Tag Archives: Samurai

regrettable to become an artist..

There are many people who, by being attached to a martial art and taking apprentices, believe that they have arrived at the full stature of a warrior. But it is a regrettable thing to put forth much effort and in the end become an “artist.” In artistic technique it is good to learn to the extent that you will not be lacking.

-The Hagakure

An interesting passage…the “stature” is not to be found in simply the practice of skills. Do not be found lacking in skill, but don’t lose your way in pursuing them either.

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do not be negligent

Japanese archer 弓道 Kyudo 弓術 Kyujutsu
Japanese archer 弓道 Kyudo 弓術 Kyujutsu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One should not be negligent in the way of the retainer. One should rise at four in the morning, practice sword technique, eat one’s meal, and train with the bow, the gun, and the horse. For a well-developed retainer, he should become even more so. -Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611 A.D.)

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47 Ronin

Forty-seven Ronin Graves (2008)
Forty-seven Ronin Graves (2008) (Photo credit: jpellgen)

A Facebook friend of mine mentioned that this month marks the 311th Anniversary of the “Ako Incident”….otherwise known as the night the 47 Ronin carried out their attack on the mansion of Kira Yoshinaka. One noted Japanese scholar has described this tale as being the country’s “national legend.”

What is interesting however…as it always is when separating out historic facts from legend…is that according to the “Bushido Code” of the day the actions of the 47 Ronin were not unanimously viewed as being heroic.

To encapsulate the event. In 1701 two daimyo, Asano and Kamei, were ordered to arrange a fitting reception for the envoys of the Emperor in Edo, during their bi-annual service to the Shogun. They were to receive instruction in proper etiquette from a powerful court official named Kira. According to the legend, Kira expected a bribe/fee from the diamyo of which Kamei paid and Asano did not. Kira then treated Kamei civilly but continually insulted Asano. Eventually Asano had enough and drew a blade within Edo castle and wounded Kira. This was a grave offense and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku and all of his goods and lands were ordered to be confiscated after his death, his family was to be ruined, and his retainers were to be made ronin (leaderless). 

Of Asano’s over three hundred men, forty-seven refused to allow their lord to go unavenged, even though revenge had been prohibited in the case. They banded together, swearing a secret oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, even though they knew they would be severely punished for doing so. Two years latter, the 47 Ronin attacked Kira’s mansion in the early morning hours during a heavy snow killing Kira and most of his retainers. When they had finished, the 47 turned themselves in to the authorities. Eventually all were ordered to commit seppuku.

While many people think that this was a classic example of “Bushido”, the Samurai of the day and even modern scholars of Japanese history are not so sure. One scholar succinctly puts the historic quandary like this:

The even greater ambiguity lies in the motivation and action of the ronin. They justified the attack as a vendetta (katakiuchi) on behalf of their lord, but in no way did the case fit either the legal or the customary definition of katakiuchi. Kira, after all, was not their master’s murderer: on the contrary, Asano had tried to murder Kira. Nor was there any justification for avenging the death of one’s lord, only that of a family member: the ronin even had to call on a Confucian scholar to come up with a textual basis for their action. Legalities aside, what was the underlying spirit of their act? Was it indeed personal loyalty to their lord, as the mainstream of the Chûshingura tradition would have it? Or was it a protest against the bakufu’s lenient treatment of Kira for his involvement in the incident? Or was it a simple matter of personal honor to carry out their master’s unfinished task? Or, as one school of interpretation would have it, were they impoverished samurai desperate for a new job and trying to prove their credentials?

The operating principle of revenge was based on an ancient Confucian dictum about not living under the same heaven as the killer of one’s father (or in this case, lord). In this case Kira was not the killer of Asano. Furthermore, some Samurai were conflicted on the entire planning and execution process employed. Plotting and careful planning for success was (oddly enough) not “The Way” of the Samurai when it came to situations like this. The Samurai Dazai Shundai (1680 – 1747) summed up this viewpoint in an essay:

“The guest asked: “In that case, what should the warriors of Ako have done?” Shundai said: “Nothing could have been better for them than to die at Ako Castle…. They should have come out of the castle and engaged in battle with the government emissaries (who were coming to seize the Asano goods and lands). Then, retreating into the castle, they should have set fire to it, and everyone should have killed himself. When their corpses had burned up with the castle, it could have been said that the Ako men had done all they could…. “If for some reason it was not possible for them to die at Ako Castle, they should have gone to Edo at once and, with all the troops available, attacked Kira. If they won the engagement, they thereupon should have killed themselves; if they lost, the same. The unifying element should have been death. Through it they would have discharged their responsibility. “Yet Oishi and his men were unable to do either. Instead, they waited leisurely and, employing idle conspiracies and secrecy, tried to kill Kira. What they had in mind was to achieve their aim, establish their reputation, and thereby seek fame and fortune. How unurbane of them! In the circumstances, it was lucky for the Ako warriors that Kira hadn’t died before their attack.”

