What is a Confucian explanation for the devotion of the Samurai to his master?

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

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For the Samurai, a critical component of Bushido, or the code of ethics that a Samurai must follow, involves strict reverence for the master.  The concept of Bushido is "a unique philosophy" where "the Samurai felt that the path of the warrior was one of honor, emphasizing duty to one's master, and loyalty unto death."  This aspect of loyalty is critical for the Samurai. Articulating such a condition, Hojo Shigetoki argued that "When one is serving officially or in the master's court, he should not think of a hundred or a thousand people, but should consider only the importance of the master." This strict adherence to the will and perception of the master is seen in Imagawa Sadayo's letter to his brother:

...It is forbidden to forget the great debt of kindness one owes to his master and ancestors and thereby make light of the virtues of loyalty and filial piety....It is forbidden that one should...attach little importance to his duties to his master...There is a primary need to distinguish loyalty from disloyalty and to establish rewards and punishments.

The recognition of the master is the configuration in which all actions of the Samurai takes place.  It is the binding system in which order is established. Individual action can only be deemed effective and worthy when it takes place within this structure.  Servitude towards this end and perceiving breaking it as "forbidden" are critical elements within the Samurai code that exalts the role of the master.

As with much in the thought of Confucius, complexity is revealed in terms of assessing the Samurai relationship with his master.  On the outset, the presumption would have to be made that the Samurai's master is not deliberately misleading his pupil.  The strict devotion that the Samurai has towards his master must be a relationship based on Confucius's idea of reciprocity.  In this instance, reciprocity can be defined as "never imposing on others what you would not choose for yourself."  This would mean that the master would not want his pupil betraying him, thus he as the master should never betray his pupil. Ensuring that the master upholds such a tenet would make him reflective of the Confucian demand that there is truth emanating in leadership.  Confucian political leadership demands that individuals embody truth as leaders.

In establishing that the master possesses a pure and selfless relationship with his student, one sees that another aspect of Confucian thought is embodied. There is a virtue ethics in the path that the master leads for the student, and an intrinsic virtue that the samurai has for following it. This loyalty is not based out of anything extrinsic or consequentialist.  Rather, it is intrinsically good, reflective of the "virtues of loyalty" to which Sadayo alludes in the letter to his brother.  Such a condition embraces the Confucian idea of leadership and learning in which natural morality guides individual actions and structures:  "If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of the shame, and moreover will become good."  This is the essence of the Samurai master who leads the student.  The same "virtues of loyalty" that is in the reciprocal relationship of honor between master and student helps to establish the parameters in which Confucian notions of "good" can be identified. 

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