Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2015 Year of the Sheep – no, Goat – no, Sheep – 羊

Zhao Mengfu ca1300 Courtesy of the Freer Sackler Galleries
The inscription out of shot on the left runs:
"I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep [or goats]. So when Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I cannot get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit."

The New Year rolls around again and here in Japan 2015 is the Year of the Sheep, or perhaps the goat. Neither sheep nor goats have a long history in Japan, so as the same character, [羊] which is used for sheep, was used for goats in the past, there is obviously some confusion. Older sources quite clearly depict goats, but in the present day, sheep are more popular.

As the animals of the zodiac were adopted from China, and with no real chance for first-hand observation, it is not surprising that the goat has no strong associations in Japanese culture. Nor is it easy to find much visual imagery, particularly in association with the culture of the bush. Even among the weird and wonderful kawari kabuto (outré helmets), where horns and animal references abound, I could see no trace of sheep or goats.

Occasionally, they would appear as images in tsuba or other sword furniture, but they are rare. These two examples are from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Soami School 

Nakahara Yukimitsu - Choshu School

A few painters, such as Maruyama Okyo  depicted them directly (see below), but this was quite rare.

Of course, they do appear in various depiction of the 12 animals (junishi) of the zodiac, and it is in this connection that they appear in both purely animal and anthropomorphic form.

The earliest example of the anthropomorphic goat that I have seen is in the Battle of the Twelve Animals Picture Scroll (Juniruikassen Emaki), the earliest version of which dates from the early Muromachi Period (Prince Fushimi Sadafusa apparently saw it in 1438). Possibly a political allegory, it tells the story of the sneaky tanuki who, after some dispute about who is to be judge for a poetry competition among the twelve animals, gathers his cohort (of bad animals, of course) who attack the noble 12 animals, only to be beaten and chased off to the mountains where he renounces the world and enters a monastery.

The goat acquits himself well in the battle, it would seem, and escapes injury, unlike some of his compatriots.

Some 400 years later, Utagawa Kuniyoshi gives us more pictures of goats going about their everyday life,

as does another artist in this calendar from 1859:

This is not so very far from an image somewhat closer to home, the Wise Old Goat in the Rupert Bear stories…

Anyway, Happy New Year for 2015!

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Autumn – change and loneliness

Kyoto, November 2014

Autumn in Japan is characterised by its mild temperature and the brilliant colours of the foliage that tinges the hills with russets and brilliant reds, and the occasional burst or brilliance dotted throughout the cities. However, in literature and art, the season has strong links with feelings of desolation, loss and longing, which in western literature are more often associated with winter. Indeed, the ‘withering wind’ (kogarashi) is so intimately associated with autumn, that its mention alone is sufficient to conjure up the season.

Such phrases used in poetry are known as kigo, and among the educated, they had strong associations. Indeed, it with such a phrase that Yagyu Sekishusai began his collection of 100 verses:
One autumn evening, to while away the hours, I went to visit old friends in Yamato, but found some of those old men had already passed away, while others had gone, I know not where.

In fact, the term yugure (evening) which he uses doesn’t strictly refer to autumn, but since the late Heian period it has had particularly strong associations with the season, being mentioned by Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book as being the exemplary time of day for that season. Given the generally sparse tone he takes, it would not seem out of place to translate it as autumn evening, rather than simply evening.

Autumn grasses in the Moonlight - Shibata Zesshin
Other common symbols of autumn include deer, the full moon, flying geese, the seven grasses of autumn (nanagusa) and, of course, momiji or scarlet maple leaves.

Despite the strong seasonal associations, there is less specific mention of such symbolism in traditional martial arts than might be imagined. This may partly be owing to the strength of these cultural associations – loneliness and loss, though all fine and good in everyday life, are quite far from the kind of feelings that are normally encouraged in the training and practice of bugei.

There are some connections, however. I have discussed Musashi’s use of the autumn monkey (also here)(stretching for the reflection of the full moon) before; likewise his momiji uchi (falling leaves strike) which cuts downwards, knocking an opponent’s sword away. 

