Moving Beyond Pop Culture
The other day, I saw one of those things on television that are absolutely maddening to serious students of culture and history.
The ancient Greeks believed that the heart was the source of all thought. – Random Television
Utter baloney. The Greeks invented Western medicine. Even if they had not, no civilized culture could be ignorant of the effects of a stone striking the head on a person’s ability to think clearly (or survive). Thrown, or slung, stones were a ubiquitous element of warfare in ancient times, particularly in rocky places like Greece or Crete.
I do not find it difficult to believe at all that the Greeks spoke of the heart as the source of all thought. Yes – figuratively, the heart is the emotional core, and the emotional core is the source of how an emotional being conceives the universe. The passionate men of the Mediterranean shores did not think of a complete human being as composed of dry logic alone, devoid of emotion or ethics.
The Japanese also follow this line of thought. Samurai wore helmets to protect the head; that is, the rational thinking part of the body. Nonetheless, the 心 – the kokoro, or “heart” – is the figurative emotional core.
The 魂 – tamashii, or “soul” – is something intangible beyond simple emotions. It is the essence, but not the physical essence; it is the spiritual essence of something.
Nonetheless, spiritual essence can also be a metaphor. Put better, Japanese culture does not draw a line between “literal” spiritual essence and “figurative” spiritual essence. Japanese culture speaks only of spiritual essence, period. The rest is left to the imagination.
Japanese families generally have long histories. Remember, while Japan was occupied after the surrender that followed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings, Japan was never destroyed as a nation. While Japan suffered long periods of internal disunity, and was invaded by the Mongols in the 14th century, Japan, as a nation, has an unbroken line of history extending to at least the dawn of recorded Japanese history. (The first recorded history made nods towards history prior to that, but we can only take the imperial historians’ word for accuracy in that case.)
When a Japanese person visits a family tomb, he is immediately surrounded by the weight of generations of history pressing upon his existence. He realizes, “I am not alone. I am part of something greater than my individuality.” He realizes that many have come before him; and, barring a successful zombie uprising, many are likely to come after him. He is one, but one of many. For the Japanese mind, this is a sobering thought.
The Japanese family – not the nuclear family, but the extended family – has historically been a vehicle for the transmission of culture and traditions. Neither culture, nor traditions, are tangible in and of themselves, but ritual observance of festivals and holy days (often the same thing) provide tangible manifestations of these things. Even so, completely beyond such manifestations in the real world, culture and traditions are things that are felt. They are invisible, yet they are all around us.
It is in this sense that the Japanese use the word tamashii.
The Katana As Tamashii
The katana, that is, the single-bladed long sword that became the distinctive mark of the samurai after large scale battlefield combat was finally stamped out for over two centuries, has become known as “the soul of the samurai.”
More to the point, the katana is a weapon that represents all of the finest qualities of a warrior: aesthetic beauty, constant readiness, terrible effectiveness in battle, and individual style and personality while remaining part of a distinctive, privileged group.
Of course, not all katana could live up to such lofty ideals; not all samurai could, either. Those that did were all the more treasured because of it.
From the perspective of the swordsmith, the katana that results from his labors represents not only scientific knowledge, but the fine art of craftsmanship and delicate compromises between beauty and utility. To put it simply, katana were touchy to make really well. A successful weapon was the result not just of a particular school of swordsmithing, but of the individual tastes and personality of the individual swordsmith.
Given this, we can easily understand why a katana was said to contain a piece of the swordsmith’s soul. We should not understand this in fantasy terms such as draining the maker’s life force. That is taking a figurative concept and trying to make it literal. Instead, we can appreciate that a masterpiece katana was a labor of love, the pinnacle of one type of craftsmanship, and a physical manifestation of the intangible spiritual qualities of its maker.
Similarly, the katana was not literally the soul of the samurai; it was the representation of the soul of the samurai, a reflection of the samurai self-image to the samurai themselves.
Put simply, the katana was, and remains, the symbol of the samurai.
By understanding that we should not take the word tamashii too literally here, we can understand that the katana is not literally the soul of the samurai, yet by the same token, it truly is the soul of the samurai, for it embodies their spiritual essence: the intangible qualities we cannot see, but can feel in our hearts nonetheless.
Thank you for reading. Also, stay tuned for my upcoming eBook, The Allure of Japanese Swords / 日本刀の魅力 !