We think of world wonders as physical objects, giant structures that have been preserved for centuries and stand, unchanging, in the face of time. Our concept of world wonder lies in the tangible artifacts, the pieces of history we can marvel at knowing a piece of the past survived. We don’t talk about traditions as world wonders, but they are. There are very few human cultural practices (outside religion) that have been maintained for hundreds of years and where the significance of that practice holds the same relevance and meaning hundreds of years later. The way of the samurai warrior is a living world wonder.
Traditions evolve, of course, samurai traditions included. But for over 800 years, the samurai way of life helped set the course of Japanese culture and its emphasis on honor, duty and service up through present day society. One samurai martial arts school in particular, the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū, was designated an “Intangible Cultural Asset” in 1960 for its unwavering independence and integrity, the first award of its kind granted to a martial art. The Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū, was founded sometime around the 15th century and existed in the countryside, away from great structures and political leaders. As such, the Katori Shintō-ryū claims to have never aligned itself with any estate, faction, party, and even existed, in some ways, outside the strong national pride of Japanese samurais.
While samurais were traditionally members of the elite Japanese social class, the Katori Shintō-ryū accepted students of foreign nationality, so long as they resided in japan, and never limited acceptance to students of the Japanese hereditary class. Students could come from a variety of occupations, from farmer to doctor or lawyer, so long as they were willing to take the blood oath of the school. When draw and sign their blood, they swear not to fight, not to be rude or impolite, not to gamble or frequent bad places, and to maintain absolute secrecy of what they learn at the school.
The Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū is a fully comprehensive martial arts system. Sword technique is the main area of study, but students learn the art of the staff, the art of the spear, spike throwing, how to tackle a halberd, and hand-to-hand combat techniques. But the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū does not teach a sport. The students are there to perfect an art of killing that they will never use.
The schoolmaster Risuke Otake demonstrates these techniques in the 1983 BBC documentary series, Way of the Warrior. Master Otake’s can take several hours to explain a series of sword strokes but needs only 13 seconds to demonstrate them at proper speed. His technique is so refined, so accurately imaged that he aims for precise attack points of the human body at the open air in front of him and includes strokes to flick imaginary blood from the knife before returning it to its scabbard.
Master Otake tells the tale in the documentary about a young couple of lovers who are attacked by a tiger one day and the young girl dies. Seeking revenge on the tiger for killing his beloved, the young warrior takes an arrow into the jungle every day in search of the beast. At last he believes he sees the tiger and drawing the bow back, releases, and pierces deep into the body only to discover that it was not the tiger, but a rock. His will for vengeance was so strong so that he could penetrate stone.
What Master Otake doesn’t talk about, and what is equally amazing, is the samurai warrior’s will of restraint. Master Otake teaches his students an elaborate art of killing, but he also teaches (and strongly believes in) the teachings of the founder of the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū: that practicing the art of killing is the way to peace. Students are sworn to avoid fighting and engage in combat only as an absolute last resort, and that killing is evil. On the surface, this seems almost intuitive. Of course, killing is bad but sword-fighting battles are AWESOME. But then you realize that students of Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū may devote their entire lives to perfecting an art that they will never put into action, They will wake up, meditate to get in the proper mind frame of fighting. They will pick up their wooden sword and practice again, and again, and again to get their footing right here, their spin right this time, the perfect arc of the sword. They will listen to lectures for hours on the meaning of each group of cuts. And at the end of the day, with tired bodies and racing minds, they will go out of their way to make sure they don’t ever come near a fight. They will avoid, at all costs, any opportunity to use the single greatest talent they have.
Perhaps the most wondrous thing then isn’t the fact that the Katori Shintō-ryū has made no compromises in its teachings since the 15th century and yet still holds relevance with its 21st century pupils. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring things aren’t even the tangible artifacts: the oak staff that with a well-placed blow can shatter a sworn or helmet, the perfect blend of chemistry in a samurai sword’s iron and carbon folded 30 separate times to make millions of layers for strength and lightness, or Master Otake’s own sword that is 600 years old and its assembly is still held together by a single bamboo peg. Perhaps the biggest wonder of all is that Master Otake is both a trained killer and a trained healer, and that he is not one, but one of twenty generations of men that have fostered the physical strength to kill with a single blow and also have the mental strength not to.
For more on samurais:
History of the Samurai by Rima Chaddha on PBS.org
Secrets of the Samurai Sword special by PBS
Samurai and Bushido by the History Channel
Origins of the Samurai by David Lay at Judoinfo.com
Samurai in the Encyclopedia Britannica
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.