Thursday, 26 November 2015

Ryoma – in the news again

Sakamoto Ryoma seems to exert an endless fascination on the Japanese public, and I have to admit that he seems one of the more likable characters of the Bakumatsu period. Recently a discovery was made which adds a little more historical evidence to his story – a mokuroku from the Hokushin Itto ryu which  attests to his skill in naginata. It does not seem to be a particularly high level qualification, but that does not, in itself, mean very much – other records could easily have been lost following his death. Before leaving Tosa for Edo, he studied the Oguri ryu under Hineno Benji, and documentation for this is held by the Kyoto National Museum.

Sakamoto swordsmanship scroll declared authentic
 NOV 9, 2015 
KYOTO – A swordsmanship scroll issued to legendary samurai Sakamoto Ryoma has been declared authentic by an expert at the Kyoto National Museum, confirming he was indeed a master swordsman.
Despite Sakamoto’s deadly reputation, his true prowess with the sword had often been debated by experts.
Born in 1836 (1835 on the Julian calendar) in what is known today as Kochi Prefecture, Sakamoto played a prominent role in modernizing the national government in the turbulent 1860s. He is often portrayed in novels and TV dramas and is considered a national hero.
The scroll, measuring roughly 18 cm wide and 2.7 meters long, recognizes the mastery of “the art of war using a long-handled sword in the Hokushin Itto-ryu style” and is dated the first month of Ansei 5, which may mean January 1858. It states that it was issued to Sakamoto by his master, Chiba Sadakichi.
Teiichi Miyakawa, head of the registration and image archives department at Kyoto National Museum and an expert in Sakamoto lore, confirmed the scroll’s authenticity, noting the presence of a Big Dipper, the school’s symbol, and its striking similarity to other images of the constellation on other scrolls issued by the school, then based in Edo, the old name for Tokyo.
“It is a document representing Sakamoto’s swordsmanship studies in Edo and proves the high skills of Sakamoto, who was known as a great swordsman,” Miyakawa said at a news conference Saturday at the Kyoto National Museum.
The roll, owned by the Actland history theme park in Konan, Kochi Prefecture, describes 21 types of swordfighting techniques and has a list of names that includes Chiba Shusaku, founder of Hokushin Itto-ryu, and Chiba Jutaro, a son of master Sadakichi.
Also on the list is Chiba Sana, a daughter of Sadakichi who was rumored to have been in love with Sakamoto during his stint at the Hokushin Itto-ryu dojo.

Actland Director Akio Kitamura said the scroll will be put on display at the museum starting Friday.
Japan Times

The Big Dipper (Hokuto Shichisei) was an emblem of the school. The Hokushin or North Star, from which the school's name derived, was the emblem of the Chiba Clan, and represented the Myoken Bosatsu, who is associated with both the Big Dipper and the North Star.

Chiba Sano

As mentioned in the article, Ryoma was enrolled at the dojo of Chiba Sadakichi, the brother of Chiba Shusaku (who founded the style) and father of Jutaro, with whom Ryoma was apparently good friends, and Sano, to whom Ryoma was engaged (in a matrimonial sense). Although he later married Oryu, who saved his life in Kyoto, alerting him to the attack on the Teradaya and so allowing him enough time to prepare to repel the attackers and escape(for a first hand account, see here).

Ryoma was pragmatic when it came to his sword skills (and much else, it seems). He favored a short sword as being easier to wield in the close fighting that was common in those days, he also carried a Smith and Wesson revolver. This sword, made by Mutsu no kami Yoshiyuki, will shortly be on display at Kyoto National Museum as part of an exhibition of swords. As you can see from the picture below, it has very little curve, as was common in the swords of that period.

Ryoma's Yoshiyuki

He also owned several other swords, including a short sword which is currently on display (for the first time in 86 years) in the Ryoma Museum in Kochi.

Ryoma to be shown for first time in 86 years

October 18, 2015

KOCHI--Long out of the public eye, a “wakizashi” (short Japanese sword) that belonged to renowned mid-19th century samurai Sakamoto Ryoma will be displayed here for the first time since being shown in Tokyo in 1929.
The sword, whose blade is 52.3 centimeters long, will be featured at the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum here from Nov. 1 to Jan. 3 as part of an exhibition now under way.
Ryoma (1835-1867) played a key role in the transfer of power from the Tokugawa Shogunate to the Meiji government in the closing years of the Edo Period (1603-1867). The wakizashi was said to be a favorite of the fabled samurai.
After Ryoma's assassination in Kyoto in 1867, the sword was passed down to the Sakamoto family’s seventh head, Yataro. Yataro's third son, who is currently living in Hokkaido, has kept possession of it over the years. However, among the public, its whereabouts was unknown for many years though its existence was known through photos and other means.
In June this year, a member of the Sakamoto family living in Kochi donated a collection of materials to the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum. In the materials, Yukie Maeda, 57, a senior curator, discovered the list of exhibits Yataro wrote to present the 1929 exhibition. Part of the program read, “This sword is one that Ryoma particularly loved.”
The sword was also shown at an exhibition in Kyoto in 1916. The program for the exhibition read, “This sword was carried by an infant.”
“The process in which this sword reached Ryoma is unknown. But there is a possibility that he always had the sword with him since his childhood,” Maeda said.
The sword contains the kanji characters of “Katsumitsu,” “Munemitsu” and “Eishoninen Hachigatsu Kichijitsu” in its “nakago” portion, which is the inside of the hilt. Katsumitsu and Munemitsu are names of talented sword craftsmen of Bizenosafune (current Okayama Prefecture), a major production area of Japanese swords in medieval Japan. Eishoninen Hachigatsu Kichijitsu implies “a lucky day in August 1505.”

The ongoing exhibition, which includes about 80 items, is titled, “Ryoma no Yoki Rikaisha ‘Sakamotoke-Kazoku no Kizuna’ ” (Bond of Sakamoto family that understands Ryoma well).

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Through the Tearoom Window - on the aesthetics of tea

Tea as 'culture' - a poster advertising travel to Kyoto.

The tea ceremony as reflected in the photographer's eye – calm, severe beauty – a single image that conjures up a whole aesthetic, or even a whole culture…But this is not quite the aesthetic of tea. It is the aesthetic of the designer, the graphic artist. For tea, the aesthetic is only part of the story, but as an outsider, it is the part I will consider here.

I must start with an admission – I am not an aficionado of tea, but exploring the world of Japanese art and aesthetics, before long, you find yourself coming back to it. Since the end of the Momoyama period, back in the late 16th century, through to the modern day, it has attracted the powerful and the aesthetically minded, and continues to offer fascination as a window onto this culture as something peculiarly Japanese (although one should be aware that it has been promoted in just such a role in the post-war period).

As 2015 is the 400th anniversary of the death of Furuta Oribe, the daimyo tea master who succeeded Rikyu, and like him, was forced to commit seppuku, there is a surprising richness of tea utensils on display this year.

It is too rich a subject to do it full justice, but there are certain points that make it interesting, even if one is not overly enamored with the spirit of wabi-sabi and the performance of the ceremony itself.

The tea ceremony as it is practiced today in all its major variations is centred around this concept which gained popularity from Rikyu – and gave its name to the tea he practised – wabi-cha. Wabi, together with a related term, sabi, are key to the aesthetic promoted by Rikyu, and has continued ever since. They are explained well in this excerpt from the omotesenke webpage:

The unique atmosphere and environment of chanoyu are often called 'wabi and sabi'. They refer to a tranquil and serene world, and an elegant simplicity of environment.
This calm and somehow lonely condition, or the taste for elegant simplicity which is a denial of colouration has been developed as an aesthetic which is perhaps unique to Japanese culture.
The word 'wabi' is derived from the verb 'wabu', meaning 'dejection, bitterness, being reduced to poverty'. Sabi is derived from the verb 'sabu', meaning 'to get old, to be discoloured'. The origin of the word 'wabi' is 'the bitterness of things not turning out as we want them to' and of 'sabi' 'the weakening of the vital powers'. So both of them are among words expressing negative feelings.
However, these words for negative emotions were actually given a positive value and were used on the worlds of chanoyu and of haiku as 'terms used to express beauty'. It could be said that this is where Japan's unique aesthetic sense and attitude towards culture lie.

While I respect this aesthetic, I think it has been overworked and overstated… having grown up in a household decorated with the fruit of much careful hunting in jumble sales and junk shops, I certainly don't find it unique to Japan. Perhaps it was necessary to give it a specific designation to achieve recognition in a society that places high regard on precedent and propriety (and it must be noted that despite the high level of arts and craft that are produced in Japan today, the average person seems to have far less sense of interior decoration than one might suppose). Choosing things that are odd or imperfect, common or old-looking may have come as a shock to Rikyu's contemporaries in the 16th century, but to some, it's commonsense. However, to use something because you like it, rather than because it is good (or made by a famous maker) is a concept that is foreign to many here even now.

The aesthetic aside, the practice of tea is laden with rules, some of which may be based in good sense, others of which are rather arbitrary. It is the following of these rules that bring some of the benefits of the practice, the situating of oneself within a ritual which becomes 'home-ground', and also the challenge and the discipline of the practice. Rules also serve to bind the ephemeral nature of the ceremony, to enable its transmission, giving a form to an experience. They also, of course, help with the perpetuating of a role for the tea master, especially in this day and age, when the teaching and performance of tea has spread around the world.

Raku tea bowl made under Rikyu's direction by Raku Chojiro

Aesthetics is a personal subject, and judging by the stories about Rikyu, not only was he a leader in this respect, but as we expect artists to do today, he strove to develop and refine his expression of his particular brand. Likewise his successor Furuta Oribe developed his own particular aesthetic, favoring wares that now bear his name. This may have been part of their strength, but such individualism was not in step with the times. As Hideyoshi and then Tokugawa Ieyasu worked on unifying the country and stabilizing the social structure into what was to become a rigid hierarchy, tea masters defied that order. They emphasized the primacy of taste over precedence and propriety, with a certain liking for the unpredictable and sometimes the downright non-sensical. They had the ability, it seems, to keep their patrons wrong-footed, surprising and sometimes annoying them by their disregard for the standards that these very men were learning and preserving.

Perhaps, in fact, it was for this reason that the tea ceremony was developed – as an outlet for aesthetic sensibilities in a culture that was dedicated to preserving old forms and expressing oneself in their terms. With its emphasis on simplicity and awareness of what is happening at this very moment, the influence of Zen is clear. Rikyu himself studied Zen at Daitoku-Ji Temple in Kyoto, but there seems to be a contradiction in the art. While acceptance and appreciation of the beauty of the ordinary and commonplace requires a certain detachment, the search for exquisite simplicity, the lengths tea masters went to orchestrate their gatherings, and the value placed upon objects that were made cheaply for every day consumption (rustic Korean tea bowls) belies that non-attachment. This is especially true in the case of tea masters, who exercise their cultivated taste in the collection and assemblage of objects. Even for the trainee, there is just as much attachment in the unquestioning following of their school's pronouncements on aesthetics.

What is the use of tea?
Apart from it's attraction as a means to personal development and contemplation, and the partaking (and promotion) of a national culture, tea has served a number of purposes in the past. Perhaps the most notable of these was its role in politics. Oda Nobunaga made particular use of it, both as a chance to bring his generals together and as a means to dispense favors in the form of valuable tea utensils, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi followed his example.

It seems that this aspect, rather than disapproval of his increasingly austere aesthetics, was the reason for Rikyu's death (he was ordered to commit seppuku by Hideyoshi). Rikyu had become one of Hideyoshi:s most important advisors, together with Hideyoshi's half-brother, Hidenaga. Despite his important position, as a member of the merchant class, he had no power base, and fell foul of powerful interests (probably Ishida Mitsunari) after Hidenaga's death.

