Book Review: “Hidden in Plain Sight”

Title: Hidden In Plain Sight Tracing the Roots of Usehiba Morihei’s Power
Author: Ellis Amdur
ISBN #: 978-0-9823762-0-1
Year: 2009

At one point in my life I had over 500 martial arts related books in my personal library. They covered every style imaginable, and many were in languages I couldn’t read. I would say that 85% weren’t worth the paper they were printed on–and that’s being gracious.

For the most part, these books were written by people–usually martial arts instructors–who are not professional writers or scholars. Just being an experienced teacher does not necessarily make someone an authority on their art, and it certainly does not guarantee that one is capable of explaining their style clearly. Writing is hard.

Many of these books perpetuated myths and misconceptions. A lot of the information in them could easily be disproved with a little research. Worse yet, the books often were filled with techniques that weren’t viable as presented.

In fact, the majority of these books contained nothing but disjointed sequences of photographs and drawings with “chop-socky” explanations of techniques. There was nothing in these that one could–or should–actually learn from. I suppose that they had some use as a reference for students of that particular style who already knew the techniques.

In my opinion, almost all martial arts books are interesting for the “hobbyist,” but have no value for someone really trying to research the (factual) history of an art, delve into the theories of “martial science” or improve their skills past a basic level. Sure, they may contain some worthwhile tidbit from time to time, but overall they aren’t worth the time it takes to read them.

But, every now and then, you run into a book that has valuable content and is written by someone who is both very knowledgeable and has the ability to communicate clearly. “Hidden in Plain Sight” is one of those books.

I’ll start my review with the following two comments: it is not an easy read, and trying to summarize the book with any brevity is impossible. Anyone looking for a “how to” book to improve their Aikido/Aiki skills will be disappointed–sort of. But in some ways, that is the point. He is not providing any information that the real serious martial artist hasn’t contemplated; he is just reaffirming what they should already know that there has to be more to training than just being taught techniques.

At its most basic, this book is an examination of the development of Ueshiba Morihei’s Aikido and how he developed his level of skill–skill that his contemporaries considered outstanding, or even superhuman.

But it’s more than that. It’s also a book about the culture and history of Japanese Budo and the Aiki arts. How training was done in the past, what teachers of the past put themselves through to achieve their level of skill, and how that knowledge was propagated.

The theme of the book is about how many of these methods are overlooked or not understood today, though they are “hidden in plain sight.”

What I appreciate about Mr. Amdur’s work is that he avoids the all-too-common reliance on the mystical nature of martial arts, opting to focus on more of the tangible scientific development and application that make them viable.

I consider this book to be a must-read for any serious practitioner of the martial arts.

On a more personal note, this book has made me go back and reexamine the way in which my teacher taught me (see previously posted essay titled “Training Via Osmosis”). As I said in that essay, I now believe there was a lot more method to the seeming madness of how I was trained.

For this alone, Mr. Amdur’s book was invaluable to me.

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From Bad To Worse

Yesterday I reviewed a book titled, “ Learn Martial Arts In Eight Weeks,” by Michael de Pasquale, Jr. Basically I ripped the book apart, because of the title, and the fact the way the text was written it truly appears the author felt the material presented could actually be learned from a book, and that it would only take eight weeks. At least there was no disclaimer to suggest otherwise.

Today I found something that is a lot worse, and even more disturbing. It is clearly the next evolution of the claims made by books such as the one above.

The below is a copy of the actual ad as found on the Internet: www.ashidakim.com/dojopress/catalogbk7.html. CAVEAT EMPTOR!

MUGEI-MUMEI no Jitsu
THE 21st Century Martial Art

ANYONE CAN BE A BLACK BELT
No contracts or expensive classes
INSTANT KUNG FU
No boring forms or impossible exercises
OVERCOME ANY ATTACKER
Without physical Contact
BREAK BRICKS WITH YOUR BARE HANDS
No practice required
KILL AND RESTORE TO LIFE
The Power of Life and Death
GO BEYOND MERE TECHNIQUE
And learn the nature of Warriorship
Arranged in the traditional manner of Self Instruction, those who read this book even once will possess the knowledge and therefore the power, equal to that of any Black Belt 1st Degree in any recognized system of martial arts known to man. That rank and the Official DOJO Certificate confirming it are conferred upon the purchase of this text. The actual level of skill of the individual is a matter of personal choice and practice.
It has been said that, “Mugei-Mumei no Jitsu is better than Kung Fu, badder than Karate, softer than Tai Chi, gentler than Judo, and deadlier than Dim Mak.” But, it is not WE who have said this.
BLACK BELT CERTIFICATE and
FREE DOJO MEMBERSHIP ID CARD

included with purchase
5 1/2 x 8 1/2, softcover;
retail $ 19.95 USD
Pay With PayPal

Copyright © 1998 Dojo Press, Inc.
All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form. SM112476

Now before I get on my soap box and start ranting, let me state that I have never read this book, nor do I have any first hand information on the art of Mugei-Mumei no Jitsu. Though my understanding is that it is a martial art developed by the infamous Ashida Kim, need more be said?

