Saturday, 16 May 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 15

Such was the advance in swordmaking that Masamune brought to the samurai soul. In Japanese folklore, his swords are often contrasted with a later distinguished master, Muramasa. A mythical comparison of their blades, demonstrated how Masamune had achieved the pinnacle of his craft.

   ‘To test the swords, each sword was held into the current of a 
     stream. Muramasa's sword was said to have cut a leaf in half 
     that simply touched the blade from the current alone. But the 
     master Masamune's sword did not cut a thing, with the leaves 
     miraculously avoiding it at the last second, as if to show it 
     possessed a benevolent power that would not harm anything that 
     was innocent or undeserving - even a simple leaf...’

Masamune’s swords, considered deeply spiritual, pure and benevolent, had devolved into Muramasa's brutish evil steel violence. 
Part of what had caused this loss of Golden Age metallurgical skill was the fierce demand for ferocious utilitarian disposable weapons to be churned out quickly in the 100 year Sengoku civil war. During the later Muromachi period, more than 200,000 nihontō were shipped to Ming Dynasty China in an official trade attempt to soak up the production of Japanese weapons and make it harder for local pirates to weaponize; the other part was the arrival of the gun, in 1543, which turned swordsmiths into gunsmiths. Form follows function.
Once the country was united by Shogun Hideyoshi, the peasantry was disarmed, and in the 400 years of peace that followed, the gun was rejected and the sword of the samurai was elevated to a fine art, although never to the same level as those made by Masumune.
These more ceremonial blades were known as shinto ‘new swords,’ and often more ornate and decorative than practical. In 1876, when the Samurai were officially disbanded, all civilians were ordered to give up carrying weapons.

Friday, 15 May 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 14

The next advance, from shape to substance, came in the Golden Age of Samurai Sword History. The Kamakura period Robyn and I were standing on, brought forth a second legend, Masumune, who forged, in his Sōshū swordmaking tradition, some of the most beautifully crafted katana ever made. The few that survive are priceless national treasures. Masumune created blades with a unique hamon temper line of martensitic crystals embedded in a nie pearlite matrix, like ‘stars in the night sky.’
It all began with Kamakura iron sand, placed in a tatara clay tub furnace, 4 feet tall, 12 feet long, and 4 feet wide. The tub was dried and heated to a temperature of 1000 ºC, and the molten contents mixed with charcoal to provide hardness. The process continued for 36 to 72 hours, with iron sand added every 10 minutes, and the mixture turned. When the clay tub had cooled and been broken, what emerged was a raw bright silver cake of Japanese Tamahagane steel, the icing of which was where perfect blades had descended from heaven.
The next step, the forging of a kotō blade, took weeks to months, and was considered a sacred art. Several craftsmen were involved- a smith to forge the rough shape, a second apprentice to fold the metal, a specialist togi polisher, and the various artisans that would make the various koshirae fittings used to decorate the finished blade and saya sheath (including the tsuka hilt, fuchi collar, kashira pommel, and tsuba hand guard). Sharpening and polishing took as long as the forging of the blade itself. 
Two different kinds of steel were needed to form a perfect blade: a harder outer jacket wrapped around a softer inner core of steel, resulting in a unique hard, highly razor sharp cutting edge with the ability to absorb shocks in a way which reduced the likelihood of breaking or bending in combat.
The outer skin, the hadagane, was produced by hammering a heated a block of high quality raw tamahagane into a bar, cooling and breaking it up into smaller fragments, checking for impurities, and then reheating and rehammering and reassembling and reforging and repeating, resplitting and refolding the metal back upon itself many times, to weld a homogeneous complex structure of many thousands of layers. The precision of the process determined the distinctive jihada grain pattern of the blade, indicative of the period, place of manufacture and swordmaker.
The shingane inner core was hammered, folded and welded in a similar fashion, and inserted into the reheated ‘U’ shaped hadagane, like taco filling. The new composite steel billet was reheated and hammered until it approximated the final size and shape of the finished sword blade. A triangular section was cut off from the tip and shaped to create the kissaki point. 
At this point, the blank blade shape was rectangular, and referred to as a sunobe. Again reheated, section by section was carefully rehammmered to control the tendency to erratic curvature, skillfully producing the distinctive final three-dimensional characteristics of the blade. Clay mixtures, applied in various thicknesses to the rough surfaces, were allowed to dry, while the craftsman prepared the forge for the final yaki-ire heat treatment of the blade. 
The hardening of the cutting edge occurred where metallurgy turned to alchemy, in a darkened smithy, late at night, in order to judge by eye the colour and temperature of the sword, as it was passed repeatedly through the glowing charcoal. When the time was absolutely right (the colour of the moon in February and August, the two months that appear most commonly on dated inscriptions on the sword’s nakago hilt section) the blade was plunged edge down and point forward into a tank of water. The precise time taken to heat the sword, and the temperature of the blade and of the water into which it is plunged were specific to each smith, and closely guarded secrets. Legend told of a particular craftsman who cut off his apprentice’s hand for testing the temperature of the water he had used for the hardening process. 
The hard edge of martensite, was ground to razor-like sharpness. The slower cooling thickly-coated back retained the pearlite characteristics of softness and flexibility. The hamon separation line, where the shapes, colours and beauty of the steel in a Japanese sword were found, was the demarcation between durable sharpness, and resiliency. 
Once the blade was cool, and the mud scraped off, the blade was decorated, file markings cut into the later covered hilt, to show how well the blade steel ages, kanji dedications, and horimono engravings depicting gods or dragons, or other beings. Finally, the sword was tested on live condemned criminals. The best were known as ‘five-body blades,’ the number of torsos it could slide through effortlessly.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 13

