The Iaido Journal  Sept 2011
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Legends 4:
Showdown at Uchino

copyright 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

The defenders at Uchino were Suyama and Kōno, sent there with twenty thousand valiant chiefs. The imperial hosts could not gallop in easily, yet neither might the defenders gallop out easily. But soon from within the imperial army there emerged a single rider, wearing a lavender mantle over reddish-yellow armor. He galloped in front of the enemy, naming his name with a mighty shouting:

“Since I am a person of no consequence, it may be that no man of you will know my name. A retainer of Lord Ashikaga am I, Shidara Gorō Saemon-no-jō! If there is a retainer of the lords of Rokuhara that will fight against me, let him gallop forth to behold the degree of my skill.”

So he spoke, and drew a sword three and a half feet long, raising it up in front of his helmet as a protection against arrows. And the two armies left off their fighting to gaze upon this man, whose warlike spirit was as that of one worthy to stand against a thousand.

Thereupon an old warrior of around fifty years advanced slowly from the army of Rokuhara, clad in black-threaded armor and a helmet with five flaps. And with a mighty shouting he named his name:

“Though I am a stupid man, for many years I have served as a commissioner of the military government. And though I am of low degree, and may not be a worthy enemy in your eyes (for perhaps you scorn me, thinking, ‘He is but a monk’), yet am I sprung from the house of the general Toshihito, a family that for many generations has followed the way of the warrior. Of the seventeenth of those generations am I, Saitō Genki the monk of Iyo! Why should I cherish life in today’s battle, which decides the fate of our two armies? If there be those who are spared, let them speak to their sons and grandsons of my loyal fighting!”

As he spoke, these two galloped forward, and with clashing armor-sleeves grappled together furiously until they fell down. Being the stronger, Shidara got on top of Saitō and set about to cut off his head, but Saitō, nimble of limb, thrust upward and stabbed Shidara three times. Truly these were mighty men, that even in death did not relax their gripping hands, but pierced each one the other with their swords, and laid themselves down on the same pillow.

This excerpt from: McCullough, Helen C. (1959). The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan (pp.253-254), Charles E. Tuttle Co., Tokyo, Japan.


Author’s post-script:

There is no slinking around in the dark, wearing hoods to disguise your face. No unseen assassination. No climbing rooftops or waiting to ambush someone. No poisoning. No cloak and dagger stuff.

This is about samurai who, like the knights in Europe, met each other face to face on the field of battle, mano a mano (man to man). There is no hiding. Step forth and announce your name. It is about honour. It is about glory. It is about being worthy of belonging in the nobility. Being respected by your peers.

“Takamoto’s most valued contribution to each battle was his singling out enemy commanders and then slaying them with his sword.”
Sugawara, Makoto (1988). Lives of Master Swordsmen (p.23), The East Publications, Tokyo, Japan.

Samurai were elite class. They would not fight someone below them in rank. It would be beneath them. They wanted to face off against someone of equal rank. Tsukahara Bokuden did not single out enemy commanders by mistake. Oh no. He chose someone worthy to fight against, someone of similar rank and level. Slaughtering troops of lower ability is not worthy of distinction. There is no glory or honour in it.

Likewise, knights in medieval Europe wanted to test their skills against other knights. Not against pikemen or peasant soldiers. Hence the existence of jousting as a form of contest between knights and as a form of training for battle. The elite battle the elite.

In later eras, such as World War I, the fighter pilots fought only against other fighter pilots. There was no sport in mowing down troops on the ground. They wanted to hunt down and defeat men of similar station: the pilots of other nations. To defeat adversaries who are similarly trained. Choose your adversary and let the showdown begin.

Slowly we approached the hostile squadron. It could not escape us. We had intercepted it, for we were between the Front and our opponents. If they wished to go back they had to pass us. We counted the hostile machines. They were seven in number. We were only five. In a few seconds the dance would begin…
I did not reflect very long but took my aim and shot. He also fired and so did I, and both of us missed our aim. A struggle began…
Apparently he was no beginner, for he knew exactly that his last hour had arrived at the moment when I got at the back of him.
My Englishman twisted and turned, going criss-cross. I did not think for a moment that the hostile squadron contained other Englishmen who conceivably might come to the aid of their comrade. I was animated by a single thought: "The man in front of me must come down, whatever happens."

Von Richthofen, Manfred (1917)
Der Rote Kampfflieger (The Red Battle Flyer)


My skill against your skill. My courage against your courage. My strength against your strength. My will against your will.

The excerpt from the Taiheiki reminds me very much of a cool scene from the recent movie Predators (2010). Hanzo, the Yakuza enforcer, decides to deal with their pursuing Predator. He knows the Predator will not stop hunting them. It is time to make a stand. In the grandest traditions of the samurai, a showdown, a duel to the death. To decide things with one throw of the dice. The scene is tragic but heroic, giving a distinctly Japanese feel to the scene*. Hanzo sacrifices himself to give the others a chance to escape. He knows he may not make it out alive but he will make sure the Predator does not either. He has chosen his adversary. It is time to decide it, man to man. He takes care of the Predator. But the Predator also takes care of him. Ai-uchi; double kill. Very cool! The best scene in the entire movie.

*Actually, the actor Louis Ozawa Changchien, a Japanese American, asked and received permission to have his kendo teacher (an 8th dan) choreograph the fight scene. Louis Ozawa had been studying kendo since he was 5 years old. Read the interview. It is a great fight scene. Not the jumping and continuous slashing of a Kill Bill-style of kung fu swordfighting, but Japanese-style one-cut philosophy. Decisive.

Watch the video clip here: Hanzo vs The Predator






Hanzo

Finally, in samurai times, one wanted to make a mark, to distinguish oneself in the eyes of his peers and also his adversaries. With great challenges (i.e., bringing down a great adversary), come great rewards: great acclaim, great fame. They wanted their deeds and their courage to be remembered and recorded for history.

According to what one of the elders said, taking an enemy on the battlefield is like a hawk taking a bird. Even though it enters into the midst of a thousand of them, it gives no attention to any bird other than the one that it has first marked.

Moreover, what is called a ‘tezuke no kubi’ is a head that one has taken after having made the declaration, “I will take that warrior wearing such and such armor.”

Yamamoto, Tsunetomo (1716)
Hagakure
Chapter 10


Showdown at Uchino. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Choose your adversary. Mano a mano. There can be only one…


 Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at: doug@dragonfencing.com

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