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Depictions of Martial Actions

Many of the ancient myths, legends, histories, and memoirs/biographies familiar to contemporary martial arts practitioners reinforce the lessons learned during training: victory is achieved through some combination of physical skill and worthy character: an unshakable demeanor and an irresistible will. By contrast, the martial feats shown in these handscrolls are generally attributable to superhuman or magical phenomena, or to chance:

  • In the first panel, the Emperor Chūai is killed by a stray arrow while attempting to dispatch a demon.
  • When Empress Jingū leads her troops on a naval journey, she is helped by the Sumayoshi kami, who performs these three crucial actions:
    • Throws an enormous ox into the sea when it menaces the flagship.
    • Destroys a dangerous rock with an arrow so the fleet doesn’t run aground.
    • Secures the aid of the Dragon King for the upcoming battle.
  • During the pivotal battle, the Dragon King magically causes the tide to rise, vanquishing the Korean attackers.

Contrast With Contemporary Martial Arts Values

In the third millennium, these events may seem disconcertingly arbitrary. What is the point of martial training when all the important events are decided by events beyond normal human control? This is a key question in understanding the form and purpose of spiritual preparation for a life ordered around fighting, and often death in combat.

Many people today are geared to judge by the evidence of the end product. Conduct—the way we reach that end—is not always given a lot of consideration. . . This was especially important in a culture like old Japan’s, where the weight of philosophical and religious thought was balanced toward the notion that winning, losing, profit, or poverty were matters determined by fate.

– Dave Lowry, “Martial Arts Etiquette” from The Essence of Budo

detail: Japanese troops wielding bows, halberds, swords, and other classical weapons

Depictions of Warriors

Note the bows, halberds, and swords carried by the soldiers on Empress Jingū’s ships. Before the 19th Century, most Japanese martial arts practice was performed with weapons, often by armed soldiers, since the people with enough leisure time to practice empty-handed martial arts training would have had enough protection to not require it. Empty-handed fighting would have been considered inappropriately lowbrow. This was not necessarily true in China, Korea, Okinawa, or in the other, less-influential centers of fighting arts development, though weapons-based training was usually more common in those countries too in the premodern period.

We will have a chance to view examples of most of these types of weapons, as well as the armor worn by samurai and Japanese footsoldiers, at the George Walter Vincent Smith Museum in the Springfield Quadrangle during our next event in January 2017.

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