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

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