearless Kirino was a little startled—and immediately informed Saigo. But Saigo remained absolutely calm. ‘If he’s got an introduction from Katsu, I’ll meet him,’ he said. So on the next day Hitomi visited Saigo’s home. ‘My name is Hitomi Yasushi,’ he announced. ‘I’ve come to talk to you.’ Saigo was lying down near the front door. Hearing Hitomi’s voice, he calmly got up and said, ‘…I don’t know about difficult things such as affairs of state. Just listen to this. The other day I took a trip. . . . Along the way I got very hungry. So I bought some potatoes and ate them. Certainly you can’t expect a guy like me, who can satisfy his hunger [with just potatoes], to know about the state of things in our country.’ Then he opened his mouth wide and burst out laughing. The impetuous Hitomi was caught off-guard by the sudden words. Far from killing Saigo, he left without saying so much as ‘goodbye.’ He was struck with admiration, and when he got back told me, ‘Saigo is truly a great man.'”


Hikawa Seika (Kodansha, vol. 21, p. 56)

Read more about Katsu Kaishu and Saigo Takamori in Samurai Revolution, the only full-length biography of Kaishu in English.



“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” — and an “optimistic” call for revolution


I just caught the last part of an interview with Noam Chomsky, on NHK World. He mentioned the horror he felt when as a teenager in the United States, he heard the news about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He also said that he had been appalled by the “reaction” to the news among most people: they went on with whatever they were doing, no matter how trivial, and didn’t really seem to care very much that tens of thousand had just been incinerated, except that it might help end the war. One of the greatest thinkers of our time concluded this interview with the above quote from Antonio Gramsci, paraphrasing: we should be pessimistic about the way things are in this world, but we should be optimistic about perhaps being able to make them better.

This brings to mind the following quote from another great thinker, Katsu Kaishu, of nineteenth-century Japan, the “shogun’s last samurai” of my book Samurai Revolution: “If the Bakufu [shogun’s government] truly has the best interest of the country at heart, it must willingly fall.” So that the reader may better understand this bold and important pronouncement from a leading Bakufu official, I excerpt the following from Samurai Revolution (from first few pages of Chapter 20):

[begin excerpt] Katsu Kaishū had spent the past year and a half to no avail, he wrote to Yokoi Shōnan on Keiō 2/4/23 (1866). But “I will not be discouraged.” To evade the enmity of the Edo authorities, he would carry on with his “leisurely existence of reading and writing, although it is difficult to forget my anxiety over the fate of the country.” Even as the political and social scene of Japan underwent a sea change of historical proportion, this man of thought and action remained inert, during a seemingly endless intermission backstage—awaiting the cue to reenter.

. . . Kaishū had been informed of “popular unrest” around Ōsaka and Kyōto over rising prices of rice, and as a result, of other commodities. While large quantities of rice were purchased to supply the troops in the impending war, various feudal domains restricted the sale of rice beyond their borders. Unscrupulous merchants cornered the market, driving up rice prices even further. In less than one year rice prices had risen by more than fifty percent. As a result, townspeople in the cities and peasants in rural areas suffered. Early in the Fifth Month rioting broke out at Nishinomiya (about halfway between Kōbé and Ōsaka), soon spreading to Hyōgo (Kōbé) and by mid-month to Ōsaka, where the shōgun was present at his castle. On 5/23, Kaishū wrote of a visit by Sugi Kōji, who informed him that in Hyōgo and Ōsaka mobs attacked and destroyed wealthy merchant houses. Troops fired on the rioters in both cities. Many were killed.

On 5/8 Kaishū noted in his journal that Satsuma “absolutely refused” to fight against Chōshū. On the fourteenth of the previous month, Ōkubo Ichizō had met with Senior Councilor Itakura Katsukiyo at Ōsaka Castle, presenting a letter stating Satsuma’s refusal to send troops. Seizing the high moral ground, Satsuma admonished the Bakufu “not to fight our own countrymen.” It was the shōgun’s duty to preserve the peace in the Imperial Country, not to disturb it. And so to attack Chōshū would be “against the rule of Heaven.” As Kaishū wryly put it at Hikawa, “Itakura was perplexed.”

. . . On the night of 5/27, Kaishū received a letter from Senior Councilor Mizuno, summoning him to Edo Castle on the following morning. “Went up to the castle,” he wrote in his journal on 5/28. Reinstated as commissioner of warships, he was ordered to proceed to Ōsaka immediately. Noting the extraordinary manner in which he had been reinstated, he questioned Mizuno as to the nature of his assignment. “Direct orders from the shōgun,” Mizuno replied. “I had nothing else to say,” Kaishū later wrote. At Hikawa, he recalled that he was “hard pressed for money. So on the next day they gave me three thousand ryō,” about two years’ worth of his salary as warships commissioner. “It was the first time in my life that I got three thousand ryō all at once.”

Before leaving the castle, Kaishū encountered Finance Commissioner Oguri Tadamasu and two others of the French clique. He noted that his political enemies “were surprised” by his sudden comeback. Since he had been out of the loop for a year and a half, they thought that they should fill him in on their secret project—i.e., their scheme to set up a Tokugawa autocracy through French aid. They understood that he was going to Ōsaka, they said. “As you know, the Bakufu is in trouble. It’s going to obtain warships from France. As soon as the ships arrive, we’ll attack Chōshū. Then we’ll hit Satsuma. Once Chōshū and Satsuma are taken care of, there will be no one left in Japan who can challenge us. Then we’ll move forward, subduing all of the other feudal lords. We’ll reduce their landholdings and set up a prefectural system.” Certainly their colleague . . ., they assumed, would agree with their plan. They could not have been more mistaken! “Realizing that it would be a waste of time to argue with them,” Kaishū later wrote, “I kept quiet and listened.”

. . . On the next day, 6/22, Kaishū reported to Senior Councilor Itakura at the castle. This time he held no punches, even pounding his fist as he spoke. “What they have decided in Edo is very wrong,” he told Itakura. If Japan intends to take its place among the nations of the world, it must set up a prefectural system—i.e., feudalism must be abolished and a unified national government established. But, Kaishū admonished, the Tokugawa must not take away the lands of the feudal lords and rule the nation autocratically, claiming to do so for the welfare of the country. “If the Bakufu truly has the best interest of the country at heart,” he said, “it must willingly fall.” [end excerpt]

In other words, Katsu Kaishu was pessimistic about the government which he loyally served, but optimistic about the way his country might be. As we approach the presidential election in the United States, the above ideas of Gramsci and Kaishu are particularly relevant — and I fear for our country. Whichever of the two candidates wins, we will be stuck with perhaps the worst president in our history. So the optimistic question is: how can we fix things?

Read more about Katsu Kaishu in Samurai Revolution, the only full-length biography of the great man in English.



Lessons from Saigo, man of the people, amid travesty of Democracy in USA (Part 2)

Saigo Takamori


Saigo Takamori, the most powerful driving force behind the Meiji Restoration, was one of the great leaders in Japanese history. Saigo’s biographer Kaionji Chogoro wrote that he “was physiologically unable to bear” even being suspected of any sort of underhandedness. And as I wrote in Samurai Revolution, he had a deep-seated repugnance of “self-love,” which he described as “the primary immorality. It precludes one’s ability to train oneself, perform one’s tasks, correct one’s mistakes [and] . . . engenders arrogance and pride.” Would that a moralist of Saigo’s caliber emerge amid the abject corruption of America’s 2016 presidential election.

Part I of this series is here.

Read more about Saigo Takamori in Samurai Revolution.