TOKYO — Benevolence isn't the first word that springs to mind when talking of Bushido, the "way of the warrior" philosophy that once inspired the samurai. But as Japan frets over its stagnant economy and a perceived decline in morals, a small but devoted number of people are hailing the forgotten core values of Bushido as the way forward -- not with nifty swordplay and medieval savagery, but with rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor and loyalty.
Japan's 12-year slump has been characterized by a loss of faith in its once trusted institutions. Corporations are found to have cheated the public. The bureaucracy is perceived as hopelessly self-serving. The police cover up scandals. Television stations fake documentaries or manipulate ratings.
Little wonder that some look with nostalgia to a philosophy that prizes accountability and integrity.
Most Japanese have dismissed Bushido enthusiasts as dusty academics and martial arts geeks. But Bushido's unlikely new spokesman is a figure with a bit more sex appeal: Tom Cruise, who stars in the film "The Last Samurai," which will be released in December.
"Bushido is the reason I really wanted to make this film," Cruise said in August at a news conference in Tokyo. "Those Bushido values are worth aspiring to in life, and they are things I aspire to. Bushido is a powerful, beautiful, ancient culture." Cruise added that he had been so impressed that he was faxing information on Bushido to friends.
Japan's Bushido lovers undoubtedly hope his message reaches their countrymen as well as Cruise's Hollywood friends. Many young Japanese see history as a bore, and the samurai are a largely forgotten relic.
Hiroyuki Sanada, the Japanese actor who stars alongside Cruise in "Samurai," concurs: "I ask myself, do young Japanese even know about Bushido?"
Sanada and the largely Japanese cast of "Samurai" have praised Cruise's dedication in learning swordsmanship, embracing Bushido and even learning to speak some lines in passable Japanese. The story tells of an American Civil War veteran who is recruited to modernize the Japanese army in the mid-19th century but instead is seduced by the values of the samurai class his reforms will render redundant.
Nowadays, Bushido has lost its central place in Japanese life, but bookstores report that works on the subject are selling well to young people, including "Bushido: The Soul of Japan," a century-old book by Inazo Nitobe that compares Bushido to European chivalry.
"Nitobe's is a book that anyone can read," said Masahiro Sato, a Nitobe expert and emeritus professor at Osaka University. "It's not an academic work, because Nitobe wrote it while in the U.S. without access to any serious work on the samurai or anything in Japanese. I hear Cruise read it, and it's no surprise that it appealed to him."
Professor Kazuhiko Kasaya of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies is among those who argue that a dose of Bushido could help treat what ails modern Japan. He wrote a series of columns for Japan's conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper as the country experienced its latest rash of corporate and bureaucratic scandals.
"The loyalty of the samurai was not about blind obedience but about taking responsibility," Kasaya said. "It was the samurai's duty to say if he thought the lord made a wrong decision. The group full of 'yes' men may seem strong when all is going well, but it lacks a mechanism to correct bad decisions, and when it goes to pot, all the 'yes' men say it wasn't their fault.
"I personally think whistle-blowers are right to expose wrongdoing," he said. "But it should be as a last resort. True loyalty would be to oppose it at the time they observed it."
In a country that is renowned for its conservatism, it may be easier to couch the need for change in the language of a Japanese tradition than in more revolutionary terms. That way, going against the grain at the office is not Western individualism but the samurai's "loyal dissent."
In claiming Bushido as a guide for modern life, enthusiasts acknowledge that they pick and choose what bits to apply. The samurai, after all, lorded over the peasant class, brutally suppressing rebellions and warring with rival clans.
"I don't say that we should admire everything in Bushido," said Takashi Kamura, a Tokyo lawyer with a love of Bushido. "I cannot condone such practices as committing suicide after the death of one's master to show loyalty. But if you look at Bushido in its best period, it was a pure code of enlightenment. The samurai pursued arts and reflected on life."