Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Bird and Flower Painting in Nara

Kano Motonobu 1555

I was lucky enough to get to make a quick trip down to Nara a couple of weeks ago to pop in to the Nara Prefectural Museum.

The exhibition, Bird and Flower Painting in China, Korea and Japan, had been mounted as part of the 1300th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Heijo-kyo -present day Nara. In keeping with the importance that has been attached to this anniversary, the quality of the works on show was particularly good, and was maintained throughout the whole exhibition.

There were some famous works, and well-known names such as Seshu, Sotatsu and Jakuchu were represented by very good pieces. Particularly interesting were the pieces by Chinese and Korean painters - despite the fact that the roots of Japanese painting lie in Chinese works, it is not often that we get to see them, either in the flesh, or in reproduction, with their Japanese counter-parts, and I have never seen so many of them together. For the first time, I was able to compare pieces of a comparable level of execution from all 3 countries.

Following are a few notes and observations:

There were a few highlights for me - they were not necessarily the best pieces, but I found a special resonance in them. Increasingly, I find catalogue reproductions give so little of the feel of the actual pieces that they are of very little use for someone interested in the technical features of the paintings, as I am, save for jogging the memory about the general composition or look of the piece. usually the photos are too small to see much detail of the execution and subtleties of the pieces, and the chance to view so many good pieces in a a suitable environment is a real treat, and Nara Prefectural Museum does this well. Unlike Kyoto Prefectural Museum, sketching is allowed, light levels are resonable, and there are few enough people to be able to stand in front of a picture for a few minutes without you are in someone's way.

Like many exhibitions in Japan, this one had two halves. Usually, at major museums, a few of the major works are changed, sliding doors turned round, so they can display a larger number of works over the exhibition period. In this case, a glance at the catalogue showed barely more than half the pieces were on show at any one time. This is bad luck if you miss your favourites, but gives 2nd time visitors a new exhibition to see. I didn't mind - it seems that some of the pieces that I liked best weren't on show in the first half.

I must admit that I skipped fairly briefly past some of the paintings - as a painter myself, I am interested in execution, but some themes continually attract and hold my attention. Unlike my sister, I am not a flower painter, and although I admire them, they just don't do it for me. It's the ink landscapes and birds of prey that I find fascinating. In this case, just along the wall from some excellent sumi-e plum blossoms, was a folding screen by an unknown Japanese artist of the Muromachi period - a generation or two before Musashi, in fact. What struck me chiefly about this, as well as a rather nice, brooding bird sitting in a plum tree, was the delicacy of nuance applied to the bamboo at the left-hand edge of the screen.

A lot of ill-informed stuff has been written about ink painting, and a lot of poor stuff is produced these days - there seems to be the feeling that ink is thrown onto the paper in a kind of non-thinking Zen frenzy- once started, there is no going back. Careful examination of these paintings reveals the tracks of the brush - what is laid over what, and the extent to which lighter ink is used as a kind of under-painting which the darker lines follow (which is particularly evident in the work of Hakuin, Zen painter par-excellence).

This is visible in Sesshu - part of his mastery was his mastery of strokes - he applied exactly what was needed, without extraneous or wasted lines or emotional flourishes. Looking closely, you could see his darker outline strokes almost perfectly cover the lighter ink guidelines. Of course, he was following 'shita-e' or preparatory pictures that were often traced over, but this precision speaks of a very high degree of technical skill.

But my favourite paintings were the hawks - it seems there had been several different ones in the fist half of the exhibition, but these alone justified the visit for me.
Chinese painting of hawks - Yuan-Ming Dynasty

There were three paintings - two were Chinese scrolls, one of which was certainly the worse for wear, but both of very high quality, better than any Chinese ones I have seen before, and fully the equal of any Japanese ones I have seen of the same subject and one of which I have included here). Their style was perhaps a touch more naturalistic than most Japanese hawk paintings, which often include a touch of pleasing naivety in their works. the charm of their animals and birds is as much in their unreality as their realism (but which ceases when it falls into knowing abstraction). The screen of hawks was also a treat - the muted greys of the feathers were picked out with great subtlety and care. It was Japanese, and so it had some of this slightly stiff charm, which probably made it my favourite. What a pity the cataloge reproduction got the colour all wrong - it came out brown instead of grey.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Death of Saigo