However, this essay is not about the book, the style, or the reputation of Ashida Kim. It’s about the claims this ad makes, and the certification it offers.

If you’re interested in reading a review of this book by someone who actually has a copy, you can read Phil Elmore’s essay titled “Mugei Mumei no Jitsu A book Review,” at http://www.themartialist.com/pecom/mugei.htm. It’s pretty amusing.

In a nutshell his review is basically what I thought the material would be; an opinion I made based solely on the above ad.

First of all, I don’t think I need to make comments about the claims this ad makes in regards to being better than other styles. That’s marketing, and if you’re foolish enough to believe that, too bad for you. You and this book were made for each other.

Secondly, as for the claims such as, “overcome any attacker without physical contact,” and “kill and restore to life, the power of life and death” I’m not even sure what in the hell these things mean.

How do you overcome an attacker without making physical contact? Does this mean you run away? Don’t tell me this book teaches some mystical “chi” enhanced powers where the practitioner can extend his energy through the air. Or maybe this book teaches some Jedi Knight mind skills; “Luke, use the force.”

Or maybe you don’t make physical contact because as you attempt to use any of the information within this book the attacker knocks you out, or kills you. At this point the attacker is so “overcome” by what just happed they run away.

As for the lines, “kill and restore life, the power of life and death,” my only comment is, did Dr. Frankenstein write this book. Don’t the dead normally stay dead, except in zombie movies? Does this book teach voodoo? Or does this book teach you to kill your attacker, and then so you don’t feel guilty and remorseful methods of bringing them back to life?

Honestly I have absolutely no idea what this line means. This claim alone should be a red flag for anyone considering buying this book.

Lastly, in regards to the claim that “one only needs to read this information once and then will posses the same power and knowledge as a first degree black belt,” that’s just absurd. (editor’s note: That depends whom you buy the black belt from)

Maybe, just maybe, some small amount of knowledge a black belt acquires can be achieved, but I can’t imagine how one gains “power,” unless the author is referring to the old adage, “knowledge is power,” which I don’t think is the author’s intentions.

Of course except for making money selling this nonsense, I have no idea what his real intentions are.

Putting all the authors claims aside, my biggest problem with this ad, and others like this one, is that a “Black Belt” certificate is sent along with the book. This not only degrades the entire black belt system, but also undermines the ethics and respectability of all martial arts.

It is unscrupulous practices such as this that hurt all of us, who actually worked our butts off to obtain acknowledgement and certification in the martial art we choose to practice. It undermines the very credibility of all of us who teach, and try to make a living propagating the martial arts.

While a book like “Learn Martial Arts In Eight Weeks” is bad enough on its own, sending a certificate to validate proficiency backing up such a claim is a thousand times worse.

Fortunately, most people will have the common sense to see this ad for what it is, however there are plenty of people who will not.

And then there are those unscrupulous enough to profit further once they have this material in their possession. These are the types of individuals who will use the accompanying certificate to validate themselves as teachers and open a martial art school. That’s not only scary; it’s extremely dangerous to those who get fooled into studying at such a school, and there will be people who do.

The sad fact is most novice students don’t know one martial art from another, nor how to judge who is qualified to teach them. Most beginners make their decision where to study based mainly on location and the teacher’s credentials.

Unfortunately, while these beginners may exam the credentials hung on a wall, they have no real clue how to evaluate them, or any way of knowing if they have any merit. For the most part, people just accept things at face value.

Sure, some of these novices who train at less reputable schools may get a clue early on and leave, but there will be others who will study hard and, heaven forbid, further propagate what they have learned.

Deep down I know there is nothing that can be done to stop these sorts of advertisements, and that my ranting on a “blog” won’t change things. I’m also aware this is not the first of these types of ads ever offered. I’ve seen others, some of which were even worse, though this one definitely ranks in the top five.

