Monday, August 17, 2009

Interview With Historian/Professor Karl Friday

Karl Friday is Professor of Japanese History at the University of Georgia. Receiving his MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Kansas, Professor Friday went on to a second MA along with a PHD at Stanford. He's also studied or conducted research at the University of Tsukuba and the University of Tokyo along with Yonsei and Ewha Universities in Korea. He started teaching at the University of San Diego and has been ensconced at the University of Georgia since 1990 (along with a year as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii). He’s the author of "Hired Swords", "Legacies of the Sword", "Samurai, Warfare, and the State in Early Medieval Japan", and his most recent work, "The First Samurai". He’s also published many excellent articles such as "Bushido or Bull?", "Valorous Butchers", "Pushing Beyond the Pale: the Yamato Conquest of the Emishi and Northern Japan", and the recent essay "Lordship Interdicted" in the book "Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries". In addition to his work in academia, he’s also accomplished in both Japanese and Korean martial arts. He holds a shihan/menkyo kaiden ranking (making him both a "one generation model instructor" and a "licensed full initiate") from Kashima-Shinryu, as well as being Kaicho (President) and Kokusai Kyokucho (International Bureau Chief) of the the Kashima-Shinryu Federation of Martial Sciences (the Japanese organization the governs instruction in the art). The Samurai Archives recently spoke with Professor Friday on his projects past, present, and future-an interview that exceeded even our high expectations. In the following article, the "SA" is Tatsunoshi (Randy Schadel) and KF is, of course, Karl Friday. Thanks to forum members Owari No Utsuke and Bad Monk for submitting questions.

SA: Greetings, Professor Friday. We at the Samurai Archives are privileged to have such a well-respected and groundbreaking historian join us here at the Shogun-ki. We have a varied membership coming from all nationalities and backgrounds, and just as many different motivations for becoming interested in the study of pre-modern Japanese history. What was it that sparked your interest in the field of Japanese studies, and how did you come to specialize in the Heian period?

KF: I got into Japanese studies more-or-less by accident-two accidents, actually. When I was a sophomore, I was trying to enroll for classes and discovered that two of the courses I had planned to take that term were both full. At that point I decided that I might as well start working on my foreign language requirement. I had already developed an interest in Chinese philosophy, as a result of some combination of my interest in martial art (I’d been practicing Tang Soo Do, a variant form of Tae Kwon Do, for about a year by then) and the philosophy major I had begun working toward. I decided to take Japanese, rather than Chinese, because someone had (incorrectly, as I later learned!) told me that if you learn to read Japanese you can also read Chinese, and because back then, you couldn’t go to mainland China yet, and so I figured that spoken/modern Japanese would be more useful.

By the end of my second semester, I was really getting into Japanese, but I discovered that the second-year Japanese course in the fall would conflict with a couple of courses I needed for my major. To get around that, I decided to take second year Japanese through the intensive program KU offered during the summer. By the end of the summer, I realized that I was already planning to take most of the courses I would need for a Japanese major, so I ended up switching majors from Philosophy to Japanese.

I didn’t really focus on History until my PhD. Before that, I was doing fairly broadly-cast Japanese and East Asian Studies coursework. In fact, I cast my MA thesis project in a way that could lead to PhD work in either literature or history, but by the time I’d finished that project, I’d decided that History was really where my heart was. Samurai culture and institutions had been central to my interests from the getgo, and I also had a strong attraction to the Heian period. In the end, I decided to specialize in premodern history rather than the early modern (Tokugawa) period largely because of my (naïve and stupid, as it turned out!) assumption that the smaller number of people working in pre-1600 studies would translate into better job opportunities.

When I went to Stanford, I had originally thought I might try to do my dissertation on some aspect of Japanese-Korean interaction or comparative history, but later decided instead to work on the beginnings of the samurai-start from the start, as it were. When I formulated the project, I expected that I’d be centering my attention on the Heian period, and probably including a short summary of the ritsuryō military and its “collapse” in the introduction or somewhere. But as I got into my research, I realized that the received wisdom was all wrong on where the samurai came from, and that the evolution of the ritsuryō system and the state’s military/police system was really the central issue.

That was really the only time, other than a brief follow-up project on the emishi “pacification” wars of the late 8th century, that I’ve done much on the Nara period. Most of my work since then has been on Heian and Kamakura.

SA: “Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan" was your first book and introduced the theme that runs throughout much of your work: that the Imperial Court of the Nara/Heian periods, far from becoming weak and ineffectual (losing its power to the warrior class in the process), willingly delegated warfare to the ‘professionals’ and was quite effective in retaining control over them. What were the major factors in the decision for the government to move away from the conscription of the Ritsuryo codes of the 8th century?