A degree of doubt also surrounds the death of Saigo Takamori, a one-time confederate of Ryoma's, but arguably more important in historical terms. The questions are of quite a different kind - though his death was hardly less dramatic. He died leading an ill-fated rebellion, out-numbered, out-gunned, wounded, he took his own life , dignified and true to his principles until the last. At least, that is the story. Sounds just like Last Samurai, doesn't it...hardly surprising as that is who Watanabe Ken's character was based on. However, the facts point to a slightly different truth.

Mark Ravina, who wrote Saigo's biography (the only one in English, I believe) 'The Last Samurai', which despite the title is a well-researched volume, has recently published a scholarly article investigating the historiography of Saigo's death - that is to say, the way in which it has been depicted in art and writing, and how those depictions have gradually altered over time.

It is an interesting study, which shows how Saigo's death was written about and gradually embroidered for the various writers' own ends. This tendency was particularly strong during the first decades of the twentieth century. In the process, these fabrications became accepted as fact, and are often included unquestioningly in historical works (both Japanese and foreign).

Without going into detail here (Ravina does) although there are no eye-witness accounts to his death itself, there are reliable reports of those who saw his body after death, and it seems that a wound he sustained to the upper thigh/hip area made the dignified beheading (which later became a dignified seppuku) extremely unlikely - the lack of wounds denoting seppuku rule that out. As it says in the abstract, "Remarkably, historians have treated Saigo's suicide as an unproblematic account of his death, rather as a legend codified some four decades later." In fact Ravina feels that these stories should be viewed as another fiction, to rank along the stories of Saigo sailing to Russia or the illustrated accounts, such as the one here, that I just had to put in, as it was my first introduction to Saigo in any form.


The article, for those interested, is 'The Apocryphal Suicide of Saigo Takamori: Samurai, Seppuku, and the Politics of Legend', in The Journal of Asian Studies 69(3), August 2010.

It is scholarly and well-researched - an interesting read and a useful addition to Ravina's biography.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Death of Ryoma


Yesterday, November 15th, was the anniversary of the death of Sakamoto Ryoma. Here in Kyoto, there was a memorial service for Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro, who died with him, outside the convenience store (I believe.... it used to be a travel agent, but I haven't been past in a while) that now stands at the site of his death on Kawaramachi Street at the heart of the down-town shopping district.

Of course, the mystery of who actually killed him remains. Recent opinion seems to point to Katsura Hayanosuke (or Sonosuke) - it was his sword that was displayed as the murder weapon in the Ryoma-den exhibition here earlier in the year, and also the subject of this clipping I took way back in '94. He was a member of the Mimawarigumi, a para-military pro-Bakufu organization, as was Imai Nobuo, who actually claimed to have killed Ryoma. The catalogue has a chapter on the murder, explaining the course of events and, presumably, the arguments for Katsura but unfortunately time presses, and I don't have time to translate it now. I also remember there was a reconstruction of the event at the exhibition - fairly interesting, actually, but I didn't take note of the details, figuring it would all be in the catalogue.

With the NHK Taiga drama due to end in two weeks, it will be interesting to see their interpretation of the killing - no doubt it will reflect the same opinion as the exhibition - I'm looking forward to it, anyway.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Last of the Yoshiokas II


This piece is a loose translation of a section of a book called “Miyamoto Musashi to iu Kengo”(The Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi) by Kōzō Kaku. If you have some experience reading Japanese essays, you may be familiar with the style – a mix of fact and opinion, rolled up in one and difficult to separate. On top of that, there is my translation, which includes a few clarifications, and you have a real mix. Despite that, it’s an interesting read, and offers some interesting insights on some tactical aspects of Seijiro’s fights.

