Sunday, 24 April 2011

Samurai Soul

I got a bit busy this week, so only this for now: a light-hearted look at samurai life.

Sword practice in the back garden

Writing about Hirayama Shiryu for the past couple of weeks, put me in mind of this - a life where everything is subsumed into the world of martial arts. It's from the music video for the song Samurai Soul by the pop/rock group Ulfuls. Good song - kind of quirky, soulful rock, I suppose - and a fun video.

Folding the washing

For those of you familiar with Japanese houses, I'm sure you'll appreciate the details. And even sensitive ears needn't be worried about being subjected to screaming guitars and a wall of noise. It helps if you understand Japanese - but it's not essential.

Here's the link for youtube: Samurai Soul-Ulfuls

And if you like that, I also recommend Guts - da ze, which has a really goofy video, complete with a ninja trying to assasinate Tono-sama. It's kind of catchy, too.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Hirayama Shiryu - some stories

Hirayama Shiryu was a rare character, obsessive when it came to the world of bugei (martial arts). All the stories I have heard about him bear out his forceful character and his emphasis on determination and courage as the key components of martial arts.  This example of his calligraphy reads "Angry Frog" - it can be pronounced onomatopoeically "Do-a". It refers to the story of a frog that announced it's defiance as one of the warlords of ancient China was invading a neighboring territory. It certainly displays vigor and energy in the two main characters, which accord well with Hirayama's martial character, as does the bravery of the small frog, but one should also pay attention to the signature at the side. The characters display grace and refinement, indicating that Hirayama developed skills that required more than sheer energy and determination. interestingly, this is also very visible in Musashi's painting and calligraphy, suggesting the high degree of physical control and finesse developed in traditional bugei. Interestingly, this quality is usually not present in the calligraphy of Zen priests, whose work often expresses forcefulness at the expense of flexibility. However, this more refined side of Hirayama's nature is something that does not normally come out in the stories about him.

As a young man, he was a student of Shibukawa Tokifusa, head the style of jujutsu of that name. Once, when practicing with the son of his master, he applied a shime-waza (strangle-hold) that left his partner unconscious. When he did not come to, Hirayama and his fellow students attempted to revive him, but to no avail. After many anxious minutes, he eventually came round. Throughout the whole incident, Hirayama retained his composure, despite the panic of his fellow students. When asked about it, he said that he had already resolved to take responsibility by committing seppuku, should their teacher's son have died, so there was no cause for alarm.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the attitude discussed in Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure, written a hundred years or so earlier. By Hirayama's time, this was somewhat outdated, I suspect, but it is worth noting that death by seppuku continued both as a judicial punishment and as a personal statement of responsibility until the beginning of the Meiji period, (and, indeed, in the latter case, beyond).

Another story that well illustrates his character is an episode that occurred with one of his friends, Shimizu Akagi, who was obviously of a similar mind to Hirayama. Walking home one cold evening in winter, Shimizu remarked "The heroes of old used to fight in the middle of winter. If we are serious about our martial studies, shouldn't we prepare ourselves for the same. How about a little swim?"
Hirayama, of course, agreed, so they both got into the icy water.
After finishing their swim and getting out, Hirayama proposed a nice bowl of hot noodles, to which his friend replied "Gotcha! They wouldn't have had that kind of luxury on the battlefield!"
Hirayama conceded the point, and they both went their separate ways home.

However, Hirayama's friend, on his way back, figuring Hirayama would go back home and be snuggled up warm in bed, thought he would surprise him and score double points. When he got to Hiryama's place, he was not in bed, but sitting on his normal oak board (which he used in place of a cushion), studying, according to his normal schedule. (In fact, he usually slept on the floor of his dojo rather than in a futon, with only a light cover, so I doubt he would have been getting very warm in any case).

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

My swordsmanship is for killing!

A brief introduction to Hirayama Shiryu (1759-1828) (Shiryu was one of several pen names he used along with Kozo, Gyozo to name but two, and his real name, Heigen), one of the fiercest and most uncompromising swordsmen of the mid-late Edo period.

What better way to introduce him, than by a picture of his dojo. Apparently out of bounds to women apart from his mother..who was apparently a formidable woman in her own right (his teacher of swordsmanship, Yamada Shosai, was rumoured to have gone even further in his renunciation of the fair sex, but I won't go into details here), a peek through the door gives us a clue to his wide-ranging martial interests with the rack of guns that is just visible.

Like Matsuura Seizan, his contemporary (see last entry) he was a man of many parts, but unlike Seizan, these were nearly all martial. Despite this, I first became aware of him, more than twenty years ago, as a calligrapher, rather than a bugeisha, and it was only later that I began to find out the full extent of his martial studies.

Born into a family with strong martial traditions, he started his training at a young age, eventually establishing a daily regimine which started at 4am and included hundreds of strikes with a variety of weapons, including an extremely large wooden sword, which you can see below. (This one actually belonged to one of his senior students, Soma Daisaku).

He was, in fact, a self-confessed master of the bugei ju-happan (18 weapons), and in his case, this was no idle boast. His dojo and living quarters were filled with a veritable armory of weapons of all sizes, including small cannons, and suits of armour. he was also a prolific reader and collector of military works, and the author of several hundred books and essays himself, two of which: Kensetsu and Kencho, are included in The Samurai Mind.

Inside Hirayama's dojo

 Kensetsu is a short essay which presents Hirayama's theories on swordsmanship, while Kencho is a companion work that provides classical references to back up his ideas. Lest the idea of using classical works strikes you as a little dry and academic (after all, didn't Musashi present his work by specifically not using them?) this should be seen as providing a kind of authority and assuring his public that these weren't solely his own ideas, or mere philosophical ramblings. Perhaps this was wise, because he was highly critical of much of the swordsmanship around him. He noted that famous "martial artists" rarely performed successfully on the battlefield, and extolled the value of bravery over skill.

Despite his wide reading, he was very far from being dry and academic himself. His swordsmanship was simple and effective, based on the idea of an indomitable attacking spirit. Despite the criticism it received for being as inelegant as Hirayama was himself, he had a sign-board at his dojo declaring a willingness to take on all comers with any weapons they desired, firearms included. Invariably, his techniques proved effective.

Despite all this, he retained a somewhat ironic view of his own pursuits - A Verse of Eight Follies which was tacked on the end of Kensetsu when it was prepared for general publication vividly shows his awareness of his position:

Soldiers are curbed, war obsolete—to what extent you cannot guess—yet you have exquisite discourses on the methods of frontal and indirect attacks. 
This is the second folly.

More on this interesting and strangely attractive character next time

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Secrets in daily life - the Joseishi Kendan

A statue of Seizan in Hirado, his sometime domain, near Nagasaki.

This is the second of the works that I translated in The Samurai Mind, and it is one that is rather different from Neko No Myojutsu, and well worth taking a closer look at.

The Joseishi Kendan is a bit like a garage sale, but though it might be a bit messy and confusing, there's something for everyone. It consists of a host of assorted notes and mini-lectures arranged with apparent disregard for notions of order, but all of them concerned, to a lesser or greater degree, with swordsmanship.

It is not clear if Matsuura Seizan, the Joseishi of the title, wrote it himself or if it is an assembly of notes and assorted writings someone else (presumeably one of his students) put together at a later date. There is certainly evidence of some editing by someone other than Joseishi, but there is also enough written in the first person to believe that the editorial comments are later additions.

Seizan, was a man of many parts - a retired daimyo, Confucian scholar, educator, essayist, and swordsman, and about whom I have written  elsewhere. It is always interesting to gain insight into people's lives and the role their arts played within them. In the world of martial arts, there seems to be a tendency to laud the biggest and the baddest, with little regard to how they lived, and how their opinions and lifestyles relate to our own. Seizan is particularly interesting because of the depth and well-roundedness of his own life, and much of this is reflected in his writing.

As an enthusiast, he was concerned with the intersection of everyday life and swordsmanship - he is surprisingly modern in his use of examples from everyday life to illustrate his points, showing how insight could be obtained from a variety of sources. Along with this is an often recurring theme - he reminds his reader that although there are secrets, they are nothing special, but rather constitute a continuatio of the practices of everyday life. Some of his examples are easy to follow, others are more abstruse, but a single thread runs through them - the importance of attention and awareness.

His interest in the commonality of a variety of phenomena is also part of Neo-Confucian teachings of the Zhu-Xi school, which stressed that 'truth' or ri, the 'principle' (of life, the universe and everything) can be discovered through wide and varied study - the opposite of Zen and Wang Yangming Confucianism, which propose finding the truth within ourselves

To give you a flavor of the way he writes, here he is talking about kyo-jitsu. This is a complex notion that includes aspects of empty-full and false-true dichotomies, but like that other famous duality, yin and yang, it doesn't equate directly with bad and good. In the account given by Ota Chuubei about Yoshioka Seijiro's death, kyo and jitsu are used to explain the dynamics of the endgame of the fight, but they can be used in other ways, too, and are also important technical terms in the teaching of bujutsu.

In the past, once I heard someone say you should think of kyo-jitsu in terms of the opening and closing of doors or sliding screens. This is because the kind of person who throws them open and slams them shut is someone who is empty inside. However fast they go in and out, someone who opens and closes them carefully is full inside, he said. Accordingly I made up my mind to follow this injunction. Beyond that, I understood little of its benefit. Having reached my last years, thinking about this I see it has increasingly become an everyday part of my swordsmanship. I put this here as something I hope people will think about.