I just finished watching The Last Samurai. I'm not going to comment on the acting or the historical accuracy, but rather on this notion of a code of honor. Several people told me to watch it because they were impressed with the code of honor in the film. I think there is something comforting about codes of honor and people get goose bumps when they see movies where heros die for honor. Some people identify with the heros as they reflect on the unfairness and loneliness in their own lives. A friend of mine manages the rights to Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, which is one of Japan's most famous heros. He used to get calls almost every year from CEOs of companies wanting to make the film because they realized that THEY were Musashi.

The most honorable person I've ever known is my mom. She didn't talk about or whine about honor. She was just honorable. In my experience, the more people talk about honor, the less they know about it and are either using it as a way to try to convince you to trust them or trying to convince themselves or something. Some of the stupidest mistakes I've made in friendship and business have been when I have assumed that people spouting off about codes of honor would actually adhere to them. "Don't you trust me?" "Just trust me." Bah.


So I'm quite skeptical about Japanese honor. Sure, I bet there were a lot of honorable people though the history of the Samurai, but I see honor every day and they don't make movies about it. So stop making movies about Japanese honor or we might start believing it.

I'm not bashing the notion of codes of honor in organizations since I think it's often necessary to try to aspire to and enforce higher level conduct in these organizations, but having a code doesn't mean everyone will adhere to it and such codes probably cause these organizations to be more trusted than they should.

32 Comments

I see honor as rebellion against the reality, balancing against the uncertainty and inconstancy surrounding a person's life with certainty and constancy willed or distilled inside the person.

But I think the honor you mentioned is honor at the group level and not the personal level. While the two can coincide, two are distinct. Violation of personal honor uproots that person's sense of right and wrong. Violation of a group's sense of honor violates the group, forcing it to punish the violator.

I think Samurai's code of honor is a mix of both which leaves the violator without escape. Business code of honor, on the other hand, is mostly group honor because people tend to separate business from personal life.

I don't do that so I often end up getting hurt like you. Still, I persist because that is what honor means to me: a rebellion against the reality.

I refuse to see that movie. Now Showgun on DVD is a much much better watch.

Joi, you're bang on target with "Sure, I bet there were a lot of honorable people though the history of the Samurai, but I see honor every day and they don't make movies about it. So stop making movies about Japanese honor or we might start believing it."

I already made a post here -> http://joi.ito.com/archives/2004/04/03/foreigners_and_japanese_customs.html about it, but basically most of the theories of the 'specialness' of Japanese, English, Mongolian, Chinese, Tibetan culture and so on are highly idealised and mostly nonsense.

Just because it's a movie with Japanese people in it, it becomes a movie about 'Samurai honor', as if nobody ever ran away, and crime never happens in Japan.

I wish there was less empty theorising about how *all* Japanese people are neat, conservative and incredibly polite (except when they are wacky and weird) and more understanding between cultures about other people as HUMAN BEINGS.

Joi, really good point. And Dave Roylance, really really good point.

For some reason it's popular to construct these elaborate fantasies about Japan, like ascribing honor as across-the board feature of the "Japanese character" or whatever. Obviously each person is different.

But I don't think it's just a product of foreign media. They are copy cats, synthesizing old samurai flicks they've seen. I think Japanese media manufactures the idea, but why, to what end? Somehow I feel there must be some reason other than just the simple retelling/recreation of myth in media.

Jake, Good point! That is a great DVD box set and they did an amazing job restoring the print. Looks so much better than the horrid washed out version shown on Japanese TV sometimes.

Joi, I have not seen Last Samurai yet, but if there is an element of "heroic honor" to the story, then perhaps it tries to serve as many stories do, to present an idealized concept for people to strive towards. I could say the same of the translated version of Musashi. Isnt that one of the reasons we tell stories in the first place?

Of cource IRL the truely honorable people dont talk about honor in any culture. Just like "enlightenment", if you have to talk about it, you dont have it ^_^

Honor in the warrior sense was often enforced with executions. Senpuku is portrayed as voluntary in many myths (novels, movies, etc.). The reality is that Senpuku was forced and usually ended with a beheading after the stomach was pierced with the knife. After a Samurai warrior had seen a few people forced to commit Senpuku, do you think they would be more likely to buy into the Honor Your Lord myth? Sure they would. Believing in Honor added dignity to an otherwise awful exsistence, life long forced survitude to a fuedal master and a probable death on the battle field or perhaps Senpuku.

