Saturday, 26 February 2011

Afternoon tea and tsuba

After a hard day's shopping in downtown Osaka, there is always the vexed question of where to go for a bit of a rest and refreshment. This is particularly true at the weekend, when everywhere you try seems to have been invaded by an army of jaded shoppers. If you are inclined to spend a little on your luxuries, you can't do much better than the St. Regis Hotel, Honmachi, just a few minutes walk from the busy Shinsaibashi area.

Skip the enticing tearoom on the ground floor, and head straight for the St. Regis Bar on the 12th. Don't be put off by the atmosphere of refined opulence as you pass through the lobby, or the sequestered hush as you approach the imposing entrance to the bar, with its air of a gentleman's club - it makes a very nice place to spend a while over a pot of tea.

But why is this of any interest to you?

Well, the theme of the bar is Momoyama Japan, and for anyone with a passing interest in Japanese swords or related themes, it should prove quite an interesting experience. There are no actual swords or tsuba on display, but the stylish decor is all planned with this theme in mind. Some of the elements are quite well-hidden, but come as a pleasant surprise as you notice them.

One thing you will notice, however, is the large painting behind the bar, which is by the contemporary painter Yamaguchi Akira.  He is an artist who certainly deserves his recognition - he combines fine draughtsmanship with a quirky but sensitive humour (in the manner of W. Heath Robinson) with an interest and appreciation of historical themes, while using western materials (water colour and oils) to mimic traditional Japanese painting styles. He did some nice illustrations for the 'Duelling Geniuses' show at the Tokyo National Museum a few years back, which was organised on an 'X vs Y' theme.
This is a screen shot from their promotional website:

Kano Eitoku vs Hasegawa Tohaku

I was thinking of him recently: he had an exhibition at Oyamazaki Sanso (a small, 1920's villa between Kyoto and Osaka) last year - he completed most of his works at the villa, which also happens to be very close to the site of the Battle of Yamazaki, in which Hideyoshi defeated Akechi Mitsuhide, (who had killed Oda Nobunaga shortly before). The current year-long Taiga drama has just dealt with this episode, and as I was passing on the train, my mind ran back to the exhibition. What should I see that very same day, but this work by him. Actually, seeing works by particular artists can be a bit of a hit and miss thing in Japan: there are few standing public collections with permanent exhibitions, and private museums often suffer from a lack of space, so they are perpetually showing different portions of their collections. Being able to see the work of a contemporary artist is even more difficult, so this was a nice opportunity, and it's nice to know it's there all the time.

A close up of the painting behind the bar, showing the Tsutenkaku

The theme is Osaka no Ran - the Seige of Osaka Castle, in the common semi-panoramic style employed for cityscapes in the Momoyama and Edo periods, complete with gold leaf clouds for spacial transitions, but it also features a number of motifs from the modern city, including the instantly recognizable Tsutenkaku - the much loved (so I am told) tower at Tennoji.

The rest of the bar, including the high ceiling, are in keeping with this theme - less symbolism than motif, of course. Here is one of the door handles:

..and here is one of the mirrors.

And lets not forget the karesansui rock garden, complete with strolling path and a view over the city.

Very nice and highly recommended.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Knowledge management - kata and memory

The movie Seppuku is constructed around the strategic management of knowledge and memory .

Where do you put your learning?
Learning in the field of martial arts is an intensely personal process, and in the field of traditional martial arts it is based on the very important relationship between the teacher and student. Having said that, much of the actual learning is something that has to happen alone.

My own experience (leaving aside the continuing and very real frustration that is also an important part of the process) is of a succession of insights of varying importance - sometimes minor adjustments in the way I see things; at other times major discoveries that necessitate a total reassessment of what I have learned. Some of these insights stay with me, at other times, they fade slowly away, leaving only a vague memory of something important.

Kata as a means of storing knowledge
In-depth study in any field, involves not only coming to grips with the material being studied itself, but also organizing and storing that knowledge so it can be accessed later. The growing field of knowledge management attests to the necessity of addressing this problem in some kind of rational way. In traditional bugei, very little of the knowledge was written down in detail. It was learnt and retained in the body, drilled to such a degree that the body habitually moved in ways that were consistent with the teachings, which themselves were contained and passed on in series of choreographed sets of movements generally known as kata.