KF: The idea that the court-centered polity wasn’t hollowing out during the Heian period didn’t start or end with my work, it’s been the general theme pushed by specialists in the period since the 70s. All I’ve really added to the discussion was a closer look at where and how the samurai fit into all this.

Until about a generation ago, the Heian period was traditionally portrayed as an era of tremendous cultural flowering juxtaposed against institutional breakdown, as the institutions of the ritsuryō state were abandoned bit by bit. This picture came from three places. First, scholars were seduced by apparent similarities between medieval Japan and Europe, and by expectations colored by conceptions of the conditions that produced European knights and lords. Second, because the most accessible sources of information on the Heian court were literary classics like Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, scholars tended to take depictions of the court and courtier lives in these tales literally. And third, lacking detailed studies on the origins and operations of the three shogunates-the Kamakura, Muromachi and Tokugawa regimes-historians simply assumed that all three were “warrior governments,” playing similar roles in ruling the country, equated the creation of a shogunate with the existence of a “feudal” state governed by warriors, and posited the Gempei War (1180-85) and the founding of the Kamakura shogunate as marking the end of meaningful court rule and the onset of a “feudal” medieval era.

Regime change that fundamental can’t, of course, just happen overnight-picture Microsoft and Google having a corporate war, and the winner suddenly emerging as the real government of the US-and so historians looked backward, to the Heian period, for the changes and developments that presaged the inauguration of a warrior regime. They developed a picture of an effete, idyllic central aristocracy preoccupied by art, fashion and romantic liaisons, and without interest in governing-especially outside the capital-while a hardier class of armed landholders took over the countryside, eventually awoke to the fact that they, not the courtiers in the capital, were actually running most of the country, and brushed the court aside. And they (the historians, not the warriors) assumed that all of these changes stemmed from Japan’s failed attempt (in the 7th century) to turn itself into a miniature China-thoughtlessly adopting Chinese institutions of government that were just too sophisticated for Japan at the time.

But scholarship on traditional Japan has grown spectacularly over the past four decades, in terms of both sophistication and volume. This is particularly true in the West, where an unprecedented number of researchers specializing in the premodern and early modern periods have entered the field. The new research is marked by a shift in methodology from dependence on literary and narrative sources to reliance on documents, a shift in focus from the political and cultural history of elites to a broader examination of social structures, and by a blow-by-blow reexamination-and rejection-of many of the key tenets of what was once the received wisdom.

Beginning with John Hall, in the 60s; and continuing with Jeff Mass, Cappy Hurst, Neil Kiley, Ken Grossberg, Peter Arnesen, Bob Borgen and others, in the 70s and 80s, historians developed a signally different picture of the Nara, Heian and Kamakura periods. The notions that the ritsuryō system was a failure, that courtiers were aloof fops unengaged in governing, and the samurai had achieved virtually independent control over the countryside by late Heian times were overturned. Upon more careful examination using more reliable source materials, it became clear that the court was able to maintain tight constraints on political and economic activities throughout the Heian period and that provincial warriors were just beginning to break out of these constraints during the Kamakura period.

The curious thing was that, until Wayne Farris and I stumbled into the topic (completely independently, but coincidentally at exactly the same time), no one had gone back to reexamine Nara-Heian military evolution and where the samurai came from.

My argument is that the changes to the military system that (eventually) produced the samurai closely paralleled the general evolution of government in Japan between the founding of the ritsuryō state in the late 7th century and the mid-Heian period. That process involved two closely related trends.

The first was a retreat from the court’s initial obsession with direct central control over all functions of government, countrywide, to an emphasis on maintaining centralized authority while delegating responsibility for many of the workaday functions of administration.

The second is usually summarized as the privatization of the workings of government, or more accurately, as the blurring of lines separating the public and private persona of those who carried out the affairs of governance. Basically, government posts-and the tasks assigned them-came to be closely associated with certain houses; and key government functions came to be performed through personal, rather than formal public, channels; rendering it harder and harder to draw clean lines between “public” and “private” rights and responsibilities.

To understand what happened to the ritsuryō military, it’s important to remember where it came from and why. Centralization and restructuring of the military was a major element of the state-reformation process, which was itself the product of the ascendant royal court’s efforts to strengthen its power over the largely-autonomous regional chieftains who ruled most of the country. One of the things that made this sort of centralization and reform palatable to the regional nobles was widespread apprehension over the growing might of Tang China, which had been engaged since the early 600s in one of the greatest military expansions in Chinese history.

So the ritsuryō military system was created with two principal threats in mind: a Chinese invasion and regional insurrections led by the old provincial chieftains. The architects of the new state seized on large-scale, direct mobilization of the peasantry as a key part of the answer to both, creating a system that enabled the court to create loyalist armies of daunting volume, thereby effectively closing the door on provincial challenges to central power or authority, and giving the state as large an army as possible, in order to fend off the foreign invasion everyone was worried about. It was actually a fairly ingenious system, based on a militia structure making it possible for a tiny country like Japan to muster large-scale fighting forces when necessary, without bankrupting its economic and agricultural base-as a large standing army would have. But the system was also the product of all-too-often conflicting priorities, and accordingly, incorporated some unhappy compromises; and the original foibles of the system were exacerbated by changing conditions.

One of the problems the government faced was enforcing its conscription laws. Under the ritsuryō polity, military conscription had simply been one component of the state’s tax requirements; induction rosters were compiled from the same population registers that were used to levy all other forms of tax. Which meant that any peasant efforts to evade taxes also placed them beyond the reach of the conscription authorities.

An even bigger issue, though, was the fundamental tactical limitations of the ritsuryō armies. The ritsuryō architects had opted for size at the expense of the elite technology of the age, constructing a force composed primarily of infantry, while the premier military technology of the day was mounted archery-largely because of the logistical difficulties involved in trying to produce cavalrymen out of short-term conscripts.

By the middle decades of the 8th century, the political climate-domestic and foreign-had changed enough to render the provincial regiments anachronistic and superfluous in most of the country. The danger of violent challenges to the central polity from the regional nobility disappeared almost immediately, as former provincial chieftains came to accept the imperial state structure as the arena in which they would compete for power and influence, and the Chinese invasion the Japanese had feared simply never materialized. That meant that the martial needs of the vast majority of the country now centered on the capture of criminals and similar policing functions. Huge infantry units based on peasant militia units were neither necessary nor well-suited to this type of work. What were needed were small, highly mobile squads that could be assembled with a minimum of delay and sent out to pursue raiding bandits. In the meantime, diminishing military need for the regiments encouraged officers and provincial officials to misuse the conscripts who manned them-borrowing them, for example, for free labor on their personal homes and properties

The court response to these challenges reflects a new realization that it was cheaper and more efficient to rely on privately-trained and equipped elites than to continue to attempt to draft and train the general population. Accordingly, troops mustered from the peasantry played smaller and smaller roles in state military planning, while the role of elites expanded steadily across the eighth century. The provincial regiments were first supplemented by new types of forces, and then, in 792, eliminated entirely in all but a handful of provinces. In their place the court created a series of new military posts and titles that legitimized the use of personal martial resources on behalf of the state. In essence, the court moved from a conscripted, publicly-trained military force to one composed of professional mercenaries.

SA: The chapter on “Peasants and Professionals” in “Hired Swords” is particularly interesting. Why did Emperors and Empresses such as Shomu or Shotoku feel it necessary to add new units to the then-traditional “Five Guards” of the Imperial Court?

KF: Now there’s a question I haven’t thought about in a while! Basically, the impetus here came from two sources.

The first relates to the same bundle of factors I outlined in my answer to the previous question. The original goefu (“Five Guards”) units that defended the palace and policed the capital were staffed from two very different sources. Three (the Right and Left Eijifu and the Emonfu) drew their manpower from peasant conscripts selected from the provincial militias; the other two (the Right and Left Hyōefu) were composed of troops selected from among the “sons and younger brothers” of the provincial and lower central nobility. The problems with the militias in the provinces also applied to the central military institutions. And, of course, after most of the provincial regiments had been abolished (in 792); peasant draftees were no longer readily available for service at court.

The second factor at play here was the nature of the power structure at court, and the direction of its evolution. While the ritsuryō polity was, in theory, an absolute monarchy real power took a much more oligarchic form, in which emperors, powerful courtier houses, and major shrines and temples all competed for control of the court. In this struggle, attempts at intimidation were commonplace and even attempted coups and assassinations weren’t terribly unusual.

This made control of martial resources of one sort or another an important asset. Accordingly, first the court nobility and then the shrines and temples began to assemble private military forces and to press for control of state military resources-recruiting men with martial talents into the ranks of their household service and staffing the command posts in the central guard units with their own relatives and lackies.

Emperors were, in fact, at a disadvantage here. The Five Guards were the military forces of the state as a corporate whole, not the personal military of the sovereign; control of them was a function of the same competition that determined power at court in general. The imperial house recognized this danger almost before the ink was dry on the ritsuryō codes and responded by creating new units, outside the Five Guards, that could function as its own Praetorian Guards.

