Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Philosophies of Bushido and Shourido

The Philosophies of Bushido and Shourido
Alex Jacobs

Since its first appearance in l5r during late Lotus Edition, shourido and the dark virtues have been among the most fascinating and compelling aspects of the l5r setting to me. While Rokugan is not as philosophically-driven a game as many others, such as Mage: The Ascension or Unknown Armies, in many ways it is more philosophically-relevant because the philosophy is rarely a matter for debate and instead directly informs the actions of the characters, whether they are story characters in an official fiction or the PCs and NPCs in table top or larp game. As such, having two competing philosophies which direct the characters presents great opportunity for examination and introspection not afforded in many other settings. Unfortunately, the rigid nature of Rokugan makes discussing, let alone contrasting, these philosophies in-character very difficult. Instead, I will be discussing them here with an aim of providing thoughts and advice on how to incorporate them into a home-game.

What is Bushido?

Let us start by examining the older and more prestigious of the two philosophies: bushido. As with many Japanese words it is a conjunctive. Bushido separates into bushi-do, literally the way of the warrior. An in depth translation reveals more. Bushi are not simply warriors. They are the guardians and protectors of Rokugan's society. They are a class of samurai, and while a Doji Couriter would be very unlikely to refer to herself as a bushi, she would claim to follow bushido. We may get some clues from the word samurai, which is often used interchangeably with bushi (though the opposite is most certainly not true); the character for samurai in Japanese is composed of two figures which mean, “sword,” and, “stop,” and so the character for samurai translates literally to, “stopping the sword.” In point of fact, one translation of the character “bu” gives a similar meaning: “To stop the spear.” When we combined this translation with the translation of bushi as a protector, we gain a nuanced understanding of what a bushi is: one who stops and protects people from violence, a task that may be undertaken by a courtier as often as a warrior.

The word, “do,” is slightly more complex to translate but again the nuanced understanding is well worthwhile. Literally, “way,” other translations include, “path,” or even, “calling.” A do is not simply a prescribed set of rules and orders, but a transition. It suggests not a rigid way of living your life but a striving.

When we recombine everything into, “bushido,” we have not a legalistic samurai code but an infinite journey. To follow bushido is not a set prescription of actions – or at least, not just that – but rather an infinite journey to moral rectitude. One who follows bushido may not be perfect in every action, but dedicates him or herself to protecting others, to stopping violence, to preserving society, to following honor. He or she may slip, but because he or she is attempting to follow the path, this is only a temporary setback. Bushido is not the end goal that is either reached or not reached, but the entire, never-ending journey.

Okay, So What is Bushido?

Understanding the flexibility and accountability of bushido, we are better able to understand its component parts. Knowing that bushido is a journey, rather than a destination, the virtues come into their own not as rigid standards to show a samurai has or has not achieved honor, but as guideposts, a road map if you will, to how a samurai may yet reach honor. Likewise – and this is critical – it is a system whereby others may recognize how well that samurai is progressing toward honor.

One area l5r departs from historical Japan is on the code of bushido. While l5r adopts the modern concept of seven tenets or virtues of bushido, there is no historical precedent for these seven tenets, which waxed and waned from as few as zero tenets, leaving the nature of bushido unspecified, to five specific tenets, to a whopping thirteen. Historically, the vagaries of bushido's tenets left it open to wide interpretation, but by specifying the seven tenets in l5r, the writers gave us a Rokugan with an ethical system as well as a moral one. Examining this ethical code allows us to truly understand how bushido functions.

Most importantly, of the seven bushido virtues, only one deals with the self (courage) whereas five define how we are to interact with other people (compassion, courtesy, duty, honesty, sincerity). We will deal with honor in a moment, but let us consider this five-to-one ratio; it signifies the purpose of bushido and Rokugani ethics. Bushido is not a prescription for how one should be but rather how one should act. Bushido details how one should treat others.

A classic dilemma in western ethics is the question of whether it is right to commit a minor wrong for a greater good, such as lying in service to a cause or killing a small number of people to save a greater number. Western philosophy accords many responses to both, from Kantian morality (to consider people as ends rather than means) to Mill's utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number of people) to Nietzsche's complete rejection of traditional morality (more complex than I can sum up in a single sentence fragment), but all acknowledge a conflict and attempt to resolve it. Bushido does not consider a conflict to exist in these instances because the samurai's honor is not to himself or his sense of morality, but to his role in society.

