The Seven Virtues Of The Samurai – Why Tiny Japan Became An Economic Superpower In 24 Years!

Historically, many societies have had classes or groups of people who were extraordinary in ways that made them famous or notorious or both, in their own time as well as today.

The largest and probably the most famous of these classes of people were the samurai of feudal Japan-the professional warrior class that ruled the country from 1192 until 1868, during which time they made up from ten to twelve percent of the population.

The strengths and profound influence of the samurai on Japanese culture and society were based on concepts adopted from a number of philosophical and religious beliefs, particularly Shinto, Zen Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

One of the most important of these concepts was the fragility and briefness of life. Of course, all rational individuals become aware of death at a young age, but the urge for life is so powerful that most people suppress this knowledge and behave as if they are going to live a very long time, if not forever. Not surprisingly, this deeply ingrained behavior has extraordinary consequences that are mostly negative.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all refer to the inevitability of death and use this fact in an attempt to persuade (and frighten!) people to behave in a certain way. It goes without saying that these attempts-often irrational and inhuman-have not been successful.

As contrary to common sense as it might seem today, the only large group of people who fully recognized and accepted the fragility and briefness of life and based their way of living on this knowledge were the samurai warriors of feudal Japan-both famous and notorious for their incredible martial arts skills, their ruthlessness in war, and the equanimity with which they faced death.

Members of the samurai class were taught from childhood that life is as fragile as a cherry blossom that can be wafted away by the slightest breeze, and that they should live their lives accordingly, obeying all of the obligations that made up their world so that they could die at any moment without remorse for having failed to live up to their responsibilities.

Samurai warriors generally followed this philosophy of life with profound diligence for two very simple reasons. First, they were subject to being killed, or having to kill themselves and sometimes their families as well, at a moment’s notice. And second, they believed that if they failed to behave according to the precepts that controlled their class they and their families would be disgraced forever.

The samurai knew that if people were always aware that they could die at a moment’s notice they would be far more likely to follow what became known as the Shichi Toku (She-chee Toh-kuu), or “The Seven Virtues.”

These seven virtues, which were taught as the moral and ethical guidelines of the samurai, became the code of conduct prescribed for them (their “commandments” if you will). They covered virtually all of the areas and topics of human interest and needs, especially those that involved appearance, personal relationships, and living a well-ordered life.

Here are the Shichi Toku in the order of their importance in the daily life of the samurai:

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Kennin (Kane-neen)-

Indomitable Spirit, Fortitude & Perseverance

From childhood, both boys and girls in the samurai class were taught and required to demonstrate extraordinary spirit, fortitude and perseverance in all of the facets of their lives.

This training literally began in infancy, with babies still in arms being instructed in when and how to bow properly, followed by constant instruction in all of the basic elements of a very precise etiquette that included how to dress, how to eat, how to sit, how to dress, how to bathe, how and when to use respect language, to withstand cold without complaining, to withstand pain without flinching, to never give up in anything they set out to do, to get revenge against any insult, and to immediately obey the orders of superiors-including orders to commit suicide.

From around the age of six or seven all samurai boys who were not physically or mentally impaired were required to engage in training in kendō (ken-dohh), literally “the way of the sword” and figuratively fighting with a sword-first using wooden swords or wooden staffs.

This training, overseen by instructors, generally took place every day for several hours, becoming more intense as the boys approached their teen years. Youths were formally and officially recognized as “samurai warriors” when they became fifteen years old, at which time they were required to wear two swords at all times when they were in public-a long sword for attacking others or defending themselves, and a short sword for committing suicide when that occasion arose.

Young samurai who were assigned to military units were required to continue their daily training until they retired from wounds or old age. Those who became administrators, including the highest ministers and the shoguns themselves, continued regular training in kendō throughout their active lives.

All shoguns, vice-shoguns, fief lords, and ranking members of the shogunate and fiefdoms had their own kendō training centers staffed by masters. In addition to their own training, they regularly staged exhibition bouts and tournaments.

The masters in these training centers were invariably middle-aged and older warriors who had gained fame by killing many opponents during their earlier careers, and in numerous cases had developed their own style of sword-fighting that was taught in their “schools.”

Because of the competition and intrigue that was typical among the fiefs of feudal Japan, and the fear of the shoguns that one or more of the fief lords would rebel against them, the training in kendō was taken very seriously by the samurai class.

One example of the lengths to which some samurai fathers went in training their sons in kendō was the practice of having them cut the heads off of several convicts or prisoners to get the feel of it and to be able to do it efficiently.

