Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan

March 17th 3:30-5:00 @ UBC Institute of Asian Research Room 120

Oleg Benesch (UBushido Calligraphyniversity of York)

This talk examines the development of the ‘way of the samurai,’ or bushidō, which is popularly viewed as a defining element of the Japanese national character and even the ‘soul of Japan.’ Rather than a continuation of ancient traditions, however, bushidō developed from a search for identity during Japan’s modernization in the late nineteenth century. The former samurai class were widely viewed as a relic of a bygone age in the 1880s, and the first significant discussions of bushidō at the end of the decade were strongly influenced by contemporary European ideals of chivalry and gentlemanship. At the same time, Japanese thinkers increasingly looked to their own traditions in search of sources of national identity, and this process accelerated as national confidence grew with military victories over China and Russia. In this talk, I consider the people, events, and writings that drove the rapid growth of bushidō, which came to emphasize martial virtues and absolute loyalty to the emperor. In the early twentieth century, bushidō became a core subject in civilian and military education, and was a key ideological pillar supporting the imperial state until its collapse in 1945. The close identification of bushidō with Japanese militarism meant that it was rejected immediately after the war, but different interpretations of bushidō were soon revived by commentators seeking to explain Japan’s past, present, and future. This talk explores some of the factors behind the resurgence of bushidō, which has proven resilient through 130 years of dramatic social, political, and cultural change.