Introduction: A Coconut Palm in Missouri

by Dave Lowry

[This is the introduction to our new book, Sword & Spirit: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan, volume 2.]

If you want to understand the difficulties in introducing to the West something like the koryu bujutsu, the classical martial disciplines of old Japan, begin by imagining a coconut.

Think of the whole tree, the curving trunk, waving fronds, hanging clusters of nuts, thriving happily on the sandy shore of some Polynesian island. Then imagine that same tree hoisted up, roots and all, and transported to the front lawn of a suburban home. In America's Midwest. In February. Now you've got the picture.

This analogy was a favorite of my sensei, a man who knows little about South Pacific flora and who learned more than he wanted to know about Februarys in Missouri during his years of living there, but who knows a great deal about the bujutsu of Japan. These arts, he suggested, when they are transported into the alien culture of the modern world, face almost precisely the same perils as that tropical coconut transplanted so rudely into a frosty yard in Missouri. Like the tree, they are deprived of the soil in which they germinated and grew. They are bereft of a specific climate to which they have been uniquely adapted over a long, long period of time. And most importantly, both the koryu and the coconut have been dropped into an environment that is, at best indifferent to their survival; at worst it is openly hostile.

I met Diane Skoss, this book's editor, in the mid-summer of 1998. We were attending a gasshuku, a kind of training camp/slumber party/road trip, for one of the few koryu actively practiced and taught outside Japan. Driving through the lush green hills of central Ohio every morning and evening back and forth to the training site, we had long discussions about the difficulties of the koryu transplanted into the West. We are both practitioners; moreover, we both write about the bujutsu and so our interests are proprietary as well as academic and professional. And so we had a lot to talk about.

I don't know that we came to any great conclusions that summer. We were, in fact, left with more questions than answers. How well may we realistically expect any art to survive in an environment and society completely alien? Should we even try? Suppose that we do: might we end up with some kind of weird hybrid? And will these arts, even if they survive that first long winter of transplantation, ever be capable of staying healthy enough to successfully reproduce into future generations?

It's not that Diane and other Western koryu exponents are by nature pessimists. Quite the opposite. The proof of her optimism in particular is in your hands right now. The impression I had of her was that, as it is with virtually every other non-Japanese koryu practitioner, she has an intense interest in the cultivation of these arts. She also has a kind of indomitable spirit and a sense of purpose and confidence that she can preserve and transmit the arts she has been taught. (And still continues to learn, she would hasten to have me add, I'm sure.)

Diane has spent many years in Japan, has immersed herself in its culture and become conversant in aspects of its society that are unfamiliar to even the vast majority of modern Japanese. This is, incidentally, no small feat. Living in Japan for any foreigner is challenging, frustrating, and requires some serious sacrifices. Foreigners who accomplish that and further, who manage to insinuate themselves successfully into classical or traditional arts like the bujutsu are extraordinary people. Returning to the United States and becoming busy building a life and a future here, Diane has gone to considerable effort in bringing her share of plant stock of the koryu to the West. Further, she has applied her talents as a writer and an editor to presenting these arts in an accurate and scholarly manner.

In her first book, Koryu Bujutsu, she assembled an impressive group of authorities who turned out an array of essays on the classical Japanese martial arts. It was the most important book--come to think of it, it was just about the only book--written in English on this topic since the late Donn F. Draeger's seminal writings of more than two decades earlier. This second volume presents another collection of similar essays, joined this time with contributions from a Japanese perspective, one ancient, the other contemporary. Like the first, the contents here provide a glimpse into the world of the bujutsu. The mentality necessary for learning them, the ethos which guides them, some of the history behind their creation; this is the kind of information sorely needed by those who would understand these medieval institutions. That's what this book is about. It was written entirely by individuals who know about what they write, whose facts are correct, whose knowledge has been hard- and well-earned, and whose opinions, when they venture them, should be relevant for anyone wishing to gain a grasp of the essential nature of the koryu martial arts.

In the discussions I had with Diane I was encouraged by her enthusiasm for presenting the Japanese bujutsu to Western readers. I am still not convinced the koryu can flourish in this country. Or that they can even survive at all outside of the very special environments that have been provided by the handful of experts who are trying to communicate them. They are, for all they have endured, for all their timeless strengths and values, quite fragile. They are almost instantly susceptible to the ravages of those who would deliberately seek to distort them. They may suffer even worse the blights inflicted by the well meaning who, for all their intentions, simply cannot cultivate the bujutsu because they lack a proper background and instruction. I do believe that if the classical martial arts of Japan can flower in this country and society so far from their birth and maturation, that it will be at the hands of considerate and skilled gardeners like Diane and the various authors of this book. What they have written is another important step in preparing the soil of the West for the importation of the koryu. Those who read it are bound to benefit, even if they never take up a weapon or don a hakama.

They will also learn something of the challenges involved in bringing coconut groves to the Midwest.

Copyright ©1999 Koryu Books. All rights reserved.

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