Did Samurai Have an Honor Code?


With their katanas, flowing robes, and sharp swords, the Samurai have long held an allure. A rich history and an intriguing culture that’s based on discipline – the honor code of the Samurai has been scrutinized by many. 

The Samurai had an honor code, and its name was Bushido. Bushi means ‘warrior’ and Do means’ way’ – Way of the Warrior. Some of its key pillars were justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, honor, and loyalty. Bushido transcended the battlefield; it was a way of life – a religion. 

This article will further expand on the principles of Bushido. It will also explain how Samurais showed their honor and how they could lose their honor. 

Samurai honor code
What is Bushido? See below

What Is Bushido?  

What is Bushido, and why was it so crucial for the Samurai to have a code? To answer this question effectively, it’s important to first understand how and why Samurai came to be and what their purpose was.

In 12th century Japan, the Samurai had risen to the ranks of the higher class of society. They were Japanese society’s creme de la creme and lived enviable lives. They had a code that guided them, and anyone who broke the code was ostracized. But they were not always so highly placed in society. 

The evolution of the Samurai began in the Heian period when Japan was a feudal state. [1] The ruling class from Kyoto assigned nobles to different localities to control their vassals and protect them from local chieftains who attacked the villagers. But the nobles were incompetent. 

These nobles could not protect these villagers, so they formed militias to defend themselves. Families, especially those with large estates, came together to fight and went back to farming soon after. These were the first Samurai, a word that means “one who serves,” and the birth of the warrior class. 

While they were ‘warrior bands’ initially, these families soon evolved into something more powerful. Realizing that they did not need Kyoto, they began to fend for themselves and become a law unto their lands. 

Organizations that started from small families soon began to recruit men to join their ranks. Essentially, the families treated the region they protected like mini kingdoms. They became known as Daimyo, or “people who own land.”

As Daimyo rose in power, Samurai grew from simple fighting men to the militia who served families that had become noble in their rights. The Samurai represented their masters and carried the Daimyo on their shoulders since military strength was the source of their power. 

They started to develop their unique philosophy during this process, which was designed to make them more effective. The strength of the Samurai was the strength of The Daimyo. 

The need to protect the family bred loyalty, and the need to win battles birthed courage. The responsibility of controlling land meant they had to develop a strong sense of justice. 

The Bushido was an unwritten philosophy for the Samurai because it was a reflection of what the men of the times felt they needed to survive and dominate their environment. It evolved as a matter of need.

However, this feudal system led to over two centuries of fighting until Heidoshi united Japan. Eventually, Samurai began to evolve from fighting men to artists, poets, monks, and teachers. They became the swordless Samurai – former warriors who had a strong philosophy and could be moral leaders of society. The code became even more important. 

Samurai
How did Samurai show honor? See below

How Did Samurai Show Honor?

Many cultures have different definitions of honor. For example, men of Victorian society took a slight on the women in their families as a slight on their honor. The Samurai had a similar sense, but it was more related to the honor of the Daimyo. 

The principle demanded that the warrior must protect not just the honor of his lord but his own honor as a warrior. 

The Samurai showed honor by upholding the principles of the Bushido code. They were loyal, courageous, just, polite, and benevolent. They would also rather die honorably in battle than die a coward. 

This principle played out when Samurai committed ‘Seppuku’ (ritual suicide) if he had done something to taint his or his house’s honor. 

The Principle of Loyalty

What does a Samurai do when the head of another Daimyo dishonors his master in public? He plots for two years and assassinates the adversary. 

The story of the 47 Ronin is celebrated as a paragon of loyalty to date. When Asano Naganori – Daimyo of the Ako domain – felt dishonored by Kira Yoshinaka, the former was forced to commit Seppuku for breaking court etiquette. As a result, his Samurai were left without a master, which made them Ronin. 

Asano’s Samurai, loyal even to a dead man, plotted for the next two years and embarked on a revenge mission. They assassinated Kira in his home and happily died by ritual for their actions. Such was the loyalty and fierce faithfulness of Samurai. 

The Principle of Courage

As seen in the story of the 47 Ronin, Samurai were happy to sacrifice their own lives even for a dead man.  His courage came from the fact that he embraced and even chose his death. He did not fear death because, in his mind, he was already dead. This made him a relentless, focused, dedicated, and skillful warrior. 

The Principle of Justice

Justice to the Samurai was about using even scales to measure personal decisions and navigate complex relationships. Despite the fact that the sword was a part of his identity, he had a strong sense of justice that made him refrain from swinging it whenever he felt like it. 

Samurai swung their swords and sheathed them based on an inner compass. If they saw it fit to die, they died. Justice was not an abstract concept; they backed it up with real action, executing it upon themselves or others. 

The Principle of Politeness

According to the Hagakure, “If admonishment and opinions are not communicated carefully with a spirit of accord, it will amount to nothing. Insensitive protests will cause umbrage, and even simple problems will not be resolved.” [2]

As mentioned earlier, honor was a big deal to Samurai. 

While a Samurai had the right to defend his honor, the honor of his house, or even the honor of his friend – he also had the duty to respect others. As such, Jocko, a teacher of Samurai, advised the men to always seek the path of peace before resorting to arms. 

The Principle of Benevolence

Benevolence was a key part of Samurai ideology. One way that a Samurai earned honor and showed loyalty was to educate a younger Samurai on how to be a better retainer. 

The Hagakure also says, “It is an act of loyalty to educate others to become better retainers. Therefore, those with the will to learn should be given instruction. Nothing is more joyous than passing on knowledge to be vicariously useful in service through others.”

Samurai warrior
How would a Samurai lose his honor? See below

How Would a Samurai Lose His Honor?

The execution of Bushido was often interpreted based on context, and some argue about the contradictions therein. Most of the time, Samurai used their judgment to determine a lot of things, as Bushido did not become a text until the 17th century. 

Loyalty to the Daimyo was the major way that the Samurai’s honor was judged. 

Samurai would lose their honor by betraying their Daimyo or their clans. Other discretionary issues could impact how the rank and file viewed a Samurai. Laziness, for example, would taint the perception of a warrior, but not destroy his honor. Betrayal was the only way to truly lose their honor. 

Before a Samurai was adopted to work for his master, he had to use his wife and children as collateral. It was a way to guarantee his loyalty to the house, and his family was killed if he ever defected. It wasn’t a foolproof system though, as spies could provide a fake family as collateral. 

Honor through loyalty to the house was the ultimate. He was not a mercenary to the Daimyo, he was a representative, and protector of his house. As a result, Samurai were taught to shun consumerism or the allure of wealth.

It was assumed that a Samurai who was too interested in money had a high potential of becoming a double agent. Many Samurai did switch sides, and it was a strictly mercenary arrangement. 

Doubling down on shunning consumerism, no Samurai who still held onto life could be loyal. He was expected to lay down his life for his clan. By putting his own life above the needs of the clan, he proved that he was not a loyal man, and not fit to be Samurai. 

Conclusion

The way of the Samurai is way more complex than this article covers. It was a whole society of various classes, responsibilities, and clans. 

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source

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