That was a great post! Even Americans who disagree with Dubya don't often worry if cowboy films could give us a swell head. You've outdone yourself!

Don, I really appreciate your comment about honor.

"I see honor as rebellion against the reality, balancing against the uncertainty and inconstancy surrounding a person's life with certainty and constancy willed or distilled inside the person."

Allow me to get a little creative with your ideas. Nature tells us to eat or be eaten, kill or be killed. Yet we humans are great at telling nature to piss off. Honor is what probably allows us to survive while disobeying the bloody laws of the jungle.

Hmmm. Maybe "The Last Samurai" was more about America than it was Japan. These days, Americans are jonesing for more involuntary honor. Unfortunately, we have to legislate it. (See Sarbanes-Oxley)

I see the Japanese Samurai code of honor much like the medieval Arthurian tales of chivalry. Most scholars agree that medieval european nobility didn't adhere to the "rules" of courtly love and good knightly behavior. Stories about chivalry just made for good reads. When I see a film like The Last Samurai I relate it to the pure entertainment factor that stories of Sir Gawain hold, not to a personal sentiment or moral example. I think there's a literary archetype of a hero that succeeds because he follows a set of rules that is somehow morally superior. This simplicity is appealing but unfortunately doesn't allow much for human complexity. I agree that the humble, quiet honor exuded by a person who's simply honorable is much preferable to a flashy, formal code of honor that someone talks on and on about. But I disagree that folks should stop making movies about them; in the right context, I think they make for fun -- if shallow-- stories.

I didn't see that from this perspective befor, but you are totally right. Thanks for that.

I didn't see that from this perspective befor, but you are totally right. Thanks for that.

Humanity, when at its best, has seeked to be more. We as the components of that group seek to improve ourselves individually. We pour ourselves into many different things in our effort to try to attain that goal. Few if any of us ever achieve what we set out for and most end up settling/making a peace with what they got.
The idea of Honor, not the reality of it, is what brings us back to it time and time again both as individuals and as humanity. So we continue to tell the stories of King Arthur, brave knights, and damsels in distress, just as we tell stories of samurai, shoguns, and the like. It is about trying to find the best from what went before to build a better tomorrow. We all know that it is an over-romantisised version of history, but we don't care. We need our heros to look up to. it gives us a connection that helps us make it through the day and fight the "dragons" on the job.
It is about HOPE.

Joi, your anecdote about Musashi and the exectutives is hilarious. If you think you're Musashi, you're not. Even Musashi didn't think he was Musashi.

Dave, you hit on one of my pet peeves, "nihonjinron." The difference between any two people is far greater than the difference between any two cultures. Most cultures are more alike than people will admit, but people, even within the same culture, vary greatly.

I am a Samurai, and a Master of the Code (of Bushido). I fight for honor daily. It may not be with a sword of spear, but I still fight. Bushido teachs that to be honorable is to live your life, mainly by following your family, doing your job (no matter what it is) to the best of your ability, and mostly to fight for others even if you do not know them. The movie 'The Last Samurai' was made to show that the Samurai , the last true warrior at the time, stood up to fight the change of their way of life, and in the end to die for that cause. The movie show that the Samurai were not willing to become what they were not. Now this wrold is grown up, quote un-quote. People only act like they have honor but few of us live by honor. E-mail me if you have any questions on the code at Ajemjemian@aol.com

I am a Samurai, and a Master of the Code (of Bushido). I fight for honor daily. It may not be with a sword of spear, but I still fight. Bushido teachs that to be honorable is to live your life, mainly by following your family, doing your job (no matter what it is) to the best of your ability, and mostly to fight for others even if you do not know them. The movie 'The Last Samurai' was made to show that the Samurai , the last true warrior at the time, stood up to fight the change of their way of life, and in the end to die for that cause. The movie show that the Samurai were not willing to become what they were not. Now this wrold is grown up, quote un-quote. People only act like they have honor but few of us live by honor. E-mail me if you have any questions on the code at Ajemjemian@aol.com

