Thursday, February 3, 2011

Final Review

Here I will make my final reveiw of "Musashi Miyamoto: His Life and Writings" by Kenji Tokitsu.

This book starts with a lengthy introduction by Tokitsu, which I found to be incredibly informative on the difficult nature of writing about the martial arts; a subject matter only understood fully through one's personal feelings and experiences rather than purely objective analysis. It also describes the difficulties in translating texts from different languages and eras in modern English. This section alone I believe is worthy of a read.

Tokitsu then moves on to a biography of Musashi. I was impressed by the amount of information he was able to find from such a wide spectrum of sources concerning the life of a man that is too often mystified in legend rather than objective facts. Tokitsu gives an analysis of each bit of information he presents, and when there are conflicting stories, which there are a lot of, he presents his opinion on which may be most likely. Though it's not the most captivating of sections, I think the work deserves a lot of credit for the effort made to present Musashi as a real human being instead of a myth.

Next, is a new translation to Musashi's most famous writing, "the Book of Five Rings." It could be considered one of the most widely read pieces of martial arts literature, and I think Tokitsu provides a great translation to supplement those already in print. This is especially true because of the amount of notes Tokitsu makes on the work. He gives reasoning for the English translation he uses, as well as many historical facts that provide further understanding of the famous work.

Afterwards, he provides some other writings of Musashi that are not included in "the Book of Five Rings", which may have been the most exciting section for me. I know of no other source that contains these writings, so I believe this to be a very important resource for those who have benefited from Musashi and "the Book of Five Rings" and seek further understanding on related topics.

Then Tokitsu provides some fairly interesting sections on the history of swordsmanship in Japan, revealing the evolution of the Japanese sword, and comparing Musashi's styles with others in Japan. He also provides interviews with masters who claim to practice a style derived from Musashi where I found a lot of interesting perspectives.

However, I feel the last chapters of the book lose their effect as Tokitsu attempts to analyze the whole of Japanese budo and its meaning. Perhaps it was my mood, or my own personal connection with Japanese culture, but like many other writings on this subject, I found it to have a lot of faults.

Specifically in this work, I don't like how Tokitsu falls into generalizing about "the Orient" or "the East", while at the same time trying to communicate the specific differences between the countries therein, the styles of martial arts practiced, and the individuals participating. But as a matter of fact, I do that all the time in this blog! Perhaps this is one of the pitfalls of writing about martial arts. The subject is so broad, and so complex, and so dependent on personal experience, that to try to write about it in a general fashion of mass comparisons in subjects not personally experienced, is just a bit too much. Reading this made me sour about my own writings on the martial arts, and about a lot of the content on my own blog. I think it boils down to what you are trying to communicate. When you write about martial arts, what is the purpose? I think one must write assuming the most skilled and experienced practitioners will be reading, and they should be able to gain something from doing so. We all have precious valuable experience that can be a benefit to anyone. Tokitsu's generalizations of Eastern Martial Arts as a whole did little for me, and I would rather spend my time reading something with more substance. Perhaps this is a little harsh, but it's how I felt while reading.

Also, Tokitsu then arrives at the conclusion that modern Kendo is the sole remaining example of true budo. While comparing the whole of modern Japanese martial arts, he dismisses aikido in one sentence by saying that it focuses on "the mystical." There is nothing "mystical" about the aikido I practice, and I know it's the same for a lot of other people practicing aikido around the world. Amazing things can be accomplished in aikido, and one can get pretty abstract in the philosophy of the art, but "mystical"? I think not. Tokitsu then dismisses jujitsu as too harsh and violent, and so not true budo. Then he says karate and judo are only practiced as sports, and so aren't true budo either. What?! How does Kendo not fall into this category? Tokitsu says that the highest ideal is controlling someone without attacking or hurting, or even touching your opponent, which I agree with to an extent, but that can be experienced in karate, judo, jujitsu and aikido. Furthermore, Tokitsu explains this ability through the use of "ki", but not its expression through body mechanics, but as an unexplainable manifestation reserved for only the highest levels of practioners.

He presents a wonderfully objective account of the sections of his book while accounting for subjective experience, but then submits to judging all other arts in Japan without any reference to a counter argument. He dismisses aikido in one sentence because it's "mystical", and then gives the most "mystical" explanation of why Kendo is the true budo!


But what do I know anyway? Kenji Tokitsu has an amount of experience eons beyond me in graduate studies of history and culture, hours training in Japanese martial arts, and can translate beautifully and effectively ancient Japanese texts. He is a published and highly acclaimed authority in the martial arts who can sell a book like this for almost $40. I'm a 25 year old white belt in aikido who has only a couple years in other random arts and has a blog full of generalizations about martial arts and "the East" as a whole.

But are these details so important?

I respect all on the path, and sincerely devote myself to my practice, but ...

I will also not buy into narrow views that will limit my ability to experience life at it's greatest and utmost potential in this very moment I exist. I think I was given the power in "the Book of Five Rings" to neutralize the judgemental attacks of Tokitsu's conclusion which was all contained under the same book cover.

I will do my best to put something of substance on this blog. None of us have time to waste.

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