Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Tiger Paintings - a martial dimension


Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795)


If you were to make a list of typical ‘oriental’ motifs associated with the martial arts, tigers might come somewhere near the top. Not surprisingly, given their strength and ferocity, they have an obvious appeal to those involved in fighting arts. In China, they have provided inspiration for whole systems, as well as components and techniques in many others. 


While tigers are native to China, that is not the case with Japan, so there the attitudes and lore concerning these animals is primarily Chinese in origin. In art, as I mentioned in my previous post, early examples of tiger paintings from the continental mainland became models that Japanese artists were to copy for centuries.


Chinese C13th - possibly by Muqi
(from the collection of the
Tokugawa Museum, Nagoya)

Traditional Chinese painting (and thus Japanese, too) can be seen as taking a different approach from western art (or at least western art from the renaissance onwards). The cultural concerns of these two streams of art dictated different interests : although both were concerned with depicting reality at a deeper than simply surface level, they differed on what this reality was, their art emphasising themes that had the greatest resonance in each respective culture. 


In the west, stylistic developments were connected with increasingly close observation of subjects, combined with an interest in science, particularly optics, but also mathematics, harmonic scales, and anatomy. Developments in these areas can be seen in paintings from the Renaissance onwards. Artists developed an interest in depicting forms ‘in the round’, and utilising their knowledge of perspective, anatomical accuracy, proportion and harmony in composition, as well as the use of camera obscura and other optical aids. Chinese and Japanese artists were also interested in the natural world, but they were less interested in exact physical appearances rather than the spirit of their subjects, including such qualities as strength, softness, and flexibility. This, in turn, required the artist summoning up something of that quality in himself and imparting that during the execution of the work.


Rubens' Tiger Hunt (1616-17). The painter's concern
with the accurate physical representation of the tiger
is clear.

Knowing this suggests there may be more to Japanese depictions of tigers than meets the eye. At different periods, different styles are evident, but until relatively modern times, realism was not a primary concern. Certain features are repeated: the glaring eyes; the prominent eyebrows, the rhythmic line of the body, heavy paws, bristling whiskers and sinuous tail, and the stripes that both describe and break up the curves of the body. Rather than depicting a body of flesh and bone, many paintings seem to show a ripple of supple energy in a striped coat. 

Kano Sanraku (1559-1635) A contemporary
of Rubens, but with different artistic concerns.


Kano Michinobu (1730-1790)
In this later work from the Kano school,
the spirit of the tiger seems quite different.

This may very well be a personal interpretation, and it might be misleading to see Japanese painters as having particular insight into the kinds of energies of interest to bugeisha without any further evidence. Tigers had a range of widely accepted symbolic meanings, some of which were certainly applied to the manners and attitudes of classical bushi. These included the ideas of preparedness (a tiger always sharpens his claws) and virtue (tigers keep their claws sheathed and hide themselves away in bamboo thickets, not outwardly displaying their prowess or threatening others), as well as power and ferocity, and it is highly likely that both the painters and their audience would have had no problem seeing the paintings as illustrative of these. (I discussed an example of this kind of symbolism here).

From Nijo Castle - a sharp-clawed tiger


There is another area where the symbolism would have been recognisable to members of the warrior class, especially the higher ranking members, and this is the realm of military strategy; in particular, military divination.


Military divination is an area that has seen little research among modern historians, tainted as it is with the whiff of superstition. Nonetheless, it was given serious consideration by those involved in warfare. The link with art comes through research into the work of the 16thcentury monk-painter Sesson Shukei (ca.1492-1577), and has only recently come to light.


Sesson was unusual as a painter; although he was highly accomplished, he did not work in nor had he ever visited the capital, Kyoto, but was based to the east, largely in the Kanto region around Odawara, another burgeoning cultural centre. Sesson travelled a fair bit, not that unusual for monks, from his birthplace in present-day Fukushima down to the Kamakura and Odawara area, and built up connections to several networks of learning, notably his Zen lineage and also the Ashikaga Academy, a center for studying Confucianism, medicine, strategy and I-ching divination, whose graduates often found employment from warlords as advisors, negotiators and diviners, skills that were much in demand in those unsettled times. Not all the roles were military – Confucianism was seen as an important tool of governance and experts who were well versed in these teachings were valuable – but military divination was also one of the valued skill sets.


