Thursday, May 16, 2013

Bushido by Numbers - Chapter 17: The Future of Bushido

Is Bushido dead? Nitobe' answer, somewhat surprisingly, is yes. He attributes Chivalry to being nurtured and protected by Christianity, and laments that Bushido had only Feudalism as its guardian, and Feudalism was already dead in his time. However, he does not understand death to mean the end of something, merely its transition.

If history can teach us anything, the state built on martial virtues—be it a city like Sparta or an Empire like Rome—can never make on earth a "continuing city." Universal and natural as is the fighting instinct in man, fruitful as it has proved to be of noble sentiments and manly virtues, it does not comprehend the whole man. Beneath the instinct to fight there lurks a diviner instinct to love.

It is not by accident or mere momentary whim that Nitobe (who, remember, was a Christian) brings up Sparta and Rome - both were originally founded as voilent, martial, Pagan cities but both eventually yielded to the much less martial and much more benevolent Christianity. There is more to man than fighting, there is more to be accomplished besides conquest and personal glory. People desire more than just these things, they also desire to love and be loved.

A Samurai in Battle
A Samurai in Battle

Nitobe clearly subscribed to the idea that all of human history was proceeding in an orderly and planned-out fashion, and would have disagreed with Shakespeare's Macbeth:

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing."

Nitobe believed, and indeed I would hope Christians everywhere believe, that history and life itself is telling a story. Bushido had its purpose, as did Feudalism, but with kingdoms, republics, and petty dictatorships transforming into Nations and reorganizing themselves around the rights and responsibilities of their citizens, both became relics of an age of constant fighting, rigid class distinctions, and what Marx referred to as "the primitive accumulation of capital."

Samurai fighting
Samurai battle diorama

Like a caterpilar already changed fighting and struggling to free itself from its coccoon, the new Japan, though still under the influence of its ancestors and their way of life, was in a period of change. What did Nitobe believe the emerging nation would look like?

With an enlarged view of life, with the growth of democracy, with better knowledge of other peoples and nations, the Confucian idea of Benevolence—dare I also add the Buddhist idea of Pity?—will expand into the Christian conception of Love.

And now we can easily see why this book was so poorly received in Japan. Nitobe, as we have seen previously, has a radical view of Christian love. He has not given the Christian missionaries in Japan during his time a free pass for their arrogance, iconoclasm and Anglo-centrism. However, it is clear that he not only believes that Japan will, in time, come to adopt Christianity, but that it was indeed inevitable - that the seeds for Christian love (love of enemies, neighbors, as ourselves) are found in both Confucian and Buddhist ideas. To him, a Christian Japan was simply the next logical step in his country's development.

Now its days are closing—sad to say, before its full fruition—and we turn in every direction for other sources of sweetness and light, of strength and comfort, but among them there is as yet nothing found to take its place. The profit and loss philosophy of Utilitarians and Materialists finds favor among logic-choppers with half a soul. The only other ethical system which is powerful enough to cope with Utilitarianism and Materialism is Christianity, in comparison with which Bushido, it must be confessed, is like "a dimly burning wick" which the Messiah was proclaimed not to quench but to fan into a flame.

Nitobe believes Christianity to be the solution not only for his own country, but for the rapidly changing values, economy, and ethics of the Industrial Age. And he believes that the missionaries, rather than try and break down the remnants of Bushido that still live and breath among their potential converts, ought instead to build upon the ideas of Courage, Loyalty, and Benevolence so that the Japanese might adopt Christianity as their own faith rather than as a suspicious foreign influence.

Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin fighting
Though mortal enemies, Bushido compelled Uesegi Kenshin (right) to supply Takeda Shingen (left) with salt when another enemy cut off his supply. Uesegi sent this message along, "I do not fight with salt."

I took Nitobe's advice to heart when I lived in Japan years ago. I would try to find good questions to ask like, "What does it mean to be brave?" or "What does it mean to do one's duty?" Though the Samurai have long since gone extinct, Nitobe is correct that their influence over popular Japanese philosophy is still a force to be recognized. In many ways, the Daimyō has been replaced by the CEO, the vassal Samurai by the Salaryman, and the peasant with the unskilled worker.

When I would ride the subway home from Komaki around 9:00pm (about 30-45 min. by two subway lines and a surface train), I would always see salarymen in suits riding home from what I assumed was a long day at work. However, a Japanese friend informed me that it was unlikely any of them had actually been working all the way to 8 or 9 o'clock at night. Then why were they riding the rails so late?

In a Japanese business, it is considered rude (and a sign of laziness - the ultimate sin) to leave your workplace before your boss. So even though you are only getting paid to work until 5, if he's still in his office making calls, balancing spreadsheets, or even reading a comic book, you stay until he leaves. Though Japan's trade unions have worked with great success in securing two free days off each month for full-time workers, very few workers will ever take advantage of those days (and a friend of mine found herself suddenly having her productivity reviewed every week when she started taking those days off).

One of my students called such collectivism the "small island" effect. When you live on a small island, you don't want to be constantly fighting with your neighbors, and so everyone does their part and if your superior is struggling with a late-night of work, then so are you, even if your struggle is simply sitting at your desk and trying not to fall asleep!

As I write about these rather negative customs, I am reminded also of the positive aspects of Bushido's ghosts. Consider how Nitobe recounted that a Japanese person with a parasol will take it down when talking with a friend who has no shade, or even take their hat off when talking with a bare-headed person on a hot day. The idea, he wrote, was to take on the sufferings of the person with whom you were conversing, rather than to continue in comfort while they sweated away.

Can anyone, upon learning of such customs passed down from militant dictators who ruled by force of arms, really say that Christianity can never gain a significant foothold in Japan, or that Christ's core teachings will not find a warm welcome in the hearts of such people? Who would dare to learn these things and continue to claim that a Christian Japan is a lost cause?

The closing lines of this book are a benediction worthy of the noblest leader or most admired cultural innovator. In it we see both Nitobe's love of Bushido and his country, as well as his belief that its ethics, lessons, and virtues will live on in the hearts of the people after the Feudal system that gave it life has long since vanished from the earth. It brings a tear to my eye every time.

Bushido as an independent code of ethics may vanish, but its power will not perish from the earth; its schools of martial prowess or civic honor may be demolished, but its light and its glory will long survive their ruins. Like its symbolic flower, after it is blown to the four winds, it will still bless mankind with the perfume with which it will enrich life. Ages after, when its customaries shall have been buried and its very name forgotten, its odors will come floating in the air as from a far-off unseen hill, "the wayside gaze beyond;"—then in the beautiful language of the Quaker poet, "The traveler owns the grateful sense Of sweetness near he knows not whence, And, pausing, takes with forehead bare The benediction of the air."

A statue of a Samurai riding a horse


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