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, September 30, 2023

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Everyday Training of the Samurai

At Ichijoji, Christopher Hellman, the author of The Samurai Mind, posted an article about the everyday training of the samurai through the ages. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here. Below the excerpt is a video featuring Omori Sogen.

It is sometimes tempting to think of the practice and training of martial arts in pre-modern times in monolithic terms, as if there was an ideal model, perhaps followed by a master in retreat at some secluded temple or shrine. On closer inspection, this seems unlikely as social conditions and the role of the warrior changed as the times moved from a period of perpetual war to one of relative peace, not to mention the varying requirements dictated by different roles and relative professional positions, even within the warrior class in Japan.

Having given that caveat, it must be conceded that traditions of martial practice in Japan enjoyed far greater continuity than those of Western Europe, even if it is generally acknowledged that the techniques that have reached us today are very likely not the same as those practiced by the founders of those traditions. One aspect that must have been of great concern at all periods was how to develop and refine skill.


There was, of course, the demanding, often repetitive physical training that must have formed the basis of most trainees’ experience. This is likely to have been intense, and yet quite unlike the military style drill common in some more modern disciplines, a development that seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of militarism in the early 20th century.  

There were other sides to practice, too. Omori Sogen (1904-1994), a 20th century Zen priest and practitioner of the Jikishinkage ryu who had clearly put plenty of time and energy into his physical practice (this was a style which includes strong elements of both kata and sparring (in the style of kendo) in its curriculum), spoke of his approach to the practice of kendo in his younger years. He explained that he developed the attitude that life itself was a perpetual series of contests. Every encounter or situation in life could be seen as a clash with an opponent in which any negative reactions he felt meant the situation had scored a point over him.


As he matured, he saw the mind that could be developed during kendo practice as being the same as that developed by the practice of Zen:

 “For example, a person who practices Kendo holds his bamboo sword and faces his opponent. If he forgets his opponent and his ego, enters samadhi, and truly experiences this state, then even when he puts his bamboo sword down, he must be able to maintain this frame of mind. Usually, however, it is a different world when he puts his bamboo sword down.

(Omori Sogen: The Art of a Zen Master by Hosokawa Dogen)


This might be seen as typical of the Zen inspired approach of the later C19th and early C20th, a time when a measure of social freedom combined with the idea that personal efforts could reshape the world (efforts that were often centered around violence, it must be said). It seemed to have a particular appeal to young men, and was a direct factor in Japan’s road to war, both with the wave of assassinations that removed some of the less militaristic politicians from office in the 1920’s and 30’s, as well as the precipitating event in the invasion of China. It must also be said that Sogen was closely involved with groups advocating such methods, (to the point of being hunted for by the police) although his own account stresses that he felt the time was not right for assassination. (He also attempted to persuade Prince Konoe to appoint a less hawkish minister of war, so it is difficult to categorize him in political terms).

This approach, to life as well as martial arts, stresses the power of intention and the strength of will over technique. To be sure, this is always a major factor in confrontation, but one that has inherent weaknesses (exemplified in aspects of Japanese military doctrine in WWII, not to mention the unfortunate tendency to veer towards extremism). Older martial disciplines were shaped by the greater range of resources, technical, psychological and social, from which they drew the elements of their curricula.


While Sogen pursued mastery in Zen, swordsmanship and calligraphy, seeing commonalities in them all, Matsura Seizan (1760-1841), writing some 150 years earlier, presents an interesting contrast. A man of wide learning, he is known principally for his literary accomplishments, in particular his multiple volume collection of essays, Kasshi Yawa (Nighttime Tales of The Year of the Rat). He came from a very different social background – he was the daimyo of Hirado, a small island just off the coast of northwest Kyushu (where the English sailor, Will Adams, landed) – and although he retired at the age of 46, prior to that he set up a school for academic and martial studies, the Ishinkan, and a library that eventually had some 10,000 volumes (Rakusaikan Bunko). He was also a noted swordsman and author of several works on that topic.

It is clear from his writings that he considered sword use far more broadly than Sogen did, which is unsurprising, as swords were routinely carried by bushi until 1876. What may be more significant is that he stresses care and attention to surroundings rather than Sogen’s emphasis on single-minded determination, as a key to understanding the deeper teachings of the art, a reflection both of the more complex demands of Seizan’s social position, as well as the perspective of swordsmanship as training for use (in protection and for ceremonial uses as well as, potentially, for war), rather than primarily for personal and spiritual development. (It may added that it is entirely possible that Sogen did not receive the deeper teachings of his style – Sogen says his teacher did not consider any of his students to be his successor.) The flavor of his writing may be seen here:

…for those who are recommended to accompany their father, older brother, or master, it is necessary to be familiar with etiquette. Because this spirit of etiquette stems from the spirit of vigilance, if you perform this duty well, it will carry over to the heart of swordsmanship. Those who feel they cannot understand this roundabout explanation do not have the real spirit of swordsmanship. But when it is time to impart the himitsu ken (lit. the secret sword) from the inner teachings of our school, those who have resolved to maintain this excellent spirit of caution in daily life will already have the necessary attitude and approach.” 