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the Samurai who’s statements are claimed to be reproduced in the Hagakure is reported to have said the following about the situation:

A certain person was brought to shame because he did not take revenge. The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one’s way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must complete the job you will run out of time. By considering things like how many men the enemy has, time piles up; in the end you will give up. No matter if the enemy has thousands of men, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down, starting from one end. You will finish the greater part of it.

Concerning the night assault of Lord Asano’s ronin, the fact that they did not commit seppuku at the Sengakuji was an error, for there was a long delay between the time their lord was struck down and the time when they struck down the enemy. If Lord Kira had died of illness within that period, it would have been extremely regrettable. Because the men of the Kamigata area have a very clever sort of wisdom, they do well at praiseworthy acts but cannot do things indiscriminately, as was done in the Nagasaki fight.

The second element in debate was the fact that the 47 Ronin turned themselves in after the incident instead of immediately committing seppuku, which would have been truer to the Bushido ideals of the day. Some critics believe that the Ronin were gambling that perhaps through gaining fame, notoriety and public support that they would be able to escape death. Some critics even going so far as to accuse them of trying to leverage their fame into employment with another daimyo.

From a political/historic aspect it is interesting to read that this story really “got legs” and became the “National Legend” during the Meiji Period of Japanese history. The Meiji Restoration was a  period when Japan was undergoing “modernization” while still trying to hold onto some form of historic cultural identity. As Henry Smith said at Columbia University states:

For the first half of the Meiji period, Chûshingura survived with no major change in the two great Edo-period lineages of kabuki stage productions and kôdan story-telling. To be sure, the new regime seems to have appreciated the political uses of the 47 Ronin as early as 1868, when the Meiji emperor, on arriving in his new capital of Tokyo, sent an emissary to Sengakuji to place offerings before the graves of the Akô ronin, together with a proclamation addressed to Ôishi and praising him for upholding the principle of the master-follower bond. Yet this did not lead to any particular official manipulation of the legend to foster imperial loyalty: Chûshingura remained in the possession of the people.

The modern transformation of Chûshingura into what amounted to a piece of propaganda on behalf of martial values and selfless sacrifice to the state came, revealingly, only after the way had been paved by the first modern historical studies of the Akô incident.[17] This process began in 1889 with the appearance of The True Story of the Akô Gishi (Akô gishi jitsuwa), an account by Shigeno Yasutsugu (1827-1910), a pioneer of the modern critical method in history. Shigeno insisted on the need to separate out the many counterfeits among the surviving documents of the incident, in an effort to tell the “true story.” The form of the book (which was related orally to a newspaper reporter) was an act-by-act analysis of Kanadehon Chûshingura, indicating what was “true” and what not. This marks the beginning of a new element in the Chûshingura phenomenon, the perception that the historical event constituted a different kind of story to be told, with different tools and methods. The way to a greater historicity may have been paved by the kôdan tradition and its stronger sense of the actual event―particularly in the use of the historical names of the participants―but the line between history and fiction remained one that was never openly contested.

It is in this historic perspective that you can see the foreshadowing of events that led to the Imperial Japanese militarism of WWII. The 47 Ronin, Bushido: The soul of Japan, and the Hagakure were all used as propaganda to reinforce the Samurai heritage of Japanese soldiers.

Now..this is not to imply that you cannot find “Things Worth Believing In” in these works. I will end by quoting myself from another post on the Hagakure:

The Hagakure was written approximately one hundred years after the start of the Tokugawa era, a time of relative peace when Japan was closed to any foreign influence. With no battles left to fight, the samurai class was being transformed into an administrative arm of the government, training and practicing the martial arts but seldom engaging in combat outside of duels and brawls. After his master died, Tsunetomo was forbidden to perform a ritual suicide by an edict of the Tokugawa Shogunate and it is thought that the Hagakure may have been written as a response to the change in tradition and was an effort to define the role of the samurai in this more peaceful society. Several sections refer to the “old days”, and imply a dangerous weakening of the samurai class since that time.

His work represents one approach to the problem of maintaining military preparedness and a proper military mindset in a time when neither has much practical application. The Hagakure remained a fairly obscure work until 1930′s Japan where it played a role in the resurgent militarism of WWII imperial Japan. Illustrating the danger in trying to resurrect modes of thought from times that were vastly different from our own. The student studying these codes needs to remember that the “trick” lays in finding the similarities and consistency in human thought that may have remained over the ages and see how these ancient codes may or may not apply to our times.

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think ahead

English: Samurai wearing kusari katabira (chai...
English: Samurai wearing kusari katabira (chain armor jackets) and kusari zunin (chain armor hoods) with hachi gane (forehead protectors). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a samurai in service accompanies his lord on a journey and they arrive at post-station it is most important that he should before sunset take care to make enquiries of the people of the locality, and note any hill or wood or shrine or temple and take his bearings by them, and find out in what direction from their lodging there is an open space and what is the condition of the road. This should be done so that should a fire suddenly break out during the night and it be necessary for his lord to retire he will be able to lead the way and know where to guide him. And when he accompanies his lord on foot, to remember to go in front of him on a hill and behind him on a slope may seem a small matter, but it is one a retainer should not overlook. For it is the duty of a samurai to be vigilant and careful at all times to think out how he can render any possible service in the calling to which he is appointed. – Daidoji Yuzan

This passage brings to mind how we should not be just “going through” the motions when we carry arms for a living. How many coppers have been caught flat footed when that “routine call” turned to shit? Think ahead…find those points of cover in your environment…have some sort of mental “what if” plan that covers as many options you can think of as you approach that car stop.

the old samurai

One of my Facebook Page followers sent me the following:

Hey there,

This might be out of left field, but I wanted to share a Samurai short we just premiered online today that I thought you and your readers at tgace.com

Inspired by lightning-fast duels in Samurai classics such as Sanjuro – this film started with a simple question: What if you could capture the split second between first draw and final blow?

After conversations with our friends who practice Kendo and other martial arts, and armed with a 1000 frame per second camera and a rain machine – we shot a pensive story about an old samurai facing his worthiest opponent yet.

The film also features the soundtrack debut of Christopher Guanlao of Silversun Pickups fame.

Here’s a link:

https://vimeo.com/58277131
https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Old-Samurai/213084665391522?fref=ts

And more info and pictures:
http://theoldsamurai.com/presskit.php

Hope you enjoy. Cheers!
Ben

The Old Samurai from Benjamin Wong on Vimeo.

 

Pretty Cool…

seeking good companions

Muromachi period samurai, 1538
Image via Wikipedia

In light of some recent events, this post came to my mind so I decided to re-publish it.

If one would seek good companions, he will find them among those with whom he studies Learning and calligraphy. Harmful companions to avoid will be found among those who play go, chess and shakuhachi. There is no shame in not knowing these later amusements. Indeed, they are matters to be taken up only in the stead of wasting ones time completely.

A person’s good and evil are dependent on his companions. When three people are together there will always be an exemplary person among them, and one should choose the good person and follow his example. Looking at the bad person, one should correct his own mistakes.

-Hojo Nagauji (1432-1519 A.D.)

Hojo Nagauji was a “Fighting Samurai” and general of the late Muromachi Period. Some of his writings, namely The Twenty-One Precepts (of which this is a quote), are amongst the foundations of what we know as Bushido.

I find this passage interesting. In it he is advising his retainers to really consider who it is they associate with. He tells them to associate with people who are studious and avoid those who want to spend their time gambling, gaming and carousing. Furthermore he suggests looking for the “good example” in every crowd and avoid being like the bad example.

To apply this to our times does not take much re-contexing, as a matter of fact there are numerous sayings from various cultures that state the same:

Be honorable yourself if you wish to associate with honorable people.
-Welsh Proverb

Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation. It is better be alone than in bad company.
George Washington

I think this sentiment echoes a few of my previous posts; namely my “magic self-defense formula” and Col. Grossman’s “screw golf” sentiment.

We (including myself) have all been in those situations where we have been out on the town with our friends and gotten a little too drunk, done something too stupid or just made too much of a spectacle of ourselves in public. I do not want to come off as a prude, but too much of that sort of thing leads to nothing but trouble and does nothing but lead one from “the way”. If you associate with people who lead you into those types of situations it is time to consider the value of those people and its time to consider your own reasons for associating with them. I’m not suggesting that one needs to swear off alcohol or “going out” entirely. Even Hojo Nagauji did not say that. But he did say that “playing” was only to be considered over completely wasting ones time. If one desires to be considered a “professional” or a “warrior” then there are numerous things you could be doing to improve your skills and your survivability (“screw golf”) other than idle drinking. If drinking and partying is occupying more of your heart and mind then “the way” is, then I believe that you are living in a fantasy world where you want to “say you are… rather than BE.”

In the end, what I am suggesting is being “mindful” in everything you do. If you want to go out and enjoy yourself every now and then by all means do so. But do so “intentionally”. Likewise consider the people you associate with; are they examples you wish to emulate? Do you want other people to think of you the way they think of them? Are they worthy of respect? Are you?

In my opinion, if you find yourself getting “wasted” as routine entertainment, if you like to associate with criminals and “loser’s”, or if you are consistently acting in an undignified manner in public, you are debasing yourself, asking for trouble, and are far from the path of a “warrior”.

the way of walking alone

Samurai Sword
Image by ElPablo! via Flickr

While on the Way:

-Do not turn your back on the various Ways of this world.
-Do not scheme for physical pleasure.
-Do not intend to rely on anything.
-Consider yourself lightly; consider the world deeply.
-Do not ever think in acquisitive terms.
-Do not regret things about your own personal life.
-Do not envy another’s good or evil.
-Do not lament parting on any road whatsoever.
-Do not complain or feel bitterly about yourself or others.
-Have no heart for approaching the path of love.
-Do not have preferences.
-Do not harbor hopes for your own personal home.
-Do not have a liking for delicious food for yourself.
-Do not carry antiques handed down from generation to generation.
-Do not fast so that it affects you physically.
-…do not be fond of material things.
-…do not begrudge death.
-Do not be intent on possessing valuables or a fief in old age.
-Respect the gods and Buddhas, but do not depend on them.
-Though you give up your life, do not give up your honor.
-Never depart from the Way of martial arts.

Second Day of the Fifth Month, Second Year of Shoho [1645]
Shinmen (Miyamoto) Musashi

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jack of all trades?

Japanese helm and armor, from Metropolitan Mus...
Image via Wikipedia
I just read this passage from the Hagakure:

There are many people who, by being attached to a martial art and taking apprentices, believe that they have arrived at the full stature of a warrior. But it is a regrettable thing to put forth much effort and in the end become an “artist.” In artistic technique it is good to learn to the extent that you will not be lacking. In general, a person who is versatile in many things is considered to be vulgar and to have only a broad knowledge of matters of importance.

The way I read it, Yamamoto Tsunetomo was saying that some people look at teaching, practicing or dedicating themselves in a martial art as the pinnacle of “warriorship” but that becoming an “artist” and being a “warrior” are two different things.

He furthermore says that when learning “artistic technique” it is good to learn only enough to be proficient, but he says that only having a broad knowledge of matters of importance is “vulgar”.

I am a bit confused by this passage. The first part, where he says that it would be “regrettable” to become an artist, I think I understand. It seems to me that he is saying “look..a warrior USES martial arts to accomplish his goals…martial arts do not define the warrior. Don’t get so involved in practicing the martial arts that you forget what your job is.”

I tend to agree with that sentiment. I have stated repeatedly in my writings here that I think that simply teaching or training in a martial art doesnt place you in the “warrior class“. If you want to BE a warrior, you have to get out there and put your ass on the line FOR something. Enlist, become a Fireman, an EMT, a cop, join the Peace Corps…get out there and DO something. Even if you have no martial arts experience I believe that you are closer to being a “warrior” than someone who goes to the corner dojo twice a week.

The people who hone their martial skills, the citizens who attend every firearms school from Blackwater to Gunsite…they are training in the “warrior arts” or perhaps trying to live “AS a warrior”, which is perfectly fine and honorable. Many of them are simply enjoying a hobby, some are preparing themselves to be self-sufficient in defensive skills, and myrid other legitimate reasons. Then there are some who think that practicing the skills of the warrior somehow “makes” them a warrior, but paying to learn all the skills and techniques of a Navy SEAL isnt the “same as” BEING a Navy SEAL.

