Saturday, 26 March 2011

Neko No Myojutsu - The Mysterious Skills of the Old Cat

The Cornered Rat Attacks the Cat - Ogata Gekko (1892)

Neko no Myojutsu is a story that many people will be familiar with. I first came across it as a student in DT Suzuki's Zen and Japanese Culture, an important but somewhat flawed book in this field, and subsequently it was the first text on swordsmanship that I read in Japanese, being already familiar with the story. It was also the genesis of my book The Samurai Mind. Originally I had envisaged an illustrated version of this story, done in sumi-e, and this was the proposal I sent to several publishers. Stonebridge Press picked it up and asked to see the complete series of illustrations. They liked them, and everything looked set... until their parent company got into trouble and placed a moratorium on new acquisitions. Subsequently Tuttle contacted me and said they were interested in the text, but not the illustrations, and the rest is history.

The importance of Neko no Myojutsu
The fact that it has been translated several times suggests that not only is this an appealing story, but that it might have something interesting to say. Although the author, Issai Chozan, disavowed his own skill as a swordsman, he clearly had a well-developed understanding, and was able to give a very helpful impressionistic view of the inner factors involved higher levels of the art. It is commonly included in Japanese collections of works on swordsmanship, and was, at one time, held as an inner text of the Itto-ryu.

In the context of my book, I regard it as a key to understanding these inner elements of bujutsu.

It is a fable, and this is part of its attraction and why it is so accessible. A samurai named Shoken (his name means 'Victorious Sword' or something along those lines) finds a large rat running about his house. His own cat runs away in fright and he has no luck when he tries to kill it himself. the three experienced rat-catching cats in the area have no luck either, so it is left to an old cat in a neighboring part of town to take care of things. That night, the cats have a little celebration, and ask the old cat to explain why he was so successful. He offers critiques of their methods and goes on to explain his own approach. Shoken has been listening in and interjects his own question, which the old cat answers, expanding on his original answer.

What makes it a key text?
The critiques of the old cat are important in that they compare the different methods of the three cats, each one of which uses an approach focused on one aspect of combat. Actually, each one of these approaches is fairly specific, and anyone with a broad background in martial arts that includes some knowledge about different styles and approaches, and the arguments that surround them will probably find this quite familiar. They are particularly apposite in terms of swordsmanship - from this and other writings, it seems there was some dispute about which was the most effective approach to swordsmanship, both in terms of training and tactical usage during the period in which he was writing... and later, too.

Readers will probably understand these different approaches without too much difficulty. The explanations offered by the cat on why each approach is flawed require a little more care with the translation, and I must admit that some of the translations I have read didn't supply the reader with the clarity and logic present in the original.

The cat's explanation of his myojutsu (marvellous technique) is the heart of the piece, and consequently it is here that a firm understanding of the concepts described, on the part of the translator, is most important to get a real sense of what it all means and why it works. 'It', in this case, refers to these inner factors, often referred to by terms such as shinpo or shinjutsu, that form an important part of the advanced techniques of bujutsu. The most well-known example is probably mushin, which is often treated as an exclusively Zen concept. This story is interesting in that it offers, as I noted before, an impressionistic description and explanation of this area of bujutsu, as well as describing related areas, such as mental domination and harmonizing with the opponent, and explaining why they are different and their relative superiority.

Wrapped up in a story about cats, it makes for a compelling and practical introduction to this area.

Hopefully readers will find my translation in The Samurai Mind leaves them in a better position to understand and appreciate the other works in the collection, which I will be discussing over the next few posts.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Inner secrets - Questioning Old Manuals

Issun saki wa yami - an inch ahead is darkness
Of course, here,  the disastrous events of the 11th are on everyone's mind.
With a rising death toll and thousands missing, even for those not directly involved, it serves as a reminder of just how precarious life can be. This is something that has formed a continuous theme in many expressions of Japanese culture, artistic and literary, and has colored many aspects of life here. Perhaps it is why a premium has been put on keeping orderly records of so many things - a surprising number of which still survive despite their frailty.