(From Joseishi Kendan in The Samurai Mind by Christopher Hellman, p.54)




Thursday, September 21, 2023

XingYiQuan Monkey

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Tai Chi Notebook, which takes a detailed look at the XingYiQuan Monkey form. The full post may be read here.


I had the good fortune to guide a group of people through some Xing Yi Monkey recently, which made me focus on it more and practice it a bit harder in the run up, which was a good thing. (I’m also available for children’s parties and Hen parties too, btw). Anyway, I wrote some notes about it, which I’ve typed up below.

A unique animal

When it comes to the animals in the natural world that we can look at for inspiration for martial methods the most obvious place to start is with one of our closes cousins, the primates. Like us, monkeys can stand upright, if only for short periods in some cases, they have hands that can grip and even a bit of limited tool usage. However, monkey is not a good place to start your journey into the 12 animals of Xing Yi.

The first thing to realise about monkey is that it breaks a lot of the ‘rules’ of Xing Yi Quan, which is one of the reason why it’s often taught last amongst the 12 animals. My teacher taught the animals as almost self-contained mini martial arts – each one had a different strategy and techniques, but Monkey wins the award for being the most unique amongst them. It really does stand up on its own as a complete martial art.

Almost all of the rest of Xing Yi Quan can be performed in formation, standing in a line with other people, since you generally move forward and backwards along a straight line (except for the turns, obviously). Whether this really harks back to an ancient heritage of soldiers moving in formation is speculation of course, but it should be noted that a row of people holding a spear and standing side by side can perform the 5 elements and most of the first 11 animal links while all facing in the same direction without impending each other, provided they all turn at the same time. That’s possibly one reason why Xing Yi is so obsessed with keeping the elbows near the ribs.

But Monkey doesn’t follow these rules – it’s breaks the line. Or more accurately, it’s what you do when the line has been broken. Attacks in monkey are reacted to and defended at diagonal angles – there’s footwork you don’t find in the rest of Xing Yi and there are changes in tempo, bursts of speed and jumping. It’s as if your nice orderly line of soldiers has been broken up and the battle has become more of a melee situation.


Monkey Pi

Pi (splitting) is the main energy from the 5 elements that is used in monkey, but while in Pi Quan the arm uses the elbow joint as a pivot point for delivering the downward chopping strike (a bit like the swing of an axe), in monkey it’s the wrist that is the pivot point. The monkey Pi is more like a slap, but don’t think that makes it ineffectual. A relaxed and loose slap delivered using good body mechanics to the head can easily result in concussions.

Monkey also tends to eschew single strikes – everything is done in quick flurries of 3. This is called a triple palm. Often the first strike is to open up their guard, or intercept a strike, the second is to hit the head, and the third can be done as a grab and pull on their limb or head, leading to your own head butt or knee strike – an action called ‘wrapping’. The back of the hand can also be used as an upward deflection to the opponents arms, for when the monkey wants to enter deep.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Mind Breath Body

Below is an excerpt from a post on the relationship between the mind, the breath and the body that was posted at Thoughts on Tai Chi blog. The full post may be read here

For quite some time, I have wondered about why some Tai Chi practitioners seem to focus on the mind as it was the only internal aspect. Sometimes I have the feeling they do something very “western”, they split the mind from the body like the brain or its functions would be something less physical and “higher”, or better, than the body. 

To me, this kind of thinking, or attitude seems “Western” and as something highly christian, and it’s something I can’t really find in Chinese tradition and culture. In Chinese thought, there is no yin without yang. Everything, including our body, has both “internal” and “external” aspects at the same time. And moreover, all aspects of our human body are interlinked, the functions of the body and changes in it affects our thoughts, emotions and everything we could call “internal”. 

In my own practice and study of Tai Chi Chuan, I have always viewed the different aspects of “mind and body” and “internal and external”, as dependent on each other, and I see every attempt to separate them as something highly “un-Chinese.”

There’s a certain relationship between the mind, body and breath which I believe is the most basic and important correlation in Tai Chi. And personally speaking, I believe that this very basic knowledge, something I will be talking about here in this article, is something of the most important and valuable a Tai chi practitioner should know and be aware about.