Clog-shaped tea bowl - owned by Furuta Oribe

Furuta Oribe, although of Daimyo class, was also a victim of politics – the reasons are not entirely clear, but commentators have noted that the total wealth of those Daimyo who were keen adherents of the tea ceremony (and thus intimates of Oribe) equalled that of the key Tokugawa vassals. Had Oribe been so inclined, he might have been able to mount a credible opposition to the Tokugawa hegemony. Oribe's own taste was particularly outre, and could be seen as a tacit challenge to the hegemony the Tokugawa clan were busy in consolidating. Anyway, Tokugawa Ieyasu wasn't taking any chances and ordered him to commit seppuku.

From the next generation, Oribe's successor, Kobori Enshu instituted a more refined style which combined elements of the grace and luxury the ruling class was used to, and took on the role of performing the tea ceremony for the ruler, rather than teaching him. Tea was no longer necessary as tool for alliance brokering, and dropped back into the role of cultural pastime.

For the practitioner, tea is more than aesthetics; it is a marriage of space and performance. Set in a dedicated space, it removes the practitioner – and the guest, if there is one – from the everyday. What one experiences is, perhaps, it's own reward, and certainly, that must differ from practitioner to practitioner. However, for whatever reason, it continues to exert a powerful pull on the imagination, and remains as a strong theme in Japanese culture.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Miyamoto Musashi, A Life in Arms

A review of William De Lange's account of the life of Miyamoto Musashi.

Of all Japanese swordsmen, Miyamoto Musashi is the best known, and his life story has been told in one form or another any number of times, both in print and on the screen. Many of these retellings have been coloured by Yoshikawa Eiji’s fictional account, a blend of fact, creative interpretation and fiction, which continues to exert its influence, and this is despite the years that have passed and the increased availability of documentary evidence of various aspects of Musashi’s life.

Much more of this is available in Japanese than in English, although in the past ten years or so, there have been a couple of notable works in English which sought to dig deeper into his life, and although both of these took some trouble to use historical sources, the Yoshikawa story was floating there as a shadow in the background – a kind of template from which to begin.

Perhaps this is not surprising as the story is so well-known, and Yoshikawa himself researched the subject quite deeply… of course, as a novelist, he was more interested in the story than in strict historical accuracy, but in tying together the available accounts, favouring those that fitted his story while ignoring those that didn’t, he created a work that has become common background knowledge and a starting point for almost everyone in the field.

A new biography, Miyamoto Musashi, A Life in Arms by William de Lange, comes at Musashi’s life from a different perspective. Based directly on historical documents, it gives us us quite a different picture of Musashi’s life. De Lange has already published two volumes giving translations of two of the principal source documents on Musashi’s life,(reviews here and here) but this is something different. Drawing on these, as well as numerous other sources, he builds up a new version of the swordsman’s story, enlarging here, filling in there, and covering much ground that will be totally new for many.

In any work of this kind, much must be left to the judgement and imagination of the writer, and de Lange handles the details and conflicting storylines drawn from these sources with assurance, weaving them together to form a narrative that is both fresh yet also faintly familiar. Parts of the story do, indeed, form some part of the familiar tale – Musashi’s visit to Kyoto and the duels with the Yoshioka family, the visit to the spear wielding monks of Hozoin and the duel with Sasaki Kojiro – but it adds detail to these and fleshes out Musashi’s time after this in far greater detail than most accounts – I found the information on his time in the Akashi/Himeji region and his relationship with various small lords of the area particularly interesting, showing the degree of fame and influence he had obtained at a reasonably young age, and also lending ammunition to the opinion that he was fighting on the side of the Tokugawa forces both in 1600 and 1615 (although more direct evidence of this is also presented) as all these daimyo were firmly in the Tokugawa camp.
Meiji Period portrait of Musashi prepared
for battle. Shimada Bijutsukan, Kumamoto
The story that emerges is, in many ways, more nuanced than previous tellings. We see Musashi as a man in some demand, a swordsman who has built a reputation, partly through his service on the battlefield and the connections he made in military campaigns, but who remains determined to retain his independence. Building on his connections, including his father, with whom he stayed close until the latter’s death, he became well-known and sought after, teaching and providing a variety of other services in the military line, including looking after the heir to Lord Ogasawara during the Shimabara campaign. He was well respected, that much is certain, and mixed with the high and mighty, but like a well-respected academic who refuses tenure, he never entered permanent service.

