Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Warrior Code of the Samurai

The samurai throughout Japanese history was trained to follow the will of their lord without thought. This was clearly demonstrated from a written commentary in the Hagakure, a written record of a military retainer from the 18th century. It warned the warrior to carry out every thought immediately, lest reasoning about it should make a coward of him.

When the third Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu consulted military retainers in charge of the warriors' formation in the Kii clan concerning the essence of successful strategy, their answer was one of pragmattic simplicity: "One should never ponder!" The decision, after all, had already been made elsewhere by others. Their task was to obey.

In order to enable the warrior to overcome any mental impasse due to man's natural fear of death, he had to be trained to think of himself as a man whose life was not his own. The samurai were often protrayed as a tragic figure caught in the web of a blind cult of death to which he adhered to faithfully. The Bushido, the famous code of the warrior, was indeed a code of death. Hence, the warrior was always prepared for a sudden and violent end. His whole life as a warrior in the service of a military leader was a constant reminder of this. A European visitor in the 16th century wrote "There is no nation in the world which fears death less."

This conditioning towards death began in childhood for the young samurai. They were exposed to harsh extremes and sent on difficult and dangerous errands. His fear of death and the supernatural was reduced by sending him to cemetaries and places of execution at night, even while very young. Physical pain had to be endured without betraying any emotion, and the young warrior's conditioning even included careful training to prepare him for the ceremony of suicide known as hara-kiri (abdomen cutting) or seppuku (a more refined term).


  1. I must admit I have a certain addiction for Samurai TV. In some aspects, it reminds me of American Westerns, sort of like the gunfight at OK corral.

    In particular, I enjoy the historical dramas of past Samurai warlords, generals and shoguns. It amazes me how quickly they are to kill somebody over the slightest perceived inconsideration or insult.

    At what point did the Samurai learn to think for himself? Was it hidden by the cunning Samurai who waited for his opportunity to rise in the ranks to a better position? Was the Samurai groomed? Or was there a grievance to be resolved?

  2. I love the samurai dramas also, especially those by the great director Akira Kurosawa. One of my favorite movies of all time is the Seven Samurai by Kurosawa. I highly, highly recommend it. It is great.

    I think there many different types of circumstances where a samurai finally thought independently. One of the most obvious was when they became a ronin, a masterless samurai. There were many reasons why they became a ronin.

    One of the most famous and greatest ronin in Japanese history was Sakamoto Ryomo. He was a primary figure in the 1860s and helped bring down the Tokugawa Shogun and helped restore the emperor to power. He had extremely modern and progressive ideas about democracy and freedom.

    Here is a link to a post I did about Ryoma: