Bushidō: The Way of the Bushi

KANJI:  Sei - Shin - Kan

The fundamental precepts of Bushidō provide the essential philosophical framework for our training in Nippon budō (the peacemaking arts of mainland Japan) at the Jikishin-Kai and, for reasons explained below, our training in Okinawan budō, as well. 

Bushidō is a concept that is widely misinterpreted.  It is frequently translated into English as "the Way of the Warrior."  It may seem a minor distinction to some, but we believe a better translation would be "the Way of the Bushi," and since the bushi originated as defenders of private property owners, "bushi" is better understood as "guardian(s)" or "peacemaker(s)" than as warrior(s).  This article presents background information on the origin of the bushi and Bushidō, as well as a description of the eight major precepts of Bushidō as it is most commonly understood and practiced in modern budō.  Use the links below to navigate directly to topics on this page:

n Origins of Bushidō
n Gi (義) Righteousness
n (勇) Courage
n Jin (仁) Benevolence 
n Rei (礼) Respect 
n Makoto (誠) Sincerity 
n Meiyo (名誉) Reputation 
n Chūgi (忠義) Fidelity 
n Jisei (自制) Self-Mastery 
n Practical Application to Modern Life







Kantan na michi o susumeba, jinsei wa muzukashii.  Muzukashii michi o susumeba, jinsei wa kantan desu. ( 簡単な道を進めば、人生は難しい。難しい道を進めば、人生は簡単です。)

"If you take the easy path, life is difficult.  [But] If you take the difficult path, life is easy."

The Origins of Bushidō

Posted by Leonard J. Pellman on 24 September 2022

Ukiyoe HyakushoThe inciting event that gave birth to the bushi was the Taika Land Reform of 645 AD and the modifications to that reform that followed in the early 8th century.  Prior to these land reforms all land in Japan was the property of the imperial family.  Farmers lived on the imperial land and cultivated crops and raised animals that were essentially rationed to the people by administrators appointed by the Emperor.  Those doing the work received the same ration, regardless of how productive or unproductive they were.  As a result, there was no incentive to produce high yields, so there was insufficient food to feed the population and starvation was rising in the early 7th century.

The Taika Land Reforms apportioned  the large tracts of land formerly belonging to the imperial family into small plots for family farming.  The families farming those plots were allowed to keep, and sell if they wished, any excess they produced over the taxes assessed on their land.    At first, the lands were reapportioned every few years by census, but by the mid 8th century, the system was working so well and producing such abundance that families were allowed to permanently keep their lands, and to buy and sell those lands.  Of course, human nature being what it is, greed resulted in increasing numbers of thefts and murders for some to acquire more land without paying or working for it.  To protect themselves and their property, jinushi (landowners) began hiring guardians to protect their lives and property.  Those guardians eventually came to be called bushi (武士) by the mid- to late-Heian Jidai (Heian Era). which lasted from 794 to 1185 AD.

Bushi (武士) does not mean "warrior."  The kanji "bu" (武) is formed from two other kanjidome (止), which means to stop, prevent, or quell, and hoko (矛), which is a type of spear and represents conflict, warfare, or rebellion.  The kanji "shi" (士) in bushi means scholar, sage, wise man, or gentleman.  There are several Japanese terms for warrior:  senshi (戦士), heishi (兵士), gunjin (軍人), and heisotsu (兵卒) being among the most common.  By definition, a warrior engages in warfare.  A bushi first uses wisdom and diplomacy to prevent conflict and engages in combat only if forced to do so.  A bushi defends the innocent and the victims of illicit aggression, while a warrior engages in combat whether as aggressor or defender.  A bushi is thus better understood as a guardian of peace—a peacemaker or peacekeeper—rather than a warrior.  In fact, a bushi might well be considered the antithesis of a warrior.

By the late Heian Jidai (794—1185 AD), the bushi had developed a lifetyle and unwritten code of ethics we now know as Bushidō, or the Way of the Bushi.  As the power, reputation, and prestige of the bushi rose, the term "Bushidō," often stated as Bushi no Michi, came into popular use.  At that time, the bushi were not samuraiSamurai (侍) were hereditary nobles and administrators appointed by the Emperor.  They were primarily the record keepers, accountants, diplomats, and as the name "samurai" suggests, public servants during the Heian Jidai.  It wasn't until the early Kamakura Jidai (1185—1333) and the establishment of the first Sei-i Tai-Shōgun (supreme military commander) as the de facto ruler of Japan that the bushi were granted samurai status.  Even so, only vague references to Bushidō appear in Japanese literature or historical records prior to the Tokugawa Jidai (1603—1868), and those early references do not describe its principles in any useful detail; only that the bushi had a Way of Life that they, and the samurai class as a whole, devotedly followed. 

The first known written use of the word Bushidō is found in the Kōyō Gunkan, a detailed account of the exploits, philosophy, and military campaigns of Takeda Shingen completed in 1616, but it contains only cursory mention of traits like duty, loyalty, courage, and honour.  Two factors are likely to have played a role in defining Bushidō more specificially during the Tokugawa Era:  the influence of Christianity and the pacification of Japan under the Tokugawa regime.  With Japan at relative peace following some 500 years of nearly constant internal warfare between daimyō and roughly one-third of the samurai class becoming at least nominally Christian under the influence of Jesuit missionaries, the roles and purpose of the samurai and the bushi were changing significantly.  No longer were physical battles and the need for courage and ferocity in combat a daily reality, so character traits like compassion, devotion to service, and honourable behaviour were of growing importance to the duties of civil administration, justice, and peacekeeping.  A few similar referencees were made between the mid-17th century and the early 19th century, but the first published work to describe specific attributes and behaviours of Bushidō was actually written in English, in Monterey, California, in 1899 by a Japanese scholar and diplomat named Nitobe Inazō (1862—1933), who was a Christian.  He described Bushidō in terms that are applicable to people of all religious and philosophical beliefs.  It was this book that popularised the word Bushidō and the first seven of the  eight traits cited here both in Japan and worldwide.

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Gi (義)—Righteousness

Posted by Michiko Pellman on 19 May 2015
Gi (Righteousness)

At the Jikishin-Kai, we treat gi (義) as the cornerstone of Bushidō.  After all, the bushi arose as guardians of the lives, rights, and property of the innocent.  The skills and training of budō afford a bushi the power of life or death over people.  Both to fulfill their purpose and to prevent misuse or abuse of their power, the first duty of a bushi is to know and do what is right.

Like most Japanese words, gi has several closely related meanings and nuances:  righteousness, morality, justice, integrity, humanity, chivalry, honour, and more.              

Just as a coin has two sides, there are two vital aspect of gi:  (1) doing what is right and just, and (2) opposing those who perpetrate wrongs and injustice.  Most people try to do what they believe is right, but only a few are willing to risk their reputations, lifestyles, and safety to oppose those doing wrong.  A bushi does both.

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Posted by Michiko Pellman on 19 May 2015
Yu (Courage)

Since a bushi will often stand alone or in the minority when opposing evil, another essential trait a bushi must possess is (勇):  courage. Not just physical courage, but also mental (intellectual and emotional) and spiritual courage.  Just as it takes courage to stand up against a bully or a confrontational adversary, it takes courage to express one's opinions and feelings candidly, or to act upon one's core values and fundamental beliefs.

Courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage  is the strength and will to act in spite of fear.

How is courage developed?   By facing our fears.  Training in classical budō offers opportunities in nearly every class to face an opponent who is attacking with realistic ferocity, and often with techniques or weapons that could inflict serious injury or death.  Even though this occurs under controlled and well supervised conditions, it nevertheless develops the courage to face potential harm calmly and rely upon one's knowledge and skill for protection.


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Jin (仁)—Benevolence

Posted by Michiko Pellman on 19 May 2015
Jin (Benevolence)

At the heart of Bushidō is the principle of jin (仁) or benevolence.  Among the many ways jin is translated into English are:  charity, goodness, humanity, kindness, virtue, mercy, and benevolence.  Of these, we at the SJikishin-Kai believe benevolence serves as the best single-word summary of the meaning of jin, since it implicitly encompasses all the other common translations.

The word "benevolence" is derived from the Latin words bene (good) and velle (intention), but for the bushi and budōka, benevolence must be more than merely good intentions.  It must be put into action.  Good intentions are merely sympathy, but sympathy does nothing to benefit—another word derived from the Latin bene—anyone.  Benevolence isn't just hoping things work out well for someone; it is doing something that will cause things to work out well for them.

The bushi began as guardians of the lives, rights, and property of the innocent, protecting them from being robbed, harmed, or killed. But during the relative peace of the Tokugawa Jidai, the role of the bushi evolved into maintaining peace and order, and devoting themselves serving their country and its people in any way that promoted their prosperity.  This should serve as a model for modern bushi.

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Rei (礼)—Respect

Posted by Michiko Pellman on 19 May 2015
Rei (Respect)

Nearly every budōka has heard the saying, "Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru."   It is usually translated as something like, "Everything begins and ends with respect,"  "Respect from beginning to end," or "Begin with respect and end with respect."  The gesture that signifies and symbolises this saying in nearly every modern dōjō is bowing at the beginning and end of every training activity. In fact, in most dōjō outside Japan and Okinawa, rei (礼) is practically synonymous with "bow."  But the true meaning of rei is much deeper than merely gestures and proper etiquette.

True rei (礼) is essentially caring about other people and treating them the way you would wish to be treated.  For a budōka, respect is unconditional.  People need not earn our respect.  We respect them despite their flaws and failings. 

There are also two sides, omote and ura (obserse and reverse), to reirespect for the intrinsic value of a person or thing, and respect for the potential harm that person or thing can inflict if mishandled.  A katana (sword) provides an excellent example of these two aspects of rei.  A katana is an object of great beauty and value, but if mishandled it can inflict a serious or even fatal injury.  Thus, it must both be cared for, and treated carefully.

Gi (righteousness), jin (benevolence), and rei (respect) are inextricably intertwined.  All three of these principles involve doing what is right and just for other people.  Together, these three traits produce jihi (慈悲)—compassion or humanity—through actions that do what is right, beneficial, and respectful for others.  Compassion often takes the form of "tough love," because what is right, beneficial, and just for someone can sometimes require that they change behaviours and/or attitudes they don't want to change.  The right thing is seldom the easy thing.

Respect must not be confused with admiration.  We can respect people without admiring them or condoning their actions.  Even the worst criminal or the most heinous enemy should be treated justly and humanely, even though we may utterly despise and oppose their behaviour.

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Makoto (誠)—Sincerity

Posted by Michiko Pellman on 19 May 2015
Makoto (Sincerity)

If a single trait could be used to epitomise Bushidō, that trait would most likely be makoto (誠).   Of course, makoto also has many translations and nuances in the English language, including sincerity, faithfulness, honesty, and integrity.  These four traits combined are what is meant by makoto.

Makoto must be an integral part of every aspect of Bushidō.  Insincere righteousness is merely a hypocritical pretense.  Insincere courage is nothing more than false bravado.  Insincere benevolence is just pandering.  Insincere respect is actually the worst form of disrespect.  Insincere honour is empty posturing.  Insincere loyalty is sycophantism.  And insincere self-mastery is arrogance.  Therefore, unless they are accompanied by makoto, all other principles of Bushidō are worthless shams.

If any aspect of Bushidō is more important than the others, it would be makoto.   A person who is sincere, faithful, honest, and integrity-driven will be forgiven almost any mistake, but one whose actions are merely pretenses will find little leniency when their hypocrisy is exposed.

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Meiyo (名誉)—Meritorious

Posted by Michiko Pellman on 19 May 2015
Meiyo (Reputation)

Meiyo is probably the most difficult principle of Bushidō to translate into a single English word.  It is most often translated as "honour" or "reputation."  Neither of these words do meiyo justice.  Honour is a word that is only loosely defined in English, meaning anything from admiration to dignity to acclaim or fame.  "Reputation" is perhaps closer in meaning to meiyo, but reputations, both good and bad, are often undeserved—the product of rumour, gossip, or hype.

Mei (名) simply means "name."  Yo (誉), also pronounced homare, means glory or praise.   Literally, then, meiyo means "a name that is praised."  But even this doesn't capture the context or intent with which meiyo is used in Bushidō .  It is not merely that name is praised, but that it is worthy of praise.  In other words, meiyo is a name or reputation that deserves the honour, prestige, and acclaim it receives.  At the Jikishin-Kai, we believe the most approprate English word for that is "meritorious."

And, as with all other aspects of Bushidō, meiyo must be the result of one's actions and accomplishments; not merely one's intentions.

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Chūgi (忠義)—Fidelity

Posted by Michiko Pellman on 19 May 2015
Chugi (Fidelity)

Chūgi (忠義) is an interesting concept to contemplate.  It is most commonly translated simply as "loyalty" or "devotion," and occasionally as "devotion to duty."  However, the word chū by itself means "loyalty" or "devotion," so there must be a reason that Bushidō demands chūgi; not just chū.

As mentioned above, gi (義) means "righteousness" or "morality."  This suggests that chūgi is more than simply loyalty or devotion, but righteous loyalty and/or devotion to just and righteous conduct.  It is not blind loyalty to a leader or a cause, but steadfast devotion to doing what is right.  At the Jikishin-Kai, we interpret chūgi to mean devotion to upholding the principles of Bushidō itself

There are several highly revered examples in Japanese history that appear to support our interpretation, including the acts of the famous 47 rōnin, the members of the Shinsengumi, or the samurai involved in the Shimabara Rebellion, who placed their devotion to the principles of Bushidō above their loyalty to their daimyō or shōgun and ultimately sacrificed their own lives to uphold that ideal.  

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Jisei (自制)—Self Mastery

Posted by Michiko Pellman on 19 May 2015
Jisei (Self Mastery)

The usual translation of jisei (自制) is "self-control," but the sei (制) in jisei means "to govern" or "to regulate," so we prefer the term "self-mastery."  Once again, there are two sides, the omote and ura, involved in self-mastery.

One side of jisei is self-control, meaning to stop oneself from doing impetuous or harmful things.  The other aspect is self-discipline, which is forcing oneself to do beneficial and intentional things.  Together, self-control and self-discipline produce true jisei—self mastery. 

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Ōyō (応用)—Applying Bushidō to Daily Life

Posted by Pellman Shihan on 23 August 2010
Daily Life on Nihon Bashi

To think that Bushidō was a philosophy created to guide the lives and actions of the bushi would appear to be historically backward.  Instead, Bushidō was a term coined later to describe the lifestyle the bushi led without the benefit of such a clearly stated philosophy.  In the literal sense, the bushi did not live by the precepts of Bushidō, but instead Bushidō is a set of principles derived from and describing the lives they led.

Nevertheless, modern budōka can now use the essential concepts codified in Bushidō for guidance in living meaningful and fulfilling lives.  The bushi arose in times in which greed compelled evil men to prey upon innocent and productive people in order to acquire or increase their wealth.  Although the weapons and spoils have changed over time, human nature has not.  Greedy people still prey upon the innocent, so the character traits and ideals of the bushi still have practical application in our times.

Righteousness, benevolence, courage, respect, sincerity, meritorious actions, fidelity, and self-mastery are an arduous, but rewarding, path to a life of significance.  As the proverb says:  "If you take the easy path, life is difficult.  [But} if you take the difficult path life is easy."  The meaning of this proverb is that taking the easy path—the path of least resistence to the temptations and evils in the world—will produce a life constantly beset with problems, conflicts, depression, hypocrisy, self-recrimination, and failures.  Taking the difficult path instead—the path of resisting and opposing those evils and temptations—will produce a life spared the worst of those problems and conflicts and characterised by joy, self-esteem, consistency, and fulfilment.

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The Meaning of "Jikishin"

Jikishin Kanji

Words have meaning, and Japanese words have particularly deep and complex nuances of meaning.  So the meaning of names has great importance in classical Japanese martial arts.

The name Jikishin-Kai was chosen carefully and deliberately for its highly nuanced meaning ... (more)

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