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Only in Japan could a sword be ‘life-giving’

by Michael Hoffman and Michal Hoffman

Few countries have broken with their past as sharply as Japan did. That was the price it paid for modernity.

Japan in the mid-19th century had a beautiful, deep, highly refined culture that reached far down the social scale — but it was an ancient culture, not a modern one, artistic rather than acquisitive, helpless against encroaching Western powers that had already colonized much of the non-Western world and were hungry for the rest.

Japan had only to look next door to China to see its own ghastly fate if it failed to match the West strength-for-strength. And so the past was shed. Japan became strong, rich — “Western.”

When was the boundary crossed between Japan’s Oriental past and its “Western” future? A strong case could be made for the year 1876 — when the modernizing Meiji government (1868-1912) passed an edict banning the wearing of swords in public.

“The sword is the soul of the samurai” — such was the proud declaration down the centuries. It is a weapon common to most early civilizations, but “there is no country in the world where the sword has received so much honor and renown as in Japan,” wrote Yokohama-based English diplomat Thomas McClatchie (1852-86), one of the first foreign students of Japanese martial arts.

The sword figures in the earliest myths. Susano’o, the storm god, slays a people-devouring monster, extracting from its forked tail the sacred sword that became, together with a sacred mirror and a sacred jewel, one of the regalia of Imperial authority bestowed by the gods upon the nation’s first human ruler.

Down to modern times, “The swordsmith was not a mere artisan,” wrote the Christian scholar Inazo Nitobe in “Bushido” (1900), “but an inspired artist, and his workshop a sanctuary. Daily he commenced his craft with prayer and purification.”

The Japanese knew of firearms as early as the 1540s, when Portuguese traders brought them and did a very brisk business selling them. In Japan, though, the gun never displaced the sword, as it did in the West. Why? Numerous material factors can be cited — the shortage of firearms relative to the number of fighters; the unrelenting warfare of the time that favored tried and true techniques over uncertain experimental ones; the inconvenient length of time it took to reload a gun between firings.

But the sense of the sword as more than a weapon — as a “soul” — was surely decisive.

Old Japanese literature — philosophical, religious and military — refers frequently to “the life-giving sword.” Why “life-giving”? The sword is a lethal weapon, none more so than the Japanese sword, whose technical excellence is the marvel of connoisseurs worldwide. No one talks of the life-giving pistol, the life-giving atomic bomb, the life-giving drone. Where is the life in a death-dealing sword blade? The modern mind struggles to understand.

Religion and martial ardor meet in the person of a Zen priest named Takuan Soho (1573-1645). An accomplished swordsman himself, he served as spiritual guide to the outstanding martial artists of his day, whom he taught along such lines as these: “The enemy does not see me. I do not see the enemy. Penetrating to a place where heaven and earth have not yet divided … I quickly and necessarily gain the desired effect.”

That “desired effect” can only be the death of his opponent, but the death of a master swordsman at the hands of a master swordsman, tradition has it, is not death — certainly it is not murder — because the religious enlightenment that is prerequisite for true mastery places one beyond the illusory distinction between birth and death.

“As long as a student of Zen entertains any kind of thought in regard to birth-and-death, he falls into the path of the devil,” explains a Zen master quoted anonymously by Zen priest Daisetz T. Suzuki (1879-1966) in “Zen and Swordsmanship.”

Foremost among Japan’s master swordsmen is Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), who lives on long after death in kabuki, bunraku (puppet theater), novels, manga, movies and television dramas.

Musashi fought his first duel at age 13 and spent much of his life roaming the country matching skills with other masters. Japan’s centuries of civil wars were over by 1615. Peace held until 1894. But the “life-giving sword” was not to be suppressed by peace. Musashi fought 60 bouts in all, most of them fatal to his opponents. Does that make him a killer? Emphatically yes, in the eyes of some. He “elevated killing to a fine art,” writes historian Beatrice Bodart-Bailey in “The Dog Shogun” (2006). “His famous ‘Book of Five Rings’ consists of detailed instructions on how to kill quickly and effectively.”

Bodart-Bailey will have none of the “life-giving sword” mysticism — but Musashi himself wrote, “I was unbeaten because I gave no thought to my life.” He was a dedicated student of Zen; also a poet, tea master, landscape gardener, town planner, writer and painter. To him, the artist was in a state of religious transcendence and all arts were one. Swordsmanship, to Musashi, and indeed to all swordsmen, was an art. In the Japanese tradition there is no “Thou shalt not kill.”

If the 1876 anti-sword law stripped the samurai of their soul, it did not — nor did it intend to — pacify the national spirit. The notion of the “life-giving sword,” extended to embrace modern weaponry, survived into the 20th century. “There is no choice,” wrote Zen scholar Tomojiro Hayashiya (1886-1953) in 1937, “but to wage compassionate wars which give life to both oneself and one’s enemy.”

We who can look back on World War II know what kind of “life” that meant.

Michael Hoffman’s two latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).

  • Devil Dude

    “Old Japanese literature — philosophical, religious and military — refers
    frequently to “the life-giving sword.” Why “life-giving”? The sword is a
    lethal weapon, none more so than the Japanese sword, whose technical
    excellence is the marvel of connoisseurs worldwide. No one talks of the life-giving pistol, the life-giving atomic bomb, the life-giving drone. Where is the life in a death-dealing sword blade? The modern mind
    struggles to understand.”

    Mr. Hoffman should have done more research before making the above statements derived from ignorance/nescience on the topic. The term “life-giving sword” (katsujin-ken 活人剣) expresses the truth that weapons that are ostensibly designed to injure or take a life, especially the personally/privately owned arms of individuals of moral character, are FAR more often used to *prevent* injury and *protect* life. The life being given is that of innocent people who benefit from having the ability to defend themselves when attacked by an aggressor. Often the life being given is also that of the aggressor when he/she sees or knows that a potential victim is armed and re-thinks their course of action, thus no attack is made and two (or more) lives are saved. There are techniques in the style of Iaido I train in where we protect both our life and that of the aggressor by drawing our sword at the first sign of the aggressor starting to draw theirs and stopping our blade a few scant centimeters above the opponent’s right wrist as it grips the hilt, preventing them from drawing their blade. The result: two lives saved and no blood shed…one sword gives two lives.

    The life giving pistol? Firearms are used an estimated 100,000 (per the FBI) to 2.5 million (Professor Gary Kleck; John Lott) times a year in America for self defense, versus the (still FAR too high) average of 10,000 murders committed by criminals using a firearm.

    The life-giving atomic bomb? The Allies estimated up to 10 million dead if a full-scale invasion of Japan hadn’t been prevented by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    The life-giving drone? Drones are currently helping to keep my brother, and the soldiers at the base he works at safe(er) from Taliban attacks.

    Since he is obviously not intimately familiar with the concept of how weapons can be and *are* used to protect/give life, I highly suggest Mr. Hoffman start here: http://www.katsujinkenmagazine.com to educate himself on the topic.

    “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

  • Sam

    “The sword is a lethal weapon, none more so than the Japanese sword, whose technical excellence is the marvel of connoisseurs worldwide.”

    The Japanese katana is known by sword connoisseurs as being beautiful but a pretty crappy weapon. It’s technical excellence was far surpassed by European, African, and Middle eastern swords.

    The katana was only used as a weapon of last resort by the samurai.