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Words From The Past: Contemporary Japanese Philosophy In The Modern World

This year marks ten years since I first visited Japan, and nine years since I first came to call this great country my home. In readying myself to come here, I undertook a year-long process of research and preparation. On reflection, a great deal of what I did was perhaps unnecessary and maybe even rather naïve, however, one area in which I have no regrets is in my decision to take my first, furtive steps into the fascinating realm that is Japanese philosophy and literature.

I recalled, as a high school student many years previously, being introduced to the works of Homer, Aristotle, Virgil and a great many other ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and poets. It amazed me how words written thousands of years ago by people long dead could come to shape our modern world on such a fundamental level. It also stunned me that so few of my fellow students seemed interested in what these ancient texts had to offer. Certainly, they offered up a lot more for modern society than the incoherent, nonsensical, drug-fuelled ramblings of that most over-rated of historical playwrights William Shakespeare!

Carlo Raso on Flickr


So, in preparing to come to Japan, I decided to tentatively delve into Japanese philosophy and classical literature. It’s fair to say, I was not disappointed by what I found.

Studying martial arts was a big part of my development, both as a child and later a young adult. Upon coming to university, I was first introduced to the joys of Japanese martial arts. Despite not being a student of Edinburgh University, I attended the much smaller Napier University across the city at that time, I was welcomed into the Edinburgh University Kendo Club all the same.

Zicarlo van Aalderen on Flickr

And so began my love of Kendo, and of Japanese martial philosophy.

In my quest to further my own knowledge and to better prepare me for life in Japan after I graduated, my Kendo colleagues recommended two particular works I should read: The Hagakure, and The Book of Five Rings.

Victor falk at English Wikipedia

Both of these texts are very heavy on philosophical exposition, and while not quite as preachy and repetitive as The Bible, or other such religious texts, they do make heavy reading, especially for those not used to reading literature of this depth and intellectual grading.

I’ll be the first to admit, I may be university educated, but I am not, and probably never will be an academic. I have a love of learning, perhaps that’s why I became a teacher, but I am not going to be one of these deluded idiots with delusions of grandeur who tells you that all the world’s problems can be solved though simple adherence to a book, be the script religious or philosophical in nature.

However, I do believe there are a number of lessons one could take from these books and apply them to modern life, perhaps anywhere in the world, but especially in present day Japan.

To demonstrate, let us focus on The Book of Five Rings.

Alkivar on Wikimedia Commons

First, some background. The Book of Five Rings is the life’s work of the great samurai and sword teacher Miyamoto Musashi. Written approximately 400 years ago, the book deals with the mental and physical applications of martial techniques to ensure ones survival in battle. Miyamoto also muses on some off his approaches to life, to learning and to improving one’s self, both physically and spiritually.

Of particular interest from a philosophical point of view is his notes on the study of the twin sword fighting style. A style he himself created.

Jeff Nelson on Flickr

Using a traditional katana in one hand, and the shorter, lighter wakazashi blade in the other, the swordsman is able to engage his opponent on two fronts and therefore create double the potential for a quick kill. He also affords himself greater opportunities for defence, given that parrying is also made easier.

It may sound like some kind of pseudo-intellectual psychobabble, but bear with me here. This idea of the twin-swords engaging an enemy simultaneously can be interpreted in a number of lessons we use in our daily lives today.

島田美術館 所蔵 on Wikimedia Commons

Two weapons can better engage and occupy the enemy than one, or as we say in modern parlance, two heads are better than one. It is easier to tackle a problem, be it a business, social or personal dilemma when it is confronted from multiple angles and by different people. Likewise, the idea of engaging and dispatching one opponent before considering the next, another of Miyamoto’s core philosophies. In other words, it is always best to confront problematic situations one problem at a time, sequentially. Don’t overdo it by trying to be in two places at once, make sure one task is accomplished before you attempt to undertake the next one.

Miyamoto also discusses the length of time it takes to master one’s craft, be it sword-fighting, housebuilding, hunting or farming. At the time of writing he was already around 60 years old, and still undefeated in a duel. Yet, he still refused to call himself a master, going on to say that learning is a lifelong process.

Wiennat Mongkulmann on Wikimedia Commons

Or, to put it in a more common, western-centric parlance, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
I guess Miyamoto and indeed a great many other such warrior poets speak to me on a level that the likes of Shakespeare never could. Rather than dress up morals in a convoluted plot, using contrived and repetitive connivances as Shakespeare did so frequently, Miyamoto Musashi simply tells it like it is. He has lived these experiences so his words carry onto the page. And even now, centuries later, those lessons still resonate. Also, considering that modern Japan is often criticized for its over-adherence to bureaucracy, Miyamoto Musashi shows traits all too rare among Japanese leaders in business and politics these days: huge amounts of both humility and common-sense.
In today’s increasingly chaotic world, these are most definitely lessons we would all do well to follow.

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