So I agree…being an “artist” and being a “warrior” are different things. Then again, perhaps I am simply interpreting this writing to match my opinion because Tsunetomo goes on to say:

In artistic technique it is good to learn to the extent that you will not be lacking. In general, a person who is versatile in many things is considered to be vulgar and to have only a broad knowledge of matters of importance.

I can read the first part  in two ways. Either he is saying; “when you are an Artist you can “get away with” learning enough so as to not be lacking”. Or he is saying; “when you are a warrior who is learning an artistic technique it is best to not waste your time honing it too much to the detriment of other skills”.

I think that the last sentence tends to support the first interpretation. As if the writer is saying “well..if you are an Artist then learning enough to get by in many skills is all well and good, but being a generalist is vulgar.”

That tends to run contrary to my understanding of what “artist” means though. I would think that the “artist” would be concerned with refining and honing every minutiae of technique, while the warrior has many skills he/she needs to do their job.

Then again perhaps the authors “artist” was different than our modern interpretation of the term. Maybe he was saying; “Martial Artists are interested in learning anything and everything to do with their art so they tend to learn just enough to be skillful in those many things. The Warrior should not worry about gaining many mediocre skills, he should focus on becoming expert at his necessary skills (i.e. swordsmanship, archery, horesmanship etc.).”

To make a modern military analogy, this is like saying a “military artist” would be someone who tries to learn about everything; artillery, airborne operations, naval operations, intelligence, infantry tactics, armor etc. As such the “military artist” gains a broad but shallow knowledge of all these skills. Its as if Tsunetomo is saying “dont be a Military Artist…focus on your infantry skills. You may not know squat about Tank Warfare but you will be an Infantry expert.”

I wish that Tsunetomo was around so I could ask him to clarify. Does anybody else have an interpretation of this passage that differs from mine?

Any way you interpret it, this passage raises some interesting thoughts about the relationship between your “mission” and your training goals.

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reading ancient warrior codes

English: Armoured samurai with sword and dagge...
Image via Wikipedia

Written by Taira Shigesuke around 1700 AD. The Bushido Shoshinshu was intended to instruct the novice Samurai of the peaceful Edo Era, who had not known the rigors of battle, with the practical philosophies of previous eras.

Bushido Shoshinshu is roughly translated as “Bushido for Beginners.”

A fellow blogger over at The H Line has a post on this text:

My favorite part is from a section called “Officials,” which centers on one bit of imagery: a white jacket.

A white jacket, it says, can come clean with detergent and a good wash. Likewise:

“…there are various practices that are like detergents for cleaning the heart of warriors. What are these practices? These are loyalty, duty, and courage. There is dirt that is removed by the detergent of loyalty and fidelity, and there is dirt that is removed by the detergent of faithfulness to duty. When the stain remains stubborn even after washing with loyalty and rinsing with duty, then use the detergent of courage, and make a determined effort to scrub it clean. This is the warrior’s ultimate secret of cleaning the heart.”

It’s a beautiful message, full of hope.

Which brings up an interesting point about the reading of ancient Warrior codes. That passage IS an inspiring concept, however if one reads the final passage of this book…

Now were he to grab the aforementioned evil man and finish the matter by carving out his entrails and cutting off his head just as he pleased, and then quickly committing seppuku, the affair would be ended with him seeming to have lost his wits. Thus, there would be no problems or public hearings at the time, the lord’s position would not be threatened, the retainers would all feel at ease, and the domain would be at peace. This would be an act one hundred times greater than junshi, would combine the three virtues of loyalty, righteousness and courage, and would be a model of great loyalty to the warriors of this corrupt age.

…we see that you cant take everything you read in these warrior codes “at face value”.

This passage, on it’s face, is saying that a loyal Samurai would kill one his lords political enemies then kill himself and make it look like he did it while appearing out of his mind. This would be done as a selfless action done out of loyalty to, and for the good of, his lord and his clan; eliminating his lord’s enemy and giving his lord “plausible deniability”.

Thus, from the Bushido Shoshinshu you CAN distill the concept of “loyalty and selfless service” as an inspirational one but you cannot go around cutting the guts out of your bosses enemies. The Samurai lived in a different age, in a different culture and under a vastly different set of rules than our own. I think this illustrates the differences between the wise person who looks for the message behind the words as compared to the “wanna be” Ghost Dog Samurai who believes that these codes can be lived verbatim in our modern times.

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