Mount Tobisu Dawn Moon, from the 100 Aspects of the Moon by Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892).


Welcome to the third week of our virtual Martial Arts Studies class, “History of East Asian Martial Arts.”  For those who are new to the series we are reading along with Prof. TJ Hinrichs’ course of the same title currently underway at Cornell University.  Rather than just dumping the syllabus on you (which is always overwhelming), I decided that Kung Fu Tea’s readers would have the best chance of following along if I posted the assignments and study questions one week at a time.  This is a great opportunity for a little “continuing education” if you never had a chance to take a course like this in college. I also hope that this series inspires some conversation about offering more classes on Martial Arts Studies at other institutions.  If you would like to get caught up, be sure to check out week one’s discussion of “invented traditions” or last week’s readings on violence.


Required Readings

G. Camron Hurst III. 1998. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale University Press. Pages 1-52


Suggested Readings

Elizabeth Oyler. 2006. Swords, Oaths, and Prophetic Visions: Authoring Warrior Rule in Medieval Japan. University of Hawaii Press.

“The Way of the Warrior,” Sources of Japanese Traditions, Vol.1: From Earliest Times to 1600, William Theodore de Bary, et. al., eds., Columbia University Press. pp. 265-291.

Alexander Bennett. 2015. Kendo: Culture of the Sword. University of California Press. pp. 26-57 (Chapter 1).


Notes on the Readings

The course is now alternating between weeks devoted to Chinese readings and those looking at Japanese themes.  This is an intentional organization strategy to facilitate the comparative method and to illustrate for the students how the traditional fighting arts developed differently in these two nations.  Certainly some cultural factors were exported from China to Japan (Confucian and Buddhist philosophy both play a role in this week’s readings), but other details remained quite different.

The term “Bushi” refers to the warrior retainers of medieval Japan.  Sometimes it is used interchangeably with “Samurai,” though in historical terms this is an earlier understanding and construction of the warrior identity which evolved in the centuries prior to the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rise of what we might think of as the early modern Samurai tradition.  The readings for this week focused on the evolution of warrior traditions from the Heian to the Warring States period when we find the first clearly documented appearances of the ryu (schools) of swordsmanship which still influence Japanese practice today.

Hurst is the classic scholarly treatment of this period within the Martial Arts Studies literature.  When I was first getting interested in the subject I read his book a number of times because it was one of the few things published by a top University Press which explicitly looked at the evolution of martial arts.  I didn’t have many models of what this sort of historical or social scientific work might look like, so Hurst was important to my development as a writer.  With the explosion of Martial Arts Studies publications in recent years, young scholars are now faced with an embarrassment of riches.

Anyone who is serious about the academic exploration of the Japanese martial arts is going to read Hurst, so its definitely advisable to purchase a copy.  Still, as I reviewed his early chapters I was struck with the degree to which this text is now showing its age.  The major historical contours of his story are fine as they are based directly on primary source texts that are the same one’s that more contemporary scholars continue to rely on. There have been no major new discoveries in this deparment.

Nevertheless, other areas of our understanding of Japanese culture and history have progressed.  Hurst did not have the benefit of Oleg Benesch’s important  Inventing the Way of the Samurai when discussing the terms Budo and Bushido.  Likewise he seems to accept the primacy of Zen influence on the Bushi’s martial arts where more recent historians might emphasize that while Zen was certainly present, most warriors were influenced by a variety of other Buddhist practices (including Shingon and Tendai) as well as Shinto beliefs and Confucian philosophy.  I personally noted that his characterization of early Chinese made (and inspired) steel swords as being heavy dull objects suitable only for beating an opponent into submission is almost entirely wrong and shows a lack of familiarity with the rich archeological record that these swords have left us.

Again, none of this disqualifies the main thurst of Hurst’s narrative.  And if one is familiar with the more recently literature is not a big deal to bracket out certain statements and to keep reading. That is pretty much the way that we always treat the “classics” in any field.  However, for undergrads coming to this subject for the first time I personally might suggest the opening chapters of Alexander Bennet’s Kendo: Culture of Sword.  He covers much of the same material but does it a bit more quickly than Hurst.  Further, the ways in which he brings Japanese social history into the discussion feels more up to date, even for someone like me who does not claim to be a Japan specialist.  I also found a close comparative readings of Hurst and Bennet, noting the places where their discussions diverged and where they tracked closely, to be very informative.


