Updated: Sep 6, 2022
(Photo credit: A woodblock print of the samurai Onikojima Yatarô Kazutada (1522-1582) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Retrieved from ancient.eu.)
Throughout history, there have been countless sets of principles that have helped to shape civilizations and individuals. Stoicism in Greece, Buddhism in India, and Confucianism in China are just three examples of thought systems that have shaped history. While it may not be as well-known in western culture as these schools of thought, another set of principles known as bushido significantly influenced samurai and other groups in ancient Japan.
Bushido, pronounced Boósheedoh, was the code of honor and morals developed by the Japanese samurai and the guiding principles they followed for hundreds of years. The code itself has roots as far back as the 8th century. Bushido helped provide a way for samurai to survive on the battlefield and in life. Briefly stated, it is not a religious belief system: bushido is a system of ethical principles followed by samurai to maintain a sense of honor, self-control, loyalty to their lord, and more.
More so than most other historical figures, samurai have been romanticized in fiction for hundreds of years. To see a portrayal of them today, both realistic and unrealistic, one needs to look no further than movies, books, animation, comics, video games, paintings, and countless other forms of art and media.
Samurai fought in countless battles over hundreds of years. However, their reign did not last forever. After the Sengoku-Jidai, or the Period of the Country at War, ended in 1615, samurai became displaced from their original role. As samurai no longer needed to engage in warfare, their skillset was not needed anymore. Most samurai transferred from military power to various other jobs, ranging from skilled trades to politics.
Samurai do not exist in their previous form today, but their principles still live. Similar to The Art of War by Sun Tzu, the tenets of bushido were devised hundreds of years ago. However, despite their age, their teachings are timeless, and applying the discipline and principles of warfare and bushido to modern life is not as difficult as it may initially seem. They may be old, but the virtues of bushido are still worth studying today.
The 8 Virtues of Bushido
Written in 1905 by Inazo Nitobe, the book Bushido, the Soul of Japan discusses the code of bushido, breaking it down into eight main virtues. The eight main virtues of bushido described by Nitobe are as follows:
Pretty straightforward, huh? These virtues seem extremely formal on paper, and following them sounds like a daunting task. In theory, however, all these should be easy to follow with practice. Let's break it down, starting from the top.
According to the samurai, Justice meant following the path or action one thinks is right without delay. Justice is considered one of the most vital virtues of bushido, and for an excellent reason: not being able to make decisions swiftly could lead to death on the battlefield.
Modern applications of justice:
Being indecisive is usually never a good thing to be. While it's understandable to have doubts about anything, deciding on a course of action and sticking through with it is the best way to live.
While one should not live stubbornly without being willing to change, being able to forge one's path in life without hesitation is critical to personal and professional success.
Take, for instance, deciding to speak with someone you have never talked to before. Having hesitation can lead to uncertainty, which can lead to missed opportunities. In this case, choosing to speak with the other person has the potential for numerous outcomes; none of these outcomes will happen if the speaker sits idly. Ignoring lingering doubts and anxiety and proceeding ahead is the best path forward in most situations. To quote the hockey player Wayne Gretzky: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."
In the professional field, examples of this are harder to come by. However, the business world often sees the general concept of acting quickly toward the right path. An example of this is solving time-sensitive workplace problems. Once a solution to an issue is identified, a good employee will assist one's co-worker or client without delay. Delaying a resolution will lead to time wasted and lead to frustration on the client's part. By not delaying, one has...
This ties in with the last virtue, as having courage is often needed when making quick decisions. Samurai tended to embody the essence of courage, as they often faced situations they did not want to be in. Having courage is easier said than done, though. To quote a famous line about courage by Confucius: "Perceiving what is right and doing it not reveals a lack of courage. Courage is doing what is right." In other words: courage is knowing what is right and acting upon it.
(Photo credit: biography.com)
Modern applications of courage:
Without bringing up any specific examples of contemporary sociopolitical issues, it's an undeniable fact there is much injustice in the world. Racism, as a broad example, is an issue that impacts virtually everyone. Many may never experience any first-hand encounters; for those who do, not intervening when injustice occurs before them shows a lack of courage and is a dishonorable act in general.