To sum up this relationship or correlation: 

  • If you tense the mind, your breath and body will tense up. 
  • If you relax the mind, the breath and body will relax.
  • If you tense the body, your breath and mind will tense up. 
  • If you relax the body, the breath and mind will relax.
  • If you tense the breath, your body and mind will tense up. 
  • If you relax the breath, the body and mind will relax.

Or to simplify it:

  • If you tense either mind, body or breath, the other two will tense up.
  • If you relax either mind, body or breath, the other two will relax.

The most crucial aspect though is the mind. The Chinese concept of “heart-mind” is exceptionally useful here, because it considers both deliberate thought and emotion, and sees logical thinking and emotion as dependent on each other.

Actually, emotions might control our overall thinking more than we usually feel inclined to accept. As an example, look at how we experience art. When we see a painting, our “thinking” starts from an overall impression. When we look at it, we experience it emotionally first. And then, after the emotional reaction, we try to use our logical thinking to figure out why we experience it one way or another, or rather – to confirm and justify what we “feel”. 

This relationship becomes even more evident if we look at children’s reactions when they look at different paintings. They know immediately if they think it’s ugly or pretty, but often they can not explain why. 

All our thinking, every thought we create, fire off physical/ neurological reactions in our bodies. If someone sees a person run, the nervous system in the viewer’s body, and especially the parts that are actively involved in the actions watched, are activated as if he or she was actually running. And if we only think about running, our body is activated in the same way and it prepares itself for running. 

This is why just “thinking” about doing the form and going through it just while sitting down can be almost as valuable as doing it, especially for beginners. You don’t get the physical “doing”, but the nervous system will be activated as if you were doing it and the repetitions while “thinking” it will be stored in the muscle memory. Well, if you have time and space for doing it, you should. But if you are traveling a lot, or daily, this could be a compliment to your actual practice. 

Anyway, let’s go forward. What you need to know is that every single thought and everything you “think” will either act “relaxing” or “calming” on all of your body and on your breath. 

The first “problem” we encounter when we want to calm down our minds, is that we shape words with our thoughts. Every word we quietly “think” for ourselves in our brains, will activate and affect the muscles in the mouth, tongue and jaws as we were talking. Mostly it will cause movements and muscle contractions, and if it’s not, “thinking words” will still activate the nervous system linked to “talk” in these areas. 

And second, all of our thinking will also affect the breath. Calm thoughts will calm it down, because the physical activity and activity of the nervous system will calm down. Faster and less calm thoughts will activate the “talking areas” more and also make the heart rate go up and the breath go faster. And obviously, the opposite happens if you “think” more calmly and slower. 

But here is also a great opportunity. By learning to relax better physically, you can eventually learn to relax your mind and more or less stop your thinking by will. You see, if you relax your body, all of your body, and the breath will automatically go slower and sink down. This will also force your mind to become calmer as it needs a certain neurological activity to work fast. 

The first step in your own practice, if you already haven’t practiced this, should be to create more awareness about the tensions in your face, jaws and neck, and also in your hands. you can practice to relax while sitting or standing naturally, it doesn’t matter much. If you keep your focus, attention and awareness on these areas, and try to relax, just keep still and not move, you will find that your mind and breath will also calm down.


Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Longevity in Training

Among other things, martial artists are athletes. As such we can learn from athletes in other endeavors how we can continue at the top of our game for a long, long time.

Below is an excerpt from an article that appears at The Art of Manliness blog, describing the incredible sports longevity of Nolan Ryan. There are lessons to be had. The full post may be read here.

I turned 40 last December. 

No, I haven’t had a midlife crisis. 

But that number did cause me to self-reflect. 

How did the first 20 years of adulthood go?

What can I do to make the next 20 years great?

Around that same time, I happened to watch a documentary about one of my childhood heroes: baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan. 

That movie showed up in my life at the right time. 

What caught my attention in the documentary was that Nolan Ryan made his 40s the most productive and successful part of his career. 

Despite his age, or maybe because of it, from when he was 39 until he retired at 46, Ryan did his best pitching.

Between the ages of 19 and 28, he averaged 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings. 

Between the ages of 29 and 38, he averaged 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

Between the ages of 39 and 46, he averaged 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings. 

He even notched two of his seven record-setting no-hitters while in his 40s. 

Not only did Ryan’s professional success impress me, but his personal success in midlife was admirable as well. His marriage to his high school sweetheart, Ruth, continued (and continues today) to thrive, and he raised three good, down-to-earth kids.

When you watch clips of Nolan Ryan on the mound in his 40s, he’s got a presence that commands respect. He looks like a man who knows the talent he’s got and will continue to express that talent for as long as he can. He’s got the grit. 

