Wen & Bu: Chinese Civil Values in Japanese Martial Thought and Philosophy
Edward N. Smith
The implementation of Confucian values into Japanese martial thoughts and philosophies during the Tokugawa Bakufu maintained domestic peace and stability in a country where a ruling military elite had little outlet for their special purpose, id est, the development, maintenance, and exercise of martial skills. This implementation was not entirely a decision of the Tokugawa to preserve their hold on the office of shōgun, established following nearly two-hundred years of civil war, but also members of the bushi class themselves to provide moral guidance for their peers. As the peace and stability of the bakufu spread, so too did an increased emphasis on literacy and, as such, bushi took up brush and ink in addition to bow and sword and developed interests in philosophy as a reaction to both their increased time for leisure and social concerns. As a result, bushi literati composed of lectures or dialogues on philosophical matters and manuals of martial skills. Granted, the bushi of this time did not know that the Tokugawa Bakufu would continue for approximately two-hundred and fifty years, and thus they were not in a position to relax their training in martial skills; what was markedly different about this period was the addition of Confucian values into the exercises. The increase in literacy, combined with a traditional emphasis on the development of martial skills, meant that the bushi committed to paper their understandings and interpretations of their world as well as their particular methods of martial skills. This was an important development in the evolution of the Japanese martial philosophy of Bushidō, as it was not until the time of the Tokugawa Bakufu that a significant body of literature regarding martial practice and philosophies appeared. With the stability of the Tokugawa Bakufu came the need for increased skills in civil administration, provided by Confucianism, as well as a continued emphasis on martial skills. As a result, there was an interesting balance of civil (Chinese “Wen,” Japanese “Bun”) and martial (C. “Wu,” J. “Bu”) philosophies in the Japanese model where, it was not so much that one was significantly superior to the other, but that the two were balancing forces, both necessary parts of human relationships.
A quick search for “Bushidō” in either a physical or an electronic book repository returns a plethora of titles and sources for a modern investigation of Bushidō. While this at first seems promising due to the many leaves of ink-stained paper, this is in fact an unfortunate pitfall; many of these titles originate from a combination of popular interest, recycled sources, and cultural stereotypes. Because of a recent surge of interest in Chinese history and culture, there are several important works on Confucianism available in English. Unfortunately, there are few academic-quality secondary sources available in English on the subjects of Japanese military thought and philosophy, and even fewer on Bushidō and the interaction of Chinese philosophies and Japanese culture therein. These include the works of authors Ikegami Eiko, Karl Friday, Cameron G. Hurst III, Stephen Turnbull, and the scholars of the Cambridge History of Japan John Whitney Hall and Masahide Bato.
These works, when examined together as a historiographical body, contained two key arguments regarding the interaction between Confucianism and Bushidō. The first argument, put forth by Hurst, was that Confucianism was “a civil religion” of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Hurts’ conclusion places a significant role upon Confucianism in the Tokugawa Bakufu, indirectly providing it the same position in Japan as it enjoyed in China. This argument of the Tokugawa-Confucian civil religion is one of the major schools of study on the subject. It argues, in short, that the Tokugawa purposefully put in place elements of Confucian philosophy within the bushi class to maintain structural stability of the new government and peace throughout the country. What this argument fails to consider, however, is that the Tokugawa Bakufu did not institute a civil examination system like the Jin Shi of China. Furthermore, this argument downplays the long tradition of Confucian philosophy in Japan.
The second argument concludes that Confucianism was a minimal influence upon the thought and philosophies of the bushi. This Confucian-minimalist theory has two subdivisions. The first approaches the issue from an analytical standpoint that states Confucianism had less influence on Bushidō than other philosophies, especially Buddhism (C. “Ch’an,” J. “Zen”). Turnbull addresses his work from this perspective, at least implicitly, as he provided only minimal inclusion of Confucianism in his analyses of Bushidō. The second approaches the examination from a historiographical standpoint. This argument accuses historians of placing too much emphasis on Confucianism. According to Ikegami, the influence of Confucianism on bushi thought and philosophy is “overemphasized to the point of misleading Western readers.” This assessment, however, unfairly downplays the significance of Chinese philosophies in Japanese culture overall. This historiographical revision seems to be another growing trend in the examination of Confucianism in Bushidō. According to John Whitney Hall, “Much of this recent [post World War II] scholarship [on Tokugawa thought] has sought to play down the importance of Confucianism as the official ideology of the Edo samurai establishment.” Whether this scholarship is an attempt at emphasizing the uniqueness of Japanese intellectual history or a de-emphasis of the importance of Chinese intellectual history in Asia is a matter worth examining in future works.
Laws, Philosophies, and Skills: The Sources for Examination
The texts used to study the intellectual developments that influenced Bushidō were as diverse as the ideas themselves. The primary sources used in this work to evaluate the relationship between Confucianism and Bushidō come from three classes of literature: legal texts and laws, philosophical texts, and military texts. Each of these genres had a specific role unto itself, from explicitly spelling out the particular behaviors expected from and prohibited of the bushi, to examining questions of propriety, to preserving techniques and philosophies associated with particular schools of martial skills (J. “ryū-ha).” Though diverse in their overt purposes, a particularly strong focus on and attempted influence of the bushi readers’ outward behavior linked these works together. Since Bushidō was a code of behavior, more than anything else, was is only appropriate then to examine these genres and their guidelines in order to glean therefrom why and how Confucianism became an important element of Japanese military thought and philosophy.
The laws of the Tokugawa Bakufu displayed an interesting intermingling of Confucianism and other philosophies. In the laws, for examples the Oath of Fealty (1611) and Buke Shohatto (1615), Confucian civil philosophy served to structure Japanese society into specific tiers of classes, each with a clearly delineated function, to preserve domestic peace and stability. This structuring, begun under the previous military rules of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, attempted to ensure that the Tokugawa Bakufu lasted longer than its predecessors, who were either displaced by military might, assassination, betrayal, or any number of interesting combinations of the these means. The Tokugawa’s purposeful stratification of society was most evident from the emphasis these laws placed on understanding and conforming to defined relationships in society and the responsibilities that came with said roles. These relationships, as spelled out in Confucianism, included the state and the people, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. Not only did these laws clarify the role of the bushi within a stable, civil-oriented society, but they also explain what the bakufu expected of the bushi. These expected duties ranged from training in letters and arms to prohibiting certain garments. While the former occupied the time of the bushi, thereby preventing idle hands and minds that could lead to rebellion, the later served to reinforce outward distinctions between levels of society. These descriptions were, with the exception of the necessity to study martial skills, remarkably similar to the Confucian idea of the Rectification of Names (C. “Zhèngmíng”) that advocated in order to preserve social harmony it was necessary to perceive, understand, and act according to appropriate social responsibilities and obligations based on social relationships. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that the law texts sought to preserve peace more of the sake of the Tokugawa Bakufu and the continued rule of the Tokugawa than for social tranquility overall.
In a fashion similar to the law texts, the philosophical texts sought to preserve peace and stability between the bushi themselves and the other classes of society, though not so much for the continuity of a ruling dynasty as for the preservation of the peace of the land. The majority of these works demonstrated the strongest overt connections with Confucianism because they stemmed directly from Chinese Confucian texts, especially the Doctrine of the Mean and the commentaries produced by Zhu Xi (1130-1200). These collections of Chinese works, being largely Neo-Confucian to be precise, were understandably better received in Japan than in China because of the established balance (or perhaps described more precisely as a careful selection of certain elements and abandonment of others) between confronting philosophies of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Though Neo-Confucianism was initially a response on the part of Confucians to preserve its influence in Chinese politics in the face of competing influences from Daoism and Buddhism, these circumstances were not entirely unlike the Japanese need to integrate a variety of philosophies into a larger cultural-philosophical framework.
In addition to the Chinese philosophical texts, there was also a body of Japanese philosophical texts that attempted to investigate, though not so much codify, Bushidō. These included the “first systematic exposition” of Bushidō by Yamaga Soko (1622-1685) that encompassed The Way of the Samurai, Essential Teachings of the Sages, and Elementary Learning for Samurai and Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s (1659-1719) Hagakure. These texts focused less on abstract commentaries often associated with philosophy and more on concrete and observable qualities sought from the behavior of the bushi. For example, Yamaga sought to explicate the importance of proper behavior in the bushi class because of their elevated status in society (discussed in detail later). Similarly, Yamamoto proscribed his ideal forms of behavior for the warrior class in response to the decline, in his assessment, of bushi decorum. It is an important note for readers to bear mind that the Hagakure, though arguably the most often cited primary source on Bushidō was neither the most influential nor the most widespread during the Tokugawa Bakufu. It had limited intellectual influence outside of the domain in which it was published, Nabeshima, on the far remote southwest corner of Kyūshū—though it was so influential in this domain that later generations came to know it was the way of the “Nabeshima samurai.”
It is interesting to note the overlap in time of these two authors (though Yamamoto’s inspirational dialogues did not occur until the early eighteenth century, near the end or after the death of Yamaga) and their perspective reactions to the social position of the bushi. Both Yamaga and Yamamoto composed their works as efforts to explain the place of the bushi in Japanese society. This explanation was especially relevant following the establishment of the Tokugawa Bakufu when, for the first time in nearly two centuries, the people of Japan enjoyed some semblance of domestic stability. With the peace came opportunities for the bushi to spend their time with less martial (or less cultured) pursuits. This is not to suggest that the bushi recognized that they lived in a uniquely peaceful time—considering the preceding unrest and time required to not only establish but also to solidify Tokugawa’s hold, the bushi were not unlikely to be lulled into a sense of stability easily. Though these are merely two authors, considering the scarcity of philosophers that composed such works, there is certainly something to be said regarding the importance of their efforts and the social circumstances of the bushi that inspired them. Considering the emphasis that both authors place on, and the strong wordage used to describe, the importance of understanding the proper place of the bushi in society, as well as the relatively close span of time between the authorship of their works, there must have been some motivating factor that spurred their inquiries and responses. Yamaga, for example, argued that the bushi must be exemplars of behavior to the other classes because of their elevated status. Yamamoto made similar urgings, but added to it descriptions of what bushi should not do in his descriptions of the deplorable behavior that the bushi of his day exhibited.
