I recently had a chance to explore a new release by Tuttle Publishing entitled “Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai“. That’s a lot of title, and the book contains a lot of information. In fact, this book combines storytelling, character development, and real historical data in a unique way to bring the reader into the world of Pre-Meiji Japan. It explores the people and places pivotal in the development of modern Japan and takes us through the painful process of de-isolation.
Author Romulus Hillsborough spent over 15 years living in Japan. While there he immersed himself in the culture, language, and history of the country. He was particularly intrigued by the Samurai and the way Japan’s centuries-old fighting culture clung to life and relevancy even as the country moved in a modern direction. “Samurai Revolution” is one of Hillsborough’s most ambitious works and it shows in the texture and thoughtfulness of the story.
What Is Samurai Revolution?
When people think of the Meiji Restoration and the “death” of the Samurai they most often think of the Tom Cruise picture entitled “The Last Samurai”. That movie did in fact take place around the same time period as this book, however an ample amount of creative license was taken with the storytelling. “Samurai Revolution”, on the other hand, is steeped in both historical data and first hand accounts from the important players who were alive during those times.
This book explores a wide and sorted cast of characters but focuses mostly on a samurai named Katsu Kaishu. Katsu was a low level Samurai but rose to prominence due to his strong strategic mind, naval acumen, and scandalous opinion that Japan should open itself to the Western World in order to rise above it.
The book is broken up into two primary sections. The first covers the era leading up to the Meiji Restoration. It examines in great detail the bickering factions that constantly lobbied for power and tried to enforce their own beliefs on the nation. It also describes the characters involved in the major power plays between the clans, including each individual’s strengths, weaknesses, scandals, and missteps.
The second part of the book focuses on the great unrest of the country as it joined the rest of the world, including culture clashes and violent resistance by “the old guard”.
Is This Book Worth Reading?
The slow death of the Samurai class may seem like well trodden ground. After all, we have books, movies, comics, etc all focusing on that time period. Despite that, I think “Samurai Revolution” stands out as a valuable work on the subject. Most movies or books tend to take one of two approaches: fanciful aggrandizement of the Samurai class or raw historical data with no personality at all. “Samurai Revolution” has managed to find a middle ground. The author has collected an unprecedented amount of first hand accounts regarding the time period and the players surrounding the revolution. As such, the story told contains both memorable personalities AND useful history, making it a valuable read for the romanticist and researcher alike.
My personal background straddles Okinawan and Japanese arts. I also have a penchant for historical writing. My opinion, both as a writer and researcher, is that this book is a welcome addition to my library. This behind-closed-doors approach to the Meiji Restoration fills in many gaps in our understanding of how Japan became modernized and why “Old Japan” resisted the change so fiercely.
Does the Book Have Any Weaknesses?
There is only one real weakness that I encountered, and it may be more my own fault than the book’s. I’m naturally bad at remembering names and “Samurai Revolution” contains many names. In fact, the interplay between the characters is important and it can really halt reading progress having to go back and try to remember who was who, and how they related to other important figures of the time. A more attuned eye may not struggle as much as I did, but I did feel it took away from my experience and immersion at certain points.
The breadth of important names and figures reminded somewhat of the fantasy hit “Game of Thrones”. Anyone who has seen the show or read the books knows it’s all about the intricacies of interaction as each faction vies for power and control. Pre-Meiji-Japan is not terribly different. In fact, I think “Samurai Revolution” could have benefited from maps and lineage charts updated periodically throughout the book. It would have been intriguing seeing the geography of events and watching factional borders change as power shifted hands.
Where Can the Book Be Purchased?
This book is published through Tuttle, one of the most well established creators of martial arts texts. As such, it is pretty easy and affordable to get your hands on a copy. Click the image or link below to learn more about the book or purchase a copy for yourself:
I recently had the opportunity to attend the 1st Annual Grand International Tournament for the United States Association of Martial Artists. USAMA is an organization developed by Sue Hawkes in honor of the late James Hawkes and in the spirit of the previous United States Karate Association developed by Robert Trias in 1948.