In one famous historical example of this kind of practice, some ten condemned men were line up in a row and a fifteen-year-old samurai youth was instructed to decapitate all of them one after the other. He rapidly cut the heads off of all of the men except one, saying he was tired and would spare the man’s life.

This was the kind and degree of kennin that was expected and demanded of the samurai, and is one of the facets of the samurai legacy is still very much in evidence in the character and behavior of present-day Japanese.

(2)

Shinnen (Sheen-nane)

Conviction & Faith

The demanding life of the samurai required that they develop extraordinary conviction that their attitudes and behavior were admirable and better than other lifestyles. It also required that they have absolute faith in their ability to succeed in life despite the challenges and obstacles.

Over the generations these traits became so deeply embedded in the character and personality of all Japanese that they developed an extraordinary superiority complex that led most of them to believe that they could do anything they set out to do.

This complex had a powerful influence on Japanese society-aesthetically, economically, politically, and militarily. In some cases this influence was positive; in other cases it was negative.

Some of the results of the negative side of this complex became well-known internationally in the 19th and 20th centuries because of military campaigns by the Japanese against Korea, Russia, China, the U.S., Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific.

On the positive side, the superiority complex of the Japanese, buttressed by unbounded shinnen, led them-more than a thousand years ago-to routinely create masterpieces in their arts and crafts industries; to construct the world’s largest wooden buildings and to develop highly sophisticated earthquake technology that has preserved them to this day; and, between 1947 and 1970, to turn their war-devastated country into the world’s second largest economy.

While the present-day cultural and technological accomplishments of the Japanese would not generally be attributed to a superiority complex, they nevertheless are manifestations of the conviction and faith-and pride-that the Japanese have in their ability to create and innovate…and, in fact, are an extension of their built-in belief that they are a superior people.

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Shincho (Sheen-choh)

Care, Caution, Discretion

One of the paramount characteristics that Japan’s samurai had to develop from a very early age was that of exercising extreme shincho (care, caution, discretion) in their daily lives.

Even when very young it was necessary for them to be extraordinarily careful in the way they behaved toward others because of the demands of their formalized, ritualized and unforgiving etiquette. As they grew older, these demands became even stronger and more encompassing.

There were occasions when something as simple as a failure to bow in the established and expected manner could mean death-sometimes instantly. Giving the “wrong” gift or no gift at all to a high-ranking person could be equally disastrous.

There were innumerable situations in which failure to be discreet could result in the ruin of a person, and sometimes their family as well.

The samurai therefore developed a cultural sixth sense that helped guide them through the intricacies of their system of etiquette-first because it was a matter of survival, and as time passed, because it became a matter of both honor and pride.

Most present-day Japanese, particularly the older generations, have retained much of the traditional built-in shincho reaction in their relationships with others because the level of day-to-day physical and verbal etiquette remains high.

The shincho factor in Japanese behavior invariably kicks into gear when they are dealing with non-Japanese-and the higher the business, diplomatic, and social level of the people involved, the higher the level of shincho that is engaged.

It is therefore especially important for foreigners dealing with Japanese to be aware of this factor in their character in order to accurately evaluate their actions and reactions.

The tatemae (tah-tay-my), or “faade” element in Japanese speech (that I explore in detail in my book, Japan’s Cultural Code Words), is an extension of the shincho factor.

The built-in shincho compass of the Japanese typically results in them concealing their true thoughts and intensions at the beginning of negotiations with a ceremonial faade that is only gradually removed as the dialogue progresses…if the opposing team is aware enough of what is going on to persist in chipping away at it.

(4)

Seigi(Say-ghee)

Righteousness and Justice

Despite the ruthless and often barbaric aspect of the culture of the samurai there was an underlying theme of seigi (say-ghee), or righteousness and justice, in their moral and ethical code.

Japan’s feudal history is, in fact, filled with examples of the extraordinary sense of righteousness and justice of the typical samurai. These examples include such things as demonstrations of goodwill and honesty that go above and beyond what is normal.

I recall a number of such instances in my own early years in Japan in the 1940s and 50s. On one occasion I stayed overnight at a small inn in the Akabane district of Tokyo, and forgot a raincoat there when I left the next morning.

Some two years later, during which I totally forgot about the coat, I went back to the inn. The instant I stepped into the entrance foyer the proprietress of the inn said: “Ah! Mr. De Mente! You forgot your raincoat!”

Many of the historical examples of the manifestations of seigi are far more telling. Among these are common occasions when retainers of fief lords or other high-ranking samurai would become disillusioned with the morality and ethics of their superiors and commit suicide, leaving a message beseeching them to mend their ways; a very powerful way of getting their point across.