Scrolls from the Chikubushima Ryu of bojutsu
Preserving Knowledge
The type of knowledge handed developed and handed down by schools of bujutsu was primarily transmitted person to person in a close and trusted relationship between master and student, and learned through long, intense application. Over the years, much of this knowledge has been lost - schools and styles have died out and the teachings seem less relevant with changes in society and technology. Although the passing on of this kind of knowledge and skill was primarily a person to person affair, written texts did play a role as well. And a surprising number of them exist till this day.

As the translator of a collection of old works on swordsmanship, the question of what can we actually learn from these kinds of works is close to my heart. Of course, they have an intrinsic value for those with historical bent, but what we can learn beyond that, whether they contain anything that we can utilise in our own lives and practice is one that, I suspect, is at the back of many readers' minds.

Some of the works in this, and related, genre have certainly stood the test of time and achieved a canonical status. Sun Tzu's The Art of War, in particular has been read widely - for perhaps two thousand years, in fact, and in the late twentieth century, Miyamoto Musashi's Gorin no Sho achieved a wide international readership. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the vagueness or lack of precise detail that allows a variety of interpretations. Though these kinds of works conjure up a feeling, an image of knowledge,  they do not always deliver on their promise, remaining tantalizingly vague and frequently obscure.

So to rephrase the question above, perhaps what we should be asking is whether they contain more than these vague and attractive generalisations, some core of 'deep' knowledge?

If the answer to this is 'yes', we should then ask if we can access that knowledge. With a work like Sun Tzu, the range of notes and interpretations, stretching back a very long way, tell us that not only have many seen it as a valuable work, but that it is one that invites, and perhaps requires, explanation.

The same questions may also be asked of other works. One of the enduring attractions of Musashi's Gorin no sho is the fact that he was a superlative swordsman. The practical value of his work may depend on our ability to interpret it, but Musashi's ability seems to stand as surety of the riches it contains, making it worth the effort to study what he wrote.

We might expand our enquiry to give us the following questions:

    1) Does the original work contain 'deep' knowledge?
        i. Who was the writer? How much did he know?
        ii. To what degree was the writer able to accurately put his knowledge into written form?
        iii. How much did the writer want to reveal?
    2) Is the meaning accessible?   

Who was the writer?
Sometimes this is how we come to the work in the first place - we hear about someone and then find out they have written something. Often, it is the other way round - the written work is what makes the writer famous. How many of Sun Tzu's contemporaries were equal or superior to him?

Of course, a 'track record' is a good reason for reading something in this genre. The notes on Sun Tzu written by Cao Cao, or Zhuge Liang's book on The Art of War, or in the west, Julius Caesar or Napoleon's own works suggest knowledge and understanding that come direct from a master. Whether or not they were concerned with explaining their tactical insights or doing a PR job (as in Caesar's case) might have further bearing on how interesting their writing is.

Sometimes, however, we know little about the writer save what he has written, and it is from this that we must judge his skills. Though it may be unwise to judge prematurely, it is usually possible to gauge something of a writer's skill through the way he writes, the tone he takes, what he mentions and what he doesn't.

To what degree was the writer able to accurately put his knowledge into written form?
There are so many variables in this field, that this question may be almost impossible to answer, relevant as it is. Some, such as Julius Caesar, are recognised as good writers, but this is not always the case. Sometimes a less practised writer may be able to convey the essence of meaning more effectively than  one who is more stylistically accomplished. In any case, although it should be borne in mind that the most skilled practitioner in a field may not be the best writer, it is also true that in this field, authentic knowledge and skill is generally held to be of paramount importance - this is the way these arts were taught and this attitude extends to primary sources in the field. We want to hear what the masters had to say.

How much did the writer want to reveal?
Often these kinds of works were written for a small inner circle of initiates or students of a tradition, sometimes just for one person, and so include references and jargon that only someone already privy to those teachings can readily understand. The Heiho Kadensho, written by Yagyu Munenori, expressly states that it was just for members of the family. Many of the terms used are opaque and not easily understood by outsiders to the Yagyu school of swordsmanship - in fact there is even acknowledgment of this within the text.

Other works give even less information - they are just lists of names of techniques or diagrams that serve to indicate relative importance of particular issues. If Heiho Kadensho is difficult to understand, these might be considered truly impenetrable for outsiders.

There are yet others which use 'coded language'. They might, in fact be quite didactic and even intended for a relatively large audience, but still held something back. Many Taoist work seem to fall into this category, with short-hand or jargon inserted for particular concepts that would only have been explained orally. Works in many other genre fall into this category as well - secrets were valued and well kept in these societies. Though some of them may seem to us to be of little direct value, and others are easily dismissed as being 'merely' this or that, in a world where such things could mean the difference between success and failure, riches and poverty, and ultimately life and death, it ill becomes us to belittle them. In the medieval realm of poetry, one of the most powerful and influential families, the Reizei family, kept secrets that were an important part of its position and power. They included, in this world of hand-copied manuscripts and long memories, copies of poetry collections held by almost no-one else and knowledge of the correct pronunciation of certain words.

Not all writings were meant for such a restricted audience, however, and it is from these that we can expect to gain a greater understanding of the meaning as the writer intended.

Of course, for works in other languages, this is an important consideration. As well as understanding the straight-forward meaning, the technical terms and the specific nuances as they relate to the subject are extremely important; to a practitioner the differences can be small but important, and transform a sentence from a general statement into something with weight and authenticity. In particular, it should allow a seasoned practitioner to be able to understand the intent of the writer, which can be a somewhat different thing from merely transposing the words into fluent English. This is particularly important in the case of terminology for which there is no exact English equivalent, (ki, i, & kokoro spring to mind) and when an inexact choice of words can render a concept devoid of all practical meaning... although sounding fine in English.

And the secrets?
After all that, I must say that I find these works endlessly fascinating. The most interesting of these works are rich in experience and knowledge, sometimes well hidden, and sometimes clearly explained. As with any art or field of study, the advanced teachings are built upon a foundation - the lay person may find them difficult to understand at first, but with a growing familiarity with the concepts and approaches on which they are built, the deeper meanings can become clear. Which is not to claim that I understand everything myself, merely that much of what seems obscure was not meant to be so, and much that is deep, and useful, was not necessarily hidden or secret.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Ishikawa Idayuu - the unknown swordsman

Ishikawa Idayuu (1825-1894)
Occasionally a name or an incident will crop up that will make you want to stop and find out more. Names of people long dead continue to resonate, and some of these, though well-known  in their own day are all but forgotten now.

One such is Ishikawa Idayuu, a swordsman of the Shounai Domain, who was famous enough in his day to be known as one of the three notable masters of the domain (Shounai san meibutsu). The others were a jujutsu master of the Shibukawa-ryu called Akashi Jiemon, and Sagara Judayuu, master of the Mukyoku-ryu of sojutsu, both of whom lived a century or so before Ishikawa.

(The term meibutsu is nowadays used mainly for famous products with which each prefecture is associated – an early government marketing ploy to help local businesses and tourism. Typically, each prefecture has one meibutsu, many of which are taught to school children, who will be able to recite Ehime – mikan (tangerines), Aomori – apples… to name two of the most famous.

The style Ishikawa practised was the Shinkyu-ryu, (新九流) of which little is known nowadays. It was popular both in Shounai and neighboring Aizu, but as both were hold outs against the new Meiji government during the Boshin War, it is not surprising that many of the martial practices in the area would have been supressed. In fact, both Ishikawa and some of his students were active in that war, commanding military units of various sizes, and were afterwards removed from their official positions and subject to other punitive measures.

Ishikawa was born as the 3rd son and adopted as heir into another branch of the same family, who were the hereditary teachers of Shinkyu-ryu heihou. He excelled at this and eventually inherited the position both of head of the style and of the family.

