Bushido is often referred to as, "The way of the Samurai". In western terms, this is often understood
as a code of conduct for the knightly or warrior class. However this entailed much more meaning to the Japanese people. It was not just a code to be followed, it was a living to be carried out through action, mind, and spirit.
The background and history surrounding Bushido must be studied and analyzed to truly get a sense of this style of living. The Emperor of Japan was originally a figurehead and did not really interfere in the politics of the local warlords (daimyo) before the shogunate had been established. Therefore there was not any real reason for the common people to revere the Emperor as the object of their loyalty. The daimyo or local state rulers were the ones who had the loyalty of the people, since this was the time before the shogunate.
Once the shogunate was established and unified the various factions across Japan, the people's focus on a person to whom they pledged loyalty to shifted from the daimyo to the shogun. From 1192 to 1867, the shoguns ruled Japan. Then the Meiji Restoration took place, where the Tokugawa family shogunate fell from power, and the people once again looked to the Emperor as the object of their loyalty. After the Meiji Restoration, the samurai class was abolished. However, many people still held to the beliefs and lifestyle adhering to the bushido code. This in turn led to a revival of the samurai code of honor, ethics, and loyalty to be shared among the general populace as a general code of conduct.
Now that the history overview has been covered, what exactly does following Bushido mean? Here is the basic overview of Bushido based on Nitobe Inazo's book Bushido: The Soul of Japan.
1) Rectitude or Justice: Stressed as the most important aspect concerning Bushido, the samurai must strive for rectitude in his professional, personal, and martial life. It is the power to reach resolution, the knowledge to know when to strike or not, the frame upon which a samurai can stand.
2) Courage: Here, courage is not synonymous to bravery. It does not imply that one must have the courage to go into battle, or follow their lord's orders. It is the courage to do what is righteous, to act justly. Confucius is quoted with the memorable line, "Courage is doing what is right."
3) Benevolence or Mercy: The Samurai has the power to command as well as the power to kill. However, they also wield the exceptional power of mercy as well. A Samurai must be balanced and to be truly considered an upstanding person, he must display benevolence.
4) Politeness: Courtesy and politeness stem out of benevolence and is not just obsequiousness. It is not acting politely to avoid offending others for the sake of not offending the other person. Rather, a Samurai's actions towards others should be polite as an outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others.
5) Honesty and Sincerity: To be honest and sincere is connected to courage, rectitude, and politeness. One must be honest in their courage, honest in their justice, and honest in their politeness. If one is not true their own feelings, then that is a form of lying, which is considered to be cowardly and low.
6) Honor: This concept is similar to Western understanding of honor, that a person has a strong conscience, dignity, and personal worth. Disgrace is not tolerable, yet shame and humbleness are essential to reaching the true pinnacle of honor. Ieyasu wrote a famous poem regarding honor as follows, "The life of man is like going a long
distance with a heavy load upon the shoulders. Haste not.
Reproach none, but be forever watchful of thine own short-comings"
7) Loyalty: Perhaps the feudal system of loyalty does not apply to modern times, yet the basic concepts that one should be loyal to those they are indebted to, or a superior. Utter loyalty and obedience is among the highest of virtues in Bushido.
8) Character and Self Control: Here, self control is elevated to a higher standard, as everyone is expected to know the difference between right and wrong or good and bad. Here, this section of Bushido deals with being able to express and be a model to others, especially their children.
In essence then, the code of Bushido is the training of one to take action upon all the above principles, in order to lead a fulfilled life.