The Eight Samurai Virtues: Bushido Code in Anime
The eight samurai virtues found in the Bushido Code can be seen influencing the greatest swordsmen in anime.
The samurai were pivotal in shaping Japan, and their historical presence is often a major inspiration for many anime characters. Countless swordsmen and series are built around the samurai, making it difficult to navigate the waters when looking for the best.
I. Rectitude or Justice—Kenshin Himura
In Bushido, personal rectitude or justice is considered the strongest virtue and was once defined by Inazo Nitobe, a well-known samurai, as the “the power of deciding upon a certain course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when to die is right, to strike when to strike is right” and there is no greater example of this virtue in the samurai genre than Kenshin Himura of Rurouni Kenshin.
Despite the stigma that follows the title in recent years, Rurouni Kenshin helped define the samurai genre and Kenshin Himura’s morality is key to his character. While Kenshin certainly embodies many of the eight virtues found in Bushido, his sense of justice and goodness is his greatest essential feature. Kenshin has spent most of his life seeking redemption for his past. Vowing to never take another life, he begins carrying a sakabato, or a reverse-blade sword. Even when Kenshin comes face to face with great evils that intend to do him and others harm, he stands by his vow without wavering. Kenshin, having taken many lives in the Meiji Restoration, understands the value of life and seeks to protect it, regardless of who he is fighting. In this way, Kenshin represents a devout sense of justice and morality.
II. Courage—Roronoa Zoro
The second virtue under the Bushido code, courage, only stands among the other virtues if it is exercised under a righteous act, or as Confucius defined, “courage is what is right.” An example of courage in this sense and many others can be seen in One Piece’s Roronoa Zoro. While Zoro isn’t a traditional samurai or swordsmen, he does exhibit great courage throughout the series. For example, when his fellow crewmates are fighting the Arlong Pirates in order to free Nami and the other citizens of Cocoyasi Village, Zoro takes a stand against the pirates without question because ultimately, he knows it’s right. Despite Zoro’s self-interest—becoming the greatest swordsman—he acts out of righteousness, fighting for what is right because it is right without turning his back.
III. Benevolence or Mercy—Amidamaru
Samurai who had the power to kill were also expected to show an equal measure of mercy and benevolence. Despite his troublesome past, Amidamaru of Shaman King is a creature of mercy once he teams up with Yoh. Amidamaru is Yoh’s guardian ghost, protecting him from other spirits and shamans. Yoh is more relaxed and his fighting techniques reflects this, as he often takes mercy on his enemies, and Amindamaru, though still skilled in technique, bestows the same benevolence on his foes that his companion does. For example, the two free angry earthbound spirits and even stop a bully from throwing his life away.
IV. Politeness—Goemon Ishikawa XIII
Politeness is number four on the list of samurai virtues as it ties back to benevolence and mercy. Samurai were expected to act polite through approaches of love rather than out of fear of offending. They were to portray a compassionate regard for the feelings of others. Goemon of Lupin III fame exhibits this level of politeness.
Goemon’s skill in martial arts and swordsmanship is coupled with his reticent personality. Goemon is generally soft spoken and doesn’t hesitate to help Lupin unless Lupin’s actions do not agree with his own morals. Goemon is reserved and much of his screen-time is dedicated to meditation. While Goemon is typically polite, he does occasionally react in frustration, but it’s usually for comedic purpose as it’s out of character for him.
V. Honesty and Sincerity—Gintoki Sakata
Honesty and sincerity are not as plain as they seem, in fact, this virtue looks at honesty and sincerity through the lens of money. In Bushido “men must grudge money, for riches hinder wisdom.” For this reason, Bushido encouraged thrift and “luxury was thought the greatest menace to manhood, and severe simplicity was required of the warrior class.” If anyone knows how to be thrifty, it’s Gintoki Sakata, who portrays honesty and sincerity in both the traditional sense and to some extent even the Bushido way.
Gintoki is upfront in a way that’s almost overwhelming, and while he isn’t the most conventional samurai, he does display some of the more traditional samurai qualities when the story calls for it. Gintoki does odd jobs to make money, but it never leads to wealth. While Gintoki doesn’t hesitate to take on tasks for large sums of money, the story often cheats him out of fortune to keep him in line with Bushido code. He lives a thrifty lifestyle and is genuine in a righteous way when it’s necessary. At his core Gintoki is good while at times the promise of money can cloud his judgement, it’s not the center of who he is, and if anything he functions better without it.
VI. Honor—Date Masamune
Another characteristic of the samurai is honor and the fear of disgrace that lingered in the shadows. Honor plays a pivotal role in all of the aspects befitting a samurai as it is the heart of righteousness. Date Masamune of Sengoku Basara exudes this level of honor. Date Masamune is based off of the historical figure of the same name. He is the leader of the Date Clan and known as the One-Eyed Dragon. While Masamune is cocky and ambitious he is an honorable warlord and much of his honor stems from the pride of his clan. He is loyal to his men, and deeply cares for them, especially his closest aid, Kojuro. Masamune even holds a deep respect for his rivals and rises to the occasion of combat if it means bettering his clan.
VII. Loyalty—Hajime Saito
Loyalty is considered the seventh trait of the eight virtues, and samurai were expected to remain loyal to those whom they were indebted to. In the feudal era, the most distinctive virtue was loyalty to a superior. Loyalty is most recognizable in Hajime Saito of Hakuoki. Hajime is the third division leader of the Shinsengumi and is often sent on what could be considered “dirtier” missions because his superiors trust him. Hajime is resolute in his devotion to both the Shinsengumi and the sword. He never questions his orders and carries out plans as deemed necessary. Hajime’s loyalty is unrivaled amongst his peers and he goes head first into battle even when the odds aren’t in his favor.
VIII. Character and Self-Control—Byakuya Kuchiki
The final virtue that Bushido teaches is the building of character and acting as model for moral standards, particularly towards youth. While all the characters on this list can somehow be looked at as role models—even Gintoki to some extent—one that really stands out in regard to their impact on youth is Byakuya Kuchiki of Bleach. While Byakuya appears cold and distant in much of the series, his love and guardianship over his sister Rukia is exemplary. Byakuya is an honorable and loving man whose impact on Rukia helped shape her into the strong, morally righteous woman she is. In this way, Byakuya portrays the version of character and self-control as defined by the Bushido code.
While many on this list may exhibit more than one of the eight virtues, as many samurai did, they aren’t all perfect. Just like the samurai that came before them and other characters like them, there’s a human imperfection that coexists alongside what makes them honorable men.