Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai as an Auto-ethnography

Mary Louis Pratt’s work Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation explores the idea of contact zones which are ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power’ and the process of transculturation that can occur at these zones.[1] Transculturation refers to the process by which subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture.[2] Transculturation is also a selective process, as the subjugated can determine the varying extents to which they absorb aspects of alien cultures. However, in Pratt’s work Asia remains relatively unexplored, meaning that the majority of her discussions of the contact zone remain largely confined to the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. However, Japan arguably represents an interesting an unusual case for Pratt’s model of the contact zone; as a power that was not fully subjugated and was forced to resist imperial encroachment from the Western powers. One of the ways in which this process of encroachment was resisted was by modernisation which was accompanied by a degree of unwarranted transculturation. This process was not universally supported and debated amongst the ‘new men of Meiji Japan, who were concerned about the damage to Japanese culture caused by rapid westernisation.[3] However, Western encroachment was also resisted by the production works that publicised the modernity of the Japanese and their similarities to Western nations. A notable example of this can be seen in the association of popular western values within Japan’s past and the creation of literature designed to espouse the similarities between Japan and the West. These works were arguably auto-ethnographic in nature, by portraying themselves using the terms of the coloniser. Historians such as Karl Friday and Thomas Blackwood argued that the Bushidō that came to be popularised by government endorsement originated in the 1880s and 1890s. As Blackwood observes it has far more in common with Western ideas of gentlemanship, sportsmanship and ‘chivalrous masculinity’ than the medieval Japanese warrior ethos.[4] Nitobe’s work emphasised the importance of compassion, respect and honesty in Bushido to a far greater extent than older accounts.[5] It was not only written in English and but also explored numerous other indigenous traditions of Japan whilst citing European and American philosophers, including classics.[6] The writer of the introduction to its first edition, William Elliott Griffis, clearly identified the work as the solution of this century’s grandest problem – the reconciliation… of the East and the West’ clearly a recognition of the auto-ethnographic nature of the work.[7]

[1] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, (London, 1992), p7.

[2] Ibid, p6.

[3] Kenneth Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan, (Stanford, 1969), p190.

[4] Karl Friday, ‘Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition’ in The History Teacher, Volume 27, Number 3, May 1994, pages 339-349; Thomas Blackwood, ‘Bushidō Baseball? Three ‘Fathers’ and the Invention of a tradition’, Social Science Japan Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Winter 2008), p229.

[5] Nitobe Inazo, Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai, (New York, 1905).

[6] Ibid, p30.

[7] Ibid, p26.

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