There is not much written about this in English – John M. Rogers’ invaluable translation of the Honcho Bugei Shoden in Monumenta Nipponica and William Wilson’s The Lone Samurai (see his appendix) have about the only detailed information I could find, although this merely records Seijiro’s name as Kempo, leading to some confusion.


“According to the popular account, the Yoshioka school’s series of losses to (Miyamoto) Musashi were the chief cause of their decline and fall. The Yoshioka–den, however, paints quite a different picture: it was really the bravery of Yoshioka Genzaemon Naotsuna (Seijūrō) and his youngest brother, Seijirō, that ensured the fame of the Yoshioka family.

In the Kyoto-Osaka area, there was an expression, ‘hitsukoi’, a corruption of the common ‘shitsukoi’, which means annoyingly persistent or bloody-minded. It had distinctly negative connotations, which were even more pronounced in the related term ‘dobitsukoi’, which was formed by the addition of the prefix ‘do’, and referred to a habitual state of ‘hitsukoi’, as well as suggesting something of the sense of dread we attach to a word like ‘stalker’ nowadays. This was the term used to describe Yoshioka Seijirō.

In the Keicho period (1596-1615) the Yoshioka family was well-known in the city of Kyoto for their skill as swordsmen; so much so that their practice hall was widely known as the House of Kempo. However, it is said that people were wary of Yoshioka Seijirō and tended to keep their distance from him. He was one of the three sons of the third generation head, Yoshioka Naokata, with two older brothers who both excelled in swordsmanship (and fought Musashi, according to the popular version). According to one theory, he may actually have been the cousin of Naotsuna and Naoshige, but after his death, it was seen as more proper to refer to them as brothers.

There are many questions that remain unanswered about the Yoshioka School: it flourished from the time of the founder Naomoto down to the fourth generation Naotsuna, and then suddenly disappeared. It’s fame was greatly increased by the affair involving Seijirō, but this also proved to be a source of great trouble for the family.

Although Seijirō was Naokata’s son, there is no record of his posthumous name nor his succession. Of course, it is possible that he was still a child or an adopted child, but there is some likelihood that this was connected to his sullen disposition, which also served to trigger the affair. The fateful event took place on the 22nd day of the sixth month of 1614 (Keicho 19). That was the day that Toyotomi Hideyori, the young son of the late Taiko Hideyoshi, who held the rank of Minister of the Right, held a celebratory feast to mark the completion of the Great Buddha Hall in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto.

Although it seems surprising nowadays, there were times when commoners were allowed to visit the Imperial Palace, and it was said that crowds of townsfolk came to see Noh or Sarugaku performances.

In the Korō Chabanashi, it gives the date as the 11th day of the 6th month of the 16th year of Keicho, but this is slightly confusing as this doesn’t match the date of the completion of the Great Buddha. Similarly, in the Jozan Kidan it gives the date as Keicho 7, but Hideyori was given the rank of Minister of the Right in the 4th month of Keicho 10. If we take the date as the 22nd day of the 6th month of Keicho 19, which appears to be most likely, it was ten years after the contest between Musashi and the Yoshioka school.

A Disturbance at the Palace

That day, the accounts say, Seijirō joined the crowds making their way to watch the Noh performance, but it seems he wasn’t in a very good mood even before setting out. Most of the spectators had to stand to watch, and the jostling of the crowd would only have served as an extra irritation. In several writings there is mention of zoushiki, the attendants and porters of the Imperial archives and the retired emperor’s palace, one of whom, it is written, mistakenly hit Seijurō with the stick he was carrying.

