Seventeenth-Century Japanese Text Offers "Twelve Rules" For Samurais To Live By


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Aspiring samurais can check out a recently translated copy of Twelve Rules of the Sword for tips and techniques adopted by the sword-wielding warrior caste in 17th-century Japan.

Samurai (which roughly translates to "those who serve") describes members of an influential military caste, responsible for protecting the shōgun (aka the military dictator) who ruled Japan under the nominal leadership of the emperor. Rising to power during the 12th century, the samurai commanded government and society until the abolition of the feudal system during the Meiji Restoration in 1868.


Now, thanks to Eric Shahan, a Kobudō black belt and Japanese translator with a specialism in martial arts text who transcribed the centuries-old rulebook into English, the tricks of the trade are available to pick up at your local bookstore.

One of those rules ("pine tree in the wind") reminds samurai not to get caught up in the rhythm of their opponent but to forget rhythm altogether. While another ("eyes of the heart") teaches pupils to not look at their opponent with their eyes but with their mind.

This may have given others the impression they had supernatural powers, says Shahan. But by using their peripheral vision and not their center of focus, he says, they could improve their reflexes and respond to attacks quicker from whichever direction they were coming from. 

The text also explains "heart of the fox", which warns trainee warriors against exercising excessive caution. The fox name-checked in the text is considered a cautious and suspicious animal – character traits that can get it hurt or killed.


"Instead of fleeing in one direction, they stop here and there checking what is behind them," says the translation, giving the hunter a chance to strike. 

The answer, then, is to abolish doubt from your mind and "vigorously train yourself so that you are empty, the void."

The translation also contains two prayers that were probably a ritual for meditation or self-hypnosis, Shahan says. This knowledge in Twelve Rules of the Sword is thought to be the advice of Itō Ittōsai, a 16th/17th-century Samurai who fought (and won) 33 duels. Yet, Ittōsai was not the one who first wrote the rules down. It is believed the teachings were passed onto his students by word of mouth, before being put into written words by their descendants.

One legend says that when Ittōsai chose to retire his sword, he decided his two disciples Zenki and Tenzen must fight to the death to earn his position. Tenzen emerged the victor and Ittōsai said: “I am retired from the way of the sword and wish to take the tonsure. Go now and spread the lesson I have taught you all over the country.”


[H/T: Live Science]


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