Summary and notes of Inazo Nitobe's seminal book.

Bushido, the Soul of Japan

Summary and notes of Inazo Nitobe's seminal book.


Inazo Nitobe, son of a Samurai, pens the first written account of the Samurai code, Bushido.

Bushido, lit. the way of the warrior, was a philosophy of life which governed every action of the Samurai. Its influence permeates the culture and mindset of modern Japan.

You can read the full text for free here.


The book’s chapter list is essentially a list of key Bushido virtues and principles:

1. Bushido As an Ethical System 2. Sources of Bushido 3. Rectitude or Justice 4. Courage, the Spirit of Daring and Bearing 5. Benevolence, the Feeling of Distress 6. Politeness 7. Veracity and Sincerity 8. Honour 9. The Duty of Loyalty 10. The Education and Training of a Samurai 11. Self-Control 12. The Institutions of Suicide and Redress 13. The Sword, The Soul of the Samurai 14. The Training and Position of Woman 15. The Influence of Bushido 16. Is Bushido Still Alive? 17. The Future Of Bushido


The elements of Bushido

The tripod that supported the framework of Bushido was said to be Chi, Jin, Yu; respectively Wisdom, Benevolence, and Courage.

The discipline of fortitude on the one hand, inculcating endurance without a groan, and the teaching of politeness on the other, requiring us not to mar the pleasure or serenity of another by manifestations of our own sorrow or pain, combined to engender a stoical turn of mind, and eventually to confirm it into a national trait of apparent stoicism. Also: “Politeness is a poor virtue, if it is actuated only by a fear of offending good taste, whereas it should be the outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others.”

The spiritual aspect of valor is evidenced by composure—calm presence of mind. Tranquility is courage in repose.

The sense of honor, implying a vivid consciousness of personal dignity and worth.

That proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of exalted freedom.

Calmness of behavior and composure of mind should not be disturbed by passion of any kind.

Life [was] regarded as the means whereby to serve his master, and its ideal being set upon honor.

Bushido laid particular stress on the moral conduct of rulers and public men and of nations.

Yoyū, what we call a capacious mind, is far from being pressed or crowded and always has room for something more.

A good name — one’s reputation, the immortal part of one’s self.

Giri (義理), literally the Right Reason, came in time to mean a vague sense of duty which public opinion expected an incumbent to fulfill. In its original and unalloyed sense, it meant duty, pure and simple. Though love should be the only motive, lacking that, there must be some other authority to enforce filial piety; and they formulated this authority in Giri.

Giri is a product of the conditions of an artificial society — of a society in which accident of birth and unmerited favor instituted class distinctions, in which the family was the social unit, in which seniority of age was of more account than superiority of talents, in which natural affections had often to succumb before arbitrary man-made customs. Because of this very artificiality, Giri in time degenerated into a vague sense of propriety called up to explain this and sanction that — as, for example, why a mother must, if need be, sacrifice all her other children in order to save the first-born; or why a daughter must sell her chastity to get funds to pay for the father’s dissipation, and the like.

The curriculum of studies, according to the pedagogics of Bushido, consisted mainly of the following—fencing, archery, jiujutsu or yawara, horsemanship, the use of the spear, tactics, calligraphy, ethics, literature, and history.

A samurai was essentially a man of action. Science was without the pale of his activity. He took advantage of it insofar as it concerned his profession of arms. Religion and theology were relegated to the priests; he concerned himself with them insofar as they helped to nourish courage. Like an English poet the samurai believed “’tis not the creed that saves the man; but it is the man that justifies the creed.” Philosophy and literature formed the chief part of his intellectual training; but even in the pursuit of these, it was not objective truth that he strove after—literature was pursued mainly as a pastime, and philosophy as a practical aid in the formation of character, if not for the exposition of some military or political problem.

Bushido, poetry, and art

Tenderness, Pity, and Love were traits which adorned the most sanguinary exploits of the samurai. It was an old maxim among them that “it becometh not the fowler to slay the bird which takes refuge in his bosom.” Our poetry has therefore a strong undercurrent of pathos and tenderness.