I started calling that quiet, determined confidence that Ryan exuded in midlife “Nolan Ryan Energy.” 

It’s the kind of energy I want to foster in my life during the next ten years. 

So I dug into some biographies on this legendary pitcher to find ways to nurture my own Nolan Ryan Energy. Here’s what I uncovered. It’s helped me as I’ve started navigating my 40s. If you’re into or approaching midlife, maybe it will help you, too.

Train Hard and Smart

A key to Nolan Ryan’s middle-aged success was his rigorous and innovative training regimen developed with his trainers Gene Colman and Tom House. 

Instead of taking it easy in his 40s, Ryan spent five hours a day, six days a week on physical training. Before Nolan Ryan, doing marathon workouts like this was unheard of in baseball. Players might hit a few weight machines, perhaps do a little stretching, and call it a day. But Ryan understood that if he wanted to continue to thrive as a pitcher in his 40s, he needed to continue to develop his strength and endurance, and the way you develop those qualities is through hard training. 

Weightlifting played a big role in Ryan’s exercise routine. He loved squatting because it helped him develop his lower body power which was the key to his trademark windup and delivery. 

After weights, he would run foul pole to foul pole for laps and then end his conditioning workout with five 60-yard sprints. 

Ryan stuck to this workout schedule religiously. When the Rangers traveled to other cities to play, he made sure there was a gym he could use to get his workouts in.

Even though Ryan went hard with his training, he also understood that the body of a 40-something differs from the body of a 20-something. The stress and strain of heavy exercise could wear down his joints and connective tissues. Moreover, muscles don’t recover as quickly as they get older. 

So besides training hard, Ryan trained smart in his 40s. Working with Tom House, he devised innovative training protocols for his aging body. He dedicated considerable time to water-based exercises to minimize joint stress. He spent a lot of time stretching. He loved riding a stationary bike after a game while he talked to the press because it allowed him to get his cardio in without stressing his tendons and ligaments.

Takeaway: For many men, their 40s are a season when they let their foot off the gas. Physical activity slides to the back burner as other things take priority in their lives. Even if you’re not a professional athlete, physical health is the foundation for remaining dynamic and effective into middle age. Find a workout regimen that suits your stage in life and do it with vigor and consistency. 

Be Open to New Ideas

By the time many men hit their 40s, they’ve developed a well-worn rut in how they approach life. It makes sense. They’ve likely discovered strategies and tactics that have worked for them, so why change things up?

But sometimes staying the course with what worked for you in the first twenty years of manhood will only lead to stagnation in midlife. 

Nolan Ryan understood this tendency and its potential trap, so he countered it by remaining open to new ideas. He was, as his wife Ruth put it, “a sponge wanting more information.” He would seek mentors and coaches who could help him continue to succeed and thrive into midlife.

Ryan’s relationship with Tom House, his pitching coach, illustrates this openness. House’s innovative approaches to training included utilizing new technologies, like the Motion Analysis System. Despite his initial skepticism, Ryan gave House the benefit of the doubt and let himself get analyzed by the computer. This led to a revelation about a subtle flaw in Ryan’s pitching mechanics — a tilt of the head — that was impacting his overall performance. 

When faced with the physical demands of pitching nine-inning games and the toll they took on his body as he aged, Ryan displayed adaptability again. He developed new training protocols with House, incorporating unorthodox methods like throwing footballs for warm-ups. Many pitchers thought Ryan was a weirdo for throwing footballs before a game, but once they tried it, they discovered what Ryan knew: it allowed a pitcher to loosen up without putting too much stress on his arm.

Takeaway: Instead of getting stuck in your ways in your 40s, be open to new ideas. Read new books. Keep making new friends. Find mentors. Maybe hire a coach to help you improve your career or physical fitness. To thrive in midlife, keep what continues to work for you, but do some exploring too

90 Year Old Martial Artist

Folk martial artist and old Chinese doctor Yang Deyou learned martial arts with his teacher at the age of seven, and taught at the Nanjing Jingwu Sports Association in his middle age. Yang Lao inherited the authentic Tiangangmen of Southern Shaolin, and is good at Nanquan, Tanzu Tiangangquan, Tiangang Sanshou and Shaolin Plum Blossom series There are more than 100 traditional routines in the Luohan series of boxing weapons. Yang Lao is unique in that he is ninety years old, but his movements have no signs of aging at all. His moves are fast and sharp, and he can roll and fly at will.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Interview with Ellis Amdur

Falling Leaves Kung Fu conducted an interview with Ellis Amdur, a senior practitioner of classical Japanese martial arts, scholar and a prolific author. Below is an excerpt from the introduction. The full article may be read here.


Join me on a remarkable journey through the enchanting martial arts career of Ellis Amdur. From his humble beginnings with backyard karate to mastering multiple styles of Koryū, Amdur’s personal and professional life has been shaped by his deep fascination with martial arts. 

His experiences across multiple disciplines offer unique insights into both the esoteric and practical realms of martial arts. Dive into the world of Koryū and discover its relevance to real-world scenarios through Ellis Amdur’s captivating narrative.

Ellis Amdur

Ellis’s journey began like many others, born out of defeat. As he puts it, he was “like a lot of people [who] lost a fight and started with backyard karate.” This initial brush with martial arts sparked a fascination that would shape the future course of his life.

His first brush with Kung Fu was when he found himself training with an offshoot of Alan Lee, a pioneering instructor of Chinese martial arts on the east coast who opened the discipline to non-Chinese individuals.

However, his journey was just beginning. Ellis was drawn to an Aikido dojo, stating that he “really got interested in Japanese martial arts.” He appreciated their “clean lines” and became “really fascinated with Aikido.” At one point, Ellis found himself living in the famous Bond Street dojo in New York after college and eventually relocated to Japan to continue his training. Ellis found Aikido “fascinating” due to its “intersection of modernity and tradition” and the culture of a “hodgepodge of sort of Neo-Shinto spiritual mania.”

In 1976, his path led him to Araki-ryū 荒木流, a Koryū. The term “koryū” (古流) describes traditional Japanese martial arts established before the Meiji Restoration in 1867. 

– 古 (Ko), which means “old” or “ancient.”
– 流 (Ryu), which means “school” or “style.” 

Thus, “Koryū” is translated to “ancient school” or “old style,” referring to the classical martial arts of Japan.

Araki-ryū was intriguing for its no-nonsense, close-quarter fighting: a blend of weapons and hand-to-hand combat. Ellis remarked, “To put it one way… it kind of taps into a feral mindset. It’s very violent. It’s violent in its mindset and very practical with its techniques.”

Amdur described his Araki-ryū teacher as an enigmatic and difficult man who, as a result, only had a few students. However, he immediately recognized Ellis’s unique character; his teacher once told him: “When we met, I looked in your eyes, and I saw you are a strange American. And I’m a strange Japanese, so I thought having you around might be interesting.” 

Two years later, he started learning Tenshin-Bukō-ryū 天真武甲流兵法 with his (then) wife, under a 60-year-old Japanese woman named Nitta Suzuyo. He found transitioning from the violent Araki-ryū to the more formal Tenshin-ryū challenging but rewarding.

His thirst for knowledge didn’t stop there. He expanded his horizons, cross-training in Judo, Chinese martial arts like Xingyiquan and Tongbeiquan, and even Muay Thai. Upon returning to the States, his main interests became internal strength training and Arrestling, a mixed martial art designed specifically for police interactions by Don Gulla. 

Grappling For Law Enforcement

In my conversation with Ellis, I was deeply intrigued by his perspective on law enforcement training. He shed light on a critical aspect – the necessity of specific martial arts techniques tailored for real-world scenarios encountered by police officers. As he elaborated, it’s not about merely fending off someone trying to grab your firearm or dealing with a close-range knife threat. It’s about abiding by “certain rules of engagement,” depending on the immediacy of the threat as well. 

Ellis drove home a crucial point, one that runs contrary to some common perceptions. The idea that every police officer should master Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), he cautioned, doesn’t hold water. It’s not that BJJ isn’t a valuable discipline – Ellis himself is “grateful for the little bit” he’s learned. However, he emphasized that it isn’t the cure-all solution for law enforcement. Instead, the training should be specific to the “professional role of the law enforcement officer.”

This insight resonated with my awareness of the perspectives shared by individuals like John Lovell from the Warrior Poet Society. John, a former Special Forces operator, echoes the same sentiment. While he loves BJJ, he recognizes that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, especially for street interactions or riots. Instead, different skill sets are essential for various scenarios.


Ellis’s journey into martial arts is deeply entwined with two aforementioned styles, Araki-ryū and Bukō-ryū. His words evoked the fascinating dichotomy between these two arts, each carrying a unique mindset and philosophy.



