Monday, December 1, 2014

Oleg Benesch's "Inventing the Way of the Samurai"

Oleg Benesch is the Anniversary Research Lecturer in History at the University of York. He obtained his PhD from the University of British Columbia, and was Past & Present Society Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan, and reported the following:
Inventing the Way of the Samurai is a study of the Japanese concept of “bushido,” or “the way of the samurai.” Bushido is popularly understood as an ancient ethic with origins in Japanese warrior traditions going back centuries. It is frequently portrayed as an intrinsic part of the Japanese “national character,” and even as the very “soul of Japan.”

In this book, I counter much of the mythology that has arisen around the samurai and bushido, arguing that bushido is largely a modern invention. Inventing the Way of the Samurai shows that bushido was not a continuation of any past ideal, but developed from a search for identity that occupied Japanese thinkers during the rapid modernization of the late nineteenth century. The first formulators of bushido in the Meiji period (1868-1912) drew far greater inspiration from Victorian ideals of chivalry and gentlemanship than they did from the historical samurai. It was only after Japan’s victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 that bushido became widely understood, with the word itself essentially unknown before this time.

Page 99 of Inventing the Way of the Samurai is in the middle of the Chapter “The Early Bushidō Boom, 1894-1905,” which discusses the period when bushido was first popularized and came to be interpreted as a uniquely Japanese ethic. Page 99 introduces the influential philosophy professor Inoue Tetsujirō’s (1855-1944) early attempts to transform bushido from a supposed Japanese equivalent of Western ideals to a chauvinistic national ideology with emperor-worship at its core.

From page 99:
Inoue’s writings in the early 1890s contained a similarly nuanced nationalism [to that of his contemporaries], but by the turn of the century Inoue’s nationalism was anything but defensive or subtle, and bushidō served as an ideal vehicle for its dissemination. Inoue’s involvement would have a profound impact on the development of general bushidō discourse after this time... By the end of Meiji, Inoue was by far the most prolific author and editor in the field of bushidō studies, publishing until shortly before his death in 1944. This has often been overlooked in the post-war period, and most assessments after Inoue’s death have been in line with [Winston] Davis’ description: ‘Though he claimed to be the greatest philosopher east of Suez, his logic was tendentious, his arguments forced and artificial. In fact his philosophy was little more than a smorgasbord spread with the leftovers of former ideological feasts, East and West’. In spite of this, Inoue’s impact on modern bushidō was tremendous, and his early involvement with the subject was reflected in A Collection of Bushidō Theories by Prominent Modern Thinkers (1905), a volume of thirty-three articles on bushidō from the previous fifteen years, eight of which were written by Inoue. Even in works he did not write himself, Inoue was quick to offer a brief preface or introduction, and many pre-war works on bushidō bear his mark. The addition of a few words from Inoue signified that a work was in line with the officially sanctioned imperial interpretation of bushidō, and therefore presumably suitable for use as educational material.

In 1901, Inoue held a lecture at the Military Preparatory School (Rikugun yōnen gakkō), which was subsequently published and widely distributed under the simple title Bushidō. This lecture concisely manifested Inoue’s multifarious roles in bushidō discourse, and also outlined themes that would become prominent in his later work in other fields. In addition to emphasizing patriotism and loyalty to the emperor, Inoue’s bushidō activities were defined by several characteristics: a close relationship with the military as an educator and ideologist; ultranationalism and the emphasis on a unique Japanese spirit; pronounced anti-foreignism framed in the rhetoric of Japanese superiority; aggressive intolerance of other views as a self-appointed defender of imperial bushidō orthodoxy; and the exaltation of [the seventeenth-century strategist and critic of China] Yamaga Sokō as one of the most important thinkers in Japanese history.”
Inoue’s bushido interpretation would come to dominate views of the subject as it reached unprecedented levels of popularity after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Bushido penetrated virtually all aspects of Japanese cultural and public life, featuring in politics, religious life, educational materials, literature, martial arts, and the military. It became a key pillar of the ruling ideology of the imperial state until 1945, after which time it was widely rejected along with other concepts closely identified with militaristic totalitarianism. Unlike other nationalistic ideologies, however, bushido was soon revived in the postwar period, and Inventing the Way of the Samurai explores the dynamics that have allowed bushido to retain its high profile and influence into the twenty-first century.
Learn more about Inventing the Way of the Samurai at the Oxford University Press website and Oleg Benesch's website.

--Marshal Zeringue