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Why Tiny Resource-Poor War-Devastated Japan Became an Economic Superpower in 25 Years!
Boyé Lafayette De Mente TOKYO—Historically, many societies have had classes or groups of people that 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
The Seven Virtues of the Samurai - 2 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
Fortitude & Perseverance From childhood. fortitude and perseverance in all of the facets of their lives. both boys and girls in the samurai class were taught and required to demonstrate extraordinary spirit. and living a well-ordered life. or “The Seven Virtues.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . or having to kill themselves and sometimes their families as well. personal relationships. which were taught as the moral and ethical guidelines of the samurai. .3 being killed. 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. they believed that if they failed to behave according to the precepts that controlled their class they and their families would be disgraced forever. at a moment’s notice. especially those that involved appearance. Here are the Shichi Toku in the order of their importance in the daily life of the samurai: (1) Kennin (Kane-neen)— Indomitable Spirit.” These seven virtues. 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). And second.
4 This training literally began in infancy. This training. 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). and a short sword for committing suicide when that occasion arose. how to bathe. how to eat. to withstand cold without complaining. to never give up in anything they set out to do. to withstand pain without flinching. followed by constant instruction in all of the basic elements of a very precise etiquette that included how to dress. . becoming more intense as the boys approached their teen years. how to dress. how and when to use respect language. generally took place every day for several hours.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . how to sit. literally “the way of the sword” and figuratively fighting with a sword—first using wooden swords or wooden staffs. with babies still in arms being instructed in when and how to bow properly. and to immediately obey the orders of superiors—including orders to commit suicide. overseen by instructors. to get revenge against any insult. 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. Youths were formally and officially recognized as “samurai warriors” when they became fifteen years old.
Those who became administrators.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . vice-shoguns. continued regular training in kendō throughout their active lives. they regularly staged exhibition bouts and tournaments. . In addition to their own training.” Because of the competition and intrigue that was typical among the fiefs of feudal Japan.5 Young samurai who were assigned to military units were required to continue their daily training until they retired from wounds or old age. and ranking members of the shogunate and fiefdoms had their own kendō training centers staffed by masters. and in numerous cases had developed their own style of sword-fighting that was taught in their “schools. 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. 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. fief lords. including the highest ministers and the shoguns themselves. and the fear of the shoguns that one or more of the fief lords would rebel against them. All shoguns. the training in kendō was taken very seriously by the samurai class.
It also required that they have absolute faith in their ability to succeed in life despite the challenges and obstacles.6 In one famous historical example of this kind of practice. 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. 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. . (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. 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. He rapidly cut the heads off of all of the men except one.The Seven Virtues 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.
7 This complex had a powerful influence on Japanese society— aesthetically. In some cases this influence was positive. the U. Russia. On the positive side. and militarily. between 1947 and 1970.. led them—more than a thousand years ago—to routinely create masterpieces in their arts and crafts industries. China. Some of the results of the negative side of this complex became wellknown internationally in the 19th and 20th centuries because of military campaigns by the Japanese against Korea. and. to turn their war-devastated country into the world’s second largest economy. to construct the world’s largest wooden buildings and to develop highly sophisticated earthquake technology that has preserved them to this day. the superiority complex of the Japanese. Southeast Asia. (3) Shincho (Sheen-choh) . buttressed by unbounded shinnen. economically.S. politically. and the South Pacific. in other cases it was negative. in fact. are an extension of their built-in belief that they are a superior people. While the present-day cultural and technological accomplishments of the Japanese would not generally be attributed to a superiority complex.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . they nevertheless are manifestations of the conviction and faith—and pride—that the Japanese have in their ability to create and innovate…and.
