Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What the Samurai can teach the world about a truly human ethos

What does it mean for a people, or a nation (the two are not necessarily synonymous) to have a fulfilling ethos? By ethos (on which I’ve written here before) I mean broadly the distinctive cultural and social character of a group of people as manifested in their collective and individual activities, which are therefore expressive of the beliefs which bestow on them such a recognisable cultural profile.

On the plane from France I recently viewed a film that brought home to me the differences between one ethos and another, in the process of replacing it, very powerfully. It was Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, loosely based on the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, which was led by samurai Saigo Takamori against the modernisation movement that comprised part of the Meiji-Restoration in 19th-century Japan.

Because I don’t really like Tom Cruise as an actor, I had avoided viewing the film before, but in the end I was grateful to have taken the opportunity to do so as an air travel captive. In fact, I found this epic saga very moving — partly because the honour-centred samurai values as presented in the film appeal to me, and partly because any human story involving great sacrifice for the sake of others is usually very moving, provided it is told well, as is the case here.

In brief, The Last Samurai is the story of an American army officer, Nathan Algren, who has turned to alcohol to escape from the nightmare killings of native Americans that he witnessed during the so-called Indian Wars. He is persuaded by Colonel Bagley (previously his superior officer), and a Japanese businessman, Mr Omura, to travel to Japan in order to train the Japanese Imperial Army in modern warfare. Because of Bagley’s role in the native Americans’ massacre, Algren despises him, but agrees to go anyway because of the attractive salary offered by Mr Omura.

Condensing relentlessly, Algren’s training has not progressed very far before news arrives that a group of samurai — a warrior class with a long history in Japan — under the leadership of a man called Katsumoto, has attacked a railroad owned by Mr Omura. Despite Algren’s objection, that the Japanese soldiers are not ready for a confrontation with the samurai, Bagley orders them to march on Katsumoto. Predictably, they are routed by the latter’s warriors in a misty forest, and Algren, who has fought valiantly against them, so impresses Katsumoto that he is taken prisoner instead of being killed.

In their village, Katsumoto instructs his sister, Kata, to care for Algren, and he is slowly nursed back to health by her, despite the fact that she knows that he killed her husband in battle. Algren is allowed to move about freely, and is engaged in English conversation by Katsumoto — for mutual understanding, as the latter explains to the American. As the latter, who spends the winter in the village, gets to know their ways better, he is deeply impressed by the simple beauty and self-discipline of the life lived by the samurai and their families. He slowly learns Japanese from Kata’s two boys and her brother, and although he is initially easily bested by the samurai warriors in their katana (sword) exercises, he improves to the point where the clinches a draw with their best fighter (excepting Katsumoto). When he apologizes to Kata for killing her husband, she is finally able to forgive him.

When spring comes, the emperor grants Katsumoto safe passage to Tokyo, with Algren and some of his samurai accompanying him. The emperor, who used to be taught by Katsumoto, invites him back on his council, but when Katsumoto appears there with his sword, Omura invokes the law against carrying arms, and Katsumoto is imprisoned. Algren and the samurai help Katsumoto escape, but not without the loss of his son, and they return to the village to await the inevitable attack by the imperial army, which has in the meantime been better trained and equipped (with Howitzers and Gatling machine guns).

Clad in her deceased husband’s armour, which Kata gave him to wear, Algren and Katsumoto, knowing that they face superior weaponry, plan a series of manoeuvres to inflict significant losses on the army. These do work out, before the Howitzer cannon and Gatling machine guns turn the tide decisively against the samurai. In the course of the battle Algren kills Bagley, and the battle culminates in Algren assisting Katsumoto performing seppuku, or honourable suicide with his sword.

At the crucial moment when the Emperor is about to agree to a far-reaching treaty between the United States and Japan, Algren appears on the scene and offers Katsumoto’s sword, rich in symbolism (“samurai” essentially means “to serve”), to the emperor. This sways Meiji’s mind, and he rejects the treaty, saying that Japan has to go her own way with modernization, not relinquishing her (by implication, samurai) traditions. Moreover, he decides to give Omura’s considerable assets to the people. The film ends with Algren returning to Kata and the samurai village, where he found something — an ethos — so compelling that it not only cured his alcoholism, but gave him a purpose in life.

The question therefore arises: what was it that the samurai ethos embodied, and instilled in its adherents, that “modern” (19th-, and one may add 20th – and 21st-century) America lacks? To be sure — and this is a philosophical question that cannot be pursued at length here — modernity does have a “legitimacy” of its own, which cannot be reduced to a mere secularisation of medieval theocratic thinking, as Hans Blumenberg has argued in his magisterial study, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.