On a less social and more business-related example, having the courage to question the status quo is often needed for progress in any industry. If inventors did not dare to invent devices like the car, personal computers, the light bulb, and so on, what do you think the world would be like today? It may sound dramatic to say that courage is needed to create or change the world for the better; however, there was no real precedent for the previous inventions at the end of the day. Having the courage to invent when they may have had doubts or struggles has made our world a significantly better place to live. Having courage also helps with...
With their ability to take lives, samurai were expected to be as merciful as possible when situations called for it. Samurai considered being able to feel mercy, sympathy, and affection for others among the most substantial aspects of the human soul. For better or worse, humanity is capable of some horrifying things. Whether that includes torturing innocent civilians, killing millions through nuclear warfare, and more, humans have the potential to do good or evil.
Potential is a word with a lot of meaning behind it. Newton's Law of Motion states: an object at motion will stay in motion unless acted upon. People and their actions could largely fall into this same area. One of the most prominent traits that set humans apart from other animals is our ability to perform a wider variety of actions than any other creature. This is precisely why displaying benevolence and mercy is needed for humanity to survive and grow as a species.
Modern applications of benevolence:
Feeling bitter, jealous, angry, or other negative emotions toward other individuals is incredibly natural. Because of biological processes, it is tough not to instinctively feel this way when things are not going how we want them to. Across the world, there are countless examples of this; hearing about someone on the other side of the world starving to death and then reading how a wealthy socialite is making millions of dollars doing minimal work is an excellent example of worldly injustice. It is absurdly easy to lose one's calm and let rage take over the mind with plenty of similar instances.
By actively practicing benevolence in everyday life, it becomes easier to understand others and even the world on a larger scale. Going beyond an "us and them" mentality is crucial for developing a sense of mercy for people worldwide. Comprehending and sympathizing with an opposing person or group is key to ascending above typical behavior and becoming something much more significant than most people. If everyone could consistently practice benevolence, the world would undoubtedly be a more fair, manageable place to live.
Benevolence is also an excellent skill to possess in the professional world, specifically anything related to the service industry. As someone who has extensively worked in this field in the past, I can safely say this is not always an easy virtue to apply. However, in conjunction with the other principles of bushido, it is vital to maintain a sense of understanding of the other person's perspective and position.
While some customers or clients may have unreasonable demands and act furious, they have a problem that needs solving in virtually all cases like this. Their situation may not even be observable: there could be an underlying psychological issue, such as a traumatic event happening to them earlier that day. Understanding the underlying problem of a person's frustration is key to even being able to act benevolently. Once this is understood, one only needs to visualize themselves from the other person's perspective better understand their position. After doing so, it becomes much easier to practice benevolence in situations like this. That also helps make the following easier...
Samurai always practiced politeness as a sign of respect to those they spoke to. Politeness can be a tricky thing to achieve a delicate balance. On the one hand, not being polite enough can make one come across as rude. On the other hand, being too polite can come across as seeming insincere.
So how does one reach a delicate balance between the two? I think I have a solid answer: politeness should be sincere and not be displayed merely to put on airs. If one is polite through natural means, they need not fear any feeling of guilt or uncertainty when showing acts of politeness towards another.
One could argue that politeness with good intentions approaches love in its highest, most pure form. And without love, the truth cannot be seen. Being reasonably polite should be practiced in tandem with other virtues, especially benevolence and honesty.
Modern applications of politeness:
Understanding the deeper meaning of another person or group and their perspective is most of the battle to show an honest display of politeness. This is not to say that all people and (especially) groups deserve to be treated politely, as any display of hate, injustice, or whatnot by another group or person shouldn't be granted the same level of respect as one with good character. Politeness can be displayed most effectively by respectfully acknowledging the other side and demonstrating an understanding (or openness to attempting to understand).
In business, politeness and good overall business should go together. This combination should be common sense: unless they are a masochist, pretty much everyone will prefer to be treated respectfully during a business transaction. Nonetheless, it's still worth touching upon, as not every employee I've dealt with in my time has shown the level of respect I would have extended from their end. Now, it is plain to see that being polite is essential, but so is...