If a samurai is ordered to lie by his lord his duty compels him to follow the orders, but it is not in conflict with his honesty – it is in conflict with his lord's, and his lord bears the burden of the sin. Likewise, if the samurai refuses to follow the order, even to the point of facing execution or offering his seppuku, it is not because his honor would not let him lie (although hit might make lying unpleasant for him) but because his duty to his lord would not allow him to assist his lord to participate in an act of dishonesty. Indeed, note from the honor table on p. 91 that the samurai may even gain honor from obeying such an order (following orders despite personal misgivings) – he does not lose honor until the point that he is expected to serve as an example to others, which would include his own lord.

Courage is the only bushido virtue that focuses on the self, but it is a necessary one. When five virtues specify how a samurai should compose himself among others, the samurai becomes quite vulnerable. There is no accounting for agency among the five social virtues of bushido, and one of them (sincerity) mandates that the samurai give herself over in full to all that she does – there can be no half measures. Surrendering agency to an ethical system, and an ethical system that mandates one follow the free will of those above you rather than your own, is a frightening prospect. Courage must accompany the virtues in order to see them through, else they are meaningless.

Finally we come to honor. Honor is both a social virtue (it describes the character of one's actions) and a personal virtue (it describes one's character). It is also the hardest virtue to define. This is because honor is not an intellectual concept; as both social and personal honor exists outside intellect. One cannot argue honor, only its points. People can abide by honor or reject it, but each person recognizes their own honor or lack thereof. Society acknowledges honor, bestows it, or removes it. These are all in reflection of actions or motivation, but not, curiously, discussion – honor may be debated but the conclusion of the debate cannot and will not change honor because the honor is separate from the discussion: it has already happened and the debate is but an attempt to understand what has occurred. This pre-intellectual honor is the final key to bushido: honor may change in response to the world, but never in response to the samurai; if honor is relative, it is not manipulatable.

Thus we have our understanding of bushido as an ethical system that guides a samurai through society. The samurai who follows bushido has the courage to follow an honorable understanding of moral rectitude directed by the five social virtues which will inform his each and every action.

What is Shourido?

This is all well and good for the purposes of understanding bushido, but what of shourido, the new moral code? While I have not been able to find a direct translation, one possible translation would be, “the way of victory,” though, “conquest” or “triumph” would also be appropriate (thanks to Dan Zelitch, English teacher living in Japan, for helping with the translation). The name tells us what we need to know about shourido: its purpose is to aid the follower. While bushido is intended to help the samurai help others, shourido serves oneself.

The seven virtues of shourido are quite explicit about this. Unlike bushido, only one of the tenets (control) deals with others, while five (determination, insight, knowledge, perfection, strength) deal with the self. A seventh (will) deals with the implementation of these dark virtues. A follower of shourido does not serve or protect others, for duty or any other reason, but controls them putting them in service to her. She does not seek inner strength to implement these virtues – such strength is the entire point of shourido. She needs but the will to follow the path.

Shourido or Bushido? Or Shouido and Bushido?

Having set up shourido and bushido as two antithetical ethical systems, we may at last contrast them. Superficially they are entirely contradictory: shourido is a guide to ones' duty to self, while bushido is a guide to one's duty to others. Bushido is a goal to work toward and a path to that goal, while shourido are mandates of power. It would seem impossible to follow both. After all, one cannot be compassionate to a thief and deal with him from a position of strength, one cannot control an opponent while extending courtesy, can one?

Of course one can. A father must be strong with his child but compassionate: a stern warning not to play with fire, and a punishment if the rule is broken, are both acts of strength but are done out of compassion, to keep the child from being burned. A lord commands her vassals, controlling them, but shows her appreciation for them by extending courtesy. The virtues are not inherently contradictory.

This is the compelling nature of the dual philosophies. It is possible to follow both shourido and bushido, but only in very specific ways. An army commander who is ordered to resolve a border dispute with a neighboring clan may consult with political advisers to gain knowledge of the disupute, meditate on the nature of the dispute to gain insight into the other clan's legitimate and illegitimate grievances, and manipulate a representative from the enemy clan to control him and force a peace settlement, all because she is determined to resolve the issue without bloodshed. Yet in doing so she has fulfilled her duty to her lord, extended compassion to her own soldiers and those of her enemy, and demonstrated honesty, sincerity, and honor at every turn. This is a more honorable outcome than could have occurred without shourido.

At the same time, a samurai who only followed shourido could have seized the disputed territory through strength of arms, controlled the courts to resolve the dispute in her clan's favor, or determined to continue fighting even if hurt both sides until the outcome was settled as she wished, and all of those possibilities are much easier and much more likely to spring to mind than the intricate dance required to interweave shourido with bushido.

One can follow both shourido and bushido, but it's a fine line to walk, a difficult path on a mountain ridge with a great drop on either side.

Shourido and Bushido in Your Game

The first thing a character should do when incorporating both philosophies is forget the mechanics. Both philosophies describe actions, and the mechanics are quite capable of reflecting those actions. The Dark/Paragon/Failure/Consumed advantages and disadvantages may be selected after the character is created, but should be selected in response to the character created, not to determine what character will be created.

A character who follows bushido is trying to compose himself by society's dictates, and so there will often only be one correct action, or at least one correct goal. A character who follows shourido is seeking to both improve and utilize his strengths and power. As such, the two are best interwoven by using bushido to determine the end and shourido to determine the means. Shourido may provide and open the character's mind to options bushido would never consider, even if bushido favors them or is neutral to them. Playing an honorable shourido character is about turning shourido into a tool in the character's arsenal.

The GM should use the honor table on p. 91 as a guide to determine the character's honor. Note that some of the character's actions will now cause both honor gain and honor loss; this is a good thing. The character is still honorable, after all, but is hardly pure. Most likely, the character's honor will hover somewhere in the 3-6 range, honorable but rarely exemplary (either as a positive or a negative).

This is where I consider the Dark Paragon advantage to truly shine. By striving to follow bushido, the character has a regular honor engine, but Dark Paragon allows him to sacrifice that honor in service to... well, even in service to that honor. As a storyteller, this provides a wonderful opportunity to roleplay a falling hero. Shourido is a slippery slope and as the PC begins to rely on using the benefits of her Dark Paragon, it becomes easier and easier to think, “I'll make up that honor loss later.” “There's nothing wrong with my honor falling to 2; the honor gains are a lot bigger down here when I do get them.” The GM should provide regular situations of temptation to allow the character to drag herself down.

The most interesting confrontation at this point is rarely an accusation but rather a counter-example. A character who has fallen into shourido is best contrasted with a character who has starkly followed bushido. The bushido character may or may not judge the fallen shourido character, but if the shourido character has any honor left she will realize the comparison herself.

Of course, it is possible for the shourido character to maintain her honor in spite of her dual philosophies. After all, if the character's will and determination are strong enough shouldn't she be able to follow both? Would that not be both the ultimate state of perfection and fulfillment of honor?

It can be, if one truly follows both, and the more one uses shourido the harder that becomes. I'm reminded of an old Nintendo Power comic about the Legend of Zelda. Though the early video games focused on retrieving Gandalf's Triforce of Power, and the cartoon made regular use of Zelda's Triforce of Wisdom, in the comics there was included the third Triforce held by Link: the Triforce of Courage (make sense why they're the “Triforce” now?). In this comic, Link actually defeated Gannon and gained the Triforce of Power, which then began to corrupt him. At the comic's conclusion, it was revealed that he had lost the Triforce of Courage without even realizing it, which had given itself over to Zelda. What she said, though in a cheesy merchandising comic book being read by a seven year-old was nonetheless so poignant and true that I have never forgotten it:

“He who relies on power alone cannot claim courage.”

Shourido is the way of power. Whoever relies on power alone cannot claim honor. Power must serve honor. In the end there is no balancing act possible, no matter what the mechanics state. A good GM will at some point make the player choose: his honor or his power.

That is a tale worth telling.


  1. A great post. I would like to ask permission to translate it to Portuguese and publish in my brazilian blog (

    I liked a lot the idea of "setting info" posts. There is morte to come?

  2. With all the due credits, of course.

  3. Sure, when we can think of them. I'll have to ask Alex if it's ok to post it on your site. I'm not the author after all. :)

  4. Sure, go right ahead. Again, just give credit.

  5. Thank you very much to Dace-sama and Alex-sama for the chance.

    You can check the result in:

    Do I can (again) (re)post it in the brazilian-national-wide site RedeRPG, where I'm a poster?

  6. This post is fascinating! Thanks you two, Alex and Dace, you made a very good job with this post! As Hayashi, I want to translate it to spanish and public it in my blog, with your credits and a link to this blog. Can I?

  7. Thx, that helps me a lot playing my spider bushi. may i tanslate it in german an publish it in our rpg-fanzine? of cause will i list you as the original author.

    greeting derHirrrsch