Code of the Samurai

Code of the Samurai: A Modern Translation of the Bushido Shoshinshu of Taira Shigesuke
Translated by Thomas Cleary; illustrated by Oscar Ratti.
Published by Tuttle Publishing, 1999.
ISBN: 0-8048-3190-4.
5" x 8" 98 p. hardcover. Illustrated.

One of the most important, yet most difficult, things for students of the Japanese martial arts who live in the West is gaining an understanding of the psychological and philosophical foundations of the martial culture of Japan. This is complicated for a number of reasons: first, there are no more "real" bushi (or samurai if that is the term one prefers) alive--the last of them died around the middle of the 20th century. The second reason goes along with the first: in the 150-odd years since Japan was forcibly opened to the rest of the world, Japanese society and culture have undergone tremendous changes and there's very little that remains of what was once a central facet of Japanese life. Indeed, the traditional arts (martial and otherwise) of Japan have experienced enormous pressures from modern lifestyles and some of them are in danger of just fading away for lack of interest or support.

How, then, to capture the "essence" of Japanese martial culture? Perhaps one of the best ways is to read what the warriors themselves thought and believed while they lived their lives and accomplished their duties. Although they wrote in a way that's difficult for even modern Japanese to understand, fortunately for us there've been a number of excellent scholars (in and out of Japan) who have translated an increasing number of works that guided warriors' thoughts and actions.

One of the most important of these is the Budo Shoshinshu (often translated as "Code of the Warrior," it might also be called "A Primer on [the] Japanese Martial Arts"), a book written by Daidoji Yuzan Taira no Shigesuke. This work was widely read and discussed by warriors of the middle and late Edo period and became one of the bases for bushi thought and behavior throughout the country, along with such books as Hagakure and Tengu Geijutsuron. These books and others were discussions of what a warrior ought to do and how he should behave in the fulfillment of his duties, a combination of military thought and social etiquette.

One of the first books about this subject was Bushido: the Way of the Warrior, written by Nitobe Inazo, a Japanese who lived and taught in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Nitobe was born to the warrior class at the very end of its existence, but he had little (if any) background in the martial arts. Although he wrote with a certain "insider's" knowledge as a member of a social group that was dissolved during his lifetime, he did not really understand martial culture and much of what he said is, therefore, somewhat suspect. It is probably better for all students of martial arts to study materials written by warriors, for warriors, about warriors rather than this insider's outside book, which was written to explain to an American audience what was then a little-known (and worse understood) aspect of Japanese culture.

There are two English language translations of Budo Shoshinshu. The earlier of these was written by the late A.L. Sadler, a professor at the University of Sydney and the Royal Military College of Australia. It was first published in 1941 and is a truly excellent example of translation in that it presents the language of that time long gone in a way that retains the flavor and cogency of the original text. A more recent translation is by Thomas Cleary, who has recently done a number of very major translations of classics in the martial arts, Asian philosophy, and religion. Both of these books are published by the Tuttle Publishing Company of Rutland, Vermont, and Tokyo, Japan.

My personal preference of the two works is for the one by A.L. Sadler. He writes maintains more of the feeling of the original text (which I've read in part). Cleary's translation bothers me for a couple of reasons, the first of which them being his use of words which seem to me inappropriate for the reality of Japanese warriors. Although other writers have compared bushi to European knights, they are not at all the same thing. Also, the general tone of Cleary's book is more modern, rather like a book on management and behavior for the modern (business) warrior, and I don't like this fast and loose use of language because it fails to convey the same sort of feeling or tone. It's reasonably close to the original, some parts are a little better than Sadler's work, but on the whole I think it is somewhat lacking.

The other thing that bothers me is the inclusion of illustrations by Oscar Ratti. In his other works (Secrets of the Samurai and Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere), one sees the same sort of outright mistakes and I just don't see a need for pretty pictures that are downright inaccurate.

In any event, both of these translations are useful for students of the modern and classical martial arts and well worth buying. My preference is for Sadler, but the one by Cleary will also do.

Meik Skoss

You might also enjoy Castles of the Samurai, Samurai: An Illustrated History, and Legends of the Samurai. Or search for more information on samurai at Koryu.com.

©2001 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.
A Koryu.com original.

Classical Japanese Martial Arts
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts