Ayamachitewa aratamuruni habakaru koto nakare.
If you make a mistake, don't hesitate to correct it.
Lies, Damned Lies and Martial Arts History
It is unfortunate that no literary wit in Japan took on the mythos of knighthood with the ferocity and brilliance of Cervantes with Don Quixote; the often hilarious skewering of delusional and self-serving behavior and oceans of justification masquerading as chivalry (as it never really existed) still resonates.
By contrast, Japanese men-at-arms have had the opposite in authors like Nitobe (who did not train in combative arts and married an English Quaker), author of Bushido (at best, an apologist tract, at worst deliberate obfuscation of feudal-era history; it is not hard to imagine that he would have found himself at a loss to explain Japan's bloody past to those in his new social circle and so sought ways to compare bushi to the similarly mythologized knights errant of Europe), and Herrigal, author of Zen in the Art of Archery (a German national who, despite living in Japan for some time, never attained any level of proficiency in the language and was, by his own teacher's accounting, 'confused' about what was being shown- any implicit meaning, Herrigal seems to have ascribed to 'Zen' even when that was not remotely the point); not to mention Ratti and Westbrook's fantasy, Secrets of the Samurai, and untold other material that helped to forge some fairly heavy misconceptions.
Due in to books of this type, the party line (in English, at least) has for more than a century been that the warrior caste (bushi or samurai) were protectors of peasant farmers, exemplars of decency and morality, holding honor above all things while adhering to the ancient bushido (warrior way.) It is, as Capote said, “pretty to think so” however, it's wrong; romantic, but wrong nevertheless.
While there certainly were folks who distinguished themselves as paragons of virtue, they were not the norm. In fact there was a 150+ year period in which the easiest way to get ahead was to either kill your boss outright or switch allegiances part-way through a battle and pick-up the pieces after. Even the Tokugawa family (who ruled Japan for over 200 years) did this to ascend to power*.
It bears mention, of course, that it's not just the cultural stuff that were hit with a veneer of untruth either. Applications (jumping, spinning and flying kicks were used to unseat cavalry, oi tsuki from karateka bored holes through armor, re-purposed farming implements were the first line of defense against brigands, etc.) and personalities (Ueshiba Morihei studied a number of arts that contributed to Aikido's creation and he was called O Sensei due to his excellence as an instructor) both received the treatment as well.
So what? Why does this matter, after all, they're just stories and if they have inspired generations of students, who are we to mess with the natural order? Where's the harm? It's simple- many of the stories that we read and heard as a young people were of uncompromising loyalty, fealty and honor; of invulnerable masters accomplishing improbable feats. If part of a traditional transmission includes passing on lore (providing cultural context) are we not doing our juniors and students disservice by continuing to perpetuate fiction? Perhaps it's time for us, as a community, to not take as gospel the many stories (or even the meanings of forms) that we've inherited, and to make research an important component of our training... perhaps strongly encouraging our juniors to do the same. Yes, it's a lot of work and in the short-term, we lose a single (but important) component of tradition. What we gain though is better understanding of not just the history of our arts but the context in which they came to be (and with that, how and why they were designed to work as they do.) Who knows, we may come across some great new stories... and heck, maybe these un-embellished bits of history will be things that we can proudly pass on- not as myths, but as true and important parts of the living traditions that we devote so much time and effort to practice, study, embody and teach.
Yours in the joyful spirit of research,
Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo
*Tokugawa Ieyasu (who established the dynasty) promised his terminally ill mentor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, that he would serve as one of five regents to Toyotomi's son, Hideyori, ensuring the latter's succession to the role of Shogun. Instead, following the death of Toyotomi in 1598 and his most loyal regent in 1599, Tokugawa reneged on his promise, and continued to consolidate power; in 1600, victory at the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara, heralded the last major hurdle to uniting most of the Japan into a single nation, under single rule, as begun some 40 years earlier by Oda Nobunaga and continued by Toyotomi.
So happy-endings all around, right? Except, what of the young son, Hideyori? His castle was attacked by the Tokugawa government in two famous campaigns (responses to claims that he'd been disloyal by actively plotting an insurgency- charges that seem to have been baseless) and was forced to commit seppuku (a form ritual suicide 'reserved for the bushi' that entailed disemboweling oneself with a knife while 'attended' by a trusted swordsman to act as kaishaku [second] whose job it was to remove the head [while leaving a flap of skin to prevent the head from rolling away] after the requisite cut had been made but before the principal could utter a cry or otherwise dishonor himself) in 1615, just a few months shy of his twenty-second birthday.