Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’


The nonverbal elements of communication and perception are highly valued by the Japanese; they prize their ability to grasp the essence of people and things using methods we can only guess at. They call this ability haragei. Yamashita has it. He can cross swords with a complete stranger and know the skill level of his opponent before they’ve begun. You can argue that it has to do with subtle physical clues people give off: a look in the eye, posture, breathing rates. The longer I train, the more I tend to agree. But there’s also more to it than that.

On days when he’s really cooking, it seems as if Yamashita can actually read your mind. What’s scary is not that he knows what you’re going to do before you do, but that he does it by getting inside you somehow.

I’ve experienced hints of it. The feeling is a weird, emotive certainty that washes up from the base of the neck and creeps over your scalp. It is often totally unexpected. And distracting.

John Donohue, Sensei, chapter 7

Any Sensei is a Bit Mercurial at Times

Any sensei is a bit mercurial at times—they do it to keep you guessing. Part of the mystery of a really good martial arts teacher is the way in which you’re perpetually surprised by things, kept just slightly off balance. I had a karate teacher years ago, and every time I thought, OK this guy has shown me just about everything he’s got, he would waltz in and do something I had never seen before. Then he would look at me like he could read my mind.

John Donohue, Sensei, chapter 4

In the Martial Arts, Nobody Owes You Anything

In Japan, white is the color of emptiness and humility. Many of us had started our training in arts like judo or karate, where the uniforms known as gi were traditionally white as a symbol of humility. Most mainline Japanese instructors I knew frowned on the American urge to branch out into personal color statements with their uniforms. The message was clear: a gi is not an expression of individuality. People wanting to make statements should probably rent billboards and avoid Japanese martial arts instructors. They are not focused on your needs. They are concerned only with the pursuit of the Way. You are free to come along. But your presence is not necessary.

You have to get used to that sort of attitude. In the martial arts, nobody owes you anything, least of all your teacher. The assumption is that you are pretty much worthless and lucky to be in the same room with your sensei. You do what he says. You don’t talk back. You don’t ask rude questions. You don’t cop an attitude—that’s the sensei’s prerogative.

Emphasis mine.

John Donohue, Sensei, chapter 2

Dojo Storming

“In the old times…a young warrior would learn all local sensei could teach and then seek out ‘instruction’ at another dojo. A truly skilled fighter could go from school to school, challenging the best students and even the masters.” A sip of air as he paused. “It was known as dojo arashi.”

Dojo storming. I could imagine what it must have been like: hard young men clomping down the packed dirt roads of Japan with battered armor and well-kept weapons slung over their backs. They churned up the miles like hungry predators, hunting down new masters to defeat and new towns to prove themselves in. The good ones earned reputations. The less skilled, in the best of situations, learned to limp away quietly. Sometimes, only their ghosts moaned in phantom processional down midnight crossroads….

John Donohue, Sensei, chapter 17

Care And Feeding Of Swords

I came across this blogpost on the Austin Bujinkan Tanemaki Dojo (Texas, USA):

One paragraph is especially interesting:

Corrosion from perspiration, skin oils, blood, and exposure to the elements are the problems we need to know well. In the case of carbon steel, these culprits can cause severe discoloration and rust very rapidly if neglected. I own swords that literally will rust before your eyes if left un-oiled. During a take giri (bamboo cutting) demonstration my students and I were performing, I had a drop of my perspiration land, unnoticed, on one of my Rapier (thrusting sword) blades. In just a few minutes, I was shocked to see a bright orange spot of rust on my hand-polished sword. This is a very serious problem the martial arts student must know how to combat. Even breathing on an un-oiled sword blade can begin the dreaded process of corrosion. The edge is the thinnest part of a cutting implement and the most vulnerable to neglect. If allowed to rust, a razor-sharp weapon will become dull in a short period of time. Genuine katana [are] famous for their polish and [mirror-like] finish. This is not for merely cosmetic appearance. Steel has microscopic surface irregularities that can collect moisture and corrosive elements. A finely polished blade has smaller irregularities and sheds blood much more easily than an unpolished one. Hence, the more corrosive agents that collect in the pores, the more tarnish and rust will accumulate.

The entire article is worth reading.

The Shield is the Earliest Defensive Armor

The shield is the earliest bit of defensive armor known. Just about everyone used the shield at one time or another. (The Japanese appear to be the only civilized society in which the shield was not in general use at one time or another.) Bronze swords were not designed to be both offensive and defensive weapons, so what happened when someone was caught without a shield is anyone’s guess. But the guy without the shield was in deep trouble. With the shield, the fighting techniques were pretty much the same as they were a thousand years later, though probably a little less refined. This would be due to the type of armor more than lack of knowledge or skill.

Hank Reinhardt, The Book of Swords, p. 20

A Warrior’s Creed

I have no parents—I make the heavens and earth my parents.

I have no home—I make awareness my home.

I have no life and death—I make the tides of breathing my life and death.

I have no divine power—I make honesty my divine power.

I have no means—I make understanding my means.

I have no magic secrets—I make character my magic secret.

I have no body—I make endurance my body.

I have no eyes—I make sensibility my eyes.

