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Japan’s martial arts are descended from the Samurai

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sport, Weapons on Monday, 23 April 2012

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This edited article about martial arts originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 693 published on 26 April 1975.

Judo, picture, image, illustration

Japanese martial arts include kendo and judo by Pat Nicolle

“If you think of saving your life,” one of Japan’s ancient heroes is supposed to have said. “You had better not go to war at all.”

And according to the medieval Japanese warrior’s code of honour, this made sense. Nothing was more desirable than to find death on the field of battle and a first class fighting man was expected to concentrate on his job twenty four hours a day. If he allowed himself any outside interests, such as a home and family, this was considered a serious disadvantage.

The great tradition of the professional warrior started in Japan at about the same time as the Normans were invading England. Before that, there had been a long period of peace and elegance. Then two of the most powerful families in the country became locked in a struggle for power that rapidly broke into open war.

What followed was not unlike the Wars of the Roses, with noblemen throughout the land joining forces with some even more powerful lord in order to fight more effectively on one side or the other. And out of this period of chaos and bloodshed emerged a new kind of soldier, the samurai.

“A samurai should live and die with a sword in his hand,” it was said. And most of this elite band of professional soldiers did just that. Each serving his own feudal master, they were, in many ways, similar to the knights of Europe, except that the latter’s code of chivalry extended to more than just the rules of war.

The samurai’s code was called bushido, “the way of the warrior”, and was a soldier’s rule-book, pure and simple. It produced what was probably the most frightening class of highly trained killers the world has ever seen.

Being a samurai meant that you were a member of an exclusive club, something that you were either born into or had qualified for after the most rigorous training and tests. Because these super-warriors each owed allegiance to his own war lord, they often had to fight each other.

But the fact that they might be on opposite sides did not lower their respect for each other. When they fought it was to the accompaniment of an elaborate ritual in which the winner of the fight was expected to praise his opponent’s bravery before he ceremoniously cut off his head.

The training of a samurai was long and almost unbelievably tough, being designed to make a pupil proof against any physical discomfort and totally fearless of death. He was taught to disregard hunger, to tramp barefoot through snow and to kill himself if he felt that he had broken the bushido code of honour. Then, when he was mentally prepared for his life as a “gentleman warrior”, he was taught the skills of his profession, known as the martial arts.

To be simply skilled in the martial arts was not enough, for a samurai considered that it was always the way in which a thing was done that mattered. Any peasant could have brute strength, so a samurai was taught from the very beginning that the superior warrior should show his skill by gentleness, remembering that “fine steel bends before springing back, while cast iron breaks”.

Even a samurai’s armour was made with this teaching in mind, so for him there was no protection of massive metal plates that weighed a man down so much that he could hardly walk. Instead, Japanese armour was made up of scores of small iron scales held together by silk cords. The result was a light but extremely tough form of protection that could be depended upon not to weigh down a horse nor hamper a man if he had to fight on foot. The lacing used to hold the metal scales in place made such armour a colourful work of art.

Once dressed for battle, his face covered with a fearsome iron mask, the samurai armed himself to the teeth with a spear, bow and arrows and two swords. One of the latter was the legendary two-handed fighting sword, the other a shorter weapon used for fighting and beheading fallen enemies, for the samurai collected heads rather as Red Indians took scalps.

Although every samurai took a tremendous pride not only in his swordsmanship but in his actual sword, he was never allowed to forget that the true warrior should be equally deadly with or without weapons, so the martial arts included unarmed combat techniques that remain unmatched even today. The most famous of these, ju-jitsu, or “the gentle art”, was a form of wrestling in which the attacker was lured into using his own strength to bring about his downfall. This was very much in accordance with the samurai delight in skill and subtlety rather than sheer strength.

Then, at a later date, came a more aggressive way of fighting known as karate, which was not Japanese at all but had originated either in China or the island of Okinawa. But the true samurai was expected to practice all the martial arts every day, and in between campaigns many of these unique warriors would travel from one end of Japan to the other seeking new teachers to improve their skill.

The decline of the samurai began in the 16th century, when Nobunaga, one of the country’s outstanding military leaders, organized his army on European lines, with disciplined formations of ordinary troops armed with spears. This dismayed the samurai, who were used to single combats between warriors of similar rank and who had absolutely no idea how to deal with a mass attack.

Some of the younger “gentlemen soldiers” promptly adapted themselves to the new ways and became generals, but the old ideals of bushido were clearly becoming out of date. Then someone bought a number of match look muskets from a party of Portuguese sailors and the fate of the samurai was sealed. Even four hundred years ago, Japanese workmen had an almost unmatched skill for copying unfamiliar designs, and within six months they were making firearms on practically mass production lines.

How would the martial arts stand up to this new development? In 1575, the Battle of Nagashino provided the answer, when a small force of 3,000 men armed with muskets faced a mass onslaught of samurai cavalry. The gorgeous, silk embroidered armour of the horsemen proved useless against a hail of lead bullets, and the old time warriors were slaughtered almost to a man. Overnight they became quaint relics of the past, fit only for ceremonial parades.

Outdated they may have been, but the idea of the knightly code of bushido was not forgotten. Nor did the Japanese lose their respect for the martial arts that the samurai had brought to such a pitch of perfection. Unemployed warriors began to show off their skills in exhibitions as a way of earning a living, and even began to teach their long cherished secrets to ordinary men who regarded them more as a fascinating sport than a way of life.

Ju-Jitsu, later to be renamed Judo, became enormously popular, as did the far more lethal karate. Even the terrible sword play was reborn as kendo, using 4 foot (1-2 metres) long bamboo poles instead of sharp blades.

As sport, the martial arts were to become more widely known after the passing of the samurai than they had ever been at the height of that warrior caste’s power, but because Japan remained closed to the outside world until Victorian times, the West knew nothing of these oriental skills. Then a tremendous and growing interest in all things Japanese began to spread overseas, and today the martial arts are followed in schools all over Europe and America. How each developed and is used today, and how they have been rivalled by an equally ancient martial art from China will be explained in the coming weeks.

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