I remember at the end of World War II some American businesspeople were amazed when Japanese companies informed them that they would honor prewar payments and other obligations owed to the Americans, even when the American firms had no records of such debts.

In present-day Japan examples of seigi range from ordinary people going to extremes to return lost items to their rightful owners-including wallets containing money-to businesspeople who remain loyal to partners and suppliers even when it is seriously disadvantageous for them to do so.

(5)

Sessei(Say-ssay-ee)

Moderation and Temperance

The conduct prescribed for the samurai was based on aspects of court etiquette that had been imported from China during the 6th and 7th centuries and had become institutionalized and ritualized over the generations, first at the Imperial Court, then from the 9th century on at the courts of domain lords who were mostly excess princes sent out to govern the provinces.

This conduct included the apparel and accessories the samurai wore (which denoted their rank), the style of dressing their hair (which required that a portion of their heads be shaved every morning), the way of carrying their swords, their way of sitting in formal and informal situations, the way of bowing, the way of speaking (in the vocabulary used and in the tone of voice and manner of delivery), the way of greeting people (which varied by their rank), the way of handing something to someone, the way of drinking, the way of toasting someone or an occasion, and so on.

In other words, there was a precise, prescribed way of behavior that covered virtually every aspect of the daily actions of the samurai…to the point that their behavior was a conspicuous and unmistakable demonstration of whether or not they had absorbed all of the features of the samurai culture-and whether or not they chose to follow them.

Choosing not to follow the established rules of conduct was a very serious decision to make, and could have serious and often fatal consequences. Again, Japan’s feudal history is filled with examples of warriors deliberately or unknowingly failing to follow the prescribed etiquette, bringing ruin to themselves and often to their families as well.

There was also a prescribed etiquette for common people, particularly in their interactions with samurai. During the early years of the last shogunate dynasty (the Tokugawa Shogunate, 1603-1868), it was made the law of the land that a samurai could kill on the spot any commoner who failed to show him the prescribed respect. The samurai could then apologize and walk away. This law was known as kirisute gomen (kee-ree-suu-tay go-mane), literally “regretful killing.”

The strictness of the samurai culture resulted in the majority of them being extraordinarily self-restrained in their behavior, not only to uphold the honor of their class but also as a matter of their own survival, since they were extraordinarily sensitive to slights from other samurai and were obligated to take immediate revenge against such insults by killing the guilty individual. [During the Tokugawa Shogunate an edict was passed making it necessary for samurai to apply to the shogunate for official permission to embark on revenge killings.]

Another aspect of the education and training of the samurai was their indoctrination in Buddhism and Confucianism, which taught temperance and moderation in all things.

Obviously, all this is not to say that most samurai were paragons of sessei, but the majority did scrupulously abide by the etiquette prescribe for this class, resulting in a level of temperance that was extraordinarily high by world standards.

The legacy of the samurai inspired sessei has not fared well in contemporary Japan. It is still visible and important in formal situations, but informally, particularly in drinking situations, it is typically thrown to the wind.

Interestingly, the reason why the Japanese have traditionally “let their hair down” when drinking is that throughout the history of the country the only time that people could legitimately and safely ignore the strict etiquette and “be themselves” was when they were drinking-a rule that applied more to commoners than to samurai.

However, during the last two hundred years of the Tokugawa Shogunate during which there were no clan or fief wars to fight, many lower ranking samurai who were often idle (they were forbidden to work), became dissolute and would often get drunk in public, become boisterous and sometimes destructive-including testing their swords on innocent passersby.

This phenomenon resulted in the Shogunate establishing a network of koban (kohh-bahn) or “police boxes” (small sub-stations on street corners that were generally just large enough to hold a desk and two chairs) to help keep unruly samurai under control.

The koban remain a significant part of the present-day police infrastructure in Japan, and many of the contemporary koban in main areas of larger cities are big enough for a staff of four or more policemen.

Instead of being keepers of the peace, however, the primary role of present-day koban policemen is serving as local information centers for people looking for destinations in the area. (Addresses of buildings and houses in Japan do not have anything to do with the streets they happen to be on or near, making it extremely difficult to pinpoint addresses without detailed instructions and/or maps.)

Several other Asian countries, impressed with the concept of the koban, have copied them.

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Jizen(Jee-zane)

Benevolence and Charity

It may be difficult for people who are only casually acquainted with the history of the samurai to associate benevolence and charity with samurai warriors during the long feudal era-as well as after the samurai system ended in the 1870s and the sword-carrying warriors were recast in the uniforms and with the weapons of Western-styled military forces of the day.