I have no limbs—I make promptness my limbs.

I have no strategy—I make ‘unshadowed by thought’ my strategy.

I have no design—I make ‘seizing opportunity by the forelock’ my design.

I have no miracles—I make right-action my miracles.

I have no principles—I make adaptability to all circumstances my principles.

I have no tactics—I make emptiness and fullness my tactics.

I have no talents—I make ready wit my talent.

I have no friends—I make my mind my friend.

I have no enemy—I make carelessness my enemy.

I have no armor—I make benevolence and righteousness my armor.

I have no castle—I make immovable-mind my castle.

I have no sword—I make absence of self my sword.

— Anonymous 14th-century samurai.

Cuirass Versus Lamellar Armor

There were two types of [Japanese] armor: the solid iron cuirass (tankō) and lamellar armor (keikō). The former may have been introduced from Southeast Asia and is seen on many clay figurines of sixth-century [C.E.] fighters. Although it was composed of separate pieces of metal fastened together by leather or bolts, the cuirass permitted little freedom of movement, and lost its popularity after the year 400 [C.E.].

Lamellar armor was of Northeast Asian origin and was the accepted battle wear after 500 [C.E.] because it was lighter than the cuirass and allowed greater mobility. It was especially well-suited for mounted warfare. About 800 pieces of iron went into each suit….

William Wayne Farris, Heavenly Warriors, pp. 19-22

Militant Clergy

A position of importance in the practice of bujutsu, considered by certain authorities comparable to that occupied by the bushi, was held by that interesting figure, the militant monk or priest, who played a relevant role in the history of Japan not only during the late Heian period but throughout those troubled centuries which culminated in the Tokugawa dictatorship. Almost every organized religion has assumed a military posture at some point in its development, especially during those early stages marked by the emergence of man from the shadows of prehistory. Those feelings of wonder and terror inspired by the unknown forces of existence which buffeted man about, reinforced by his survival instinct, all contributed to the highly mystical nature of most national beginnings. Actually, in most cultures, the early kings were also high priests who ruled theocracies wherein a faith in a particular divinity helped the nation to coalesce and establish its foundations, this faith being expressed through rites or through force of arms, or, more usually, through a combination of the two, in forms of combat considered divinely inspired.

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, p. 132

Emphasis mine.

No Match for a Well-Trained Aristocrat

All [medieval Japanese] warriors, regardless of rank, were trained in swordsmanship. Those of the upper ranks, of course, had more time to devote to the pursuit of excellence in this art, and to the pursuit of superior instructors—which explains why a retainer of lower rank, notwithstanding his longer exposure to the hardships of military life, was usually no match for a higher-ranking bushi in a duel. This type of situation…resembles that of Europe during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries [C.E.], when hardened veterans of countless battles were still no match for a well-trained aristocrat with a sword—the noble’s weapon which, with the rise of the bourgeoisie to power at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, became known as the gentleman’s weapon.

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 254-55

Art of Japanese Spear Fighting

Naturally, there were many ryu and many sensei of bujutsu who specialized, often exclusively, in the use of the spear in combat. Famous among the former was the ancient Hozo-in ryu, named after the Hozo monastery where spear fighting was widely practiced. The Shinkage ryu, famed for its skillful swordsmen, also included spear fighting in its program of instruction. According to the literature of bujutsu, an expert spearman trained in any of these schools was studiously avoided not only by single warriors armed with the formidable katana but even by groups of warriors whom he could scatter with an intricate, yet impenetrable and deadly circular dance—his long weapon cutting, thrusting, slashing, and parrying as it cut through the air around him in a series of murderous whorls….

According to the major types of spears, there were two major arts or methods of using them: yarijutsu, the art of the straight spear, and naginatajutsu (or simply naginata), the art of the curved spear. Each art was practiced in accordance with innumerable styles, and there were subspecializations centered upon the use of all the various types of long and short spears and javelins. All shared a substantial number of basic techniques, such as the thrusts (tsuki), strikes (kiri), and parries which, in common with all cutting weapons, were also found in swordsmanship. Postures of readiness, introductory movements, styles of moving in toward an opponent or of sliding out of range of his blade, manners of reaching a target or of evading an attack, varied from school to school and even, within each, from expert to expert….

…In feudal times every part of the yari was used, including the bottom, which was usually capped with a pointed metal head; and that the position of readiness with the spear kept close to the side (in one of the predominant styles) was known as kai-kumi. We also know that several schools taught intricate patterns, high and low (jumonji-yari), in order to be able to strike not only from the front but also with characteristic sweeps directed at the opponent’s rear, while other schools specialized in parrying, hooking, and deflecting techniques known as kagi-yari. Naginatajutsu added to the techniques of the yari those circular cuts particularly appropriate to the curved shape of the naginata.

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 250-253

Emphasis mine.

Japanese Spears: Yari and Naginata

In ancient mythology, Japan was known as "the country of one thousand fine halberds," and very seldom did an illustration of the ancient bushi outfitted for war fail to show him holding his spear—a weapon second in traditional significance only to the bow and arrow….

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, p. 241

In both design and structure, the true Japanese spear (known generally as the yari) was similar to all Japanese blades in the high quality of its tempering, its lightness, and the ease with which it could be maneuvered. The great artists of steel forged these spears for the bushi with the same care and imagination they lavished on his swords. The spear blades were carefully protected by sheaths (a requirement included among military laws of the clans). The shafts (nakae) of these spears came in almost every weight and length imaginable. They were made of excellent wood, carefully seasoned and treated, usually reinforced by and decorated with strips or rings of metal (sujigane) at the points that would be under pressure when leverage was applied or a blow parried.

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, p. 241

Spearheads…were cast of the same high quality steel used for swords and came in many lengths and shapes. They can be divided, however, into three major groups: straight spearheads, curved spearheads, and the variously shaped spearheads. The straight spearhead was the most common. It was double-edged, almost like an abbreviated version of the archaic Japanese sword (ken)….

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, p. 244

At a point of transition between the straight spearhead and the curved spearhead is the blade of the nakamaki, which resembles that famous spear which gained great popularity among the bushi: the naginata, often erroneously referred to in English as a halberd. This term, however…

is a defective translation, for the Japanese naginata (literally, long sword) was not a pole terminating in a battle-axe and spear-head as the English name implies. It was a [scimitar]-like blade, some three feet in length, fixed to a slightly longer haft. Originally, the warlike monks alone employed this weapon, but from the [eleventh century C.E.], when the Minamoto and the Taira clans began their long struggle, the naginata found much favor among the military men, its combined powers of cutting and thrusting being fully recognized.

The blade of the naginata, in fact, was like that of a sword, curved near the point, where its shape became even more pronounced. Stone writes that there were three varieties: the first appears to have been the ancient tsukushi-naginata, the shaft of which was inserted into a metal loop on the back of the blade; the second and most common had the tang or base secured to the shaft; and the third and rarest had a socket at the base into which the shaft was inserted (ta-no-saki). They were all carried appropriately sheathed and their shafts, as might be expected, were heavily lacquered and decorated with metal mountings. The naginata became famous not only because of its tremendous versatility in combat but also because of the many individual schools which developed intricate styles and remarkable proficiency in its use. Certain authors, in fact, even believe that the introduction of protective armor for the legs and the lower part of the body was in answer to the development and lethal use of the naginata….

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 244-247

The third group of spearheads includes a confusing variety of shapes, usually highly specialized. The sasu-mata, for example, was a spear with a forked head and hooks or spikes at its base that could be used to cut and pierce a target not only in front but also returning behind it…. The futamata-yari was also a spear with a forked head, and the magari-yari was a beautiful trident, with the side-blades set at right angles to the central blade, their points turning slightly inward….

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 247-248

All emphasis mine.

Inner Factors of Bujutsu

Sophisticated weapons and complex techniques (the outer factors of bujutsu…), although admittedly impressive, might be compared to the visible part of an iceberg which catches the eye, and often the imagination, but is only a projection of the power hidden below in the depths of the icy waters. Although the possession of a certain weapon and basic training in its functional use often satisfied the individual bujutsu practitioner (bujin) of limited ambition and imagination, there were others, many others, who perceived, beyond those outer factors of the various arts, other, more complex factors, less evident perhaps to the naked eye but no less important in determining the practical efficiency of those weapons and their relative techniques. Failure to perceive these inner factors could prove disastrous, as it did for many a complacent bujin who had been trained only in the technical ways of handling a spear, a sword, or any other weapon, including his own anatomy. Centuries of experience in the ancient art of combat, in fact, had confronted the bujin and his sensei with a series of demanding questions, among which the following were of primary importance: When should an opponent be engaged? How was he (as well as oneself) to be controlled? What type of energy was to be used, and how employed to the best advantage? Finally, what was to be the bujin‘s motivation? All these considerations involved factors of a decidedly interior nature which activated the techniques of bujutsu from within, provided them with an effective source of power, and justified their use in a manner calculated to provide the bujin with controlled determination, calmness, and clarity of purpose, as well as with a moral justification to sustain him in combat. Bujutsu masters confronted these interrogatives (and others), explored their range and depth, and tried to provide satisfactory answers for themselves and their disciples.

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, p. 375

Emphasis mine.

This is the kind of sensei I see—and attempt to role-play—Xenograg as.

The Bow Was the Chief Weapon in Japanese Warfare

For centuries, the bow and arrow was "the chief weapon of the fighting man in Japan". Even after the introduction of firearms and the extended period of enforced peace under the Tokugawa [Shogunate] had greatly reduced its strategic relevance, archery was still considered a noble art. Known generally as shagei (accomplishment in archery) or, more specifically, as kyujutsu (the art, or technique, of the bow), it was a fully developed art with a complex system of practices and techniques, an initially wide variety of styles which slowly merged into a few major ones, and a deep theory linking the art to the very birth of the Japanese nation. Inspired as it was by the mystical, esoteric dimension of that culture, it is not surprising to learn that, in the twelfth century [C.E.]…"people in high positions were delighted when their ability as archery was acclaimed but made every endeavor to have their prowess with the sword hushed up."

Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, p. 226

Emphasis mine.