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. There were innumerable situations in which failure to be discreet could result in the ruin of a person.8 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.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . have retained much of the traditional built-in shincho reaction in their . 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 sometimes their family as well. ritualized and unforgiving etiquette. As they grew older. and as time passed. because it became a matter of both honor and pride. Most present-day Japanese. particularly the older generations. There were occasions when something as simple as a failure to bow in the established and expected manner could mean death—sometimes instantly. these demands became even stronger and more encompassing. Giving the “wrong” gift or no gift at all to a high-ranking person could be equally disastrous.
(4) Seigi (Say-ghee) Righteousness and Justice . or “façade” element in Japanese speech (that I explore in detail in my book. The tatemae (tah-tay-my).9 relationships with others because the level of day-to-day physical and verbal etiquette remains high. and social level of the people involved. is an extension of the shincho factor.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . 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 façade 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. diplomatic. 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 shincho factor in Japanese behavior invariably kicks into gear when they are dealing with non-Japanese—and the higher the business. Japan’s Cultural Code Words).
10 Despite the ruthless and often barbaric aspect of the culture of the samurai there was an underlying theme of seigi (say-ghee). a very powerful way of getting their point across. 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. Japan’s feudal history is. Some two years later. leaving a message beseeching them to mend their ways. in their moral and ethical code. and forgot a raincoat there when I left the next morning. during which I totally forgot about the coat. On one occasion I stayed overnight at a small inn in the Akabane district of Tokyo. The instant I stepped into the entrance foyer the proprietress of the inn said: “Ah! Mr. filled with examples of the extraordinary sense of righteousness and justice of the typical samurai. I went back to the inn. 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. or righteousness and justice. De Mente! You forgot your raincoat!” Many of the historical examples of the manifestations of seigi are far more telling.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . in fact. .
their way of sitting in formal and informal situations. This conduct included the apparel and accessories the samurai wore (which denoted their rank). first at the Imperial Court. the way . the way of carrying their swords. the style of dressing their hair (which required that a portion of their heads be shaved every morning).11 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. (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. then from the 9th century on at the courts of domain lords who were mostly excess princes sent out to govern the provinces.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . 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.
the way of handing something to someone. bringing ruin to themselves and often to their families as well. There was also a prescribed etiquette for common people.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . and so on. Choosing not to follow the established rules of conduct was a very serious decision to make. Japan’s feudal history is filled with examples of warriors deliberately or unknowingly failing to follow the prescribed etiquette.12 of bowing. the way of greeting people (which varied by their rank). and could have serious and often fatal consequences. the way of drinking. The samurai could then apologize and walk . there was a precise. 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 way of toasting someone or an occasion. the way of speaking (in the vocabulary used and in the tone of voice and manner of delivery). During the early years of the last shogunate dynasty (the Tokugawa Shogunate. 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. In other words. Again. 1603-1868). particularly in their interactions with samurai.
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. Obviously. but . but the majority did scrupulously abide by the etiquette prescribe for this class. [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.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . It is still visible and important in formal situations. The legacy of the samurai inspired sessei has not fared well in contemporary Japan.13 away.” The strictness of the samurai culture resulted in the majority of them being extraordinarily self-restrained in their behavior.] Another aspect of the education and training of the samurai was their indoctrination in Buddhism and Confucianism. resulting in a level of temperance that was extraordinarily high by world standards. literally “regretful killing. not only to uphold the honor of their class but also as a matter of their own survival. This law was known as kirisute gomen (kee-ree-suu-tay go-mane). all this is not to say that most samurai were paragons of sessei. which taught temperance and moderation in all things.
The koban remain a significant part of the present-day police infrastructure in Japan. become boisterous and sometimes destructive—including testing their swords on innocent passersby. and many of the contemporary koban in main areas of larger cities are big enough for a staff of four or more policemen. . However. 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. it is typically thrown to the wind. 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).14 informally.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . particularly in drinking situations. 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. became dissolute and would often get drunk in public. Interestingly.
and which did not begin to change until the . however. barbaric and savage. it was not any different from the standards that existed in the West during the Middle-Ages. the primary role of present-day koban policemen is serving as local information centers for people looking for destinations in the area.) Several other Asian countries.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . (6) 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. making it extremely difficult to pinpoint addresses without detailed instructions and/or maps. in fact. have copied them.15 Instead of being keepers of the peace. But. impressed with the concept of the koban. (Addresses of buildings and houses in Japan do not have anything to do with the streets they happen to be on or near. By contemporary Western standards much of the behavior of the samurai during both of these periods was. historically.
Just as in the West during the same period. one of the key principles in the indoctrination of the samurai class was the Buddhist concept of benevolence and charity. That was a trait that has been common in most societies throughout the history of mankind—and still is in many societies. Over the generations of the long samurai era these same jizen character traits became imbued in the culture of the common people.16 latter part of the 1800s…the same period when the samurai class was dissolved. the samurai of Japan did not have an exclusive monopoly on barbaric and savage behavior. There are many historical examples of city and town samurai magistrates who were famous for their wisdom and benevolence. and it was followed most of the time by most samurai in positions of authority.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . In other words. 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. 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. but the drama of .
and remained there for the rest of his life. Hearn was referring to the refined etiquette of all Japanese. But traditionally the Japanese practice of jizen was more complicated than all this suggests. and in effect was grouporiented rather than universal. . and specifically to the innate hospitality and incredible honesty and goodwill of ordinary Japanese. One of my favorite anecdotes that emphasizes the character and behavior of the typical Japanese involves the famous writer-author Lafcadio Hearn. It was first of all generally limited to members of the exclusive groups that made up society as a whole. teachers and doctors.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . 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.17 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. 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.
and have typically treated them with special benevolence and charity. as Hearn did more than a hundred years ago. especially to enjoy the incredible beauty of both the mountain and coastal areas of the country.18 Interestingly. 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. 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. (7) 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. virtually . They had a marvelous sense of humor.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . and had a variety of celebrations and parties of one kind or another throughout the year. the Japanese were not a morose or morbid people. loved jokes and puns. The Japanese were among the first people to travel widely within their own country for recreational purposes. the Japanese have traditionally regarded foreigners as special guests of the country.
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. manners. These elements in the culture of Japan imbued the Japanese with a sense of kibō (kee-bohh). or to ignore the fact that the definitions and nuances of all of these virtues were based on Japanese values and aspirations. As the generations passed. or hope. and continue to this day to distinguish them from other people. the six other virtues promoted by the samurai gradually impregnated the mindset of all Japanese. which often differed fundamentally from Western precepts. morality and overall behavior was as high—if not higher— . and were therefore on the road for weeks at a time when traveling long distances. 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. This is not to infer that all of Japan’s samurai were paragons of these six primary virtues.19 all of whom traveled on foot (also by government decree). But within Japanese society during the age of the samurai the level of ethics.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai .
before or since. ethics and morality—weakened here and there by the importation of democratic ideals of individualism and selfishness from the West. 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. in any other society.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai .20 than has ever been achieved. but nevertheless visible in every area of society. Why Japan Became An Economic Superpower In summary. And this encompassed many of the most desirable and admirable beliefs and behavioral traits that were part of the Hebrew and Christian traditions. the pleasure side. and the one in which they can participate without prior knowledge or experience. The overall legacy of the samurai remains today the foundation of Japan’s etiquette. The one area of Japanese culture that is the most visible to foreigners. . primarily the United States. which combined is probably the largest single industry in the country. is the fun side.
# For a definitive discourse on the culture of the samurai. much less become an economic superpower. and the pride that had become the hallmarks of the samurai character. the perseverance. it would have taken the Japanese decades to overcome the devastation and loss caused by their defeat in World War II. see The Japanese Samurai Code and Samurai Strategies. the will.The Seven Virtues of the Samurai . All rights reserved. _______________________________________ Copyright © 2009 by Boyé Lafayette De Mente.21 Without the spirit. . by the author—both available from Amazon.com.
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