(To date the “Gracie jujitsu” home study instructor’s course complete with certificate, license to teach, and window decal, holds that honor. It was advertised in Black Belt magazine several years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which Gracie offered this product.)

Hopefully if enough people speak out about this topic the message will get out there. After all, as martial artists, especially those of us who teach, it is our obligation to safeguard our fellow martial artists and those that may one day join us on the path.

(Editor’s note: I’d just like to point out the irony that similar arguments have been used by message board denizens saying that Yachigusa-Ryu’s lack of credentials harms their arts. I’ll presume you can understand the difference. It’s a complex world out there.)

Book Review: Learn the Martial Arts in Eight Weeks

Title: Learn the Martial Arts in Eight Weeks
By: Michael de Pasquale Jr.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
ISBN: 0-671-47469-3
Date: 1983
Out of Print

From the back cover:
“It’s a tough world out there — be prepared!
Fitness and self-defense are yours in just eight weeks when you follow this unique martial arts program. Michael de Pasquale, Jr., founder and Executive Director of the Federation of United Martial Artists, combines for the first time, judo, karate, and ju-jitsu into one quick eight-week training plan.
An ideal book for anyone who wants to feel safer, stronger, and better prepared to cope with increased street crime and recognizes the need for self-protection, it is also a perfect way to shape up and feel fit.”

When I see a title such as this one, and read the above, two things immediately come to mind.

The first thing is that I hope the book won’t be too expensive, since I know I’m going to want to add it to my martial arts book collection. After all, I love collecting books that make such claims, as well as many of the older texts written in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s by American martial art “pioneers.” In this case the book only cost $6.00, a bargain for a book that is out of print.

The second thing that immediately comes to mind–as I blurted out to the gentleman next to me who was also checking out the various new and used martial art books—is why have I wasted thirty plus years of my life learning the martial arts when I could have bought this book in the eighties and learned everything I needed to know in eight weeks?

For a moment, the man gave me a blank look. Then what I said registered. He smiled and we both broke out in laughter. The funniest thing was that this man had trained with the author’s father when he was a teenager, and personally knew Michael de Pasquale Jr. I guess this a small world after all.

Of course at that moment I was relieved that I hadn’t said anything more about what I really thought, but I get the impression he basically felt the same. He even stated something to the effect that if Michael de Pasquale Jr. could write such a book, why did he have to spend so many years at their school. Never passing an opportunity to be sarcastic, I retorted, because you didn’t buy the book.

After a few more minutes of banter about a few other silly titles we went our separate ways. I never even got the guys name.

Now that he is long gone, I’m free to express what I really think.

First of all, I have a real problem, and a true loathing for books like these because of the claims they make. I’m sorry to say this, but there are plenty of foolish people who would actually believe they can learn martial arts in eight weeks if they follow a program like this.

They actually believe they can learn martial arts from a book.

NO ONE, yes, I said NO ONE can learn martial arts from just reading a book, or for that matter from just watching a video. It’s not possible.

They can pretend to learn, but the only people they are fooling are themselves. Although I’m sure plenty of their friends will believe they’ve accomplished something. Such is life.

Learning martial arts requires first-hand training from a qualified instructor. There is just no other way a person can be exposed to the proper body mechanics, tactical information, or any of the other numerous intricacies that comprise the martial arts.

The most a book or a video can accomplish is to aid or augment one’s knowledge–knowledge based on martial art techniques they already have some familiarity with.

Of course most books with titles like this have a disclaimer somewhere within the text that states nothing can substitute actual training with a qualified instructor. What really irked me about this particular text was it didn’t.

In fact the forward, written by Al Weiss, a 5th Dan in Combat Karate, states the following:
“It has been argued that one can’t become a skilled fighter by reading a book. I agree with that argument. But it isn’t necessary to be a skilled fighter to survive the average street confrontation. Confidence, awareness, and a few effective basic techniques, learned from a book and practiced until they become second nature, could help you subdue or discourage an assailant. Of course, the book has to be written by one who has the necessary knowledge, experience, and dedication – someone like Mike de Pasquale Jr.”

What?!!!!!!!!!

Okay, Mr. Weiss agrees one can’t become a skilled fighter from reading a book. We agree there.

He is also right about the fact you don’t have to be a skilled fighter to survive a confrontation on the street. Lots of little old ladies, elderly men, men, women, and children survive confrontations on the street daily.

Now I don’t know what “confrontation” he is referring to since that can mean anything from being verbally accosted, to robbery, to murder.

Common sense dictates one should just walk away from verbal confrontations, so this book and Mr. Weiss’s comments most likely don’t apply.

In most robberies people survive because they cooperate with the attacker and give them what they want; money, jewelry, keys to the car, etc. No possession is worth dying for. Short of saving your life, violence should be the last thing you resort to when you’re being robbed. That’s the standard “police spiel” on the matter, and I’m sticking to it.

In the case of assault, battery, rape, or other violent attack one must do what they feel is right, when and if the opportunity presents itself.

However, this book does not teach practical street related self-defense for those situations. There are no eye gouges, biting, pulling hair, nor even a suggestion you should scream for “help.”

No this book teaches basics blocks/strikes, kata (three of them), judo throws (14 of them) and some jujutsu kata mainly focusing on wrist techniques, arm bars, and basic karate/jujutsu style self-defense sequences.

There is also a section on defense against multiple opponents, which I won’t even comment on. Okay, one comment: learning to fight one person is hard enough, thinking you can take on a multiple number of attackers, especially if all you’ve ever studied is from a book, is ludicrous.

Lastly, Mr. Weiss clearly states techniques must be practice until they become second nature. I think everyone will agree it takes longer than eight weeks to accomplish this, unless all you do for eight weeks is practice only one thing. Clearly, this book depicts more than one technique.

This book is broken up into eight chapters, each chapter being what I assume the author is trying to tell the reader is a weeks worth of study.

The first chapter, called “Week 1,” covers exercises to develop the body and prepare it for learning the martial art techniques in the next chapters. So far so good.

Week two and three cover basic movements such as strikes, kicks, blocks, stances, and break-falls.

If this book is really intended to teach the reader how to deal with street style confrontations, as Mr. Weiss asserts, it is beyond my comprehension why break falls are covered. I guess it’s for those individuals who get knocked down.

In my opinion this section could have been used for many more important things.

Week 4 covers kata, and three kata are depicted. They are the basic karate style kata you would see practiced at any karate school. Nothing special.

The problem with this section is that while the kata are depicted well enough, there is no explanation at all as to what the movements are for. It basically just shows the reader a series of movements, and you’re left on your own to figure out what you’re doing. That makes this information basically useless.

In my opinion this is one of the weakest parts of the book.

Week 5 covers 14 judo throws, throws like ogoshi, osoto gari, tomoenage, uchimata, yoko wakari, taiotoshi, harai goshi, and uke otoshi.

Now I know for a fact, having done judo in collage, that this is more than a weeks worth of study. I also know for a fact this is information one cannot learn from a book.

While the pictures are clear, and the descriptions adequate, it is impossible to learn throwing techniques without someone demonstrating the various body shifts, drops, pulls/pushes, and other dynamics it takes to properly execute one.

Throwing techniques are definitely something that one has to observe others do first, and then attempt under a watchful eye. They are complex. In order to learn them, and have the possibility to actually execute them on a non-cooperative person, one must constantly practice them in front of a qualified instructor who can critiqued form, and make corrections.

Week 6 and 7 covers jujutsu kata, which is how the author titles the self-defense portion of the book. To me many of these forms look more like karate than jujutsu.

Techniques range from defenses for empty-hand attacks to those against an armed opponent, (knife and club).

The techniques themselves are basic, photographed well, and decently explained. For the most part I have nothing bad to say about them. They are what the author says they are, BASIC.

My only comment is that they are not the down and dirty techniques one needs to learn in order to defend one’s life. They are just too formal, to stylized, and lack realism–realism as it relates to realistic street combat.

The last chapter, Week 8, covers techniques against multiple attackers.

I’ve already stated my opinion in regards to the worthiness of this material, and how much success I think one would have if they ever attempted these techniques in the real world. All I can say is whoever attempts these techniques in a real life or death situation had better have good medical/life insurance.

My favorite of all the multiple defenses portrayed is the final three-man attack. In this sequence a single female takes on three men, one armed with a knife, and another one armed with a club. She looks like she is in a lot of trouble.

Of course, she is successful. But if you follow the sequential photos, they only attack her one at a time, not as a group. What’s worse is that she actually looks like she turns her back on one attacker, (the one with the knife), while focusing on another.

This sequence alone breaks so many rules of self-defense, in addition to depicting an unrealistic attack scenario. I wonder what the author was thinking.

If you think I’m ripping apart this book, you are right. Not because of its content, but because of how it was marketed. If this had been intended for a martial artist as a supplement to their training I may have even recommended it, but only for beginners.

