Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, August 19, 2023

The Motivation of Classical Japanese Martial Arts

At Ellis Amdur's excellent Kogen Budo blog, there was a guest host by Dave Lowry, who has written many books on classical Japanese martial arts, including one of my favorites, Autumn Lightning.

The topic of the guest article was the samurai practice of taking heads in battle. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


Japan’s classical martial arts are exercises in volition. The exponent is exerting his will on another. Indeed, those methods are a fundamental element of classical martial traditions.Those who are sincerely interested in the koryū would do well to give this point some very serious thought. The bujutsu have resonances upon one’s character. They are specifically aimed at organizing perceptions and neural conditioning. That’s why, to be frank, you’d better be damned sure of the character of a potential teacher, the other members of the ryū, and the nature of the ryū itself. Because absorbing that character and nature are not accidental byproducts of study—they are the raison d’etre.

With the exceptions of the Mongol Invasions in the 13th century, and the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638 (an aberrant local conflict involving a religious cult), the history of warfare in Japan is unique in that campaigns and battles were waged by parties that shared the same race, language, religion, ethos, and civilization. No one thought or behaved in dialectic mentioned above, that of Oppressor and Oppressed, Victim and Victimizer, when facing an enemy. The warrior in classical Japan did not wage war because of a belief in his supposed superiority in faith or righteousness or correcting a wrong based on ideology. In contrast, nearly every war in the West has been fought under exactly those circumstances. Really, the only impulse our wars shared with those in Japan was a quest for economic advantage, a commonality between the two civilizations that not incidentally would eventually bring on a worldwide mother of all wars.

The serious koryū  adept must give this distinction much consideration if he wishes grasp the nature of his art. He must understand that the martial ryū did not seek to address class struggle or “social justice.” He must contend with the reality that the ryū approaches conflict in an entirely different context from that to which he is “civilizationally” accustomed. This can be a truly challenging task for even those who are not marinated in ideology. This reality is not merely academic. Self-identification as a victim has deep consequences in absorbing the true nature of a classical ryū. As I noted early, the mindset of the martial ryū member is predatory. It implies a certain cold-bloodedness. We can see this in the various kamae used in many ryū. Frequently a posture will mimic some sort of gap or weakness, an invitation to generate an attack. Even here, though, the intent is clearly one of “Come on, go for it and see what happens.” One may superficially appear helpless. The canny professional, though, would see through the veneer.

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