Friday, 23 March 2018

A Pointed Story – Saigo's dog's ears

Statue of Saigo Takamori in Ueno Park.
From a print by Watanabe Nobuzazu (1899)
The whole print may be seen here.

The Year of the Dog (2018) is already well underway as I write this, but alas, there seems to be little evidence of that principle feature of the dog’s personality, loyalty, in public affairs. Perhaps this is part of the popularity of heroes who seem to rise above the 'swamp' of realpolitik.

Japan has had a long and conflicted relationship with dogs (and, indeed, with the concept of loyalty) varying from using them as target practice for inuoumono, a form of mounted archery (the arrows were blunted, so the dogs survived)... the edicts of the Tokugawa Shogun Tsunayoshi, who forbade the taking of animal life (Edicts on Compassion for Living Things issued from the 1690's), and had a huge kennels built for 20,000+ dogs outside the walls of Edo Castle.

The typical image of a dog nowadays is that of the shiba inu; a little on the small side, slightly foxy, smart-looking and attentive. This is only a comparatively recent development, however. It was not so long ago that dogs became a small but hotly contested area of nationalism – the relatively new Japanese nation needed to show its spirit through its canine friends. A quick look at the Japanese breed standards for the shiba inu still has a whiff of this:
A spirited boldness, a good nature, and an unaffected forthrightness, which together yield dignity and natural beauty.

Speaking of former symbols of nationalism, 2018 is also the year of the Taiga drama ‘Sego-don,’ about the life of Saigo Takamori – perhaps a good choice for this year as he was renowned for his loyalty and strength of spirit, and was strongly associated with his own dogs, especially his favourite, Tsun.

 The confusing title comes from the way ‘Saigo dono’ (dono is an honorific) was/is pronounced in Saigo’s local Kagoshima dialect – Sego don. Note also the Mt Fuji-shaped hat

But back to the dog. Saigo was fond of dogs, keeping several. His favourite, by all accounts, was Tsun – a black and white floppy-eared foreign breed. These characteristics are clearly seen in early depictions of the dog, such as this one by Yoshitoshi (1888), eleven years after the death of Saigo.

By the time the statue was built, Saigo had been thoroughly co-opted by nationalist interests, and it was felt that a floppy eared dog did not look Japanese enough. An early version was criticised for looking like a mongrel or too Chinese. Flying in the face of fact and common-knowledge, it was suggested to the sculptor, Gotō Sadayuki, that he change the ears to make them pointed, as a good Japanese dog’s ears should be. This is the image that has stuck in popular culture, and I fear NHK will be no different.
Statue of Saigo Takamori, Ueno Park, Tokyo by
Takamura Koun and Gotō Sadayuki) (1898)

Takamura Koun, with a hat remarkably
similar to Segodon's.

Both men were remarkably skilled sculptors (Takamura was particularly well-known), and their Saigo is not among their best works. Their Kusunoki Masashige, which stands outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, is far more dynamic and assured. (Once again, the horse was by Gotō – he was famous for his horses, with two other sculptors responsible for the sword and the armour).

Kusunoki Masashige (1904)

Takamura's small pieces, particularly of animals, also have a charm which is absent from the Saigo statue. Head of the woodworking department of Tokyo School of Fine Arts, he was also appointed as an artist of the Imperial household. One of his most famous pieces is Aged Monkey, which was exhibited at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Sharp eyes might also spot that Saigo's attire is very 'Japanese' in the statue, in contrast to Yoshitoshi's print. There may have been considerations in the sculptor's mind of what looked more heroic or suitable for such a statue in aesthetic terms, but I can't help feeling that there was something purposeful in choosing to go without the western-style shirt and collar as shown in the slightly earlier print by Yoshitoshi. The choice was also something of a shock to Saigo's widow, Itoko, who remarked on it when the statue was unveiled.

When the statue was finally uncovered, revealing the image, Itoko emitted a sudden shriek.  “It looks nothing like my husband,” she exclaimed.  She was immediately silenced and later reprimanded by Tsugumichi, out of regard for the “feelings of those many people who went to such trouble and expense to produce the statue.”  But Itoko would never overcome here embarrassment at the statue’s informal attire “for all the world to see” – because in life Saigo “was a man of the utmost decorum” who would have worn the formal “hakama and haori bearing the family crest, or a military uniform.” 
(From Samurai Tales: Courage, Fidelity, and Revenge in the Final Years of the Shogun, Romulus Hillsborough, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Pub., 2010.)

