Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What's a samurai like?

This is going to be a tad unmartial, but it relates. It's just that I'm going to send to different people from different subsets of mailing lists and I don't want to neither repeat myself too much nor presume I can share their mails with each other.

What's your first image of a samurai? The sober man standing guard near his lords's castle? That lord paying a "courtesy" compulsory visit to the shogun? That same lord at his state? Their attire, their swords, are not going to be the same.

And yet, they are but a small, specific subset, of samurai history. Edo's shogunate. A government system set up by an upstart minor samurai of humble origins that destroyed the martial prowess of the samurai. Yes, I'm serious. The next time the samurai are at war they loose to peasant conscripts, hugely. And he does it willingly, to subdue a threat.

And that's the samurai we know. Martial artists put on a hakama, because it's "traditional", not really knowing when that tradition starts, or what was worn before. The katana becomes "THE" sword of the samurai... never mind that katana had different standards in time, different mountings, different... But the 2+ shaku katana of the Edo period, in compulsory (that word, again) black becomes the one and only. Maybe, if you're lucky, the daimyo's heritage mounting when he wants to impress a visitor.

O... kay. Let's check the Edo period. The urbanization of Japan, the pax Tokugawa, leads to an increased emphasis on what we would call police work. And one of the tools, that dubs as a badge of office, is the jutte. The following pics are from Don Cunningham's Samurai Weapons (Tools of the Warrior), at Tuttle. There are more pics, but I don't want to spoil the book.

See how the complexity of the manufacture increases? Simple iron sticks with wrapped rough fibers become samegawa wrapped hilts with some bronzework and tsuba to end up as gilded precious metal status symbols. There are several engraved ones in that book. I'd prefer, in the heat of the moment, a bare iron jutte to an engraved shakudo one, but that's just me being attached to my arm... and wanting to keep it that way.

However, when we study martial arts or Japanese culture in a more general form, we often kind of see one of the last two sets of examples, maybe two, and we forget the rest as if it was never there. And we're not even aware that Musashi's father was already a renowed expert in this very same weapon several decades before the Edo period even started.

My original point with this, and I've veered way of what I intended, is that Japanese MA practitioners talk about their katana, comission their practice blades. And most of those blades are, basically, the equivalent to the second set of pictures. Sometimes, they veer into the third one. But they never leave Edo. Their saya are predictable. Their sageo, almost always single colored. If not, there are basically two variants, always muted. From what I've seen, I suspect that kendoka have something similar going on. And when you talk about real armors, people visualize the great bif colorful ones, in lacquers and embroidery and nifty braids.

I've tried my hands at Japanese braid making. It's a slow process, and it needs many meters of yarn, and "looms". The basic samurai had neither, and yet you can bet his cords broke. Because of a sowrd thrust or a nasty fall, because it rotted, because it w¡had been used to carry a bundle of wood for the campfire... You name it.

This is a rope for tying up criminals, quickly (yes, I've tried similar designs) braided by hand. Wanna bet most swords used something similar? And armors, and pouches, and... A contraption that requires a whole mat to set up and work in it, plus hundreds of meters of silk for a single sageo, or this, done by the campfire?

Take care.

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