What is Bushido?

By Tatsuhiko Konno

Bushido is often said to be fighting with real swords, or bushi no tamashii, the soul of the samurai, the Japanese sword.­ In Japan after the Pacific War, The Act for Controlling the Possession of Firearms or Swords and Other Such Weapons was enacted, and the acquisition of a special certificate for each sword became mandatory. As a result, unfortunately, a majority of the Japanese people think possessing a Japanese sword is doing something bad. Among the younger generation, few of them have seen real swords and almost no one has actually touched the sword by hand. The words Bushido, soul of Japan, or Japanese swords, are about to be forgotten. That being said, it has been estimated that about two million swords currently exist in Japan, and about a half million swords are outside of Japan. The sword prohibition, the Hatorei, was announced right after the Meiji Restoration, and approximately one fifth of swords became useless and were shipped to Europe and America. After the Pacific War, the occupation army showed great respect to the swords, which had been abandoned by Japanese, and took them back to their home countries to represent “soul of the samurai” and as “Japanese arts and crafts.”

Inazo Nitobe, an educator in the Meiji period, wrote the famous book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which later helped Europeans and Americans to understand the Japanese mind. It is very interesting to know that corruption and crime were extremely rare in Japan during the mature period of Bushido at that time since the Tokugawa regime started three hundred years before.

During the Edo period governed by the Tokugawa regime, there was a tsuba (sword guard) crafter named Yasuchika Tsuchiya, who impressively designed a huge elephant in the tiny universe of a three inch diameter sword guard. Another of his creations of the samurai world was a tsuba with a daring design of the Japanese word Katsujinken (life-giving sword) on the front and Satsuninto (death-dealing sword) on the back. I think he was saying the essential point of Bushido is nothing but to act for the better good. Bushi (samurai) in those days spontaneously practiced self-discipline. For example, we may consider hara-kiri a brutal suicide, but the bushi considered it a responsible action to prove his innocence (purity). Bushi were in a position of judging others as well as being judged at the same time. I believe this internal idea has developed self-discipline, honesty, and on their extension, Japanese sentimental appreciation of wabi and sabi.

You may be surprised to hear that many Japanese daily phrases are related to Japanese swords. Some examples are Motono sayani osamaru (Old love is renewed again), Futokoro gatana (right-hand man), Tsuke yakiba (pretension), Seppa tsumaru (be driven into a corner), Shinogi o kezuru (fight bitterly), Menuki dori (principal street), Tsuba zeriai (keen competition), and so on. Seppa, for example, is a set of two thin oval-shape metal plates which are placed on either side of the tsuba. Those seppa get compressed by tsuba, tsuka (sword handle), and saya (scabbard), and they cannot make any movement. The expression of Seppa tsumaru was made from this situation.

Another expression Shinogi o kezuru is very familiar to me, since my business is Japanese sword polishing and appraisal. I’d like to give some professional explanation to this expression. When samurai fought with swords, the ridge on the sides of the sword blade, called shinogi, was used to receive an enemy’s attack. Shinogi was also used to slide up the enemy’s blade to strike back. If they did it with the sharp edge instead, the blade would be damaged (hakobore), and wouldn’t cut the enemy. Still, during the battle shinogi often got shaved off, and the sharp edge was also damaged. When that happened, both sides of the sword blade needed to be shaved off by hand polishing in order to recreate the ridge. This repair was performed by a professional sword polisher, and it was a very labor intensive and time consuming work.

When you practice kendo kata, a set of kendo forms, a higher rank person usually acts as a teacher (uchidachi), and a lower rank person becomes a student (shidachi). The teacher initiates an action, and makes a first cut while the student responds to it and strikes back. The teacher gives his student to chance to attack and intentionally loses in those forms so that his student can develop techniques. For example, someone who had achieved eighth-dan Hanshi, the highest rank in modern kendo, realized that when he was a younger student he mistakenly believed he could take certain strikes from his teacher. He has reached the same level as his teacher, and he has now learned the art of “losing” to his students. Among many Japanese martial arts (budo), especially in kendo, a teacher plays a losing role. You can learn the teacher’s severe but affectionate thoughts toward his students in those Bushido trainings.

A Japanese sword was a symbol of authority as the soul of the samurai. If the samurai treated a sword simply as a weapon, it would have vanished upon arrival of guns, however, it was quite the opposite. Some people think the sword was an essential spiritual support for samurai. Others think the samurai’s unique perspective to shame might have made them remorseful using fire arms, but it has proved that the Bushido had established the idea of fighting honorably with swords.

One thousand years ago a high level polish was applied to Japanese swords and they were already presenting their beauty. They had transformed from practical use to art. One of the three sacred treasures in Japan is a sword called Kusanagi no tsurugi. Military commanders in different eras looked for good swords. Art and craft was condensed into the Japanese swords. Western swords have been mainly decorated outside with jewels. Japan didn’t produce many jewels. Instead they polished the sword blades themselves to be like diamonds and created reflections of seven colors of diamond. Various designs, such as high wave with jewel (Toran), three cedar trees (Sanbonsugi), and gold streams (Kinsuji), were created on the edges of blades through the process of tempering.

The solidity and depth of the Japanese sword should appeal to your eyes as the inherent crystalline structure of the steel blade reflects the light. I imagine the Samurai might have been enjoying the world of beauty in which reflecting themselves on the blade in the same fashion as the swords get polished to become compassionate to others and themselves, and make their minds keen. I believe Bushido’s eternal spirit is a world heritage, and I hope it will succeed and broadly spread to the next generations. Bushido is Katsujinken, to give life to people.