Of course, kata were not unique to martial arts, but were and continue to be used in a number of disciplines. Like remembering lines of a song,  they are an efficient way of storing sequences of movement through memorizing set routines.

They have been the subject of much debate - how effective can pre-arranged drills be in preparing anyone for something as unpredictable as fighting- and not just in the present day... in Japan there were arguments about this two hundred years ago. In Kenjutsu no Fushikihen (On Ignorance in Swordsmanship), written by Kimura Kyuhou in 1764, the writer talks of his teacher, who went to spy on other schools in his area:

"All of them employed paired kata and there were none who had achieved outstanding skill. Among those who showed little understanding were those orthodox teachers who created and taught choreographed patterns. Although it is said this makes it easy to understand and refine the principles of the style, the results should bear this out. They are unable to lead anyone to realization of the principle."

The strong feelings on both sides of the argument attest to both the value and the potential short-comings of the method. However, kata serve other purposes than simply training one through repetition of the movements.

Kata as a memory palace
One of the less noted, but nonetheless important functions of kata is as a focus for the recall of memories. You get out of kata what you put into them, and this is not just the sweat and hard work that is a necessary part of their learning and practice. The process of learning imbues a kata with knowledge directly related to the learning and practice of that kata: nuances of the movements, the principles it embodies, the applications it represents. It also serves as a means of storage for insights that have been gained by a student through personal practice. These may stem directly from practice of elements of the kata, or from other sources which can be applied to the kata.

The performance of a particular movement by your teacher may throw your mind back to some particular point he made when you were learning it, or some other understanding you gained while seeing him perform it. Or when practicing some movement you recall the time your teacher used it to explain some deeper, more far reaching principal or your art. Practicing yourself, as well as watching others practice can bring up whole chains of association, refreshing and reinforcing your knowledge.

The nature of learning a traditional art is such that what you learn from your teacher takes precedence over what you have learned from other sources; indeed subsequent knowledge is filtered and assessed in terms of what was passed on to you from your teacher. In this sense, the reiteration and consolidation of that knowledge is part of the ongoing process of continuing that connection, both with your teacher in particular, and your tradition, the flow of knowledge from past generations. In this sense they form a defense against the ephemeral, the trendy and personal whims.

This is also the reason that symbols are so particular within a particular traditional, or even to a particular teacher within that tradition. The value of a symbol lies in the way it can be tied to your learning - borrowing without understanding this aspect is of little value. Similarly, study of old texts is of limited value for your own practice unless they can be understood and absorbed. However, the additional value gained from reinforcing your own learning through seeing it from alternative viewpoints can be an interesting and worthwhile exercise. This rarely applies to the mokuroku and similar documents of other schools, which are meant, at one level, to unlock these insights. Just the name of a technique, written with all the weight of tradition, and the respect due to one's teacher, could serve as a very powerful adjunct to learning, adding an additional sense of legitimacy to conglomerate of knowledge it represented.

There is nothing particularly unusual in this - leafing through the family photo album produces something of the same effect - but it is a valuable tool for storing knowledge and learning. Unfortunately, this mechanism is no respecter of merit, and could just as easily apply to any series of movements learned in similar circumstances, regardless of their value in terms of the art they purport to be part of.

But that's another story.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Saya no Uchi - principle and practice

From Ratti & Westbrook's Secrets of the Samurai

One of the attractions of the Japanese martial arts are the esoteric sounding concepts it contains. One such is saya no uchi, which literally means 'within the saya' and is a shortening of a phrase which can be translated as 'victory is obtained while the sword is in the saya'.

It is an interesting concept, but like many others, it is open to a variety of interpretations. The principle differences in this case lie on either side of the line separating the classical martial arts and the more modern disciplines. Whatever we call them, we can see quite a large difference between the older disciplines which claim their primary focus is combat, and the more modern ones, especially those that have positioned themselves as modern budo. Their aims and philosophies also colour their interpretations of concepts such as saya no uchi. The differences are sometimes slight, but they are telling.

If we look at the mindsets at the two extremes of these positions, the differences are quite clear. This is a description of the aims of modern iaido:

"Iaido does not actually mean overcoming an enemy, but overcoming one's own self. The only and the most dangerous opponent in iaido is the practitioner himself. Victory in iaido consists of a forgiving heart and avoidance of fight. Iaido means training toward human perfection. In it there is never a murderous intention to kill another human being. It is said that with endless practice the practitioner learns to understand his place in the universe."

Contrast this with the opening line of Hirayama Shiryu's Kensetsu (Sword Theory), written at the beginning of the 19th century:  
  My swordsmanship is for slaying the enemy brutally. 

With such different perspectives, it is no wonder that concepts contained in both arts are interpreted differently. In iaido, the normal interpretation of saya no uchi is that it means winning without drawing the sword; a victory of the spirit. It is held out as a kind of ultimate goal. How exactly this is to be achieved is not clear, but it is sometimes held to be a kind of moral position - the ability to win without fighting.

This is in sharp distinction to the stance taken by combat oriented arts, in which it refers to the positioning that puts one in a winning position prior to the fight. Rather than winning without fighting, it is attaining victory before fighting. On an individual level, this might involve extremely subtle movements, but could easily be extrapolated to large scale conflicts involving armies. Sun Tzu expressed just this concept when he wrote:

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

We might be justified in regarding it as a strategic or tactical principle, in fact. However, in the classical martial arts, such principles were not left as theories, but were taught through concrete techniques and applications, though often ones in which the mental aspect was also vital. Matsuura Seizan, writing in the early 19th century, alludes to this in his Joseishi Kendan:

I will tell you the key to learning this: the potential of drawing the sword and cutting down the opponent is present while the sword is still sheathed. Even as you glimpse an opportunity as the opponent moves, that cut is already present in the sheathed sword. 

Which is to say, the sword is in operation even though it is still in the saya. The technicalities of this are another thing entirely, but those who are familiar with this from personal experience will recognize the truth of Seizan's explanation.

That is not to reject the value of resolving conflicts without fighting. In fact Seizan gives an example of this from his first meeting with the man who was to become his teacher in Confucianism, Minagawa Kien. This was a man not particularly known for his swordsmanship, a scholar, in fact, but who wore two swords as men of his class did in those days. Seizan, who was young and serious about his swordsmanship, made fun of Kien for wearing swords despite his scholarly demeanor. "What would you do if I attacked you now?" he asked. Kien was not in the least perturbed, but replied that every time he picked up his swords he did so with the resolution to use them, and so he was perfectly prepared to use them now, if necessary. If Seizan wanted proof, he had only to attack him and he would show him. Seizan backed down and was forced to admit that he had been defeated by the strength and sincerity of Kien's commitment. This is much closer to the saya no uchi of budo, but Seizan doesn't comment on whether he regarded it as an example of the concept or not. I rather think he didn't, although he does say how impressed he was with Kien.

I will take this chance to recommend my book 'The Samurai Mind', published by Tuttle and due out next month, which includes translations of Seizan's Joseishi Kendan and Hirayama Shiryu's Kensetsu. It is by me, of course, which is another good reason to check it out.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Plum Blossom Lore

Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856)

Although it's only the first week of February, the last few days have seemed quite spring-like.. despite the snow that is still visible on the mountains to the north of Kyoto, and the dead grass that covers the banks of the Kamo River. It should have been no surprise to find that February 4th is the day known as Rishun, which marks the start of spring in the old Japanese calendar. This early spring period runs through the 18th of the month, and is closely associated with plum blossom.

The ume - more properly an apricot, it seems, but generally known as plum - is just coming into flower during this period, though it won't come into full bloom until near the end of the month. I associate it particularly strongly with China and Japan, and it often appears in literature and art here, not to mention as a favorite plant in gardens. The sweet scent of a plum orchard in flower is quite strong, and if you go to a plum bonsai exhibition, such as the one held in Nagahama every year, almost unbelievably concentrated and quite beautiful, even - I would think- for non-flower lovers.

The plum tree itself is quite striking, with its delicate flowers, characteristically a mix of full blossom and new buds set against the angular and harshly pruned branches, making it a popular motif in visual art, both in China and Japan. (If I had to make a generalisation, I would say Chinese paintings tend to emphasise profusion, and Japanese ones, sparseness in their depictions.)