Sesson’s travels took him close to the academy, and several of his works are based on themes closely aligned to its Confucian teachings. It would not have been surprising if he attended lectures there. His mentor and possibly dharma master, Keijo Shisui, had known connections with the academy, while the head of the academy, Kyuka, served Hojo Ujiyasu, the powerful lord of Odawara (and rival of Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin) and it was for Ujiyasu that Sesson painted his screen painting, Dragon and Tiger, (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. There is another by him or his studio in the Nezu Museum, Tokyo). 


Sesson's Dragon (painted between 1546 -1556) -
perhaps the most human of dragons I have seen.
Note the powerful forces that swirl around the dragon,
obscuring and revealing its form. (click on the picture to see
a larger version)

Sesson's Tiger may look playful (Sesson's distance from
the cultural centre, Kyoto, meant he 
did not have access to the more famous models
of dragon and tiger painting), but it crouches,
waiting patiently for the opportune moment,
resisting the strong winds all the while.

For an artist interested in philosphical concepts of being and nothingness and the mutability of form and phenomena, sumi-e is a particularly apt medium. It is hard not to imagine such an artist embuing his works with aspects of his learning in these areas. The art historian Yukio Lippit sees Sesson’s Dragon and Tiger as an explicit representation of this knowledge – in particular, they show the interplay of yin and yang as represented by the tiger and the dragon. For a student of the I-ching, the world is in a state of dynamic flux, constantly generating and regenerating. The dragon, Lippit explains, illustrates the spacial element: visibility and invisibility – “states of exposure and hiddenness”, calling to mind the constantly changing dynamic of advantage and strategic opportunity. The tiger shows the temporal element: waiting, reading the situation, knowing how to choose action or inaction. For men such as Ujiyasu, all this would have been readily understandable. Lippit goes on to suggest a similar connection in Kaiho Yusho’s dragon paintings, as well as other dragon and tiger screens of the Muromachi and early Tokugawa periods.

Kaiho Yusho (1533-1615). One of a pair of dragon paintings
from Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, Kyoto. Looming from
the mists, it suggests the interplay of the visible
and the hidden. Kaiho Yusho was from a warrior family
and maintained contacts among the powerful members of that class. 


All of this is fascinating to me, as I had always felt (or imagined?) these works to embody some kind of deeper understanding related to the mix of spiritual and martial teachings that were connected to the traditional bugei. As yet, there has been little work on this area – Lippit’s own work is very recent – but I look forward to discovering more. I recommend this lecture by Lippit from early 2021 for those who want to know more. (The observations on military divination that I summarised above begin around the 30 minute mark).










Friday, 31 December 2021

Happy New Year 2022 - Year of the Tiger

A rather friendly looking tiger from the Kano school

A Happy New Year to all my readers! 2021 has been a far less productive year than I had hoped, but fingers crossed that 2022 will be better. Japan having adopted a cross between the western and Chinese New Years, January 1st sees the start of the year of the Tiger, the perfect opportunity to take a look at tigers as the subject of traditional Japanese painting.

Tiger paintings have a long history in Japan, but the motif and much knowledge and lore concerning this most Asian of animals came from the mainland, especially China. Korea, of course, had a strong tradition of tiger painting, and this was also a major influence on Japanese artists.

Artists on the mainland had an advantage in that they may have had the opportunity to see live tigers. This was not the case in Japan, where the work of previous artists served as models. At least one famous artist (Maruyama Okyo) went as far as to buy the skin of a tiger to use as a model and this is probably as close to a real tiger as many artists would have come until the late C19th.

Japanese tigers come in many forms, and were used as a motif on hanging scrolls, folding screens and sliding doors, sometimes covering all four walls of a room. The necessary element of the imagination served to give the best of these images an impressive sense of energy and an identity and charm all of their own.  

This painting by Muqi, was the inspiration
for many later Japanese painters

The Chinese painter Muqi (Mokkei) (1210?-1269?) seems to have provided the initial models of tigers for Japanese artists. Not coincidentally, he also provided the first known example (in Japan) of the dragon and tiger motif. A Zen monk as well as a painter, Muqi seems to have been the master of a thriving atelier, and some of the work attributed to him may well be from the hand of painters who worked under him. His work was not regarded as highly in his homeland as it was in Japan - and the pieces held by the great Japanese Zen institutions of the time are among the finest examples of his work.

Not a great reproduction, but it shows the dragon
tiger pairing. You can also see the poetic lines about clouds
and wind at the bottom of each painting.

This pairing of the dragon and the tiger is rich in symbolism. Together, they represent the balance of forces in nature, the yang dragon in the sky also represents spring, while the yin tiger on the ground is a symbol of autumn. They are also associated with the clouds and wind respectively, and bamboo in the case of the tiger. This is an early association – the most famous pair of Muqi’s dragon and tiger paintings (see above) bear the lines ‘The dragon soars and brings the clouds; the tiger's roar, the ferocious winds’. The two creatures are always pictorially balanced, with the tiger at the bottom left (in early paintings this seems to be an invariable rule) and the dragon the top right. There is, too, the yin within yang and vice versa: although soaring in the clouds, the dragon has risen from the depths of the sea; similarly, while land bound, the tiger is associated with the mountains, and thus there is an acknowledgement of the opposite within each image. Both of them represent power, and they were often used to refer to well-matched opponents whose strength lay in different areas. A good example of this is the two well-known rival warlords, Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, both among the strongest generals of the Sengoku period, though different in their personalities. They were known as the Dragon of Echigo and the Tiger of Kai.

Tigers pop up quite a bit in Zen, and this may help to explain why they became popular with Zen temples. As well as the works of Muqi, many of the earlier hanging scrolls and screens were painted by monk painters. The late Muromachi period saw the proliferation of professional painting studios, principally those of the Kano, who produced decorative schemes with whole rooms or suites of rooms being given over to tigers (amongst other motifs). These include the temples of Nanzen-ji, Manshu-in and Eikando in Kyoto, where they can still be seen in their somewhat faded but nonetheless impressive glory. These schemes were adopted from the warlords of the period, and it is easy to see why the military class would favor this symbol of power and control.

Nijo Castle - an old picture showing the original paintings. 
The virtuous, upright bamboo is clearly visible.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto offers a fine example of the warlords’ taste, although the original paintings are no longer in situ, having been replaced with newly painted copies. (I also wrote about this here: symbolism is not subtle and it is used in the service of power, both legitimizing and intimidating visitors to the rooms. The visitors would be visiting lords, and the intention was not only to awe them with the trappings of power and wealth, underlining the visitors' own vulnerability, but to reinforce the message with specific reference to the motifs in the decorations.

Nijo Castle - a male and female 'tiger'

While the tiger represents power and ferocity - military virtues - a ruler should also be virtuous, an attribute which is signalled by the bamboo, which grows upright and remains unchanging, true to its nature, throughout the seasons. It also possesses the flexibility required of a virtuous ruler. As well as tigers, we can also see leopards (which were thought to be female tigers) in some of the rooms. This was no accident, but a reference to mating and thus the continuation of the shogun’s line.

Nanzenji - although a Zen temple, it adopted the motifs of the military class.
Temples also employed the same artists. There may be a greater emphasis on
the peaceful nature of the tigers in the temple scenes, but I wouldn't bet on it.

The intention to intimidate is obvious in the case of the bushi class, but in the grand decorative schemes in Zen temples, the meaning is a little less apparent. As noted before, tigers do crop up in Zen writings: the enlightened man is likened to a dragon in the depths or a tiger in its mountain fastness, serenely confident and at ease in his own attainment. While this might do for personal contemplation, they were also a means of impressing visitors. Partly, this would have been allowing them the pleasure and privilege of seeing such fine works of art. It also served to underline the importance of the abbot (and his temple) in having access to the very best in artists - the same ones, in fact, that were employed by the highest and most powerful figures in the realm. Religious institutions, it must not be forgotten, were very much a part of the body politic, and their abbots were powerful figures.

There is much more to be said of tiger paintings, and in the next post I intend to look a little closer at some of the major styles in Japan, as well as a recently discovered and deeper role in the arts of war.

More about this one in the next post.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

The Wagtails Sing - when nature meets a sword school


Seen in a shop window - Wagtail on a Lotus Leaf
attributed to Sesshu

The traditional Japanese calendar was a complicated thing. In addition to the 12 months, auspicious and inauspicious days (still consulted, especially for weddings) there were also 24 months or mini seasons and also 72 micro seasons. I don’t know how widespread the observance of these micro seasons was – I imagine more so in literary circles…or perhaps only there, and knowledge of them is certainly not part of everyday life nowadays, but occasionally something happens to remind you of them.