In the Kourō Chabanashi it says that he was hit on the head, but it is difficult to believe that someone as skilled as Seijurō would allow himself to be struck like this by a palace attendant. Reading carefully, one can detect a feeling that the palace attendants would have had no very high opinion of a townsman who had gained prominence as a swordsman: the Yoshioka family were tradesmen, and their occupation, dyers, was not a particularly distinguished one. In any case, the attendant must have been careless – he was probably unaware of his sullen, headstrong nature, and banged into him with the cane he was carrying. If the attendant had apologised, the events that followed would probably never have taken such a fatal course. However, it seems likely that he either didn’t apologize or gave him an insulting look. Even if this was not the case, it is easy to imagine the attendant, who had most likely been drinking, raising his voice threateningly. Both parties probably exchanged a few words, with both of them giving as good as they got. Finally Seijirō must have lost patience and drawn his sword, attacking the man. He would have cut him down easily, all the more so if the attendant was drunk. With his sword still drawn he regained his composure, but the situation was not good. There were many people in the palace who had been watching the quarrel: instantly the attendant’s friends surrounded him.

The Fight

Seijirō remained unperturbed, typical of his obstinate nature. Taking care not to allow anyone to move round behind him, he slowly closed in on the opponents in front of him, though he had no intention of attacking straight-away. Rather than attacking, he was probably considering provoking their attacks so he could counter. There were a great number of opponents, and he was on his own, so it was important for him not to waste his strength.

Closing the distance can also serve as an invitation: it is almost certain that the enemy will be unsettled by such a manoeuver and take the bait. The strategy known as “go no sen” is relevant here. This teaches how to utilise waiting to your advantage. But there is more to it than this; it can be dangerous to advance. If you expose a blind spot, you will be vulnerable to a thrust from this quarter.

The tension Seijiro had created was too much – his assorted opponents began to attack.

According to one theory, Seijirō was using a short sword – when he was at distance from which he couldn’t cut, he would suddenly raise his sword revealing a momentary opening to the opponent with whom he was engaged; as the opponent attacked Seijirō took that opportunity to enter and cut his opponent down. According to the Honcho Bugei Shoden, he climbed onto the stage to get his breath, jumped down and cut, then mounted it again; when the enemy surged forward dangerously, he could jump down and strike again. Seijirō utilised the art of tengu jumping – reminiscent of Minamoto Yoshitsune’s hassō tobi, it certainly seemed to come from the Kyo-ryu, passed down from the tengu of Kurama.

A number of Yoshioka students saw what was happening from afar, but nobody moved to help Seijirō. It’s true that they needn’t have interceded in the scuffle, but why did they look on passively? That was probably because they put so much trust in his skill and sheer bloody-mindedness.

Here comes the fuzz

The chief magistrate of Kyoto (Shoshidai), Itakura Katsushige, Lord of Iga, was informed immediately of the disturbance in the Imperial Palace. It was his job to deal with it. According to the Jozan Kidan, Katsushige took a naginata and faced Seijirō himself - however, this can be put down to exaggeration. It would have been highly unlikely for Kazushige, who was then in his 60s, to undertake something like this himself. The versions in which he sends his vassal, Ota Chuubei, seem far more probable. Chuubei, whose personal name was Kaneuji, was also known as Ryukage. He came from Hanawa-mura in Omi-kuni (present day Shiga Prefecture), and was skilled in the Yagyu Shinkage ryu. So, Seijirō, with an art directly transmitted from the Kyo ryu, itself descended from the Shinto ryu, would be facing Chuubei, who was skilled in one of the three great streams of swordsmanship, the Kage ryu. And it was not just the Kage ryu, but the extremely polished Yagyu Shinkage ryu that would be contrasted to the art of the, as yet undefeated, Yoshioka ryu – it was definitely something worth seeing.

As far as skill was concerned, both men were on a par. It was impossible to predict the winner. However, when they crossed swords, somehow, from the impact, Seijirō slipped. In the Honcho Bugei Shoden it says the cords of his hakama had come undone causing him to stumble and fall. If we check the Gekiken Sodan, it notes that he fell face upwards. Chuubei then spoke, “Striking a fallen foe is shameful for a bushi. Stand, and we will fight in the normal way.”