However, I can’t recommend it as it is. The title is misleading, and the techniques are not the type one should use to defend themselves in a street fight.

I don’t know Michael de Pasquale Jr., nor have I ever met him, or seen the man in action. All I know about him is what I’ve read, and heard from others. From everything I’ve heard he is a nice guy, and a very talented martial artist, who truly believes in victim’s rights (anti crime/drug work).

Given everything I’ve ever heard/read about Michael de Pasquale Jr., and his reputation I find it extremely hard to believe that he would have ever written a book like this.

Or more clearly stated would write a book with a title like this, and no disclaimer that a book is never a substitute for training at an actual martial art school.

Maybe there is a good reason this book is out of print.

Michael de Pasquale, Jr. is the son of Michael de Pasquale Sr., Grandmaster of the Yoshitsune Waza style of Ju-Jitsu. Michael de Pasquale Jr. began his of study of the martial arts when he was five years old, and presently holds the coveted rank of Ni Dai Soke (Heir to the rank of Grandmaster).
During his career in the martial arts Michael de Pasquale Jr. has accomplished numerous achievements such as:
– Named “Martial Arts Star of the Year” by Official Karate Magazine 1977.
– Creator of the largest martial arts Internet site: Martial Arts Worldwide Network (www.mawn.net).
– Developed his own self-defense style, De Pasquale Combat Ju-Jitsu.
– Publisher/Editor of “Karate International Magazine.”
– Founder of “Federation of United Martial Artists” (FUMA)- crusade against crime and drugs.
– President of the “International Federation of Ju Jitsuans” (I.F.O.J.J.).
– Completed and certified by the FBI Instructors’ program.

Book Review: Taiho-Jutsu and Secret Weapons of Jujutsu

Here are two books by the same author that I was very happy to add to my collection since they are very closely related to the martial arts I teach. Or, I should say, they cover the history and weaponry of many of the implements that were employed in the system of martial arts I was taught.

They are two of only a few books I’m aware of that cover these topics in English. Unlike many others these two focus more on the history and development of the various described weapons than on just usage.

Given the topic matter, I strongly recommend these two books to anyone interested in Taiho-Jutsu, the history of law enforcement during the age of the samurai, or weaponry such as the jutte (truncheon), tessen (iron fan), yawara (short wooden rod), hojo jutsu (tying arts), and more.


Secret Weapons of Jujutsu

By: Don Cunningham
ISBN: 0-97002808-0-7
Publisher: Budo Kai, Ltd.
Year: 2000
$22.00

“Secret Weapons of the Jujutsu is the first book to appear in English that offers a detailed introduction to exotic defensive weapons like the tessen and jutte as well as other hibuki, or ‘concealed weapons.'”

This description, found on the inside cover of the book, is exactly why I purchased this book. After obtaining the book and reading it over twice, I was not disappointed. This book definitely lives up to its claim.

This book is not an in-depth look at any of the weapons described, but this book does offer some basic information. There is enough information to give some insight into to the various small arms described in the book, their history, and some actual techniques one can employ with them.

In Japan, there is a similar book to this text. To be honest, I was hoping that Mr. Cunningham’s book would have been more like its Japanese cousin. While this text is a good “introduction” on the topic, there are many more “secret weapons” he could have discussed–some of which are almost, if not totally, unknown in the west.

I don’t read Japanese so I couldn’t even start naming some of the odder-looking weapons pictured in the Japanese book on “secret weapons.” In addition I have never seen many of them demonstrated, and don’t even know if there are any teachers that still teach their usage.

Because I can’t read Japanese, and know this information is available, I was hoping Mr. Cunningham, who clearly has resources in Japan, would have mentioned at least some of these more unique and unfamiliar weapons.

In fact I would have preferred leaning more about those weapons than having techniques described, learning about various schools that teach unarmed martial arts, Tokugawa era police, and Japanese feudal social structure. Not to say this is not interesting, and informative, but they are not what the title proposes to cover.
While this book presents good basic material, and is worth reading, if one has to choose which of Mr. Cunningham’s texts to purchase I would suggest “Taiho-Jutsu.” The only reason for this opinion is that “Taiho-Jutsu” is more comprehensive, and covers almost the same information.


Taiho-Jutsu: Law and Order in the Age of the Samurai

By: Don Cunningham
ISBN: 0-8048-3336-5
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Year: 2004
$24.95

The part I really liked about this book, and its strong point, is the history regarding law enforcement in the age of the samurai. A topic rarely, if ever, written about in English texts.

