The Iaido Journal  Mar 2006
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Review: Japanese Sword Fighting Secrets of the Samurai

Japanese Sword Fighting Secrets of the SamuraiMasaaki Hatsumi
Hardcover  240 pages
260 x 190mm  910g
ISBN : 4-7700-2198-4
Publish : Feb, 2006
Price : $35.00

review copyright © 2006
Dennis Nikitenko, all rights reserved

Before I start my review, let me state that I am not a Bujinkan student and have had no prior exposure to Hatsumi’s teachings or writings. The book, however, appears to be aimed at practitioners of the Japanese sword in general, and it is from this general perspective that I approach it. In order to make this review as objective as possible, I have attempted to look at this book with two main questions in mind: “What is its purpose and/or main thesis?” and “How well does it accomplish this purpose?”

Unfortunately, the first question is never satisfactorily answered; in the very last paragraph of the book the author mentions that his work is supposed to help a budoka reach a certain “coming of age”, but this is a little too vague, too little, and too late. Needless to say, this lack of stated purpose makes it rather difficult to find a meaningful answer to the second question.

I must admit to one bias from the get go. Any martial arts publication with the words “secrets” anywhere in the title automatically sets off alarm bells in my head. Looking at the inside of the dust jacket, I found that after reading Mr. Hatsumi’s book, I would be privy to the “ Hidden Essence of the Martial Arts and the Spirit of the Samurai.” The alarm bells grew louder.

The main thesis or purpose of the book is not established at the beginning. It opens with a preface, which talks about “sword saints” and “sword masters”. The sword masters listed were the names familiar to us all, such as Iizasa Choisai, Ito Ittosai, Tsukahara Bokuden, Miyamoto Musashi, and Koizumi Isenokami. Sword saints are those who have “reached a position that transcended the sword masters.” This is about as clear a distinction between the two as we get. “Sword saints” are held in higher esteem, since they, unlike the “sword masters”, were, to paraphrase Hatsumi, born in times of war and had experience in real life and death combat. This premise is rather odd, considering that all of the “sword masters” listed in the book were born during Sengoku Jidai and several had died long before the Edo period. Moreover, all of them participated in “life and death combat” either in military or civilian settings (or both).

The book continues on in the same fashion, without attaining, or even aiming at, any particular goal. It is organized in 3 chapters: “Kenpo in Budo”, “The Essence of Japanese Swordsmanship”, and “The Practice of Budo”. Each section contains some text, accompanied by numerous illustrations not necessarily related to it, and a section containing pictures of several kata with various weapons. I found the textual descriptions to be rather rambling and meandering. They are written in a serious, philosophical, and somewhat preachy manner. Hatsumi includes a lot of personal opinions and accounts; he also quotes or paraphrases others, without ever properly referencing his sources. The text also contains some either vague (such as the “sword master/saint” distinction referred to above) or simply inaccurate statements. For example, the subsection entitled “Religion and Budo” starts with a brief discussion of the Cro-Magnon. It is evident from its opening sentence - “There were approximately twenty types of primitive man, and of those, the hunter Cro-Magnon (Homo Sapiens), was the only one to survive.” ­ that Hatsumi does not have a particularly good knowledge of anthropology. He incorrectly assumes that the terms “Cro-Magnon” and “Homo Sapiens” may be used interchangeably (Cro-Magnon refers specifically to the earliest known European examples of Homo Sapiens, which postdate the emergence of the species Homo Sapiens by about 70,000 years). He nevertheless makes several more unreferenced statements of questionable scientific accuracy and proceeds to draw conclusions from them.

The kata sequences, the second part of each chapter, seem to be included mostly for dramatic effect. They do nothing to illustrate any points made in the main text, even if one manages to find any discernable points. The photographs are too disjointed to figure out what is going on and the accompanying captions are not always useful. Furthermore, the shots are often full of motion blur and odd camera angles. There are also several large photographs where Mr. Hatsumi and several other demonstrators simply strike dramatic stances with weapons glistening in sunlight. Such frankly flashy shots notably cheapen the feel of the book, particularly since it is supposed to be a philosophical discourse on the “hidden essence” of swordsmanship. There are also parts of the kata that look really strange. One particular sequence that comes to mind is entitled “knife hidden in the sword handle.” Sure enough, when attacked, one of the participants pulls the tsuka off of his sheathed blade to reveal a small knife. I’m sorry, but this makes no sense to me. If the tsuka comes off so easily, this sword will fly away from its user the first time it is swung. If this is a “secret” weapon, where a knife is mounted at the end of a fake, presumably solid, saya and the whole thing is disguised as a sword, then all we have is merely a very short spear with a crooked and awkwardly shaped haft.

In the end, I was left asking myself ­ the purpose of this book. It did not reveal any deep “secrets” (I thought the main secret was to show up for class and to put enough time and sweat into this…) and hardly mentioned anything I have not heard before in sword-related literature other than the dubious, unclear distinction between the “sword saint” and the “sword master”. It is laden with kata photographs - they take up over 50% of the book-  but it is not an instructional manual by any stretch of the imagination and the photographs do little to aid the textual contents of the book. In the end, I cannot honestly recommend spending $35 (US) on this book. If one is looking for the philosophy behind Japanese arts, there are better books out there and, more importantly, I believe that one cannot buy enlightenment for $35/pop. If someone wants to learn the Japanese sword arts, he or she should show up for a class. I am left with the feeling that Hatsumi’s text is little more than a “coffee table” book, the sort of thing that non-practitioners would pick up in an earnest but misguided effort to buy something that might interest their friends or significant others who are involved in the Japanese sword arts.

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TIN Mar 2006