“The Art of the Japanese Sword” is an extensive tour through the methods of sword creation, preservation, and appreciation. More than that, it is a celebration of the creativity and dedication of a culture in refining a tool of war into an implement of extreme philosophical and aesthetic beauty.
In this review I would like to present the contents of the book as well as its pros and cons as a title. I will give my opinions on whether or not it is worth the investment, and provide links for those interested in learning more.
What’s In the Book?
This book is broken up into five major sections exploring different aspects of the Japanese sword. The sections are as follows:
* Kansho – Appreciating the sword
* Rekishi – History
* Tamahagane and the Tatara – Traditional steel making
* Sakuto – Making the sword
* Finishing the Sword – Polishing, habaki, and saya
Japanese martial arts are known for their extreme attention to detail and extensive usage of etiquette. The katana is the most revered of all weapons and as such features no shortage of etiquette in its handling. Many people do not realize that even in the viewing of a blade there are correct and incorrect methods of handling. These subtle matters are important philosophically as attention to them reflects a person’s own character and understanding of the art of the sword. Small etiquette techniques can also help the viewer in comprehending minor but important details in the sword itself, such as weight, balance, construction method, reflectivity, and more. The first chapter is entirely dedicated to educating the reader on these matters.
The rest of the chapters are just as detailed in their coverage. High quality pictures are used throughout to add historical context to the work as well as demonstrate to the reader the differences in sword construction described by the expert authors Yoshindo Yoshihara, Leon Kapp, and Hiroko Kapp.
All aspects of the katana, down to the most minute portions of the blade and furniture, are done with careful attention. By comparing and contrasting the different styles, “The Art of the Japanese Sword” provides the reader with a rare glimpse into the painstaking precision of the sword making process.
Book Pros and Cons
Pros: This book spares no expense in terms of production quality. It utilizes a thick paper stock and glossy print due to the high number of images. Many of the images are generously sized and in clear resolution, making this one of the most visually interesting books ever made on the Japanese sword. The design and structure of the information presented is also well done, utilizing easy to read fonts and digestable organization. A book with this much content could easily become overwhelming or boring, but this book manages to avoid those issues through clever usage of color and images.
The level of informational detail is probably the strongest aspect of this book. I have personally been studying Kenjutsu for about eight years and there are a lot of details and subtleties brought up in this text that I was not fully aware of. It was enlightening and a resource that I suspect I will come back to frequently as my understanding of the Japanese sword continues to grow.
Cons: The level of detail in this book may be considered overwhelming or tedious by some. This book is not a thrilling adventure, filled with stories of Samurai and test cuts that penetrate multiple bodies. This book does not deal much in the intrigue and mysticism that draws many people toward the Samurai. That being said, if you are interested in the nitty gritty details of hours upon hours of extreme focus and labor that goes into the creation of a sword, this book will show you the way.
Final Thoughts and Where to Buy
Most of my martial arts books are used for research and personal development. I mark them up, put sticky notes in them, and otherwise abuse them. Not this book. I find myself handling “The Art of the Japanese Sword” very gingerly, carefully scrolling through pages as I appreciate the images and information. I realize now the intentional effort put into this title – it’s own beauty and refinement reflecting the nature of its source material. I intend to have this book on display either in my home or in my dojo.
The price point is, in my opinion, very reasonable for the quality of the book. If you are a Kenjutsu lover, someone looking to understand the fine details of sword construction and etiquette, this book might be for you. Click the link below to learn more:
“Inner Bushido – Strength Without Conflict”, by Sean Hannon, is an inspection of the code of ethics and morals used by the Samurai and how it relates to our needs in modern society. The author asks the important question: do modern martial artists who claim to follow Bushido really hold true to the old values, and are those values even worth preserving?
Before beginning this review I need to say that the author, Sean Hannon, is a friend and martial arts co-conspirator of mine. As such, I can’t truly do this review with the normal objectivity that I bring to products. That being said, I will still honestly layout what the book entails and who might find it interesting.
What’s the Book About?
Most martial artists have heard of Bushido and may have even read books about it. They know that Bushido involves a lot of Confucian ideals such as loyalty, honor, integrity, etc. But beyond that most people fill in the gaps with what they THINK Bushido is, or what Samurai movies and various instructors/writers have had to say about it. This, as a result, has led to a large cultural nebula of misunderstanding regarding what Bushido was, how it was utilized, and what it means in the present-day.
Author Sean Hannon breaks down the most core precepts of Bushido and puts them on trial, determining whether or not they are relevant in their ancient Japan context or if they are in desperate need of updated thinking. Hannon frames his work around the 7 core tenants of Bushido as described by Nitobe Inazo in his pivotal work “Bushido: The Soul of Japan”, which are as follows:
* Gi – Rectitude
* Yuu – Courage
* Jin – Benevolence
* Rei – Politeness
* Makoto – Truthfulness
* Meiyo – Honor
* Chuugi – Loyalty
Each of these values seems fairly straight-forward on the surface but upon inspection become full of gray areas. Historically the use of each was smattered with abuse and the Samurai rarely lived up to the ideals we all attribute to them. Hannon explores this abuse and creates an honest discussion about how we can still use the optimal version of each quality while avoiding some of the pitfalls that come along with them (ie: what’s the difference between honor and ego?).
Who Should Get This Book?
The author comes from an Aikido and Iaido background. As such, he aims this book directly at other martial artists. He touches upon aspects such as business but really focuses on how the day-to-day life of a martial artist (both inside and outside of the dojo) can be enhanced by an understanding of Bushido. Anyone who trains “old style” martial arts (which is to say “lifestyle” martial arts, not just “sports”) would benefit from reading this analysis even if they believe they have a firm hold on Bushido concepts.
Anyone who actively discusses Bushido or considers it a real part of their life should consider this book a “must”. Hannon’s approachable writing style is matched by his ability to ask questions that the reader may not have considered. A martial artist’s pursuit must always include avoiding taking negative or ego-based paths. This book helps illuminate possible mindset traps.
What Are the Book’s Weaknesses?
This book is not a historical study. The author relies heavily on the work of Nitobe and fills in the gaps with a few other prominent thinkers. If the reader is expecting an in-depth exploration of the history of Bushido, its main players, as well as its development over time they will not be receiving that in this book. Instead, “Inner Bushido” skips right to assessing the qualities of Bushido we tend to value and how they can be used/abused in modern time. This is a philosophical and application based work but not a historical study.
Where Do You Buy It?
“Inner Bushido” is available on Amazon as well as other online retailers. It is set at a reasonable price given its length (127 pages). If you think this book might be right for you or as a gift for another martial artist, use the link below:
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: