“…The movement patterns here are typical of Japanese as opposed to Chinese styles of unarmed fighting—the Japanese think of the torso as a cylinder that should be kept upright when fighting. The Chinese are a bit more flexible….”
— Tengu, Chapter 10
Narrator:That year, at dawn of the twenty-first day of the tenth month—the month without gods—the main armies clashed. It was in the mountains near Sekigahara, astride the North Road. By late afternoon, Toranaga had won the battle and the slaughter began.Forty thousand heads were taken.
— “Shōgun” (1980)
The year is 1600 C.E.
The book and television mini-series are a fictionalized account of the events leading up to this historical battle which de facto unified Japan.
Katsumoto:…You do not fear death, but sometimes you wish for it. Is this not so?Algren:Yes.Katsumoto:I, also. It happens to men who have seen what we have seen. And then I come to this place of my ancestors, and I remember: like these blossoms, we are all dying. To know life in every breath. Every cup of tea. Every life we take.The Way of the Warrior.Algren:(whispers) Life in every breath….Katsumoto:That is Bushidō.
— “The Last Samurai” (2003)
To touch another’s weapon, or to come into collision with the sheath, was a dire offense, and to enter a friend’s house without leaving the sword outside was a breach of friendship. Those whose position justified the accompaniment of an attendant invariably left the sword in his charge at the entrance or, if alone, it was usually laid down at the entrance. If removed inside, it was invariably done by the host’s servants, and then not touched with the bare hand, but with a silk napkin kept for the purpose, and the sword was placed upon a sword-rack in the place of honor near the guest and treated with all the politeness due to an honored visitor who would resent a discourtesy. The long sword, if two were worn, was withdrawn, sheathed, from the girdle with the right hand—an indication of friendship, as it could not be drawn and used thus—never by the left hand, or placed on the left side, except when in immediate danger of attack. To exhibit a naked weapon was a gross insult, unless a gentleman wished to show his friends his collection. To express a wish to see a sword was not usual, unless a blade of great value was in question, when a request to be shown it would be a compliment the happy possessor appreciated….
— The Overlook Martial Arts Reader, pp. 44-45
It may be that all this training is paying off. I went home that night uneasy: I felt some sort of psychic barometric shift taking place. It was not a good thing. The Japanese describe seme as the type of pressure and intimidation a master swordsman can force on a lesser opponent, without seeming to do anything. It’s unseen but nonetheless real. I had that sense of something pushing against me, probing my weaknesses.
— Sensei, chapter 10
Conventional martial training did not follow a common structure throughout [feudal] Japan; every clan had its own methodology and philosophy. Many clans had certain individual soldiers serve as group teachers, working with younger, newer troops. As a comparison the modern army, where new recruits learn from more experienced veterans on a fairly informal basis, is a similar system.
Some clans actually took the next step, establishing formal dōjō, or martial arts schools, to provide instruction to their men. Veterans of many campaigns, whose skill had been noted, would serve as instructors. This became their duty, and they lived to perfect their skills. They were more like drill instructors training recruits rather than modern teachers of martial arts. These sensei were teaching their charges how to kill and survive, not how to score points with flair and panache.
The philosophies that became a major part of martial arts as we now know them may have been in place, but only nominally. The subject of instruction was tricks and strategies to be used in defeating the enemy, not inner peace and self-control.
Another unusual martial art still practised in small numbers is armoured wrestling. Grappling with the enemy while in full gear is very different from conventional wrestling, and it needed practice. Related techniques included seizing and dismounting a rider while passing him.
All samurai had duties and were paid stipends, and from this they had to buy whatever of their equipment wasn’t issued and furnish their household (if they had one). The basis for the economy was rice, and a unit of rice that could feed a man for a year, called a koku, was the universal measure of wealth. Fiefs and estates were described in the terms of how many koku of rice they produced. One koku is 120 litres. The lowest samurai received a little less than a koku (assuming his meals were all on his lord’s estate’s books).
Middling lords, and castle commanders, might receive a stipend of several hundred koku, and with that he had to pay the samurai in his service, supply his garrison, feed his horses, pay his servants, etc. For convenience sake, hard cash was used to make payments, but ultimately it was a rice-based economy. Even the Takeda of Kai, who sat on the most valuable gold mines in the nation, needed rice to feed their soldiers.
For the Japanese, all things have a spiritual essence. And the power and beauty of swords make them a locus of strange energy. Folktales tell of swords that hum to warn their masters of danger, that leap of their own accord to battle. Of swords that can make a warrior great or that can drive the bearer mad.
— Tengu, Chapter 7
The daisho, the two swords of the old samurai, are emblematic in many ways of the art Yamashita follows. They are a melding of esthetics and functionality, highly refined products of master artisans whose ultimate purpose is savage beyond description. I’ve seen their use firsthand, and wondered how such danger can be contained—or justified. Once I had asked my teacher this question. His eyes narrowed and the answer was brief. “Discipline,” Yamashita told me. “And wisdom.”
It’s a hard path to walk.
— Tengu, Chapter 7
In structure, each [Japanese] clan consisted of a central, dominating house or family, which gave the clan its name, and various affiliated units known as tomo or be. Other categories of subjects also appear, confusedly, in the records, between those two classes of clansmen and the serfs or slaves known as jakko at the very bottom of the ladder (who bore no family name). All were subject to the power of a headman (uji-no-osa), who was the absolute and undisputed leader and master of the clan….
The clan, as a primary social unit, had achieved self-sufficiency through the cultivation of its own rice paddies and the production of its own artifacts, textiles, agricultural instruments, and, naturally, weapons. From the very beginning, the history of these clans was not one of peaceful coexistence. The archaic weapons found in the mounds and dolmens of the period from 250 [B.C.E.] to 560 [C.E.] indicate that, as was true during every other national age of formation, warfare was the predominant condition….
— Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 39-40
“The selection of a primary disciple is not an easy thing. It is often marked by blood.”
Yamashita looked at me significantly. The founder of his style, Ittosai, dealt with this issue centuries ago and had left his successors through the generations a ruthless model. The master, blessed with two remarkable students of apparently equal skill, had brought them together. He had placed the scrolls of the style and the document of succession on the ground, along with a ceremonial sword. Then he had calmly informed the two disciples that the individual who left the room alive would be his successor.
— Sensei, Epilogue
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.
— Sensei, chapter 7
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.
— Sensei, chapter 4
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.
— Sensei, chapter 2
“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….
— Sensei, chapter 17
A dojo is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves—our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully. It is a place where we can learn a great deal in a short time about who we are and how we react in the world. The conflicts that take place inside the dojo help us handle conflicts that take place outside. The total concentration and discipline required to study martial arts carries over to daily life. The activity in the dojo calls on us to constantly attempt new things, so it is also a source of learning—in Zen terminology, a source of self-enlightenment.
— Zen in the Martial Arts, p. 4
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.
Thank the gods for the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, else I could not have linked to the source blogpost.
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.
— The Book of Swords, p. 20
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….
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….
— 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.
— 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)….
— 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….
— 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….
— Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 247-248
All emphases mine.