Bushidō and the Legacy of “Samurai Values” in Contemporary Japan

  • Andrew HORVAT Josai International University
Keywords: bushidō, ethics, Nitobe, journalism, education

Abstract

Though difficult to define as a clear set of moral precepts, aspects of so-called “samurai values”, the combination of orally-transmitted Confucian and Buddhist lore to which Nitobe Inazō refers in his Bushido, can clearly be discerned in Japanese society today. As evidence for the influence of “samurai values”, I have provided examples from two fields with which I am personally familiar: journalism and education. Although in recent years several academic works have exposed historical anomalies in widely-held beliefs about actual samurai behaviour, I argue that the effectiveness of ideologies does not depend on historical accuracy. For example, justification for the right of newspapers to criticise governments in Japan does not stem from inalienable rights originating with European Enlightenment philosophers. Instead, it is linked to the view that the former samurai who in the 1870s became Japan’s first news reporters could be trusted intermediaries between the government and the people, because as samurai they possessed higher standards of morality. That expectations of superior moral conduct continue to justify in the eyes of the general public the right of newspapers to speak truth to power can be seen by mass cancellations of subscriptions of newspapers whose staff betray these expectations through involvement in scandal. Likewise, the emphasis on “character building” (jinkaku keisei) in Japanese higher education is another link to perceived “samurai values.” Some of Japan’s leading private universities were founded in the late nineteenth century by former samurai. As in the case of journalism, the maintenance of superior moral conduct helps strengthen the claim to legitimacy of educational institutions in Japan. Finally, I will present a picture of Nitobe as an example of a former samurai who long after his passing continues to be revered for having adhered to the “samurai values” he both defined and embraced.

Author Biography

Andrew HORVAT, Josai International University

Visiting Professor, Faculty of International Humanities

Published
2018-06-29
How to Cite
HORVAT, A. (2018). Bushidō and the Legacy of “Samurai Values” in Contemporary Japan. Asian Studies, 6(2), 189-208. https://doi.org/10.4312/as.2018.6.2.189-208
Section
Modern Transformations