[Viewpoint] Bushido is bollocks

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[Viewpoint] Bushido is bollocks

British soldiers imprisoned in a Japanese P.O.W. camp in western Thailand during World War II are forced to construct a bridge in the David Lean’s 1957 film, “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

In the film, Japanese camp commandant colonel Saito threatens British prisoners with a machine gun to force them to obey his command. “What do you know of soldier’s code? Of Bushido? You are unworthy of command!” sneers Saito at the recalcitrant British soldiers.

An American major steps in to prevent Saito from shooting the men. “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” Saito reluctantly turns away.

Lean portrays Saito as an embodiment of the Bushido - the way of a Japanese warrior or samurai. The samurai or Bushido ethos upholds virtues like loyalty, respect, courage, honor, obedience, rectitude and piety. It is often romanticized as an example of Japanese uniqueness and traditional moral values.

But we must not be fooled by the glorification of the concept. There never was a mandated “samurai code of conduct” that Japanese warriors once followed in the feudal era. It is myth and over-dramatization. To be blunt, it is no more than a bluff.

The term Bushido was coined by Japanese author Inazo Nitobe, who studied in the United States and Germany and married to an American wife. Thanks to the immense popularity of his 1899 book “Bushido: the Soul of Japan,” his portrait once graced the 5,000-yen Japanese note.

He wrote in the introduction that he was motivated to write about the Japanese samurai tradition and concepts when he was asked how the Japanese teach morality in a country devoid of religious education.

He concluded that the samurai spirit - displayed in extreme self-denial and piety through performing the suicide ritual - was the essence of Japanese morality and its ethics code. If there was the concept of chivalry in the West, the Bushido ethos served as the bedrock of Japanese attitudes and actions.

But a closer look reveals a mixture of Western chivalry, noblesse oblige, diverse Asian and Confucius teachings as well as samurai practices from feudal days. It reflected more the author’s imaginative interpolation and artifact rather than a factual base.

If Bushido really existed, it could not have been formulated by a young man educated in English at Western schools long after the days of the samurai.

The book, first published in English, was an instant hit in the West. It was widely read by influential people, including U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, and many Westerners thought all Japanese practiced Bushido ideas and ways. The book was only translated into Japanese after it became a best-seller in the West.

What was idealized as the Japanese way was ironically a foreign import into Japan, but the concept enthralled the Japanese. They told themselves Bushido represented their innate spiritual heritage, feeding their pride and imperialistic fervor in the early 20th century. All Japanese know this, although they do not outright admit to it.

The Bushido legacy remains deeply rooted among today’s Japanese, especially among conservatives. The Bushido ethos is cited every time the country needs to hone its national pride and engage in self-indulgence. A defense official, when dispatching peacekeeping troops on overseas mission, calls upon them to demonstrate the “Bushido spirit.”

Nitobe in his book explains justice, or the fair play spirit, as the essence of the Bushido spirit. But the atrocities practiced during Japan’s military aggression in early 20th century by the followers of Bushido exposed how farcical and hollow the concept was in reality.

Today’s extreme right-wing population is no different. There are no traces of honor and benevolence among the old school members who stubbornly resist apologizing for the sufferings they inflicted upon fellow Asians because of their imperialistic ambitions.

Maybe it’s because there has never been a legacy of honesty and dignity among themselves.

Japanese conservatives are lashing out at their prime minister for apologizing to Koreans for the 35 years of colonial rule, which was timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the treaty of annexation treaty even as we Koreans are not fully satisfied with the apology. They claim that expressing any regret for conducting war amounts to self-denial.

The more that the Japanese are committed to the Bushido legacy, the more insular and unashamed they are of their history. They do not regret the invasions, but are sorry that they lost. They are not respectful warriors, but cunning cowards. A word of advice to the shallow followers of Bushido: throw the Nitobe book out the window if you don’t know its meaning.

*The writer is business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


By Nam Yoon-ho
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