Read an Excerpt
"The stroke is executed by cutting back, then down" is the teaching given in an ancient scroll, "followed by a swift, slight rise to the right like the movement of striking with a whip."
Another scroll, almost equally antique, contains poetic, if enigmatic, advice about the practitioner's state of mind, likening it to "a flower scattering, falling without sound on moss, a flower scattering to be heard through the depths of mountains."
Only those unacquainted with the paradoxes of art in Japanese culture would be surprised to learn that the first commentary is concerned with the gentle skills of calligraphy, the second devoted to the perfection of warriorship with the sword. At the core, the particulars of instruction, the matters of detail in effectuation contained in these old scrolls, are secondary to learning either art. It is the underlying principles that are of utmost concern, and these principles, in a broad range of Japanese arts—fine, folk, performing,
and martial—are fundamentally synonymous. These principles are crucial to the mastery of any and all.
The actor in the Noh drama strives to make his way across the stage without a gap in his concentration, without a single superfluous movement. There is a sense of awareness of self and place surrounding the Noh actor that is understood perfectly by the warrior in the perilous arena where he performs. The
flutist plays his instrument from his body center and perfects his breathing.
The swordsman strikes from his center and the efficacy of his blow is assured by a proper attention to his own respiration. The goals differ, the attitude is identical.
It is not only in technical aspects that the varied endeavors of the traditional
Japanese arts converge. From flower arranging to tea ceremony to archery, the aesthetics, the spirituality, and the motivations of these apparently disparate arts have a marvelous commonality. The unity of these artistic forces is exemplified in two disciplines, seemingly discrete, both at the very heart of
Japan: the Way of the sword and the Way of the brush.
The appearance of the blade predates that of the writing implement in prehistoric
Japan (a commentary on the evolution of our species, for where has it not?).
Unearthed from tumuli built around the fourth century CE are short,
double-edged swords based obviously on Chinese prototypes. We know almost nothing of the methods with which these weapons, and those that followed for the next four or five centuries, were used. No instruction in their implementation on the battlefield has survived. Yet by the eighth century, the beginnings of the elegant Heian Period, a distinctly native Japanese sword had evolved that appears to have been fearsomely effective. Its long handle indicates a two-handed grip. From its overall length we can infer that it was often swung from horseback. Its curve hints that, unlike older versions, the
Heian sword was a weapon more for cutting than for thrusting.
Concurrent with the refinement of the sword was the rise of the warrior class, the
The bushi originated in the hinterlands of Japan, familial clans gathered around provincial lords, whose power was descended from primitive chieftainships. As the word indicates, the samurai were "retainers." Loyal servants,
they were officials of local, completely self-contained governments of individual fiefdoms.
By the end of the tenth century these lords, or
had assembled sufficient fortune, ambition, and means to begin casting covetous eyes toward the possessions of their neighbors. The fortunes were provided by taxation of farmers under their domain. The ambition stemmed from the growing wealth and influence of the daimyo class and from their desire to seize as much as possible before the intervention of imperial troops from the capital cities of Nara and Kyoto would make such lawless conquests more risky. And the means?
It was supplied, of course, by the samurai. Already instilled with the frontiersman's proclivity for arms and action (and most of rural Japan was frontier in those days), the samurai took up the sword. In the furtherance of his lord's interests and desires, he became a professional warrior.
Two clans quickly emerged as leading contenders in this grab for feudal land and power. By the twelfth century, the Taira clan ruled much of the eastern plains of central Japan, and the Minamoto family controlled the west. Both clans were descended from branches of imperial aristocracy, a lineage not inconsequential in understanding the history of the samurai. Taira and Minamoto retainers were formidable fighters. Neither was the least hesitant to splash in blood to advance their lords' designs. But the noble blood of both clans provided in inheritance a regard for learning and the arts. The luminaries of these great families composed poetry and painted—they appreciated beauty eloquently. The
Minamoto and Taira well deserved their most common appellation:
"the martial elite" or "the martial paragon." They
an elite, not only in a martial sense but as a class, and they left for their successive generations a worthy example that guided the warrior in Japan for the following eight hundred years.
In a series of epic battles in the twelfth century, the Minamoto defeated the
Taira, though it did not entirely destroy them as a family or a political force. Taira bush escaped, cheating the Minamoto of what was to become an elusive dream for many a warlord for many a decade to follow: to dominate as a military power sufficiently to wrest governmental control over aliJapan. In the five centuries after the Taira and the Minamoto, two other tigers came forward in turn and nearly succeeded. The ruthless Oda Nobunaga plotted and murdered against rival lords and was himself finally killed by a traitor in his own ranks. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was an even more cunning strategist, yet he, too,
died short of unifying the country.