Being sincere and honest are necessary traits to survive and live an ethical life. Samurai lived by legitimate means, as they felt that not living honestly (specifically living overly-luxuriously) was the most significant threat to living a good, moral life. In news headlines, it is not uncommon for frequent instances of trust and betrayal among people and groups. One does not need to look exceptionally far to see cases of robberies and murders in a news publication. In many cases, it is clear that having a transparent, open discussion about points of concern between relevant parties could lead to more preferable outcomes.
To provide another broad example, politicians have a bad rep for dishonesty; ask a large group of people whether they trust politicians unconditionally, and you will likely get an overwhelming 'no' for your answer. While most politicians (especially local ones) are honest people who want the best for their environment, the stigma of dishonesty has impacted many individuals who only want what they feel is best for the world.
Being transparent whenever it does not endanger anything or anyone is an excellent trait. Not only does it provide the individual or group with a good image, but it also serves to build trust with others.
Modern applications of sincerity:
Here is a question: if you were locked in a room for an hour with someone, would you choose to be locked in with a known serial killer or a good friend? If you are not crazy, you will probably pick the latter. So why is that? You know your friend's character, and the serial killer could kill you. However, dig a little deeper, and it becomes evident that you also cannot trust the killer based on their past actions, even if they outright were to say they would not try to harm you.
This general principle applies in daily life, as well. Once a person's trust has been broken, it is often challenging to get back. How many cases of infidelity were the root cause of crimes like murder or assault? While there is no complete statistic for it, the number is likely incredibly high. Maintaining an honest, sincere image is critical for allowing people to put their trust in you rightfully.
No good business transaction should be conducted without trust between opposing parties. If one party is dishonest and discovers unethical behavior, the likelihood of repeat business between the two is doubtful. Good companies should exist to serve others and solve problems while also making money, not just to make money by any means necessary. To conduct business solely to make money means one does not have...
Honor is a word that is both a noun and a verb, meaning it can refer to a concept or an action. In the samurai's case, the idea of honor was a noun that referred to the code of conduct and respect they had for themselves and others. Samurai would act according to their virtues, following what they felt was the right course of action. Without a sense of honor, samurai would not have been as renowned for their contributions to feudal Japan and history.
Modern applications of honor:
Cheating others, stealing, killing, and so on are concepts the bulk of contemporary society universally agree upon as dishonorable. What constitutes honor is not always clear, however. In today's times, it is probably best to say that displaying a sense of honor is simultaneously following the law and one's own developed principles.
With social media influencers, celebrities, and various other influences (many with questionable beliefs and poor qualifications), people today have many figures to look up to and base their principles around. As a result, many more people have forgone seeking out developing individual regulations for themselves, leaving the concept of honor in a hazy, unclear place these days. It is hard to follow a code of honor if one has not discovered principles one can follow.
In contemporary times, with computer-related crimes and email scams on the rise, there has never been a better time to practice being an honorable person. In today's world, acts of honor often seem increasingly scarce with each passing day. Following a code of honor can lower the chances of causing disorder to the world and themselves.
In the business world, it is clear why businesses should conduct business honorably. Without honor, there comes dishonesty. With dishonesty comes a lack of trust from the opposing side. With a lack of trust comes a lack of...
For the samurai, having loyalty meant staying true to oneself and others (particularly their lord). Having loyalty wasn't always the easiest thing to do: samurai often had to fight in battles that could easily cost them their lives. Despite this, they persevered due to a sense of loyalty. Samurai saw cowardly behavior as a dishonorable action and one that no good samurai should ever display. Dogs, as an example, tend to have a great sense of loyalty to their owners; for this reason, and many others, dogs are such beloved animals.
(My dog, Lupin, is about as loyal as it gets!)
Modern applications of loyalty:
While it certainly is not advisable to fight a battle today for someone else when there is no chance of winning, there is still a lot to learn from the virtue of loyalty. To be loyal means to act upon the trust one has for another. To be devoted to one's friends and family means helping them when they need help and serving them to the best of one's ability. By not showing a sense of loyalty, one could argue another person is not giving their total effort to maintaining their relationships with others. By not giving their all, there is a high likelihood many of these relationships could disintegrate.