Seijirō took these words at face value. No sooner had he heard them than he began to rise. While he was doing so, Chuubei cut him down with a single blow. Those watching praised Chuubei for cutting down his opponent as he rose, but afterward his master, on the recounting of the victory, asked whether he should be proud of killing a fallen foe. With a faint smile, Chuubei replied, “In a situation like this, if you try to cut a fallen oponent, you will be opening yourself, and it is you who will be cut instead. Even when lying down, there is kyo and jitsu. When he was on the ground, Yoshioka may have been kyo or, then again, he may have been jitsu, but in any case, he was not an opponent it would have been easy to cut. While lying on the ground, he may have looked kyo, trying to defend himself, but it seemed that in the next instant he could have cut me as I drew close (jitsu). But whether it is really kyo or jitsu, it is not as if a fallen foe cannot regain his feet. Indeed, it is just at this moment that he is really in a defenceless kyo state. It was this that I was relying on when I struck him down.

The effects of Seijirō’s death

(As the Honcho Bugei Shoden notes, the magistrate Itakura Katsushige decided to take no action against the Yoshioka family because of the restraint they showed during Seijiro’s fight – which seems rather unusual). Seijirō was not head of the family, but if his name was so well known, word went around that the head of the family must be really skilled indeed, and the fame of the Yoshioka ryu echoed around the whole country. The quiet city of Kyoto was in shock … and the Yoshioka family, with its connections to the shogunal house of Ashikaga, came under the close scrutiny of the Tokugawa Bakufu. They were probably under extreme pressure. In the 10th month of that year, on the advice of one of their relatives, Mishuku Masatomo (1566-1615), Lord of Echizen, the Yoshioka family took part in the Winter Seige of Osaka, on the Toyotomi side. There is a theory that, when peace was declared, they took down their shingle, and abandoned the martial arts. After the war, based in the Nishinotoin Shijo-sagaru area, they learned kurocha dying from the Chinese Li San Kan to create what was known as nanban kurozome. The founder of this dyeing wasn’t Naotsuna (i.e. Seijūrō) but Naoshige (Denshichirō), it is said. They specialized in the business of dyeing, building up their fortune through their speciality Yoshioka-zome and kenpo-zome. (I must admit there are several inconsistencies in the way these accounts have been meshed, but I’ll let them pass).

The Yoshioka school of swordsmanship still just managed to survive, according to one account: in the Mukashi Banashi, a journal written by a warrior of the Owari domain, Chikamatsu Shigenori, it mentions that there were records of an adept by the name of Yoshioka Kahei in later years, who showed some of the secrets of the Yoshioka school to the Lord of Owari.”

Just to add to the confusion of names, the picture is Utagawa Kuniyoshi's print of Yoshioka Kanefusa.The picture clearly depicts Seijirō's battle at the Palace, but Kanefusa is also the name given, in some accounts, to Seijū, who fought Musashi. It comes from the wonderful Kuniyoshi Project.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Last of the Yoshiokas


The story of Miyamoto Musashi, as recounted in Yoshikawa Eiji's novel and countless versions since then has an instantly recognizable story, with episodic duels marking stages in his training and development. One of these, of course, is with the Yoshioka school of swordsmen in Kyoto.

Musashi comes to Kyoto, challenges the present head of the family that his father had once fought, beats him, then beats his brother in a follow-up duel, and, in the morning mists at Ichijoji (the title of this blog!) has to fight his way through the whole Yoshioka school, killing the 10(?) year-old titular challenger, and making his escape over the fields towards Mt. Hiei. Their principle members beaten or dead, the school collapsed shortly thereafter.

Although the story is based on historical records, there are also conflicting accounts, principally from the Yoshioka-den, the family record. As early as 1714, in the Honcho Bugei Shoden, there are several varying accounts of the meeting - the author noted that he just wrote them all rather than trying to sort out the veracity of their claims.

Rather than examine this series of incidents themselves, I want to look a little more closely at another incident - one that seems to bear a more direct relation to the demise of the family as teachers of the sword.

The Yoshioka Family
To make things a little easier to understand, I will just give a brief guide to the principal members of the family - they are quite easy to confuse, and sorting through the various accounts available in English (and Japanese) can be quite confusing because of the similarity in names.

