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Secrets

Hours of training scheduled: 9
Hours of training attended: 4

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In my first column I believe I indicated some concern that my current training regime was intense and unlikely to last. I seem to recall mentioning that my training schedule is rather flexible and my training waxes and wanes according to factors sometimes entirely unrelated to martial arts.

This fortnight it’s been a cold that settled in my lungs and a book deal that have kept me away from the dojo (Incidentally, training hours scheduled for next fortnight: more than last fortnight. Number of hours spent sending e-mails and sitting in waiting rooms: Seven. Four and a half of which were contract negotiations conducted (at least partially) at my day job.) Of the four hours I did spend training the last two weeks, half were qi gong, half were Wa Ki Ryu. All of them were intensely yang and left me drained for days.

So when my MD suggested I get some extra rest and drop my classes for a week, it was something of a relief. It was nice to be able to settle down with a book I got from my sister, The Secrets of the Samurai – not just because it’s a good read but because it’s fantastically researched and all those footnotes just feed right in to more research.

I don’t often read books about martial arts because they tend to a) tell me stuff I all ready know and b) assume I’m a sixteen year old male. And, in all honesty, I’m pretty damn picky about my non fiction. I come from a background in Greek and Roman studies and if I open a non fiction book and don’t see footnotes, an index, a list of citations and further reading I’m unlikely to read the text. I want my non fiction to be heavily researched, carefully written and I want to be able to verify all the claims myself (I never actually do, it’s just the principle of the thing).

Anyway, Secrets of the Samurai is fan-freakin-tastic. I’m sure it isn’t the only scholarly work on fighting arts in Japan from the fifth century to the Meiji period, but it’s the only one I’ve found that satisfies my pickiness. It’s loaded with primary source texts (mostly from the Meiji period. Who knew the samurai liked to write so much?) in translation and has a special section on weapons and styles that reads like an expanded glossary.

If I had to place this book somewhere, I’d put it in Top Five Martial Arts books. It certainly falls into the Books that Have Changed My Training category where it and The Martial Arts (the textual equivalent of the fantastic documentary Budo) vie for first place. The book transformed my constant dismissal of in-class history lessons into active curiosity about why we tell the stories we do, how much truth is in them and where they originated (and who thought them up).

In fact, Secrets of the Samurai was the first book to make me realize that some of the history we learn in class is myth, and is not mistaken fact. The myths we tell were created to serve a purpose, nurtured, and still exist, so their purpose must still be vital. And, it was the first book to show me that, by training, I was connecting myself to a long line of students, a line that stretches continuously from master to master, through style, through time, back to the fifth century and probably earlier. And that’s just amazing. Makes my skin goosebumpy every time I think about it.

I couldn’t argue that the book is flawless. It was written in the eighties so as an up-to-date overview of the theory and history of the fighting arts in Japan, it’s perhaps not so great, but for the average armchair scholar there are enough footnotes to have you cross referencing all night when you’re at home, coughing up a lung and skipping class. And if there’s a blog reader out there who is a footnote-chasing cross-referencer, I’d be happy to lend you the book. But borrow it when you’re sick because once you get into it, you’re going to miss some class. Trust me on this.

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Categories: Drop in the Bucket
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  1. April 9, 2008 at 7:48 am

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