The Blind Swordsman

Some years ago I watched the movie The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and enjoyed it, though it did not match my expectations.  I watch martial arts movies from time to time, but usually not for the plot or character development.  As a kid, I watched any movie I could with big explosions.  Now I am a sucker for the balletic action common in many great kung-fu movies from the east.

Certainly the movie has its share of sword fights, but the style of fighting surprised me, ignorant as I was (and am) of Japanese fighting styles.  I expected long, drawn out battles.  In fact, the fights lasted mere seconds as the combatants focused on short, intense stabs.  Towards the end of the movie the best swordsman of the bad guys and Zatoichi face off alone.  “Ah, here we go,” I thought.  No . . . this was the shortest fight of all, consisting of each man doing only one move.

I thought of this movie reading Japanese Destroyer Captain* by Captain Temeichi Hara of the Japanese Imperial navy.  During W.W. II his record made him Japan’s best captain of destroyers, if not one of their top captains in the whole navy.  Much of his memoir reads like I suppose an American or British naval man would recount the war.  I hoped also to glean something of the culture of Japan that would help illumine the war beyond the narrow confines Hara discusses.

Captain Hara avoids using too much military jargon.  At times I had to strain to understand the battles he describes, but usually not.  He writes openly without any obvious agenda.  He has criticism and praise alike for certain American actions, and even sharply criticizes certain member of Japanese high command (I believe he was the first to do so after the war).

I mentioned The Blind Swordsman because the whole atmosphere of Hara’s account has its roots in samurai lore.  Hara often references maxim’s from different literature and famous swordsmen, but he seems to do more than just quote them.  He gives evidence of living inside of them.  His grandfather actually was a samurai and he speaks at the beginning of the book of his deep connection with his grandfather.  He obviously sought to live out this connection in battle.  Often his thoughts on tactics and strategy come couched in aphorisms of the samurai, especially Mushashi Miyamoto.

But this applies to the whole Japanese naval effort.  Certainly Japan faced certain strategic limitations given their relatively small industrial capacity, but their tactics reminded me of the final sword battle of Zatoichi.  The best samurai win with one stroke.  The Japanese developed torpedoes that had longer range and ran without leaving a distinct trail in the water.  This gave them an advantage that they attempted to exploit in samurai like fashion.  They sought to fire first from long range, well before U.S. ships could fire.  If successful, the naval battle would over immediately.  But if not–and the long ranges from which they fired made this less than likely–the advantage would immediately swing to the Americans.  On the one hand, their concepts make sense apart from samurai lore.  If you have a smaller chance of winning a close-fought battle (Americans never had to worry about supplies of ammo) try and win it from long-range.  Even so, we still see the samurai connection.

We this seeking after a decisive final-blow in other aspects of Hara’s account.  He frequently criticized any effort of Japan that failed to use its forces en masse in decisive faction, citing the adage, “A lion uses all its strength when catching a rabbit.”  Even in April of 1945, with no chance of victory, Hara seems strangely at peace with their final naval assault.  Many eagerly sought death in samurai fashion in an entirely hopeless battle.  Hara, if I may venture  a guess, seems pleased in a more detached sense that the navy had marshaled all its remaining ships and at least would now use them all at once.  In this last moment for the Japanese navy we see the Zatoichi sword fight connection.  Rather than keep their ships back to defend Japan, they sought a grand offensive thrust at our beachhead in Okinawa (which also mirrors how they used their torpedos).**

When discussing Guadalcanal Hara shows a keen understanding of strategic and tactical success.  The Japanese at one point won a key battle by sinking several U.S. ships.  The Japanese celebrated.  Hara did not.  He noted that nothing about the situation in Guadalcanal had fundamentally changed.  The U.S. could still supply its men, and the Japanese still could not supply their own.  Soon after the Japanese evacuated their troops.

I thought of this earlier section of the book when reading the last paragraph.  Hara writes,

The powerful navy which had launched the Pacific war 40 months before with the attack on Pearl Harbor had at last been struck down.  On April 7, 1945, the Japanese Navy died.

That’s it?  After giving many opinions and demonstrating time and again the ability and courage to criticize and analyze situations, I found myself mystified that he offered no general conclusions.   Why?  Again, I am guessing . . . but in the midst of battle, Hara dedicated himself to victory at (almost) any cost.^  Part of this ‘cost’ came in the form of even criticizing high command.  But once the war ended, perhaps Hara thought of himself as a ronin, masterless and without purpose.  Reflection about some grand meaning after the fact might for him resemble one hand clapping in a void of space–what would be the point?  Perhaps . . . perhaps, Hara resembled Zatoichi in more than just a sense of samurai vocation.  Perhaps his field of psychological vision was likewise obscured.



*I assume this is a poor translation and the title in Japanese is not so wooden.

**Perhaps another connection . . . Hara laments that the Japanese could not build small torpedo boats akin to our PT class ships.  They had the requisite physical capability, of course, but not, it seems, the ability to match the mental will and physical capacity.  Hara offers no explanation for this so my guess will be exceedingly tentative . . . the PT boat offered nothing that would produce a decisive and grand blow.  No samurai wanted to inflict a death of 1000 cuts.

I mentioned one effect of the democratization of the samurai ethos in this post.  In a more mild vein, Hara mentions a samurai drinking ceremony related to battle.  Now, with all supposed to embody the samurai spirit, all would drink as the samurai did.  But, there are many more men in the navy than there were samurai.  Hara recounts several amusing instances when he “had” to drink many many toasts with his men, with almost any occasion an excuse to drink.

^Hara felt that too many in Japan’s military applied the bushido ethic too far and too liberally, merely seeking death as preferable to life.  Hara did not fundamentally object to suicide missions, but he did believe that they must serve some purpose beyond the merely symbolic.  He object to the final sortie to Okinawa not because it would involve the destruction of the fleet, but because it would needlessly destroy the fleet.  Hara wanted instead to sell his life attacking supply and transport ships, to do at least some damage to the U.S.



The Idea of an “Empire of Liberty”

How we label things, or how we construct their meaning and place in history, obviously will say a lot about us.

The Constitution serves as a good example.

The Constitution has its flaws, its oversights, and some ungainliness about it.  We understand that it’s obviously not perfect. But it surely has worked on some level, having lasted this long.  Because it has worked (or at least we assume it has — more thoughts on this later), we think of it as a very “modern” and forward-looking document.  This matches how we think of ourselves.  We are a “progressive” people, the documents that define us must also have the same character.

But in his two books Empire of Liberty, and The Idea of America acclaimed historian Gordon Wood makes the point that the Constitution tried in fact to stem the rising tide of “liberty” and change unleashed by the “spirit of ’76.” The Constitution may not have been a completely “reactionary” document but it was a response to a quick erosion in society of what many elite revolutionaries like Adams and Madison held dear.

Through various quotes and citations, Wood lists the changes seen and feared by such men in the 1780’s . . .

  • A loosening of traditional relationships between men and women — parents had much less control over who their children married.
  • Riots and protests against professors at the few (and elite) colleges by many students demanding curriculum changes, attitude changes, and the like
  • A decided turn against the virtues of the ancient Romans and a great movement toward the ideas of tolerance and conviviality as the means to hold society together
  • Democratization of religion, which became much less authority driven and much more ‘touchy-feely.’
  • Extreme partisan politics on local levels, with stories of violent behavior in state legislatures rampant.  The rise of the “party-spirit” in politics bewildered many.
  • Both “free love” and drugs going mainstream into the culture

Ok — the last is not true, but if one looks at the list, it looks quite familiar to us, making us think of the 1920’s or the 1960’s, or today.  Maybe we must face the fact that this is what America was, is, and ever shall be.  As Alfred North Whitehead once said, “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.”

Wood asserts that while the Constitution succeeded in establishing a structure that put up some barriers to change, overall the idea of liberty and “the people” triumphed over the Constitution’s conservative aspirations.  In the end, the idea liberty and the reality of the voice of the people ended up remaking the Constitution in its own image.  The Anti-Federalists, those who opposed the Constitution’s ratification, lost the battle but won the war.  The best the ideals of Washington and Adams can do now is fight rear-guard actions against the overwhelming power of the “people.”