We admire and enjoy the heroic incident in Körner’s short life, when, as he lay wounded on the battle-field, he scribbled his famous “Farewell to Life.” Incidents of a similar kind were not at all unusual in our warfare. Our pithy, epigrammatic poems were particularly well suited to the improvisation of a single sentiment. Everybody of any education was either a poet or a poetaster. Not infrequently a marching soldier might be seen to halt, take his writing utensils from his belt, and compose an ode.

As an example of how the simplest thing can be made into an art and then become spiritual culture, I may take Cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony. Tea-sipping as a fine art! Why should it not be? That calmness of mind, that serenity of temper, that composure and quietness of demeanor, which are the first essentials of Cha-no-yu, are without doubt the first conditions of right thinking and right feeling.

I believe it was our very excitability and sensitiveness which made it a necessity to recognize and enforce constant self-repression. The suppression of feelings being thus steadily insisted upon, they find their safety-valve in poetical aphorism.

It was said that no harmony of sound is attainable without the player’s heart being in harmony with herself.

The sakura flower it is indigenous to the soil; its accidental qualities it may share with the flowers of other lands, but in its essence it remains the original, spontaneous outgrowth of our clime.

The refinement and grace of the sakura’s beauty appeal to our aesthetic sense as no other flower can. We cannot share the admiration of the Europeans for their roses, which lack the simplicity of our flower. Then, too, the thorns that are hidden beneath the sweetness of the rose, the tenacity with which she clings to life, as though loth or afraid to die rather than drop untimely, preferring to rot on her stem; her showy colors and heavy odors—all these are traits so unlike our flower, which carries no dagger or poison under its beauty, which is ever ready to depart life at the call of nature, whose colors are never gorgeous, and whose light fragrance never palls.

The traveler owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near he knows not whence
And, pausing, takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air

On death and seppuku

To an ambitious samurai a natural departure from life seemed a rather tame affair.

Seppuku was not a mere suicidal process. It was an institution, legal and ceremonial. An invention of the Middle Ages, it was a process by which warriors could expiate their crimes, apologize for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity. When enforced as a legal punishment, it was practiced with due ceremony. It was a refinement of self-destruction, and none could perform it without the utmost coolness of temper and composure of demeanor, and for these reasons it was particularly befitting the profession of bushi.

For causes entirely incompatible with reason, or for reasons entirely undeserving of death, hot headed youths rushed into it as insects fly into fire; mixed and dubious motives drove more samurai to this deed than nuns into convent gates. Life was cheap—cheap as reckoned by the popular standard of honor.

The logic behind seppuku was based on an old anatomical belief that the stomach was the seat of the soul and of the affections: “I will open the seat of my soul and show you how it fares with it. See for yourself whether it is polluted or clean.”

Taki Zenzaburo, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows: “I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honor of witnessing the act.”

On morality

Perceiving what is right and doing it not, argues lack of courage.

True courage to live when it is right to live, and to die only when it is right to die.

Anger at a petty offense is unworthy a superior man, but indignation for a great cause is righteous wrath.

On mastery

Knowledge becomes really such only when it is assimilated in the mind of the learner and shows in his character.

If there is anything to do, there is certainly a best way to do it, and the best way is both the most economical and the most graceful. The tea ceremony presents certain definite ways of manipulating a bowl, a spoon, a napkin, etc. To a novice it looks tedious. But one soon discovers that the way prescribed is, after all, the most saving of time and labor, … the most economical use of force, … the most graceful.

The swordsmith was not a mere artisan but an inspired artist and his workshop a sanctuary. Daily he commenced his craft with prayer and purification, or, as the phrase was, “He committed his soul and spirit into the forging and tempering of the steel.” Every swing of the sledge, every plunge into water, every friction on the grindstone, was a religious act of no slight import.

On money and business

When feudalism was abolished, and the samurai’s fiefs were taken and bonds issued to them in compensation, they were given liberty to invest them in mercantile transactions. It will be long before it will be recognized how many fortunes were wrecked in the attempt to apply Bushido ethics to business methods; but it was soon patent to every observing mind that the ways of wealth were not the ways of honor.

It was quite a usual thing to insert such clauses [in loan contracts] as these: “In default of the repayment of the sum lent to me, I shall say nothing against being ridiculed in public”; or, “In case I fail to pay you back, you may call me a fool,” and the like.

His word carried such weight with it that promises were generally made and fulfilled without a written pledge, which would have been deemed quite beneath his dignity.

