Bushido in Late Meiji Japan

A review of Bushidō: The Creation of a Martial Ethic in Late Meiji Japan, by OLEG BENESCH.

Bushidō, the vaunted “way of the warrior” ascribed to various demographics in Japanese history and mobilized productively throughout the modern world, is a tricky subject. On the one hand, bushidō–variously and creatively imagined and mobilized–constitutes a central theme of modern Japanese constructions of historical identities and social realities. On the other, its image as a legitimate object of inquiry has suffered from enthusiastic appropriations in popular studies of Japan, samurai, and martial arts. In his 2011 dissertation, Oleg Benesch joins a growing number of scholars contributing in both English and Japanese to serious scholarship on bushidō. His work situates the formation of modern bushidō (especially the “bushidō boom” of 1898-1914) within the framework of Japanese nation-building in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (p. 34). In order to correct what he argues is “a strong tendency for writers on bushidō to unwittingly examine samurai thought and behavior before 1868 through interpretive lenses ground in late Meiji” (p. 30), Benesch traces the dynamics of exactly this lens-grinding period of the 1880s and beyond, during which “modern bushidō developed organically from a cautious nationalism” as a “response to cultural and geopolitical changes that were occurring at the time” (p. 32). For Benesch, the trajectory of Meiji bushidō ran from the earlier international-minded bushidō of such Meiji thinkers as Ozaki Yukio, Fukuzawa Yukichi through the “orthodox” nationalism of Inoue Tetsujirō in the early 1900s to the death of the Meiji Emperor and the shocking suicides of General Nogi Maresuke and his wife. The last, Benesch argues, generated a lull in the imagination and mobilization of the otherwise resilient bushidō complex before its resurgence in wartime Japan.

Benesch’s work draws not only on the insights of Carol Gluck’s seminal work on Meiji ideologies, but also on an impressive range of secondary sources in both English and Japanese on bushidō. His primary sources are drawn from the writings of major academic, political, and literary figures such as Nitobe Inazō, Fukuzawa Yukichi, and most importantly Inoue Tetsujirō.

Benesch’s chapters follow his proposed chronology of modern bushidō’s development. Following his introductory overview of pre-bakumatsu bushidō (largely presented as self-descriptions by members of the samurai class) Benesch’s first chapter analyzes the roles of figures such as Yoshida Shōin, Yokoi Shōnan, and Yamaoka Tesshū in the late Tokugawa and early Meiji periods. Benesch notes that the bushidō stylings of each author were more eagerly appropriated in later Meiji than at the time of their writing. Moreover, Benesch holds that Yamaoka’s work in particular–including most importantly his famous, if fictitious, 1888 lectures on a Buddhist-tinged bushidō–lacked the potential for political appropriation found in that of Yoshida or Yokoi, and was instead taken up by martial arts enthusiasts as a source of legitimation.

This careful parsing of bushidō’s genealogy is continued in subsequent chapters. The second chapter takes up the diversity of bushidō writing in mid-Meiji, when authors such as Ozaki Yukio, Fukuzawa Yukichi, Suzuki Chikara and Uemura Masahisa each presented his own vision of samurai ethics. Ozaki’s notion of bushidō, constructed against his impressions of the archetypical English gentleman and through Ozaki’s own international experience, is among the most striking not only in its foreshadowing of Nitobe Inazo’s famously internationally-minded work, but also in its positive attitude towards merchants and its relative inattention to things martial. While Fukuzawa and Suzuki joined Ozaki in arguing for bushidō as an important factor in Japan’s success as a modern nation, their views were dramatically different, pushing respectively for a Western-influenced independent spirit and a martial nationalism. Uemura, finally, gave voice to the Christian interpretation of bushidō and the Japanese character.

In his third chapter, Benesch describes a swing in bushidō thinking that follows Japan’s shift away from foreign influences and towards more emic visions of Japanese identity. Following the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95, Benesch argues that Japanese manifested a “confidence” not found in the earlier decades of the Meiji era (p. 134). Benesch draws on the short-lived publication of the Greater Japan Martial Arts Lecture Society (dainippon bujutsu kōshū kai), Bushidō Zasshi (“Bushidō Journal”). Despite running for only four monthly issues in 1898, the publication boasted a range of important political, social, and military contributors, including Kanō Jigorō, Nakae Chōmin, and Ōi Kentarō. The military connection to bushidō exhibited in the journal is especially highlighted by Benesch, who cites this association as evidence of the journal’s importance despite its short run. The chapter also treats the contributions of Nitobe Inazō at some length. Nitobe’s 1900 work famously introduced the English-language world to bushidō as a marker for modern Japanese identity; as Benesch demonstrates, its relevance to Japanese discourse around bushidō is less dramatic, and Benesch takes great pains to demonstrate the often contradictory and sometimes vacuous nature of Nitobe’s work. Benesch contrasts Nitobe’s anachronism with the undeniable popularity and influence of the writings of Inoue Tetsujirō, whose works (including the lengthy compendium Gendai taike bushidō sōron and the historically-minded Bushidō sōsho, both 1905) established not only his nationalistic approach to a historically imagined bushidō, but also his role as dominant modern bushidō theorist.

The fourth chapter of Benesch’s work addresses the development of bushidō discourse during the last years of Meiji. Benesch situates bushidō at this time in the context of the Russo-Japanese war and its aftermath, arguing particularly for bushidō as a component of evolving official attention to national morality education. As Benesch shows, in the aftermath of the war, concern for international position was lessening in favor of unease over domestic unrest, and bushidō was presented as a means to instill martial spirit not only among members of the military, but also (if less successfully) in the general populace. Moreover, bushidō literature–both popular and highbrow–flourished; cheap potboilers featuring historical Japanese warriors proliferated alongside works by notables such as Natsume Sōseki, whose 1906 account of King Arthur and his knights proposed a foreign setting for bushidō. As Benesch shows, the depiction of bushidō in late Meiji literature ranged from positive to critical. Bushidō also spread to sport, as sumo, baseball, and other pursuits became the site for bushidō. Finally, Benesch shows the spread of bushidō in discourse around religion (especially Buddhism and Christianity) and, in one of the most interesting sections of this already interesting work, beyond Japan.

After the flurry of reactions to the suicides of General Nogi Maresuke and his wife following the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912, Benesch argues, the “bushidō boom” of the late Meiji period was over. This period of transition is treated in Benesch’s fifth chapter, and is the basis for his concluding analysis of bushidō as a bellwether for the stability of the Japanese identity. Against threats foreign or domestic, Benesch posits that bushidō was variously interpreted and mobilized; in times of relative security and/or ideological coherence, bushidō “lost much of its importance, or was even rejected” (p. 308). While Benesch applies this argument particularly to the Meiji period, his brief but helpful depiction of bushidō in the Taishō, Shōwa, and Heisei periods is also presented as illustrative of bushidō’s boom/bust cycles.

Benesch’s dissertation is a careful and well-referenced work that provides valuable details in the transformations of bushidō in modern Japanese thought. Benesch’s work is a useful resource that will encourage and facilitate scholarship on the role of bushidō in modern Japanese cultural and intellectual history.

Denis Gainty
Assistant Professor
Georgia State University

Dissertation Information

University of British Columbia. 2011. 353 pp. Primary Advisors: Nam-lin Hur and Peter Nosco.

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