By contemporary Western standards much of the behavior of the samurai during both of these periods was, in fact, barbaric and savage. But, historically, it was not any different from the standards that existed in the West during the Middle-Ages, and which did not begin to change until the latter part of the 1800s…the same period when the samurai class was dissolved.

In other words, the samurai of Japan did not have an exclusive monopoly on barbaric and savage behavior. That was a trait that has been common in most societies throughout the history of mankind-and still is in many societies.

The genuine jizen (jee-zane) of Japan’s samurai was mostly overshadowed by their role as warriors, their view and treatment of death-their own as well as that of others-and by their role as judge and jury in establishing and enforcing laws to control the behavior of commoners.

Just as in the West during the same period, torture was a key part of the samurai justice system, and execution methods included those that were designed to be especially painful.

But behind this very real public image, one of the key principles in the indoctrination of the samurai class was the Buddhist concept of benevolence and charity, and it was followed most of the time by most samurai in positions of authority. There are many historical examples of city and town samurai magistrates who were famous for their wisdom and benevolence.

Over the generations of the long samurai era these same jizen character traits became imbued in the culture of the common people, but the drama of the samurai way of fighting obscured the goodwill and hospitality that has been characteristic of ordinary Japanese throughout their history-a characteristic that still persists today and is often so unexpected by foreign visitors that they are astounded.

One of my favorite anecdotes that emphasizes the character and behavior of the typical Japanese involves the famous writer-author Lafcadio Hearn. He went to Japan in the late 1800s on an assignment for an American magazine and was so entranced by the behavior of the Japanese he proclaimed that living Japan was like living in paradise, and remained there for the rest of his life.

Hearn was referring to the refined etiquette of all Japanese, and specifically to the innate hospitality and incredible honesty and goodwill of ordinary Japanese.

But traditionally the Japanese practice ofjizen was more complicated than all this suggests. It was first of all generally limited to members of the exclusive groups that made up society as a whole, and in effect was group-oriented rather than universal.

Outside of these primary groups jizen was generally applied only to those whose goodwill and cooperation were necessary to achieve specific goals-such as government officials, teachers and doctors.

Interestingly, the Japanese have traditionally regarded foreigners as special guests of the country, and have typically treated them with special benevolence and charity. This cultural factor remains very much in evidence today and is one of the reasons why most present-day foreigners in Japan find living there seductive, as Hearn did more than a hundred years ago.

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Kibō(Kee-bohh)

A Life filled with Hope

Despite the many cultural and governmental restraints that limited the options and opportunities of the Japanese prior to modern times, the Japanese were not a morose or morbid people. They had a marvelous sense of humor, loved jokes and puns, and had a variety of celebrations and parties of one kind or another throughout the year.

The Japanese were among the first people to travel widely within their own country for recreational purposes, especially to enjoy the incredible beauty of both the mountain and coastal areas of the country.

And Japan was the first country that had a nationwide network of roadside inns at regular government-prescribed distances from each other that were specifically designed and managed to cater to travelers, virtually all of whom traveled on foot (also by government decree), and were therefore on the road for weeks at a time when traveling long distances.

All of these feel good and enjoy yourself aspects of Japanese culture were manifestations of the fact that the major religions of Japan-Shinto and Buddhism-were based on positive and happy beliefs that included sensual pleasures of all kinds.

These elements in the culture of Japan imbued the Japanese with a sense of kibō (kee-bohh), or hope, that helped them deal with the strict lifestyle imposed by the samurai over a period of nearly eight hundred years-a period during which they served as role models as well as created and enforced the edicts that controlled the behavior of the common people.

As the generations passed, the six other virtues promoted by the samurai gradually impregnated the mindset of all Japanese, and continue to this day to distinguish them from other people.

This is not to infer that all of Japan’s samurai were paragons of these six primary virtues, or to ignore the fact that the definitions and nuances of all of these virtues were based on Japanese values and aspirations, which often differed fundamentally from Western precepts.

But within Japanese society during the age of the samurai the level of ethics, manners, morality and overall behavior was as high-if not higher-than has ever been achieved, before or since, in any other society. And this encompassed many of the most desirable and admirable beliefs and behavioral traits that were part of the Hebrew and Christian traditions.

The overall legacy of the samurai remains today the foundation of Japan’s etiquette, ethics and morality-weakened here and there by the importation of democratic ideals of individualism and selfishness from the West, primarily the United States, but nevertheless visible in every area of society.

The one area of Japanese culture that is the most visible to foreigners, and the one in which they can participate without prior knowledge or experience, is the fun side, the pleasure side, which combined is probably the largest single industry in the country.

