Our mortality is our greatest fear and also in many ways our greatest fixation. The number of TV networks that broadcast series exploring topics from state-of-the art weaponry to survival techniques, historical battles and stylized combat traditions is on the rise. Maybe the enthusiasm to scrutinize violence is a consequence of the barrage of graphic images of destruction and carnage that we see on the news every day. In view of that, there also seems to be a distinct upsurge in interest from networks in the ‘mystique’ of Japanese martial arts and samurai history.
Japan boasts a top-heavy abundance in combat arts, albeit antiquated ones. From the blood and gore of medieval battlefields, Japan has cultivated its science of war into athletic-aesthetic pursuits that, ironically, ultimately encourage adepts to cherish life rather than take it. No other nation has so successfully rationalised, justified and beautified its warrior culture than Japan, to the extent that modern Japanese budo arts are lauded (at least in Japan) as making contributions to world peace and mutual respect between people of all colours, creeds and generations. Maybe it is in this paradox that TV producers see the potential for gleaning insights into the “absolute best and undeniably worst” traits of men witnessed in the throes of conflict.
In the past eighteen months I have been contacted by a number of cable networks to help out with MA interpreting. In September of 2008, some of you may have seen me masquerading as a kendo ‘specialist’ on Anthony Bourdine’s Discovery Channel program “No Reservations” where I was introduced as an Australian!
Never mind. The star of that show, apart from Anthony of course, was the renowned Nitō master who everybody in the kendo world adores, Toda Tadao sensei (8-dan). And, it was rather by chance that I was recently contacted by yet another American company that is producing a new series called ‘Warriors’ for the internationally popular History Channel.
This series (scheduled for broadcast early next year) seeks to explore the plethora of fighting techniques, rituals, philosophy and teachings of warrior cultures in all four corners of the globe extending from AD 100 up to the 1800s. ‘Warriors’ is an “immersive program” where the host, Terry Schappert, investigates the tactics, weaponry and warrior traditions of Eastern and the Western cultures by actually getting in there and testing his combative mettle.
Being a trained actor and a combat operational member of the elite Green Beret special force means that Terry is one staunch dude who you definitely want in your rugby team, and in your drama club too. The episode that I was asked to assist with concerns samurai culture; in particular the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi and his two-sword school the Niten Ichi-ryū in the small city of Usa, Oita Prefecture, Kyushu.
Was it just coincidence that Terry comes from the USA and Musashi’s Niten Ichi-ryū is being practiced in Usa, or was it just a quirk of fate? Amused with the irony we made our way to the Usa Hachimangū Shrine. This ancient shrine first appears in records of the Yoro era (717–724), when the enshrined deity Hachiman is said to have helped the imperial forces against the Hayato rebels. As the guardian deity of warriors, Hachiman had a huge following among samurai, and the Usa Hachimangū is esteemed as the principal shrine for over 25,000 Hachiman shrines scattered throughout the country.
The setting was perfect for the interviews and demonstrations of Musashi’s swordsmanship by Yoshimochi Kiyoshi and his students. Terry expressed the awe he felt at visiting a shrine that held profound sacred value for warriors long before America had even become a country of united states.
In the meadow below the picturesque Noh theatre overlooking the serene pond, he was introduced to the practice of tameshi-giri with a frighteningly sharp katana. He was taught how to hold the katana correctly, how to stand, and how to cut through sodden straw bales with cold precision by combining mind, body and weapon.
Following this demonstration of how truly lethal a weapon the katana is, Yoshimochi sensei taught Terry sessan, the first kata of the Niten Ichi-ryū. He was already impressed by Terry’s adeptness in cutting with vigour and controlled exactitude, but the speed in which he learned the kata and the decisiveness in which he was able to execute it was equally remarkable.
Aside from performing the required physical exploits, Terry’s job was to talk into the camera while simultaneously absorbing the torrent of technical information I was translating for him. He also had the added pressure, no doubt, of knowing his special force mates were not going to give him an inch if he screwed up in word or action, preferably both.
But his comments were lucid and valid. Most impressively for me, though, was his tremendous demeanour. I rarely have the privilege of meeting people who are cheerful, polite, and so acutely aware of other people’s feelings as Terry. There was definitely a bond forming between them as the day progressed, but there was also something quite different about the two which I couldn’t quite isolate at first.
It finally became apparent to me as we did the last ‘cut’ for the day. I don’t think it will be included in the program itself, but one moment in particular stood out in my mind, and I know I will not forget it; to use T.S. Elliot’s phrase it was a “timeless moment” for me as translator, and I am in no doubt for Master Yoshimochi and for Terry. The two exchanged gifts. First, Terry expressed how many special force soldiers know of Musashi and are avid readers of Gorin-no-sho (The Book of Five Rings) not only because the practical combat wisdom is universal and eternal, but because they want to grow as human beings as Musashi did. He then presented Yoshimochi sensei with a plaque from the Green Beret unit that represented their honour, fortitude, and objectives as soldiers. The motto being “De Oppresson Liber” (liberate from oppression).
I could have translated that directly in Japanese, but it didn’t seem suitable. Instead, I expressed the sentiment with the phrase “katsujin-ken”—‘life-giving sword’ i.e. “the sword that kills one man’s evil allows ten-thousand to live in peace”— which was made famous Yagyū Munenori, one of Musashi’s contemporaries in the early seventeenth century.
Master Yoshimochi reciprocated by presenting Terry with two bokutō (wooden swords) from the Niten Ichi-ryū. With diminishing audibility he uttered the words “Please take the spirit of these swords with you when you go to Afghanistan, and for God’s sake take care of yourself.” By the time sensei got to ‘Afghanistan’ the tears had welled up in his eyes, and he could barely get the rest of the words out. Neither could I. It was like a father sending his son off to war, and for some reason I was stuck in the middle with the translation lodged in my throat.
Terry took the swords with genuine deference. He humbly retreated down the steps of the Noh theatre lest his emotions got the better of him. There was nothing but silence. The cameramen, producer, sensei, Terry, and all the staff and onlookers surely confronted some emotion for that brief, but timeless moment.
Then it dawned on me. Master Yoshimochi is a pacifist who understands combat; and Terry is a combatant who understands peace. What they have in common is an acute comprehension of the two faces of humanity. Good and evil. We all have both in our genetic makeup whether we care to admit it or not, but the path we choose to walk depends on us. Mutual respect secured through an informed realization of the yin-yang relation between good and evil, based on a veritable appreciation of our own mortality, is probably the only way to true peace. In this sense, I reckon the History Channel is onto something, just as long as the hype doesn’t distort the kind of humanity that I saw for that brief but phenomenal moment.