Passing by an antique shop last month, I caught sight of an unusual painting – a work in ink depicting a wagtail on a dead lotus leaf. There is something about good sumi-e that draws you in, a living quality in the surface of the paper, the subtleties of the ink, the effect of age and decay as well. And it was clear that this was an old piece from the color and quality of the paper. The signature declared it to be by Sesshu, the doyen of Japanese painters, regarded as both the root and the highest exemplar of the style – I could not say if it was genuine, but it certainly looked to be at least 400 years old to my eyes.

Sesshu's must be genuine!!?

The age itself gives a work a certain frisson, and the subject was of interest, too, wagtails being an almost daily sight on the edges of the city. While not common (I don’t remember having seen an example before) the theme is not without precedent. In particular, there is a work by Muqi (J. Mokkei) of this subject, which I suspect became the model for this motif. Of course, unlike several other works of his that served as models for themes in Japanese paintings (his dragon and tiger, long-armed monkey (gibbon)), artists could see the subject for themselves and, perhaps, felt no need to copy his composition.

Muqi's verson of the wagtail on 
a withered lotus leaf (Courtesy of
the MOA, Tokyo)

The wagtail and the dead lotus are both symbols of the turn of the seasons as summer gives way to the early days of autumn, but the display of the painting was more deliberate than that. Sekirei Naku (wagtails call) is the name of one of the micro seasons (September 13-17), and wouldn't you know it, that was exactly the time the painting was on display. Those more attuned to the lore of Japanese poetics would, no doubt, have realised this straight away.

The wagtail itself is a common bird throughout Japan – certainly in Kansai. Their distinctive movement not only earned them their name in English, but lent its name to a sword technique that is particularly associated with the Hokushin Ittō-ryū and from there it came into kendo. There it seems to have become a descriptive term for an up-and-down movement of the tip of the sword (kissaki), with no clear consensus on the precise usage. However, it is still preserved in the Hokushin Ittō-ryū.

Sekirei no ken, as the technique is known, relies on the sensitivity of the kissaki and the ability to threaten an attack that cannot be accurately predicted. This may involve subtle movement of the tip of the sword, directing the i of the wielder, thus giving it its name. In kendo, this has become an up and down motion with the general aim of confusing the opponent.

The Hokushin Ittō-ryū is not the only school to make use of this kind of movement of the kissaki - an up-and-down movement was also used by the Kage-ryū, for example. In fact, it would probably be safe to say that every well-developed school of swordsmanship had teachings on the use of the tip of the sword, and there are probably more similarities than differences between the different schools. But the Hokushin Ittō-ryū is the only traditional school I know that uses the imagery of the wagtail for their technique. 

(Written on the last day of 'The ground starts to freeze').

This is the mokuroku (transmission document)
 awarded to Sakamoto Ryoma, a famous practitioner
of the Hokushin Ittō-ryū

Friday, 10 September 2021

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings and the Olympic Connection


Musashi's painting of Hotei watching two 
cocks facing off - this is about as close as
Musashi got to sports, although he did
briefly mention the game commonly
known as kemari - somewhat akin to
 hacky sack in Gorin no sho

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are just over as I write this. It might seem strange to suggest a connection between Miyamoto Musashi and what is possibly the most famous international modern sporting event, but a connection there is. As anyone living in Japan is probably aware, the Olympic Games are commonly referred to here as Gorin - the same gorin (or five rings) as The Book of Five Rings or Gorin no Sho. Of course, this is just a coincidence…or is it?

When I first heard the Olympics referred to in this way, I was pleased that I recognised the term from Musashi’s work, and the online searches that brought up results such as ‘Musashi’s Olympic book’, seemed weird but amusing. Five rings are five rings, and the reference to the Olympic symbol was clear enough. Besides, this was about the time that some more serious commentary began to appear on Musashi (beyond occasional articles in Black Belt or Fighting Arts), and some quite well-known names had explained that the gorin of Musashi’s work might more properly be referred to as spheres, or elements, rather than rings. Perhaps, early translators had been influenced by the Olympics? Anyway, I put it to the back of my mind as an interesting cultural peculiarity and thought no more of it. However, with the games being held in Tokyo, it was a coincidence I couldn’t ignore.

A poster advertising the 
1940 Olympic games

For first use of the term Gorin for the Olympics, we have to go back to 1936 -Japan is looking ahead to the possibility of the first Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for 1940 (Japan pulled out two years later, deciding they needed to devote more of their resources to the war in China), and Nobumasa Kawamoto, sports editor of the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, had been conducting interviews on the Japanese bid for the 1940 Olympics.

