Why Bushido Didn’t Push Japan Into WWII

Setting The Record Straight

I don’t want to link to this because it’ll only draw attention to leaky history but, in my efforts to find sites worth linking this blog to, I began reading a ‘history of Japan’ that floated the idea that Bushido was a key cultural factor driving Japan into WWII.

This is a bit much.

Bushido: Raised From The Dead

By the time the Meiji Restoration regime started citing Bushido as an inspiration for its uniformed soldiers, the samurai, as a class, had been safely extinguished. No one went around Japan wearing two swords; it was one, military sword, and then only for commissioned and non-commissioned officers in the modern, West-inspired military. In other words, Bushido had been raised from the dead in defense of nationalism by the very people who had slain it.

If you’ve read my Concise Samurai History eBook posted below, you are already aware that samurai had not directly served emperors in force for about one thousand years prior to the Meiji Restoration. Bushido was, at its core, a feudal principle: loyalty and fidelity to one’s immediate lord. Every samurai paid lip service to the emperors said to be directly descended from the gods, but samurai only followed the commands of their leaders: shoguns, daimyo, clan leaders, and immediate commanding officers. In other words, they obeyed those who paid them (in rice, so this is really to say, those who fed them). Emperors had lost the clout to pay/ feed samurai long before, so this lip service was as good as it was going to get.

It is not this Bushido that Japan revived in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war, and later, in the lead-up to WWII. It is another, citing the name of Bushido, and invoking its spirit, because that spirit retained power in the popular mind. Once it was safely dead, a seance was held to call the spirit back and apply it to traditional Western propaganda, just with a native Japanese twist.

I mean, really, where do you think Japan learned about nationalism, patriotism, mass media propaganda, and so forth? Why, from us in the West, of course! Don’t think that the young officers Japan sent to Western nations were just taking note of technology. They were also analyzing what fed into the morale of the foot soldier: national esprit, talk of the blood of martyrs (example: Remember The Alamo!!), rigorous organization, conscription, codes of military law enforced to create and maintain discipline, and so forth.

Bushido: Convenient Tool of a Modern Army

So, it is the idea of Bushido that was being invoked, not Bushido itself. Fighting for the Emperor hadn’t been in style for a thousand years, after all; they wanted to make it cool again, if you will.

Ultimately, if Bushido had not existed, the Meiji government would have invented it, just like it invented many other things. Bushido was used – once it had been rendered harmless to Japan’s new regime, anyway – because it was there.

That is all.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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