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What keeps the samurai spirit alive?

It’s all over media, pop culture, and daily life.

The spirit of the samurai has endured long after its era has passed, but how we see it depends entirely on experience.

From the legendary 47 ronin to the kamikaze fighter pilots of recent history, the earthy vigor of Toshiro Mifune’s warrior characters to the self-aware tropes that populate Westworld‘s Shogun World, audiences all over the world have been fascinated by Japanese martial arts: the unity of physicality and philosophy, the meaningful aesthetic that celebrates the beauty of life even as its wearers embrace death in the name of duty. The warrior spirit finds a home in spaghetti westerns and space operas, and honor is claimed in battle arenas and basketball courts.

In short, there is no one way of viewing the artifacts at the Japan Foundation’s traveling exhibition, The Spirit of Budō: The History of Japan’s Martial Arts. Much like the characters of Rashomon—or In a Grove, for the literary purists among us—our interests and motivations inevitably color our interpretation of the narrative on display.

Bear witness to tradition

The first time I saw an assortment of Japanese decorative armor and blades was, oddly enough, at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where they are displayed in cases crammed with artifacts of similar function, donated by the early anthropologists and archaeologists of the university. The colors were dulled by time and the scope and breadth of the display prevented visitors from lingering too long on any given artifact. The presentation underscored their narrative: no matter where in the world we reside, human societies evolve in similar ways.

Viewing an exhibit dedicated solely to the evolution of Japanese martial arts allows for a more measured exploration of the material and an appreciation of the society that allowed such activities to flourish. This is enhanced by the use of reproductions for some of the more ornate—and therefore more expensive to maintain and insure—artifacts. Generation loss is not an issue in this context; rather, we can see these weapons as they looked in their prime.

Had the original swords been on display, they would likely have been sheathed in simple wooden shirasaya to replace the lacquered shagreen and gold-leaf koshirae mountings that would have since rotted away. Without their ornate datemono—family crests, stag antlers, and other nature-inspired symbols—the kawari kabuto (strange helmets) would have lost its intimidating beauty.

Know your history

The history of martial arts is necessarily a history of warfare, and Japan has certainly had its fair share of unrest. In his curatorial essay, Professor Tamio Nakamura notes that, while the origins of Japanese weaponry can be traced back to China, the warring classes soon cultivated the distinct form and fighting style that we recognize today.

The early samurai were mounted archers—swords were only drawn once they were out of arrows. The prestige of the bow is evident in the luxurious accoutrements used in its practice, such as the lacquered quiver and suede deerskin gloves.

Over two meters in length, the yumi is the longest type of bow in the world. Some hypothesize that its asymmetric limbs—the grip is positioned two-thirds distance from the tip—is meant for ease of use while on horseback, but evidence suggests that its form predates mounted warfare.

Through the glass, I examine the ō-yoroi armor, the only specimen on display that is meant for mounted combat—perhaps because horse riders would fall out of fashion, following the failed Mongol invasions and the deliberate shift to swordsmanship, which was deemed more suitable for group-oriented tactics.

With time, such armor became purely decorative, a status symbol passed on from generation upon generation of noble families.

One of the displayed swords is mounted in the higo koshirae style associated with the Hosokawa clan. The third lord of Kumamoto, Tadatoshi Hosokawa, is perhaps best known as the patron of Musashi Miyamoto, legendary swordsman and author of the 17th century text The Book of the Five Rings; the current clan leader was a former prime minister of Japan.

As with most Japanese artifacts, the katana embodies form and function: the spare beauty of the blade’s slight curve is matched by its ruthless efficiency. The sword’s curvature allows for a quicker draw and more effective cutting angle. Before seeing battle, a sword’s sharpness was tested in a myriad of ways, including cutting through the bones of the corpses of criminals.

(There is a move that all cinema samurai make after slicing through an opponent, a swish and flick to remove blood before sheathing. In real life, chiburi was less about sword maintenance and more about expressing zanshin, the state of relaxed awareness brought about by martial activity).

In comparison, the tanto is a nondescript blade, lacking the elegance and status of the katana. But it has honor in spades—being the weapon of choice for seppuku, the ritualized disembowelment performed by military officers who chose an honorable death over capture. The tanto is plunged deep into the abdomen, then drawn from left to right to slice it open. Done properly, the resulting cut will cause a swift death by exsanguination.

