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Book Review

Famous Japanese Swordsmen of the Warring States Period

By William de Lang

Available from:
Floating World Editions, Inc.
26 Jack Corner Road
Warren, CT 06777

Reviewed by Deborah Klens-Bigman

Famous Japanese Swordsmen of the Warring States Period, by William de Lang, takes as its subject two important individuals: Iizasa Choisai Ienao (Iizasa Yamashiro) (1387-1488), founder of the Kashima Shinto style of swordsmanship, and Kamiizumi Ise no Kami Nobutsuna (1508-1577), founder of the Shinkage style. De Lang notes in his introduction (also the best-written part of the book) that information on his subjects is scant at best, though legends about both of them abound. With this book, he seeks to put these legendary individuals into their historical context. Unfortunately, given the dearth of information, context is almost all there is to be had. The result is an overview of the times in which the two protagonists lived, which covers roughly the time of the Warring States period (1469-1573). Not surprisingly, given the lack of concrete information, the narrative meanders a lot to the historical times generally and better-known figures; from time to time de Lang goes so far off the track the reader almost forgets who the subject actually is. The author grasps what straws he can, resulting in digressions that can be pages long. For example, when one of our heroes finds employ in a particular clan, a history of the clan is given then and there before the narrative thread, however fine, is picked up again.

In the case of Yamashiro, about whom virtually nothing is known for certain, the account of his life naturally gravitates toward better-known figures of the period, such as Minamoto Yoritomo and Ashikaga Takauji. In case of Nobutsuna we have slightly better information. Nobutsuna’s eventual association with the Yagyu clan made him better known generally. He also had the great good fortune to befriend Yamashina Togitsugu, a famous court diarist of the period. It is in the pages of Togitsugu’s diary that we find a small glimpse of what this truly remarkable man was like, information that does not exist in the case of Iizasa Yamashiro.

The most disappointing aspect of the book for martial arts practitioners, however, is that while de Lang notes that the styles of swordsmanship founded by Yamashiro and Nobutsuna still exist, the author gives no description of either of these styles, either then or as they are currently practiced. While trying to come up with an historical description of either style would be difficult, it is not wholly impossible. The Tokugawa Bijutsukan in Nagoya, a private museum, has scrolls of the Shinkage Ryu, which could have been examined.

[Rip: Put Figure 1 in here.
Caption: Yagyu Ryu partner kata. Tokugawa Bijutsukan 1994: 83]

Yagyu Ryu partner kata.
Tokugawa Bijutsukan 1994: 83

Since contemporary practitioners also hold scrolls from time to time, the author could also have made contact with them as Kenji Tokitsu did with Niten Ichi Ryu practitioners in his 2004 biography of Miyamoto Musashi. Tokitsu’s interviews of contemporary practitioners helped give some insight into Musashi’s ways of strategy.

There is, oddly, no author bio in the book. A quick Google search, however, reveals that de Lange is a translator and interpreter, not an historian, which explains his approach to his subject. His skills as a linguist are very useful in that he consulted a great deal of Japanese language material in the preparation of the book, which is all to the reader’s benefit. The lists of important people, glossary and old-style maps are also useful. His writing style is very readable; though he is not above the occasional non-historical remark (for example, that Shinkage Ryu under the Yagyu clan became “popular” a sentiment that is unlikely given the times).

However, the question remains: why title the book as a biography of these two men while admitting that there is almost no information about them available? Lives of famous Swordsmen is a readable overview of the Warring States period, and some of the major figures within it, but not truly a biography of the two individuals named, which is disappointing if the reader is hoping for some idea of who these people actually were and what they did. The book is part of a series, however (a “Lives of Famous Swordsmen of the Two Courts Period” is to follow). Perhaps as de Lang warms to his research he will be able to give us more information relevant to the title in his future efforts.

Work Cited
The Tokugawa Art Museum
1999Japanese Sports Expressed in Works of Art Nagoya: Fine Arts Culture Foundation.

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.

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

Iizasa Choisai Ienao, Iizasa Yamashiro, Kashima Shinto style of swordsmanship, Kamiizumi Ise no Kami Nobutsuna, Shinkage style, Minamoto Yoritomo, Ashikaga Takauji, Yagyu clan, Yamashina Togitsugu

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

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