The reason why the shape of the sword had to change was simple- cavalry had become the predominant fighting unit. The older straight chokutō were unsuitable for fighting from horseback. The curved sword was a far more efficient weapon when wielded by a riding warrior, because the curve of the blade added considerably to the downward force of a cutting action. An organized motion made by arms and wrist, this descending strike had its own specific technique, and name.
Ten-uchi. As the sword was swung downwards, the elbow joint drastically extended at the last instant, popping the sword into place, causing the swordsman's grip to twist slightly, like wringing a towel. The nihontō’s blade impacted its target with sharp force, breaking whatever existed in the way of initial resistance. From there, fluidly continuing along the motion wrought by ten-uchi, the arms followed through with the stroke, dragging the sword through its target. Because the nihontō sliced rather than chopped, the ‘dragging’ is what did the maximum damage, and the reason why it was incorporated into the cutting technique. Due to a combination of the motion and its curved shape at full speed, the swing appeared to be full stroke, the segments hardly visible, if at all. Ten-uchi broke the initial resistance of a target human torso supplied by shoulder muscles and the clavicle, and the follow-through continued the slicing motion through whatever else it encountered, until the blade inherently exited the body.
The great thirteenth century Mongol invasions, only narrowly averted by the Kamikaze Divine Winds, drove the next change in blade shape. Samurai, forced to abandon mounted archery for hand-to-hand combat, found their swords too delicate and prone to damage, when used against the thick leather armor of the invaders. Japanese swordsmiths, appearing all over the countryside, began to make blades with thicker backs, thinner and simpler temper lines, and bigger points, in adaptive response to the Mongol threat.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 12

                                        ‘Sow all the words you can
                                         For in a better age
                                         Men shall judge the harvest’
                                                  The Confessions of Lady Nijo

For Robyn and I, across the Yukiaibashi Meeting-each-other Bridge near our Enoden electric railway station, the beach was where Osama and Obama and Otama came together. Osama couldn’t make it. Two years earlier, Obama had taken credit for his assassination, half a world away, although it was rumored that he was in the other room when it had happened, half a world away. The beach town with the same name as the American president, Obama, on the north Honshu coast, and the scene of several little-known North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens in 1978, means ‘little beach’ in Japanese.
“He’s coming for a state visit while we’re here, you know.” I said.

                                                    ‘The chicken wants 
                                                      To say something-
                                                      Fidgeting its feet.’
                                                             Sixty Senryu

“I know.” Robyn said. “He’ll be leaving Tokyo the day we arrive.”
But the beach we were on wasn’t Obama, nor was it our own beach in New Zealand, Otama, also a place name in Japan, that Robyn and I spent our winters on. Here there were balancing seal surfers in wet suits, writhing on waves like the history we had landed on.
“Shichiragahama.” I said. “Shichiri means ‘a long ride.’ Like these boys.” I picked up some dark sand and let it run through my fingers.
“Shichirigahama was the Kamakura shogunate's execution ground and the scene of many battles. Even up to the Edo period, bones and rusty weapons were still coming up through this sand.” 
But the swords that came out of the sand had been made from the same sand that went into the swords. The iron weapons on the beach had come from the iron ore in the beach. Kamakura became the source of the soul of the samurai, and the unity of mind and body and sword. 
The original chokutō sword had evolved from the old Chinese straight, double-edged iron jian, but the mythical turning point of Japanese weapon history occurred around 700 AD, in the legend of the Father of the Samurai Sword.