“Less than all things,” says a current precept, “men must grudge money: it is by riches that wisdom is hindered.” Hence children were brought up with utter disregard of economy. It was considered bad taste to speak of it, and ignorance of the value of different coins was a token of good breeding.

Money and the love of it being thus diligently ignored, Bushido itself could long remain free from a thousand and one evils of which money is the root.

Buddhism and Shintoism

To us the country is more than land and soil from which to mine gold or to reap grain—it is the sacred abode of the gods, the spirits of our forefathers.

Buddhism furnished a sense of calm trust in Fate, a quiet submission to the inevitable, that stoic composure in sight of danger or calamity, that disdain of life and friendliness with death.

What Buddhism failed to give, Shintoism offered in abundance. Such loyalty to the sovereign, such reverence for ancestral memory, and such filial piety as are not taught by any other creed, were inculcated by the Shinto doctrines, imparting passivity to the otherwise arrogant character of the samurai.

Everybody has observed that the Shinto shrines are conspicuously devoid of objects and instruments of worship, and that a plain mirror hung in the sanctuary forms the essential part of its furnishing.

More philosophy

A common proverb ridicules one who has only an intellectual knowledge of Confucius. Intellect itself was considered subordinate to ethical emotion. Thus, knowledge was conceived as identical with its practical application in life; and this Socratic doctrine found its greatest exponent in the Chinese philosopher Wan Yang Ming, who never wearies of repeating, “To know and to act are one and the same.”

Confucius would say, “Let but a prince cultivate virtue, people will flock to him; with people will come to him lands; lands will bring forth for him wealth; wealth will give him the benefit of right uses. Virtue is the root, and wealth an outcome.”

When the [Greek] worshiped he raised his eyes to heaven, for his prayer was contemplation, while the [Roman] veiled his head, for his was reflection.

If we make use of an expression dear to Nietzsche, we might say that in Asia, to speak of humanity is to speak of its plains; in Japan as in Europe, one represents it above all by its mountains.

When the American Declaration of Independence said that all men were created equal, it had no reference to their mental or physical gifts: it simply [said] that before the law all men are equal. Legal rights were in this case the measure of their equality.

Men have divided the world into heathen and Christian, without considering how much good may have been hidden in the one, or how much evil may have been mingled with the other. They have compared the best part of themselves with the worst of their neighbors.

If history can teach us anything, the state built on martial virtues — be it a city like Sparta or an Empire like Rome — can never make on earth a “continuing city.”

Social implications

In America, when you make a gift, you sing its praises to the recipient; in Japan we depreciate or slander it.

To emphasize our words, a practice of literally sealing with blood was sometimes resorted to.

American husbands kiss their wives in public and beat them in private; Japanese husbands beat theirs in public and kiss them in private.

We think praising one’s own wife or one’s own husband is praising a part of one’s own self, and self-praise is regarded, to say the least, as bad taste among us.


A samurai’s sons were let down the steep valleys of hardship, and spurred to Sisyphus-like tasks. Occasional deprivation of food or exposure to cold, was considered a highly efficacious test for inuring them to endurance.

In the days when decapitation was public, not only were small boys sent to witness the ghastly scene, but they were made to visit alone the place in the darkness of night and there to leave a mark of their visit on the trunkless head.

Low-status parents would deliberately sacrifice their own innocent child to save the life of a high-status man (i.e. lord).


There is even a sportive element in a courageous nature. Things which are serious to ordinary people, may be but play to the valiant.

The normal conscience rises to the demands made on it, and falls to the limit of the standard expected from it.

Death for a cause unworthy of dying for was called a “dog’s death.”

Qualities of soul

Our national anthem says, “Tiny pebbles grow into mighty rocks draped with moss.”

To give in so many articulate words one’s inmost thoughts and feelings — notably the religious — is taken among us as an unmistakable sign that they are neither very profound nor very sincere — “Only a pomegranate is he, who, when he gapes his mouth, displays the contents of his heart.”

From earliest youth she was taught to deny herself.

Virtues are no less contagious than vices.

The state built upon the rock of Honor and fortified by the same … is fast falling into the hands of quibbling lawyers and gibbering politicians armed with logic-chopping engines of war.

Like the cherry blossom, it is willing to die at the first gust of the morning breeze.