- Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidō in Modern Japan by Oleg Benesch
This is a solid, well-written, and immensely informative piece of scholarship. It is also a work that can be frustrating at times, though this is less because of any limitations on the part of the author or his method than due to the inherent complexity and multivalence of the primary theme: bushidō, the so-called "way of the samurai" (or "way of the warrior"). A line in the conclusion sums this up well: "[T]he reasons behind the adoption of bushidō by most people in Japan as a genetic ideology—an ideology that is adopted by a social group in spite of apparent conflict with their objective interests—are as varied as its definitions and applications" (p. 242). If the reader comes to this book seeking "closure" on bushidō, she will be disappointed. But then closure on anything related to modern Japanese intellectual history is always a delusion.
The book's title is apt, in that it can be placed among the recent scholarly trend toward constructing the "genealogy" of a modern concept (such as the nation-state, Hinduism, race, or homosexuality). Such works generally begin with the premise that the concept or term at stake is lacking in deep historical roots—despite, in most cases, what its proponents and even many critics may suggest. And that is where the author of Inventing the Way of the Samurai begins, citing the dearth of references to bushidō or equivalents prior to the Meiji period. From here, the book traces, in great detail and with ample nuance, the evolution of bushidō in its many variations and subsets over the succeeding periods. The book's subtitle is somewhat less accurate; while the book is clearly about bushidō in the context of Japanese [End Page 443] modernity, nationalism—and, especially, internationalism—are not given the same analytical treatment.
The notion of "invented traditions" has roots in the work of Eric Hobsbawm, whose arguments have been immensely influential in historical and religious studies since their publication in the 1980s.1 It is possible to criticize this idea, on the grounds that every tradition is, to some degree, "invented" and that communities often (consciously or unconsciously) partake in the invention or reappropriation of the past for various ends. Indeed, one might see this "invention" as the very essence of religious development and "reform" throughout the ages. At the same time, as Benesch shows, bushidō was and remains a concept that seems perfectly suited for knowing, ideological appropriation by elites: "Modern theorists often carefully selected aspects of earlier history, philosophy, and legend to support their specific bushidō interpretations" (p. 15). It was, he argues, a decidedly "modern" invention, not just because of the period in which the discourse flourished but also because it was self-consciously constructed to provide a framework for self and national (re)construction in the context of modernity.
The book's introduction sets up the reader by posing a number of questions, such as: "if bushidō is a modern invention, who invented it?" (p. 5), "is bushidō uniquely Japanese?" (p. 6), and "[h]ow did it become widely accepted as a traditional ethic, and how was it revived repeatedly after falling out of fashion when other ideological constructs were not"? (p. 6). It is this last question that is the most difficult—but also the most intriguing. Benesch's answer, in short, is that the origins of bushidō discourse lie in the work of progressive, internationalist writers of the mid-Meiji period, and their ideals, while downplayed during the decades leading up to 1945, resonated strongly—and continue to do so—with Japanese of the postwar period.
Benesch's chronicle of the ebbs and flows of bushidō discourse makes for fascinating reading, in particular when it comes to the problems associated with the various attempts to appropriate bushidō in support of the modern, imperialist, Japanese state. The first of these...