Hiza-guruma - a technique of the Kito-ryu

Occasional references also occur in other ryu-ha – both the Mujuushin Kenpo of Harigaya Sekiun and the Kito Ryu school of jujutsu contain what is substantially the same verse extolling the virtues of flexibility:
Autumn wind, deep in the mountains, fiercely sways and shakes the leaves of the oak, while barely moving the pampas grasses

Rarer is the example provided by the Jikishinkage ryu, which includes a foundation kata named Hōjō no kata, based on the energies ascribed to the four seasons in the Chinese theory of the five elements. Autumn, in this case, emphasizes varied tempo and cutting to left and right, illustrating change. This specific linkage to elements seems unusual in Japanese bujutsu - although the basic principles illustrated by the Hōjō no kata are said to have been transmitted by Matsumoto Bizen no Kami, the school's founder, it is possible that they were later reorganized and matched to the four seasons.

Still on the subject of the five elements, there is another set of verses which is worth mentioning, although this is from the Chinese art of Xinyi, and is attributed to the founder Dai Fengzhong:

Red Maples have forgotten the six alignments
Tranquility will reveal the Five Elements
The first verse points to the naturalness and spontaneous nature of advanced technique, while also
suggesting (at least to me) the spirit of forging oneself – the bright leaves can certainly look like hot 
coals or heated metal, and I feel the specific choice of maple leaves must be saying something about the redness.
Kyoto, November 2014
This particular aspect was also used by Hikita Bungoro in momiji no metsuke (gaze of red leaves) in his Hikita Kage Ryu. Yagyu Jubei mentions this in his Tsuki no Sho, describing it as an important concept of the school, a technique of the mind to effect the opponent’s mind and movements from a distance, as if ‘viewing red leaves on yonder mountain.’ Jubei, on describing the technique in his own school describes it as ‘dying the opponent’s movements with the blood red intentions of your own mind.’
This symbolism might also be read into Hojo Ujimasa"s death poem:

The blossoms of spring do not resent the spring wind
For the red leaves of autumn are still to come
In this case, the blossoms would be the Hojo family, defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's spring wind, while the red leaves would, perhaps, be future generations of the Hojo.
Uesugi Kenshin, by Utagawa Yoshitoshi
Although autumn symbolism may not have featured strongly in the bugei as a whole, bushi seemed to use it often enough when they turned their hands to artistic pursuits. One example of this is a poem by Uesugi Kenshin:

Frost Fills the Camp and the Autumn Air is Still
Lines of Returning Geese Cross the Moon of the Third Hour

Another of his poems runs:

The warrior makes
Of his armor a pillow
For his head alone
The first wild geese cry nearby
…which returns us to the theme of loneliness. 
Personally, however, my own feelings are closer to Keats and his
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Yari - The Long and the Short of It

The spear is a weapon that has been used in some form in virtually every corner of the earth, and must be, after the club and the rock, one of the most basic weapons devised by mankind. Japan is no exception, and has a long tradition of the use of various pole arms, including spears, dating to way back before the 'samurai' era. However, as far as samurai are concerned, the spear was not even the principal pole arm until the 15th or 16th century. For some reason, it was the naginata that assumed that role, while the spear languished until the time of the Namboku-cho (1334-1392) when it gradually gained popularity. This popularity increased during the early Sengoku period, until, by the time of the famous warlords of the mid to late 16th century, it had assumed the position of one of the main weapons on the battlefield. This was partially due to logistical considerations, and indeed, the growing size of armies meant that it provided a cheap and easy to use armament for levies and other
irregular troops.

Though individuals became famous for their use of the spear, on the battlefield, their particular forte was in tactical deployment. Walter Dening, in his The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, tells the story of how Hideyoshi got caught up in an argument to see whether long or short spears were superior. Oda Nobunaga's spear instructor favored short spears (short in this case means up to 8ft long) whereas Hideyoshi favored the longer type.

A trial was arranged: both men would train a group of fifty men in the use of their chosen length of spear,and after three days, the two groups would compete against each other. To cut a long story
short, while the spear instructor taught his men the techniques to oppose the longer weapons, Hideyoshi told his men they had the advantage anyway, so they could attack any way they liked, and wined and dined them. He also divided them into three units so they could make forward and flank attacks. On the day of the contest, Hideyoshi's men made mincemeat of his opponents.

Although this is probably an apocryphal tale, it does indicate the tactical value of the spear on the battlefield. That is not to deny that a shorter spear offers definite advantages to the individual warrior, but in battles employing formations of troops, longer spears offered a decided advantage. In fact, Nobunaga employed longer than average spears in his formations, and even on an individual level,
some warriors made use of the longer spears. Maeda Toshiie, for example, used one that was reportedly 6m in length.