Confining oneself to the present frame of reference, it appears that what I referred to earlier, namely “honour” as a central value to the samurai, represents a watershed, not just between 19th-century, modernizing Japan and modern America, but between that Japan and the rest of the modern (and now postmodern) world. “Honour” can only operate as fundamental value in a true community, where every individual stands in a relation of reciprocal responsibility with every other member of this community.

Compare this with (post-)modern society, where a self- and technology-centred ethos prevails, to the degree that it has generated terms like “selfie”, and where more than one writer has commented on what is seen as a “cult of the self” that is said to be destroying America. The point is that, as technology has progressed, any sense of community — of human beings sharing a life oriented according to a set of truly civilizing values — has been incrementally eroded.

There are scene-sequences in the film that illustrate this perfectly. At one point, one witnesses a tranquil scene in the simple but integrated and beautiful samurai village, nestled among green hills, before the scene switches to Tokyo’s streets, with a maze of telephone lines and a chaos of overcrowded streets and buildings contrasting forcibly with the earlier scene. One cannot help thinking, here, of Gandhi’s belief, that the modern world should have chosen the path of village development, where people could become agriculturally self-sustaining.

The other scene is even more telling: upon returning from the samurai village, Algren is accosted by the officer he hates, Bagley, who did not hesitate to order the massacre of innocent native American women and children. On retorting that he “needs a bath”, Bagley responds by remarking that he is not surprised, given that Algren lived for so long “among savages”, and immediately pointing out to Algren the new Howitzers and Gatlings, which would soon “destroy” the samurai.

This epitomises the contrast between the samurai ethos and the modern (American) one: Bagley’s criterion for civilisation is a crude technological one, but Zwick has tellingly presented this against the backdrop of what one has witnessed in the samurai village, where a sense of honour impelled an initially unwilling woman, whose husband had been killed by an American (doing his “duty”, as she says), to nurse him back to health, and where Katsumoto taught Algren what civilised behaviour is by having conversations about the meaning of life with him, his “enemy”. It is therefore ironic that the name of Emperor Meiji is linked to “enlightenment”.

Small wonder Algren chooses to defend, and return to, that way of life in the end. As the hegemony of technology over human values is reinforced every day in the present world, we need to question the meaning of a truly civilised (and civilising) ethos anew. Although some may see it as hopelessly romantic, this film helps tremendously in the process.

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    • Maria

      One could go further and analyze Zwick’s treatment of Omura as representative of incipient, unbridled capitalism in Japan, which is, to say the least, not a sympathetic treatment at all. From this angle, as well as what you have highlighted here (Algren’s admiration for the samurai way of life, etc.) it is difficult to overlook the similarity between this narrative and that of Avatar, as well as of Dances with Wolves. What they have in common, is a negative value judgment of modernity as measured against a premodern, communitarian culture. It also brings to mind Heidegger’s valorization of the peasant who lived close to the earth.

    • Ladyfingers

      Weren’t you a little put off with this being another instance of the white-American-leads-natives-to-redemption trope, as in Avatar and Dances With Wolves?

      At the very least, Cruise’s character should have committed seppuku before the emperor.

    • alexx zarr

      Seems to me that ‘ethos’, as described here, is the same as ‘culture’, i.e., the way we do things around here.
      I would suggest that there need be no contradiction between a culture of deep self-respect, and mutual respect and the world of modernity. If there were a contradiction we are merely slaves to the times we live in. There is also not necessarily a higher moral value in community or collectivism and singularity or selfness. We have witnessed the greatest human carnages in older times where collectivism was strong. We have seen how the ethos of samurai has taken Japan into aggressive conflicts in Korea, China and the 2nd world war. We may be seeing the rise of the red sun again. Blindly serving the emperor was folly.
      All we know for certain is that the future will not be like the past, and we need to mould the future, and adapt to it.
      Individually, and collectively we can enjoy satisfying, fulfilling and meaningful lives wherever we find ourselves on the continuum of technology.

    • http://Bloghome Chris2

      ““Honour” can only operate as fundamental value in a true community, where every individual stands in a relation of reciprocal responsibility with every other member of this community”. You said it, Bert. I replaced ‘honour’ by ‘ethics’ in a more or less equivalent answer to a previous blog, which was not accepted. In that piece the replacement of ‘ethics’ by ‘civility’ was deplored. In a diverse community, I argued, civility is what is called for, as ethical systems tend to be too constrained to apply to all and sundry. In Japan, ironically, my wife and I experienced civility of the highest order, with people being helpful and friendly way beyond what would be required. In the modern world strict honour-bound systems are quaint and interesting, but completely out of step with what is required in a complex society. Civility, which contains empathy, an open mind, a good measure of respect, honesty, fairness, good-natured tolerance, helpfulness, etc. (all in good measure, but not completely unreserved) is the over-arching non-aggressive counterpart to the ‘comply or die’ type of ethic, which is often accompanied by immense cruelty, bloodletting, etc.,implicitly all in the name of the ‘good’ cause.