In short: not having a sense of loyalty to those around you could be detrimental in the long run due to other parties feeling a lack of effort given to their side. For these same reasons, businesses should do whatever they can to appreciate their employees and customers. By doing so, this shows a great deal of...
Self-control might be the most straightforward virtue here. Having a good sense of self-control means acting consistently, something samurai were masters of having. Without good character, the last seven virtues are impossible to follow. Good samurai could achieve what they sought in life and warfare by having strong character and maintaining control over their situations.
Modern applications of self-control:
It is easy to get irritated and snap at someone giving you a hard time. What is difficult is to control one's emotions and maintain a calm, consistent attitude in times of peril and frustration. Practicing staying calm under pressure is crucial to developing one's self-control. While the fight or flight response may kick in, your best bet in most situations is to neither fight nor run away but to take the middle path of standing firm and speaking calmly.
Focusing on the larger picture is critical; as stated earlier, an angry person is usually upset due to an issue, not a person in general. If this is so, there is no need to be stressed over matters that do not affect them. What they ought to do is focus on resolving the situation as effectively as possible. Suppose person A is upset at person B based on a personal characteristic or action. In that case, person B should try to accommodate person A as reasonably as possible. Now suppose an aspect is impossible or unreasonable to change. In that case, person B should not concern themselves with person A's demands and should do what they can to seek a compromise between them.
A business is only as good as its employees and customers. While most companies can't pick the exact people they serve, they can provide for their employees. Having employees with great character who can control themselves in various situations is one of the most powerful ways for organizations to succeed.
I am ending this post with a quote:
“When all is said and done, our lives are like houses built on foundations of sand. One strong wind and all is gone.”
(Photo credit: Scene from the film Hara-Kiri. Screenshot retrieved from Simbasible.)
Hara-Kiri is a fantastic film and one I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone even vaguely interested in good filmmaking. This line is stated by the film's protagonist, Hanshiro Tsugumo, to the Ii clan during his seppuku ritual. Hanshiro is saying that one single event, random or not, can lead to our deaths or downfall. The samurai, for this very reason, did not fear death.
To quote Yamamoto Tsunetomo in his classic book on bushido, Hagakure: "To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die in vain is a frivolity of wimpish samurai. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is no longer necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live, and in large part, we reason our way into clinging to life. Now, not pursuing our aim and continuing to live: that is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. But if you sacrifice everything to obtain your goal and die short of fulfilling it, you have nothing to be ashamed of."
Other cultures have (and have had) similar statements about life and death, such as carpe diem, memento mori, and, as a more contemporary example, YOLO. It has become a cliché, but you only have one individual life at this very moment. Barring all concepts of an afterlife, reincarnation, and so on, life is only a fleeting moment of a small handful of years in the massive scope of time and space.
While existential thought may lead an individual to think that there is no ultimate purpose to life, it's the moments inside these moments that genuinely define us as both a species and individuals. When we are long dead, the memories and actions that we created will continue. A man will live only once but die for a second and final time when his name and legacy are no longer spoken of. In many ways, these concepts and ideas are not unlike the teachings of bushido, which still live on hundreds of years since its inception.
· “Bushido's Eight Virtues.” Budō, 15 Apr. 2018, www.themartialway.com.au/bushidos-eight-virtues/#:~:text=The%20unwritten%20Samurai%20code%20of,warrior%20character%20of%20the%20Samurai.
· History.com Editors. Samurai and Bushido. 28 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/japan/samurai-and-bushido.
· Matsuyama, Hiroko, et al. Bushido: Origin and History of Samurai Code of Conduct. 21 Nov. 2019, www.patternz.jp/bushido-samurai-code/.
· McKay, Brett & Kate. “The Bushido Code: The Eight Virtues of the Samurai.” The Art of Manliness, 30 Sept. 2020, www.artofmanliness.com/articles/the-bushido-code-the-eight-virtues-of-the-samurai/.
· Szczepanski, Kallie. “Learn What Is Bushido, the Samurai Code.” ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bushido-195302#:~:text=The%20principles%20of%20bushido%20emphasized,knights%20followed%20in%20feudal%20Europe.
· Tsunetomo, Yamamoto. Hagakure. Random House Inc, 2014.