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Bushido and the Warrior Arts

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A Bushido Warrior


The term Bushido, literally translated as 'the way of the warrior', is first found used to describe the samurai code of ethics in the 17th Century, in the writings of the neo-Confucianist, Yamaga Soko. The principles of Bushido derive from the earlier Kyuba no michi (Way of Horse and Bow), an unwritten, informal warrior code developed in Japan, and itself based on Chinese martial doctrines. In addition, elements of Bushido can be traced back to Buddhist, Zen and Confucianist principles, and to the insular Shinto religion.

Bushido is often associated with the concept of knightly chivalry in Europe, and certainly there are similarities. Both are codes governing groups of dedicated fighting men, with an emphasis on duty, respect, honour and etiquette. There are also distinct differences however, and it is unlikely that a Norman baron and an Okinawan samurai would have seen eye to eye on the subject of honour. Notably, Bushido has little time for romance, and its emphasis on duty makes chivalry look decidedly wishy-washy. However, the codes do have one major factor in common; both were only formalised after the period in which those who supposedly followed them had their heyday.

Buke Sho Hatto

The great flowering of Bushido came in the Edo period - in a time of relative peace - not only in Yamaga Soko's writings, but also in the Buke Sho Hatto of Tokugawa Ieyasu. This piece of legislation is widely regarded as the earliest written formulation of Bushido, albeit it does not call it by that name. The Buke Sho Hatto, or 'Rules for Martial Families', laid down strict codes, governing the behaviour of the samurai clans in times of peace. While it does formalise elements of the code of warfare, its primary purpose was to create a new focus for the samurai, thus reducing the chances of a rebellion against the newly formed Tokugawa bakufu.

The Buke Sho Hatto required the samurai to devote themselves to philosophical pursuits, and to a life of training and intense discipline, so as to refine and preserve the arts of war through times of peace. The Buke Sho Hatto created the classical samurai. Its rules laid the foundations for the creation of new schools of bujutsu - the arts of war - and for the philosophical and literary advances of the Edo period. More importantly, it urged the samurai in peacetime to be something other than an unemployed warrior, itching for a war which would allow him to do the only thing he did well.

Some Tenets of Bushido

While the Buke Sho Hatto is the first, it is not the only source for the code of Bushido; nor is there such a thing as the definitive source. Other important writings include Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure ('Hidden Beneath the Leaves'), written circa 1716, and the writings of Miyamoto Musashi in the mid-17th Century. It is not possible to discuss the tenets of Bushido, because they do not exist. Bushido was evolved over several centuries, from its origins in Kyuba no michi, through Buke Sho Hatto and beyond. What are presented here, then, are a number of principles which were important to one or more Bushido writers down the years.

Duty was almost always seen as the keystone of the samurai code. It was paramount in a way that few Western cultures could rival, or even completely understand. From Buddhism, Bushido took the notion of 'freedom from fear', that a warrior must strip himself of all fear of death, pain or defeat in order to serve his master loyally and without regard for himself. The devotion of the samurai also relates to sutemi, an enduring, insular Japanese ethos of self-sacrifice in the service of a greater cause. Samurai meant 'one who serves', and a good samurai was expected to set aside personal concerns in the service of his master.

Indeed, a samurai was only really a samurai so long as he was in service. Without a master, without duty and devotion, he was just a wandering swordsman, a ronin ('wave man'); for all his skill, little more than a vagabond. It was partly the fear of ronin which prompted Ieyasu Tokugawa to write Buke Sho Hatto; they caused considerable trouble in the peaceful Edo period.

All forms of loyalty and patriotism were encouraged. From Shinto, national pride; from Confucianism, an emphasis on personal relationships, not only between daimyo and samurai, but between family members and friends. Another principle which impacted on all relationships was the maintenance of correct etiquette and propriety. All relations - externally at least - were governed by strict, formal rules. The ideal samurai was a rock for all his relatives and comrades to lean on, and a stalwart foe of those who would threaten Japan or the daimyo. He observed an absolute dignity, propriety and formality in all public relations, and in the end his absolute devotion could belong only to his master, above even the law.

A samurai was also supposed to be magnanimous and generous, to aid and protect those beneath him, and to seek internal focus, and self-knowledge. He was supposed to be respectful before all, to seek knowledge and wisdom in all things, to be compassionate and truthful, to care for the aged and infirm. Far from these being a goal merely to aim for, the samurai was supposed to make himself a paragon, a figure for those of lesser class to look upon in wonder and reverence; a superior man through superior living, exemplifying all virtue in himself.

