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The Bushido Code: An Overview

Bushido, which means "way of the warrior," refers to a complex set of Japanese values stressing honor and loyalty to country and family above all else. These values began to develop very informally as early as the ninth century among the samurai warrior class, as various ideas circulated about the characteristics of an ideal warrior.

Having evolved over many centuries, these warrior values began to become more standardized as a code during the Tokugawa Shogunate, an era of samurai rule in Japan that began at the turn of the 17th century. In the late 1860s, civil war ended the nearly 300-year shogunate, bringing about the Meiji imperial restoration and a new era of modernization. Yet the deep-rooted influence of Bushido on Japanese culture persisted.

A principal value running Bushido was a strict hierarchy that emphasized obedience to authority. It called for warriors to fight to the death in battle to preserve the honor of their family or overlord, and in the face of imminent failure or disgrace, ritualistic suicide (seppuku) was required.

Off the battlefield, Bushido required warriors to exhibit a strict sense of honor and self-control at all times. They were to maintain a benevolent yet detached attitude toward life; caring for the earth and other people without developing passions that could cloud their judgment. This ethos bears deep traces of dominant religious ideas of the time, including Confucian ideals of proper social relations and Zen-Buddhist teachings about meditation and reincarnation.

Over time, the basic tenets of Bushido have been variously altered, transposed, and recycled within Japanese society, but a general emphasis on loyalty to country and family, and a downplaying of individualism have remained characteristic.

In the 20th century, Bushido concepts were expressed both through the educational system and by propagandists to fuel Japanese nationalism, as the country pursued its international ambitions and also grappled with the powerful forces of Western individualism. With its endorsement of sacrificial death, Bushido also worked as a motivation for Japanese pilots to take on kamikaze missions during World War II.

What influence the Bushido code may have had on Chiune Sugihara, whose mother came from a long line of samurai, is difficult to determine. Certainly, his decision to issue unauthorized visas to Jewish refugees in Lithuania in 1940 embodied the sort of noble altruism that Bushido espouses. Yet many of Sugihara's major choices in life — such as defying his father's wish that he study medicine, and his disobedience of government authority in writing the visas — indicate an individualistic streak that could be seen as running contrary to traditional Bushido ideals. Sugihara's adult conversion to Christianity is a further suggestion that Bushido did not constitute his primary set of motivating values.


> Also see the transcript of an interview with historian Carol Gluck for her perspective on the relevance or irrelevance of Bushido to Chiune Sugihara.