|Left: Emperor Taisho in the regalia of the Order of the Garter. Right: mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.|
Today marks 75 years when the United States dropped an atomic bomb over Nagasaki, instantly wiping at least 40,000 people off the face of the earth. Together with the destruction of Hiroshima three days prior, the Showa Emperor was shocked into announcing Japan's total surrender over the radio. The vast majority of Japanese citizens had never before heard his voice.
Debate over whether the bomb was necessary to defeat Japan raged almost immediately after the smoke cleared, becoming an American tradition in itself. Today, a "pro" argument on social media usually takes a form like this:
"My grandfather was on a boat heading for Japan. You have to understand, back in those days, the Japanese considered it cowardly to surrender, so they threw themselves in countless suicide attacks against the boys in Okinawa, shouting 'Banzai!' Even the kids were sharpening bamboo sticks at home, ready to fight to the death in the Emperor's name. A land invasion would have cost a million or more American lives. Without the bomb, I wouldn't even be around to tell you this story."
Without a doubt, the Japanese soldier's fanatical devotion captivated the American public as much as it terrified them. If an American knows any words from the Japanese language at all, they're usually in relation to their fearsome warrior ethics: Banzai. Kamikaze. Seppuku. And the catch-all word for this ethos was Bushido: the way of the warrior, as handed down from the samurai ruling class of Japan's Middle Ages.
And yet, this wasn't the west's sole impression of Japan at war. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Japanese were acclaimed worldwide by the Red Cross for their humane treatment of Russian prisoners of war. And again, during the First World War, the greatest act of chivalry aside from the Christmas Truce of 1914 was when German POW's at Bando camp performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for the first time ever in Japan. Many Germans were so impressed by the Japanese way of life that they stayed behind at the war's end.
So, what went wrong? How much of the Japanese army's suicidal zeal from World War II was truly inherited from the samurai tradition, and how much was a product of modern nationalism? Would the samurai of old have committed such mindless rape and pillage of the kind seen in Nanking, or was this a freak occurrence of a 20th century fascist state?
Samurai through the western lens
In 1951, just a decade after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment camps in the United States, the samurai film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa was released in America. It even received an Academy Award, and thanks to the samurai fever of the 1950's, Kurosawa grew to be the inspiration for the next generation of directors. Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Martin Scorcese all can be quoted as mentioning Kurosawa as one of their greatest influences. Seven Samurai (1954) is still hailed by critics as one of the greatest movies of all time.
For my own generation, our understanding of Japan's mythical warriors is informed largely by The Last Samurai (2003). I saw it in theaters with my father as a teenager, and it helped stir me on a path of lifelong interest in history. The movie spins a tale of an American Army officer (played by Tom Cruise) who's captured by rebel samurai during the Meiji Restoration in 1876 and taught bushido, eventually allying himself with them against the forces of modernization--as represented by the plutocratic advisors manipulating the Emperor, and a conscript army with modern weapons. We must admit that the character of Captain Algren definitely plays the "white saviour" trope to the hilt, and it has additional value today for Americans who feel alienated by their own culture; Algren sympathizes with the rebel samurai, largely in thanks to his own PTSD from having joined in exterminations of Indian tribes back home. (As an aside, the parallels that can be drawn from The Last Samurai to the crisis of the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council are endless, especially in relation to "loyal opposition" groups like the Society of Saint Pius X under Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)
But for the discerning history enthusiast, none of these samurai portrayals have a solid basis in reality. In the cases of Kurosawa films or video games like Ghost of Tsushima, this isn't much of a problem because they're set in the distant past, have a legendary quality to the storytelling, and don't take themselves too seriously. The Last Samurai is a bit more troublesome since it takes place much closer to our own time and lends itself more to an impression of being "inspired by true events". And as much as I like the film as a story, it's a poor representation of what really happened in Japan during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.