This superiority was taken further by the Hagakure, which prompted samurai to devote himself to activities beyond the level of the common man. Here Bushido intersects with the feudal system, solidifying the class divide between the warrior and the peasants and merchants.


The principles of loyalty and sutemi combined produce the phenomenon of seppuku; ritual suicide. Seppuku is a natural result of the principles and influences of Bushido, because as well as a way of living, Bushido was a way of dying. The samurai who lived by Bushido did not fear death, and was supposed to die for his master if necessary. He was also expected to maintain dignity and propriety, and his performance in all things would be seen as a measure of his master, his ancestors and his family. Thus, a samurai's disgrace harmed far more people than merely the samurai, and seppuku was not a coward's flight from responsibility, but a shouldering of your own failure to spare those close to you.

The classic method of seppuku was hara-kiri (literally, belly-cutting). The samurai would take his shoto - the shorter of his two swords - and draw it across his abdomen, disembowelling himself. A second - usually a friend, comrade or retainer, would stand behind the samurai as he did this, and decapitate him with his daito (long sword). Seppuku was traditionally practised only to avoid great disgrace, to atone for the failure to protect one's lord from death (suicide on the death of a samurai's lord was also called junshi) or as the ultimate form of protest against a superior's error. In the latter case, disobedience to your superior would not be an option, because loyalty and obedience were so firmly ingrained in Bushido. By committing seppuku, the samurai showed that he believed death to be preferable to following the superior's orders. A samurai could also be ordered to commit seppuku as a death sentence.

The 47 Ronin

The story of the 47 Ronin is the classic Bushido morality play. The original events take place in the early 18th Century, and the first written version is in the form of a puppet play from 1748. The tale was later adapted for kabuki theatre and television. It is one of Japan's most celebrated stories, and demonstrates the power and harshness of formal Bushido.

The tale is set in the relative peace of the Edo period, and tells of a young daimyo named Naganori Asano-Takuminokami. Asano and another young lord were given the honour of arranging a reception for the Imperial envoys to the Tokugawa Shogun's court at Edo, and an official named Kira was assigned to assist them. Kira however took a dislike against Asano, whom he thought to be disrespectful, and he took every opportunity to abuse and humiliate the younger man. Finally, Asano lost his temper with Kira, drew his sword and struck the old man. Kira was not seriously wounded, but in punishment for such a breach of protocol in the castle of the Shogun himself - where by simply drawing his sword, Asano had committed a capital crime - Asano was sentenced to death by seppuku.

While Asano's punishment was suited to his offence, his followers were angered that Kira bore no blame, and suffered no punishment for his part in these events. Moreover, as Asano's lands and properties became forfeit to the Shogun, his 321 samurai retainers became masterless; ronin. Of these, 60 held to their loyalty to Asano, and plotted revenge against Kira. They waited ten years for Kira to feel secure, and at last 47 of them stormed Kira's mansion on a winter's night. They are said to have defeated Kira's retainers without losses, although outnumbered.

Kira was offered a chance to commit suicide, and when he refused he was beheaded. The 47 then took his head to Asano's grave, so that their lord would know he was avenged. In punishment for the actions, the Shogun ordered 46 of the ronin to commit seppuku, sparing the youngest in recognition of their devotion and bravery. The 46 obeyed, slaying themselves simultaneously, and were buried alongside their master.

Ninhoto and Kenjutsu - Swords and Swordsmanship

The sword has always been one of the most evocative of all weapons, and the blades of the samurai are among the most famous of all. Noted for the supreme skill displayed in their manufacture, samurai swords have long been considered among the finest weapons ever made1.

Sword Development

The first Japanese swords were imported from China and Korea around 200 BC. Known as ken, these blades were straight, single-handed weapons, a style which persisted through the Nara and into the Heian period. In the mid-Heian period however, the Japanese swordsmiths began to remove themselves from strict continental influence, marking the beginning of the Koto (old sword) period. During this time, legend places the creation of the first curved, single-edged sword with the smith Amakuni Yasutsuna.

