Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Matsuura Seizan -swordsman and scholar

Matsuura Seizan is an unusual and interesting figure - a kind of 'renaissance man' - but little known in the west, which is a pity, as he left unusually clear and informative writings on the art of swordsmanship from the point of view of a master swordsman. I first got interested in him when I began to translate the Joseishi Kendan, (which is included in my forthcoming The Samurai Mind, published by Tuttle), and the more I found out, the more I became interested in him. Like Musashi, he was a master of both 'bun' and 'bu', but his background and life were quite the opposite of that more famous swordsman.

He was born as the oldest son of the daimyo of Hirado, an island just off the coast of western Kyushu, near Nagasaki, and after the death of his father, became lord of the domain at the age of 16. His position in society allowed him access to a variety of famous men of his age, and he was connected to a group of philosophers, artists and literary types in the Osaka-Kyoto area that was associated with Minagawa Kien, the Neo-confucian philosopher, and included luminaries such as the painters Maruyama Okyo and his student Nakagawa Rosetsu. While he doesn't write about art, his works clearly show his Confucian scholarship.

He was clearly a character of some discipline as well as administering his domain, he studied several different styles of martial arts, including archery, spear, jujutsu, riding, gunnery, and most famously Shingyoto ryu kenjutsu. He also became well known as a writer later in his life, especially for a long-running series of essays on miscellaneous oddities of Edo. Education was another of his concerns, and he founded a domainal school, the Ishinkan, which provided education both in martial and academic disciplines, allowing students of different styles to train together.

Nowadays he is chiefly remembered for his literary works, including those he wrote on the sword, principally Kendan and Kenkou, which present a mixture of advice and stories for students of the art of swordsmanship. Throughout, his erudition and intellectual honesty shine through, though only occasionally do we glimpse the more forthright, combative side of his nature.

This is shown more fully from other sources. Later in life, reports told of an old man who would roam the outskirts of Edo by night, handing out beatings to anyone who anyone who dared try his skill. He carried an old broken bowstave as a cane and a short sword at this waist, and would appropriate the swords of the losers as a penalty for their presumption. It is said that the numbers of those he defeated ran into the dozens and included several who later became famous for their skill with the sword. Of course, this was Matsuura Seizan himself - he would have been in his seventies at the time.

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