by Antony Cummins
The Samurai have been in the western imagination for over a century now, there are countless books and documentaries on these Japanese warriors, but how much do we know?
I travelled to Japan over a decade ago to start my deconstruction of the samurai and the ninja, a duel pronged goal to truly discover the historical reality behind these infamousigures. The search for the ninja was realised with Watkins’ publication of The Book of Ninja, a translation of the Bansenshukai (萬川集海), which is considered the premier surviving medieval ninja manual from Japan. The next stage of my crusade: to strip back the layers of mistruth surrounding the image of the samurai, will be realised with Book 1 of The Book of Samurai. The first volume begins the colossal task of recording the complete writings of a secret school of samurai warfare called Natori-Ryū (the school of the Natori Family).
Our current knowledge of the samurai is akin to Victorian chivalric romance, he is the noble warrior, dedicated to a righteous lord, who fights off invading evil and marauders. The problem comes when we ask the question: who were these enemy that the samurai fought? The answer? Other samurai. The invasion was an all too real scramble for land and power. Oaths were broken, promises were severed, and general massacre ensued, resulting in a war torn land through much of medieval Japan. But when the question what did samurai actually do arises, the answer inevitably is: I am not quite sure.
The first step in trying to discover the truth about what the samurai actually did is to find the correct primary source, a quest with hidden complications. There are volumes of manuals written on actual samurai warfare but two basic problems arise. Firstly, almost all are written during the period of peace where a shadow of doubt over their authenticity creeps in and secondly, the scrolls are a series of mnemonic prompts or contain only the deepest secrets, meaning that everyday skills have been lost to those manuals.
Enter Natori Sanjūrō Masazumi, a samurai with an eye for posterity. Natori Masazumi decided that the samurai of his day – early to the mid-17th century – were in decline, losing their sense of what it was to be a military warrior, an agent whose sole aim was the act of warfare. Natori decided that he would save their ways before they fell into bureaucracy and stagnation, a destination to which they seemed doomed. In response he decided to create a series of war manuals, encyclopaedias and recorded teachings that would take a fledgling samurai through all of the training – from the basics of living in medieval Japan to preparing for war – up to the level of general. His teachings included the skills of the ninja and incredible images of common items of war during his time period and before.
Through Natori’s recordings we can answer the question, what did the samurai do?
Natori divides this into eight sections:
Bugeisha no Shinajina no Koto
The types of martial artists
Bugeisha – martial artists are those samurai who serve through martial achievements and transmit their paths to other samurai. The following list displays the kinds of arts that samurai should train themselves in:
- yumi 弓 – archery
- uma 馬 – horsemanship
- kenjutsu 剱術 – swordsmanship
- sōjutsu 鎗術 – spearsmanship
- gunjutsu 軍術 – the skills of war
- yawara torite 柔取手 – wrestling and grappling
- teppō 鉄炮 – marksmanship
- suiren 水練 – aquatic training
To force an understanding of the scale of actual samurai training, the twenty-five plus volumes that Natori wrote only really cover point number five, gunjutsu – the skills of war. We can all imagine the arts of grappling, horsemanship etc., but what are these ‘skills of war’?
The ‘skills of war’ are a vast collection of simple and great ideas brought together, named and catalogued. The result of reading such skills garnered the response of, ‘yes, that is logical’ or ‘of course, that’s obvious’. The secret key to understanding the power of the samurai was to know that they had a thousand of these great ideas in one mind, and a true gunposha – warrior sage – was a person who could access those ideas and allocate them to the correct situation under pressure. For example, what lady or man scared on a dark night while walking home could not use the following skill?
An’ya no Ninsō
Identifying people on a dark night
Stay along the side of townhouses or under eaves when near townhouses. Generally on a dark night, your ears are your eyes.
- large men walk with a loud step
- small men walk with a lighter step
- suspicious fellows come quietly
- ruffians come in haste
- violently drunk people breathe heavily and their steps are confused
Or how about dealing with an uprising in the office where a meeting has become out of control?
Gunshū Gechi no Koto
Giving orders to a crowd
When a large number of people are creating a commotion, if they do not settle, call for between five and ten of their key people or leaders to come out of the crowd, talk and convince these people with reason, then these key people will return to the crowd and go around among the crowd telling them to settle.
Samurai war skills were myriad and after over a century of fascination with the samurai it is time to unshackle Victorian romance and actually discover the world of the samurai, not from a social or political viewpoint but from the words of the samurai themselves and in a conversation which allows us to understand what they actually did during their military campaigns and during civilian life.
The Book of Samurai consists of the first two volumes of the Natori-Ryū curriculum. The first, Heika Jodan, concerns itself with samurai life in times of peace and gives 290 skills dealing with life in the military class. The second scroll, Ippei Yokō, details skills for the independent and landed samurai warrior for their first time in battle, from oaths to be taken, to how to fetch water. Book 1 is the first step an aspiring samurai should take, preparing them for the long road towards command as a military general; a road that will continue with the series.
Meet the author: Antony Cummins is an author and historical researcher, founder of the historical Ninjutsu Research team whose aim is to bring Japanese warrior literature to the English speaking world. He has a bachelors degree in Ancient History and Archaeology and a masters degree in Archology, both from the University of Manchester. For more information see his website www.natori.co.uk or on Youtube here.
Antony Cummins and Yoshie Minami
The Book of Samurai
£25, Available from Watkins Publishing
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