The differences on such weapons also lead to certain specializations in the way they were used. For the ashigaru, who made up the bulk of the armies in the Sengoku period, spear usage was comparatively limited. Among the most common techniques was a downward strike aimed at knocking the opponent's spear downwards. This was particularly useful in tight formations, and contemporary writing suggests that this was seen as preferable to thrusting.

In fact, despite it's efficiency as a thrusting weapon, on the battlefield even the shorter spears were, as often as not, probably used to knock down an opponent and then despatch him. The triangular sectioned blade of the su yari (straight spear) was particularly effective for this, and this may also explain the popularity of the tanged spear head over the socketed type – the tang running deep inside the shaft gives greater durability as well as weighting the head, making it more effective for sweeping and striking movements.

Practice with long weapons quickly brings an appreciation of the difference in their range and speed compared with the sword. Facing someone with a spear (if they are using it well) allows one to realize the advantage it has – it is said that the spear gives its user a 3x advantage. When you see the speed with which a spear can be extended and retracted, how quickly the blade can shoot out at different targets, you appreciate how difficult it would be to face one in earnest.

With the end of the Sengoku Period, the call for spear use declined. Nevertheless, the Bakumatsu period saw some notable use of the spear:

Sakamoto Ryoma's companion, Miyoshi Shinzo, wielded a spear in the famous fight at the Teradaya, as, indeed did their attackers. Ryoma described the events as follows:

  We had come up from the bath and were on the point of going to bed, when we thought we heard something strange; it sounded like the footfalls of someone sneaking around below us (we were on the second floor). Then, in the same way, we heard the clattering of six-foot staves. Just at that time [the woman he would marry], with no thought of her own safety, came running up to us and warned, ‘Look out! The enemy have invaded unexpectedly, and men with spears are coming up the stairs!’ At that, I jumped up, grabbed my hakama and the two swords, along with a six-shooter pistol … and crouched down towards the rear of the room. Miyoshi Shinzo… put on his two swords, and grabbed a spear; and then he too crouched down.
“There were already 20 men lined up with spears; they also had two burglar lanterns, and to top it off there were fellows carrying six-foot staves everywhere…

“By the time this one spear-man was half way up the stairs and coming in my direction. He was on my left. I figured that if there was a spear on my left it could strike me from the side, and so I shifted my position to face to the left. Then I cocked my pistol, and threatened all ten of the spearmen, from right to left. They ran away. Meanwhile, others of the enemy were throwing spears, and also charcoal braziers, and fighting in all sorts of ways. We, for our part, were ducking spears, and you can imagine that it was really a noisy war inside that house. We also hit one man, but I don’t know whether we killed him or not."

As this account suggests, although they were not necessarily wielded with any great skill, spears were still common during this period. Common perhaps, but still unusual enough that expert spearman were far less common than swordsmen. Many schools of martial arts taught the spear along with the sword, but it seems that few had the time or inclination to master this weapon. Among those who did were Yamada Sanosuke of the Shinsengumi, Takahashi Deishu, the shogun's personal spear instructor and brother-in-law of Yamaoka Tesshu, Sagawa Kanbei, one of the leaders of the Aizu forces who fought a brave but losing battle against the Imperial forces under Saigon Takamori, and General Yamagata Aritomo were all noted for their use, or (in the latter case) training, in the spear.

In this period, the spear was no longer a formation weapon, but the weapon of the individual. On the battlefield, the rifle and bayonet had taken its place, but it is clear that the men who wielded it with skill still commanded respect

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Noguchi Tetsuya – another look at 'samurai'

Talking Head 2010
All the pictures in this post are of works by
Noguchi, unless otherwise stated.

Sometimes you see an exhibition that strikes such a deep chord that you say to yourself, 'Yes! This is what art is about!' Rare though this may be, it's even rarer with contemporary art, which was why it was especially refreshing to see Noguchi Tetsuya's one-man show at the Asahi Villa in Oyamazaki – just outside Kyoto.

Not only is the museum (a 1930's villa and garden overlooking the battlefield of Oyamazaki, where Toyotomi Hideyoshi beat the rebellious Akechi Mitsuhide, thus stamping his claim as contending heir to Oda Nobunaga's position) worth seeing in itself, but the exhibition has enough to satisfy anyone with a spark of soul (especially if their childhood contained a healthy dose of model building and painting up the kind of miniature figures used in war games and fantasy role playing games).

Work by Tenmouya Hisashi - used as an
advertisement for the 2006 World Cup
Noguchi, a generation younger than artists such as Yamaguchi Akira and Tenmouya Hisashi, who also have a strong link with historical imagery in their work, unrepentantly takes 'samurai' as his theme, with a refreshing outlook that combines humour and sensitivity, inviting the viewer to share and enjoy his passions, presenting snapshots from an alternative historical narrative that is, at times, so convincing that you are almost fooled into believing it's true. He works with highly detailed figures cast in resign, dressed in leather, cloth and metal(?), as well as painting in a reproduction style, throwing in his own anachronisms that make it more than simply an exercise in model making.

The first thing that strikes the visitor is the incredible degree of skill displayed in the works. The craftsmanship shows a loving attention to detail which, in itself, is more than enough to hold the viewer's attention. This is displayed equally in the paintings, facsimile pages from fictional historical reference works, and in fact, in every aspect of  his finished works.

Chanel Samurai 2009

Some of his work drew attention in the glossy magazines a few years ago because of his collaboration with Chanel - I saw the photos of the models wearing armor stamped with the Chanel symbol, and assumed, because of the detail, that they were, in fact, actual people wearing the armor. Even later on, I'm not sure if I had realised that those photographs were of models, but I certainly assumed that the armour was life size – I was wrong, and this was a pleasant surprise. They worked far better as models (up to about 30 inches high, seated, with many smaller than that) than they would have done full size, inviting both closer examination and a kind of respect and fascination that automatically seems to attach itself to the miniature.

Portrait of an Armoured Warrior
Taking the Field by Bicycle

But all this would be mere model making if it was not imbued with a charm and wit that added to the superb craftsmanship: samurai with propellers on their helmets, jetpacks on their backs and giant robots, all rendered as if they came from the 16th century, which manages to keep the charm and makes it almost believable. Other works aimed at different interstices of past and present, involving fashion, technology and identity.

None Shall Speak 2008

Part of the reason this works is because the samurai remains such present figure in modern Japanese culture, reconfigured to match each new generation. This reinvention, the constant stream of dramas, books, manga, magazines, anime and games which feature samurai, means that they retain a relevance which I would be hard put to find an equivalent for in Britain or the USA. Certainly, some people find it passé, I'm sure, but generations of children are brought up with this as part of their contemporary culture, the same way as I had Star Wars and Judge Dredd in my teenage years.

Samurai Stance 2013

This, I think, is the point. The artist has successfully taken the interests he had as a child, and transformed them without losing the intensity of meaning that they have when you are young; in his case, that intensity is continued through the strength and mastery of his craftsmanship, bringing them into the adult sphere in a way that is neither arch nor mocking. He does not denigrate or hero-worship, but treats his subjects with an interest and respect that brings us closer, perhaps, to seeing ourselves.

you ever get the chance, this is one artist whose works I thoroughly recommend you see.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Sendan no uchi – the sandalwood strike of the Shinkage ryu

A small branch of sendan, showing the way the leaves diverge from the
stem in pairs at each node.
Of course, it’s the cherry trees that garner most of the attention in Kyoto in spring, but it was another tree that caught my eye a few weeks ago as I strolled along the canal. Not a shoot or a sign of a bud, (and even now, at the end of April, when everything around it is a mass of new leaves, it is only tentatively putting forth a few green shoots) but the plaque tied around the thick trunk proclaimed the tree to be a ‘sendan’. I’d had an interest I this tree ever since I came across the somewhat cryptic references in Yagyu writings to the technique and concept of ‘sendan no uchi’.

A quick botanical note – sendan (Melia axderach) is also known as the bead tree or sandalwood; however, it is not the true sandalwood (byakudan) (of the incense type), although the word sendan is sometimes used to describe that tree, too. This may be the route of a well-known saying:
            sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi
The literal meaning if this is sendan is fragrant even in bud, and it is often used metaphorically to refer to the presence of a person’s talent from childhood.

I had come across sendan in the writings of Yagyu Jyubei, and while his style is fairly clear in itself, it is ­– like most of the writings of the period – meant for initiates of the style. His father, Yagyu Munenori, also mentioned the technique, and in both cases the references left me wondering how they related to the sendan tree.

This was obviously also a problem for translators of Munenori’s works into English. In the notes Wilson included in his translation of The Life Giving Sword it says:

“The meaning of Bead Tree (Melia axderach) is obscure, but it may be an allusion to the “Bead Tree Board” or sendan no ita… (a piece of armour) protecting the lacing connecting the chest armour to the back.”