I came across Ishikawa in Matsuura Seizan’s work Joseishi Kendan, where he is the subject of a rather interesting episode. Seizan is interesting as a swordsman in his own right, and as a one-time daimyo was able to travel comparatively freely. Although he does not say so, it seems most likely that he met Ishikawa in Edo – as the chief instructor for swordsmanship for the domain, it is not unlikely that he would have travelled to Edo with his lord, or on other han business and Seizan, too would have spent some time there. Shounai later became responsible for managing security for the city of Edo, and the Shinchogumi – the Edo version of the Shinsengumi – was under the control of Shounai. It was, incidentally, set up by Kiyokawa Hachirou, who was a ronin from Shounai.

The story is related as if Ishikawa is the senior, though in fact Seizan was both older and of higher social status. Seizan did, in fact, study widely, even after being awarded mastery in swordsmanship, and even quite late in life, so it seems he was happy to learn where he could, and from whom he could. He notes how although Ishikawa always talked about swordsmanship (and this was a day and age where it was soon to become, yet again, a very real survival skill), on one occasion he had become very drunk and was stumbling all over the place on his way home. Seizan, who was with him, was thinking to himself that surely Ishikawa was now in a pretty vulnerable condition. When they got back, Ishikawa, who had obviously been faking, said he knew what Seizan had been thinking, but he shouldn’t be too sure of his initial assessment. It was only when he had discovered what someone was hiding that he should be content.

Like many stories from this period, it gives us a glimpse of some of the concerns of swordsmen in those days, and shows us that their art and knowledge went beyond the use of the sword in the dojo. This was knowledge that was tested in the Bakumatsu period – as it happens Kiyokawa Hachiro, a skilled swordsman himself, was killed in the street after being heavily plied with food and drink. (Although he was from Shounai, he was not one of Ishikawa’s students).

Sakai Noritsuge
Sakai Noritsuge (1842-1876), son of an important domain official,  and nick-named ‘Oni-Genba’, was personally involved in the round up of the remnants of the Mito Tengu Insurrection, and there is an account of his skill in using a single sword thrust to bring down a sword wielding opponent. He was also well versed in chinese poetry and playing the flute. Later he became a batallion commander in the Boshin War, and was involved in some fierce fighting, as were both Ishikawa himself and another of Ishikawa’s students, Nakamura Shichiroemon (1843–1907), who became the next head of the Shinkyu-ryu. Lest you have the image of a totally outmoded army of swordsmen facing modern weapons, it must be noted that Nakamura commanded a rifle unit. Nakamura was actually connected to the Sakai family by marriage, and performed as kaishaku at the seppuku of Sakai Noritsuge’s uncle, Ukyou, a leader of han reformers, in 1867.

Ishikawa Shizumasa's portrait of Saigo
The connection with Saigo Takamori
Not 'The Last Samurai', perhaps, but there is an interesting connection with Saigo Takamori, who led the Imperial forces against Shounai and its allies in the Boshin War. After the war, Saigo settled very lenient terms with Shounai, and through this approach won the admiration of many former opponents. The official ‘Records of the Shounai Domain’ reflect this attitude with laudatory comments concerning Saigo’s magnaminity. Prior to this, one of the domain elders, Suge Sanehida, travelled to meet Saigo. He was accompanied by a painter, who later painted this portrait of Saigo. The painter was Ishikawa Shizumasa (1848-1925), the son of Ishikawa Idayuu.

The story of the fishermen
There is one other story of Ishikawa that bears repeating. As well as being famous as a swordsman, he was a famous for his yawara (or jujutsu) – probably as a part of the Shinkyu-ryu teachings. Three young fishermen came to him asking him to teach them yawara for protection in case they were attacked by robbers. Ishikawa accepted them as pupils and for six months had them running up and down the beach as basic training.  Eventually they asked him when he was going to teach them yawara.
“This is your yawara” he replied. “You have a very important job. If you start getting into yawara, you’ll neglect your fishing, which is crucial. So, if anyone attacks you, run! Escape! By losing, you win. Escaping is your victory!”