Samurai Restaurant Critic

I came across, the other day, one of those rambling discussions encountered all too frequently on websites. Since it pertained to my writing, I followed along for a while. It was a discussion of the type with which you will doubtlessly be familiar if you spend much time on such sites. It was one in which heated emotions are prominently featured and in which the logical construction of thoughts and a presentation of facts are um, well, suffice it to say they don’t exactly represent the mother lode of cogency. It is flattering to read about one’s writing, even if the participants are critical. In this case, some of the participants were definitively among the latter. Some, sad to say, were so exercised in their responses to an essay of mine they were rendered incapable even of manufacturing recognisable or complete sentences. One pitiable soul in particular was reduced to a kind of vituperative haiku, stringing together fulminations that must have been earnest and heartfelt but which were, nevertheless, entirely opaque in terms of making sense. At least to me. (I lost track somewhere between the time he seemed to be comparing me to “Nijinsky in flames” and when another would-be pundit suggested that because I make a living as a restaurant critic perforce I had nothing of value to say about combative arts. Yes, it really was that bad.) So I signed off. Before I did, though, one contributor made a comment I found interesting and worthwhile. He ventured that a central and animating impulse for those training in koryu or traditional martial arts was in “wanting to learn about the daily life of a samurai.” He was not being critical of this supposed predilection. He seemed to assume, rather, that learning about the daily life of the samurai and presumably copying it was instrumental and both a necessary component and a desired one for the buggies, or martial artist.

If you are an experienced practitioner of some classical martial art, you will probably react to this statement much as I did. Something along the lines of “huh?” For the sake of other potential readers, however, this is an observation that deserves some consideration. And clarification.

First of all, I don’t think in all the time I have been involved in the modern or classical Japanese combative arts, that I gave a single thought about “being a samurai” until my first book was being readied for publication. My editor wished to go with the sub-title, “The Education of an American Samurai.” I thought it was dumb. I still do. Editors have a way of getting their way and I was a first-time book writer and not given to questioning such editorial decisions. And so it went. But I still don’t like it, for many reasons. Not the least of those reasons is that it is, as you know, historically absurd to think of an “American” samurai. Or any other kind of samurai other than those who have long since passed on. (Yes, yes; I have read about the clownish Brit–and that is not redundant–who is running some kind of bizarre hoax about having been “ordained” a samurai and who assures credulous fans that should the Japanese Emperor need his services he would have to straightforward quit his job and be off, katana in hand, on His Majesty’s service. Amusing stuff. But like England’s chances in the next World Cup, not really a subject for serious discussion.) We all know the samurai were part of a caste system, one that was abolished–not incidentally by the ancestor of the incumbent emperor to whom our loony British pal has allegedly pledged his fealty–in the latter half of the 19th century. So it doesn’t really matter if or how much you or I might “like” to be a samurai. The position has been rather effectively eliminated from the work force in Japan’s economy. Just aren’t many openings for it to be found in the classifieds. It’s like saying, “I wish to own a fiefdom.” Good luck. There aren’t many around on the real estate market any more.

Still, historical facts aside, there seems to persist the notion that those of us drawn to traditional Japanese martial arts and specifically to those that are labeled koryu, are somehow pursuing a “lifestyle” that is “samurai” in nature. There are instances where this notion is obviously nonsense or at best, a marketing ploy. Alongside a column I have written for many years in Black Belt was, for a time about a decade or so ago, a big, half page ad for imitation katana. Emblazoned across the top of the advert was the dramatic heading: YOU ARE SAMURAI! I never saw it without thinking, also in all caps: NO I’M NOT! I eventually wrote a column devoted to the genuine gratitude I felt that I was not born into the samurai caste. I detailed some of the hardships and boredom and emotional difficulties that were the daily lot of that caste. I never harped too much about the ad to my editors there, I must admit. Because I had some idea of the sort of advertising they might put in that ad’s stead, stuff that would make the “You are samurai!” thing seem positively classy.

Aside, though, from ads and publishing copy and other kinds of mentions of the samurai that are gratuitous, when classical martial arts are the subject, often comes the conflation. As the contributor on the website ventured in his suggestion, it is supposed that what we do is intimate with a desire or even an expectation of aping the lifestyle of a warrior class that was extinguished more than a century ago. Why? From one perspective I guess it makes sense. We’re pursuing an art with distinctly feudal roots. We do not overtly seem to incorporate much of the modern world into our training. Our uniforms, weapons, and teaching methodology are similar to those used two centuries ago. The conclusions based on that evidence, though, are very misleading. Please think of it this way: There are hundreds and hundreds of Americans studying traditional Japanese pottery right now at places like Mashiko and other traditional ceramic centres in Japan. These Americans and other foreigners are engaged sometimes in formal apprenticeship programmes; in other cases they are studying more informally. No matter, in the course of their pursuit of learning to make traditional Japanese Shigaraki or raku-yaki or whatever, are learning to sit in unza, the squatting position used while at the pottery wheel. They are learning to fire a noborigama, a hillside kiln of the sort that has not been used in modern ceramics for over a century. They are learning a lot of “traditions.” They are learning numerous aspects, some of them crucial to the art, some incidental, of traditional Japanese pottery that are far from modern. But they would be surprised if I said to them or wrote about them that they were in Japan or were learning their art because they wanted to be 17th century togeisha, or potters. And most readers would find it odd that I made such a connexion, wouldn’t they?