The curved sword was faster to draw from its scabbard, and also provided a more effective cutting angle, and this design became the standard in Japanese swordsmithing. The earliest Japanese curved blades were called tachi. They were often very long, some up to four feet, and deeply curved. They were intended mostly for use from horseback in pitched battle. The sword was worn edge down in a hanger attached to the warrior's armour or to a sword belt, and in fact the strict usage of tachi also describes any long blade worn in this way.

In the later part of the Heian period, the swords began to be made with a less marked curve. Also, shorter blades, between two and four feet, were forged, as the use of the sword changed. The heavy blades of the early tachi were superb horseback weapons, but increasingly samurai were using their swords in personal duels, and the sword was also becoming used as a footman's battle weapon. These shorter blades were easier to control, and less cumbersome for a warrior on foot to use and carry. These later blades also used the hand-and-a-half grip2 familiar on the classic samurai sword. The footman's blade was carried in the obi (belt), with the cutting edge up. This method of carriage, and the associated sword and scabbard fittings and mounts, was called buke-zukuri, uchigatana, or katana, and the latter word has become synonymous with these blades, and with samurai swords in general.

The swords crafted in the latter part of the Koto sword period (mid-to-late 16th Century, just prior to the arrival of the first European guns) are commonly held to be the finest examples of the art. The Koto period was followed by the Shinto (new sword) period, which saw a decline in the deep-curved blade, and in the tachi sword mount. The exception to this rule was the nodachi, a largely ceremonial blade carried by high officials. The nodachi was a huge, two-handed sword, with a deeply curved blade, well over five feet long. Its practicality is questionable, but it would certainly have been an intimidating weapon.

After the Shinto come the Shinshinto (new, new sword) and Gendai (modern) periods. Finally, any blade manufactured after WWII is part of the Shinsaku period. Sword-making techniques have changed little in this time, but it is generally considered that the late Koto blades have never been rivalled. In the later sword periods, style was often more important than function, and the art of the tsuba, or sword guard, developed.

The Daisho

Daisho refers to a paired set of long and short swords, worn in matching mounts. The mounts were of the katana style, but the daito (long blade) could be of the katana or the more curved tachi type. The wearing of the daisho was the privilege of the samurai and daimyo classes, but the shoto (short sword) could be worn by a merchant or bureaucrat. Consequently, there are many more examples of the shoto, also called the wakizashi, than of the daito. Additionally, the daisho might be complemented by a tanto - a short fighting dagger with a slightly-curved blade - in a similar scabbard.

Kenjutsu - the Sword Art

As with the making of swords, the use of swords was a highly developed art in samurai Japan. Unlike the medieval European art of fencing, kenjutsu put little faith in defence. First developed in the battlefield of the 11th Century, it was a brutal style, emphasising aggression, and powerful, high-commitment attacks. Its practice in earnest was all-out, with the simple goal of killing your opponent before he killed you; you did not block his attacks, you just killed him before he could strike. Despite the ferocity of the basic philosophy of kenjutsu however, it possessed a strong, spiritual element, and its savagery was delivered in a refined and graceful fashion. Kendo (the sword way), a modern sport which developed from a more philosophical offshoot of kenjutsu, awards points for the emotional intensity of an attack, as well as the skill in its execution.

Kenjutsu is taught through a series of kata, set patterns of sword and body movements which the student must learn to perform by heart. While in battle the swordsman would probably not be supposed to follow the kata precisely, they give to the art a fluidity and defined structure. The kata include no formal defensive elements, so parries are largely a matter of reaction and improvisation. An interesting feature of much kenjutsu is that parries would be taken on the back of the sword, instead of on the hard, but brittle cutting edge.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries, rival schools of swordsmanship, each with its own methods and kata, emerged. Much of kenjutsu was preserved throughout the peaceful Edo period through the tenets of the Buke Sho Hatto, and its insistence on continual practice of the warrior arts. One of the schools developed in the Edo period was Niten Ichi-Ryu (two swords integrated as one school), a technique created by the master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, in which the warrior wielded not one, but two daito; one in each hand.

Regardless of the school, all kenjutsu (and kendo) kata begin and end with the sword held drawn before the warrior. An adjunct to the art, and indeed an art in its own right, was iai-jutsu, the art of the draw. Iai-jutsu kata all begin, and end, with the daito scabbarded. Correctly performed, an iai-jutsu kata encompasses the drawing of the blade, a killing stroke, a motion to flick the blood from the edge of the blade, and the return of the blade to its scabbard, in one, fluid movement. Like kenjutsu, iai-jutsu had its more philosophical side in iaido.

