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Japan Table of Contents




Japanese marines and armored cars, Shanghai, 1937
Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Bushido Code

Japanese aversion for things military is of recent origin. For centuries before 1945, military men and a strong martial tradition exerted a powerful and, at times, dominant influence on national life. Although the development of a modern army and navy came only during the Meiji period (1868-1912), reverence for the art of war and its practitioners had long been characteristic of Japanese society.

In the middle of the seventh century, under the Taika Reform, the Yamato court used military forces, conscripted from the peasants and led by court-appointed aristocrats, to extend its realm and maintain order (see Early Developments , ch. 1). Military leaders initially were loyal to the emperors, but with the rise of the great private estates, or shoen, in the mid-eighth century, imperial control waned (see Nara and Heian Periods, A.D. 710-1185 , ch. 1). National conscription was abandoned in A.D. 792. Decreased imperial authority gave rise to chaotic conditions and lawlessness in the countryside. Provincial officials and shoen holders used local militias, civil officials under arms, and soldiers of the shoen holders to secure their land and compete for power.

By the mid-twelfth century, these local armed forces had developed into a distinct warrior class (bushi, or samurai), completely overshadowing the military strength of the imperial government. Empowered by a nationwide, feudal, military dictatorship, the chief national figure, the shogun, ruled in the name of a figurehead emperor. By the end of the sixteenth century, samurai dominated the social and political hierarchy that existed under the shogun and developed into a hereditary elite. After 1603 they alone were granted the right to bear the sword, which subsequently became the symbol of their superior status. During the sixteenth century, a wide variety of firearms also was introduced from Europe and was used quite effectively, particularly against some of the outer daimyo, or feudal lords.

In time, a customary ethical code, bushido (see Glossary), was developed. According to this doctrine, the samurai was bound to accept death in battle rather than flee or surrender and, if he saw corruption or disloyalty in another, was expected to slay the guilty party and then commit seppuku (see Glossary), lest his honorable intentions be questioned. As an ideal of conduct, the code emphasized personal honesty, reverence and respect for parents, willingness to sacrifice oneself for family honor, consideration for the feelings of others, indifference to pain, loyalty to one's superiors, and unquestioning obedience to duty in the face of any hardship or danger. Notwithstanding a reality that often fell short of the ideal, bushido had a profound and lasting impact on the nation. Its effects were still seen in the conduct of battle in World War II. Banzai (a rallying cry meaning ten thousand years) charges against stronger enemy forces and the tenacity of resistance under severe duress testified to the strength and persistence of the samurai tradition.

Data as of January 1994