The Cardinal Virtues of Japan 日本の元徳

The 2016 International Conference of Budo Culture featured two main lectures. The first one was titled The Cardinal Virtues of Japan and took place directly after the opening ceremony on the first day. The lecture was given by Kanno Kakumyou 菅野 覚明, a professor at Kogakkan University, whose expertise is in Japanese ethical thought in fields such as Shintoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and bushidou.

It was spoken in Japanese, and translated/interpreted by Bruce Flanagan, lecturer at Tokyo University of Science of Engineering, and Toyo Gakuen University Theory of Interpreting and Translation.

The lecture, The Cardinal Virtues of Japan, had the following abstract:

Lecture Abstract

One typical Japanese manner of thinking suggest that our life is actually a path (michi or dou) on which we journey day-to-day towards self-improvement. This philosophy is evident in Japanese arts such as poetry, singing, calligraphy, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement, where the names of the art includes the suffix dou. Budo is another example. Budo is a system of armed and unarmed fighting techniques, but martial arts and skills alone do not constitute budo in the philosophical sense. Actual fighting techniques were called bugei or bujutsu and were considered distinct from budo.

The goal of bugei or bujutsu is to defeat an opponent but this is not necessarily the case in budo. Naturally, budo practitioners also train to defeat an opponent, however that is just one part of the process of achieving the larger goal of self-development. Put simply, in budo, as with training in other dou arts, perfection of one's character is the ultimate objective.

An individual who has achieved excellence in a particular field may be called a meijin (master) or tatsujin (expert). While the terms meijin and tatsujin refer to the technical proficiency of the individual, the terms may also be used to refer to an individual who possesses unique traits and is recognized as being wise or holy, such as Confucius or Buddha. Budo as a form of dou, provides the practitioner with a 'path' or means to achieve the enlightened awareness of a wise or holy person. If, through achieving a high degree of self-development, a person has attained some desirable attribute, then we call this personality trait their 'virtue' (toku). There are many difference kinds of virtues that people try to develop in themselves and these values are generally universal. However ethnic, cultural, and religious groups often differ in their opinions on which virtues are the most important.

Fundamental virtues of particular importance are called 'cardinal virtues' (gentoku). In Christianity, faith, hope, and love are espoused as the three cardinal values (Corinthians 13). In ancient Greek philosophy, wisdom, courage, restraint, and justice, formed the four cardinal virtues. In Confucianism, the five values were benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, and sincerity, and the the three virtues were wisdom, benevolence, and courage. In this lecture I will discuss some of the important virtues associated with Japanese budo taking into account Buddhist and Shinto thought.

Unpacking the abstract, and defining terms

First, a virtue or toku is a positive personality trait. It's something that contributes to the dignity of one's life. Gentoku 元徳 is a fundamental virtue of importance, or cardinal virtue. These are the basic building blocks of what makes a desirable personality. As mentioned above in the abstract, wisdom, benevolence, courage as examples of cardinal virtues.

Budo 武道 is field of martial arts, but it doesn't cover all martial arts. According to The Budo Charter, budo are Japanese martial ways that have been transformed and evolved from combat techniques (jutsu) into ways of self-development (dou). There are only nine such martial arts: judo 柔道, kendo 剣道, kyudo (archery) 弓道, sumo 相撲, karatedo 空手道, aikido 合気道, shorinji kempo 少林寺拳法, naginata なぎなた, and jukendo 銃剣道.

As mentioned in the abstract, most of these martial arts carry the kanji suffix dou , which identifies them as a path to self-improvement. Many other arts in Japan also carry this suffix, such as tea ceremony or sado 茶道, calligraphy or shodo 書道, and flower arrangement, or kado 華道/花道. I don't really understand why iaido 居合道 isn't a budo art, but I guess that's because it's not meant as a means for combat? Or perhaps it doesn't stem from a former form of combat?

Despite being different forms of combat, training, and practice, budo martial arts are all connected by the same virtues of self-development and self-improvement. If a martial art does not follow these virtues, and doesn't set one on the path to self-improvement, it is not considered dou . In that case, they are pure fighting techniques, or jutsu . The virtues of those martial arts and sports are different.

Because all forms of dou carry the same virtues and basic fundamentals, scholars consider this the reason why so many military commanders and famous swordsman of the past were also great poets, musicians, and writers. They had some deep connections with themselves and could easily express it.

This is also why many budo practitioners these days have ranks in multiple branches of budo or other Japanese arts, rather than only one course of study.

3 important Cardinal Virtues

After reading that description and beginning the lecture, I really wanted a straight list of virtues. I wanted something like, "The cardinal virtues of Japan are…" But that's not how it went. Kanno先生 mentioned that there would not be enough time to mention all the virtues of Japan, and explain why they were so revered.

Looking through my notes of the lecture, and from what I remember, he focused on 3 particular virtues he found as important.

- rei - respect and gratitude
- 文武両道 bunbu ryoudou - the balance between strength and wisdom
- mu - nothingness


Physically, rei is the act of bowing. It's an expression of the importance of order, and an outward expression of our inner respect. It's a sign that we should love and respect other people, rather than hate. All human relations are founded on the two principles of shinrai, people trusting and being friendly to each other, and sonkei, acknowledging and respecting those different from you. And physically bowing to someone is an expression of both.

As an example, it is respectful for hosts to please their guests. It's their duty to go above and beyond the capabilities of their guest and impress them. And it's respectful for guests to acknowledge and show gratitude for everything the host has done for them. Even if they disappoint, it is always the guest's duty to return the same magnitude of respect to the host. In that same vain, bowing is also a show of gratitude and thanks.

In his lecture, Kanno先生 brought to the topic to respect on the battlefield, or gunjin no rei 軍陣の礼. Though, battlefields and war refer more to the fighting done in the warring states period of Japan, not necessarily modern warfare. Before a battle or fight, bowing to your opponents shows mutual respect for each other as warriors. Bowing at the end, signifies a return to the state outside on conflict. It was a way to preserve our humanity even in the face of conflict, and separates us from animals.

Without bowing on the battlefield, we're nothing but blood-thirsty war-mongering people. Winning a battle or war at all costs, and dehumanizing and humiliating the enemy is a sign of cowardice and disrespect. These kind of people are not human, and should be dealt with like animals.

The Balance between Strength and Wisdom

There's a Japanese term called bunbu ryoudou 文武両道. As long time ago, it meant being accomplished in both literary and military arts, or, that all military training should be correctly balanced with scholarship.

Today, the meaning has changed a little. Now the translation means having both strength and wisdom. It basically means the same thing, but the military and fighting connotation has been removed. This change was influenced by western thought thanks to terms like "the pen is mightier than the sword."

The forces of strength and wisdom are often depicted with red and blue colors. In popular culture, these colors often depict characters that represent strength or wisdom, such as the power rangers. If you remember the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the red ranger was the leader of the group, and always the strongest. He is usually not smart, but feels passion and emotion which often leads him into combat. The blue ranger, while not necessarily the weakest of the rangers, was certainly the smartest.

But, strength doesn't mean to simply have physical strength. Strength also refers to their strength of ones heart and will. It's the ability to love and compassion. Without this kind of strength, a person is just blood thirsty. True warriors fight with compassion.

You can see this ALL the time in Shonen Jump series such as Dragonball and One Piece. Goku and Luffy often lack the wisdom side of the coin, but their strength always comes their compassion for their friends, or what is just or right. They never enter into a fight for no reason.


The goal for any budo practitioner is to be able to perform moves and actions naturally and without thinking. This is known as a state of jizai 自在, or naturality. How is this done? One way is to achieve this state of nothingness.

By nothingness I mean that the practitioner wishes to have a simple state of being. This can be done through the unification of the following 3 states of consciousness: sincerity, selflessness, and being able to free the mind of thoughts.

Following these states, the practitioner is able to free themselves of themselves. Their own ego, wants, and desires are no longer in their way, and everything becomes instinct, and natural.

True masters and experts strive for this ideal state of character, and can achieve these states at will.

This aligns with true virtues: the virtue of honesty or shoujiki 正直, and the virtue of purity of spirit, or seijou 清浄. The lecturer make a point by saying, "I believe these are the most important of the virtues."

The Book of Japanese Cardinal Virtues

Not quite being satisfied from my notes of the lecture, I wanted to know all of the cardinal virtues of Japan. I wanted the finish this sentence: "The cardinal virtues of Japan are …" Fortunately, Kanno先生 literally wrote the book on the subject.

The lecture was actually just a small snippet of what he wrote about. Though, the book isn't just an answer to "What are the Cardinal Virtues of Japan?" It's a published account of all personality traits found good and desirable in Japan in different circumstances and situations, how they've been developed, and how they relate to budo culture in most cases.

I can't actually read it. But, I can translate the table of contents and form a decent list of what's inside. The contents are split into 4 sections: order and harmony, world citizenship, self-development, and objects of self-improvement.

Order chitsujo 秩序 and Harmony wagou 和合

These virtues mostly deal with the inner expression of yourself. These are your thoughts and feelings about the world around you, and how you conduct your life. Some of these are also outward expressions that demonstrate or convey your inner thoughts and ideals.

側隠の心 sokuin no kokoro
Compassion of the Heart or "showing sympathy or pity." Apparently sokuin has more of a negative connotation, so I think "pity" is better. But, that doesn't really make sense. Wouldn't the ideal be showing compassion and sympathy for others by not looking down on them? Being one with them, and looking past any ego driven or vain thoughts about yourself?

- 「うやまう」「つつしむ」 kei - uyamau tsutsushimu
Respect. Being able to show respect uyamau to other people, and being modest tsutsushimu about your own achievements. This is the same kanji used in keigo 敬語, which is the honorific / respectful words and language used in Japanese.

清浄 seijou
Purity - pure of heart / innocence (like a baby)

- 天地の序 rei - techi no ji
Respect and Gratitude. This was already mentioned above, but it's the idea of performing things in a set order. The act of bowing preludes heaven and earth.

倹約 - 均衡 - 調和の知恵 kenyaku - kinkou - chouwa no chie
Frugality - Balance - Harmony of Wisdom. This is the idea that simplicity is best. You should rid yourself of unnecessary things in your daily life, and only live with what is needed. You must manage overindulgence.

World Citizenship 世の中の一員

These virtues are about yourself outward expression to the world. This is how someone should conduct themselves as a member of their community, society, and the world.

- 百行の本 koi - hyakkou no moto
Filial Piety - the foundation of all actions. Filial Piety means your undying loyalty to your parents and family, and essentially having the capacity to support them as they have supported you. Apparently, this is foundations of all of our actions in our lives.

() - 親子の真実 koi - oyako no shinjitsu
Filial Piety (continued) - the nature of the relationship between parent and child.

勤勉 - 世のため人のための徳 kinben - yo no tame hito no tame no toku
Diligence. This is the virtue of people who do things for the greater good of the world. Those that work hard everyday at what they do.

- 人間の条件 gi - ningen no jouken
Morality or Justice - the human condition. Members of yakuza gangs use the term gi to describe the rules they enforce in the public and among themselves.

信義 - 公共の精神 shingi - koukyou no seishin
Trust / Faith / Loyalty - the spirit of common sense. This means having faith in society that they'll do the right things, and by being a member of society that you uphold that faith of common sense.

分別 - 大人の道徳 bunbetsu - otona no doutoku
Judgement (or Discrimination) - the morals and ethics of adults.

Self-development 自己を育てる

- 修行の思想 makoto - shugyou no shisou
Honesty or Integrity - the ideals of shugyou training. Translating shugyou only as 'training' loses a lot of its meaning. Shugyou training is strict self-disciplined mental and physical training like a samurai. Examples would be doing the same disciplined training everyday exactly the same to achieve perfection. Or, there's the example of a samurai sitting and meditating under a waterfall. The purpose is to try and attain a state of zen or a state of mu. It's these ideals that establish integrity.

- 普遍的価値への奉仕 chuu - fuhen-teki-kachi e no houshi
Loyalty - devoting oneself to the universal values of loyalty.

- 『憲法十七条』の精神 wa - [kenpou 17 jou] no seshin
Harmony - the spirit of the Seventeen-article constitution. The Seventeen-article constitution is a document written by Prince Shoutoku Taishi in 604. It was a highly Buddhist and Confucian inspired set of morals and virtues that were to be expected of government officials and the emperor's subjects. An excerpt from Wikipedia states, "Harmony is to be valued, and the avoidance of wanton opposition to be honored."

克己 - 忍耐 - 現代に最もっとも必要な徳 kokki - nintai - gendai ni sai motto mo hitsuyou na toku
Self-Control - Patience - the most necessary trait in our modern age.

定心 - 存心 - 正念 - 正気に返れ joushin - zonshin - shounen - shouki ni kaere
Meditation, Feelings from the heart, and True Faith. Meditation is the spirit of Buddhism. You rid yourself of all distractions and focus your mind on a single thought. You keep yourself in a free state, void of feeling, or a level feelings. It's like a state of nothingness. You try to achieve a state of zen. True Faith is being able to control or correct your bad feelings, and bring in good feelings.

怨望 - 日本人の弱点 enpou - nihonjin no jakuten
Envy - a Japanese weakness. The first kanji is also used for the verb uramu 怨む, which means to have a grudge against someone. But, this boils down to resentment, jealousy. There's a really common utterance in Japanese: いいな. Directly, it's translates as "that's good," or "that's awesome," but it carries a sense of wanting with it, like, "I want that to," or "I wish I had that, too." I'm not sure if including this virtue is an example of something bad, or if it's just part of being Japanese, good or bad.

- 肉体に根ざす徳 yuu - nikutai ni nezasu toku
Bravery or Courage - the fundamental trait that makes up the human body.

- 生命のものの徳 jin - seimei no mono mo toku
Benevolence or consideration and compassion for other people. Humanity. This is the virtue of all existence and life in general.

- 人生の司令塔 kokorozashi - jinsei no shireitou
Intention or Motive - the central drive or direction that controls our lives, or your reason for doing the things you do.

『教育勅語』の徳目 [kyouiku chokugo] no tokume
Types of virtues taken from the "Imperial Rescript of Education". The Imperial Rescript was kind of like the Pledge of a Allegiance in the US. It was something that all school children (prior to World War II) would read and say in school. It requested that people advance public good and promote common interests, always respect the constitution and observe the laws, and should emergency arise, offer yourself to defend and maintain the prosperity of the Imperial Throne. These days, Japanese people consider this nationalist train of thought dangerous as it lead to the mistakes of war.

The Objective of Self-improvement 修養の目標

男一匹 - 新渡戸稲造の修養論 otoko ippiki - Nitobe Inazou no shouyou ron
The perfection of masculinity - Nitobe Inazou's idea of self-improvement. This is the ideal that every Japanese man wants to be.

すてきなひと - 女性らしさの徳 suteki na hito - josei rashisa no toku
"Beautiful" Person - feminine virtues.

三種の神器 - 政治家の徳 sanshu no jingo - seijika no toku
Three Sacred Treasures - the virtues required of politicians. These are honesty 正直 shoujiki, compassion 慈悲 jihi, and wisdom 知恵 chie.

老木の花 - 亀の甲より年の功 rouboku no hana - kame no koi yori toshi no koi
(Idioms) The Flower of an Old Tree - wise old man wisdom from a turtle shell. These are virtues found from idioms, or wise old sayings passed down by generations. Heeding this wisdom shows respect to the elderly.

無私 - 徳の大きさ mushi - toku no okisa
Nothingness - the size of a virtue.

中庸 -「普通」- こそが究極の徳 chuuyou - [futsuu] - koso ga kyuukyoku no toku
The Golden Mean - Normality or being average - virtues of the ultimate goal. This is about sticking to the group, and not being extreme. But, it can also mean being fair, and not taking sides. Ultimately, this idea came from China.


The book is quite dense. It'd be like a Japanese person trying to translate a bible into their language. Some of these virtues deal with the roots of modern day Japanese culture stemming from China. Others are wholly formed Japanese ideals. One easy way to identify traits stemming directly from Japanese ideals are the words that use a single kanji. Usually words with two or three kanji stem directly from Chinese kanji.


Out of everything, I found the topic of balancing strength and wisdom particularly important to me. Not being able to fully understand Japanese (and perhaps the way they train junior high students) has made me miss a lot of the theory and thought process behind the moves and training I've done thus far. Even the written test makes the test-takers only memorize the words written, but not actually think of their own answers.

The lecture on the following day mentioned that one cannot learn a budo art by training alone. Someone who only trains technique and only builds physical strength and speed will never be on the same level as someone who balances training both their body and mind.

This conference was immensely valuable to me because of this. It identified my largest weakness in learning kendo so far. The idea of always training in kendo doesn't necessarily make you better at kendo. Improving aspects of your life, and bringing balance to everything will improve your skills as well.

Good habits in your life are brought into your budo, just as the bad habits, too. If you're a well-organized person, those ideals are brought into your performance. If you're a slouch or a sloppy person, those ideals are also brought in, too. Kendo and other budo arts are an expression of your inner self, and your moves and techniques mirror those ideals. This is what your opponent sees when faced against you.

And things I improve in kendo translate back in my life. Kendo is no longer just something that I do. Kendo is who am I. It's a part of me.