Though initially shocking to our sensibilities, the idea of a reactionary Constitution helps make sense of much of American history down to the present day.  It also partially explains why appeals to the vision of the founders, or the intent of the founders falls on deaf ears.  For one, Madison and others probably believed that the factional “evils” they saw in state governments would not transfer to the national legislature.  Perhaps Madison wanted a stronger national government because he thought that only the “better sort” would get elected to the national legislature and thereby elevate discourse.  This “better sort” would not fall prey to party politics.  He sought then, more power not so much to the national government but to the “better men.”  However strong Madison’s hopes on this score, they quickly proved illusory.  Madison and others like him either misinterpreted or remained ignorant of exactly what their revolution had wrought.**

At a deeper level, two other questions arise.  Can the structures of organizations curtail underlying driving principles that form such organizations?  I tend to side on this one with the Jurassic Park dictum, “Life finds a way.”  The early “conservatives” could not call upon the spirit of self-determination in 1776 and then expect to put the toothpaste back in the tube once the Revolution had accomplished what they wanted it to.  The population at large could rightly retort, “What about us?” Bowing to the “will of the people” became a necessity, and eventually, a foreordained, positive good. Even a Constitutional “literalist” or “minimalist” like Jefferson gladly dispensed with his principles with the Louisiana Purchase, among other instances.  Like a nuclear blast, the concept of “liberty” leveled everything in its path.  What mattered to most was not the past, but the future.  The founders had done their part, but our vehement abhorrence to anything smacking of aristocracy made us quickly resistant to anything resembling the determining “tyranny of the past.”  John Adams, among others, quickly tried to assert that, “Wait!  That’s not what we meant!”  Most responded with some form of “I don’t care!”  Within a generation of the Constitution’s ratification, “egghead” professions like that of lawyer already were viewed as “elitist” by many, especially towards the frontier.  The seeming radical nature of the “Jacksonian Revolution” actually had its roots laid years prior.

Wood deals with the slavery question related to these political questions, but I found his analysis of the relationship between Americans and Native Americans more intriguing.  He writes,

Conceiving itself as a composite of different peoples, the British Empire could somehow accommodate the existence of Indians within its territory.  But the new American Republic was different: it contained only citizens who were presumably equal with one another.  Since the United States could scarcely imagine the Indians as citizens equal to all other American citizens, it had to regard Native Americans as members of foreign nations with which treaties had to be negotiated.  Of course, most of the Indians themselves had no desire to become citizens of the American Republic.

While the 17th century colonists did fight with Indians, little doubt exists that American Independence proved a disaster for Native Americans.  Problems began years before the war itself — one of the driving issues behind the Sugar Act and Stamp Act involved keeping colonists off Native American land.  Wood’s reasoning fits with de Tocqueville’s thoughts on equality, and the problem persists today. We have yet to work out the tension between liberty and equality.  When the “people” speak (however we measure this) we cannot tolerate deviation from the norm.  The example of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner speaks to this.  How many ESPN commentator’s could keep their jobs and declare that Jenner is tragically mistaken in his actions?  To be fair, had ESPN existed 50 years ago, could anyone have then applauded his actions and kept his job?

One unsaid implication of Wood’s book is pride of place between the American and French Revolutions.  Most see the American Revolution as giving birth to the French Revolution, with the French Revolution as the bastardization of all that went well in America, then withering on the vine as Napoleon took over.  But we might instead see the French Revolution as the real victor, with its sense of the power and authority of the “people” in more or less full swing by the early 19th century in America.  He who laughs last laughs loudest.  Or perhaps both of these positions wrongly presume an essential difference between the two events.  Maybe the American Revolution started to resemble the French Revolution because they had the same origins — fraternal if not identical twins.  If we consider this option, then we may need to reevaluate America history as a whole — an exciting if not daunting task.

“A man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.” — T.H. Huxley


*We should note that those at the the Constitutional Convention had different ideas, and others whom we might consider “founders” like Patrick Henry, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were not at the Convention at all.

