Barely a week goes by where I do not see somewhere on social media (and sometimes even academic sources) a reference to the "Japanese" seven virtues of Bushido, followed by characters that are to be read in Chinese and mean something completely different depending on the timeframe. Even the oft-cited word/phrase “Bushido” is usually unpacked using its early 20th-century understanding as conceptualised by Nitobe and not its much older iteration of 1616 by Kōyō Gunkan. Moreover, as Alex Bennet recently revealed, the phrase may be even much older than that, with its origins in the Warring States Period of Japan. Adding to the complexity if the fact that there are numerous codes written by various samurai, and again, depending on the timeframe of composition, what is stated varies greatly. Interestingly, loyalty is often cited as the highest virtue, yet Japanese history is replete with assassinations, underhanded techniques, and consistently shifting loyalties for personal gain.
In my focus budo, karate, the same mentality is evident. Rather than being understood as variations on a theme, each ryuha (lineage/school) has its creation myth, usually followed by a parochial view of the art. What is interesting is that such narrow-mindedness is a relatively recent phenomenon. Go a bit deeper than the surface, and you will find most of the founders of karate cross-trained with various and multiple teachers - a practice frowned upon by most modern schools. Ironically, karate became insular after World War Two and its global expansion. Different theories explain this switch, but money and personal prestige played their part is such a development.
Interestingly, these founding masters are presented as the embodiment of Bushido, especially in its chivalric reiteration. There is no mention of the frequent visits to brothels, multiple and often illegal marriages or mistresses, families abandoned, alcoholism, gambling and other activities objectionable to modern sensibilities. Likewise, great fighting reputations are often based on hearsay evidence, not documented body counts.
Recently, this reality was brought to light again by my colleague and friend, Mario McKenna. For example, the myth of virtue assigned to Funakoshi’s Twenty Precepts usually neglects the rampant nationalism and militarism contained within Funakoshi's original text. Of course, Funakoshi is not alone in such sentiments; for many, books from the so-called "golden age of karate" (i.e. the 1920s-30s) are rife with such assertions.
Additionally, McKenna has recently uncovered the events surrounding The Nakano Spy school and its operations within Fukuoka-ken during the war. Perhaps the most harrowing of the events contained within this account is the use of karate to execute prisoners of war. Please read that sentence again. Take a moment to let that truth digest.
McKenna notes “The Truth About The Nakano School” by Saito Mitsunori, discusses the Aburayama Incident in which eight American POWs were executed at Aburayama in Fukuoka City on August 10, 1945.’ Yes, Japanese troops experimented with using karate to execute prisoners of war.
The main culprit, Mr S, was arrested and sentenced to death for war crimes, but his sentence was imprisonment for 7 years. One of the reasons why he was not executed was because his superiors consistently claimed they could not recall if they issued the orders to execute prisoners in such a manner. As Mitsunori explains, Mr S lived his remaining days with deep psychological scars.
Of course, as our TV screens remind us daily, war is a nasty business. However, next time you hear someone spouting off about the character-building aims of karate - give a short pause and remember those who lost their lives at Aburayama. Karate is a tool - it is the participant who wields it.
As always, a sincere thanks to Mr McKenna for providing the original Japanese link at: https://blog.goo.ne.jp/awamori777/e/efffd3535d7d0ed839e1fa50d44d6419. I highly recommend his excellent translation available via LuLu Press.
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan