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You Too Could Be a Samurai

After suffering a traumatic brain injury, Lori Tsugawa Whaley credits the ancient bushido code for much of her recovery. Now she’s showing others how it can change their lives.

  • December 6, 2021
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

In Lori Tsugawa Whaley’s view, a warrior culture can teach us a lot about how to live a peaceful life.

The Gig Harbor speaker is currently giving a talk through Humanities Washington, “The Samurai Code: How Bushido Changes Lives,” and is the author of Let The Samurai Be Your Guide, a personal-development guide rooted in the code of bushido. That guiding ethos for the Japanese samurai clans has roots going back more than 1,000 years, and although it developed around matters of war, combat, and struggles for supremacy, Whaley believes it has lessons to share when it comes to issues of family, community, and work.

Whaley, a third-generation Japanese American, holds up modern heroes as exemplars of bushido. See the story of Daniel Inouye, who lost an arm as a U.S. Army platoon leader in World War II and went on to serve as Senator for Hawai’i. Or the man known as “the Japanese Schindler,” whose diplomatic efforts in Eastern Europe saved an estimated 2,400 Jews from Nazi extermination.

The work that became Let The Samurai Be Your Guide helped Whaley out of a dark corner of her life. Injured in a car crash in 2005, she suffered chronic pain, memory loss, and reading challenges that were later traced to traumatic brain injury. The study and effort of researching and writing the book acted as a constructive therapy for the author.

The publishing house that issued Whaley’s book in 2020 puts her in good company: Tuttle Publishing has been bringing translated Asian texts and books rooted in Japanese culture to American bookshelves since the late 1940s.

“It’s wonderful, and I think it’s really a good fit for me and the book,” she says. “Literally, I pinch my cheeks sometimes.”

 

Humanities Washington: When you were writing Let the Samurai Be Your Guide, was there a particular definition of bushido that you worked from? What is bushido for you?

Lori Tsugawa Whaley: Bushi is “warrior,” do is “the way,” so it’s literally “the way of the warrior.” Some people say there are eight key principles, but most people say there are seven. So I went with seven, which is a Japanese number — they like five, seven or ten. These principles include courage, integrity, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor, and loyalty, and the samurai were so dedicated to this code that they were willing to lay down their lives for it. And the ultimate expression of this is seppuku, which is suicide. They had two swords for this, and the shorter one is the personal one, and the longer one is for battle.

Humanities Washington: These are classical ideas that are very old, so what kind of meaning or value can bushido carry specifically for Japanese Americans in this century?

Lori Tsugawa Whaley: It’s realizing and recognizing the heritage that we have. I like to say that I turned pain into gain, because growing up in rural America, I was teased and bullied and called names. I hated being Japanese. But then as I grew older, I started thinking about it. I took Japanese in college, because I wanted to know what my parents were saying. They did not teach us — they would just talk, and we couldn’t understand them. I was kind of curious about my culture, but not really delving into it like I did after my accident. All four of my grandparents came from Japan and really wanted to embrace American culture, so they did not encourage their children to learn Japanese. They wanted them to be Americanized. Yet my dad says the first thing he remembers is barbed wire, and being greeted by people on the watchtowers with guns pointing towards him — with guns pointed in, rather than pointed out, to make sure they behaved. I admire that generation of Japanese Americans — both what they went through and their contribution in fighting World War II, so that we could have a better life and wouldn’t have to face these kinds of prejudices.

Humanities Washington: You were writing and researching this book while you were focusing on your recovery from brain injury. Of these seven elements of bushido, which do you think was most valuable to you in putting things back together?

Lori Tsugawa Whaley: Courage. I felt that if I could write a book and overcome reading at a seventh-grade level — that was quite an ordeal — then I could overcome traumatic brain injury. And so I finished the book, and that was quite a landmark for me. Courage is facing your fears, and I had a lot of fears to face — finding myself reading at that low level, and also my fear of doctors. I’d really never been to so many medical and therapy appointments in my life as during that period of regaining wellness. I had avoided doctors like the plague. But I had to rely on them, because I couldn’t do it myself.

Humanities Washington: Your book also features Japanese Americans who you hold up as representing a bushido principle. Who’s your favorite among the people you chose?

Lori Tsugawa Whaley: I’d have to say Chiune Sugihara, the diplomat to Lithuania for Japan (1939-40). Against the orders of the Japanese, he wrote visas to save the lives of Jewish people. He had nothing to gain, and he knew that it could mean his life or imprisonment, which it did — he was imprisoned for 18 months with his family, and then blacklisted. He always stood for what was right. He was everything relating to bushido — courage, integrity, benevolence. Sugihara was a samurai warrior, yet he did not handle a sword.

Humanities Washington: For you, this has been a journey of reclamation. But sometimes people with European heritage, like myself, will gravitate toward ideas that come from Asian countries. So does it give you pause when you see a person of my heritage glomming onto these ideas? Or are you happy to spread these ideals as far as you can?

Lori Tsugawa Whaley: That’s one of my major goals: To share about the code of bushido. Because I believe in this day and age, people are looking for leaders, and unless one can lead themselves, they can’t lead others. What better moral framework to have? Because if you have no framework, or don’t stand for anything, you stand for nothing. I share about the code of bushido because a person can adopt one principle, or all of it. And it’s not just for the Japanese. Good ethics never go out of style — that’s my philosophy.

 

Lori Tsugawa Whaley is currently giving her Speakers Bureau talk, “The Samurai Code: How Bushido Changes Lives,” online and in-person around the state. Find out where she’s appearing next on our calendar.