Reading Note: Oleg Benesch, “Inventing the way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan”

Before I praise Benesch’s book, a complaint: Oxford UP pricing is absurd. Now that’s not unusual for academic hardbacks, monographs that go to libraries and specialists. But 1) Benesch’s book should be a standard teaching text in modern Japanese history and culture, 2) there’s no reason for the ebook version to cost US$78. There are no diagrams, no pictures with expensive rights issues, no reason why this work shouldn’t be read widely, except that I can’t possibly justify assigning it. Maybe next time I teach my Samurai class, it’ll be available as a paperback, or perhaps they’ll come to their senses about digital access, but this time around I’ll just have to tell students what they’ve missed.

Overall, it’s a great book, a very useful and substantial piece of scholarship. The core is a careful explication of something we’ve known for a long time but needed someone to document properly: bushidō is a modern phenomenon, and has been a very flexible, if not benign, ideological construct within modern Japanese national discourses. To put it simply, a myth which means whatever it needs to mean. As Benesch says in the conclusion:

“The roots of modern bushidō are found not in the historical samurai class, although bushidō theorists picked up pre-Meiji writings in the twentieth century to legitimate their ideas. Instead, the first discussions of bushidō in the late nineteenth century were a nativist response that sought to provide an indigenous alternative to Western ideals while distancing Japan from China. … From the beginning of the modern discourse on bushidō, the concept served as a vessel for myriad philosophies, giving it the great resilience seen in its continued prominence. … most post-war researchers reverted to a focus on bushidō as a ‘way of the samurai’ as it had been originally formulated in Meiji, rather than the more expansive ‘way of the warrior’ that dominated early Showa discourse. … On the one hand, appeals to historical ties popularly legitimize bushidō, while on the other hand, the lack of historical evidence regarding any commonly accepted definition of bushidō before Meiji gives its modern interpreters considerable flexibility and allows the concept to be adapted for various purposes. … As long as territorial disputes and controversies over interpretations of history continue, the notion that Japan is guided by a martial ethic will cause problems. This is exacerbated by recent trends to reissue imperial bushidō texts from early Showa, both in print and online, often without any contextualization. … The diversity and flexibility of the concept prevented the imperial state from exclusively defining bushidō, but by focusing on a timeless ‘way of the warrior’ rather than the more limiting historical samurai, this invented tradition can be mobilized for almost any contingency.” (245-247)

Benesch’s decision to italicize “bushidō” throughout is interesting. Obviously, the old typesetting reasons for dropping italics after first use are no longer relevant, but there’s something about the way the italics emphasize the persistence of foreignness that I think was a deliberate decision. That highlights one thing I think remains to be done, by Benesch or someone else: a more detailed look at the way in which bushidō becomes part of non-Japanese discourses, and not just about Japan. In the US, there’s an increasingly urgent discussion about policing in which the ‘guardian’ and ‘warrior’ models are contrasted sharply, and I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that the ‘warrior’ model rises to dominance at the same time that bushidō-heavy martial arts cultures become the lingua franca of personal combat training.

Anyway, it’s a great book, if you can afford it.

5 responses

  1. Wow, I’m not even sure our library can afford that. (Well, they can, but it would mean blowing a big part of my budget.) I’ve looked around and he seems to be working on castles now. If it really is going to remain stuck as an expensive hardback this seems like the idea sort of book to get a short version from the author, sort of an updated Bushido or Bull

  2. Thank you for your kind comments regarding the book. The decision to use italics was indeed deliberate, and largely for the reasons you indicate. I also feel that, for historical accuracy, it is important to render the term as it was used by the people writing on the subject. Otherwise, it can lead to a variety of terms being rendered uniformly as “bushido,” conveying the impression of a homogeneity of terminology and/or interpretation that is not supported by the evidence. As you mention, there is a lot of scope for further research to be done on uses (and abuses) of bushido outside of Japan. I’ve personally been most intrigued by the incredibly extensive bushido discourses in China, and discuss these in a recent article:

    I share many of your sentiments with regard to the price of the book. Given the great popular interest in bushido even beyond Japanese history, one of my main objectives was to write an accessible book that would also be suitable for teaching (the extent to which I have succeeded in this is open to debate). Unfortunately, the current cost of the book is prohibitive to many, and I have been speaking with the publisher about this. At the moment, the book is available primarily as a hardback or through Oxford Scholarship Online, but I am optimistic that a much cheaper paperback edition will be out in time for the 2016-17 academic year.

  3. Alan: Thanks for the reminder of that article, a good start to a discussion.
    Oleg: Thanks for commenting! I’ll take a look at the China article next. Tell OUP that there’s definitely textbook orders coming for affordable editions!

  4. Just to follow up, Oxford University Press have announced that the paperback edition will appear in April 2016. Amazon has it available for preorder at $38 / £25, and I have to assume that the Ebook price will also come down when the paperback appears.

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