The legacy of the Taira and Minamoto and of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi was a heartbreakingly long period of civil war. Unlike the American and English versions, there were not two sides to Japan's civil conflict; rather, there were dozens, with daimyo forming alliances and ignoring them with deadly impunity. And instead of four years or even one hundred, Japan's internecine war lasted close to four centuries. In such an environment, the crafts of combat are apt to become very good very fast. In Japan, under the careful nurturing of the warrior class, they did. The lance, the bow, the halberd—the bush wielded all these and other weapons, though always at the center of his armament was his sword. It was a weapon that perfectly embodied his ethos and spirit. It demanded the bravery of close engagement. It required skill not possessed by other classes. And in the capable hands of the bushi, the sword separated life from death in a single, utterly committed stroke.
Martial disciplines flourished during the Sengoku Jidai, the Period of Warring States,
and so, too, the samurai's artistic avocations thrived. Tea ceremony, flower arrangement, poetry, and painting: these and other arts came to a state of excellence under the patronage of wealthy daimyo.
The bushi's predilections for these activities, apparently incongruous with being a fighting man, had more than one motivation. There was, first of all, his aristocratic breeding. To be competent in the creation and the experience of art was expected of him, as much a part of his station in life as accomplishment in battle. A second reason had to do with the unique demands of the warrior's profession. For the samurai, encounters with art served both as a means of distracting him from the specter of death that accompanied him at every moment and as a forum allowing him to focus more pointedly on that death.
1600, one more leader made his bid for the domination of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu learned from the successes and mistakes of his predecessors. His alliances were sagacious; his retaliation against those challenging him was swift and final.
In that first year of the seventeenth century, what was in Japan the fourth year of Keicho, Ieyasu managed to convene his major confederates and his antagonists on a broad plain east of Kyoto, called Sekigahara after a nearby village. At the end of the day, 21 October 1600, rows of the heads of Ieyasu's enemies lined the road all the way back to Kyoto as a testament to his victory.
Ieyasu realized the dream of the daimyo. He brought virtually all Japan under his hand. He and his successors became the Tokugawa
who ruled the nation nearly until the twentieth century. The Tokugawa regime governed severely, but the peace it brought heralded a period of domestic prosperity and continued refinement of the arts. Ever the wise leader, Ieyasu knew that tranquility also posed a new threat to his order. The land he united was one suddenly possessing an excess population of men who were competent in making a living only with a sword in hand. Place a stone in a pond, Ieyasu understood, and the fish within will strengthen themselves swimming around it.
Deprived of the rock of warfare that they had been swimming against for generations, how long before the bushi became an idle burden to the country? Or worse, how long until they began to stir their own internal rebellion?
Tokugawa shogun countered this threat by tacitly indulging personal duels among the samurai and challenge matches between their various schools of martial art,
and so the warrior kept employed his precious sword. Equally important to his plans, Ieyasu encouraged the bushi toward a further pursuit of their artistic inclinations. He succeeded in this so well that no inventory of any of the arts of Japan would be even remotely complete without several examples contributed by these warrior aesthetes of the
Japan began in 1867, when the country was revolutionized through the opening of commerce with the West and by the abolishment of its feudal structure.
Disbanded by official fiat along with all other classes, the bushi lost any practical need for his warriorship. He was proscribed by law from even wearing his sword in public. It is one thing to abolish a class and to prohibit its central symbol; it is quite another matter to eradicate the moral and social climate of that class and to dismantle the power of its symbol. The spirit of the bushi's sword has cut a deep pattern into the fabric of Japan's past. If one knows how to look for it, it remains visible almost everywhere in Japan today. It is found in the martial arts and Ways, of course—both the original classical fighting arts that have survived as well as the more common modern forms, such as judo, kendo, and aikido. But the sword and its attendant cult are also found within the social interactions in Japanese society and in its international relationships with other countries. Look for the heritage of the bushi, and much of Japan is revealed. If there is any doubt of this, one need only to watch a gaggle of Japanese grade-schoolers winding their way down any street, each one jaunty in a cap of red or white—the colors, it is no coincidence, that identified the clans of the Taira and Minamoto.
The artistic energies of the bushi have survived, too, so healthily that they have been exported. Japan's arts, cultivated and informed in large part by the feudal warrior, have come to be known throughout the world. Exponents of the tea ceremony,
and other uniquely Japanese arts are carrying them many thousands of miles from their homeland, where they reverberate significantly in the lives and cultures of countless non-Japanese.
Japanese art that has captured the imagination of the West is
Way of calligraphy. To recount the history of this remarkable art requires an examination of the past that goes back further than to the origins of the
Japanese martial arts, back further than even Japan itself.