WHY JAPAN BECAME AN ECONOMIC SUPERPOWER

In summary, it was the legacy of the samurai spirit that made it possible for Japan to become the world’s second largest economy between 1950 and 1975-notwithstanding the wide-open American market and the billions of dollars the United States government spent in Japan procuring supplies for the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Without the spirit, the perseverance, the will and the pride that had become the hallmarks of the samurai character, it would have taken the Japanese decades to overcome the devastation and loss caused by their defeat in World War II, much less become an economic superpower.

Copyright 2011 by Boy Lafayette De Mente. All rights reserved.

Cosplay in Japanese Culture

Cosplay is not limited to dressing up in costumes from popular TV shows. Cosplay is also seen in traditional Japanese culture and fashion.

Coming of age ceremonies have been held in Japan since at least AD 714, when a young prince got new clothes and a hairstyle to mark their passage into adulthood. The official holiday was first established in 1948, to be held each year on 15 January. In 2000, as a result of the successful system, the Monday on which the Day Of Coming of Age was celebrated on was changed to the second Monday in January.

Many women celebrate this day with the use of Furisode (a kimono with long sleeves that hang) and zori sandals. Since most are unable to put on a kimono by themselves due to the complexities involved in dressing in one, many choose to visit a beauty salon to dress and have their hair done. A complete set of formal clothing is quite expensive, so it is usually taken from a relative or rented rather than bought for the occasion. Men sometimes wear traditional costumes (for example a dark kimono with hakama), but in modern times many men wear formal western clothes, like a suit and a tie, more often than a traditional dress.

The latest street fashion among Japanese women is the smokey eye look. It is a sultry and sexy look that is easy to achieve and which creates stunning results. The smokey eye look has been called the little black dress of make up as it is always stylish. Smokey eyes are perfect anywhere and anytime because the make up needed is not overdone and adds a little bit of mystery and allure to a woman’s look. The smokey eye make up is also useful for vampire Cosplay.

Fantasy and science fiction characters have became very popular Cosplay costumes. Characters from the Star Wars, Star Trek and the Harry Potter series are some of the most popular non-manga characters to be featured in Cosplay events. Anime cartoons such as Naruto, Bleach and Final Fantasy as well as video and computer games are also popular characters to be made into Cosplay costumes. Akatsuki And Organization XIII costumes as well as the ever popular ShinRa were the most common costumes at conventions. Outside of conventions, the most popular Cosplay costumes are school girl outfits and maid uniforms.

Comic books, graphic novels and fantasy movies are also a source of inspiration for Cosplayers.

Japanese Street Fashion

While considered by many as daring, outlandish and provocative, Japanese fashion has come a long way from being just about kimonos and school uniforms. Their eye-popping and flamboyant outfits have largely been influenced by Japan’s huge underground club scene. Tokya and Osaka is where Japanese Street Fashion is at its best. By adopting a mixture of current and traditional trends along with foreign and local labels, Japanese youth have created their own unique blend of fashion.

Japanese street fashion has a variety of trends and styles. Youth were more elaborate in their dressing patterns and make-up. Bright colours, eccentric patterns, hand-made garments, heavy jewellery, mixing and matching jeans and tank tops with traditional wear like kimonos, is their way of making statements about their cultural influences and way of life. Lolita, Kogal, Cosplay, Ganguro are some of the most sought after styles that Japanese youth display on the streets.

Lolita is a style with many subcultures, such as Punk Lolita, where chains, beads, lace and wristbands are popular accessories along with pink and peach colour prints. Gothic Lolita focuses on styles emerging from the Victorian age such as dark colours, black make-up, heavy brooches, and ribbons.

The Ganguro art of dressing is similar to North American youth trying to replicate tanned and blonde celebrities and models. The look consists of light or dark tanned bodies, bleached or dyed hair, summer dresses and platforms. Their exaggerated looks and outfits, is their attempt at westernizing themselves dramatically.

The Kogal style is where young Japanese women display their wealth through various tastes in music and fashion. Wealthy parents often support young girls who are into this style. They keep themselves up-to-date with Japan’s ever-growing mobile technology. They adorn themselves with big boots, skirts pinned very high, dramatic make-up and the latest in American fashion brands. Many see the growth of Gothic Lolita to be a reaction to the materialism desire that emerges with the Kogal trend.

Costume Play, shortened to Cosplay is a trend where dressing of characters from manga, anime, fantasy movies and videogames is encouraged. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Matrix series are some Hollywood films which increased the popularity of Cosplay artists. Japanese youth styled in Cosplay attires are often seen at various public gatherings such as amusement parks, nightclubs dedicated to like-minded dressers and many high profile Cosplay parties.