The inagaural USAMA event featured a number of high quality practitioners and special guest instructors, many of whom I had the pleasure to meet and train with. I’d like to share a little of my experience and talk about the interesting people who shared their time with me.
Back to Competition
Back in ‘the day’ I attended tournaments fairly regularly but once I got my fill I decided to move my focus and energy elsewhere. As such it has been a number of years since my last competition, with only one or two events sprinkled into the last decade. Despite that I was excited to support my instructors who were attending the USAMA event and the other quality martial artists who I knew would be in attendance.
A week or two ahead of time I decided which weapons and empty hand forms I wanted to try. For some reason I decided to be bold and go for a bo form that I had never demonstrated publicly before. This would prove to be something of a rookie mistake. I practiced the form diligently leading up to the competition and focused on it mentally even when I wasn’t training. I went over it again and again in my head. Unfortunately there’s a point in mental preparation where you can turn focusing-in to psyching-out. I did the latter.
(video of the kata in question, filmed at an earlier date:)
When it came time to compete my nerves were on high alert and I ended up bouncing the bo off of my leg at one point…a mistake that had never happened during my practice. Woops.
I was disappointed, as you might imagine. However the experience immediately burned away all of my extra nerves and reminded me of some of the obvious mistakes in preparation I made. When it came time to do my empty hand kata I had a lot more fun and executed a much better kata.
Meetings to Remember
In the evening I attended a very nice banquet where annual point winners were announced. As this was my first tournament in a long time I was not involved in any point games. However afterward I retired to the bar area with my instructors Bruce and Ann Marie Heilman as well as Jody Paul.
A few minutes later we were joined by Glenn Keeney. For those who might not be familiar, Keeney is one of the senior-most Goju Ryu practitioners in the United States and a competition champion. He is also known for starting the PKC (Professional Karate Commission), the preeminent sanctioning body for kickboxing and karate events.
There must have been some senior rank energy in the room because shortly after we were joined by Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and his student Stephen, as well as Robert Bowles. Bowles Hanshi is one of the senior students of Robert Trias as well an important connection to the old USKA. Bill Wallace is one of the most famous and successful karate competitors of our generation and is known for his unparalleled kicking technique.
All of this came together quickly and I couldn’t have been happier about it. Not many people realize that Glenn Keeney and Bill Wallace are long time friends and even traveled the country together, visiting schools of all shapes and sizes in order to train and fight. Having them back together and mixed in with all of the other seniors resulted in some great story telling. Happily I was able to meet up again with these individuals a day later for another dinner and chat session.
I’ve always maintained that the context in which we train, and our shared history, is second in importance only to training itself. I find long conversations, like the one described here, to be invaluable in the growth and understanding of an art like karate.
A Day of Seminars
As much fun as I had hanging out with all of those seniors I was even happier to spend the whole next day in training seminars. First I assisted Jody Paul Hanshi in teaching Motobu Udundi techniques. He focused on some of the most fundamental footwork and “dance” that makes the classical joint manipulation of Motobu work.
After that I hustled over to the seminar hosted by Fumio Demura Sensei. In recent years Demura Sensei had experienced some health problems but he was back in gi and able to demonstrate technique. With the help of one of his senior students we practiced a few basic drills and bunkai applications from the kata Pinan Shodan. Demura Sensei ran his class with great spirit – lots of hard work, energy, and effort.
Bill Wallace took over after that for a fast paced three hour session. He guided us through some fantastic stretching and kicking mechanic drills. Wallace Sensei shared some of his proven and effective tactics for fighting and utilizing kicks efficiently. Wallace Sensei is a fantastic teacher and entertainer. Even though we were working hard he kept us motivated and interested in the subject matter. Having him kick me in the head with ease was a true learning experience. After the session I felt some serious jelly-leg effects and would continue to feel it for the next few days.
To wrap up the day I assisted The Heilmans in a classic Okinawa Kenpo bo fighting drill set. We partnered up and worked through the two person set, analyzing the basics of the form as well as some of the finer details that make the methods effective.