   Amakuni Yasutsuna and his son, Amakura, were the head smiths 
   employed by the Emperor to make swords for his armies. One 
   day, returning from battle, the Emperor and his warriors passed 
   by Amakuni's forge doorway without speaking, instead of 
   greeting him warmly as they usually did. With great shame and 
   horror, Amakuni noticed that nearly half of the warrior’s swords 
   had been broken or badly damaged and that the failure was from 
   incorrect forging.  Tears filled Amakuni's eyes, and he said to 
   himself, "If they are going to use our swords for such slashing, I 
   shall make one that will not break." With this vow, Amakuni and 
   his son sealed themselves away in the forge, and prayed   
   feverishly to the Shinto gods for inspiration. On the seventh 
   night, the divine Kami came to them in a dream- a glowing image 
   of a single edged, slightly curved blade... As soon as the first rays 
   of the sun infiltrated the forge, each knowing without a word 
   exactly what they must do, they set about creating the sword 
   revealed to them. Amakuni refined the best iron sand ore he could 
   obtain into steel. Working without rest, the two emerged after 
   thirty-one days, gaunt and weary, with a single-edged curved 
   weapon. Other swordsmiths believed them insane, but Amakuni 
   and Amakura, undaunted, ground and polished the new sword. In 
   the following spring, there was another war. This time, as the 
   samurai returned, Amakuni saw that all of his swords had perfect, 
   intact blades. The Emperor came to him, with a smile "You are an 
   expert sword maker. None of the Swords you made failed in 
   battle." Legend has it that Amakuni later died a happy and 
   contended old man, having gained immortality from the large 
   amount of blood shed from the first single-edged curved bladed 
   tachi longsword he created.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 11

Just as there were three parts to The Tale of the Heike, there were also three themes. The first and central theme was that of the Buddhist law of impermanence, well captured in its eminent opening passage.

   ‘The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of 
     all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the 
     prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like 
     a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust 
     before the wind.’ 

The second theme was another Buddhist concept. Karma. The idea that every action has consequences that become apparent later in life helps us to deal with the problem of both moral and natural evil. Dishonourable acts will eventually bring inevitable suffering. This can be seen clearly in the cruelty of Kiyomori, repaid by the painful illness that kills him. Similarly, Yoshitsune's title, Hōgan, provided his legacy in the Japanese term Hōgan-biiki, ‘sympathy for a tragic hero,’ although too late to benefit him while he was alive.
The third and final theme is the ideal of the cultivated warrior. The term for warrior in the The Tale, uruwashii, was written with kanji that combined the characters for bun literary study and bu military arts. The pen and the sword in accord. The balance and harmony between exterior patterns, or beauty, and interior essences, or substance, came to symbolize the character of Taira and Minamoto samurai, who became models for the educated warriors of later generations, and the proper and mature form of the Japanese man of arms. By the Edo period, Japan had a higher literacy than central Europe. In The Tale of the Heike, the image of the Japanese warrior in literature came to its such full maturity that if warriors hadn’t aspired to or followed this ideal, there would have been no cohesion in future samurai armies. 
In the space of a few years Yoritomo went from being a fugitive, hiding from his enemies inside a tree trunk, to being the most powerful man in the land. In the end he had triumphed over his rival cousins, who had sought to steal clan control from him, and over the Taira. Yoritomo established the supremacy of the warrior samurai caste, and the first Bakufu, at Kamakura, beginning the feudal age in Japan that lasted until the mid-19th century. At the end of the Genpei War, in its form of government, in its behavioral ideals, and in its mythology and legends, in all three had the samurai prevailed.