Wednesday, September 06, 2023

The Neo-Confusianism of the Japanese Samurai

As one of a 20 part series of articles, Think.IAFor.Org had a piece about the Neo-Confucianism of the Japanese Samurai. an excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

Shotoku Taishi and Confucianism

Shotoku Taishi (570- 622), regent to the Empress Suiko, is usually regarded as being the first national leader to actively promote Buddhism. Buddhist beliefs were encouraged in the seventeen clauses of moral guidelines he issued around 604, in which were stressed the ideal of harmony, and of Buddhism as a means of achieving that harmony. (Version from: de Bary, Wm Theodore (ed.) Sources of the Japan Tradition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

Clause one began: “Harmony is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition to be honored”. The notion of harmony itself belongs to Confucianism. “When the world and the Way of Heaven coincide, there is harmony, well-being and peace”. It taught that harmony was to be preferred to conflict, and negotiation to confrontation. It was Confucianism that gave modern Japan the norms for its social structures. Confucianism originated in China as a system of social ethics designed to keep society just, stable and conservative. The principles are to be found in the sayings (Analects) of Confucius (551-479 BC), the father of the Chinese intellectual tradition. (Fung Yu-lan A Short History of Chinese Philosophy ed. Derek Bodde, New York, 1948) p.21 See also The Analects of Confucius tr. by Arthur Waley, London: Allen & Unwin, 1938) and Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of Confucius (New York, The Modern Library, 1938.

He was a figure in sharply contrast to his Western counterpart, Socrates (470-399 BC) who died in Athens under sentence of death by means of drinking hemlock. He was accused of allegedly corrupting the youth of the city by teaching them to think critically.

While Socrates stressed ideas that led to the rise of philosophical argument as a method of seeking truth, and of scientific method as a means of establishing general truths, Confucius, in almost complete contrast, was preoccupied with the problem of social order. The principal consequence for Chinese thought was that the central problems of philosophy were not speculative but practical, and social ethics came to occupy in Chinese philosophy the place of prominence occupied by epistemology and metaphysics in the West.

The Confucian Structure of Relations

Confucius analysed society into five basic relationships (Analects op.cit. viii: 9).: (i) father/son; (ii) ruler/subject; (iii) husband/wife; (iv) elder brother/ younger brother; and (v) friend/friend. He suggested that when every individual fulfilled the particular duties of his station, society would be harmonious and would prosper as a consequence. It was necessary to live up to one’s social role. This he saw as part of the Way of Heaven, the founding concept of the Doctrine of the Mean, as it later became known. The social impact of this doctrine is seen in some of the less guarded statements he made about the way.

“The common people may be made to follow it (the Way) but may not be made to understand it.” This statement in principle divides society into the ordinary people and the feudal elite whom they are expected to respect and follow. It is to the principles of a feudal society that Confucian thought most readily lends support. One further quotation from the Confucian tradition should indicate the conservatism latent within it:

“To be stupid and to like to use his own judgment… people of this sort bring calamity on themselves. Unless one is the Son of Heaven, he does not decide o ceremonies, (of social order) make regulations, or establish the form and pronunciation of characters (in written Chinese). In the world today, all carriages have wheels of the same size, all writing is done with the same characters, and all conduct is governed by the same social relation…Although a man has the virtue, even is he does occupy the throne, he may not dare to institute systems of music and ceremony…” (Analects op. cit. p.475).)

This outlook survived the onslaught of Buddhist intellectuals and was reinforced by Cho Tun-i (1017-1073) (Chou Tun-i: For a discussion and source see: Wing tsit Chan A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy Princeton N.J.: University Press, 1969 p.460 ff), who linked it to the various types of metaphysics and cosmology current in his day. Even more than Confucius, Cho Tun-i stressed the conventional nature of morality, and affirmed that it must be taught by those duly informed.

“Moral principles are honorable and valuable only when they are possessed by man. At birth, man is ignorant. He remains stupid when he grows up if he has no teachers or friends to help him.” (For discussion see: Ed. Nivison, D.S., and Wright, A.L., Confucianism in Action Stanford, CA.: University Press, 1959) especially pp. 246, 254, 282).

Morality was conceived of as a system of values to be cultivated in man for the wellbeing of society. The doctrines of this tradition became, and remained until 1905, the basic themes of Chinese civil service examinations. Chu Hsi: For a discussion and sources see: Wing tsit Chan op. cit., p.588 ff). Their importance for the Edo period in Japan is beyond doubt. To a large extent they have survived to the present day.

The Social Ideal of Harmony

The principal value of society is order through harmony and harmony through obedience and loyalty to the various ranks and offices above one’s own. Harmony depends upon collective goals and collective interests taking precedence over individual goals, and loyalty is demonstrated not by silent devotion but by acts of service that exhibit the principle of subservience to collective goals. In order to facilitate the smooth functioning of society, as many aspects of daily life as possible are formalized.

This is reflected in the degree to which Japanese language remains analogously formalized. At the social level, political duties to the State take precedence over the various obligations of filial piety and social position that arise through kinship ties. Two terms are used to characterize what in English would be covered by the single term ‘duty’ as it originated in the feudal age. There is the word gimu, which was used for duties, which arose from the principle of loyalty to the collective goal, and giri is the kind of duty that arises from blood ties and close social relations.

