Explain the differences between the European Knights' Code of Chivalry and the Japanese Code of Bushido.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I would say that one specific difference between the European Knights' Code of Chivalry and the Japanese Code of Bushido is the focus on death.  In the Japanese code of Bushido, there is an emphasis on the role of death in the pursuit of the ideal.  This is seen in different thinkers who espoused the function of the code of Bushido.  For example, Kato Kiyomasa states that "If a man does not investigate into the matter of Bushido daily, it will be difficult for him to die a brave and manly death. Thus, it is essential to engrave this business of the warrior into one's mind well."  Another example is seen in the writings of Nabeshima Naoshige, who argued that "Bushidō is in being crazy to die. Fifty or more could not kill one such a man."  In both of these ideas, there is an understanding in which death is a logical extension of the Bushido code of conduct.  This is enhanced by scholars in the field who argue that, "In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced."  "The Way" in Bushido willingly embraces death. Death is the end pursuit of Bushido, a reflection of the warrior having given everything towards the ideal.  

The ideal of honor is revered in the European code of Chivalry amongst knights, but the end of death is not as pronounced.  In the code of Chivalry, there is emphasis on the duties that a Knight must embrace.  Yet, death is not seen as such an explicit part of this process.  It is understood that the Knight would sacrifice everything towards this end.  Yet, the issue of death, especially the Japanese notion of seppuku, is not as pronounced.  The Chivalric ideal does not speak in such a direct manner towards death and the honorable condition of suicide that is present in the Japanese warrior tradition:

Chivalry! – why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection – the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant – Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.

Walter Scott's nostalgic look at the European Chivalric ideal is fundamentally different in its view of death than the Japanese understanding of Bushido.

Scott's understanding of "the maiden" is another aspect that is fundamentally different in both traditions.  The role of the woman occupies central importance in the European Chivalric tradition.  The woman was seen as a source of inspiration, complete with Leighton's vision of "Stitching the Standard" and "courtly love."  In the European tradition of Chivalry, "An attack on a woman is a more serious transgression than an attack on a man because it violates a special norm protecting women from harm. This norm -- chivalry -- discourages would-be attackers and encourages third parties to protect women."  The emphasis on women is seen in a different light in Bushido.  For the Japanese, the exploration of "masculinity" is fundamentally opposed to what it means to be a woman.  The need to die "a manly death" and to affirm oneself as a man almost exists independently of women.  The tenets of Bushido do not affirm love and courtly emotions as the European ideal affirms.  "Unmanliness" is a significant element in the Bushido code, something that is not as articulated in the European ideal of Chivalry.

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