One of the things it’s hard to convey to people who wanna even begin to try to understand the mind of a Medieval Japanese Warrior, is that the way they approached their weaponry is very typically the same way they approached absolutely every aspect of their lives. So when I try to explain to you how they fought, I have to first have you understand how they thought; how they lived.
Below are five books. The list is nowhere near complete. And it’s not supposed to be. The list includes the most widely read (and inherently misunderstood) tomes on traditional Japanese warrior strategy and tactics, and the underlying ethos through which the Japanese warrior engaged not just his opponent.
None of these are easy reads. Especially if you don’t know much about swordplay. Even more especially if you are not a card-carrying member of the specific ryu (school; style) that the work is written for. (I’m looking at you, non-sword slingers who have ever read The Book of Five Rings.)
I’m not saying you won’t walk away from these reads with a far greater level of understanding of many aspects of Samurai warrior thought and culture. I’m not saying you’re not going to take anything away from the read. What I am saying is that you will not walk away from the two *manuals* on this list with any real understanding of the inner workings of the strategy espoused within by the respective masters. This is due to the traditional Japanese education methods I have discussed before: densho, and kuden. The written teaching, and the spoken teaching.
Best case scenario, you’re looking at a possible 50% of the transmitted information meant to be conveyed by the master who penned the manual. That keeps anyone not “read on” to the school’s TTPs (Tactics Techniques and Procedures) from fully understanding what the hell they are reading (and in the case of enbu–demonstrations–what they are seeing). Absolutely no different five centuries later than modern-day SOF/IC studs keeping their TTPs closely-held. If our opponents know what we’re doing, then they counter our action, counter our counters. (Then it’s just a trace buster buster.)
That read-on traditionally entailed an oath before a god, and the keppan–signing your name in your own blood. Breaching this meant you were marked, and some bubba from your school who was a damn-sight sharper than you was going to come find you, so your ass could cash that check your mouth wrote. And even with the read-on, you were only slowly read in. This is reflected in the licenses you received from the headmaster of the school. Belts and shit didn’t come until the end of the 1800s. Prior to that, it was licenses. Or certifications, if that’s easier.
All that bullshit notwithstanding, if YOU want to delve down the rabbithole of Samurai Lore, tighten them bootstraps and literate yourself.
These are in no particular order. Read ’em as you can get ’em.
Go Rin No Sho
The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi. The Book of Five Rings was written in about 1645 by probably the most famous swordsman to ever live. This is a kenjutsu (sword technique) *manual*, and was written partially to explain and partially to educate his particular brand of swordplay: Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū, or The School of the Strategy of Two Heavens Spinning As One.
It was brought to light in the Western World in the 80s as a weird way to explain why Japanese business and businessmen were so damn good. Why…They must just be using Samurai strategies against us! And as a result of *that* introduction, Go Rin No Sho has been used as a strategy guide for all kinds of random shit. (You can even find daily inspirational quote calendars…)
Miyamoto Musashi was heavily influenced by Zen (by the Rinzai Zen priest Takuan Sōhō, specifically; who is also on this list), and it shows in the simplicity and focus on the immediate moment. He was also just simply a certifiably bad motherfucker, fighting in major battles, and winning ~60 duels (and not dying in any of them). In some of these duels, after winning, he’d simply refuse to kill the loser. Offering up some wisdom as a means to help the poor bastard who lost not die later doing the same stupid shit.
The Book of Five Rings is famous for its no-bullshit approach to winning, and it’s no-frills attitude with regards to technique. And also, for its assertion that individual tactics can be assumed to be microcosmic versions of macrocosmic large-scale battles, with fundamentals maintaining application and relevance no matter what the scale. Consequently, none of these qualities are even remotely unique to this teaching, or this school. But, Musashi was basically first in the door with regards to Western fascination with Samurai’s and Ninjas and stuff, and he’s got some damn good points.
Enjoy. You can find dozens of translations on your local Amazon.
Up next, The Unfettered Mind, by Takuan Sōhō!
Featured image courtesy of National Geographic
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