It is the part of the biographer to offer his/her own views and insights into the motivations of his subject, although it is understood that these are, to some extent, interpretation, not fact. In this case, de Lange was working from documents that provided little or no direct indication of Musashi’s inner life, and so he has had to apply his own interpretation more liberally than would be necessary  for many other subjects. Some of these are quite insightful and provide a fresh and interesting take on the subject. He deals in some depth with Musashi’s relationship with his father, and speculates that Musashi’s refusal to become a feudal vassal owes much to the effect this state had on his father, who was ordered to execute one of his own students for a minor lapse in protocol. The subsequent sense of shame and guilt, he suggests, overshadowed the rest of his life, and engendered in Musashi a determination not to make himself beholden to any such authority himself.

At other times, although perhaps necessary for the sake of the narrative, the mixture of facts drawn from historical documents and feelings placed in the mind of the protagonist can be a little jarring, and momentarily calls into question the line between the two. Those familiar with the author’s previous books will be aware that there are plenty of contradictions between these (and other, later) accounts, and although the author has generally steered a good course between them, in this account he chooses those which suit the narrative, rather than arguing the case for his choice; if you are familiar with some of these other possibilities, their omission can, at times, seem rather glaring, but what the book sacrifices in terms of completeness, it gains in clarity. This is a minor point, however, and the well-referenced text generally clarifies the sources of most of the information.

Given the choice to rely so heavily on historical accounts. it is not surprising that the book sometimes feels a little sparse, despite its 159 pages of text and another 95 of back matter – it is not the author’s place to embroider the evidence too heavily – but that is a small price to pay for a book that lays out this hard-to-come-by information so clearly. It is certainly a valuable book, and one that has grown on me with subsequent readings. True, there are one or two places where I would question the author’s interpretation, but that does not lessen it’s value, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in the area.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

After the Golden Age - the Kano school after Eitoku

Signed Kuninobu, this is believed to be by Kano Mitsunobu

1590 was an annus horribilis for the Kano school – the foremost school of painting in Japan. It was the year that Kano Eitoku, the energetic, ground-breaking head of the school, who had made himself the painter par-excellence of his generation, specializing in the bold decorative schemes favoured by the ruling warlords of the country, and patronized by both Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi,  died at the age of 48*(possibly due to the pressures of overwork) leaving his twenty year old son to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, Kano Mitsunobu was not the genius his father was (an epithet he bore as a youth was 'unskilled'), and the school faced challenges to its supremacy from other, arguably more talented artists. Yet within 20 years, the Kano school had mapped out the course that would see it firmly entrenched as the supreme school of art in the country for the next two hundred years.  This period of transition is highlighted in the exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum.

The Kano school was so important and powerful that it often appears monolithic – all that gold leaf, all those birds and flowers. The sheer number of artists who worked in the tradition is another problem for all but the most interested viewer - for example, the decorations of Nijo castle involved 11 members of the Kano family as well as numerous unnamed apprentices - and the names have a tendency to blend into one another, as do the works. Nevertheless, the more you find out, the more there is to know, and the monolith crumbles to reveal a pattern of myriad lives hidden behind the gilded surface.

Eitoku's death had left Hasegawa Tohaku as the premier painter of the time, and he pressed his advantage, securing several important commissions from Toyotomi Hideyoshi. (In fact, the Kano school had narrowly snatched back a commission given to Tohaku just a few months before Eitoku's death). This placed the Kano school in a position of jeopardy. While this situation has been put down to Mitsunobu's relative inexperience in the politicking necessary to gain commissions, a quick look at his paintings shows that his forte did not lie in the powerful compositions popularized by his father - indeed, there is a certain timidity in his work compared with the sure hand of Sanraku, who had been adopted by Eitoku, (on the advice of Hideyoshi), and who was certainly the strongest painter in the family at that stage. Mitsunobu tended towards compositions in which the individual elements were small in scale, lacking the power of the motifs his father used, and thus, despite being undeniably beautiful (and beautifully painted in some cases – the small birds in the works are exquisite) failing to deliver the punch his erstwhile patrons were used to. 

