Last year, we talked about how a Samurai handbook taught a flurry of martial skills to Japanese cops. Well a mysterious Samurai text known simply as the ‘Sword Scroll’ goes beyond conventional fighting techniques to account for some elaborate methods and puzzling concoctions. Possibly written around 500-years ago (the date is hypothesized), by two elite members of the Samurai, the scroll was translated into modern Japanese by Fumio Manaka, a Kobudo master of the weapons-based martial arts, and then into modern English by Eric Shahan who specializes in interpreting Japanese texts (and is also a black-belt holder in Kobudo).
Now as for the fascinating content of the ‘Sword Scroll’, the text does have its fair share of exemplary advice, like how a fighter with a sword should have no evil in his heart, and how his hands, feet, eyes and even spirit should be in harmony. Some of the lessons also take a practical route, like how a fighter shouldn’t take on too many enemies – “It is best to err on the side of caution and not enter a mountain road infested with brigands.”.
The archetypal dissuasion is accompanied by some nifty and rather embellished techniques that range from concoctions of blinding powder to fighting in the dark. Pertaining to the former, the Samurai scroll instructs to drain an egg by making a small hole in it, and then put red pepper inside the still-intact egg shell and wrap it with a paper. When challenged by an enemy, one has to smash his pepper-filled egg shell on the foe’s face in deft manner. Another more complicated composition entails mixing parts of the mamushi venomous snake with horse manure and chopped grass, and then holding it together in a paper tissue. This bizarre contrivance could supposedly knock out the enemy – “blowing it at an opponent will cause them to lose consciousness”. Interestingly enough, the scroll does maintain that its effectiveness is not fully tested.
The techniques instructing how to fight in the dark hark back to adroit maneuvers and keen observation. For example, the scroll says – “when battling on a dark night, drop your body down low and concentrate on the formation the enemy has taken and try to determine how they are armed”, and conceal one’s face in the dark while spying. The text also mentions if the terrain is not to the attacker’s advantage, he should just move in and engage the enemy, thus alluding to the tactic of surprise.
Quite intriguingly, the ‘Sword Scroll’ also touches upon the techniques of weapons handling and defense in stealth mode. To that end, one instruction calls for the use of both sword and scabbard when defending against an assault in the dark night. The text has this to say about employing a scabbard as a makeshift shield – “so it is straight up and down, which will protect you from a waist-level cut from the opponent”.
Finally coming to the ‘mysterious’ historicity of the ‘Sword Scroll’, the narration itself claims that much of the manuscript should be originally attributed to one Yamamoto Kansuke (1501-1560 AD), who served as a Samurai warrior under the leadership of Takeda Shingen (1521-1573 AD). Shingen was famous as a daimyo (lord) who had influential military prestige in the late stage of the Sengoku period (an epoch which corresponded to incessant warfare in feudal Japan). A few of the text’s words are also ascribed to Kusunoki Masashige (1294–1336 AD), an elite Samurai who served Go-Daigo, the 96th traditional emperor of Japan.
From the scholarly perspective, both of these claims are still unsubstantiated. Moreover adding to the historical complexity, there are four versions of the ‘Sword Scroll’, and all of them have had many iterations with different illustrations – that were passed down and published in Japanese books over the centuries. However while many of the text and drawings vary, much of the actual core content in itself had been retained (and thus remains unchanged) throughout the 500-year period. For example, a 1914 version of the ‘Sword Scroll’ talks about the tactical advantage of blinding powder – “should a large battle then ensue, you should make directly for the enemy Taisho [general]. As you and the enemy combatant ride directly at each other and attack, blow the powder in the eyes of the opponent [which in turn will allow the Samurai to put a joint lock on his adversary].”
Considering the abstruse element of historicity in this case, translator Eric Shahan talked about the importance of further study into the matter, by taking chronology as a crucial parameter –
Then, they all need to be dated correctly, and then we can lay [out] the whole scenario of how martial arts evolved from the 14th-17th centuries. It is important to note that in Japan it wasn’t until after the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate [in 1603] that books about martial arts began to emerge. Before that, everyone was too busy fighting.
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