Bushido and its cultural fascination for visitors to Japan
What does bushido mean to foreigners? Their perceptions of bushido are very different to how the Japanese themselves see it. Anyone organizing a samurai-themed entertainment event in Japan for overseas guests would do well to understand what the concept of bushido means to people abroad. We’ve selected some samurai experiences that will appeal to foreigners since they incorporate various aspects of Japanese culture that they’ll already be familiar with.
What is bushido? How foreigners see it
The idea of a samurai warrior tradition resonates so strongly with people that for many foreigners it’s the first thing that comes to mind when they think about Japan. It’s something that embodies the traditional toughness and mental spirit of the Japanese people. People’s perceptions of bushido are shaped by watching TV dramas or movies depicting warriors who fight and lay down their lives for their samurai lord.
Definition and principles of bushido
Bushido is a code that represents the moral and ethical standards of the samurai class, a way of thinking that is unique to Japan and its modern feudal society. It is a set of common principles upheld by the samurai and embodied by the ethos of living a disciplined life “as both a warrior and a scholar.” However, it isn’t a hard and fast set of rules, so consequently bushido means different things to different people.
A brief history of bushido
Usage of the term, bushido, became widespread after an author called Inazo Nitobe published a book entitled Bushido: The Soul of Japan in 1900. This was one of the first major works on samurai ethics and Japanese culture written originally in English for Western readers. His book was translated into a variety of languages overseas, leading to the growth in popularity of the concept of bushido; the term therefore came into everyday usage from the Meiji era onwards.
The fascination of bushido
What traits do foreigners perceive as being typically Japanese? One likely reason for people’s interest in bushido is the fact that it embodies the respect and politeness that epitomizes the Japanese spirit. Bushido represents a code of behavior that was part of the culture of the samurai era. Spiritual toughness and resilience are further reasons why bushido is held in such high regard. We now outline four specially selected experiences for foreigners who want to find out more about bushido.
1) Iaido Experience (Martial art with samurai swords)
Foreigners are familiar with the notion of fencing or swordplay as part of Japanese culture. However, they rarely ever get the opportunity to use a real Japanese sword for themselves: therefore, the opportunity to handle one and try it out is obviously something that many would find appealing. People who are interested in Japan and Japanese culture often tend to be fascinated by Japanese swords because they are so unique.
Large swords have tended to be the norm in the West, so in this respect, Japanese swords, which are thin and distinctly sharp, are particularly unusual. Only iaido gives you the experience of actually handling and using a sword to cut something; this is totally different to ordinary sword schools which use bamboo swords or wooden swords, just as you’d find in kendo.
In iaido, you use a sword to cut through bundles of straw. The body gets to experience the actual sensation of cutting through something. There are plenty of events for foreigners which explain or demonstrate iaido. What distinguishes this event is that foreign visitors can enjoy a live experience of Japanese culture for themselves.
2) Kembu Experience (Martial art incorporating sword play with dance)
The kembu is a sword dance that is said to have been performed by the samurai as a way of boosting their morale and giving themselves inspiration. There are dojos and studios where you can see this type of sword dance in action. If you are a foreigner visiting Japan, you may well want to experience what being a samurai was like. Here’s an overview of a sword dance experience that you might be interested in.
In this experience, you learn how to handle a Japanese sword and even try the sword dance for yourself. You use an iai sword, and learn how to hold it, draw it and sheath it. This in itself is enough to qualify you as an expert sword handler by Japanese standards. However, you can go deeper into the art of sword handling if you like, by learning how to hold a fan as you dance and practicing choreography to Chinese poetry. With an instructor helping you to put on your costume for the dance, you get to experience what it was like to be a samurai by dressing in costume and performing the dance.
Kembu is certainly a very entertaining event and something that is very popular with tourists. It’s a gorgeous dance and stunning to watch in its own right. But doing this dance yourself is something else entirely. You’ll feel like your trip to Japan was worth it just for this experience alone! And you’ll certainly want to come back again!
3) Zen Experience
“Zen” is an aspect of Buddhist teaching, Furyu monji (“without relying on scriptures”). The essence of Zen Buddhism is the achievement of satori (“Enlightenment”). Enlightenment means discovering the nature of Buddha within oneself and doing away with worldly attachments.
The training which leads to Enlightenment is developed through a Buddhist lifestyle with disciplines such as zazen (meditation) or koan (meditative puzzles or questions), and samu (temple jobs and work). These include duties such as cleaning and cooking that are important in daily life.
If you do a Zen experience at a temple, the main thing you will practice is zazen. At some places, you can do experience courses where you can learn about the tea ceremony and are taught how to make and drink matcha. The use of matcha in hospitality is a well-established Zen technique, so for this reason matcha is frequently included in performances and events like this.
For practicing zazen, you’ll need the help of a temple priest to guide you. However, these days, with the cooperation of Buddhist temples, many foreigners develop a deep-seated interest and affinity to Japan through their experience of Zen Buddhism. Moreover, books on Zen are increasingly popular overseas. Therefore, we’d highly recommend a holding a Zen experience event for overseas visitors.
4) Satsujin experience (Sword fighting)
The notion of satsujin probably brings to mind images of warriors brandishing their swords for battle like a scene out of The Unfettered Shogun! The sword fights shown on stage or in the movies are performed by professionals. These scenes might look quite complicated, but in actual fact they are easy enough to perform even as an amateur. They’re something that can be easily learned at a regular dojo or studio, however hard they look. This kind of sword play incorporates elements of both kendo and iaido, so you can learn some basic moves and do satsujin as a recreational event.
Foreigners often perceive sword fighting as a quintessential part of Japanese culture. Experiences which include demonstrations or even reenactments of sword fights are thus extremely popular. You’ll find that sword fighting is increasingly common at events that aim to recreate a samurai experience.
Many of these events are held specifically for groups or for private guests. We’d recommend including a sword fight in any event targeted at foreigners who want to take part in a Japanese traditional cultural experience.
Most Japanese cultural traditions are rooted in Shintoism or Buddhism. But in our view the absolute epitome of Japanese culture is surely the samurai code or bushido. For this reason you’d be well advised to know about and understand bushido if you’re hosting a conference or event for overseas guests. Such guests often visit Japan because they are attracted by the spirit of Japanese hospitality. Being familiar with bushido and including a related experience when planning hospitality for your overseas guests is sure to contribute to its overall success.