Other Weapons

While it is the sword that is most often associated with the samurai, this was not by any means the only weapon used in feudal Japan. Bujutsu was a general term for the martial arts, and a wide array of weapons all had their own styles and arts.

Jo-jutsu was the art of fighting with the staff, and included the use of polearms and spears, as well as an array of basic staff weapons. The daijo, or bo, was a long staff, 5' to 6' long, while the chujo (medium staff) was nearer to 4'. Both were used with both hands. The shojo or hanbo were short staffs, often used in pairs. The yari was a Japanese fighting spear, designed to thrust and slash, rather than for throwing.

The naginata was a polearm which mounted a sword-type blade on a long wooden shaft. It was of considerable use to footmen fighting against cavalry, and was also used by women of the samurai class. While there were few actual warrior-women known historically, a samurai's wife would be expected to defend her home, even if she did not participate in open warfare. The naginata would allow a woman to keep a heavier male opponent at a distance, where her speed and skill could not be overwhelmed by superior strength and weight. Another polearm was the nagamaki, which had a shorter staff than the naginata, but a longer, heavier blade.

The term mi-jikai-mono is usually translated as 'short arms', and is used to refer to an array of exotic weapons.

  • The tessen, or war fan, is similar to an ordinary folding fan, but made from iron slats. It was used by samurai as a means of signalling in battle, and when closed could be used as a weapon. It could be opened and closed to present a distraction to a foe, or used to strike or block, and was sometimes used by samurai when duelling opponents deemed not worthy of the sword. A tessen would be carried tucked in the obi alongside the daito.

  • The jutte was an iron truncheon used by the doshin (samurai officers in the police force), as well as by their non-samurai assistants. It was thought to descend from the hachiwari (helmet splitter), a battlefield weapon designed by the master swordsmith Goro Nyudo Masamune, and was simply an iron baton with a hook on one side for catching an opponent's weapon. Although simple in design, in use it had masters, like any weapon; Munisai Hirato, father of the legendary Miyamoto Musashi, was an expert in jutte-jutsu.

  • The manrikigusari was a weighted chain, 2' to 3' long and used to entangle an opponent or his weapon. It was supposedly designed by Dannoshin Toshimitsu Masaki, the chief sentry at Edo castle c.1700, as a way to subdue intruders without unnecessary bloodshed.

  • The kusari-gama consisted of a weighted chain attached to the base of a sickle (kama). The chain was used much like the manrikigusari to entangle an opponent, who could then easily be struck with the kama.

  • The shakuhachi was a simple bamboo flute. When made from the root of the bamboo grass instead of the shoots, it was heavy and strong enough to make an effective club, and was favoured by the komuso. These were ronin of the 16th Century onwards, who chose to live as mendicant preachers of a doctrine of emptiness. As they were no longer samurai these komuso - who were distinguished by the baskets which they wore over their heads to symbolise their isolation from the world - were not permitted to bear swords, and so they used the shakuhachi instead. It is said that they obtained the sole right to play the instrument in exchange for keeping a watch on the other ronin for the Shogun.

  • The kansashi was a woman's hairpin, used as a weapon of last resort by samurai women.


The o-yoroi (great armour) was the classic samurai armour, coming into use around the 9th Century and replacing the keiko. It was a multi-piece, scaled metal armour that protected three sides of the body, with a metal plate on the left. The right side would be left relatively exposed. The o-yoroi offered formidable protection, but was heavy and relatively inflexible. From the 13th Century, a much lighter form of armour called the do-maru came into use, and by the mid-14th Century it had become the prevalent armour among the samurai.

The final change in samurai armour was a return to the armoured cuirass seen in the tanko, as a form of protection against early firearms in the 16th Century. With the advent of firearms however, armour had become more or less redundant.

1While the best samurai swords are certainly weapons of tremendous beauty and functionality, it bears stating that modern archaeological evidence has shown that Occidental sword-crafting techniques have long been underrated, and moreover that the apex of the Japanese swordsmith's art - as the heyday of the samurai - occurred at a time when the skills of western weaponsmiths were turning towards a new direction: guns2A long grip to be used either one- or two-handed.

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