**Wood cites a variety of sources to demonstrate that the traditional understanding of the need for the Constitutional Convention being the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation are false.  Many had perfect awareness of these weaknesses and their fix remained relatively simple.  The real concerns of men like Madison and Washington lie rather in their observations of the petty bickering of state legislatures, and the fact any man Jack seemingly could get elected to state legislatures.

10th Grade: There’s More than One Way to Skin a Cat


As we reflected on the Scientific Revolution as a whole, we saw how people’s view of their experience in the world changed.  Newton and others gave us a universe of order and balance — a somewhat reductionistic world of cause and effect.  One could argue that a subtle shift occurred between the Reformation/Counter-Reformation era of the ‘inner’ man, the world of faith, etc., and a new focus on what can been seen and measured.

The reign of Louis XIV in some ways embodied these new principles.  Symmetry and order were key concepts of his reign, and they both were abundantly evident in the architecture of his royal residence in Versailles.  Many may tend to think of absolute monarchies existing in the Medieval period, but this is far from the case.  The era of absolutism might be dated between 1600-1750, and the Reformation certainly may have impacted this.  With the political power of the Church as a separate entity broken, that power would have to land somewhere.  For many, the most convenient and obvious place for that power to reside was in the person of the king.  And, if a neat house, for example, reflects to our eye a well-run house, than the order and symmetry in the architecture surely reflected back on Louis himself.

Hall of Mirrors

Gardens at Versailles
Louis himself put great stress on managing his own image, as this picture shows
Louis XIV

Perhaps most striking aspect of Louis’s reign, however, was how he controlled  the nobility.  Like many nations France’s nobles had a tumultuous relationship with the crown, with a variety of wars and compromises as the result.  Louis changed the dynamic by changing methods.  He created an elaborate system of ritual and custom. Violating these rules of ‘polite’ society meant ostracism, which meant loss of influence.  What the nobles apparently did not notice, however, was that under Louis’s system they had no influence.  Louis had them immersed in a bizarre system of etiquette.  Things like discussing politics or deep questions of life were not against the law, but frowned upon.  It was ‘not done.’  Thus, their lives became almost ridiculously trivial and inconsequential, with literally hours taken up in deciding who could sit where, who should stand for who, and so on.  Ask your children if you are interested about some of the specifics of this etiquette involving door knocking and chair sitting, among other things. The French Revolution would reveal some of the consequences of this development.

To control others, Louis did not use force.  Instead he dazzled, charmed, and confused the nobility.  To function all states need to establish some kind of order and control.  Louis, of course, had bigger fish to fry.  He did not want the status quo so much as he wanted a political revolution, a more centralized state.  To accomplish this most might have resorted to force, a “1984” style of authoritarian rule.  Louis was not known for his book learning but he must have had a keen “street-smarts,” for he chose a different path, the “Brave New World” path to control.  This path controls others not directly, but indirectly.  It creates a scenario whereby you, the individual, gladly give up some measure of political liberty to gain something you think is better.  Those who have seen the movie Matchstick Men might recall the line where the main character Roy defends himself by saying,

I’m not a criminal.  I’m a con-man.  [The difference being], I don’t take people’s money–people give me their money.

There’ more than one way to skin a cat.

We can say that Versailles was many things.  It was a social hot-spot.  It was a place of elegance and beauty, or at least, a certain idea of beauty.  But it was also a piece of political propaganda.  Louis was known as the ‘Sun King,’ and this statue of Apollo on his chariot dragging the sun up stood in a prominent place:


Louis masterfully tried to have image morph into reality.  Apollo, for example not only had the power to move the sun, he also was the god of music and culture.  In using Apollo, Louis claimed not just preeminence of power but also of taste, a place the French have enjoyed for centuries since.  Yet, for my money, while I would readily call Versailles impressive, I don’t think I would call it beautiful.  Louis wanted to subtly scream “Authority!” which did, I think, create a chilling effect.

Next week we will look more deeply into the policies and practices of Louis’ France.  In this update I have painted perhaps too black a picture of Louis.  He was certainly far from an overtly evil or cruel man.  He had many endearing qualities.  But the changes he began did have significant consequences.