The particular angularity of the plum is also the subject of a proverb:
                     Sakura kiru baka; ume kiranu baka
It's stupid to prune a cherry tree - and stupid not to prune a plum - a comment on the failings of a 'one size fits all' policy.

The plum is also included among 'The three friends of winter' and 'The four gentlemen' (as the translations usually go) - traditional groupings of plants that often appear in art. The three friends, sho-chiku-bai, are pine, bamboo and plum, which all have positive associations connected with strength and endurance during the cold months of winter. The four gentlemen, shikunshi, is a closely related theme that was popular in Chinese art and later adopted in Japan. The plants - plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, each represent one of the seasons, as well as noble virtues. In fact the word kun (jun Ch.) is one of those untranslatable words with connotations of nobility and virtue, but which tends to sound a bit hokey in English. It is Confucius's 'virtuous man'.

The four gentlemen also form part of the foundation of the art of ink painting - especially in the literati (and now hobbyist) style. As well as their symbolic nature, they also serve as a bridge for  well-practiced brush wielding scholars to move from the field of calligraphy into picture-making, using the same brush strokes they had been using for years, but in a more graphic role.

In Japan, there seems to have been little direct relation with the martial world, other than that provided by the cultural associations common to society at large. By way of contrast, the connections in the Chinese martial arts world are many and varied - and include a famous style of Northern boxing, Meihua quan (Plum Flower Fist/Boxing) and its off-shoots, as well as a number of forms in different styles that bear its name.

Nevertheless, there are several stories that feature plum blossom, with their own, uniquely Japanese, atmosphere.

Oshukubai - The plum where the nightingale dwells (bai is another reading of the character for plum)
By Tsuchiya Koitsu - from the Ohmi Gallery Website

This tale concerns the old plum tree of the emperor, which stood on one side of the entrance to the imperial palace, the Sakon no Ume, or plum of the left, along with its counterpart, Ukon no Tachibana, sweet orange of the right (sa and u are alternative readings for the characters left and right). Seeking a replacement, his courtiers found one in the garden of Ki no Tsurayuki (872-945), the famous poet. Before they carted it off (tree transplanting was a well developed art), Tsurayuki's daughter wrote the following poem, which she hung from its branches:

Choku nareba itomo kashiko shi uguisu no yado wa to towaba ikaga kotaemu
Since my lord commands, I can but obey.
but what shall I tell the nightingale when it cannot find its nest?

The emperor Murakami was obviously touched by this, and returned the tree, planting a cherry tree in its place. The nightingale (otoguisu or bush warbler, to be more exact), is often paired with the plum blossom in art - in fact Keats is said to have composed the first draft of 'Ode to a Nightingale' while sitting under a plum tree.

(Interestingly, Tsurayuki's poem in the famous collection Hyakunin Isshu (number 35) is about the plum blossom, where he compares its reliability to the changeability of the human heart.)

 Abe no Muneto
A more amusing anecdote concerns the aftermath of a rebellion by Abe no Sadato, who was beaten and slain after a protracted series of campaigns by Minamoto Yoriyoshi and his son. Yoshiie, Sadato's younger brother, Muneto, was brought back to court and condemned to exile. While he was waiting for the sentence to be carried out, a courtier, curious about this semi barbarian from the northern provinces, brings a branch of flowering plum and asks, "What do you call this?"
Muneto replied:
In my country, where I saw it often
we call it ume,
But for the true name,
we need a courtier to tell us.

Genda Kagesuye (by Kuniyoshi)
Kajiwara Genda Kagesuye
This fierce warrior fought at the battle of Ikuta (in the Gempei War, on the side of the Minamoto) with a branch of plum blossom thrust into his quiver (ebira), a reminder of his love  and was the inspiration for the noh drama of that name. During the battle, he lost his helmet, and the motif of a helmet with a branch of plum blossom was sometimes used in art.
There is a lot more to be said about him, but that will have to wait for another time. The same is also true of....

...Maeda Toshiie
Finally, I couldn't miss out the famous general Maeda Toshiie, who fought under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and whose crest was the plum blossom, as you can see here:
Late 19th century print showing Maeda Toshiie in action - he was famous for his use of the spear