From the violent Sengoku civil wars emerged the beginnings of specialist schools teaching martial arts techniques and a mindset accepting of the forfeiture of life. The relative peace of the Tokugawa era contributed to the transition of martial technique from offense to self-defense, its crystallization into kata (predetermined sequences), and the shift from clan combat to inter-school competition.

Western ideas ushered in by the Meiji restoration—and the Japanese empire’s 20th century attempts at global expansion—cemented martial arts’ role in peacekeeping and youth education, saw its brief return to militarism and its eventual sportification.  

For the bookworms

A smaller room in the exhibit features different Japanese martial arts, and often there is a description not just of the fighting style but also of a philosophy. The transition of Japanese martial arts culture from bujutsu to budō echoes this shift, from combat training to philosophy and physical education.

This is not to say that the practice of bujutsu was devoid of philosophy: The Book of Five Rings and Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Tsunetomo Yamamoto from the 18th century were meditations on swordsmanship and life. Collectively, those and other similar work were categorized as bushido (“the way of the warrior”), referring to the code of honor that samurai followed, not unlike chivalry for knights.

‘Bushido’ is probably the term most people are familiar with, and I wondered why the exhibit made no mention of it, although it certainly alluded to its practice. As it turns out, this term was popularized at the turn of the 20th century by Nitobe Inazo’s book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which was published for an American audience before being brought to Japan.

Women and weaponry

Women are largely absent from the exhibit—except in the displays of the contemporary martial arts for the bow and naginata, both weapons that fell out of favor in the early history of bujutsu but have since become popular forms of budō.

Described as a cross between a sword and spear, but with a curved blade meant for cutting, the naginata was a useful combat weapon in the days of mounted warriors, enabling foot soldiers to dismount and disable riders.

But while it became less useful as a combat weapon for men, women continued to use it as their weapon of choice: because it kept opponents at a distance, the naginata helped reduce height or strength advantages.

According to the All Japan Naginata Federation, the sport’s governing body, the naginata became the representative weapon of women belonging to samurai families.

Emphasizing form and grace over brute force, training in naginata was believed to help instill the virtues of harmony, order, chastity, and moderation. It was also handy for self-defense. Feudal lords employed naginata-armed women to roam the inner castle grounds  at nightand now the scene in Princess Mononoke, where the women of Irontown all used naginata for fighting, makes so much more sense.

The introduction of firearms by the Portuguese in the 16th century hastened the decline of the yumi as a weapon of combat, but it retained its place in ritual: the martial art of kyudō covers both ceremonial etiquette and shooting technique. Governed by the principle of shin zen bi (truth, goodness, beauty), the All Nippon Kyudō Federation teaches that “the greater purpose of the act of shooting the bow is to seeking the truth,” and the harmony of movement and a serene mind will allow arrows—both physical and figurative—to reach its destination.

Archery plays a central role in a number of Shinto ceremonies—the noise of a kaburaya (whistling arrow) is believed to ward off evil spirits—hence the popularity of the archer priestess character in popular literature.

You can’t not talk about Star Wars

At the kabuto display, I overhear one guest remark to another, “You can certainly see the influence on Star Wars.”

I can see her point: the simpler styles of kabuto, paired with a mempo (face mask), do seem like the forebears of Vader’s iconic helmet—though Vader’s stature would require some sort of crest. Indeed, the Samurai Darth Vader toy smartly incorporates a stylized Imperial cog on Vader’s helmet and plate armor, which somewhat resemble the black Mogamidō haramaki set on display.

Besides, it is a well-known fact that George Lucas was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, with droids standing in for peasants, and the Jedi Order following a code of honor not unlike the samurai.

But here within the exhibit, it is the more contemporary budō section that reminds me of Star Wars. If you squint hard enough, the gi could pass for something Luke Skywalker would wear on Tattoine, and the hakama could very well be part of any fashionable Jedi wardrobe—perhaps while they practice their lightsaber kata?

It may be a happy coincidence, but it could also very well be that the lessons of budō are easily transposed to other aspects of life, and that the discipline associated with it can spark interest in the history and culture that enables it to thrive. And as long as these artifacts of the samurai age exist, then so does the spirit of its time.