For a newspaper editor, space is an important commodity, and the Olympics was proving to be something of a problem, taking up six characters when rendered into Japanese using the phonetic alphabet (オリンピック), the usual practice with foreign words. Kawamoto had recently been reading the well known literary figure Kan Kikuchi on Gorin no Sho. He was impressed by Kan’s assessment of Musashi as a National treasure who should be counted amongst the great artists and philosophers, and saw parallels with the Olympics, an event that brought together the best athletes from around the world. Not only did the Olympic symbols consist of five rings, but to the Japanese ear, Gorin sounds very much like the first two syllables of Olympics (Orin in Japanese pronunciation, with equal stress on the two syllables).

Nobumasa Kawamoto (photo courtesy 
of Sasakawa Sports Foundation

Kawamoto used Gorin in the article ‘Reconstruction of the Capital on the Olympic Flame’ (August 6 1936), and it was quickly picked up by other newspapers, whose editors were pleased to be able to shorten the unwieldy オリンピック  Kawamoto continued to be closely connected with the Olympics, eventually becoming a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee after the war. By then, the use of Gorin had been standard for many years.

Yet even though Gorin is a direct reference to Musashi’s work, Musashi himself might not have recognised the title. He did not, in fact, give his work a title, merely stating, “This treatise is divided into five Ways. The quintessence for each Way is conveyed in five scrolls.” (Bennett’s translation). It seems Gorin no sho was first used by two later teachers of his school to refer to the otherwise untitled document: Nagaoka Naoyuki (who studied directly under Musashi when young, but mainly under his successor, Terao Magonojo) and his one-time attendant, Toyota Masakata, who brought together the teachings of several of Musashi’s students, and became a domain instructor. 

It is easy to understand their need to call it something – Masataka was busy collecting all the material he could about Musashi, which he was later to pass on to his son, Masanaga, who wrote one of the major source documents for Musashi lore, the Bukoden. Of course, although it is usually translated as ‘book’ in English, it was actually written as five separate scrolls, Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Void. Early translators may well have known this, despite accessing it in book form themselves, and wisely opted for the euphonious ‘book’ instead of cumbersome alternatives such as ‘treatise’. Once again, the name stuck – The Book of Five Rings. 

It is a curious journey for an unnamed text by a 17th century swordsman to a sporting event watched by millions around the world. I suspect that although Musashi may not have entirely disapproved of the motto ‘faster, higher, stronger’ the art he developed was a world away from the sporting achievements that are celebrated at the Olympics.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Musashi’s iconic portrait – with comments by Draeger and other experts


The Shimada Museum of Art in Kumamoto is the the place to go if you want to see works of art by Miyamoto Musashi, as well as other objects closely connected to him. (You can read about my visit there almost ten years ago here). Most of the items are on permanent display, and the small, intimate scale of the museum means that you will probably be able to stay and look as much as you like. Among the works on display is the famous ‘self-portrait’ of Musashi – a striking piece that is imbued with the spirit of the master.


Amongst the portraits of Musashi, (there are several other works based on this one) and, indeed, Japanese historical portraits in general, this one stands out for its power and the unique insight it gives into the subject’s personality and his (martial) art. This one was passed down in the Terao line of Musashi’s teachings and is traditionally regarded as a self portrait. 


It has been used as a standard model for the depiction of Musashi, both for paintings during the Edo period and for more recent works, such as the statue of Musashi on the Yodobashi (Bridge) over the Yoshino River and the signboard in the Musashizuka Park in Kumamoto showing the kamae of Niten Ryu (see below).

The Musashi statue on the Yodo Bridge

Signboard in Musashizuka Park


In all likelihood, it was not painted by Musashi, but that only slightly lessens its interest. It has drawn commentary from a number of well-known authorities in the Japanese martial arts, some of which make for interesting reading. As is so often the case, these may say more about the writer than the painting (or the subject). Before getting on to them, let’s take a look at what the Shimada Museum has to say:


Portrait of a Master Swordsman
Highlights include a famous portrait of Musashi in the last years of his life. It is known to be a posthumous portrait because the subject is painted with the left side of his face facing the viewer. According to the conventions of Japanese painting, this generally indicates that the subject is deceased. The artist seems to have been familiar with the real Musashi and his philosophy. The swordsman’s facial expression and posture are captured at the moment of confrontation with an enemy, just as described in the “Water” chapter of Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. 

(Kumamoto Official Guide: Shimada Museumof Art)


So much for the official introduction. Now let’s take a look at what some other people have made of it:


Donn Draeger

Draeger needs no introduction – his love for and experience in the Japanese martial arts are well known. Given this, his comments on Musashi might seem to be unusually harsh:


Qualified authorities today regard the artifacts allegedly made by Musashi such as the tsuba, or sword guard, as not made by him, but possibly designed by him. That famous self-portrait is suspect. The reason is that the face shows, among other things, tension, rage, and defiance. These are all qualities that good swordsmanship proscribes, and are contradictory to what is considered a good budo face. Certainly they are directly contradictory to the concepts expressed in the Gorin no sho. Only the equally famed painting of the shrike on a branch may be legitimately from his hands.


Extracts from letters written by Donn F. Draeger to Robert W. Smith. Letters in the Joseph R. Svinth collection, reprinted courtesy of Robert W. Smith and Joseph R. Svinth. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.


Firstly, I am not at all certain that the painting does show all (or any) of the attributes Draeger has attributed to it. Certainly, I cannot see any sign of rage, or even anger. Tension and defiance, are, I think, quite subjective, and although there is certainly ‘emotional content’ as Bruce Lee might have said, I can’t agree with Draeger on its nature. Musashi was famous for the forcefulness of his stare, and I think that is what is depicted here.


Draeger’s comments on the authenticity of Musashi’s artworks are not entirely accurate either – although there are questions about some of the works ascribed to him, the attribution of many others is not in doubt. Neither does the fact that the tsuba were the result of a collaboration with skilled craftsmen rather than handworked by Musashi himself diminish their value. Crafts of all sorts typically involved the work of experts in different areas. The famous Yagyu tsuba were also the result of such a collaboration, initially between Yagyu Renyasai and artists/craftsmen in the Owari area where he lived.


It must be noted that Draeger’s opinions on Musashi seem to show the influence of his own teacher, Otake Risuke of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Ryu. Otake has spoken critically of Musashi’s lifestyle and legacy (constant duelling, no family, for example) as well as pointing out (as Draeger did) that he was one expert swordsman amongst many (and that others were more skilled). This is fair comment, although I suspect Musashi’s disparaging comments about the Kashima and Katori schools did not help create a good opinion. 


Hino Akira 

Others think more highly of Musashi. An interesting description of the portrait can be found in Hino Akira’s book Kokoro no Katachi (The Image of the Heart). Hino is an interesting figure. Coming from a ‘rough’ background, he has gone into the area of ‘budo research’ – rather than follow a particular style or teacher, he is involved in researching and developing aspects of the deeper skills in traditional Japanese martial arts, involving timing, positioning, ‘inner power’ and so on. He is/was also a jazz drummer and dancer, and teaches dancers as well as martial artists. It is an interesting combination, and he has some interesting insights to offer.


In the case of Musashi’s portrait, his description is quite individual and worth considering:


In the portrait, the head of Musashi is a little stooped forward, his spine is loose, his weight is on the whole of his feet, and the sword in his left hand aims directly at the neck or the eyes of his opponent. His left eye is in sync with his opponent’s consciousness, and his right eye hides any indication of his intention by focussing intensely on the opponent.


This pose is so-called the (sic) “machi” pose. His machi is for “sen-no-sen”. We can see “the image of Musashi’s heart” clearly in his attitude that he invites his opponent to attack him in order to perfect his machi.


Also, his way of standing is one that confuses the opponent’s sense of distance, and at the same time it allows him to move in any direction.


The portrait tells a lot.


(Footnotes in the original explain machi as “waiting”, and sen-no-sen as “the attack in the moment when the intention of attacking occurs in the opponent’s consciousness”).


Hino’s comment on the eyes is interesting, but I have no idea of his basis for that observation. I haven’t heard of any teachings which separate the function of the two eyes. His description of the portrait itself seems more accurate than Draeger’s. Of course, there is some interpretation when it comes to ‘We can see “the image of Musashi’s heart”’ – a different translation (‘we can see Musashi’s approach’) might offer some clarity…the second part of the sentence is a little confusing – is he practicing or is he fighting. Are they the same thing? Bearing in mind the title of his book (The Image of the Heart), there is an obvious link.


Roald Knutsen

Knutsen is a veteran kendo practitioner who also has broad experience in a number of bugei. He has written several books which present his perspective on the traditional martial arts. He has a deep interest and respect for all areas of the arts and is definitely one of the ‘old school’ in his attitudes towards practice and the depth of learning contained within traditional martial disciplines. 

He also has professional experience as an artist and believes that a wealth of information is contained in the illustrations that are a part of many of the mokurokuand other documents passed down by masters from the past. Thus his reading is also that the portrait of Musashi may be read for insights into Musashi’s arts. The anecdote he recounts is not about his own experience, but that of a senior kendo teacher:


…A famous kendo master explained how, after a long study of Musashi’s portrait, he realized that the swordsman’s balance was wholly on the ball of each foot, not on either set of toes or either heel. Despite this, the foot placement looked ‘normal’. Based on this realisation the ku-dan hanshi practised this seriously for several years before mastery.

(The endnotes read ‘Yunō Masanori Hanshi, in personal instruction, Tokyo, 1981.’)

Rediscovering Budo: from a Swordsmans’s Perspective


It is interesting observation, but I am not sure if that is really a conclusion that can be accurately drawn from this painting – I don’t know if the conventions employed by the artist extended to accurate weight distribution. (I am happier with Hino’s reading…I think this much can be seen.) If the artist was Musashi himself, he would naturally have been aware of  this aspect of his kamae; if it was painted after his death, I am much less sure of it. It certainly goes against the instruction presented in Gorin no sho, to “tread firmly with heels”. Of course, kendo has developed a particular style of footwork that was not part of the older bugei (the raised heel of the back foot). Knutsen is aware of this from his own experience, but I am sure a highly ranked kendo teacher explaining in person is more persuasive than seeing it written in a book. 

Ultimately, although I admit that it is fascinating to look for clues in graphic works, I am not sure if the artist’s skill or knowledge is necessarily up to the task of showing such things.


Dave Lowry

I must admit that I used to own a much thumbed version of Lowry’s Autumn Lightning, and I can heartily recommend it. It is many years since I read it, but I owe a debt of thanks for the motivation it gave me. The excerpt below is from a different book – one composed of short essays in one of which he uses the portrait as a vehicle for his philosophical musings. In this case, he is looking at the concept of shikaku. He seems to be aiming his material at a general martial arts audience, and I have a few quibbles – with his characterisation of Musashi as an ‘eccentric’ swordsman, for example –  but it is a nicely written riff on the portrait. If anything, it suffers from the need to fit into the short essay format, by presenting a conclusion that is perhaps a little too obvious.


Gripping both his long and short swords, Musashi’s posture and countenance are electric with power. His slit-eyed stare is furious; wholly concentrated.(I think Lowry got a bit carried away here – whether or not his stare is furious, it certainly isn’t slit-eyed.)

To me, Musashi’s portrait is like some kind of koan ….. The expression on his face is, as I said, fiercely concentrated. But it does not seem to be directed at any outer enemy. It is enigmatic; fascinating the more you look at it. Musashi seems to be locked in a profound internal struggle of sorts. Perhaps it is only my imaginative interpretation, but when I contemplate his famous portrait, I see a man struggling with what must have been for someone in his profession, a fundamental obstacle. Musashi stands alone, utterly absorbed, seeking a way to overcome the limitations of shikaku. Think of it. No matter how he stands or holds the sword – even to the extent taking one for each hand – he must still contend with the dead zone. He must still acknowledge that, as a human, like all humans, he can never be completely invulnerable….Whatever kamae (combative posture or attitude) they assumed, there was always the shikaku. There was a weakness to every stance, to every position of holding the sword.

Moreover, Musashi was not merely another swordsman. He was as well an artist, a philosopher. And so I wonder if Musashi was contemplating, in this stern-eyed portrait, not just the shikaku he faced in combat but the vulnerabilities he faced in life. Was he expecting the unexpected angle of attack of an enemy’s sword? Or the surprise assaults to which all of us are susceptible: illness, heartbreak, loneliness, death?

I wonder if, in devoting most of his life to overcoming the limitations of shikaku in art of the sword, Musashi had not entered into a struggle as well on a different plane. I wonder if his training in the martial arts eventually led to a deeper understanding of the shikaku of life.


Excerpted from: Traditions: Essays on the Japanese Martial Arts (Tuttle, 2017) Dave Lowry


When I visited the Shimada Museum a few years ago, I found the portrait (like Musashi’s own paintings) to be more powerful than the reproductions. Although I haven’t any particular insights into it, my observations include the following:


In a typical reproduction such as this, the upper and lower inner garments look the same colour -in the actual painting, the upper is clearly grey, the lower, white. The detail of the pattern on the red haori – which is fine, but quite clear on the original,is often not visible in reproductions.


