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The Truth of the Ancient Ways: A Critical Biography of the Swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu Paperback – January 31, 2012
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"Marvelous... A rare scholarly attempt to depict a warrior who strove for saving human lives in contrast to that long-term aspect of Japanese warrior culture that emphasizes violence. It is particularly timely for our age of turmoil and anxiety." --Roman Anshin, Emeritus Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine
About the Author
Independent scholar. PhD in premodern Japanese history. Worked as lecturer at Hanyang University (Seoul).
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It was interesting to hear the critique from Yamaoka, a person who lived in the era, of "flowery" martial arts back then.
I first came across the name of Tesshu Yamaoka when reading the book “The sword of no-sword” by John Stevens. Having read most of John Stevens his books, this book became one of my favorites by him.
When I found out about the publication of this biography of Yamaoka Tesshu I ordered it right away.
At first, reading the introduction, I worried a bit that this was a criticism at the biography done by Stevens.
However reading the book I found out that it’s focus was rather to have a look at who the historical Tesshu was rather than looking at the legend that was built around him.
The book starts off with the author explaining the history of the bugei, the Japanese warrior.
He explains the changes in the way bugei trained and apprehended swordsman skills before the period of peace during the Tokugawa Shoganate and how it was approached during the shogunate.
Then he explains the concept of musha shugyo, this all to show the reader the context in which we have to see the life, motivations and actions of Yamaoka Tesshu.
Then after painting this frame, this context, he starts to tell Tesshu’s story, focusing on his life as a swordsman.
The earlier painted context is what makes the reader understand Tesshu’s motivations during his quest for knowledge but also explains his actions during his role in the bakamatsu and boshin war. Especially during the bloodless surrender of Edo.
From there the author describes how Tesshu came to understand the innermost secret of no opponent and establish his own school Ito Shoden Muto Ryu.
I really enjoyed reading this book. Especially as the real person Yamaoka Tesshu turned out to be as big as the legend.
It’s a great book which really complements “the sword of no sword”.
I really recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the evolution of the approach to Japanese swordsmanship from pre-Tokugawa to the Meiji, is interested in a good biography of a martial artist during the Meiji revolution, as well as anyone interested in Japanese martial arts and it’s spirit in general.
The objective of this work is to revise previous erroneous scholarship and portrayals of the life of Tesshu. It is also to tell the story of his life from the narrow focus of his swordsmanship goals and techniques, stating that to be a "true warrior" was the heart of his person, and this goal informed or overshadowed all of his actions. The author is reflexive in his methodology. Where there are strong statements, such as likening Miyamoto Musashi to a serial killer, or stating a separation between Tesshu's Zen and his swordsmanship, these are always backed up by sources and are consistent with the overall argument and tone. In this way, nothing comes across as overly biased or without substance. This is a pleasure to read.
The structure is linear, with background information preceding a chronological account of Tesshu's life, followed by a conclusion. The supplementary materials were well organized, plentiful, and helpful. The main argument comes forth in the point of view from which the manuscript tells Tesshu's story, rather than the story being fragmented and arranged according to the argument. This structure works well, and it makes the book a fluid read. This would appeal to both academic and general audiences because it is both a revisionist argument and a story
Mr. Anshin provided a very thorough look at the culture of the times in addition to the critical look at the life of Yamaoka Tesshu. It is rare to see a biography encompass so well a thorough look at the culture, political environment, driving forces surrounding the subject and impactful events of the time while maintaining a primary focus on the subject of the biography. Without the detailed and appropriate level of cultural insight the biography would have not have been as impactful as it was. From the detail of the book, it is very obvious that Mr. Anshin has a well-grounded understanding of the Japanese martial arts and how this impacted the life of Yamaoka Tesshu.
The final point of excellence that stood out for me in this book was the rather non-biased way in which the author chose to view the subject. He took the time, and detail, to acknowledge the questionable stereotypes and myth surrounding the subject while providing a well-founded, and supported, view of the subject. His work seems to be well supported as demonstrated in the very detailed notes at the end of the book.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone that wanted to learn more about Yamaoka Tesshu as well as the martial culture of the time that shaped those who were part of it.