    • Jacquelene Coetzer

      I fully agree that the samurai tradition was one of nobility, dignity and all of that. I only have one slight problem, which the author is clearly not aware of: Whenever a samurai wanted to test a sword, he would test it on one of the Ainu (indigenous Japanese), who were regarded similarly to the casteless people in India. Testing the sword would obviously involve hitting one of the Ainu with the sword or even decapitating them. So, yes, if you don’t regard the Ainu as people, then yes, the samurai had an brilliant ethos.

    • Bert

      Maria and Ladyfingers – The similarities with Avatar and Dances with Wolves are certainly there, but the difference is that Costner’s character, Jake AND Algren are redeemed by the OTHER culture, first.
      Alexx – I doubt whether the samurai ethos was what impelled Japan to enter into its wars with China and Korea; that could rather be attributed to its imperialism, which is not synonymous with the samurai ethos. The latter was one of service, and various emperors made (perhaps dubious) use of that. So, yes, ‘blindly serving the emperor was folly’, indeed. I don’t agree that culture and ethos are the same thing, though; ethos is more fundamental, and shapes the cultural activities of a people. And I don’t doubt that collectivism is not, by itself, a guarantee of truly ‘civilized’ or ‘ethical’ living. I agree that many atrocities have been committed by collectivist, as indeed by individual-centred societies. However, while I agree that some people (I would argue they are the exception, today) can still live according to an ethos of selflessness and ‘honour’, the overall tendency, as is apparent from many commentators’ claims (Renate Salecl, for one) is one of utter, cynical self-centredness. As for honour, I doubt that many people even know what it means. There is a scene near the end of the film where Omura complains that the Emperor ‘disgraces’ him (Omura), to which the Emperor responds by offering him Katsumoto’s sword. Predictably, Omura shows no sense of…

    • Bert

      Continued: Predictably, Omura shows no sense of honour. I also think you underestimate the effects of technology on human behaviour. For one thing, it makes interpersonal relations impersonal, even when they appear to do the opposite, such as cellphone-communication, etc. As Sherry Turkle demonstrates so well in Alone Together (the book’s title says it all), today, more often than not, there is a screen that mediates between people, and even when they are ‘together’ – at table, in a restaurant, etc. – they busy themselves with their smartphones, tablets, and so on. In the film this impersonality is manifested in the killing of the samurai warriors by means of sophisticated military technology, largely without engaging them as warriors in combat. Baudrillard notoriously argued that the first Gulf War was the first war that was fought on computer screens (the fighter jets’), and with drones this is even more the case – although these impersonal attacks have very concrete effects on people’s lives. I believe you are wrong, therefore, to claim that everyone can have fulfilling lives in the technology-saturated world we live in; only those who can distance themselves from the hold that technology has on most people’s lives, can do so, as Heidegger argued. He counselled a simultaneous ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to technology: Yes, use it, but No, don’t let it possess you: it would be at the cost of your humanity.

    • Rich Brauer

      Of course, one of the real ironies of this piece is that it was the rapid and massive adoption of gunpowder weapons in the 16th and 17th centuries in Japan that led to the end of the samurai as a warrior class, and reduced them to the administrators that they had largely become by the time of the film’s setting.

    • Bert

      Chris2 – your argument about civility is with Zizek, and it rests on a different interpretation of the concept. As you would recall, Zizek argues that, in the absence of a fundamentally unifying, shared set of ethical principles, civility is all that remains, until such a shared set of values (an ethos, precisely) is, or may one day again be possible. This is not really to knock civility, as your experience in japan demonstrates. You and Zizek seem to agree on this, really, because the absence of a shared ethos today is owing to the cultural diversity you refer to. As long as the latter situation prevails, civility is all one can hope for – and I, for one, think that will be for some time to come, given the utter complexity of the postmodern world, as you note, too. My partner and I have experienced a similar civility in both Japan and (South) Korea, and as far as the latter country (Korea) goes, which was once ruled by an imperialistic Japan, one may perceive echoes of the kind of ‘honour’-centred culture that still lingers in Japan, too, despite belonging to yesteryear.

    • Bert

      Jacquelene – Thanks for pointing that out; I was not aware of it. You seem to know Japanese history well. One should remember, though, that there has probably not been one single people, or nation, or any other group, in history that was completely and exclusively admirable in ALL they did. For example, I admire the ancient Greeks for certain of their cultural attributes, without being blind to their faults. Just think of the atrocities committed by both sides in the 29-year-long Pelloponesian war between Athens and Sparta, despite many admirable qualities on both sides. Sparta, for example, will be remembered forever for the stand that Leonidas and his 300 made at the Thermopylae pass against more than a million Persians, and Athens has an ineradicable place in history because it gave us the idea (if not the consistent practice) of democracy, not to mention their literary, scientific and philosophical legacy. The so-called glory of Rome was attained with the bloodshed of millions of people. Even the history of Christianity, while showing one side of compassion and cultural creativity, has a dark side of atrocities committed in the name of religion, for example the murder, by Coptic monks, of mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria. And one can go on and on, without exception. Human beings, individually as well as collectively, are a pharmakon – poison and cure at the same time.

