Thursday, May 2, 2013

Bushido by Numbers - Chapter 16: Is Bushido Still Alive?

Is Bushido Still Alive?

Nitobe makes a few points in this chapter:

  • Bushido is still directing motivation and culture in Japan.
  • Europeans have not influenced Japan as much as they think.
  • Christian Missionaries are suffering from cultural elitism.

Nitobe clearly believes that Bushido still exists and continues to drive Japan's national character. This is no surprise to regular readers here, but back in 1900 people believed that they were witnessing the end of Eastern culture, that is, its envelopment by Western culture in the way that people thought, acted, fought, and designed their economies.


Citing Mr. Townsend, Nitobe quotes:

"We are told every day how Europe has influenced Japan, and forget that the change in those islands was entirely self-generated, that Europeans did not teach Japan, but that Japan of herself chose to learn from Europe methods of organization, civil and military, which have so far proved successful. She imported European mechanical science, as the Turks years before imported European artillery."

This flies in the face of what most people at the time believed about Japan. She was not shaking off the trappings of Feudal thinking in favor of more enlightened European customs, she was merely investing in practicality by using what was working for the rest of the world regarding military organization and trade technology. This is where inaccurate (though, admittedly, impressive) depictions like The Last Samurai run into a misinterpretation of history.

The Last Samurai
Impressive - but wrong.

It is easy to see the Japanese changing their manner of dress and even reversing thousand-year-old laws and customs (like Samurai wearing swords and top-knots, Feudal landholding systems, and social rearrangement), and assume that it means that the entire culture is dying out in favor of a "better" culture. However, we shouldn't confuse pragmatism with hegemony. The events following 1900, like the Russo-Japanese War, World War II, and even the current Japanese corporate and organized crime structure have their roots planted firmly in the still-fertile soil of Bushido.

Much as I would like to say that the Christian Missionaries made a huge difference during Japan's transition from Feudal Dictatorship to Modern Superpower, and as much as they themselves tried to claim the credit, Nitobe (a Christian himself, mind you), asserts that Christianity had thus far made a poor showing in Japan, and that any claims of societal transformation stemming from their work was completely without data:

"Some writers have lately tried to prove that the Christian missionaries contributed an appreciable quota to the making of New Japan. I would fain render honor to whom honor is due: but this honor can hardly be accorded to the good missionaries. More fitting it will be to their profession to stick to the scriptural injunction of preferring one another in honor, than to advance a claim in which they have no proofs to back them."

Inazō Nitobe

I don't believe that Nitobe is trying to score points with the Nationalists by slamming the Christians. I think he is encouraging them not to rest on non-existent laurels and perhaps change their approach to the Japanese to be more effective.

"Should the propagator of the new faith uproot the entire stock, root and branches, and plant the seeds of the Gospel on the ravaged soil?"

As I have written before, the early Evangelical Missionaries who obediently traveled to Japan's shores in the late 1800's were not without fault. Their worldview intertwined Christianity with Western Culture implicitly, and they sought to "Anglicize" the Japanese as they converted them. This is exactly what the Japanese fear most about Christianity: that it will swallow their cultural identity and make them un-Japanese. Far better to begin with Jesus and His teachings, stripped of cultural bias as far as we are able, and find a way to communicate His truth in a way that is culturally welcoming as well as true to His character.

To best illustrate Nitobe's argument that Bushido remained the primary driving force behind his modern Japan, he relates this story:

"A band of unruly youths engaged in a long continued "students' strike" in a college, on account of their dissatisfaction with a certain teacher, disbanded at two simple questions put by the Director,—"Is your professor a blameless character? If so, you ought to respect him and keep him in the school. Is he weak? If so, it is not manly to push a falling man." The scientific incapacity of the professor, which was the beginning of the trouble, dwindled into insignificance in comparison with the moral issues hinted at."

Does Bushido, the evolved principles descending from the unwritten Knightly Code continue to influence Japan's national character today, and will it continue in the future? In two Thursdays, we'll cover the last chapter, "The Future of Bushido," which I will supplement with my own observations of Japanese people, and explain a bit, in their own words, what makes their culture unique among the people of the earth.


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