In fact this book is the first text I found that really gives a thorough description of the various officers, machi-bugyo-sho (town magistrates) to the lowly hoyokiki (part-time police assistants), and their duties. Even given my background in a martial art that was most likely developed and propagated by a doshin, (officer), I didn’t realize how many different classes of police officer there had been.

The first sixty pages of this book cover topics such as defining social classes, kabukimono (street hooligans), Edo-period justice, penalties and punishments, and civil authority and policing.

While none of these topics are covered in depth, this book provides enough information to fully understand the topic, and gain some insight to the social and legal structure of Japan during this time period.

The rest of this book is divided into describing the various arresting implements used by the Japanese law enforcement (their history and design), and how these implements were used. Some of this is similar, if not identical, to the information listed in the previously reviewed book.

I liked the section on the various weapons utilized by Japan’s police force, and think the topic is covered quite well. There is just enough information presented. Mr. Cunningham has stuck to presenting only the details, which keeps each section concise.

The weakest part of the book, at least for me, is the section that shows how to use the jutte. While the material is presented well, and each diagram is explained sufficiently, I think having this section reduces the over all tone and quality of the book.

I think Mr. Cunningham should have saved that information for another book–a book intended just to teach the “how too.” After all, the initial part of this book is clearly meant to impart historical information, and that information is what is lacking in English texts.

In other words there are already texts that cover how to use the jutte in English, and the techniques described in Mr. Cunningham’s are nothing unique enough one can’t learn from another source–even a book that is not in translated into English. To be honest, most of the forms presented are fairly basic techniques.

Additionally, I think the jutte material in this book is essentially the same as Mr. Cunningham’s previous book. The big difference is that photos are used in book one, and illustrations are used in book two.

While I think how the jutte was used is important info, I would have preferred to see techniques for some of the other weapons presented in this book. I’m not sure how much exposure Mr. Cunningham has regarding the usage of the sodegarami (sleeve entangler), kusurigama (sickle with weighted chain), or yawara (short rod), but these weapons are less known, and seeing techniques related to them would have been more interesting.

Just like the historical information presented in the first part of the book, much of which is unknown in the west, few people have ever had the chance to witness demonstrations of the above listed weaponry in action. The jutte or the tessen, in comparison, are more widely practiced.

Overall I really like this book, and highly recommend to anyone interested in samurai history, samurai weaponry, or lesser know martial arts weaponry.

* * *

Mr. Don Cunningham has over thirty years of martial arts experience, studying both contemporary and ancient martial art systems. He holds advanced ranks in judo, jujutsu, and kendo. Besides the two books mentioned above, Mr. Cunningham has also written numerous articles for various martial art publications.

I have met Mr. Cunningham only once, when he attended the local San Francisco Token Kai (Sword Collectors’ convention), and on that day we had just a short conversation. Basically I just teased him a lot since he is always outbidding me on items listed on EBay.

However we did discuss his collection of jutte, and by the sound of things he must have an excellent collection.

Book Review: Works of Eiji Yoshikawa

Taiko
By Eiji Yoshikawa

Musashi
By Eiji Yoshikawa

The Heike Story
By Eiji Yoshikawa


Taiko — An Epic Novel Of War And Glory In Feudal Japan
By Eiji Yoshikawa
Translated by:
ISBN# 4770026099
Publisher: Kodansha International (JPN) (December 2000)
$35.00

Taiko is wonderful book to read, even if one isn’t a big fan of Japanese history or culture. While based on historical people, places, and events, this story is fictionalized. As a result the story becomes a true epic tale.

Basically, this book tells the story of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the three men who helped to unify Japan in the 16th century. The story starts with Hideyoshi as a child, and chronicles his rise to power. The story explains the various events that shaped the man whom would one day lead Japan, and the inner thoughts he must have had during his life.

Along the way the reader learns about military conquests, samurai honor, clan relationships, and the other men of his period that shaped Japan.

Of course no book covering this turbulent time in Japanese history would be complete with out numerous battles, political intrigue, and humorous anecdotes, an accomplishment that highlights the story telling mastery of Yoshikawa.

Characters are fully described, as are their motives. This is done in such a manner that not only can one fully understand who these men were, but one can actually empathize with their motives.

This book is extremely long, 944 pages. However, the story is captivating enough that once you start you most likely wont want to set it aside for long. There are some dry parts, but those are easily overlooked.

I highly recommend this book.


Musashi
By Eiji Yoshikawa
Translated by Charles S. Terry
ISBN# 4770019572
Publisher: Kodansha International (JPN); Reprint edition (May 1995)
$35.00

This is most likely Yoshikawa’s most famous epic. At least for western audiences, who though they may not have read the book, might be familiary with the movie (Samurai Trilogy starting T. Mifune) based upon it.

Written in the early part of the 20th century, this book tells the story about one of Japan’s most famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. While there is plenty of historical information in this book, this book is once again a fictionalized story. A story of Musashi’s life, from brutish child, to a man who searches for enlightenment.

Basically the book only covers the early years of Musashi’s life, up until his famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro (April 13 1612, on the remote island of Funajima). However, by covering these formative years the reader gains some insight into who Musashi was, and the events that shaped the man.

What is really great about the book is that this story is not about a man who fights with a sword. Yes, plenty of swordplay is present, but the main part of the book emphasizes Musashi’s inner struggle to perfect himself. This self-perfection is a Buddhist ideal that was cultivated by the Japanese warrior class in order to add a spiritual dimension to their profession of war and killing.

Unable to settle down, and lacking the desire to become a retainer, Musashi travels throughout Japan searching for the means to achieve this perfection. In the process he encounters friends, lovers, and countless enemies seeking to destroy him.

One very interesting element of this book are the other characters, which are intertwined with Musashi through his travels, and represent other aspects of mankind.

Musashi, a man of incredible physical strength, starts off brutish and arrogant. But he learns inner strength and transforms into a man who understands it okay to be weak sometimes. This is the realization that allows him to triumph over himself.

In contrast, Kojiro is depicted as a man who is ambitious, arrogant, and willing to do anything to achieve his goals. In their first encounter, long before their famous duel, Musashi defeats Kojiri. Unfortunately, Kojiro does not learn from the experience, and the experience of defeat consumes him.

Matahachi, Musashi’s childhood friend, is lazy, weak and an opportunist. He has a hard time making the right decisions, and is easily convinced to pursue the wrong course of action. However, his character is redeemed, and he finds strength from his weaknesses.

Osugi, Matahachi’s mother, is Musashi’s greatest enemy in this tale. She travels Japan searching for Musashi so that she can kill him. All because she feels he was responsible for Matahachi’s decline and fall. Her relentless chase and unwillingness to forgive Musashi even after she learns the truth is remarkable. She is clearly stubborn, opinionated, and willing to risk everything to complete her objective.

She is also the only character in the book that constantly thwarts Musashi; in one encounter she even injures him. More importantly, she causes Musashi to let down his guard on numerous occasions, where he can easily be attacked. Fortunately, she is never fully successful with her attempts.

Of course by showing Musashi’s vulnerable side, Musashi is humanized.

This book is 984 pages long. However, once you start reading be prepared not to stop. It is very well written, and worth your time.


The Heike Story: A Modern Translation of the Classic Tale of Love and War (Paperback)
By Eiji Yoshikawa
Illustrated by Kenkichi Sugimoto
Translated by Fuki Wooyenaka Uramatsu
ISBN# 0804833184
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing (August 2002)
$35.00

The Heike is the story of the great Japanese civil war that took place in the latter half of the 12th century between the Taira (Heike) and the Minamoto (Genji). A war that ended with the Minamoto victory at Dan-no-Ura in 1185. This story became the subject of many compositions, the most famous being the Kakuichi version of 1371

Translations of Japanese classics are often hampered due to the archaic language used in the originals texts. This was not the case with Yoshikawa’s version. In this tale, Yoshikawa has achieved a balanced fusion of great storytelling while staying true to the original material. This is no small achievement, and is one of the main reasons I suggest reading this book, even if one is already familiar with other translations of this story.

Unfortunately, unlike the previously reviewed two stories, this book has come under a lot of criticism due to the way it was translated into English. However, I don’t think some of these complaints take away from the overall enjoyment of reading this book.

Yoshikawa’s version of the “Heike Story” remains true to the history of the conflict, while putting the story in novel form. As a result he flushes out the historical characters and brings them to life.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Japanese history and culture, especially the Kamakura period.