Discussion Questions

  1. What led to the rise of the bushi as the rulers of Kamakura-Tokugawa Japan?
  2. What led to the displacement of the bow by the spear and then the sword as the preeminent weapons of Japan?
  3. When (and how) did schools of specialized weapon instruction (the ryu) first emerge within Japanese history?
  4. What common patterns can we note in the founding of the major fencing schools of the 15th and 16th centuries?



Quick Thoughts

Once again, I would like to avoid the class discussion between students and bring a few different insights to this week’s questions.  Specifically, a focused comparison of the readings by Hurst and Bennett yields some interesting insights when it comes to explaining the timing of the first ryu.  Both authors cover the same history, and treat many of the same sources.  Indeed, their discussions of the major early ryu (Kage ryu, Shinto ryu, etc) track closely and differ mainly in terms of emphasis.

Still, whereas Hurst’s story really begins with the turmoil of the Warring States period, Bennett moves his examination further back in the 14th and 15th centuries.  At the risk of oversimplifying two complex texts, we might think of Hurst as putting technological change in the drivers seat, where as Bennett was more concerned with the social and cultural side of the story.  While the two were in broad agreement as to importance of the early sword ryu, how they reached this point was a bit different.

Again, its important not to overgeneralize as both authors treated both sets of variables. But in my most recent rereading Hurst really seems to attribute the rise of speciality fencing schools to the growing importance of the sword as a battlefield weapon during the Warring States period.  The declining preeminence of mounted warfare could be explained in many ways.  The rise of the gun certainly helped to shift the balance of power towards infantry, though its worth noting that in most areas of the world mounted calvary continued to play some role in warfare until WWI.  Likewise, the changing goals of warfare led to a growth in the size of competing armies.  In the mass battles of the Sengoku period the spear was the king of the battlefield, and the sword’s profile increased as well.  The social instability that all of this unleashed also conspired to raise the prominence of the sword in one’s personal life as young warriors trained and dueled in an attempt to catch the eye of a local lord who might hire them as a troop trainer or personal retainer.

In contrast, Bennett places more weight on the social and political changes that occurred a bit earlier.  As Bushi came to displace court warriors and nobles in the government (late Kamakura and Muromachi period) they increasingly found themselves needing to demonstrate their social sophistication and legitimacy as a ruling class.  Part of the process was the creation of all kinds of new social codes (household codes) dictating proper behavior within warrior houses in an attempt to avoid embarrassment in an increasingly sophisticated political and social environment.  Another aspect of the same process could be found in the creation of all sorts of formal schools of artistic and literary pursuits (tea ceremony, flower arrangement, etc.) by which one might prove your mastery of the civil as well as martial values.  Indeed, the same need to balance martial (wu) and civil (wen) attainment which defined so much of the Chinese discourse on the martial arts also became apparent in Japan as the Bushi attempted to come to terms with their new role in feudal structure.  Bennett notes that it was likely social and political concerns that drove the creation of early fencing traditions as an attempt to demonstrate aesthetic and cultural capital, even within the realm of violence.

In macro terms the Bushi were not attempting to master the sword as a destructive weapon.  They had been killing people with the tachi for centuries, and in any case, the spear was a much more important battlefield weapon for foot soldiers during the Muromachi.  Rather, the highly personal nature of the sword opened new parthways for the expression of group solidarity and meaning.  The Bushi would increasingly cling to this as they claimed to be the only element of Japanese society capable of fully expressing the values that the sword represented.

This is an intriguing theory.  As a social scientist I find myself attracted to it as it places the origins of the Japanese martial arts firmly within the social processes that would eventually transform the nation’s class system.  Additionally, my familiarity with the Chinese martial arts history also suggest that shifting social realities, rather than technological change, probably has something to do with the growth of martial arts.  In China we start to see something notably similar to modern martial arts in the Song Dynasty because of the growth of a new type of urbanization.  Yet the actual military threats that the state faced (mounted warriors from the North) were not that different from what had been seen in prior eras, or what would be seen again in the future.

Still, it is interesting that despite their different explanation of the rise of the early ryu, both Hurst and Bennett explore more or less the same set Warring States/pre-Tokugawa era institutions.  I suspect that this is because they are both drawing on the same set of 18th century primary source documents.  If memory serves there may actually be some discussions of the development of earlier specialized weapon ryu in archery that would push the dates of this formalization back, supporting Bennett’s more social theory.  Ironically, the key to dating the emergence of first fencing schools might be hints found in the development of the early archery and spear traditions.  That is a question I will have to return to after doing some additional reading and study.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Doing Research (3): It’s My Way or the Wu Wei – A Note of Advice for Novice Field Researchers