Sunday, April 09, 2006

15th Century Japanese Martial Philosophy

It is necessary to be careful in examining Miyamoto Musashi’s philosophy, not to be too ethnocentric. A society in which some individuals, by virtue of their birth, are allowed to carry weapons and terrorize the productive members of society without due process is anathema now. However, Musashi grew up in those surroundings and flourished in them. As an old man, he wrote a treatise that sought to justify the hereditary caste system by essentially saying that his success in the martial arts meant the samurai system was right.

Examine the “philosophy” in the Five Rings. Even given the limitations inherent in translations, Musashi’s pronouncements are vague and always end with the exhortation such as: it must be “investigated carefully,” “it takes work,” “requires thorough practice.” He concludes with a question that is quite revealing: “Who in the world can attain the direct penetration of military science? Training and refining day and night with the derermination to eventually consummate it, after having perfected it, one gains a unique freedom, spontaneously attains wonders, and is endowed with inconceivable powers of penetration. This is how cosmic law is carried out through martial arts.” (pg 49)

Musashi recognizes that what he is teaching requires a lifetime of dedicated study to master. Therefore, those who would master “cosmic law” must have the absolute freedom to pursue these studies, which meant these “scholars” had to be free from mundane considerations like feeding and clothing themselves to focus on the “cosmic.” The samurai system was perfectly constructed to provide the time and the means for this study. Samurai had the weapons and the will to oppress and exploit the other sectors of society. “Philosophies” like those of Musashi provide the theoretical framework for exploitation that allowed those with weapons to oppress everyone else, seemingly with the sanction of the heavens.

It is not easy to determine what the average Japanese thought of these strutting strongmen, because this system survived for generations. Even today, you see the great respect give to order in the Japanese society, and outlook that was carried into their society on the edge of the samurai’s sword. Or as Hane says: “Thus it might be said that the courtesy, politeness, humility and subservience of the common people were instilled in them at the edge of the sword.” (pg 32) In Shogun, Blackthorne and the Western men are disgusted and fearful of the arbitrary and absolute power of the samurai. Clavell may be attempting to communicate a universal disgust which was shared by the Western men and the Japanese alike, upon which he will expound later in the readings. It is clear the samurai, the warrior scholars, were very impressed with their power and their seeming sanction from God. It will be very interesting to discern whether the oppressed classes were as enthusiastic about their lot as the samurai were with theirs.