But popular images evolve over time, and Saigo's, despite several notable inaccuracies, (I know the dog's ears are not really important) long ago became a legend.

An enlightening article dealing with some of these issues can be found at:

Friday, 13 October 2017

Hojo Tokimune - The Lions' Roar

Kamakura Period (the time of Hojo Tokimune
and the Mongol Invasions) kara shishi (courtesy
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The lion, of course, is not native to Japan, or anywhere in East Asia, come to that. The stories and imagery were brought along the Silk Road from western Asia, and preserved (principally) in the teachings of Buddhism.

It seems that the aspects of strength, courage and righteousness, in particular, came to be the defining aspects of the lion in Japan – similar, indeed, to how lions were viewed in the west. Rather than being associated chiefly with the ruling powers (eagles and tigers have that distinction) it kept its associations with Buddhism. There is some crossover, however. Most notable is the case of Hojo Tokimune, the defacto ruler of Japan at the time of the Mongol invasions.

Hojo Tokimune, depicted as a Zen Abbot
Tokimune was an early adherent and supporter of Zen - an influential one, given his position – despite the fact that he died quite young. On hearing of the second Mongol invasion, he went for an audience with his teacher, the Chinese priest Mugaku Sogen (posthumously awarded the title Bukko Kokushi).

'The hour of my trial is now at hand,' declared Tokimune.
'How will you respond?' replied Sogen, at which Tokimune replied with a mighty 'Katsu!' (the shout used in Rinzai Zen to demonstrate understanding, and also, if taken literally, the Japanese for victory or 'I will win'.
Sogen replied, 'It is true that the son of a lion roars as a lion.'

D.T. Suzuki says more about Tokimune, comparing him to Yunmen's golden haired lion, directing operations against the Mongol invasions from Kamakura, hundreds of miles from the action. He expresses his admiration for his ability as a leader during this time of crisis (which lasted over 10 years), and his ability to take upon his shoulders the responsibility for the whole country. This not only required great understanding, but also great application, and was a demonstration of his spirituality (whatever that is), as that is the characteristic that underlies understanding. Suzuki had a tendency to hagiography and was a tireless proselytizer for Zen – his writing was very much of his time, but it contains points of interest, too.
Manjusri riding the Golden-Haired Lion
(Muromachi period)

The golden-haired lion was an image used by Fazang, a patriarch of the Hua Yen school of Buddhism, to illustrate the relationship of form (a lion statue) to principle (the gold from which it is made). The lion's body is embodied in each hair - an infinity of infinities. Suzuki, as he often did, neglects to mention the origin, but relates it directly to Zen -Yunmen (J. Ummon) referred to the golden lion in one of his koans. (Fazang predated Yunmen by 200 years).

Suzuki's point, I suppose, is that Tokimune's complete awareness was present in each of his duties. To be realistic, it is worth pointing out that commentators have noted that Tokimune's role was probably much less vital than is often made out - several of his advisors played crucial roles, but we must give Suzuki credit here, as he was probably not aware of this.

More on Mugaku Sogen

An example of Sogen's calligraphy (Courtesy of Tokiwayama
Bunko Foundation)
Sogen was a man of parts, an accomplished calligrapher and painter, known for his courage and self-possession, which seems to have matched well with the spirit of the bushi.

He was 'head-hunted' from China after the first Mongol invasion, and it is quite possible that he was chosen as a result of the famous incident in which he outfaced the Mongols who came to his temple to slaughter the priests. He was found alone by a Mongol warrior. According to the story, he either composed a four line poem or calmly wrote it as the warrior stood, sword ready. Impressed, the warrior left him alone.
The poem has become quite well known, and the last line, 'A flash of lightning in the shadows, a sword cutting the spring wind' became associated with an indifference to death. Yamaoka Tesshu chose it as a name for his dojo, Shumpukan (shumpu is spring wind; kan is hall), and I have also seen it written on a flag of a kamikaze pilot - the historical connection being very appropriate, I suppose.
The poem in full goes:
  Throughout heaven and earth there is not a piece of ground where a single stick could be inserted;

  I am glad that all things are void, myself and the world:

  Honored be the sword, three feet long, wielded by the great Yüan swordsmen;
  For it is like cutting a spring breeze in a flash of lightning.

(It may be noted in passing that this was a reworking of a much earlier poem (c.414 C.E.) by Seng Chao, who composed the poem below while in jail, waiting for execution.
He was, indeed, executed:

The four elements essentially have no master.
The five shadows are fundamentally empty.
The naked sword will sever my head
as though cutting the spring breeze. 

