I’m back from both Christmas and the bubonic plague. It’s amazing how quickly some of these flu viruses can spread, and how effective they are at putting people out of commission.
Anyway, overlooking those details I’d rather not relive, I’d like to share a piece of my Christmas spoils with you. Check this out:
Pardon the weird angle, I was trying to avoid glare. This is an excellent art print of a classical Samurai that I received. It’s about the size of a normal poster, but came framed and ready to go. I was very pleased! This is a great look at real Samurai garb in action, as opposed to resting idly in a museum somewhere.
The development of Samurai armor is very interesting and demonstrates great battlefield ingenuity. This complex weaving of chords, iron plates, and fibers creates a durable yet flexible protective shell. Furthermore, the development of arts such as Jujitsu, Aikido, and Judo were all born from the Samurai and were utilized against opponents wearing this exact kind of protection!
But why does Samurai armor look so much different than the war-gear of other countries? Most predominently it’s due to the focus of speed and flexibility over raw protection. While a European Knight would be able to withstand blows and deliver punishing, pulverizing strikes with his broadsword, Samurai were more interested in quick killing blows with katana or spear. They would use accurate and evasive tactics throughout the battlefield, foregoing the protection of platemail in favor of maneuverability.
Furthermore, the armor of a Samurai was indicative of a great many things on the battlefield (not just how many hits he could take). A warrior’s clan, status, and military propensity could all be determined by his protective gear. Each clan had their own Gusoku-shi, or armor makers, who would design armor specifically for each Samurai (no walmart brand available at that time).
Furthermore, time and necessity changed the design of Samurai armor. In the picture above we see a very functional, battle-ready suit. This is quite unlike the decorative, Tokugawa-era pieces that rest in many showcases.
As times became more peaceful and Samurai more irrelevant, armor became more ornamental and therefore functioned better as display.
Samurai armor has many many pieces, and every minute detail is important (for example: the way you laced your armor would be indicative of your rank and status), but essentially there are six main components: chest protector (yoroi), helmet (kabuto), mask (ho-ate), sleeves (kote), shin gaurds (sune-ate), and loin gaurd (koshi-ate…also known as the most important piece).
High ranking officers would ride into battle mounted, wearing extremely elaborate suits of armor and demonizing masks, displaying their prowess and clan identity. Warring samurai, like the one in my poster above, stuck to what was functional.
Samurai armor and culture is extraordinarly complex, and not a single knot goes without deep contemplation. Although we only scratched the surface, we did learn a little about the individual featured in my picture above. Hopefully he’ll serve as a reminder to me that there is still much to learn, and more budo spirit to be attained!
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Karate-Do: My Way of Life by Funakoshi Gichin is a small book packed with extremely valuable anecdotes. Funakoshi’s stories grant us a peek into an Okinawa that is mostly lost to antiquity.
One story that strikes me as particularly interesting is entitled “A Humble Man” (pg. 62 if you’re reading along ;- )
In his daily travels, Funakoshi made it a habit to walk to-and-from the school where he taught. One day, when returning home from a teachers meeting that had run late into the night, Funakoshi decided to hire a jinriksha driver. Jinriksha, also known as rickshaw, is a two wheel cart pulled by a single “driver”.
As Funakoshi explains, “to while away the time, I began a conversation with the jinriksha man and found, rather to my surprise, that he gave extremely short answers to my questions. Usually jinriksha men are as loquacious [1 point for the translator] as barbers. Further, his tone of voice was extremely polite and his language was that of a well-educated man.”
Funakoshi decided to uncover the identity of this mysterious man, who hid deftly underneath a wide brimmed hat. His plan was to stop the ride and relieve himself, and at some point grab a glance at his driver’s face. His attempt failed. They began walking further down the path, the driver keeping a pace behind at all times. Funakoshi then attempted one decisive action to discover the man’s identity -
“Suddenly, at a bend in the road, I wheeled around and grabbed a shaft of the jinriksha and at the same time tried to get a glimpse of [the driver's] features. However, quick as I was, the man was even quicker, as he pulled his hat down deep over his face. So quick, indeed, was his reaction that I was now perfectly convinced he could not be an ordinary jinriksha driver.”
Through his calculated observations, Funakoshi was able to determine that the man was one Mr. Sueyoshi, a renowned and respected kobudo exponent (especially known for his bojitsu). He then learned that, even though coming from a well established family, Sueyoshi had fallen on hard times and needed money to pay for medicine for his ill wife. In order to accomplish this, Sueyoshi became a jinricksha man at night, using the darkness to conceal his identity and therefore save himself from disgrace.
Regarding his unlikely driver, Funakoshi had this to say:
“Had [Sueyoshi] desired fame and fortune, he could certainly have acquired it, but possibly at the expense of engaging in work that he would have felt to be beneath his dignity. In this he was…every inch a samurai.”
When examining the exchange between these two masters, it is evident the role respect and dignity played in their day to day lives. In Okinawa, like in many Asian cultures, the reputation of family plays an extremely important role. Sueyoshi’s unwillingness to show his face was an effort to leave the image of his family fully intact without “sullying” it by being acknowledged as a “lowly” rickshaw driver.