Far from being the singular revolt of one charismatic traditionalist's tribe, the Rebellion was more akin to a civil war between a majority of samurai who accepted (even welcomed) the Meiji Restoration and assimilated themselves into its leadership, and a minority of samurai who were disgruntled by the loss of their social privileges and government stipends under the shogunate government. The province of Satsuma effectively seceded from the imperial state that year, and when they rebels went toe-to-toe against the Imperial army, the imperials were hardly a horde of peasant conscripts. Many of them were samurai themselves, fighting side-by-side with professional soldiers drawn from the common classes. As history, The Last Samurai would have done better to draw an analogy to the Confederate States during the American Civil War instead of native American tribes. As it is, some people in Japan regard The Last Samurai as a kind of "Lost Cause" mythologizing which papers over the less savory aspects of the rebels' motives.
|Woodblock of the Satsuma Rebellion by Toshinobu|
The rebellion's leader in real life, Saigo Takamori (the basis for the character of Katsumoto in the movie), was mortally woudned in battle. His supporters claimed he committed seppuku, although no accounts actually describe any abdomen wounds to his body. Full acts of traditional seppuku (with a self-delivered act of disembowelment) were rare by this time. Nonetheless, many Japanese people accepted the legend at face value and felt that Saigo was "the last true samurai", having died as a martyr to his own code of conduct. The Emperor found it more expedient to pardon Saigo's family and declare Saigo a hero, even though the Imperial Army suffered about 15,000 casualties. There are statues and other monuments to Saigo around the country, as there are in the United States to Robert E. Lee. Saigo Takamori's posthumous reputation as a martyr for the "old ways" would have serious repercussions as the Japanese government faced destabilization in the 1930's.
|Statue of Saigo Takamori and his loyal dog in Ueno Park, Japan. It was unveiled in 1898.|
The real history of the samurai
You'll notice that up to now, I've hardly said a word about Bushido. In truth, the word Bushido hardly appears at all in Japanese literature until the turn of the 20th century, decades after the samurai class was formally abolished. Reaching back into the 1300's for a standardized code of conduct among feudal Japan's warrior class would be futile, since it didn't exist. One of the few surviving texts from this era is the Twenty-One Articles (read here) written by Hojo Soun, a former general and daimyo (lord) who became a monk in retirement. House rules like this were practical in nature, as can be seen from the excerpts below:
Precept 1: "Above all, believe in the gods and Buddhas."
Precept 10: "When one has been addressed by the master, even though he is seated at a distance he should quickly answer, 'Yes!' draw forward immediately approaching on his knees, and make his response with full respect. He should thereupon quickly withdraw, prepare his answer, and relate the facts as they are. One should not make a display of one's own wisdom. Moreover, according to the circumstances, when one is considering how best to give an answer, he should consult with a man who is adroit at speech. It is a matter of not pushing through one's own personal opinion."
Precept 13: "When one is going by the place where the elders are in attendance to the master, he should stoop a bit and place his hands to the ground as he passes. To be without deference and simply stamp through the area would be outrageously rude. To be a samurai is to be polite at all times."
And finally, Precept 21: "It is hardly necessary to record that both Learning and the military arts are the Way of the Warrior, for it is an ancient law that one should have Learning on the left and the martial arts on the right. But this is something that will not be obtainable if one has not prepared for it beforehand."
Nevertheless, the history of war in Japan through the 16th century is riddled with examples of samurai engaging in cunning, deceit, and even betrayal in the form of armies switching sides in the midst of battle. To be fair, this isn't any different than what England's knights did during the Wars of the Roses. (The Tudor dynasty would never have happened if Lord Stanley's army didn't abandon Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.) But the famed virtue of loyalty was more an aspiration than a rigidly lived reality.
Likewise, we who grew up with samurai cinema think of the katana as the extension of a warrior's soul. But before the 16th century, the samurai's preferred weapon was actually the bow, with the sword as a backup in case the enemy got too close. The preeminence of the sword came with the Sengoku Jidai: the Era of Warring States. Warfare escalated to the point of introducing peasant conscripts for the first time. Where the samurai were once the only warriors, now they had to reform their manners to become officers over common men. Now, the samurai's sword--an expensive weapon requiring years to master--became the badge of distinction between a true warrior and a peasant armed with a stick (or, briefly through western trade, a gun).
|Samurai of the Sengoku Jidai: the Era of Warring States|
Even as the shoguns kept foreign "barbarians" out of Japan, they maintained a strict adherence to shushigaku (neo-Confucian social doctrine), which is, of course, an import from China. Neo-Confucianism was the humanist philosophy which the shoguns used to tame the samurai into a scholarly class, like the mandarins of China. Where the teachings of Zen Buddhism emphasized unreality and the impermanence of life, neo-Confucianism stressed reality and reason. The samurai were to dedicate themselves to letters, poetry, and refinement. The Japanese tea ceremony crystallized to its present form during these long years of peace. Notably, the shogunate outlawed the ancient practice of junshi ("following the lord in death"): that is, the custom of samurai committing suicide after the death of their lords.