This detail on the haori is very visible on some of the copies that were made (see below) – obviously an important detail to them.


I always advise seeing art in the original as much as possible – the best art can have an effect which is not merely visual – it can affect the viewer far more deeply. In any case, you may see details which are not visible in reproductions, and at the very least, you will have a better idea of the scale, the colours, even the texture. With many Japanese paintings – those which are mounted as hanging scrolls – you will have the added bonus of being able to see the mounting, a detail seldom included in reproductions or even museum catalogues, but which adds greatly to the painting and can be beautiful in its own right. (I have included some examples here – they come from this blog:


The final comment, however, I will leave to Musashi. These are not strictly self-portraits, but paintings of Bodhidharma by Musashi. It is not unusual for artists to project something of themselves into the faces of the figures they paint, so I do not think it is too far a stretch of the imagination to see something of Musashi in these paintings – and that may be as close to a self-portrait as we will get.


Thursday, 31 December 2020

Happy 2021 - Year of the Ox


Fast Bull - a beautifully painted work by an unknown
painter from the Kamakura period - originally a hand scroll, 10 Fast Bulls,
it was remounted as a hanging scroll (courtesy of Tokyo National Museum).

Cattle do not seem to occupy a great place in samurai lore. Though they were not uncommon in Japan, they seemed to have been used either as agricultural beasts of burden, or for pulling the carriages of nobles – neither occupation seeming to appeal particularly to the warrior class.


They appear in art in both these roles, as well as part of the 12 animals of the zodiac, and in Zen art as well. Perhaps they are best known in this connection in the 10 ox herding pictures, which provide an analogy to the path to enlightenment. These were formulated from earlier versions by Guo-an Shi-yuan (Kakuan Shien) in the 12thcentury, and illustrated most memorably by the 15thcentury priest-painter, Shubun. The pictures lose some of their charm when they are reproduced – the originals are small – intimate in their scale and detail, but I don’t think they have been equalled by later artists who tackled the subject.


No. 6 in Shubun's series of Ox herding pictures

As I mentioned in my New Year post last year, the bull also appears in Musashi’s writing – Rat’s head, bull’s neck is an entry in Gorin no Sho to describe a sudden switch in approach. I mentioned some commentary on the possibility of the original being horse, rather than bull (the two characters are very close) but given their places in the progression of the 12 animals, I think the combination of rat and bull was well known, and would thus have made sense to Musashi. The story of the order of animals also suggests some sense of a sudden change: the bull agreed to give the rat a ride to the place where the 12 animals were to meet; as they arrived, the rat jumped off the bull and so became the first to arrive.


Musashi also depicted a bull in a relatively unknown painting of Hotei. Here, he is riding on the back of one. This may have been a nod to the 10 oxherding pictures, and given Musashi’s connections, it is quite possible that he had seen Shubun’s works. Whatever its inspiration, it displays brushwork typical of Musashi, and establishes a dynamic rhythm in terms of contrast of line and volume and light and dark. Like many of Musashi's paintings, the tone seems lighthearted - they seem to be enjoying life. In Buddhist iconography, where Buddhas are depicted riding on animals, these may be interpreted as control of the physical passions. In this case, Hotei and the bull appear to have different ideas on where to go next, so perhaps his control was not as complete as he thought.

Below: Musashi's painting of Hotei Riding a Bull - this is from the book "Miyamoto Musashi no Suibokuga" (Miyamoto Musashi's ink paintings). Relatively unknown, I couldn't find any reproductions online. 



Lastly, despite my initial comment, the bushi did not totally disregard the nature of the bull – the famous daimyo Kuroda Nagamasa famously had at least two helmets made with sweeping water buffalo horns as decoration. Later generations of his family had similar helmets made, as well. This was in marked contrast to the upturned bowl design of his father, Kuroda Kanbei, who was known for his brilliance as a strategist. Although he fought successfully in several campaigns, Nagamasa lacked his father’s brilliance and may have felt that the image of a bull, powerful and straight-forward, expressed his personality better.

A Happy New year to all my readers - let's hope it's a good one!

Two of Kuroda Nagamasa's helmets - another one of his famous helmets was shaped in an abstraction of the cliff at Ichinotani, where Minamoto Yoshitsune led a charge down steep cliffs to carry the day. Perhaps Nagamasa was emphasising that he, too, was a man of action. (Click on the picture to see both helmets).