Ancient History & Civilisation

The Political and Moral Foundations

A tentative approach

IF, NOW, we try to picture the Japan that died in 1853, we should remember that it may be as hard to understand, as it might be to fight, a people five thousand miles distant, and differing from us in color and language, government and religion, manners and morals, character and ideals, literature and art. Hearn was more intimate with Japan than any other Western writer of his time, and yet he spoke of “the immense difficulty of perceiving and comprehending what underlies the surface of Japanese life.”1 “Your information about us,” a genial Japanese essayist reminds the Occident, “is based on the meagre translations of our immense literature, if not on the unreliable anecdotes of passing travelers. . . . We Asiatics are often appalled by the curious web of facts and fancies which has been woven concerning us. We are pictured as living on the perfume of the lotus, if not on mice and cockroaches.”2 What follows, therefore, is a tentative approach—based upon the briefest direct acquaintance—to Japanese civilization and character; each student must correct it by long and personal experience. The first lesson of philosophy is that we may all be mistaken.


The powerless emperor—The powers of the “shogun”—The sword of the “Samurai”—The code of the “Samurai”—“Hara-kiri”—The Forty-seven “Ronin”—A commuted sentence

Theoretically at the head of the nation was the divine emperor. The actually ruling house—the hereditary shogunate—allowed the emperor and his court $25,000 a year for maintaining the impressive and useful fiction of uninterrupted rule.* Many people of the court practised some domestic handicraft to sustain themselves: some made umbrellas, others made chopsticks, or toothpicks, or playing cards. The Tokugawa shoguns made it a principle to leave the emperor no authority whatever, to seclude him from the people, to surround him with women, and to weaken him with effeminacy and idleness. The imperial family yielded its powers gracefully, and contented itself with dictating the fashions of aristocratic dress.3

Meanwhile the shogun luxuriated in the slowly growing wealth of Japan, and assumed prerogatives normally belonging to the emperor. When he was borne through the streets in his ox-carriage or palanquin the police required every house along the route, and all the shutters of upper windows, to be closed; all fires were to be extinguished, all dogs and cats were to be locked up, and the people themselves were to kneel by the roadside with their heads upon their hands and their hands upon the ground.4 The shogun had a large personal retinue, including four jesters, and eight cultured ladies dedicated to entertain him without reserve.5 He was advised by a cabinet of twelve members: a “Great Senior,” five “Seniors” or ministers, and six “Sub-Elders” who formed a junior council. As in China, a Board of Censors supervised all administrative offices, and kept watch upon the feudal lords. These lords, or Daimyo (“Great Name”), formally acknowledged allegiance only to the emperor; and some of them, like the Shimadzu family that ruled Satsuma, successfully limited the shogun’s authority, and finally overthrew it.

Below the lords were the baronets, and below these the squires; and serving the lords were a million or more Samurai—sword-bearing guardsmen. The basic principle of Japanese feudal society was that every gentleman was a soldier, and every soldier a gentleman;6 here lay the sharpest difference between Japan and that pacific China which thought that every gentleman should be a scholar rather than a warrior. Though they loved, and partly formed themselves on, such swashbuckling novels as the ChineseRomance of the Three Kingdoms, the Samurai scorned mere learning, and called the literary savant a book-smelling sot.7 They had many privileges: they were exempt from taxation, received a regular stipend of rice from the baron whom they served, and performed no labor except occasionally to die for their country. They looked down upon love as a graceful game, and preferred Greek friendship; they made a business of gambling and brawling, and kept their swords in condition by paying the executioner to let them cut off condemned heads.8 His sword, in Iyeyasu’s famous phrase, was “the soul of the Samurai” and found remarkably frequent expression despite prolonged national peace. He had the right, according to Iyeyasu9, to cut down at once any member of the lower classes who offended him; and when his steel was new and he wished to make trial of it, he was as likely to try it on a beggar as on a dog.10 “A famous swordsman having obtained a new sword,” says Longford, “took up his place by the Nihon Bashi (the central bridge of Yedo) to await a chance of testing it. By and by a fat peasant came along, merrily drunk, and the swordsman dealt him the Nashi-wari (pear-splitter) so effectively that he cut him right through from the top of his head down to the fork. The peasant continued on his way, not knowing that anything had happened to him, till he stumbled against a coolie, and fell in two neatly severed pieces.”11 Of such trivial consequence is the difference, so troublesome to philosophers, between the One and the Many.

The Samurai had other graces than this jolly despatch with which they transformed time into eternity. They accepted a stern code of honor—Bushido* or the Way of the Knight—whose central theory was its definition of virtue: “the power of deciding upon a certain course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when it is right to die, to strike when it is right to strike.”12 They were tried by their own code, but it was more severe than the common law.13 They despised all material enterprise and gain, and refused to lend, borrow or count money; they seldom broke a promise, and they risked their lives readily for anyone who appealed to them for just aid. They made a principle of hard and frugal living; they limited themselves to one meal a day, and accustomed themselves to eat any food that came to hand, and to hold it. They bore all suffering silently, and suppressed every display of emotion; their women were taught to rejoice when informed that their husbands had been killed on the battlefield.14 They recognized no obligation except that of loyalty to their superiors; this was, in their code, a higher law than parental or filial love. It was a common thing for a Samurai to disembowel himself on the death of his lord, in order to serve and protect him in the other world. When the Shogun Iyemitsu was dying in 1651 he reminded his prime minister, Hotto, of this duty of junshi, or “following in death”; Hotto killed himself without a word, and several subordinates imitated him.15 When the Emperor Mutsuhito went to his ancestors in 1912 General Nogi and his wife committed suicide in loyalty to him.16 Not even the traditions of Rome’s finest soldiers bred greater courage, asceticism and self-control than were demanded by the code of the Samurai.

The final law of Bushido was hara-kiri—suicide by disembowelment. The occasions when this would be expected of a Samurai were almost beyond count, and the practice of it so frequent that little notice was taken of it. If a man of rank had been condemned to death he was allowed, as an expression of the emperor’s esteem, to cut through his abdomen from left to right and then down to the pelvis with the small sword which he always carried for this purpose. If he had been defeated in battle, or had been compelled to surrender, he was as like as not to rip open his belly. (Hara-kiri means belly-cutting; it is a vulgar word seldom used by the Japanese, who prefer to call it seppuku.) When, in 1895, Japan yielded to European pressure and abandoned Liaotung, forty military men committed hara-kiri in protest. During the war of 1905 many officers and men in the Japanese navy killed themselves rather than be captured by the Russians. If his superior did something offensive to him, the good Samurai might gash himself to death at his master’s gate. The art of seppuku—the precise ritual of ripping—was one of the first items in the education of Samuraiyouth; and the last tribute of affection that could be paid to a friend was to stand by him and cut off his head as soon as he had carved his paunch.17 Out of this training, and the traditions bound up with it, has come some part of the Japanese soldier’s comparative fearlessness of death.*

Murder, like suicide, was allowed occasionally to replace the law. Feudal Japan economized on policemen not only by having many bonzes, but by allowing the son or brother of a murdered man to take the law into his own hand; and this recognition of the right of revenge, though it begot half the novels and plays of Japanese literature, intercepted many crimes. The Samurai, however, usually felt called upon to commit hara-kiri after exercising this privilege of personal revenge. When the famous Fortyseven Ronin(“Wave Men”—i.e., unattached Samurai), to avenge a death, had cut off the head of Kotsuké no Suké with supreme courtesy and the most refined apologies, they retired in dignity to estates named by the Shogun, and neatly killed themselves (1703). Priests returned Kotsuké’s head to his retainers, who gave them this simple receipt:


Item: One head.

Item: One paper parcel.

The above articles are acknowledged to have been received.

(Signed)   Sayada Mogobai
           Saito Kunai

This is probably the most famous and typical event in the history of Japan, and one of the most significant for the understanding of Japanese character. Its protagonists are still, in the popular view, heroes and saints; to this day pious hands deck their graves, and incense never ceases to rise before their resting place.19

Towards the end of Iyeyasu’s regency two brothers, Sakon and Naiki, twenty-four and seventeen years of age respectively, tried to kill him because of wrongs which they felt that he had inflicted upon their father. They were caught as they entered the camp, and were sentenced to death. Iyeyasu was so moved by their courage that he commuted their sentences to self-disembowelment; and in accord with the customs of the time he included their younger brother, the eight-year-old Hachimaro, in this merciful decree. The physician who attended the boys has left us a description of the scene:

When they were all seated in a row for final despatch, Sakon turned to the youngest and said—“Go thou first, for I wish to be sure that thou doest it right.” Upon the little one’s replying that, as he had never seen seppuku performed, he would like to see his brothers do it, and then he could follow them, the older brothers smiled between their tears:—“Well said, little fellow. So canst thou well boast of being our father’s child.” When they had placed him between them, Sakon thrust the dagger into the left side of his abdomen and said—“Look, brother! Dost understand now? Only, don’t push the dagger too far, lest thou fall back. Lean forward, rather, and keep thy knees well composed.” Naiki did likewise, and said to the boy—“Keep thine eyes open, or else thou mayst look like a dying woman. If thy dagger feels anything within and thy strength fails, take courage, and double thy effort to cut across.” The child looked from one to the other, and when both had expired, he calmly half denuded himself and followed the example set him on either hand.20

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