    • Rich Brauer

      Bert Olivier wrote: “I doubt whether the samurai ethos was what impelled Japan to enter into its wars with China and Korea; that could rather be attributed to its imperialism, which is not synonymous with the samurai ethos.”

      It’s worth noting that, in fact, during the historical “samurai period,” prior to what we would consider the Western Age of Imperialism, the Japanese *did* invade both China and Korea on more than one occasion.

      I suppose it could be an open issue of whether the “samurai ethos” contributed to those invasions, but, as the leaders and elite troops of Japanese armies at the time, it would hardly seem out of the question.

    • Garg Unzola

      Just beggars belief how the pomo department can see populist rhetoric in even the samurai. Like they say, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem appears to be a nail.

    • Bert

      Rich – The film is a fictionalized account of an actual historical event, which I mention in the post, above, viz. the Satsuma samurai rebellion of 1877. Evidently not all samurai were administrators by that time.

    • Maria

      Really, Gargle, when all the comments so far have been intelligent and to the point, you go and spoil it all by parading your ignorance. Pomo is nowhere relevant here, except maybe historically, and if any philosophical/theoretical position underpins the piece, it is a poststructuralist one. Go on, give me another Wikipedia link… Read some easy but reliable books on poststructuralism, and perhaps a glimmer of understanding may come to you… JD Caputo’s Against Ethics or Deconstruction in a Nutshell come to mind, although your conspicuous prejudice may prevent you from understanding anything at all…Just trying to help ; )

    • francois williams

      Interesting piece of writing with a few flaws both in the writing and people delivering their opinion underneath.
      For one, samurai did test their swords, but on criminals condemned to death…why would the Ainu line up for such practise? For me personally, the highest achievement of Japan was the Ninja and Ninjutsu..
      These were free fighters, also called professional assasins, but with no loyalty to any liege lord or emperor, although they could be pursueded in various ways to join a course of action.
      After the 2ndWW, it was the Ninja who ultimately defeated the French and Yanks by training the Vietnamese peasants in the deadly arts…
      The same clannish loyalty as that of the samurai, is still very much a part of African culture all over the continent.
      And Greece civilization took from Egypt in great measure…The rise of Christianity was a disaster for Europe and the world. The female side of humanity was declared war against by the church and male dominated society. For picking a flower, or merely walking in the woods or showing love for animals, 5 million women were brutally tortured and then graciously burnt alive…surely this is the low point of humanity? Western women to this day and Western society has not recovered and it is in freefall as we speak…and yes, technology si playing its part…but the scars came form a long way back…the best the world can do now is to embrace African culture as demonstrated in the ideas of Madiba…

    • Garg Unzola

      You couldn’t recognise intelligent and to the point if they were contagious diseases, hence why you hark on about the philosophical differences between post-structuralism and post-modernism while avoiding being either intelligent or to the point all together.

      To repeat myself, if you take issue with Wikipedia’s take on things, please remedy Wikipedia. You do know how Wikipedia works, after all, since you pretend to be intelligent and to the point?

    • Garg Unzola

      To those who really are interested in understanding, here’s another Wiki page on the Satsuma Rebellion. Kindly note how the Samurai were a privileged class who were in rebellion for the main purpose of protecting their privileged status. This is what honour means to the Samurai, and this self-serving self-interest is what lead to the formation of zaibatsu. You may recognise some familiar brand names there.

      Lastly, Ghandi knows nothing about agriculture if he proposed self-sustaining village development as a model for 7 billion people or held this third world mentality as an ideal for Japan or the rest of the world. The honourable thing for those who cling to this backward way of thinking is to commit seppukku themselves.

    • Maria

      You may be interested to know that the film in question was generally well received in Japan. The Japanese apparently believed that, by and large, Zwick & Co had got things right as far as samurai values go.

    • Garg Unzola

      What you claim to be ‘incipient, unbridled capitalism’ was also well-received in Japan, particularly because the choice at the time was between serfdom in the Shogunate or rapid industrialisation and modernisation to trade with the West under the Emperor’s Meiji Restoration.

      Which may be completely in tune with how Samurai values are presented by Zwick and Co while still not being in tune with the pomo department’s wishful thinking of Samurai values as some noble savage/anarcho-primitivist ideal.