Beyond swinging the stick – in invitation for a deep dive into the cultural and historical facettes of Naginata

The current pandemic has made conventional naginata practice impossible in many places over most of the last months. Even outdoor practice for groups was prohibited at times or – even when possible – was simply impractical during winter. This was and still is particularly true for my group in Leverkusen, Germany. On the other side, less time for practice freed up time for other things.

During the first wave and the period of uncertainty in spring & summer 2020, I took my reading to another level. My interest in Japanese history, culture and language is older than my practice of naginata (in the 20th year now). Accordingly I have read quite a number of books and visited many castles, shrines, temples and museums (often being the same thing) and a couple of historical battlefields and archeological sites in Japan. However, this has always been a kind of private research since my academic background is in the natural sciences. Still I took university classes from a range of other subjects and even went to a couple of conferences in completely different fields when they tickled my interested and in order to find out how other scientific communities “smell”. So last year, I put an emphasis on reading specialized scientific articles on the subjects instead of books aimed at a wider audience.

When the 2nd wave hit us in autumn, I started a series of talks on subjects related to the cultural context of naginata. The first one was on the naginata itself, the weapon, its make, the historical & military context and the progression from old-style martial art to today’s budō. The essence of this talk had existed before and I have held it already a couple of times in front of a non-specialist audience. For this occasion, I spiced it up with more details of interest to the naginata aficionado. The next two talks gave on introduction to the Japanese language, how to pronounce things, the mysteries of writing, why to better avoid counting, what all the things mean that we yell all the time, gestures and phrases helpful for practicing with Japanese sensei at seminars. While these three talks were aimed at the naginata practitioners in Germany (and accordingly held in German), this changed with the next talk.

The series continued with “Benkei – The man? The myth? The legend?”. The choice of topic coincided with the time of year when we would normally have our kyū-centric friendship tournament, aka. the Benkei cup since he is our dōjō patron. This being an international event, it was time to transition to English. Due to the wealth of material, I split it on two parts. In part one I gave the historical context of the Gempei war, introduced the relevant sources and centered on the historical Benkei and other famous monastic warriors of the era. Part two will now focus on the bundle of legends surrounding Benkei and their representation in the arts, ranging from paintings over theatre to mundane objects like sword fittings. And if we take the journey, we may as well visit Tomoe Gozen and Robin Hood.

If you want to join, we will meet on April 11 (Sunday) at 20:00 – app. 21:30 Central European Time on Discord (https://discord.gg/S3MXuuYUsf). I hope I have made you hungry for more and I compiled for you a fine selection of articles addressing certain controversial topics of the wider “Samurai world” with all its richness which have been victims of distortion, exaggeration, legend building and the invention of traditions. Ladies and gentlemen, I proudly present to you:

The 7 Samurai myths

  1. Ninja – special forces with traditional secret skills from Iga and Kōka

Turnbull, Stephen (2015) “The Ninja: An Invented Tradition?”, Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective: Vol. 9 : No. 1 ,article 3, p. 9-26

2. The honourable 47 Rōnin, aveninging their wronged but righteous master

Smith, Henry D. II (2003), “The Capacity of Chūshingura”, Monumenta Nipponica 58:1, p. 1-42

and

Masahide, Bitō (2003), “The Akō Incident, 1701-1703”, Monumenta Nipponica 58:2, p. 149-170

3. The Japanese sword – The ultimate killer on the battlefield

Conlan, Thomas (2010) “Instruments of Change- Organizational Technology and the Consolidation of Regional Power in Japan, 1333– 1600” in “War and State Building in Medieval Japan”, edited by John A. Ferejohn, and Frances McCall Rosenbluth, Stanford University Press, p. 124-158

4. How the Portuguese brought the first firearms to Japan and revolutionized warfare

Conlan, Thomas (2010) as above. (Again? Must be a pretty fine article.)

5. Bushidō – the ancient code of conduct of the samurai

Friday, Karl (2018) “The Way of Which Warriors? Bushidō & the Samurai in Historical Perspective”, Asian Studies VI (XXII), 2, p. 15–31

6. Okinawa – the peaceful kingdom

Smits, Gregory (2010), “Examining the Myth of Ryūkyūan Pacifism”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Japan Focus Volume 8, Issue 37, Number 3, p. 1-21

7. The Sōhei warrior monks – a different breed of soldier

Adolphson, Mikael (2007) “The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sōhei in Japanese History”, University of Hawai‘i Press

(The author holds no liability in case of cardiac arrest upon consumption of these articles.)

Andreas Nicol

Benkei Naginata Kyōshitsu

PostSV Opladen

Leverkusen

Germany