The final category of texts used to investigate Confucianism in Bushidō was military texts. These works, being the core works composed by and directed towards the military ruling elite, sought to influence them towards building their own morals through martial practice and in conjunction their quality of service as retainers within the Tokugawa Bakufu. These texts focused on key elements related to development of government/political skills such as understanding the importance of the place of the bushi in the social hierarchy, as well as using their position for the “good of many” and exercises of humanness. An especially interesting subgenre of these texts were the manuals of swordsmanship because, for the first time in the history of the bushi, swords were no longer merely the primary markers of status and weapons of defense carried on a daily basis as was the case in previous eras. Manuals of swordsmanship included Miyamoto Musashi’s Go Rin No Sho (“Book of Five Rings,” c. 1645) and Yagyu Munenori’s Book of Family Traditions (c. 1646). According to Hurst, the establishment of swordsmanship schools in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries represented a shift from martial skills purely for the sake of combat to one of self-improvement. This change of focus not only coincided with the implementation of Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan, but also possessed an important change in philosophical focus to developing military skills for the sake of making the practitioner a better person with superior moral character instead of a better combatant with superior techniques. Thus, because of the increase in the development and perfection of swordsmanship skills, coupled with the increasing emphases on literacy and a need to investigate and explore the role of the bushi in a new era, manuals of swordsmanship proved an especially useful source when investigating the myriad of thoughts and philosophies contained in Bushidō. A few important later period texts also have hints regarding the influence of Confucianism in Japanese martial culture. These works more often than not fit into both the philosophical texts and instruction manuals categories, but despite their recent publication, are relevant because these record the oral traditions of particular ryū-ha.
There is, to some extent, difficulty in relying on the works and oral traditions of ryū-ha. Academically speaking, these works are little different than relying on oral traditions such as legends. This is especially apparent when considering the feats of martial prowess associated with the more famous swordsmen such Yagyu Muneyoshi, who split a boulder with a blow from his sword during a duel with a tengū (J. “goblin”). Furthermore, there are details within these works that are obscure and difficult to understand without being inducted into the okuden (J. “inner chamber”) of knowledge of the ryū-ha. Therefore, when dealing with the military texts, there are some details that researchers may simply not understand—indeed, may be unable to locate—due to unfamiliarity with the particular culture of the ryū-ha. Nevertheless, there are important details that reflected the socio-political and philosophical trends of the martial class within these texts that were, at least to some extent, visible upon the surface.
Conflicts of Cultures and Philosophies
Despite the variety of sources available to examine this issue, there were a number of theoretical conflicts between Confucianism and Bushidō. Confucianism and Bushidō were systems of thought with distinct origins that had important effects on the development and integration of the former into later. Without going into detail beyond this examination, it suffices to provide a brief background of the circumstances that encouraged the original composition of the core texts of Confucianism. Confucianism originated in China during the sixth century BCE as a reaction to the degradation of the ruling Zhou dynasty’s administration of the state and development of social harmony and culture (C. “Wen,” J. “Bun”). Those whom Kongzi blamed most for this decline were the literati who in his opinion should have expended their efforts to rescue the Zhou from collapse through ardent preservation and study of classical rites and texts rather than delve into self-aggrandizement and debauchery. During the twelfth century, the Song dynasty experienced a revival of Confucian philosophies. The Song not only further developed and implemented the exam system, but also benefited from the works of the influential philosopher, Zhu Xi. Where Kongzi reacted to social and political squalor, Zhu composed his works as an effort to revitalize Confucian philosophy itself as a reaction to what he observed as two-thousand years of misinterpretation and corruption brought on by the influences of Daoism and Buddhism. Most important for the examination of this paper was Zhu’s selection of the “Four Books” of Confucianism that included The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Analects, and Mencius.
Bushidō was, however, at the opposite end of the spectrum of human behavior and philosophies. Where the former was a philosophy of humanness and civil virtues, the later was a general guide for the behavior of the military elite and sought to develop the martial class (C. “Wu,” J. “Bu”). Furthermore, Bushidō lacked a significant body of literature and a long-standing tradition of literary development and study that accompanied Confucianism (indeed, approximately twelve hundred years separate the composition of the Confucian Analects and the importation of writing into Japan). The earliest written sources of Bushidō appeared in legendary war narratives such as the Heike Monogatari, A Tale of Mutsu, and others, collectively known as gunkimono. Through the grand narratives of battles contained therein, the bushi received examples of ideal behavior, not explicit guidelines. It was not until the seventeenth century that the bushi began to compose philosophical guiding principles—though not codifications—of Bushidō. In these works, just as in the gunkimono, authors emphasized not excessive, intellectual study of abstract philosophical principals, but rather action and outward displays of philosophical principals.
The association of outward displays of behavior with Bushidō was particularly strong, such that it created a certain prejudice against intellectualism. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the final unifier of Japan and progenitor of the Tokugawa Bakufu, made no reservations when he described the measure of Bushidō as action, best demonstrated in the relationship between him and his retainer, Torii Mototada. According to Tokugawa, “Bushidō […] owes nothing to any sterile formulation dreamt up by a scholar.” This testament deemphasized lofty, intellectual discourses in favor of observable action and behavior—the cornerstones of Bushidō. This description was important not only because it emphasized the prominence of action over scholarship but also because it was such a statement uttered by the shōgun. A similar sentiment pervaded other levels of the bushi class. During the mid-seventeenth century, Makae Toju noted that bushi that studied Confucian philosophy were “too soft and good-for-nothing when it comes to military service.” This conclusion could have developed from any number of sources. One source was the association of Confucianism with foreign influences. A sentiment of xenophobia and ethnocentrism characterized the era of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Some of the most significant examples of these predispositions were its anti-foreign policies, such as the Closed Country Edict of 1635, though these were directed more at limiting the effects of trade and exchanges of goods, culture, and religions with the Nanban (J. “European”) than Chinese. What is more, the gradual decline and eventual overthrow of the native Chinese Ming dynasty by the Manchurian horsemen who established the Qing dynasty occurred at concurrently or shortly before the period of greatest intellectual fervor and investigation of Bushidō. Thus, with the fall of the Ming and their military defeat at the hands and hooves of the Manchurians, in the eyes of the bushi, not only was Confucianism foreign, but also a philosophy that failed to provide the Chinese with the martial skills necessary to defend their borders. To reinforce this conclusion further, the bushi who studied Confucian philosophy focused less on individual martial prowess and more on statecraft and character building. Therefore, not only was the study of Confucianism abroad seen as unable to provide martial prowess, but also was seen as militarily weak—and so too those who studied it—in Japan.
Alternatively, this prejudice against intellectualism could have arisen from a bias against being too educated. Yamamoto possessed little regards for the literati. According to the Hagakure, “In general, a person who is versatile in many things is considered to be vulgar and to have only a broad knowledge of matters of importance.” If there was something worse than being too knowledgeable of too many things, it was to know too much about cultural arts. Yamamoto noted, “A person who is said to be proficient in the arts is like a fool…Because of his foolishness in concerning himself with just one thing…” A careful reading of these statements revealed they were less contradictory than initially appearing. Knowing too little, according to the first, was a dangerous ignorance to matters that one’s lord may need counsel regarding. The acquisition of deep knowledge was useful to bushi in order to be valuable retainers, unless this knowledge was regarding fine arts. It was not simply that the arts were something not worthy of appreciation, but also that to know too much about them was improper behavior for the bushi because time spent to gain such knowledge could have been spent in the perfection of more useful skills for a loyal retainer to employ in the service of his master. Yamamoto specifically addressed this issue (and seemingly challenged Yagyu’s exaltations of the practice of arts) when he noted that the bushi of Nabeshima had no need for the arts, whereas those of other domains did. He continued, “For samurai of the Nabeshima clan the arts bring ruin to the body. In all cases, the person who practices an art is an artist, not a samurai, and one should have the intention of being called a samurai.” There may be an important geographical influence behind Yamamoto’s differing opinion of the role of arts in the curriculum of the bushi in that he hailed from the southern portions of Japan—a region notorious for being rural, hostile, uncultured, and generally a conservative counter culture to that in Edo.
Nevertheless, even some of the most outspoken proponents of Confucianism warned against bookishness. Yamaga, for example, wrote “Education will conflict with daily practical matters if we obsessively read books, neglecting to practice the moral Confucian was as well.” Though not as outspoken on the subject as Yamamoto, Yamaga did still warn the bushi that there was an appropriate time to study and another time to attend to their duties. Thus, education was useful, but only when it did not distract from the regular duties assigned to the warrior elite; there was a balance to strike between civilian and military demands.
That said there was a certain draw towards the study of Confucianism for at least a few bushi. One noteworthy example in addition to Yamaga Soko was Nakae Tojo who, at the age of twenty-seven, forsook his life as a bushi to dedicate himself to the study of Confucianism. He, and other bushi-turned-scholars, may have turned towards studying Chinese civil philosophy because it was more appealing to them than a life of crossed swords. Even Miyamoto makes concessions that there were some men better suited to certain lifestyles. For example, in Go Rin No Sho, he noted, “people practice the ways to which they are inclined, developing individual preferences.” Therefore, a bushi without preference towards martial prowess but rather one for scholarship exhibited outward displays of military weakness simply because these skill sets were not important to his predilections. Conversely, a bushi who had no interest in studying Chinese texts, but rather preferred to develop his military skills, exhibited a lack of knowledge in Confucian scholarship but exceled in arenas of martial prowess. In either case, however, the bushi in question was only of limited use to his lord because of his exceptional expertise in one field only: the literati was useless in preserving the peace of his lord’s domain through arms; the warrior was useless in administering the day-to-day bureaucratic functions of the domain under the Tokugawa Bakufu.
Education under the Tokugawa Bakufu
Because of the need to function in the bureaucracy of the Tokugawa Bakufu, as well as an increase in the amount of time available for study, a new emphasis on education similar that during the time of Zhu Xi in China appeared in Japan. For Tokugawa bushi, learning and self-cultivation were inseparable, so too were learning and Bushido. It was with this new emphasis on broadening the knowledge base of bushi from military skills to include civil skills that Confucianism first made noticeable, and traceable, influences upon Japanese military elite. According to Hurst, the bushi adopted Confucianism “as a civil religion” concurrent with the growth of bushi literacy. Yamaga described the most appropriate times to study as “In their free moments samurai should…read philosophy, history, and biographies…so that they will understand the nature of righteous and unrighteous conduct.” In this way, the reading of these works was much like the reading of the gunkimono in that they provided bushi with examples of proper behavior. From these examples, bushi adjusted their own habits and behaviors in order to promote self-cultivation and better fulfill their roles in the social hierarchy. Though a balance between civil and martial study was necessary, studying either of these subjects was something the bushi needed take neither lightly nor individually when able. According to Yamaga, “Unless taught, people do not understand the Confucian Way…If not ethically transformed through instruction, people fall prey to heterodoxies, believe perverse theories, and worship phantoms…” Thus, though being overly educated was in the eyes of some bushi a stigma, these educators were nevertheless useful to their peers with their expertise. Without proper guidance, Confucianism was an easily misunderstood Chinese philosophy.
More than a mere growth in literacy, Tokugawa laws, such as the Buke Shohatto, gave bushi a legal mandate to study both intellectual and military works. According to the laws, “One must wholly devote oneself to the civil and the military arts…to have the civil on the left and the military on the right is the ancient practice.” There was in these instructions a subtle cultural instruction that placed a special emphasis on civil learning. In traditional, and especially within the martial elements, of Japanese culture, the left hand receives special precedence over the right. For example, the left side (according to the perspective of the wearer) of a kimono covered the right side in proper rituals for dressing. In addition, the left hand provided the power behind cutting with a nihonto (J. “Japanese sword”) because to use the right hand was to use the “hand of greed.” Finally, when meditating in Japanese Zazen, the left hand laid on top of the right hand. Thus, the careful emphasis of the civil on the left and the martial on the right bridges several strata of Japanese society and culture: social, martial, and religious.
The emphasis of studying both civil and military subjects carried over into the military texts. Miyamoto reminded readers of the Go Rin No Sho and students of his ryū-ha, Ni Ten Ichi-ryū, “…the way of the warriors means familiarity with both cultural and martial arts.” Considering that Miyamoto also stated explicitly in the introduction of his work that did not borrow “the old saying of Buddhism or Confucianism,” and the similar wording found in his statement, this may be a repetition of the Buke Shohatto rather than a direct link to Confucian influences. If not a relation to the Tokugawa Laws, it may then be a reflection of just how deeply Confucianism and other philosophies penetrated Japanese culture. In addition to this warning, there were other links between Go Rin No Sho and Confucianism, though if readers take Miyamoto’s words at face value, then these links must come from a deeper, cultural source than his own philosophical inclinations.
Instruction through Direct Transmission
To transmit the principles of Confucianism and inculcate them into the philosophies and behavior of the bushi, tutors implemented the concept of jikiden (J. “direct transmission”). According to Yamakoshi, “Confucius taught that one should not add one’s own ideas to the teaching of one’s predecessor, but transmit them completely as one has received them.” This method had several important consequences for the development of Bushidō and the spread of Confucian philosophies under the Tokugawa Bakufu. First, direct transmission of Confucianism from tutor to student meant that during instruction the tutor could better guide students to understand the unique constraining context of military dominated Tokugawa Japan on the civil philosophy. Reading the Confucian texts on their own, however, lacked such deeper understandings, as these works were originally composed for Chinese statesmen and civilian scholars.
Second, the direct transmission of information from tutor reinforced the social structure of superior to inferior and the interdependent function of the one to the other. Many of the bushi who came to the profession of tutors originated with the lower levels of the warrior class, and found themselves in the employ of members of the higher strata. It was essential that their lessons emphasized on the one hand how deference to social superiors was an important trait to show both their own humility and to teach their students to understand their place under the bakufu. On the other hand, it was essential that they demonstrate that the lower echelons of society also held important positions that were useful to the ruling bushi.
Third, though the act of copying texts lent itself to supporting the stereotype of Confucian study as bookish, the importance of this exercise, especially related to Bushidō, was in the action itself of copying the classics and commentaries. Confucianism was important for bushi then because of the methods used to attain the idea of “sagehood.” Sagehood was an understanding of all things earned through ardent study. There were, according to this doctrine, two types of actions: those that lead one down the path to sagehood and those that did not. Within the accepted beliefs, there were multiple paths to sagehood, but all true paths lead to sagehood. During the Tokugawa Bakufu, one of the most common forms of martial study that brought about this understanding was the examination of swordsmanship. As evident in the work of Miyamoto, the concept of sagehood, or at least a masterful understanding of a myriad of things through in-depth study of one path, appeared in his text. According to Miyamoto, “the true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things.” Yagyu noted something similar, though Daoism also influenced his work significantly. In his work, Yagyu reminded readers that the purpose of martial skills, specifically swordsmanship, was “for the purpose of using all implements freely.” Though this specifically referred to developing martial skills to such a degree as to be able to defend oneself without weapons, it echoes the sentiment of sagehood in being able to perform multiple tasks with the expertise developed in one study.