Event Wrap Up
Getting a chance to compete, socialize, and train all at one event was a fantastic opportunity. Getting to spend an extended amount of time pestering senior practitioners with questions was a great thrill and worth the trip all on its own.
I congratulate everyone involved in the production of the event and thank them for their effort. Who knows, maybe this will give me the itch to compete again in the near future.
I was recently at an Iaido seminar working Seitei waza. The instructor, Iwakabe Hideki Sensei, was demonstrating one form in particular known as Sanpogiri.
(For reference, here is Noboru Ogura Sensei demonstrating the form):
After discussion of technical details and multiple demonstrations it was our turn to try. We performed as a group, and then individually. When it was my turn I got up, moved through the waza as best I could, and then waited. Iwakabe Sensei shuffled up to me, smirked, and said:
“Good, but next time don’t walk like an old Japanese man.”
You see, after decades of training Iwakabe Sensei has developed a subtle gait to his walk, taking careful steps so as not to find himself off-balance or tweak any pre-existing injuries. These adjustments over the years were born of necessity and a desire to continue training despite the natural effects of both age and hard exercise.
I was watching Iwakabe Sensei as closely as possible, and while I was focusing on the technique I was inadvertently absorbing everything else. In order to make myself perform like him, somewhere my mind and body decided I needed to walk like him too. This was in no way an actual conscious decision. It was astute of Iwakabe Sensei to catch me on that and correct me ASAP before it became a habit of muscle memory.
The Natural Evolution of Kojin Kata
We often think of kata as these unchanging obelisks of technique, handed down throughout the centuries. Of course, we all do our best to live up to that lofty standard of “unchanging-ness” but never truly achieve it (nor, as it turns out, would we want to).
As a person grows in their understanding of a form it naturally takes on subtleties that the performer may or may not realize they are imbuing into the performance. These nuances can come from mindset, understanding, visualization, and favored ways of moving the body. Another way nuance develops is through age. The combination of mental growth as well as physical aging turns into something known as “kojin kata“, roughly translated as an “old man’s form”.
It sounds slightly derogatory, but kojin kata is far from it. As a martial artist grows they are better able to understand their own abilities (and eventually limitations). The end result is economy of movement and clarity of purpose. Unlike sports competition, classical “do” (“the way”) martial arts are designed to enhance a person’s life, increase longevity, and give a sense of purpose.
For example, this performance by Higa Yuchoku Sensei occured just a year before his passing. You can tell the limitations he has but also his strength of spirit:
Higa Yuchoku is forced to perform his version of Passai in a way that suits his understanding and capabilities. It would NOT be suitable for a young practitioner in their 20s or 30s to move in such a way. This was the point Iwakabe Sensei was trying to get across to me. At my age, I need to move in a way that is either natural for my body type or constructive for body development.
Naturalness vs Body Development
One of the biggest lessons to be learned in traditional martial arts is how to be natural vs how to develop body conditioning. Every style emphasizes both things to a different extent. For example, Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Seitei Waza emphasizes a lot of body development in terms of flexibility, strength, and balance. The stances used in these forms are long and deep, the movements big and smooth. Old (koryu) styles like Muso Shinden Ryu or Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu tend to have a more combative focus and thus the stances are higher, natural, and mobile. The cutting and sheathing motions tend to be sharp and quick.
In karatedo, the mix of naturalness vs body development is just as pronounced. Some styles like Shotokan feature many deep stances and large movements ideal for body development. Old Okinawan styles like Matsumura Seito feature body movement that is higher and smaller for combative engagement. This comparison can be done with almost any style, and most styles have elements of both to different degrees.
Back to Kojin…
Connecting all this back to the original point of kojin kata – it’s important to look down the road when practicing your style. Take note of how your instructor trained and how it eventually affected his/her body. Heed their advice in terms of things to do and NOT to do. Most of all, don’t be overly focused on mimicking individuals who teach you at the expense of what they are trying to tell you. Also, remember that arts inevitably grow over time. The only way this becomes detrimental is if those teaching and passing the art along don’t fully understand what they are doing and how it is changing while in their care.