For a start, the founder of the family sword tradition was known as Yoshioka Kenbo, although this is often read as Kenpo in the modern reading. Confusingly, the title Kenbo was passed down to the head of the family, so Musashi also fought a Yoshioka Kenbo, and another member of the family (who we will come onto later) is referred to in the Honcho Bugei Shoden by the same name - and a confusing entry on Wikipedia doesn't help things.

Of course, they had other names, which are also a little difficult to get straight as they all start with the character 直 (Nao). And as officianados of the Musashi story know, the brothers he fought were called Seijūrō and Denshichirō (and also had Nao appellations as well).

Here is a list of the main characters in our story:
Yoshioka Kenbo Naomoto : the founder
Yoshioka Kenbo Naomitsu : the founder's brother
Yoshioka Kenbo Matasaburo Naokata: he fought Musashi's father, Munisai

The following are three brothers, and sons of Naokage:
Yoshioka Kenbo Naotsuna (Seijūrō): fought Musashi
Yoshioka Mataichi Naoshige (Denshichirō): fought Musashi
Yoshioka Seijirō Shigekata: also referred to as Kenbo in Honcho Bugei Shoden

Yoshioka Matashichirō: Naotsuna's young son slain by Musashi at Ichijoji.

I hope you noticed the names of the two brothers Naotsuna and Shigekata, Seijūrō (清十郎) and Seijirō (清次郎).
The next part is where things get interesting...

The picture is from Inoue Takehiko's Vagabond - The Yoshioka swordsmen waiting for Musashi at Ichijoji.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Time to get moving


Time is a vital element in strategy.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was reading Fukuzawa Yukichi's autobiography - he mentions an unsuccessful attempt on his life during the tumultuous years of the bakumatsu period (1860s), when he had returned to his home domain to bring his mother to Edo where he was living. Xenophobic forces were strong, and as he worked as a translator for the government, he was seen as a suitable target for assassination by the young hotheads of the domain. Fortunately, his would be assassins spent so long arguing over who was to actually kill him, that he and his mother, both unaware of the danger, were gone by the time the attackers reached the inn where they had been staying. (Fukuzawa wryly notes that the precautions he took to preserve his life were never directly used, while he didn't realise he was in danger the times his life was really threatened).

A similar incident occurs in the Heike Monogatari, the account of the fall of the Taira clan in the 12th century. Prince Mochihito, supported by the monks of Miidera, just on the other side of the mountains to the east of Kyoto, are planning a night attack on the Taira mansion in the city. Of course, surprise is of the essence, but they take so long planning the thing that it's almost morning by the time they are ready to set off and the whole thing has to be called off.

It had a very familiar ring to it, which I think must have come from early exposure to Tolkien's use of the same idea in The Hobbit, when Gandalf gets the trolls fighting till daybreak and they are turned to stone.

But literature aside, the ability to make decisions and get things moving is a key factor in all kinds of strategic endeavors. A notable example in the military field is Alexander the Great, who was particularly good at this - much of his success was based on his ability to move faster, and more directly than his opponents, and not just when he was faced by the unwieldy Persian war machine. His early campaigns on the Danube are excellent examples of this.

More recently, the German blitzkrieg in WWII was predicated on constant forward motion - Rommel, for example, noted that his favoured form of reconnaissance was attack. Boyd's OODA loop also touches on this, and the more I go on, the more examples come to mind.

Perhaps the reason why it is so important is that people have a tendency to over-consider their choices before making a move - when we act, our move will change the situation so the choices we spent time considering may no longer exist. The ability to think or act on the fly gives a strong advantage to those who can do it, but ill-considered moves against a strong opponent can prove disastrous. Experience and real skill make all the difference.

But even in everyday life, the ability to move from one activity to another, to act 'immediately' after deciding, is a real boon (and not always my strong point, I admit). The ways in which this don't happen are numerous, and correct timing is also a vital consideration - sometimes you have to wait and pick your moment - but on the whole, it gives you an immense advantage to be able to do things fast.
Illustration: The Tale of Heike Illustrated Scroll, Edo period, Okayama Art Museum