Chivalry is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom; nor is it a dried-up specimen of an antique virtue preserved in the herbarium of our history. It is still a living object of power and beauty among us; and if it assumes no tangible shape or form, it not the less scents the moral atmosphere, and makes us aware that we are still under its potent spell. The conditions of society which brought it forth and nourished it have long disappeared; but as those far-off stars which once were and are not, still continue to shed their rays upon us, so the light of chivalry, which was a child of feudalism, still illuminates our moral path, surviving its mother institution. It is a pleasure to me to reflect upon this subject in the language of Burke, who uttered the well-known touching eulogy over the neglected bier of its European prototype.
Authored in 1900 by Nitobe Inazō, a Christian, agricultural economist, author, educator, diplomat, and politician during Meiji and Taishō periods of Japan, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, was one of the first major works on Samurai ethics and Japanese culture written originally in English for Western readers. A best-seller in its day, it was read by many influential foreigners, among them President Theodore Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy and Robert Baden-Powell. It may well have shaped Baden-Powell’s ideas on the Boy Scout movement he founded.
As Japan was undergoing a profound transformation of its traditions and changing into a modern society, Nitobe was researching the ancient ethos of his nation, the result being this seminal work. Being born into a Samurai family himself, he found in Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, the sources of the virtues most admired by his people (and himself): rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, loyalty and self-control.
He also investigated other ancient traditions of Japan; Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism and the moral guidelines handed down over hundreds of years by Japan’s Samurai and sages. He also sought out similarities and contrasts by citing not only Western philosophers and statesmen, but also the shapers of European and American thought and civilization going back to the Romans, the Greeks and Biblical times. He found a close resemblance between the Samurai ethos of what he called Bushido and the spirit of medieval chivalry and the ethos of ancient Greece, as observed in books like the Iliad of Homer.
Like State sponsored Shinto and the Hagakure, Nitobe’s work was also hijacked by the Japanese Gvt. to resurrect Bushido and fan the flames of militarism in Imperial Japan. In modern times it has been criticized by modern historians as being overly idealized and romanticized. As a matter of fact Bushido as a term is rarely found in any pre-Meiji Japanese Texts, the word as we know it now is almost entirely due to Nitobe’s book.
Nitobe himself was a noted Japanese statesman, member of the League of Nations, believer in a Democratic Japan and a staunch critic of Japan’s increasing militarism up to his death in 1933. His lifelong wish was to be “a bridge over the Pacific”, joining the cultures of Japan and America.