Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1918 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Medium: Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper
I am a Japan lover. I have to admit it, having lived in Japan for years, and having made Japan a central feature of my personal life. Despite loving the modern Japan deeply, I am enchanted with the ancient history of the country also.
Japan so distinct from anything else, it is hard to overstate just how different, weird, wonderful and amazing it truly is. The language, customs, music, even the perspective of the natural world is so unique as to be captivating.
Samurai are one example of how curious Japan is in history. These warriors are similar to warrior cults from other cultures, in that they display a devotion to a cause that is striking for is intensity and its dedication. The samurai followed a tradition called bushi, or the way of the warrior.
The Samurai are a problematic group in many ways. Despite the international obsession with this warrior cult, they are not as loved in Japan. their tradition of death before dishonor was so inspirational that the modern state of Japan incorporated many of their traditions and practices into the leadership of the country. In many ways this emphasis on perfection that is the embodiment of the “way of the warrior” was the beginning of the end for the Japanese Empire.
The Bushi ideology formed the foundation of the Japanese military, which raged across Asia, capturing not only Korea, but all of China and Southeast Asia, even encroaching on Australia before it was stopped.
Japanese army officers often carried samurai swords along with them when they invaded other nations, an outward symbol of their devotion to the art of war as embodied by the Samurai.
In the beginning of their drive across Asia, the Japanese military took the “way of the warrior” to mean the opposite of anything peaceful. This strength through violence meant that they began to look with distain upon anyone or any nation that was weaker or more peaceful.
“The Japanese military was convinced of the willingness of its people to go to any sacrifice for their nation, and it was contemptuous of the “softness” of the U.S. and European democracies, where loyalty and patriotism were tempered by the rights and well-being of the individual.
The military’s overconfidence in its own abilities and underestimation of the will of these other nations were thus rooted in its own misleading ethnic and racial stereotypes.
While Asians, the Japanese saw themselves as less representatives of Asia than Asia’s champion. They sought to liberate Asian colonies from the Westerners, whom they disdained. “1
Contempt for the softness of others would ultimately lead the Japanese to do unspeakably terrible acts to the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and others. Thee acts have been largely ignored by Japan, even unto today, out of respect for their aging soldiers of World War Two. But the rest of Asia continues to loathe the Japanese for their legacy of violence in the first half of the 20th Century.
The way of the warrior is revealing for the lessons it offers us today about the implications for the abuse of military power and authority. Seeing how a unique and strange tradition, embodied by samurai warriors, could become a legacy of disgrace is not only ironic but illustrative. In our age, when the American military is idolized across the United States, and can never be criticized even slightly, it may be informative to see the ramifications of unchecked militarism in history this post is the first is a series that explores Japanese militarism and its lessons for us. Please continue to read these posts and please support the work of Historydojo, either through Paypal or Patreon.
1.Columbia University, Asia for Educators.