Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Samurai, Ninjas, and Salary Men: What the Martial Arts Really Tell Us About Japan

Samurai, Ninjas, and Salary Men: What the Martial Arts Really Tell Us About Japan

The success of James Clavell’s Shogun as both novel and miniseries demonstrated the popular appeal of the samurai to modern Americans. A spate of other novels with Japanese warriors or ninjas, plus the popularity of figures like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, demonstrate that the attraction is not confined to samurai (the term commonly used in the West for Japanese warriors of the 10th through the 19th centuries). The whole enigmatic world of samurai, ninjas, and martial arts seems to hold a special fascination for Americans.

“Martial arts” has become the generic term by which all Asian fighting systems and sports are now known. Today, the term in Japan is budo, but in Tokugawa times the term bugei— literally “martial arts”— was more common, emphasizing the association of martial practices with other forms of artistic expression such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, and so forth.

The Tokugawa Transformation

The martial skills of the Japanese warrior underwent a tremendous transformation over the two and a half centuries of the Tokugawa period (1600-1867). Succinctly summarized, several Tokugawa developments — peace, urbanization, the spread of literacy, and the professionalization of instruction— combined to transform Japan’s fighting techniques from skills for self-protection to arts for self-perfection, and in some instances, from combat to sport.

The result is that the martial arts are treated differently in Japan than in most of the West. There, martial arts fall within the category of geido, or “artistic ways,” of which there are literally hundreds but which can be classified into three main types: the aristocratic cultural forms of ancient and medieval times (such as the playing of instruments, falconry, and tea ceremony), popular culture (ranging from mime and puppetry to musical and dance forms, comical presentations, and illustrated storytelling), and martial arts.

Schools — the Japanese term is ryuha — of martial arts exhibit characteristics similar to other forms of cultural expression and thus tell us a good deal about Japanese social organization, attitudes toward learning, membership in groups, and the function of ritual in society. They share organizational and ritual aspects designed to foster community and continuity, they transmit their teachings in similar ways, and they also share basically similar methods of instruction.

Oranizational and Ritual Aspects of Ryuha

Ryuha are corporate groups controlling a particular asset, in the case of the martial and other arts, mastery of specialized cultural forms. Of various sizes, they are composed of a teacher, who often assumes a parent- like authority, and his (at least in traditional times) students.

As corporate groups, martial and other arts schools shared a concern for organization and continuity. By the 17th century, each school normally had a dojo, a formal training hall which served as a focus of the group’s activity and which took on a semi-sacred character— the term originally meaning a place— where religious instruction was conducted. There was often a portrait of the acknowledged founder, before which ceremonies were solemnly performed to award certification of mastery of the school’s secrets. These ritual aspects enhanced the group’s corporate consciousness.

The entire society was stratified, from beginning student to the most advanced senior pupil, who was the master’s primary assistant. The master himself required personal authority to permanently differentiate himself from his pupils, especially in the martial arts, where the pupil might surpass the master in actual ability. The most crucial symbol of authority was the possession of scrolls or other texts explaining the secrets of the teachings. The ritual nature of the system, its authoritarian structure, and the mystique of camaraderie, often shrouded in secrecy, made it more difficult for students to join and leave at will, as is often the case today.

Transmission of Ryuha Secret Teachings

Ryuha were primarily concerned with the transmission of cultural forms: chanting, dancing, or swordsmanship. It was a serious endeavor; the responsibilities of both instructor and pupil were informed by a tradition of loyalty to the founder, and group consciousness restrained tendencies toward individualistic indulgence.

There were a number of ways that the secrets of any style could be transmitted from master to disciple. In medieval times transmission occurred largely by example, allowing little room for verbalization. This idea, represented by the Japanese term ishin denshin (or nonverbal understanding which goes literally from mind, shin, to mind), dates back to the beginnings of Buddhist tradition.

By the Tokugawa period, however, it was customary in all ryuha to write down the teachings of the school and transmit them formally to the successful students, usually in the form of scrolls. Concern for the secrecy of the teachings was paramount in all organizations but perhaps of greatest worry to martial arts schools, since the techniques in which students were being instructed were potentially lethal. Organizations often extracted pledges from their students not to disclose the secrets of the school or teach them to others without the explicit authorization of the master.

Philosophy and Methods of Instruction

The martial and other Japanese arts share the characteristic of being a way of personally experiencing an art form. While the actions do result in some form of cultural product, these products are normally formless rather than objectified. That is, the resultant product is less important than the process: the value for the individual lies in the doing— the playing, performing, singing, etc. In this creation through the actions of the body, technique is of primary importance.

The instructor enjoyed almost absolute power over the student, who, through sheer repetition, would ultimately reach a perfect understanding of the techniques himself. And despite the production of numerous texts describing the various techniques and the forms (kata) for mastering them, the tradition that true understanding could not be conveyed verbally or through instruction manuals but, only through experience, never died.

The type of practice espoused by the martial and other arts in medieval and early modern times was commonly called keiko. An abbreviation of a term originally meaning “to take the past as precedent,” keiko took on the sense of learning that requires polishing through repetition of established forms — a positive, engaged learning as opposed to a passive acceptance of written material. Keiko learning focused upon the mastery of kata that taught the disciple the techniques. Since all arts had a kata focus, many scholars have defined the Japanese cultural tradition as the “culture of kata.” It was in the teaching of these highly individualistic techniques that specific ryuha emerged. Kata became the rules, the basic methods by which techniques were transmitted from master to student.

The tyranny of kata training seems peculiarly antiquated and out of step with the freedom and individualism of modern educational ideas, but ironically, total submission to authority is regarded as the best way to reach individual creativity. Kata mastery is seen as progressing through three stages: shu (“to preserve”), ha (“to break down”), and ri (“to be liberated”). The theory behind the mastery of secrets via kata memorization involves a progression from total subservience to tradition to a level of individualistic creativity. Moreover, the idea is that if one devotes himself exclusively to the understanding of the “way” of a single art form, then, paradoxically, that understanding is consistent across all art forms.

A Window on Japan

The martial arts, then, are intimately connected to other forms of artistic expression in Japan. Examining the martial arts can teach us much about Japanese attitudes toward developing mastery, transmitting knowledge, and organizing social groups. They illuminate the importance of ritual in daily life. They show how in Japanese culture the dedicated transmission of techniques and reverence for past achievements are considered essential for individual creativity in the future. This is quite different from American or even European behavior where the “new” is often diametrically opposed to the old as a sign of progress. If the martial arts are not a microcosm of Japanese society, they are nevertheless an important window on understanding aspects of Japanese culture and behavior.