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.