Bushi philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G104-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

3. The Tokugawa period and the concept of bushidō

With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1600, Japan’s ruling warrior class lost its principal raison d’être, which was fighting. No one could have known at the time that peace would prevail, with few exceptions, for more than two and one-half centuries. Hence, throughout the seventeenth century at least, the rulers of the shogunate were absorbed first and foremost with security, taking measures to prevent a reversion to the bloodshed and chaos of the sengoku age.

One of the most important steps that had been taken to end the warfare, unify the country and make unification lasting was the separation of peasants and warriors. In the late sixteenth century, those warriors who had not already done so were obliged to move from the countryside into the castle towns of their daimyō; simultaneously the peasants, who were ordered to remain in their villages, were disarmed in a national ‘sword hunt’ that deprived them of their swords and other weapons.

Removed from the land and transformed into urban residents, warriors became stipendiaries, the recipients of regular stipends based on the revenue derived from agricultural fiefs held by them or their ancestors during the sengoku age. High-ranking warriors received, for the most part, generous stipends and were employed by their daimyō in the domainal governments. Those on the lower end of the warrior scale were usually not so employed and were obliged to get along on meagre stipends.

The existence of a large number of idle stipendiaries among the warriors troubled philosophers. Yamaga Sokō(1622–85), a Confucian scholar whose name is closely associated with the formulation of bushidō during the Tokugawa period (although he himself used the abbreviated term shidō), observed: ‘… the samurai eats food without growing it, uses utensils without manufacturing them, and profits without buying or selling. What is the justification for this?’ (Tsunoda et al. 1958: 398). Sokō’s answer was that the function of the samurai in society was to serve his lord loyally and to stand as an exemplar of high moral standards to the lower classes, peasants, artisans and merchants. The acquisition of high moral standards – that is, Confucian moral standards – was premised on the acquisition of education (see Confucian philosophy, Japanese).

Strongly influenced by the thought of Yamaga Sokō, bushidō came to comprise two parts. The first part was military preparedness and a romantic looking back to the great fighting traditions of the past. Countless editions of the war tales and other records of ancient and medieval battles, biographies of the great warrior heroes of the past and the like were published during the Tokugawa period. In addition, many schools in military tactics and the martial arts were founded, including one by Yamaga Sokō.

The second part of bushidō concerned the ethical training urged by Sokō. This not only resulted in the articulation of an ethical code for warriors of a kind that we do not find prior to the Tokugawa period, but also greatly stimulated education in general among warriors. Hence, bushidō contributed importantly to the evolution of the warrior class as an intellectual as well as ruling elite.

If the bushidō just described was based primarily on Confucian rationalism, there was another bushidō nurtured by a different, powerfully ‘irrational’ school of thought. This school derived from the belief, adumbrated above in the discussion of the feudal lord–vassal relationship, that vassals ought to serve their lords in a spirit of absolute self-sacrifice: vassals should, indeed, be prepared to relinquish their lives in a moment’s notice for their lords. The war tales, for example, speak of vassals who considered their lives as no more important than a ‘speck of dust’ or a ‘goose feather’ in the service of their lords.

The bible of this irrational school of bushidō was the Hagakure, an early eighteenth-century compilation of the views of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, vassal to the daimyō of a western domain. In one of the most famous proclamations in all of Japanese literature, Tsunetomo asserts in the Hagakure that: ‘The way of the warrior (bushidō) is found in death’ (trans. Wilson 1979: 17). But, as Tsunetomo explains, it is not sufficient for the warrior to be resigned to the fact that he may be killed. He must be prepared at all times to face death at a moment’s notice, and when confronted with a situation in which he must decide between living or dying, he should unhesitatingly choose to die. In such a situation there can be no calculating or ‘rationalizing’. The warrior must fight like a madman to his death, even though aware that others may later judge his actions to have been wrong or foolish. Utterly unconcerned about ‘achieving’ anything, the true warrior devotes himself single-mindedly to acting in a death-defying – or more precisely, a death-attaining – way.

The Hagakure, with its extreme views about proper warrior behaviour, was written after the passage of a century of Tokugawa peace and during a time (the Genroku cultural epoch) that celebrated the lives of merchants and artisans, whose chief goals in life were to earn money and enjoy the luxuries it could buy. Genroku culture was totally antithetical to traditional warrior values, at least as those values were idealized in writings like the war tales. A cri de coeur against what Yamamoto Tsunetomo viewed as the moral deterioration of the times, the Hagakure was an anachronistic attempt to rally the spirit of the warrior class, most of whose members could only have been bewildered at the prospect of rushing to their deaths in an age when warfare had been suspended for so long that no one had any experience of it.

But in fact, an incident had occurred just a few years before the publication of the Hagakure that seemed to suggest that the traditional warrior values centred on the selfless service of vassals to their lords, which Yamamoto Tsunetomo so admired and so yearned to revive, were still alive. One of the most famous events in all of Japanese history, this incident was the sensational revenge of the forty-seven rōnin (masterless samurai). In 1701, a daimyō in attendance at the shogun’s castle in Edo (modern Tokyo) assaulted and wounded one of the shogun’s officials. For having drawn his sword in the castle the daimyō was condemned to death, and that same day he disembowelled himself – that is, he committed seppuku, the warrior’s way of suicide. Two years later, a group of the daimyō’s vassals, who had become rōnin because of their lord’s death, fulfilled a secret pact by attacking the residence of and killing the official the daimyō had assaulted (the exact reason for the assault is not known). Seven weeks later the rōnin, condemned to death for violating shogunate law, themselves committed seppuku.

Although this act of revenge – this carrying out of a vendetta (katakiuchi) – has stirred the spirits of many Japanese over the years, it was in fact an isolated incident and not in any sense illustrative of the way warriors behaved or were expected to behave. Yamamoto Tsunetomo in fact criticized the rōnin because they did not spring into action immediately against the enemy of their lord but instead calculated and schemed for two years. More fundamentally, this vendetta was unusual because nearly all the other vendettas by warriors during the Tokugawa period were based on avenging kin rather than feudal lords.

Nevertheless, the revenge of the forty-seven rōnin was important in the history of bushidō because it drew attention to the special character of the lord–vassal relationship among warriors, reaffirming the ideal of vassals acting selflessly, even to the point of forfeiting their lives, in the service of their lord. In the modern age, after the dissolution of the samurai class and the establishment of a conscript army, this spirit was still held to set Japanese soldiers apart from those of other countries. Even as late as the Second World War the spirit of the Japanese soldier, prepared to die if necessary for his emperor, was exalted and accorded special consideration in the strategic planning of many Japanese commanders.

Citing this article:
Varley, Paul. The Tokugawa period and the concept of bushidō. Bushi philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G104-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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