This takes nothing away from Mugaku's work, as Chinese poetry was an art that made much use of borrowing from older works. Mugaku's poem was, in turn, used by the noted monk and poet Sesson Yubai as the basis for a poem when he found himself in extremis.

Tokimune was particularly concerned with the question of fear, and Sogen set him the question 'Where is my fear located?' as a koan. His response, as Sogen indicated may be seen as a kind of 'Lion's Roar', a term which goes back to the very origins of Buddhism, denoting the truth of the teachings of the Buddha and his disciples. Sogen was to use the image of the roaring lion again in his death poem:

A lion appears before ten billion ignorant fools
The lion roars before the ten billion ignorant fools

Torei Enti
Hossu with the
verse mentioned

Once again, this provided fodder for at least one later poet, the monk Torei Enji (1721-1792), a pupil of Hakuin. His rather witty take was this:

A million ignorant fools
A million lions appear 

But of all Sogens's verse, I like the following best:

The bow is shattered; the arrows are all gone.
At this critical moment 
Cast aside all doubt.
Shoot without the slightest delay.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Fantastic Beast - Rosetsu's Kara-shishi

Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799)(?)

The shishi (or karashishi), the lion of Japanese art, is a mysterious beast. It is half mythological, often brightly coloured – typically blue or green – and has deep associations with Buddhism and Shinto. The guardians on either side of shrine entrances are normally shishi, or sometimes a shishi paired with a koma-inu (Korean dog or lion dog). In this case, the koma-inu will have its mouth closed and also sports a single, unicorn-like horn. The koma-inu looks quite leonine, and there is not much to tell between the two, probably because they evolved from the statues of lions in front of Buddhist temples in India, a custom which arrived in Japan and was transferred to shrines.

In Buddhism, they have the connotation of justice, and the strength to see that justice is done. They are also protectors of the Buddhist law. Their anger is proverbial, and I have seen the term shishi fundo (lion's rage) equated with techniques in budo that particularly utilise force and ferocity. As a motif, it was utilise by the Kano school most notably Kano Eitoku and later Kano Sanraku, to underline the majesty of their patrons. Unlike the tiger, however, which had whole rooms devoted to it in several decorative schemes, (Nijo Castle, Manshu-in, Nanzen-ji, Nagoya Castle, to name a few) I am not aware of any similar schemes involving shishi.

Kano Eitoku (1543-1590)'s lordly shishi

Their depiction was generally quite stylised, and rather than ferocity, typical depictions appear playful, as in these paintings by Kano Tanshin (the son of Kano Tanyu) and Hokusai.

This work by Nagasawa Rosetsu is quite another thing.

The writer Maruyama Kenji in a column in the Nikkei Shinbun newspaper (Jan. 22 2016) was also struck by it. He had this to say:

This should not be. Although you thought you had renounced your showy displays of anger, in the light of the full moon your dark and ferocious glare shows your confusion. After such total dedication, you did not abandon yourself to quiet madness or lose yourself in painful struggle – that it’s not a look of barbaric rashness or cold anger is proof of this. In the chaos of a society returned to ruin, your eyes shine with the light of justice, to see right done by whatever means possible, even at the cost of your life. Showing your determination to save those who had no choice in their upbringing, cowed by the threats that hung over them, you symbolise readiness to confront an old enemy on behalf of individual freedom. That is the kind of look it is. If not, your glance would not strike home in the breasts of those who have lapsed from mere vulgarity, attracted by the charm of appearances, and whose minds are now poisoned by hedonism. Forceful and revitalising, filled with the power to return to life, showing the supreme authority that lies only within yourself – a look that is open and true.
(my translation)

The broad, fierce brushstrokes depict the furious intensity of the beast very differently from how it is usually shown. It is also quite different from anything else of of Rosetsu's. I was surprised to learn that it was his when I first saw it, and only found out as I was writing this that there is some doubt as to whether it was actually painted by him (see here for more) – the gold leaf was certainly a later addition (Rosetsu's teacher, Maruyama Okyo had some works that suffered similarly) and the signature has been added at a later date (over the gold leaf and an original signature). Particularly unusual is the strength of emotion in the work, something that obviously struck Maruyama Kenji. Comparing it with Eitoku's work (above) it is almost exactly the same pose as the left-hand shishi – it is interesting to think that it may be a direct reworking from that original model. It would be nice to think it was genuine, but even if not, it is an impressive work, and painting it may have given the artist the means to enthuse his work with greater feeling than a more traditional rendering would have allowed.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Happy 300th, Jakuchu

I remember being told once - by an art teacher, speaking in the way that cultural pedants often do, that Ito jakuchu was popular with westerners because he was easy to understand, while 'real' Japanese appreciated a more unique expression of their cultural heritage.

