By Dr. (Shihan) Bolz
Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
Master of Science Oriental Medicine
Master Martial Arts Instructor, 6th Degree Black Belt
You may think by the title of this article that it is going to be about fantasy, manga, anime, or video games, but read further. It seems that today, more than ever before in history, we need to live like a good samurai.
In feudal Japan, the samurai were some of the world’s most fierce, most loyal to their lord and cause and bravest of all soldiers that have ever lived and fought upon this earth.
In Japan, around 1603, the Tokugawa government took over and a long period of peace began, known as the Edo Jidai (Edo Period). In the mid 1800’s Japan began having more contact with the Western world when the Netherlands started exploring in Japan and the United States began to send ships over there as well. In 1876, it became against the law for any samurai to wear their swords on the streets. So from the 1600’s on, more and more samurai were without jobs; that is, there were no wars to fight, they were not needed in war. The samurai still practiced their skills, however, as that was still their work, even though they may have been unemployed. It was all they knew. Very skillful samurai were retained in the castles to protect the local lords still, but only a few were needed for that. The only skill these soldiers had was their sword fighting skills. Those that were retained in the castles by the local lords took up the high arts such as tea ceremony, writing and painting, besides practicing their combat skills. They became highly refined and highly educated. Not all of them were fortunate enough, however, to be retained by their lords. Many were let go. Thus, many became masterless. Many were homeless. Some began making their living by challenging duals so their own sword schools would become famous and then opening their own swordsmanship schools, or dojo in the town. These were called machi dojo, or town martial schools.
The merchant class admired the ethics, discipline and bravery of the samurai and would send their children to these schools to teach them manners, etiquette and discipline. The children, who usually were sent to the schools in their teens, thought they were going to learn how to be great fighters and dig into the sword fighting immediately. In reality, most of the students did not get to even touch a sword for three years.
When the student entered the school under the tutelage of the master swordsman, they were taught many things about living. The student had to wash clothes for the master, mend clothes, learn how to cook for himself and his master, how to fish, how to clean the fish, how to wash the rice, how to raise vegetables and rice, how to take care of the futon, sweep and scrub the floors and all the drudgery of every day life. Pretty soon after entering the school, the student would start to complain. “How unfair, the master is is an eccentric old man who can no longer move well. We had come here to learn how to use the sword and become a master swordsman, what is wrong with this teacher? Is he mad?” These were common thoughts that the these children who became adults later wrote about. But at the time, for these children, it was not fun and neither parents nor master listened to them. The parents did not go and take them out of the school. Those that questioned the master would go visit him. The parents began to understand the master if they didn’t already. Remember, though, that most parents put their kids into these schools to give them a better education.
After one year of this, the student began getting more used to the life. After two years more accustomed to it, and after three years, they would be so used to their comfortable life that they fully accepted it. Then one day, when the student would have never guessed, the master brings him to the dojo and allows him to touch and pick up the bokken (wooden sword). Shocked and feeling surprised and honored, the student picks up the wood sword. The master begins to teach basic moves. The student always began with the bokken first, before using the live blade.
This was the usual method of becoming a student of the martial arts in those days. The students and the parents began to realize that the master samurai indeed was teaching the way of the sword and the way to be a good samurai from day one when the student first came to the master. The master was teaching the student how to survive, these were all survival techniques! Besides becoming proficient at household tasks and taking care of one’s own life, the student was also learning patience, perseverance and the ability to bear situations without complaining. They also learned etiquette and manners.
There is a saying in Japanese, “Ishi no ue ni mo, san nen.” “If you sit straight on a rock and that is all, you will be used to it after three years.” Thus, the three years of basic training under the master samurai. After three years of practice, people will be used to the situation. That means everything just takes training and patience and you can then do it. This was the greatest lesson of life that the master samurai could teach the student, more important than learning how to fight well with the sword, in the peaceful era. But of course, the student did learn the actual swordsmanship too.
This method also took great understanding and wisdom on behalf of the parents. They did not go to the master’s house and scream at him or take their child away. They kept the child going, they didn’t give in to the child’s complaints. This method of learning also teaches people to not blame others for their situation, but to accept and take care of their own life and do whatever they need to do to survive.
The employed samurai took on great responsibility for the life and safety of their lord and the people belonging to that castle. So much so, that they constantly put their life on the line in battle. They did not blame others, that would get no where. It indeed would literally cost them their life.They met the challenges and consequences of their own actions. The faithful never blamed their lord. The few that did go against their lord did it the good old fashioned honorable way-they fought to the death, or if they lost and were still alive, then they were ready to take their own life. They felt responsible.
This history of the samurai way of life and spirit still permeates in Japan at a subtle level. The Japanese are known the world over for their resilience and ability to survive as a people and for their patience. Parents to this day send their children to the “machi dojo” (town martial arts schools) so they will learn discipline and manners and become more refined and educated. Of course, as Japan is becoming more modern and more Westernized, it has more and more spoiled people, but as a whole, there is still this essence there.
This is also a story to point out that self defense goes way beyond hand to hand combat. We need more than ever today, in the United States of America, to become samurai. We need to practice self defense against diseases of all kinds, and especially against the disease of complaining and blaming others. It is time we become samurai and take the responsibility upon our own selves for our situation in life. It is time we cook, clean, mend, take care of every day matters seriously. It is time we truly cook, not buy already prepared food in the store, not buying green salads already washed and stored in plastic. The nutrient value and life-force is almost gone in these things. It is time to study about food and how it is raised before we purchase. It is time we practice self defense and when it comes to health, that means prevention. Cooking is a duty of the samurai warrior as well as that of the samurai warrior’s wife. The samurai’s wife also had to learn the basics of handling a knife and spear; it was needed for survival. We need to become proficient at all the basic tools of life, not just a single career. The career will not be stable if you don’t know how to take care of your health. Health begins with cooking whole foods, organically raised by either yourself or a local farmer and honoring the food and earth that sustains your life.
Self defense means defending ourselves against physical disease and the mental diseases of unrest and anxiety that comes from superficial living. Self defense against the disease of lack or self responsibility. No one is responsible for our welfare but our own self. It is time to have self pride and honor. The homeless samurai who were very hungry would walk around with a toothpick in their mouth, it has been said. That means they were not prone to want hand outs and they did not blame someone else for being hungry.
It is time to stop blaming others and ask what we can do for others. At the risk of sounding very old fashioned, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Old values are stable values and the values that President John F. Kennedy spoke of and that of the Japanese samurai of an even older era, are never out of fashion. It works in any era, no matter how smart we think we are. It is time to realize how smart we are not. It is time to think about how to be a good samurai.