Bushido: The Way of the Warrior

 Bushido: The Way of the Warrior

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Above all else, bushido was the principle of a service relationship between samurai and master. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)


We have been taught by pop culture to view the samurai through a romantic lens, often with the association of a certain code of ethics by which the samurai lived. We’ve come to know this as Bushido “the way of the warrior.”

The Last Samurai played a major role in popularizing the samurai culture, particularly the principles of bushido, which were a major theme through out the movie.

Perhaps the best known example of this depiction can be found in the American film industry particularly with regards to the movie The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. In the film, Tom adopts the role of sudo-pupil to Ken who plays the role of a local daimyo. One of the more powerful scenes takes place during Tom’s character development into the Samurai culture. Tom and Ken stand in the garden and exchange thoughts regarding life and death, killing and sacrifice. Ken explains that, “there is life in every breath. That is bushido. The way of the samurai.” The film uses this concept to illustrate the samurai culture which is otherwise completely foreign to us. The mode of this culture encapsulates the ideas of honor as a code of being and the right to a beautiful death as the fulfillment of that honor.



Inazo Nitobe, author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan.

In reality, “bushido” never actually existed in Japanese vernacular until 1905, making it to new a word to be accurately used in the movie which takes place in 1876-77. However, this does not mean the concept never existed during the time of samurai rule in Japan. The offical term bushido was coined when Japanese author Inazo Nitobe wrote the book, later to be regarded as a classic, Bushido: The Soul of Japan in English in the year dated above. It is important to understand that Nitobe is writing post Meiji Restoration after the dissolution of the samurai. His words were more a romantic dramatization of samurai customs, perhaps to appeal to newly allied western powers. (Turnbull, 153-155)

Nitobe does in fact capture elements of samurai ethics in his book. “Samurai” means those who serve the nobility. Their existence revolves around the idea of service to their daimyo, thus their code of ethics developed around that very relationship. Nitobe identifies seven values of the samurai that allowed them to properly serve: justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity, honor, and loyalty. (Turnbull, 155) Torii Mototada’s last letter to his son illustrates the application of a samurai’s devotion to his ethics when describing his thoughts on the inevitability of having to defend Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Fushimi castle with force.

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Death became a large theme of bushido. Samurai learned rather to welcome it than to fear it in order to serve their masters to the best of their abilities. Death in battle, particularly a ‘beautiful death’ was honored among the samurai. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

For myself, I am resolved to make a stand inside the castle, and to die a quick death. It would not be difficult to break through the enemy and escape… But that is not the true meaning of being a warrior, and it would be difficult to account as loyalty… to show one’s enemy one’s weakness is not within the family traditions of my master Ieyasu. It is not the way of the warrior to be shamed and avoid death even under circumstances that are not particularly important. It goes without saying that to sacrifice one’s life for one’s master is an unchanging principle. (Turnbull, 156-157) (Wilson, 121-122)




There are two major themes of The Last Samurai that should be addressed: resistance towards westernization and honor in death. We know the plot to the movie follows that Katsumoto resists westernization and ends up fighting the government until death. We also have seen that in battle death was preferred to evasion, but how about suicide as the film depicts being a central part of honor? These themes seem to be directly inspired by the Satsuma rebellion in 1877 where Kyushu samurai revolted against the evolving Japanese government.

The film, taking place in 1877, portrays the story of Katsumoto’s resistance to Japan’s westernization. Certain scenes depict the presence of power lines in Tokyo as well as western fashions of clothing. These images contrasted Katsumoto and his men who were chastised in the streets for wearing traditional vestments. Katsumoto was arrested for refusing to relinquish his swords as new law mandated while his men had their swords forcibly taken and their chonmage (traditional samurai haircut) cut from their head. The movie climaxes with the battle between Katsumoto’s army, who fought with traditional premodern weapons and tactics, and the imperial army who employed guns and cannons supplied by the U.S. Katsumoto, having suffered mortal wounds at his defeat, takes his own life by thrusting his wakizashi in his stomach and spilling his guts. Suicide seems to be a prevailing theme throughout the film as a method of dealing with the shame of defeat.

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Matsunaga Hisahide prepares himself for ritualistic suicide known as seppuku, in which he slashes his stomach with his tanto, spilling his entrails into a dish before him. This often was seen as an honorable way of controlling your own fate in the face of a shameful defeat. In Hisahide’s case, the loss of his castle. (Turnbull, The Samurai and the Sacred)

In 1877, after the Meiji restoration and the fall of the samurai ruled feudal system, samurai of Kyushu formed the League of the Divine Wind in opposition to the western influences permeating Japan at the time. They felt defiled by the presence of what symbolized western society: power lines, modern clothes. When the samurai custom of carrying swords was outlawed, the Kyushu samurai attacked the imperial garrison. This came to be known as the Satsuma Rebellion. With the refusal to fight using modern weapons, the rebellion was futile and the Kyushu samurai were cut down. The surviving members of the League of the Divine Wind committed suicide in the face of shame as the last embodiment of traditional Japanese spirit had been terminated.(Turnbull, The Samurai Tradition,  303) This clear parallel demonstrates the degree to which samurai valued their traditional ways, including the acceptance of death.





Martial Arts and the Tools of War

Suggested Readings

Turnbull, Stephen R. The Samurai and the Sacred. Oxford: Osprey, 2006. Print.

Turnbull, Stephen R., ed. The Samurai Tradition. Vol. 2. Tokyo: Edition Synapse, 2000. Print.

Wilson, William Scott, and Gregory Lee. Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors. Burbank, CA: Ohara Publications, 1982.