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Book Review

Samurai Fighting Arts: The Spirit and The Practice

by Fumon Tanaka

New York: Kodansha America, Inc.
Clothbound.  Illustrated.  230 pages.  10-1/2” x 8”

Review Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Most Westerners over the age of 12, at least, know that Japan has been a modern nation since the mid-19th century.  Men of the samurai class no longer walk around in kimono and hakama, swords thrust through their belts and topknots on their heads.  However, visions of samurai knights-errant still inhabit video games, television shows, the theatre, movies and yes, books.

Fumon Tanaka asks you to suspend belief in modern reality for a short time,and dive into the world of the warrior in Samurai Fighting Arts: The Spirit and the Practice.  Without a firm understanding of contemporary Japan, the reader might be understandably transported to a world where the bushido ideal endures, along with swords, spears, and people hanging out at the castle clad for battle in their o-yoroi (armor). 

Leaving aside the romantic sheen, there are some things to enjoy and learn from this book.  Tanaka considers, especially at the beginning, certain elements of what we have come to think of as samurai culture, from ways of dressing to a very nice photo essay on how traditional swords are made.  He draws connection of theatrical performances to the warrior classes of the Heian, Kamakura and Edo periods.  He also spends some time discussing weapons and techniques of branches of the Niten Ichi ryu and Shinkage ryu.  All of these aspects are fascinating; unfortunately, they are only very briefly and thinly sketched. 

The approach is refreshing, but it is only the buildup to the major part of the book - an outline of the techniques of the Honmon Enshin ryu style of iai (sword-drawing).  Tanaka is very honest in saying that the style developed in the early 20th century, though he strongly states that the techniques go back to hoary antiquity, virtually unchanged in spirit since those times when men and women fought for survival (and, maybe later, for honor).  The constant argument for authenticity is, unfortunately,one of the flaws in the book.  Even non-expert readers would expect that a country’s culture would change a great deal from its medieval period to the present day.

As we are led through the shoden (beginning), chuden (intermediate) and okuden (advanced) sections of the Honmon Enshin ryu curriculum, however, the author goes beyond simple description to consider some of the underlying principles behind the kata.  For example, he describes the principal of jo-ha-kyu (rising action) in the context of the Inazuma kata.  Considering how difficult it is generally to glean technical information from martial arts books, exploring broader concepts in the scope of a given kata makes for much more interesting reading than straightforward descriptions of movement. 

The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of a broad array of students, both men and women (notably the author's daughter).  People of all ages and sizes are shown performing the techniques in a generally competent manner.  Practitioners of Muso Shinden Ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu iaido will notice some similarities in kata, especially in the okuden section.  We
should remember that in late 19th- and early 20th-century Japan, people who cared about traditional arts were struggling to preserve them in the face of rapid modernization.  Some cross-blending of styles seems logical, though there is plenty of scholarly investigation still needed in this area.

That said, there are a few things I would put in the "do not try this at home" category.  First, in the chuden section, Tanaka goes to great lengths to discuss the idea of the honorable man being considered by his peers in society as a "dragon," as written in the I Ching.  After nearly 20 years in the martial arts, I have never heard of this concept, so I brought the matter up with my teacher.  Apparently, the concept is very old-fashioned.  He recommended readers not keep the idea of Japanese social leaders being "dragons" in their heads, lest they find themselves red-faced in a room full of puzzled Japanese executives at some time in their future.

Secondly, also in the chuden section, katana techniques are shown on horseback.  Most historians agree samurai never used their swords while riding.  The primary weapon of the mounted warrior was the bow and arrow.  Katana-type swords did not come into prominence until the Edo period, when the wars had diminished and dueling on foot was more common. 

Tanaka rounds out the book with a fairly comprehensive and useful glossary of terms discussed in the text.  Having the Japanese kanji represented there as well would have been a nice touch, but the glossary is still useful to have as is.
Overall, Samurai Fighting Arts is a good read.  Informed readers will be able to sort out fact from romantic fancy for the most part, though the book is best taken with a note of caution for those who cannot.

About The Reviewer:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo), and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts and is a frequent contributor of articles on iaido and other topics.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

iaido, Japanese sword arts, Honmon Enshin ryu, Honmon Enshin ryu iaido, Japanese bujitsu, budo

Read more articles by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

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