“The notion of loyalty as the root of this system of values is best appreciated if it is understood that the antithesis is not ‘disloyalty’ but ‘selfishness’.”

The notion of loyalty as the root of this system of values is best appreciated if it is understood that the antithesis is not ‘disloyalty’ but ‘selfishness’. In other words, the individual’s inclinations must always be subordinated to collective goals. The individual is part of a twin network of duties, giri to those immediately around him and along with others, gimu to the collective goals as enunciated by the State. From these positions it follows that if one’s difference of opinion with another was sufficiently great, and one still wished to be loyal, one could find oneself faced with the duty of removing oneself altogether from the scene of the action. In a society that valued loyalty as the supreme virtue, and made an art out of not giving offence, ritual suicide as an expression of belief in and respect for social order was a natural development.

This position was pushed to a further extreme by the adjustment of the Confucian structure of relations by the Edo government – an adjustment which not only heightened feudal control but also matured the militaristic mentality of the neo-samurai, which dominated Japan until the end of the Pacific War and which lingers still in often unexpected places.

Neo-Confucianism and Neo-Samurai

After Nitobe Inazo published Bushido: The Soul of Japan around 1905, Bushido was mistakenly seen as the ethic of the Japanese people and the soul of Japan. What Nitobe was writing to justify (probably unconsciously) was the neo-samurai mentality that flourished during the era of modernization and which taught a debased form of Confucianism using the warrior class to maintain its political goals. The Tokugawa government aimed at eradicating all possibility of insurrection or revolution by ordinary people against their superiors and to this end rearranged the traditional order of Confucian relationships:

(1) Ruler – Subject
(2) Father – Son
(3) Husband – Wife
(4) Elder brother – Younger brother
(5) Friend – Friend

Thus relationships (1) and (2) changed places giving Ruler-Subject precedence. The monopoly of moral, political and intellectual authority vested in the bushi was derived from the neo-Confucian ethics of Chu Hsi (1130-1200), the Chinese scholar whose version of Confucianism the Japanese government chose to promote. The understanding of harmony in the Tokugawa system was simple enough:

“The law may upset reason, but reason may never upset the law… The law may be used to confound reason, but reason must certainly not be used to overthrow the law” (Sadler, A.L. The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Tokugaw Ieyasu London, 1937)

It would be wrong, however, to imagine that feudal Japan under the Tokugawa family was a perfect model of social order. That there was a central power structure is not in doubt, but it was weakened by the independence maintained by many wealthy feudal lords. The restoration of Imperial power in 1868 saw the culmination and intensification of the central values of neo-Confucianism rather than their rejection. Indeed, the latter part of the Tokugawa period had seen the threatened collapse of centralization, which was one reason why many favored the restoration of the Emperor, not merely as the symbol, but as the effective source of power.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

What is Bushido

At Japonica Publications was an article about Bushido and was it ever a real thing? Below is an excerpt. The whole article may be read here.


Bushidō. Often referred to as “the samurai code of chivalry”, it stirs up images of noble and fearless warriors, fiercely loyal to their comrades, living and dying by the sword, choosing death over dishonour.

There is no doubt that the way of the samurai continues to have a hold on the public imagination. But what exactly was bushidō?

Whilst researching this — mostly for inspiration for my next shodō (Japanese calligraphy) project — I came across countless motivational articles exalting the samurai as the pinnacle of manly strength and dignity, almost super-human in their abilities and presence of mind. Apparently they followed a strict moral code, bushidō, which the aforementioned motivational articles suggest adopting in order to better oneself. This moral code conveniently comes with a list of eight key virtues which one can follow in order to lead a noble and successful life. Sounds pretty good, right?

After a little more research a rather different picture began to emerge. There were signs that these key virtues might be a misinterpretation or even a modern invention.

Indeed, there were signs that the entire concept of bushidō itself might be fake.

So does bushidō have roots in historical fact, or was it a modern invention? Where does the truth end and the myth begin? Was this “samurai code” ever really a thing?

I decided to investigate further. This article is the result of that.

Firstly, bushidō is composed of three Japanese characters: 武士道

武士 bushi means “warrior”

means “path” or “way” (as in jūdō, kendō, shodō, etc)

So bushidō literally means “the way of the warrior”.

According to Wikipedia, it was a philosophy and way of life used to guide samurai into correct action in all aspects of their lives.

Bushidō (according to Wikipedia) is believed to have developed in Japan sometime between the 11th and 14th centuries, and was heavily influenced by other Eastern philosophies such as Chinese Confucianism, Shintoism, and Zen Buddhism. It was formalised during the Edo era (1603–1868), a period characterised by civil order and a strict social hierarchy with samurai firmly at the top.

