Samurai warrior, ca. 1860

Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese Army tried to compensate for material deficiencies with fighting spirit. Following the Takebashi Mutiny of 23 August 1878, the Army high command began inculcating soldiers with bushido ("the way of the warrior") as a way to improve discipline. This trend continued after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, when at least one body of Japanese troops had to be driven forward to battle at bayonet point. Corporal punishment, already practiced informally, became institutionalized as part of the squad regulations of 1908. In June 1879 the Shōkonsha memorial to the dead of the Boshin Civil War was converted to the Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the uniqueness of the Japanese people and the divinity of the Emperor under state Shintō. Soldiers who fell heroically in battle were acclaimed as "war gods" (kami).

Bushido was promulgated as the ancient Japanese samurai's code of chivalry, but there are few references to it prior to the 20th century, and Professor Hall Chamberlain wrote in 1912 that "Bushido, as an institution or a code of rules, has never existed. The accounts given of it have been fabricated out of whole cloth, chiefly for foreign consumption.... Bushido was unknown until a decade or so ago" (quoted in Johnson 1983). It was popularized by a samurai professor, Inazo Notobe, in 1907, who defined bushido as "to be contented with one's position in life, to accept the natal irreversible status and to cultivate oneself within that allotted station, to be loyal to the master of the family, to value one's ancestors, to train oneself in the military arts by cultivation and by discipline of one's mind and body" (ibid.)

Emperor worship became an important element of Army discipline. The Imperial Rescript to the Armed Forces declared that orders from a superior officer were to be regarded as from the Emperor himself. This was considered awkward enough in certain situations that the Japanese word for "notification" was used instead of the word for "order". For example, instructions on comfort women, or on euthanasia of wounded soldiers who could not be evacuated, were couched as "notifications" rather than "orders". This avoided the implication that military prostitution or euthanasia were the will of the Emperor himself.

All these measures had a dark side that was manifest in a shocking record of atrocities committed throughout the Pacific and east Asia. Drea (2009) has described the transformation of the Army from a force noted for its good conduct in the Russo-Japanese War and First World War to the force noted for its brutality in the Second World War as a "sea change." Tillman (2010) has suggested that the decline of Buddhism and Confucianism in the face of state Shintō removed an important moderating element from Bushido.


Benedict (1954)

Cook and Cook (1992)

Drea (2009)

Edgerton (1997)

Evans and Peattie (1997)
Hoyt (1993)

Johnson (1983)

Myers and Peattie (1984)

Peattie et al. (2011)

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