Our culture is ancient. Japan's is young.

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Our culture is ancient. Japan's is young.

Postby HanshiClayton » Fri Dec 18, 2009 8:17 am

Flavius Vegitius Renatus, On Roman Military Matters; A 5th Century Training Manual in Organization, Weapons and Tactics, As Practiced by the Roman Legions

Japanese people believe that they have an ancient and mature culture, one which primitive Westerners would do well to understand and emulate. Western karate students are often taken in by this message. In fact, our Western culture is twice as old as Japan's. A direct comparison of our histories shows that the Japanese have always been centuries behind the West in cultural and technological achievement.

Japan claims an ancient heritage, but it is really a very young culture without deep roots. The emperor's family claims to have ruled Japan for 2700 years, but the first thousand years of that history is a fiction made up by Yamato scribes in the eighth century A.D. The Yamato family wanted a written geneology “proving” that they were directly descended from the gods in the morning of the world. The scribes sharpened their pens and provided it for them.

Our stories from the Trojan War, such as the tale of the Trojan Horse and the battle between Oddyseus and the Cyclops, were written down by Homer more than a thousand years before the Japanese learned to read and write. Our Old Testament stories go back another thousand years before that. There is nothing of comparable antiquity in Japanese culture or history. Our culture is twice as old as theirs is.

The folded-steel samurai swords are remarkable works of art, but they are hardly unique. Layered steel, also called “pattern welding,” is a strategy for making strong swords from low-tech backyard smelters. Pattern welding was used to make swords in India, Germany, and Spain centuries before Japanese smiths figured out the process. European sword-makers abandoned pattern welding as obsolete at about the same time the Japanese “invented” it. European sword makers switched to high-quality steel from blast furnaces around the ninth century, and no longer needed the layering process. The samurai smiths never discovered blast furnaces. They copied them from the west when their belated industrial revolution finally arrived in the early 1900s.

Japanese swordsmanship is deeply admired by people who have not studied western swordsmanship. Japan's frozen culture locked them into the two-handed broadsword stage of development. Europe has twice passed through that stage and abandoned it, both before and after the Dark Ages. Writing in a fifth-century Roman combatives textbook, Flavius Vegitius Renatus said of broadswords:

“...the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edge, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended by both the bones and the armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal.”

It should be noted in passing that Roman soldiers, two thousand years ago, wore cuirasses that didn't let the enemy make a kesa kiri cut through the shoulder. They armored the top of the shoulders and the neck to prevent this. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but the samurai never got there. This was the state of swords, sword-fighting, and armor in Europe at a time when the Japanese were unable to write down their own names.

Don't be carried away by Japan's high opinion of herself. Our own warrior heritage is far older, and far more impressive. The Romans conquered their world from Britain to Egypt, a span of 2600 miles, and they did it fifteen centuries before the samurai paddled across the Korea strait to collect noses. There is simply no comparison.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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