|"Night Attack of the 47 Ronin" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi|
The 47 Ronin
The struggle to adhere to neo-Confucianism led to one of the most widely retold stories in Japanese theatre and cinema: the Ako vendetta, or the revenge of the 47 ronin. The short version of this story is that in 1701, a high-ranking court official by the name of Kira was assigned by the shogun to instruct Asano, the lord of Ako, in court etiquette for an upcoming reception for envoys of the Emperor. For reasons lost to history, Kira caused some offense to Asano which prompted Asano to assault him... but to have even gone so far as to draw swords in the shogun's palace was enough to merit the death penalty. Because he had struck the shogun's official within his own palace, Asano was ordered to commit suicide and his family was removed from power. His 300 samurai weren't assigned a new master, so they became ronin: leaderless.
|Photo of a samurai taken in the 1860's.|
One notable critic was a samurai clerk who lived during the Ako event, Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Some years after the 47 ronin committed seppuku, Yamamoto wrote Hagakure ("Hidden Leaves"): a series of maxims and informal conversations on how to bravely accept death, as well as a lament on the weakening of the samurai with lingering nostalgia for a time before the author was born, when the samurai's purpose was clear. Many passages within could easily be adapted for a modern self-help book. For example: "In offering one’s opinion, one must first ascertain whether or not the recipient is in the right frame of mind to receive counsel."
But other passages reveal the anxiety of a samurai who questions his own purpose. Yamamoto's master was opposed to the practice of junshi and made it clear to his retainers that they were not to commit suicide after he died. Yamamoto was forbidden from junshi, forbidden from fighting duels, kept from glory on the battlefield by the long peace. He perhaps regretted not being able to live out a true warrior's career like his distant ancestors had. Of the 47 ronin, he criticized them not because they took revenge and assassinated the man who caused their master's death... but because they spent a year meticulously planning it. He asks, "What if, nine months after Asano's death, Kira had died of an illness?" The more honorable thing in Yamamoto's eyes would have been for the 47 to have immediately avenged their lord's death on the spot with a last stand, even if they were sure to fail. Success, to Yamamoto, is completely beside the point. The honor is in having made a stance and choosing to accept death with indifference.
To be clear, this was a minority view. One could argue a certain parallel between Yamamoto's sentiments and those of alt-rightists today who are frustrated by their lack of acting out masculinity in an increasingly soft, decadent world. But in any case, Hagakure was not widely read in Yamamoto's own lifetime. Rather, it was rediscovered in the 20th century and incorporated into military indoctrination of the 1930's. Eventually, fighter pilots wore headbands inscribed with passages from Hagakure, inspiring them to perform kamikaze attacks on American ships.
Defining bushido for western eyes
As you may know, the long Edo period of peace ended abruptly when Commodore Perry's gunboat diplomacy forced Japan to open its harbors to western trade in 1854. The event exposed the shogunate as not only weak, but complicit in holding back Japan's technological development by 200 years. It was the impetus for an alliance of forward-thinking samurai, together with wealthy commoners, to form an alliance to overthrow the shogunate by appealing to the concept of restoring the Emperor to true sovereignty: the Meiji Restoration. Western experts (like those represented by Captain Algren in The Last Samurai) were paid handsomely to teach Japan western industry, science, and military arts. By 1900, the Japanese military had joined western colonial powers as an ally of the Eight-Nation Alliance to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China. But Japan's traditional warrior culture remained a mystery to their new western friends.
In 1900, a Japanese expatriate in America, Inazo Nitobe, wrote the book Bushido: The Soul of Japan for the express purpose of explaining his homeland's elusive culture to western readers. Nitobe was perfectly poised for the task: his father was a samurai, but Nitobe himself was a Christian convert, studied at Johns Hopkins in Maryland and Wittenberg in Germany, published books in both English and German, and even married an Anglo-American woman. Bushido was originally written in English in Malvern, Pennsylvania (not far from where I live). Nitobe strove to compare the Japanese spirit favorably in terms readily understandable to his audience:
"The Japanese word which I have roughly rendered Chivalry, is, in the original, more expressive than Horsemanship. Bu-shi-do means literally Military-Knight-Ways—the ways which fighting nobles should observe in their daily life as well as in their vocation; in a word, the 'Precepts of Knighthood,' the noblesse oblige of the warrior class."
"Bushido, then, is the code of moral principles which the knights were required or instructed to observe. It is not a written code; at best it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant. More frequently it is a code unuttered and unwritten, possessing all the more the powerful sanction of veritable deed, and of a law written on the fleshly tablets of the heart. It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career. It, perhaps, fills the same position in the history of ethics that the English Constitution does in political history; yet it has had nothing to compare with the Magna Charta or the Habeas Corpus Act. True, early in the seventeenth century Military Statutes (Buké Hatto) were promulgated; but their thirteen short articles were taken up mostly with marriages, castles, leagues, etc., and didactic regulations were but meagerly touched upon. We cannot, therefore, point out any definite time and place and say, 'Here is its fountain head.' Only as it attains consciousness in the feudal age, its origin, in respect to time, may be identified with feudalism. But feudalism itself is woven of many threads, and Bushido shares its intricate nature. As in England the political institutions of feudalism may be said to date from the Norman Conquest, so we may say that in Japan its rise was simultaneous with the ascendency of Yoritomo, late in the twelfth century."
Bushido is a fantastic, and short, read. The whole text is available here. President Theodore Roosevelt distributed 60 copies of the book to his friends. He wrote, "Japan has much to teach the nations of the Occident, just as she has something to learn from them. I have long felt that Japan's entrance into the circle of the great civilized powers was of good omen for all the world."
Ironically for such an admirer of the samurai code, Nitobe had converted from Methodism to the strictly pacifist Quakerism while he lived in Pennsylvania. He eventually served as an under-secretary general for the newly formed League of Nations. Later in life, Nitobe took a seat in the House of Peers (the upper house of imperial Japan's Parliament), where he repeatedly condemned the nation's turn toward militarism and aggressive expansion. We can only speculate how he would reacted to the atrocities of World War II. He died in 1933.
|Prince Arthur (the third son of Queen Victoria) investing Emperor Meiji with the Order of the Garter in 1906|
Nonetheless, Nitobe was responsible for jumpstarting a whole series of works on bushido in the west, which in turn were adopted by Japanese themselves and incorporated into their growing sense of nationalist spirit. This body of literature proved quite useful in Japan's efforts to be accepted as the first non-European great power of the modern world. In 1902, Great Britain established a military alliance with Japan: their first since the Napoleonic Wars. Emperor Meiji was given the Order of the Garter, and the chrysanthemum banner was hung in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.
|The chrysanthemum banner of the Emperor of Japan on the right, third from the back, in the above photo of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, together the banners of the other Knights of the Garter.|
|A Japanese Red Cross mission caring for Russian prisoners-of-war|
Japan as a world power
In 1905, Japan shocked the world by soundly defeating Russia in open warfare, to the point of sinking two out of three of Russia's fleets. The Russo-Japanese War marked the first time a western power was ever defeated by a non-western military in modern history. The conduct of the Japanese army here bore little resemblance to what would later take place on the Railway of Death in Burma (retold in sanitized form by movies like "Bridge on the River Kwai"). Russians at the prisoner-of-war camp at Matsuyama were treated quite well. Official Japanese policy was to insist upon treating POW's with honor. Medical care was equal to that given to Japanese themselves. They were offered beef to accommodate their accustomed diet (even though beef was rare in Japan then). Russian officers were allowed to keep their sidearms and occasionally offered vodka. Japan was commended by the Red Cross for their humanity shown to over 80,000 Russian POW's. Some Russians even stayed behind at the war's end to start families with the nurses who cared for them in captivity.
|German POW's at the Kurume camp, 1915. The camp officer, Yamamoto Shigeru, who was fluent in German, joins in celebrating the Kaiser's birthday.|
The Japanese again showed humanity during the First World War in their treatment of a thousand German POW's at Bando camp. Drawn into the conflict by their alliance with Britain, Japan largely contented itself to seizing Germany's colony in China and sitting out for the rest. Mindful to keep their reputation from the Russo-Japanese War intact, the POW's at Bando were kept as comfortable as possible. The commander, Toyohisa Matsue, was a descendant of a samurai family that joined in the failed rebellion against Meiji. He allowed the POW's to run their own bakery and newspaper, send mail back to Germany with free postage, and even permitted them outside the camp to interact with local townspeople of Tokushima. Most notably, many of the Germans were musically gifted. The Japanese allowed them to flourish by forming three orchestras and several other smaller bands. One June 1, 1918, the POW's performed the first-ever rendition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony anywhere in Japan. With the end of the war, 63 Germans decided to stay behind. And even some who returned to Germany kept up correspondence with their former guards.
|German POW officers together with their Japanese captors at Marugame camp|
|A Punch cartoon illustrating the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The quote from Rudyard Kipling is cited positively here. Only a few years before, he had written the poem "The White Man's Burden" as a call to civilize the Philippines.|
From bushido to brutality
At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Japan proposed an amendment to the Treaty of Versailles--the document formally ending World War I--called the "Racial Equality Proposal". The draft text would have amended Article 21 to say:
"The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality."
