the perils of reading too much about Heian Japan…


Sometimes reading too much in one day is a bad idea in terms of retention; if you try to absorb all those words, few of the ideas you encounter tend to stick.  Strangely enough, most of what I read seems to be sticking.  In particular it seems interesting that some things in Japanese culture seem to be so highly ritualized that the functionality of performing or appreciating said thing can be impaired.

A good example of this would be the high degree of rigidity enforced upon the waka, a traditional form of Japanese poetry.  Spurred by the efforts of the aristocracy, the waka became so highly stylized that commoners pretty much couldn’t even use it (as they tended to be busy and thus didn’t have the time to so carefully craft a poem).  How’s that for literary expression?

This ritualization also seems to have been commonplace in battle, where samurai, facing invading Mongols in 1274 and 1281, attempted to do things their way.  Typically the firing of an arrow skyward would indicate “the commencement of battle and then to pairing off to fight one against one, all the while shouting out their names and pedigrees.”  (Davies 106, Japanese Culture 4th ed). This occurred on the dates aforementioned, much to the amusement of the invaders:

The Mongols disembarked, mounted their horses, raised their banners, and began to attack… [One Japanese]… shot a whistling arrow to open the exchange.  All at once the Mongols down to the last man started laughing.

Quoted in William Wayne Farris, Heavenly Warriors, p. 331.

Samurai facing Mongol arrows, bombs, and laughter

It seems, then, that this whole ritualization deal, while a great showcase for one’s culture and pedigree, really gets in the way of functionality.  The same can be said of some martial arts, although that’s not to say that MMA (being, in my mind, a strong example of emphasized functionality) is the be-all and end-all of martial arts.  Asking “what is the strongest martial art?” will yield a different answer from any martial artist you ask, and rightly so.  Each style, in my opinion, has positive and negative aspects to it which must be considered fully in order to appreciate the art.  More on this later…


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