Kano Mitsunobu - elegant, but clearly lacking the power of the earlier
Kano painters, and the Hasegawa School

Looking at the work of his rival, Hasegawa Tohaku, it is easy to see how the power and graceful lines of the Hasegawa school, the overall integrity of the composition, (not to mention its freshness) proved to be so popular.
Hasegawa Tohaku

And yet... Mitsunobu developed into a fine painter, following the tenets of the Kano school, which believed that diligent copying was preferable to innate talent. He also picked up on the changes of the times; as the Tokugawa tightened their grip on the country the taste for decoration developed towards a lighter, more naturalistic style, away from the bombast of the previous generations, when larger than life characters wrestled for political and military power. The gentler style also reflected the Tokugawa 'story' that they were the natural rulers of a country at peace, and slowly Mitsunobu's style became accepted.

The Kano school, despite the importance they placed upon the head of the family, was far from a one-man operation which made up for any lack of genius with the breadth of talent and the size and organisational capacity of their school. They also devised a strategic approach to address the volatile situation of the times. They designated specific artists to concentrate on particular areas of patronage, essentially working on three fronts at once. Mitsunobu, as head of the school, could straddle all three areas, but other painters served the rising Tokugawa family, the Imperial and noble families, or the Toyotomi, (whose power was clearly on the wane after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600)). It is interesting to note that it was the adopted son of Eitoku, Kano Sanraku who was placed in this least politically important of relationships, despite being the school's strongest painter. As the school continued to grow in power, the importance of blood relationships was emphasized to an even greater degree, with Sanraku's successor (and adopted son) Sanraku being forced into a marginal position.

The Kano School was fortunate that the heir to the Hasegawa tradition died young (and there are rumors of foul play) which drastically reduced the Hasegawa school's ability to compete with the Kano's on multiple commissions, and allowed them gradually to regain ascendance. They were fortunate, too, that Mitsunobu did gradually come into his own, becoming a sought-after painter in his own right.
However, Mitsunobu died also died young, at the age of 37, when his son, Sadanobu was too young to take over headship of the family, so Mitsunobu's brother, Takanobu (previously assigned as a painter to the Imperial families) became the defacto head of the family. He had a surer hand than Mitsunobu, and it seems, a certain business astuteness that allowed the family to flourish. Sadanobu, Mitsunobu's son, also showed great talent, but died at the age of 26. Takanobu's eldest son, Tanyu, one of the greatest painters the school produced, and the major painter of the next generation, had already taken the position as the head of the Edo branch of the family, leaving the vacant headship of the family to his younger brother, Yasunobu. Despite this, it was Tanyu who would be the powerhouse of the family for the next fifty years, well and truly establishing the pre-eminent position of the Kano school.

Peacocks by Mitsunobu...

...and by Kano Tanyu

*Although Eitoku's death is generally remarked upon as unusual (he was 48 when he died), early death was not uncommon in the Kano family, with several notable members dying at a similar age or younger, including Eitoku's brother, Soshu (age 51); his sons Mitsunobu (37), & Takanobu (47); Mitsunobu's son Sadanobu (26);  Takanobu's second son (and Tanyu's brother) Naonobu (43), for example.

Dates of some of the most important members of the Kano Family
Kano Masanobu 1434–1530 (school founder)
Kano Motonobu 1476–1559 (son of Masanobu)
Kano Eitoku 1543–1590 (grandson of Motonobu)
Kano Sōshū 1551–1601 (brother of Eitoku)
Kano Mitsunobu 1571 –1608
Kano Takanobu 1571-1618
Kano Sadanobu 1597-1623
Kano Tanyu 1602–1674 (eldest son of Takanobu)
Kano Naonobu 1607-1650 (brother of Tanyu)
Kano Yasunobu 1613-1685 (brother of Tanyu and head of the family after Sadanobu)
Kano Sanraku 1559–1635 (adopted son of Eitoku; head of the Kyoto Kano School)
Hasegawa Tohaku 1539-1610