Monday, 11 May 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 10

In contrast to his strong bellicosity, Yoshitune was also portrayed as a historical bishōnen ‘beautiful boy,’ whose beauty and sexual appeal transcended the boundary of gender roots, both the antithesis and the antecedent of adult masculinity. The bishōnen ideal began as that of a young homosexual lover, slender, with clear skin, stylish hair, and distinctly feminine facial features (such as high cheekbones), but retaining a male body akin to the depiction of angels in Western renaissance art, with similar social roots for the aesthetic. In art, bishōnen were drawn delicately, with long limbs, silky flowing hair, and slender eyes with long eyelashes extending beyond the face. Unlike the clear Western male archetype, who always gets the girl in the end, bishōnen were more ambivalent and sometimes got each other. Bishōnen must either grow up or, like sakura cherry blossoms, die beautifully. Death is the only pure and fitting end to the perfection of youth. A man’s desire to be beautiful is always a desire for death.
His older half brother, Yoritomo, also involved in a shudo homosexual relationship with a young officer of the Imperial guard, was more than happy to arrange it for him. In 1189, he accused Yoshitune of treachery, for accepting a high-ranking title from the Imperial Court without obtaining his approval first. When Yoshitsune returned to Kamakura to report his victory, Yoritomo did not allow him to enter Kamakura, and refused to meet him.
“He was stopped just over there, At Koshigoe.” I said, pointing towards the second Endoen railway station over, at the end of the beach we were approaching. “Yoshitune waited in vain for twenty days at the nearby Manpuku-ji temple, and then dictated his famous Letter from Koshigoe.”

   ‘I was designated a Yoritomo deputy and an imperial messenger  
    to overthrow the enemy of the imperial court, and did indeed 
    destroy them and avenge the humiliating death of our father. For 
    this I was expecting praise from my lord, but because of 
    unfounded accusations against me I was instead harshly 
    censored. I could do naught but weep in vain. The slander 
    against me was not investigated, and I was prevented from 
    meeting my lord to state my loyalty. Our fraternal tie seems 
    useless and I ponder whether it must be the result of a sin in my 
    previous life. Who, lest my father should reappear in this world, 
    can help me explain my present circumstances? Since birth I 
    have lived in constant danger, concealing myself in remote 
    country places and serving even the lowly. On hearing of my 
    brother's declaration of war against the Taira clan, I rushed to 
    meet my lord. All I have done was done only to overthrow the 
    Taira clan and to restore our own. The title I received, Constable 
    of the Fifth Rank, is, I believe, an honor not only to me but also 
    to our clan. I fear that but for the intervention of the gods and 
    Buddha I shall be unable to convey my true intentions, for these 
    attempts of mine have so far failed. None other than you can give 
    them reality. I beg of you, your Excellency Governor Inaba, to 
    seek an opportunity to convey my pleas to my lord. Should 
    pardon be granted, I will strive to the utmost of my abilities to 
    work for the eternal prosperity of our clan and will spend the 
    remainder of my life in peace.’
                   Fifth Month, Second Year of Genryaku  
                   Minamoto no Yoshitsune,  To the Governor of Inaba 
                   (Oe no Hiromoto)

Yoritomo was unmoved. Yoshitune became a fugitive, and fled to his hometown, before his betrayed and defeated at the Battle of Koromo River. He was forced to commit seppuku along with his wife and daughter. Six weeks later, his head, pickled in liquor, was presented to Yoritomo in Koshigoe. A happy family is but an earlier heaven.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 9

Yoshitune was kind and honourable, but he was also short-tempered, tactless, blunt, and naive. His jiriki, the personal strength and resolve that guided him in battle, was well depicted in The Tale. One of his comrades, Kagtoki advised fitting their boats with reverse oars before Dan-no-ura.

    ‘Men usually retreat when the tide turns against them, even if  
     they have resolved not to yield an inch. What good can come of 
     anticipating flight all along? This is inauspicious talk for the 
     start of an attack. The rest of you can fit out your boats with a 
     hundred or a thousand 'reverse oars' or 'retreat oars' if you want 
     to. I will be content with the usual equipment.’

Kagetoki was persistent.

    ‘A good Commander-in-Chief gallops forward when he ought to 
     and draws back when he ought to. Saving himself to destroy the 
     enemy is the mark of an able leader. A rigid man is called a 'wild 
     boar warrior'; people do not think much of him.’

As was Yoshitune.

     ‘I don't know anything about boars and deer. In battle, what I 
      like is to attack flat out and win.’