If we put aside the fact that Jakuchu was one of the most popular painters of his time, (although it is also true that his name and works were rescued from obscurity partly through the efforts of the American art collector, Joe Price), the number of visitors at the show of Jakuchu's work, Jakuchu and Kyoto, that was on at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art from November to December of this year, certainly puts the lie to that assertion.

Numbered or timed ticketting has not been adopted here, so if you want to visit a popular exhibition, you take your chances and line up (if you're unlucky) or otherwise shuffle round at a dismal speed with the crowds, or flit around some metres away from the glass, hoping to find a gap that allows more than a glimpse of the works.

 Although I didn't have to queue, this was the most crowded exhibition I have been to for a long time, and so I opted for the latter.

I flitted past the rows of chickens and cranes and concentrated on just a couple of works - mainly just one, in fact , Elephant and Whale, which I had never seen in the flesh before, and which was the main reason for my visit.

Jakuchu may fairly be calleds a master of ink - the effects he could obtain through brushwork, both careful and dynamic, and with variations in the type of ink itself, make the term 'monochrome' a misnomer. This  painting is a good example: although it is executed in shades of ink, to say it is black and white or grey is not an adequate description. The ink has produced a warm and glowing surface that is as alive or perhaps even more so, than his coloured works.

On the left of the pair of six leaved screens the dark form of a whale ploughs through the sea, the smooth line of it's back visible against the wave forms so distinctive of Jakuchu - a powerful jet of water blasts upwards, disappearing out of the picture, to be answered by the trumpetting call of the elephant in the other screen (or at least, a friendly-looking wave of its trunk). Between them lies the sea, like a snowy wasteland.

Indeed, visually, it is very much like a field of snow, gently undulating pale greys, a neutral field on which the action is set. Anyone familiar with Jakuchu's work will be aware of the amount of detail he could cram into his pictures; however, his black and white works tended to leave the background white. Yet this blankness served as a field on which the imagination may project the background he did not paint himself, like an afterimage. His larger works, typically, do not use this approach. Perhaps he judged the size was too great, and perhaps he sought to avoid the deadening effect of such large patches being left unfilled. In fact, his larger works often show extreme attention to enlivening the background, for preserving it as a living field, showing an almost tactile concern with what might otherwise be 'dead space'. This is most evident in his mosaic inspired and 'pointillist' works. While being less satisfying as paintings, this aspect is very much in evidence, and The Elephant and Whale seems, in a less defined (and less exacting way) to follow suit.

Close up of the waves in the 'Whale'
Jakuchu's later works seemed to lose none of the dynamism of his earlier years, perhaps because he came into his own as a painter sometime in his forties, but uncharacteristic traces of underpainting and overlap in brushstrokes may be seen in the left hand (whale) screen. This is always interesting, as it allows the viewer a better idea of the artist's process of working. In smaller pieces, there is almost no sign of the initial lines drawn in pale ink - they have been covered over precisely by subsequent painting, leaving only what the artist wanted to be seen.

This cannot be seen as a lessening of the artist's powers – the fine work on the right hand screen, including the elephants eye and the leaves above its head, show as perfect a degree of control as any of his earlier pieces – the roughness on the whale side is something else, perhaps an expression of the raw power of the leviathan.

Whales are not often depicted in Japanese art - Jakuchu painted at least one other version of this screen himself – an entry for a 1928 catalogue of the Osaka Art Club includes this picture:

I have also seen a small version of the whale by one of his admirers/pupils. I think Jakuchu touches something quite deep with his painting, perhaps mores than many of his other works, and is well worth making the time to seek out and enjoy.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Living Confucianism – a daimyo's iaijutsu

The actor Amachi Shigeru receiving instruction in
Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Yamauchi-ha

Virtually any field of human endeavour and achievement is influenced by more than just the need for practicality. It is this aspect, the human and cultural dimension that, as much as anything else, has shaped and distinguished the different styles of classical martial arts. The wants and needs of societies as well as individuals leave their marks on each style, and these may be quite different how we imagine them.