The guy’s there to learn to make bowls or vases or pots through specific artistic methods that evolved in previous times. He is wedded to a tradition because that tradition affords him the best window through which to learn the craft–not for the sake of the tradition itself. If he returns to the US and sets up a studio, he may wear the baggy pants and jacket worn by a lot of craftsmen in Japan, probably because they’re comfortable and he got used to wearing them during his training. But he might just as easily work in jeans and a t-shirt. And he will incorporate as much of modern technology as possible, in most cases, if it does not compromise his product. His goal is to make pottery within the context of an established tradition. It is not to attempt to replicate another era in his personal life.

The Midori-kai is the special Foreigners Section for Urasenke, the school of the tea ceremony, in Kyoto. American students there have to learn to wear kimono, to sit in seiza. What do you suppose would be their reaction if I noted that they wished to become Sengoku-jidai chadoka? How about those studying Noh theatre? Indeed, there are non-Japanese all over Japan and all over the world who are very serious about pursuing sundry feudal era Japanese arts. They are not, to my knowledge, ever suspected of wanting to actually replicate the lives or lifestyles of their predecessors. (Interestingly, none of these practitioners are ever referred to, as are martial artists, as “masters.” I recently gave a demonstration of a classical ryu for a programme of Asian arts that included Chinese dancers, Korean drummers, and other performers. None of them were described as “masters.” But when my group and I went on, the announcer told the audience I was a “master” of the art. Embarrasing. And ignorant. Perhaps it is the mystique of “martial arts” that accounts for it. Maybe there are twin trajectories of thought out there and sooner or later one of us will be heralded as a “master samurai.”)

I think non-Japanese practitioners of these traditions do have some sense of being connected with a past. Because that past is very foreign in many ways, our connexion to it is arguably more dramatic and obvious than if we were involved in, say, learning to make Amish quilts or American Indian pine needle baskets. But all the non-Japanese or Japanese as well, for that matter, I have known who are involved in pottery-making or the tea ceremony or Noh theatre or the traditional martial arts are all thoroughly happy in the present. Of those last, martial artists, whom I know best, none think of their practise as “learning how to be a samurai.” They are just carrying on a tradition as best they can given the instruction they have received and continue to receive. I practise my arts for precisely the same reason the person studying pottery or tea ceremony practises his. The art stimulates me. It reinforces my sense of self to some degree. It promises tremendous potential for self-expression and artistic growth. Sure, there are people out there who are trying to recreate some version, usually one of their own imagination, of a romantic past of Japan, one of the Shogun-inspired type. I’ve seen a few come to a classically oriented dojo. I never saw any of them stay very long. Inevitably they don’t make it precisely because they do not get “learn to be a samurai,” which is their goal.

Pursuing one of these arts, admittedly, entails an immersion into various facets of the past that, while they may not directly linked to the acquisition of skill or understanding, that are pre-modern in nature. Much of that has to do with a conformist ethic that pervades koryu and other traditional arts. Why, for example are hakama and uwagi worn in koryu dojo even though sweatpants or other modern workout gear would work just as well? There is a practical answer, in part to this. To the extent we are able to preserve these arts in their original form it behooves us to do so, for the same reason, to paraphrase the environmentalist Edward Abbey that, in fixing a broken clock the first order of business is to keep all the pieces. We know previous generations trained in these kinds of clothes. Following that example may give us some insight into movement or other elements of the art that might otherwise be lost or less obvious. Wearing a pair of woven straw waraji sandals while training outside, for instance, will teach you a lot about the footwork of a system intended for implementation on natural terrain. There is another answer, to be sure, and that is that those involved in traditional arts tend toward change slowly. Intransigence, however, should not be confused with a desire to live in the past or to uncritically imitate for the sake of imitation alone.

Please note what I said about the incorporation of modernity into the studio of the Japanese-inspired potter above. He will do so and happily to the extent it does not compromise his product. Still, he recognises that modern elements can have an unwanted or unsatisfactory result in his pottery. Modern slips used to cover pottery to give it a certain texture or finish when it is fired may be easier to prepare and use, for instance. And they may superficially reproduce an effect that makes them look good. But to the expert, there may well be different results, subtle to those of us untutored in Japanese pottery but which are, to the expert and to the potter himself, inferior. (Why this is so and how similar judgements about proposed changes in the regime of classical martial arts are good questions for another time, perhaps.) So he goes through the labourious process of mixing and using a “traditional” slip. Why? Not because it’s traditional, but because it gives him what he wants. The koryu practitioner knows that what has gone on in the past in terms of the training and pedagogical regimes of a ryu “work.” So change in terms of modern additions or alterations are undertaken cautiously if at all. The point is, we, like the potter, are not trying to live in the past, only to learn and profit from it.

There is, in both Japanese and Western imagination, a tremendous sense of romanticism surrounding the samurai, as we all know. It isn’t hard to find people, from anime and manga enthusiasts to the Toshiro Mifune-manquemasters of this sword art or that, who idealize the past and wish they were living in it. They’re welcome to it. I grew up in the Sixties, when a good many young people wanted to be Lord Byron or Robin Hood or some such characters and so they suited up in puffy blouses and tight pants and wore their tresses long, with beards. Weird, but so’s a lot of life. The serious koryu exponent, however, isn’t among this lot and a familiarity with him and his training and his world will reveal that. Of course, you might want to take my thoughts on this with a grain of salt. Or a dash of balsamic vinegar. I am, after all, just a restaurant critic.

Copyright ©2006 Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.