The Proposal was part of a larger campaign by Japan to achieve fairer treatment by Japanese emigrants to other countries. In 1907, for instance, Japan used its status as a favored nation to broker the "gentleman's agreement" with Teddy Roosevelt, ending segregation of Japanese children in Californian public schools. Many of the League of Nations members were actually in support of Japan's proposal. But Australia's prime minister, Billy Hughes, was committed to maintaining the "White Australia" policy and threatened to walk out of the conference if the proposal was adopted. Woodrow Wilson, despite being the architect of the League of Nations, was afraid of losing the support of the Democrats in the solid South if the proposal was passed. (The US was, during the Red Summer of 1919, going through some of the worst race riots in its history.) And so, although 11 of the 17 delegates voted "yes" and no one actually voted "no", Wilson used his position as president of the Conference to require a unanimous vote for approval. It proved to be for nought, as Congress still refused to ratify the treaty.
|Hara Takashi, the first Christian Prime Minister of Japan|
Coinciding with the rise in nationalism was the state's adoption of Shinto as a government-sponsored national philosophy which supplanted neo-Confucianism (now frowned upon as foreign) and which transcended mere religion (including Buddhism). One of the central tenets of state Shinto was, of course, worship of the Emperor as a descendant of the gods. In truth, the phrase "Meiji Restoration" is misleading since that movement didn't just restore the Emperor's political power that had been lost in past centuries to the shogun; it gave the Emperor a power in both the spiritual and secular planes which he had never had before. It was necessary for the modernizers of Japan to overthrow the shogun by appealing to the Emperor's ultimate authority. Two generations later, the cult of the Emperor grew well out of proportion, becoming a frequent excuse for every kind of extra-judicial act imaginable. What had been a gift in the hands of a visionary leader like Meiji devolved into a curse under his weaker successors.
In the 1930's, with the Kwantung Army in Manchuria a law unto itself and the junta leaders conspiring to seize power in Tokyo, literature on bushido was divorced from its original context and reinterpreted to serve the cause of the militarists. Where Japan had previously been renowned for its honorable conduct in war, now a twisted version of "imperial bushido" was the order of the day: one marked by its focus on dying like a shattered jewel (gyokusai) in the Emperor's service, without reference to counter-balancing virtues like benevolence or rectitude. Part of this indoctrination was, of course, the reprinting of Hagakure as a model for common soldiers to aspire to. A passage in Nitobe's Bushido came true:
"Discipline in self-control can easily go too far. It can well repress the genial current of the soul. It can force pliant natures into distortions and monstrosities. It can beget bigotry, breed hypocrisy, or habituate affections."
Is bushido, then, to blame for Japanese brutality in World War II? Yes... and no. Our survey of Japanese history above has shown that the history of the samurai was complex, with many twists and turns over the centuries. The Sengoku Jidai (era of warring states) gave way to the Edo period (200 years of peace under the Tokugawa shoguns). Then, with the Meiji Restoration, the samurai class was abolished but the nationalist movement sought to adapt "bushido" as a code of conduct for all classes in Japanese society, not just the top. During Japan's first wars against western powers, in 1905 and 1914-1918, the Japanese military successfully showed the world that they could both defeat major western powers in combat, as well as show humanity and gentlemanly conduct to the vanquished.
But these were not enough to turn the tide of racist sentiment at the Paris Peace Conference and other trends of the 1920's. Resentment at being treated like a second-class power soured relations with Great Britain and the United States, and caused turmoil at home that led to a series of assassinations and coups. A faction of militarists took control of the state in the 1930's and made common cause with Nazi Germany. Just as Hitler appropriated "Volksgeist" to pervert certain aspects of traditional German culture for the sake of national socialism, the militarists of Japan promoted a selective view of traditional Japanese culture, under imperial "bushido", to expand the empire. But in reality, the war crimes of Japan during World War II have as much to do with the samurai as the Holocaust had to do with the Holy Roman Empire: nothing at all.
|British General Claude Auchinleck holding up a katana after World War II.|