Early Japan: Ritualized Duels

What’s Wrong With Ritual?

In doing a little research on the history of the yari, the Japanese word for “spear,” I came across a mention that battles in early Japan, circa 700 A.D., were highly ritualized affairs with lone warriors dueling on horseback with bow and sword. So… what’s wrong with this, exactly?

I mean, we might casually write about it all these centuries later, but combat with a yuri (bow) and a tsurugi (pre-katana sword) were two very specialized areas. Combine that with doing it on horseback, and you have three skills that could take all of a young man’s life to master. Certainly they are not skills that can be mastered by non-professionals. Achieving and maintaining the physical and mental edge required was literally a full-time job.

Now, the real question that bears asking – and which is a rather obvious one to those who would demean cavalry, and the professional soldiery it demands, in any age and any context – is, were these just poseurs reducing battle to their own self-gratification, or did they actually fulfill some kind of useful military role?

This can only be answered by looking at how early Japanese cavalry fared when pitted, not against each other, but against everyone else.

The Yamato dynasty, from which Emperors throughout Japanese history are direct descendants of, began with the domination of the south of Japan’s main island (from which comes the very literal name of Honshu). Further expansion, especially eastward, was the result of violent confrontations with peoples who were not yet considered “Japanese.” Indeed, the first Shogun was the “General who Conquers the Eastern Barbarians,” thus directly expanding the nascent Japanese Empire.

Cavalry themselves, and the warhorses required for them, were introduced from Korea, but that was simply because Korea was closest; warhorses had been in general use in Eastern Asia since the days of the chariot (in Sun Tzu’s time) ended circa 500 B.C. Upon the adoption of war cavalry in Japan, aggressive Yamato expansion became feasible. While early cavalry were often refugees from Korea, i.e. losers in factional rivalries, it didn’t take long for Japanese clans to notice that they had a good thing going.

Thus did the idea of not just cavalry, but cavalry archers, spread to Japan; such ideas had been around since at least the era of the Three Kingdoms in China, circa 200 A.D.

While Japanese national mythology cites the exploits of particular members of the Imperial family as the driving force behind expansion, we should not feel any hesitation to view this as a broad-brush retelling of the story. In military history, it’s usually a dominant technology that leads to spectacular change.

So, judging purely by results, early Japanese cavalry did quite well against non-cavalry in a broad, big picture sense.

Easier Said Than Done

Now, this is not to say that the typical tactic of a mounted archer is to fire on the move. Granted, Mongols did this, but Mongols had the advantage of a nifty and very conveniently sized compound bow. The Japanese had long bows which weren’t trusted against samurai armor until their stated optimal range of 30 feet. (10 meters)

So, the simplest tactic would be to use cavalry as mobile artillery.

In other words, use a horse to get to a specific location; stop; fire to your heart’s content; move to a new location; fire; repeat.

If not countered, you can do this until you run out of ammo… or targets. One of the two.

Obviously, the other side having bows would mean they can return fire. However, infantry are in a pretty hard spot.

If infantry charge you in mass, you can simply retreat with ease and fire more arrows. If infantry charge you individually, you can – provided the training and cohesion is there – break your own unit apart, run around, make the infantry chase you, double back, and then trample/ skewer/ sword slice at will. Infantry faced with this will tend to rout; as in, turn their backs to you to become particularly easy prey.

Archers are more of a problem, obviously, but having swords as back-up weapons means that, given an opening, a group of mounted archers can do a group sword charge against foot archers, leading to spectacular result.

(Image from http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=201846 )

So, while a very specialized skill set and requiring the proper equipment (including the horse!), a mounted archer had a tactic for every typical situation. What he really had to worry about, if the situation arose, was fighting others like himself.

This is why, when Japanese forces fought each other, combat was highly ritualized. After all, they didn’t want everything to become a mixed infantry/ cavalry mess; they wanted everyone to see their displays of chivalric skills and duels for fame and fortune. If it was done any other way, it’d just become an issue of brute killing.

Not that they couldn’t resort to brute killing! But they preferred to save that for the “barbarians.”

A More Civilized Age?

It’s pretty hard for most relatively young people to forget their first experience with a movie light saber: “A weapon from a more civilized age.

A lot of people really frown on ritualized combat because they consider it heresy against the serious business of bloody slaughter by citizen armies, where everyone has the right to vote so everyone’s obligated to kill the other army’s citizens. But how is that better?

Ritualized duels, between sides that have the minimum amount of cultural respect for each other required to support them, aren’t about sport per se, but rather, about the more fundamental word of competition.

As far as personal worth goes, there’s a big and fundamental difference between strength and power. As a practical matter, we see this mostly in something like anime, but having power doesn’t mean you’re stronger. Just because you have the magic sword doesn’t mean you’re the better swordsman, though it may mean the difference between winning and living, or losing and dying (or seeing your friends and loved ones die). So, power is important, but it won’t resolve the issue of who’s stronger or, in a competition sense, who is better.

For that, we need to have some kind of minimally fair setting for a duel.

Riding out to duel one’s opponent in front of massed mounted cavalry means:

a) The audience is composed of the people whose opinions matter to you.

b) Both combatants have powerful incentives to not turn chicken and run.

c) No one needs a TV if you’re all there in person.

If what you’re deciding isn’t the fate of the empire, but who has the territorial and otherwise bragging rights in a clan-based feud, why not settle your fights this way?

I know people cling to a fantasy of having the old men that start wars duke it out with pistols in a locked room, but old men really aren’t the ones to be doing that. History provides a long precedent for the use of champions to represent one’s cause. Think of these as the Jedi of ancient Japan. Why not get these people to settle the issue? How much pure death and destruction is saved by doing this rather than have the matter be decided by Stormtroopers or Clonetroopers or Droid armies or their equivalents of the day?

But no, a lot of people wouldn’t be happy if there wasn’t grand slaughter to ennoble warfare. Because that proves how civilized we are.

Send in the droids, I guess! Er, I mean infantry…

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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One Response to Early Japan: Ritualized Duels

  1. Egon Speneder says:

    Thanks for your summary of Japanese ritualized duels. I’m re-reading Musashi’s book “Go Rin No Sho” ( I first read it 30 years ago), and I’m trying to get my mind into what sort of society Japan was in the 16th century. As I understand it, Japan had been involved in Civil War for two centuries and Miyamoto Musashi is involved in several skirmishes, including one battle that lasted three days in which 70,000 people died. He is noted for having 60 personal duels all before the age of 30, all of which he won, having used only one or two wooden (bokken) sticks. He doesn’t specifically hunt down these opponents, but it seems that men of reputation in the Martial Arts quite frequently called each other out in “duels” either to prove the perfection of their style or to honor some other pledge. His success in beating these men just with a stick is phenomenal, but when you also take into consideration his art, paintings, poetry, carvings, all masterly done, he truly was exceptional. Yet the translator of my particular copy of “The Book of Five Rings” ends his summary of Musashi’s life by stating: “The behaviour of this cruel, headstrong man was evidently most humble and honest.” (referring to his last two years spent in a cave). In modern times and through the modern cultural lens we would label this man a Psychopath! But I submit that even describing Musashi as “Cruel” is in fact misunderstanding the 16 Century Japanese Shinto/Zen, Bushido mindset that influenced that whole society. Help me understand that era by commenting on what I’ve just stated and refer me to some books that would enlighten me better in understanding the thinking of the Samurai of that age. I’ve already read the Code of Bushido and the Hagakure – what are some others?