I am a Samurai, and a Master of the Code (of Bushido). I fight for honor daily. It may not be with a sword of spear, but I still fight. Bushido teachs that to be honorable is to live your life, mainly by following your family, doing your job (no matter what it is) to the best of your ability, and mostly to fight for others even if you do not know them. The movie 'The Last Samurai' was made to show that the Samurai , the last true warrior at the time, stood up to fight the change of their way of life, and in the end to die for that cause. The movie show that the Samurai were not willing to become what they were not. Now this wrold is grown up, quote un-quote. People only act like they have honor but few of us live by honor. E-mail me if you have any questions on the code at Ajemjemian@aol.com

sorry buddy i understand ur notion just as well as the notion of japenese honor in the movie. i watched the movie a long time ago, infact its almost out on video now. but there are some people in this world that do believe in honor and just because they speak of it, does not make them untrustworthy. i loved the movie personally. i am buying it the first day it arrives in stores. yes honor occures everyday, but that does not mean they can't make movies about other times honor has happened. i think this movie makes a person think about the time period it occured in. not just the honor. i love culture, and i love the fact that this movie showed some of the better parts of humans. oh well, we all have our opinions right?

I think Honor comes from the heart. Knowing what is good and just, from what is evil and wrong. Trying to do what is right, and fair to others, being honest with yourself and others, shows more honor than telling people "Hey, I've got honor," and goes into a long speal about virtues and beliefs they posses, but never show or use. Honor can be shown in every day life, and not nessesaraly on a battlefield, or in some sort of conflict, or ritual (Klingons come to mind),but in how we relate and interact with other people.

A lot of you are skeptical about Japanese honor, but I believe in it very strongly. Bushido is a beautiful way to live. It's respect and duty to one's country and culture, to the Japanese culture. I try my best to live by Bushido, even though I'm a girl and not Japanese. It's not just about war and fighting to the end. It's deeper than that. It's about loyalty and integrity, and that's what the movie was trying to portray. You see the characters being very stoic and moral, as opposed to the westernized parts of Japan that would lie and give in to greed. The Samurai fought for their country, the little culture they had left, and the survival of the Japanese people. They were being patriotic. I think Japan is the most fascinating place in the world, and their history demands respect. How many people do you guys know that will die for what's right? One more thing, don't compare King Arthur's realm to Bushido, that is so far off. I can't think of one way that they relate.

Ummmm, you should be grateful that your a japanese not like me just a wannabe to be adopted of a samurai family, its really grate to see such movies as this the last samurai, the shogun and etc., i too had a friend here in the phil whom which is a japanese and he's full of honor and decipline, be proud of what you are, are you a decesdant of kenshin himura or any samurai. :O)

Ummmm, you should be grateful that your a japanese not like me just a wannabe to be adopted of a samurai family, its really grate to see such movies as this the last samurai, the shogun and etc., i too had a friend here in the phil whom which is a japanese and he's full of honor and decipline, be proud of what you are, are you a decesdant of kenshin himura or any samurai. :O)

the last samurai is a movie about the fight to keep a way of life. if the movie were about americans being outnumbered you'd flock to the theater saying patriotic this and patriotic that. You're caught in the web of thinking that westernization is right and the only thing that should be. you look past all the facts about the movie. it's simple about the way of the samurai in the end of their exisistance. Bushido has been wiped out because an age came around that was built on everything Bushido was not.

You don't have to be a samurai to practice bushido. I'm not even Japanese, though it would be cool if I were.
Yeager's right about the westernization factor. Japan was the only Asian empire left that hadn't been carved by Europeans or Americans. Japan saw that. While most saw it profitable to blend in with the white culture, others wanted to hold onto their family values. Katsumoto's battle against the invasion was an act of patriotism and loyalty that people lack in the western society. It really pissed me off that the Americans just barged in there and declared their culture savage before even trying to understand it.
If bushido was practiced today as much as it was back then, we wouldn't have wars so much. sad, huh?

Everyone has been making some good comments to this post. I guess I will throw in mine. As an Iaido practitioner for over 6 years and being very interested in Japanese culture I had mix feeling about this movie. On one had it had a great sense of honor and diplaying how good reishiki (etiquette) is very important. Then on the other hand it focused soo much on Tom Cruz that it took away and almost destroyed and real honor that was established in the film. I thought it would have been great if it was a full asian cast. Who needs a caucasian to show the Japanese what honor is?