Although, in this case, I don’t believe it has anything to do with the sendan no ita, Wilson’s understanding of the term itself (“This seems to have been a way to avoid striking and being struck at the same time”) is correct as far as it goes ­– unlike Thomas Cleary, who gets it the wrong way round (“The sandalwood state of mind is a code term for slashing twice in exactly the same line.”)
I was hoping Yagyu Toshinaga (20th headmaster of the (Yagyu) Shinkage ryu) would make things clearer: he wrote that sendan no uchi (the sendan strike) was a reminder not to fall victim to aiuchi – the situation in which you are hit at the same time as you hit the enemy. Instead, one strike is just slightly always ahead of the other.  I must admit that, to me, the reference was not altogether clear on this: from what he wrote it could be inferred that sendan no uchi is aiuchi, which is clearly different from what the early generations of the Yagyu had written –  a similar reference occurs in writings from the Eishin ryu attributed to Oe Masaji, a noted headmaster of that school in the mid 1800s, who quite clearly says that sendan no uchi is, indeed, the same as aiuchi.

Oe Masaji (with his daughter)
It also seemed that the both Munenori and Jubei’s understanding of the term is broader. But in all cases, the key feature is that it refers to two of something. In the case of aiuchi, it is two swords both striking. In the case of Munenori and Jubei, the meaning appears to be that of two diverging sword trajectories.

In either case, the meaning derives from the saying mentioned above:
            sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi
The key to the meaning is in the word futaba (bud), which is written with the characters for ‘two’ and ‘leaves’. The character for leaf, ‘ha’ (or ba) has the same pronunciation as that of blade, and thus futaba can be taken to mean two swords.

In this sense, it is, as Cleary stated, a code term related to two actions.Whilst by the 20th century, it seems to have become a term that referred to aiuchi, Munenori and Jyubei both expressly state otherwise (which we will get to later). In both cases the connection with two swords is clear.

It would have been a little disappointing if the symbolism went no further than the saying (although that seems to be the primary source for it), so I was especially interested to see an actual sendan tree.

What I saw, in the pre-bud stage, suggested that the shape of the tree might have played some role in the adoption of this saying by the Yagyu family. It is also interesting to note that this is attributed to Hikita Bungoro (by Munenori, I believe) who perhaps had an affinity for trees… he seems to have been a bit of a wanderer, and Jyubei mentions another of his teachings that features tree symbolism, koyo metsuke (the red maple leaf gaze).

Hikita Bungoro. He was a student of
Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, and senior to Yagyu Sekishusai, and thus
 the generation above Yagyu Munenori.

So, the question remains, how does the symbolism of two relate to the technique Munenori and Jyubei are talking about? What is key, I think is the way that the shoots diverge. Looking at the pictures, what struck me first, on seeing the tree, was how sword-like the bare branches looked. This was especially noticeable with the amount of blossom and new leaves on all the surrounding trees; in addition, each new branch has its opposite, which diverges at an angle from the main branch. To my mind, this suggests the idea of alternative angles/paths of attack, and this is what may have been in the mind of the Hikita Bungoro when he named the concept (if, indeed, it was actually he who did so).

Jyubei says:
My father said the true meaning of sendan no uchi was to be found in the state of mind known as futaba. Although it is bad to strike and step together, it is valid to do so, to avoid the tip of the enemy’s sword and strike his hands. To slip off the line of the enemy’s attack is called sendan (with ‘sen’ being written as tip)….
As two shoots share a single source, the equivalent of that source is the hands. It is a strike to separate the hands from the body.

The concept of angling is key in the teachings of the Shinkage ryu, and seems to be a key element in this technique/concept. Whereas the + is the key shape for syuji shuriken techniques, with sendan, I think it is the V , with the point of the V being the opponent's hands, one line being the line of the opponent's sword, and the other the line of your own sword. It is a technique which enables you to slip off-line and strike the enemy, (so avoiding aiuchi). Both Jyubei and Munenori mention its use against a spear (a very difficult thing in itself) and the possibility of using it as a one-handed technique, but overall, it seems to receive less treatment than syuji shuriken with which it has certain similarities.

Finally, the term kanbashi has another meaning: to be preferred or superior. Thus sendan wa futaba yori kanbashi could also be rendered as 'avoiding the path of the opponent's sword is preferable to aiuchi', a sentiment with which we can probably all agree.