Wikipedia also lists the set of key virtues that I had seen in so many motivational articles. I have listed them below, with my translations.

  • 義 (gi) INTEGRITY
  • 勇 (yū) COURAGE
  • 仁 (jin) COMPASSION
  • 礼 (rei) RESPECT
  • 誠 (makoto) SINCERITY
  • 名誉 (meiyo) REPUTATION
  • 忠義 (chūgi) RESPONSIBILITY

All sources show these same seven virtues. Some sources (including Wikipedia) also list an extra eighth virtue:

  • 自制 (jisei) SELF-DISCIPLINE

So are there seven virtues or eight? More on this later (including the rationale behind my translations).

According to Wikipedia, these virtues were first codified by a chap called Nitobe Inazō who lived during the Meiji period (1868–1912). This struck me as odd because this period was well after the samurai hey-day.

Furthermore, being a samurai was essentially made illegal during this period, due to Japan’s desperate attempts to Westernise by discarding the old social hierarchies (which heavily favoured the samurai).

So were these “virtues of bushidō” really a thing? Perhaps they just been dreamt up by some guy nostalgically clinging on to the past, trying to deal with the rapid industrialisation his country was going through, a way to dampen the shock of the new?

Then I came across this article on Tofugu by “Rich”, with the intriguing title: Bushido: the Way of Total Bullsh*t.

Long story short, the article states that the virtues of bushidō, along with the very concept of bushidō itself, were flat-out made up by that Nitobe guy I mentioned just a few paragraphs back.

Nitobe wrote a book titled Bushidō — the Soul of Japan in 1899 (well after the samurai way of life had disappeared). He wrote it in English, for a Western audience, and compared samurai ideals to Christian concepts, in order to make Japanese culture more palatable for Westerners who were just starting to learn about this mysterious Asian country. It’s a highly romanticised account of samurai culture, essentially the Japanese equivalent of Victorian artists and writers idealising the European Medieval period of chivalrous knights and courtly love. It is in this book that these eight samurai virtues are first mentioned.

So, does this mean that bushidō is a load of “bullsh*t”, as the aforementioned article claims?

Yes and no. Whether or not bushidō was historically a thing is debatable. The writer of the article claims that it has no historical roots, and that the term bushidō was invented by Nitobe in his 1899 book.

However, the Wikipedia entry for Nitobe’s book Bushidō — the Soul of Japan states that “Nitobe Inazo did not coin the term bushidō”.

This term had been used before in a couple of books (both of which are mentioned in the article):

1. Kokon Bushidō ezukushi (“Images of Bushidō Through the Ages”), by artist Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694).

2. Kōyō Gunkan (a record of military exploits of a high-ranking family), published in 1616. In this text, the term bushi no michi is clearly legible. Written in Japanese, bushidō (武士道)and bushi no michi (武士の道)are basically the same. The の is a grammatical particle meaning something like “of” or “ ’s”, so it’s essentially the difference between “The Warrior’s Way” and “The Way of the Warrior”.

What these two examples show is that bushidō was a term that could be understood by the general population. However, it does not prove that bushidō was the overarching philosophy and way of life in that it was purported to be in Nitobe’s Bushidō — the Soul of Japan.

This all suggests that bushidō as a real well-known and widespread moral philosophy doesn’t have genuine historical roots. It is a nostalgic fantasy created via a very romantic and optimistic interpretation of history.

Moreover, the virtues in Nitobe’s book are not part of a well-known “samurai code”. They are merely eight virtues that Nitobe considered important in Japanese society, and that he thought the samurai ought to have lived by. In his book, Nitobe discusses each of these virtues and makes great pains to show that each one has an equivalent in Western Christian tradition. His book is not so much a historical document as a promotion of Japanese values as being congruent with contemporary (i.e. Victorian) Western values. He makes a lot of comparisons with European chivalry, and cites an impressive number of passages from the Bible.

You can read Nitobe’s book Bushidō — the Soul of Japan here at Project Gutenberg.

From reading Nitobe’s book, the reason why some sources list seven virtues and some sources list eight becomes apparent. Nitobe devotes a section to each of these seven virtues:

  • Rectitude or Justice
  • Courage, the spirit of Daring and Bearing
  • Benevolence, the Feeling of Distress
  • Politeness
  • Veracity or Truthfulness
  • Honour
  • The Duty of Loyalty

Then he talks about samurai education and training, and after this he describes an eighth virtue:

  • Self-control

Clearly, some readers thought that his talking about education marked the end of the list of virtues, whereas others chose to also include “self-control”.