Eiji Yoshikawa was born in 1892 in Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo. He began his literary career at the age of twenty-two. During his thirties he worked as a journalist while continuing to write stories and novels, reaching a large and appreciative readership through having his work published, often serially, in newspapers and popular magazines. At the time of his death in 1962, he was one of Japan’s best-known and best-loved novelists. He received the Cultural Medal, the highest award for a man of letters, and other cultural decorations, including the Order of the Sacred Treasure.
www.fictionbook.ru/en/author/iesikava_yeyidzi/

Book Review: "Japanese Spears" and "Japanese Polearms"

Japanese Polearms
by Roald M. Knutsen

Japanese Spears – Polearms And Their Use In Old Japan

by Roald & Patricia Knutsen


Before I was injured in the line of duty I had a very extensive martial arts book collection. I had over 300 books, covering almost every aspect and style of martial art history, theory, and training.


After being hurt, and laid up in bed for over a year I gave many of these books away. I didn’t think I would ever have a use for them again. Today I regret my foolishness, since many are out of print and I’ll never be able to acquire them again.


Today I’m up to about a 100 books. While that doesn’t sound like much of a collection in comparison to the old days, I am a lot more selective now regarding what I will put in my library. Quality over quantity is the goal now.


The unfortunate thing about martial art texts is that the bulk of them are not worth the paper they are printed on. Yes, one may gain a useful technique or two, and maybe if lucky some historical fact one didn’t know before. However, for the most part it’s the same information packaged and presented differently.


The following two books I’m going to review are on the topic of Sojutsu (The Japanese Art of the Spear). This is a topic of great interest to me, since my teacher considered himself to be a spearman more than a swordsman.


Though teaching the use of the spear isn’t foremost in what I teach today, I also have a certain passion for the weapon, and if I had to decide which weapon to go into battle with (guns excluded) I would always pick the spear first.

Japanese Polearms

by Roald M. Knutsen

The Holland Press, London 1963


Out of print – $150.00 – $500.00


I searched for this book for many many years. Basically, because it was one of the few books available on the topic of Japanese Polearms, especially written in a language other than Japanese. I had also heard wonderful comments about the book, and how informative it was.


Unfortunately this book is out of print, and every time I located a copy the cost was extremely high. Too high for my budget, or for me to justify acquiring it. Until about three years ago, when a student located one for me, at a semi-reasonable price.


When I purchased the book I had great expectations. I was really looking forward to its contents, and hoped that it would answer many questions I had about Japanese Polearm history, usage, and manufacture.


I wasn’t disappointed. While the production qualities of the book are not the greatest there is a lot of information. Mr. Knutsen does a good job covering history, manufacture, and various styles of polearms used throughout the centuries.


While none of the information is in depth, he covers a relatively unknown topic in a sufficient manner for the beginner to someone moderately knowledgeable on the topic. There are definitely some interesting bits and pieces.


The pictures, many of which feature items from his personal collection, are also a great feature of this book. I lost count how many variations of polearm blades he shows. There were some I had never seen, other than in drawings. (Such as the socketed yari (spear) with a hook and engraved saya (scabbard) on it, featured on page 192.)


There are also many photos and line drawings of the various pieces that make up a yari (spear) beside the blade. There are five pages dedicated just to hadome (guards) and another four pages dedicated to hirumaki (endcaps).


Another nice feature is the glossary of terms related to spears at the end of the book. I have found that very useful during my research.


The only thing this book does not cover is how to use Japanese polearms; however I don’t believe the author’s intention was to write a book on that topic.


Overall, I like this book a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who is willing to buy one. Although I do recommend you have a serious interest in the topic, since the cost may not justify a casual curiosity.


Japanese Spears – Poelarms And Their Use In Old Japan

By Roald & Patricia Knutsen

ISBN # 1-901903-56-7

Global Oriental, 2004

Approximately $50.00


This book is by the same author as the above reviewed book, and his wife. Like the previous book, this book also covers history, manufacture, furnishings, and terms.


In many ways it’s an update to Mr. Knutsen’s previous work, and the information within it, as well as the production quality are a lot better.


This book is also a lot more affordable.


One big difference between the two books is the amount of pictures. Unlike the previous book there are fewer photos, and many more line drawings. However, the photos are clearer, and the line drawings depict many more styles of yari. Some that are rather oddball, such as jumonji-hoko-yari and kata-kama-hoko yari and a yari I had never seen before called an ono-no-yari.


Another major difference is that this book also covers some actual techniques one can do with a yari and a naginata (halberd). While not very detailed, anyone who has trained with a yari or naginata may benefit from them.


If I had to choose between the two books I would select this one. I think the author really added a lot of information compared to the 1963 edition, and it would appear to me has a better grasp of the topic matter. Or, if nothing else has learned to transmit the information he knows in a clearer more precise manner.