It is axiomatic in the world of Japanese martial arts that ‘if the kokoro (mind) is not correct, the sword will not be correct’. While kokoro (and mind, for that matter) is a term that is open to many interpetations, let us take it , in this case, as being ‘attitude’ or ‘way of thinking’. This, of course, begs the question, What is the correct attitude?

The answer may not be as simple as it seems, and the dimensions that it touches may be the reason that, on and off, so much of the discourse on martial arts has been flavoured with large helpings of philosophy, mysticism and spirituality. While in some ryu-ha this tends towards the religious (especially in those schools which maintain a close connection with particular shrines and/or deities); in others, it is more philosphically or morally inclined. This connection seems to date from early in the development in swordsmanship, although given the prominence of religion in medieval societies, this is not surprising.

In modern budo, the aspect of moral/spiritual training has continued, with disciplines such as kendo and kyudo stating their aim as being a honing of the human spirit by using martially flavoured practice as a tool. (It must be admitted that this may not be readily apparent to the casual observer).

It is rare, however, to see these influences addressed explicitly and lucidly by advanced practitioners of a pre-modern style in any more than a cursory way, in English, at least, which is why it can be so interesting when they do appear.

One such work is ‘Muso-Jikiden Eishin Ryu. The Iai Forms and Oral Traditions of the Yamauchi Branch’ by Yamakoshi Masaki, Tsukimoto Kazutake and translated by Steven Trenson. Although I have no connection with this style, I found it shed some valuable light on the aims and functions of this ryu-ha, recognizing its place in a society that had moved on from the age of war but still found value in the old practices.

Muso-Jikiden Eishin Ryu – what’s it all about?
What is interesting about this ryu-ha is that it was an elite practice, used by members of the Yamauchi Family (the daimyo of Tosa, in Shikoku – also famous as the birthplace of Sakamoto Ryoma, who did not practice this style) and higher ranking members of the administration. It was deeply Neo-Confucian in nature, and represented this philosophy in its theory of practice. Interestingly, it was well aware of the need for the discipline to provide more than skill at arms, especially for members of  a class whose duties were largely bureaucratic rather than military. If anything, it appeared to look down on such a simplistic view of sworsmanship. Indeed, compared with the ‘way’ of governing, or of service to one’s lord, the ‘way’ of swordsmanship, and of any craft or skill, was generally regarded as being of lesser value. The ability to govern a domain or command an army were of far more importance than the ability to wield a sword. However, they were not entirely unconnected.

The bushi of the Edo period were the heads of society, and they took their role seriously. For them, the idea of a virtuous government and leading by example were important: learning necessarily included the cultivation of moral virtue. Iaijutsu embodied this attitude, and it also provided a pedagogic framework.

While for normal folk, moral virtue meant following rules – rules that supposedly embodied the Principle of the Universe (or the Dao), for the higher ranks there was more to it. The practice of iaijutsu ‘provided the attitude and method of how to cultivate, by themselves, the necessary virtues to fulfil their duties.’ Following the Neo-Confucian teaching of kakubutsu-chichi, which can be rather ponderously translated as the expansion of knowledge of the inherent principles of phenomena attaining to the principle of the universe. In other words, in order to understand this principle, you have to know as much as you can about, well, just about everything. In terms of iaijutsu, this meant not only questioning the principles inherent in the forms, but also reflection on the purposes of practice itself.

Beyond this, was the method of contemplation, which was, indeed, the primary method of cultivation in iaijutsu. Shuitsu-muteki, not wandering off, referred to an awareness involving all the senses and faculties rather than a single-minded attention, in the same way that you would notice who had come into a room while you were watching television. The purpose of this was to gradually calm the mind and allow one’s true, which is to say good, benevolent, nature to come to the fore.

Kashima Shinto Ryu iai

Certain practices, (such as tameshigiri) are not included in the school because they work against this process. By promoting a sense of satisfaction in one’s cutting performance, one is increasing the passions that surround your true nature, thus making it that much more difficult to allow it to surface. The nature of test cutting itself was also though to be deleterious to character building, and could lead to a cold, cruel character. Indeed, a danger was seen in the development of technical skills if they were not accompanied by a corresponding moral and intellectual growth.

Of course, the devil is in the details, but even from this cursory view, this gives us some insight into how the martial arts might have been viewed by their practitioners during the Edo period – perhaps in a very different way from how we imagine tham to have been.  The authors note that the aim of iaijutsu was to help a practitioner understand the meaning of his or her own life and not to retreat from responsibilities, thus embodying the dictum ‘First know, then act.’