Funakoshi, despite being taken by curiosity, kept himself completely composed while attempting to catch a look at his mysterious driver. Once the identity was revealed, both men showed respect by walking side by side as opposed to one in front of the other, or one riding in the cart.
It’s also interesting to note how much information the men were able to gather on each other simply by monitoring movements during a mundane activity like a cart ride. Sueyoshi’s martial arts prowess, and even identity became evident simply by detecting his mannerisms. This speaks both to the mental and physical enhancement martial arts study can provide over time.
Funakoshi’s statement about Sueyoshi not taking work “beneath his dignity” is very telling of the weight Sueyoshi placed on his art. Sueyoshi, rather than sell out and market his bojitsu to become rich, eeked out a living at night performing duties that were very much beneath his status.
I admire Sueyoshi’s commitment to maintaining his art and not watering it down for public consumption. By taking the path of Koryu (“old style” method of martial arts transmission utilized heavily by the Samurai) he certainly maintained a high level of quality in his kobudo.
Koryu arts were, by nature, closed communities filled with secrecy and tradition. The main purpose of this was to maintain battlefield effectiveness. The true goal of Koryu was to kill opponents. The “do” aspects (mental and spiritual growth) were secondary. If a ryu or art like Sueyoshi’s bojitsu was to retain its complete effectiveness, he would have to keep his student body very low and the transmission of his concepts secret.
On the other end of the spectrum is Funakoshi, whom I also admire. Through his efforts to spread karatedo, more and more people became aware of the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of karate training. Truly, if it weren’t for him and others like him, the martial arts wouldn’t be what they are today. My own knowledge of the arts (as limited as it is) stems back to individuals like Seikichi Odo who allowed gaijin (outsiders) to study.
The One Conclusion I Will Make…
I don’t have any particular answers when it comes to the paradox of Funakoshi and Sueyoshi. They both had equally good justification for their actions. But what I will say is this – it’s astonishing what a four page anecdote can reveal, both about the men involved and us as practitioners.
This story made a personal impact on me because Sueyoshi No Kun is a kata I practice in my style of kobudo (we actually break it up into two kata, Sueyoshi Ichi and Ni). Where once I saw these kata as mechanical movements devised by some shadow of the past, I can now perceive the man behind their creation. I can sense his motivation to save an ailing wife and observe his behavior as he followed the martial way.
Stories such as this invite us to study our arts deeply. By imagining humid rains, dark nights, and pebbled studded causeways, we can place ourselves in the shoes of our martial arts forefathers and imagine what they were thinking while perfecting their art. We can then place ourselves back in our own shoes and think about our day-to-day tribulations and what might cause us to train differently.
While some folk might feel burdened by tradition, I believe it can be endlessly fascinating, and when taken in the right context, can help free us to express ourselves.
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Seasons greetings. We are a scant few days away from Christmas, and that means it’s time to get those last minute wishes into the folks in charge. As martial artists, we have only one mythological character to be concerned about – Martial Arts Santa.
Unlike his cousin Regular Santa, Martial Arts Santa isn’t concerned about your religious denomination. Instead he’s been watching your sidekicks and checking his list to see when your last promotion was.
Now, during this most joyous of seasons, I ask MASanta to grant me some holiday wishes.
Wish #1: Make the New Karate Kid Disappear
I’m sure many of you are aware, but there is a new Karate Kid in the works. If MASanta has the ability to visit every house in the world in a single night, certainly he can make one upcoming movie disappear.
One of the goals of the holidays is to promote peace on Earth, right? Well what better way than to avoid the rage and angst of martial artists all over the planet that grew up with the original Karate Kid series? This one seems like a no brainer.
Wish #2: Bring Bruce Lee and Musashi Back to Life and Make Them Fight
Man, what an epic showdown that would be! They’d be kinda like zombies, so we could pit them against each other in a variety of ways.
First, I’d have them go at it open-hand. No tricks. No weapons.
Second, I’d let them pick a weapon of choice. I imagine Bruce Lee would use the nunchaku while Musashi would use a katana.
Third, I would toss them both Lirpa and let things go down just like this:
Wish #3: Settle Once and For All Those Mandatory Martial Arts Questions
Every martial arts blog and forum seems to inevitably run into the same couple of questions. Things like:
1. What’s the best style?
2. Does chi exist?
3. Do no-touch knockouts exist?
4. How many fights end on the ground?
5. Is MMA a real martial art?
6. etc. etc.
My request to MASanta would be to make a list and just answer these questions definitively. If anybody questions him, MASanta would then have the authority to use his secret holiday-figurehead style to wipe out the offending parties.
I’ve never pondered what it would be like getting stabbed by a sharpened candy cane…and I don’t think I want to find out any time soon.
Wish #4: Bring me an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle (BB Gun)
with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.
Wish #5: Grant Me Ten More Wishes
What? MASanta isn’t a genie? FINE. Then I guess i’ll wish for a quick recovery for all of our martial arts brethren who are currently dealing with injury. Also, continued success to all of my readers who have been generous enough to stop by from time to time!
So what’s your wish? Get it into MASanta before it’s too late!
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