The Samurai class was an institution as well as a way of life, so it had it good and bad parts. Samurai were artistic in many fields and showed many desirable qualities, yet their main job was to fight other groups, and in order to do this they needed money, which had to come from somewhere. This turned out to be the farmers. This led to extortion from the farmers in order to get the money needed to continue to fight their battles.

Ok back to the movie. Since I have been practicing a traditional sword martial art for a few years, I have grown more knowledgable about the samurai and the use of the sword. One of my pet peeves is when the head get cuts off when someone is commiting seppuku. The person who is going to cut the head (second) is usually going to be the best friend/family member of the person who has to kill himself (to regain some respect from another other group). The cut to the neck is meant to cut the vertibrae but not go all the way through. This is done to end the suffering of the person commiting seppuku. To cut off someone head is disrespectful and is done only to prisoners and criminals. So for the "Second" it is very important NOT to chop off the head, or you would cause great disrepect to both your friend and to yourself.

I could go on and on about the flaws in the film, and how it kept messing up a good idealistic story of the end of the samurai, but I like a few things in the film, like Katsumoto and his sense of loyalty. This is getting long so I will end it here.

Last Saumrai was an AWFUL movie start to finish. It goes way beyond just historical innacuracy in portrayal of events, but like most films it was ludicrously simplistic. And to an extent so are most people's impression of Bushido and Japanese "honor".

Frankly, I think the mind delights in simplistic positions. Film, at least Western film which rarely has complex thoughts expressed in dialogue, is very limited in what it can treat VISUALLY. This was an enormously long film for what it managed to tell you about Meiji-era Japan. Basically it was a set-up for a certain number of action scenes. It's "twist" if you listen to the director's comments on dvd, was to get you to hope that perhaps the "honorable" samurais would prevail and thus it would be so much more poigniat when they get RIDDLED with bullets in a PG-13 version of a Bonnie and Clyde ending. What I am saying is that this film is not "innocent", it is not accurate, it is in fact highly manipulative. This film presents a sort of Bushido-lite that hey, sure you can drink that in all day, it's less filling!

Before Tokugawa, Japan was similar to Medeival Europe, plenty of blood was spilt. The Tokogawa Shogunate was certainly unique in all the world...BUT peace of that sort had to be enforced and yes obviously a lord needed LOYAL retainers just like a mafia chieftain needs loyal retainers. It is frankly wrong to compare the samurai with knights in Europe, the situations are radically different. It is very pretty to imagine yourself a SAMURAI who was incredibly privileged and held in position by some of the most ludicrous laws ever divised by man!

By Musashi's time (1690's) the samurai was no longer some sort of Parcifal, a "pure knight". And this film is 1876! Another 200 years have gone by and while yes many people HATED the Westerners, the rebel samurai were also trying to preserve their world of privilege.

The idea of living by a "code" is appealing but only as an idea. In point of fact the emperor Meiji as depicted in this movie was not really worthy of this devotion. After all, it's essentially "his" imperial army that will slaughter the samuarai with his complicity. So, the problem with a code of honor is that everyone has to be playing by the rules.

You cannot extract Bushido and apply to life here in the West, you cannot even apply it to life in contemporary Japan. I mean Japan would not be best served by a group of armed men intensely loyal to Prime Minister Koizumi and willing to back his application of postal savings to bad bank loans with force of arms! There is in fact probably to darn MUCH loyalty in Japan as it is.

Ideas have a peculiar way of not entirely disappearing and it is in fact in part due to the love of "codified behavior" that Japan turned toward militarism and even after a disasterous defeat, Japan is essentially a one-party state. It's ties between government and industry are outright fascist but nobody is allowed to use THAT F-word. I mean, South Korea is outright Fascist but politely no one points this out.

I think the problem with this discussion is that it drifted off on the term honor. That's a word with a lot of strings attached because hey, no one can advocate "dishonor" as an alternative.

If you lived in the Tokugawa period, and you were a peasant or minor craftsman and every single element of your life were regulated by codes, down to your diet, to the size of the cups you could use to the quality of stray you were permitted to use in your raincoats and sandles...and these rules were enforced by the good ol' two sword guys...well, it's a lot less satisfactory than imagining yourself a Samurai and loyal to your lord and training your mind and body in his service.

Wake up! I love Japan, but it's a crazy country with a bizarro history. If it were significantly better than Europe or the West and IF that could be traced to the samurai, to bushido, to codified behavior and strict enforcement of laws, to the existence of MASSIVE imbalances in wealth and position, then fine, be a samurai fan. I personally don't object to rigid codes of conduct BUT recognize that authority always attempts to maintain status quo. The status quo that the samurai helped maintain was not altogether a good thing. Japan was not and to an extent still is not an upwardly mobile society.

Truly one needs to question one's own "loyalty" to the samurai mythos depicted by films like this.

Michael S. Copley

Aw, but Hollywood and movies just screw up all the history. The movie Preal Harbor had a love story in it, and the real event was not like that. Don't take any kind of movie seriously.

I came here on search for the true definition of senpuku...but I decided to read your entry instead.

Senpuku was real. I believe you already know that, but just in case, for I don't know you or your origin. Samurai had honor to their lords. And even if some were betrayal, they were found and killed for it. They would commit sempuku when told by their lord. It was their duty. And if they could not do it, or they failed, they were beheaded.

I have to say that The Last Samurai inspired me. After seeing that movie I was overwhelmed by the honor and chivalry in that movie. Ever since then I have lived by my honor code. I take it very seriously. People think I'm just kidding because I'm only a teenager(17) but that dosen't mean I can't live by honor. I think that one of the main thing you need to have honor is to be true to yourself and to help others. Some people have more honor than other people say. For example some guy in the army gets a dishonorable discharge for punching a superior officer. The soldier might have done it because the officer was sending a group to there deaths and was well aware of it. Honor is all around in it's many shapes and forms, and everyone has there own definition of honor. It's only a matter of the person living by it or not.

well, the last saumrai is so great....... i hope another similar movie will be produced.... i have read a book by james clavell saimilar to the story of this movie...
it is the SHOGUN... i hope a producer will have an interest to produce this story...

The way introduces you to yourself. The way has evolved as people and their society has and at no time has the older way been applicable as a template for later years of growth. Simple reason is that movies are entertainment and not related at all to the true way in the reality of life.
We all swim in the waters of the universal uchi. Each of us constantly swimming for the light of success at the surface of life. Sometimes we lose our direction and swim laterally or downward. Those who make no effort sink toward the bottom. Even those who finally reach the surface must continue to make constant effort or they too will slip back toward the bottom. The way originated from times of refined reason and understanding and will endure far beyond these discussions.

Uh, yeah. The movie was made to remind people the glory that honor brings to the world. To die for such belief under such stress is a measure of true discipline and validity of such honor. Many people show honor until it threatens their existance. I wonder what your mother would do at the face of death, author. To remain in such a state of mind the world has to be understood completely to the individual. That is the only comfortable way to go down in such an unfair manner. If you believe that honor is so important than you will explain it with passion, especially to a son. Perhaps your mother was just living life in a carefree state which caused her to do no harm to no others. Maybe she had no aspiration to become something and never demanded any justice to any wrongdoings. She might have lived in the void, which the Taoist descibe as "the state of being which one sways not one way nor the other; because he feels no passion for one thing its opposite does not cause him pain. He lives blissfully in ignorance." Anyone with honor knows that it is important to teach and express it. Mamma's boy.

I am a follower of Bushido, also known as the way of the warrior, the Japanese code of honor you refer to. In the sense that the samurai followed it, it has very little practicality in the modern world. However, if you read a book called Hagakure, it explains very many practical, every day uses of Bushido and how to lead an honorable life. It is mostly a collection of short stories and tidbits as written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo in his old age, but each has its own lesson and contribution to the code. The book eventually became nearly the landmark book of Bushido. While some of the lessons are irrelevant in todays world, the main body of each is perhaps some of the most crucial values that many people lack. as in the book The Art of War, but Sun Tzu, it was originally written for military purposes, but the principals can easily be applied for everyday practical use for both personal life and in business. to better gain the concept of honor in the context of the way of the warrior, i highly recommend reading Hagakure at least once if not twice through.

to have honor is simply to love those we care about in one way or the next; be that to love them as we would or could, or to love them as they need it now. to put yourself second and to care for them as they need it in their lives is the ultimate goal of honor. this can be applied to any level of honor, any definition.

Leave a comment

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Business and the Economy category.

Books is the previous category.

Computer and Network Risks is the next category.

Find recent content on the main index.

Monthly Archives