Direct transmission and ritual (C. “li”) had an interesting connection in that the later was a tool of instruction for the former. Ritual, the practice of appropriate action and behavior at the appropriate time and with the appropriate measure, was already active in Japanese culture by the seventeenth century’s period of Confucian influence. Admittedly, this may well also be descendant from Confucianism and Chinese courtly and social customs received by the Japanese earlier in their history. Furthermore, ritual played an important role in the instruction of students in reading, writing, and philosophy, as students were often required to copy important paradigms according to specific guidelines. According to Yamaga, ritual was an essential part of the successful functioning of everyday life for all levels of society: “rites are patterns of behavior that people should follow in their daily lives.” Such activities trained multiple levels of the consciousness into conforming to social principals.
With the establishment of sword ryū-ha during the Tokugawa Bakufu, ritual was used to an even greater degree in the transmission and preservation of knowledge, especially in the instruction of swordsmanship. According to Yamaga, “Without rites, people would not know what to do with their hands and feet or what they should look at or listen to! Without rites, people would not know when to advance and when to retreat or when to press on and when to yield. With rites, peace prevails…in the civilian and military arenas.” This observation well described instruction of kata. The practice of kata (J. “patterns” or “forms”) in ryū-ha received significant influence from Confucian philosophies of ritual propriety. As the description implied, kata were patterns of offensive and defensive techniques designed by an instructor, for individual or paired practice. In the words of Friday, these were “structured experiences.” These patterns differed from jiyu keiko (J. “free sparring”) because each movement, ranging from the largest activating of major muscle groups in the chest, back, and core, to the tiniest flexing for the little toes and fingers, was carefully prescribed by the instructors.
On the surface, the specific performance of these patterns was to instruct students in a specific waza (J. “technique”). It was easiest for a student to learn a technique from mimicking his seniors and instructor in the kata. Even if he failed to gain the tiniest movements initially, the larger, slower movements gave way to these details with time and practice. Overtime, students developed an appreciation for the subtleties of swordsmanship such as perceiving an opponent’s intent in their posture and facial expressions, and appreciating when to advance or retreat based on the pressure given off from an opponent. Furthermore, the structure of the kata as prescribed—and therefore, predictable—sets of movements ensured safer practices, as gaining skill in swordsmanship is difficult when the dangers of severe injury or even death remained. Underneath these outward purposes of ritual within kata, however, was a deeper layer of instruction that only revealed with time and intense practice. Often, instructors hid subtle techniques, details, or variations hid within the kata. Instructors did not teacher these details, though useful, to new students either because they were too inexperienced to use this information responsibly or could injure themselves or others and thereby make practice unsafe. Alternatively, this information was part of the okuden set of instruction and instructors wanted to preserve it for only the most dedicated students.
Benevolence and Humaneness
Direct transmission and ritual combined instructed and reinforced one of the most important elements of Confucianism both in its original context and within the Tokugawa Bakufu: benevolence or humaneness (C. “ren”). According Tokugawa Ieyasu, “The things to be studied most deeply is benevolence.” Benevolence and humaneness are complex issues within Confucianism that combined understandings of the appropriate place of an individual in society as well as proper social behavior within that position. This emphasis on social constructs was especially important in the era of the Tokugawa Bakufu. As noted briefly afore, the ordering of relationships was especially important in that it established the supremacy of the Tokugawa Bakufu government and clan at the top of Japanese society, supported by the various daimyō who presided over bushi retainers, and so on down the hierarchy. This structuring along Confucian lines added an ethical element to social conformity. It was proper to understand and act according to one’s position in Japanese society and defer to the authority placed in the class strata above—to do otherwise, such as to foment rebellion, was unethical.
Despite the clear benefits the Tokugawa gained from the promulgation of Confucianism throughout the bushi, much support for Confucian thinking came from the lower ranks of bushi. Many of the Confucian thinking bushi came from the lower ranks. Where being in another strata of the bushi class provided opportunities that were more lucrative, due to their position these lower ranked bushi often sought employment as tutors of academics of instructors of swordsmanship. While Confucianism reinforced the position of the Tokugawa at the top, for these bushi the understanding of the importance of social roles and class distinctions encouraged the study of Confucianism as a psychological reinforcement that they were, though lowly, still an integral part of Japanese society. If nothing else, as a tutor to a son of a higher ranked bushi meant that, in time, they could gain influence and prestige with the heir to their employer. Upon his succession to the head of the lands, the skills of statecraft contained in Confucianism were of particular usefulness.
The increased emphasis on learning during this time, coupled with Confucian methods and philosophy, made the development of proper behavior within social contexts, or moral character, especially important. This, according to Yamakoshi, brought to Bushidō an emphasis on “moral codes” over “fighting techniques.” This is an important detail to bear in mind when examining the development of Japanese martial thought and philosophy. The earliest gunkimono emphasized that martial prowess and loyalty were the most important traits bushi exhibit. During the Tokugawa Bakufu, however, these skills required a moral code to preserve and control social and political stability. Without a moral code to govern the behavior of the bushi, their martial skills were just as much of an asset as they were a danger to the state and the civil population.
While benevolence preserved social order from the bottom up by reinforcing the place of the bushi and their role in relation to serving the bakufu, it also preserved civil peace by motivating the bushi to behave with benevolence towards all persons. This was especially important in an era when the ruling military elite no longer had persistent conflicts to occupy their time and energies. As a result, it was in the manuals of martial skills that the importance of benevolence towards a myriad of living persons was apparent. To the bushi of the Tokugawa Bakufu, the practice of martial skills was to facilitate “Expansion of Knowledge,” or “self-cultivation.” According to Yamakoshi, martial skills were matters of human and social relations that attempted to reveal to practitioners the value of human life of the self and others. This conclusion had within it two important descriptions of the function of benevolence in Bushidō. First, it described the importance of understanding the social hierarchy. The bushi who understood and respected his place within the social hierarchy of Tokugawa Japan was less likely to cause conflict and social disturbances for trivial causes. Such disturbances manifested as any number of duels or killings not in the name of saving face for a clan or lord, but rather, arose out of inconsequential matters of social issues that ranged from failing to behave accordingly in the presence of social superiors to mere street brawls that originated with too much sake. In addition to this, the bushi that understood the roles of other strata of the social hierarchy was better able to recognize that, while he and his class held the responsibility for ruling Japan, without the farmers, artisans, and (though admitted begrudgingly) merchants, he had neither country nor people to govern; he had neither the food of the farmer, nor the weapons and tools of the artisan, nor the goods sold through trade.
Benevolence also taught the bushi to think carefully about the value of human life (both their own and their opponent’s) before drawing their swords. To paraphrase, martial skills are matters of human and social relations that attempt to reveal to practitioners the value of human life of the self and others. Even Tokugawa emphasized the importance of solving problems without the use of violence. According to Tokugawa, “The right use of a sword is that it should subdue the barbarians while lying gleaming in its scabbard.” The practice of martial skills emphasized benevolence in order to cultivate an appreciation for the value of life within men who learned skills expressly designed to extinguish it. These lessons of benevolence manifested in a number of ways, ranging from using bokkuto (J. “wooden sword”) in practice to reduce the possibility of life threatening injuries to practitioners to explicit provisions against practicing tameshigiri, the testing of cutting techniques and swords on straw mats, corpses, and prisoners. As Yamakoshi noted, “For the sake of humankind, one should not teach martial arts in a way which holds the risks of finally turning someone into a monster who likes to kill people.” Therefore, the reason to develop martial skills was not explicitly for taking life but rather to give life to the practitioner in that he gained, with time, an understanding and appreciation for the life that surrounded him.
This is not to suggest that the development of martial skills was merely a means to attain sagehood and not still something bushi needed to hone and perfect. The Buke Shohatto, for example, required bushi to study both civil and military matters. The maintenance of martial sills was important not only in fulfilling the daily activities of the bushi as the ruling military elite, but also for use in the preservation of benevolence. According to Yagyu, the use of martial skills to protect others was one realization of benevolence. In his work, Yagyu noted, “It may happen that myriad people suffer because of the evil of one man. In such a case, myriad people are saved by killing one man. Would this not be a true example of ‘the sword that kills is the sword that gives life’?” This argument may well have been a rationalization for the continued development of martial skills during times of peace; it certainly is one that is not at the core Confucian considering the conflict between civil and martial found therein.
This confronted with the most often cited maxim of Bushidō from the Hagakure, “the Way of the samurai is found in death.” This line, however, rarely found its way to pages and commentaries with its context intact. In this instruction, Yamamoto advised young bushi that they should not be so entangled with the minutiae of their daily lives that they become soft and ineffectual in martial skills. Instead, he directed, they should be constantly aware of the inevitability of their own death so that when time came to cross swords, they already accepted their fate and, as a result, fear had a minimal influence on their reactions and they were more free to combat their opponent and, perhaps, walk away from the encounter.
Loyalty and Filial Piety
From benevolence and the ordering of social structures came an emphasis on loyalty (C. “zhong”)—a variation on the Confucian principal of filial piety (C. “xiao”). One of the earliest sources of bushi behavior, the Tale of Mutsu, noted, “Nothing is as important in a warrior as loyalty and filial piety.” Okubo Tadataka wrote in the Mikawa Monogatari (1622), “The master gives benevolence, the followers respond by loyal and faithful service.” According to Okubo’s assessment, the lord that demonstrates benevolence in various forms of recognition for service, application of justice, and ruling his domain with benevolence received loyalty from his retainers. This loyalty was more than a simple pledge to follow a lord (though that was an important part). Loyalty also encompassed the ideas of carrying out one’s duties to the best of their ability in the service of the lord. Yamamoto argued that even a retainer of average or lower ability was useful to his lord if he was dedicated and loyal. “But even a person who is good for nothing and exceedingly clumsy will be a reliable retainer if only he has the determination to earnestly of his master.” So important were these concepts to the successful completion of daily activities of the bushi and the preservation of peace that Yamaga instructed bushi to begin their day with reflection upon this. According to Yamaga’s Elementary Learning for Samurai, “With due appreciation for the graciousness of their lord and their father, samurai should deliberate on their daily responsibilities to them…” While the ordering of society was important for the Tokugawa Bakufu and civil stability, loyalty was arguably the most important Confucian value for the bushi.
This acting in the lord’s best interest did not require a retainer to sit idly by while his lord made poor decisions. A truly loyal retainer, according to Yamamoto, was one who corrected his lord in the interests of saving him from danger created by his own hands. There were, however, guidelines of decorum that dictated how a retainer could correct his master; if, for example, he was not of the correct position he had to find someone of the proper position to provide the correction to the lord for him.
Loyalty also harkened back to the more violent days of the bushi. According to Miyamoto, “Whether by victory in an individual duel or by winning a battle with several people, one thinks of serving the interests of one’s employer, of serving one’s own interests, or becoming well known and socially established.” Though the medium of being successful in these arenas was the study of martial skills, according to Miyamoto, there is a clear Confucian structure of relationships here in that the combatants’ motivations originated with an intense desire to be loyal. Furthermore, this illustration made the idea of loyalty, though already established in Bushidō, more appealing to the bushi’s traditional role as warriors because it made clear that their previous displays of service were still valid in the new era of peace. This specific description also tied together loyalty as dedicated service to a lord with an individual bushi’s martial prowess. Instead of fomenting rebellion and disorder, Miyamoto’s words cemented the position of the bushi within the context of using their skills to serve their lord and not their own interests.
This last element, courage (C. “yong”) was essential throughout all periods of history for the bushi. It took on new meaning, however, during the Tokugawa Bakufu. Before the Tokugawa Bakufu, the exercise of courage was a matter of physical courage—accepting the inevitability of death, charging forward when faced with a hedgerow of spears and clouds of falling arrows, etc. Following the Tokugawa Bakufu, philosophical trends attached the exercise of courage with making proper decisions, such as those that benefited the whole of society over the individual, or possessing the courage to inform a feudal lord that his behavior or choice of action was not in accord with what was proper or most beneficial. Therefore, instead of physical courage, the bushi of the Tokugawa Bakufu required a moral and philosophical courage of sorts—indeed, it required great courage of this type for those few bushi who openly studied Confucianism to do so in the face of the criticism of their peers.
The interaction between civil and military philosophies found during the period of the Tokugawa Bakufu and within the culture of the bushi as examined in this work was indeed complex. The period authors who wrote on these subjects demonstrated that there was in that time a relationship between the civil and the military where neither was to be relied upon too exclusively. This was a situation created by a series of developments such as the cessation of widespread hostilities following the establishment of Tokugawa Bakufu and the need for the bushi to reestablish the purpose of a class of military elite in a time when their skills were not needed and many of their peers delved into licentious behaviors. Furthermore, there was a need to make clear that the skills of the military elite were still useful, even during a time of peace, and to show that these skills were valuable in achieving the aims of civil government. This was not pure Confucianism, however. Because the sources of Confucianism during the Tokugawa Bakufu came from Zen monks who studied in Kyoto, there was an intermingling of the two. In the words of Masahide, “they did not draw a sharp distinction between Confucianism and Buddhism.” This is important to bear in mind when examining the influence of the one philosophy on Japanese military thought and theory. While Confucianism was important and evident in all three of the genres of sources examined in this work, nearly equally important were precepts taken from Daoism and Buddhism (unfortunately, a detailed discussion of these is beyond the scope of this current investigation). Considering these conclusions, it certainly seems that Edo Period Japan could be one of the best illustrations of the Confucian ideal of a balance between Wen and Wu as both were necessary fields of expertise of the ruling military class. Nevertheless, much like any other element of Japanese culture, it takes cues from outside sources and blends and mixes them to meet the needs of Japanese people. This also complicates this examination, as it not only broadens but also deepens the scope of research, analysis, and synthesis of exceptionally complex ideas.
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About the Author
Edward Smith holds a 6th dan and renshi teaching license in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido (Seitokai) and is the kancho of Oklahoma City Iaido. He began studying martial arts in grade school and continued throughout college. In 2007 he began studying iaido under Susan Burke sensei (7th dan, renshi). After Burke-sensei retired from iaido, he began studying under her teacher, John Ray sensei (8th dan, hanshi) of the Denton Dojo.
He is a former archery coach and gifted educator now working as a principal at the Putnam City Academy. He is also an adjunct professor in the departments of Humanities and History at Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma City. He has published academic and popular work on East Asian military theory in the American Review of China Studies, the Journal of Chinese Military History, Strategy and Tactics Press, and Tozando International.
ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
Budo Book Review strives to provide thoughtful, in-depth reviews of works of interests to martial artists from a variety of backgrounds.
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