The problem with that strategy, however, was that reigning emperors were purely public figures-unlike other courtiers, who had both public and private identities-and so the new military units the imperial house created tended very quickly to lose their Praetorian Guard character and become indistinguishable in character from other public military units, dominated by the Fujiwara and other great noble houses. Nevertheless, successive emperors kept trying, creating one new unit after another. By 765, there were eight distinct guard units in the capital, which was obviously more military than was needed, so the court began streamlining the system-combining, reorganizing, and renaming. The end product became known as the Rokuefu, or “Six Guards” (the Left and Right Kon’efu, the Left and Right Emonfu, and the Left and Right Hyōefu), which continued without major formal changes down to the modern era.

SA: An interesting weapon that has been lost to history but seemed to be quite effective was the Oyumi (a large crossbow), which is described in “Hired Swords” as a largely defensive weapon. What made it primarily defensive-was it the large size and difficulties in using it ‘on the fly’? Why didn’t handheld crossbows catch on with Japanese troops as they did in other countries?

KF: The basic problem involved in trying to describe the rise and fall of the ōyumi is that no one really knows what this weapon was. We have no surviving examples, no clear descriptions, and no illustrations of the weapon to go by. The term itself translates as “big bow,” and the Chinese character used to write it means “crossbow.” There are also a few references in various sources, to “hand crossbows” (te-ōyumi or shudo). Put together with various cryptic references to using the weapon or training with it, this suggests that the weapon in question was some kind of oversized, frame-mounted crossbow, like the Roman ballista, perhaps capable of launching volleys of arrows or stones in a single shoot (the same character most commonly read as “ōyumi” is also sometimes glossed as ishi-yumi, or “stone bow,” in some late Heian and early Kamakura period sources).

It is, of course, not inconceivable that ōyumi were simply hand-held crossbows of the sort that were the mainstays of Chinese infantries from the Warring States era onward, but this seems very unlikely. One problem here is the specific references to te-ōyumi-what could these be, if regular ōyumi were also hand-held weapons? Another is the fact that to date archeologists have found only one trigger mechanism for a hand-crossbow, despite more than a century of digging, which suggests that these weapons couldn’t have been very common in Japan. A third problem is the name for the weapon: “ōyumi” literally means “great bow,” while hand-held cross bows would actually have been smaller than regular Japanese bows. And a fourth issue is that positing more than an incidental presence for hand-held crossbows in 7th and 8th century military forces necessitates an explanation for their virtual disappearance during the early 10th century.

Given what the privately-armed warriors of later centuries were able to purchase from artisans in the capital, it’s hard to believe that production difficulties could have precluded samurai ownership of hand-crossbows, had they wished to acquire them. European knights were, after all, able to obtain crossbows under conditions far less favorable to the manufacture of sophisticated, high technology machinery than those faced by Heian warriors. And samurai did, in fact, appear to have made sporadic use of ōyumi as late as the 12th century.

It seems likely, then, that ōyumi were ballista-like weapons that served as a kind of artillery- sort of like cannons in early modern warfare. If that’s the case, then similar tactical advantages and limitations apply. Large, platform-mounted weapons of this sort are handy in sieges (for both sides) and useful to armies trying to hold a defensive position. But they aren’t terribly mobile, so they aren’t much use on the offensive against an enemy that runs away.
A rough analogy here would be the water cannons used by modern police. They’re quite useful for breaking up riots and such, but they aren’t of much good when you’re trying to catch a couple of guys robbing a liquor store-by the time you can get them set up, the bad guys have run away.

As to why hand-held crossbows never caught on, again we can only speculate. But the answer seems pretty straightforward. Crossbows have serious tactical limitations. Most designs are difficult or impossible to cock and reload while walking, running or riding on horseback, which makes them better-suited to defense, siegecraft and naval warfare than to offensive tactics on land. They are, moreover, much slower to reload and shoot than ordinary bows, which means a reduced volume of missiles that can be directed at a charging-or fleeing-enemy host, while it is within effective range. And their greater power than ordinary bows doesn’t always translate into longer range, because while a regular bow can be angled upward, and shot to its maximum range with reasonable accuracy, a crossbow can’t be elevated very far without the stock obscuring the archer’s aim (the crossbow is largely a line-of-sight weapon).

The upshot is that crossbows are really only effective when deployed in mass, by troops trained to shoot in some coordinated manner. Maintaining this degree of order would have been difficult for ritsuryō era Japanese armies, which were composed of militia units filled by conscripts who served only thirty or forty days a year on active duty. And it would have been impossible for the privatized warriors of the Heian and Kamakura periods.

SA: While the warrior bands of the Heian era had much in common with the so-called clans of the Sengoku, what allowed them to be controlled so effectively by the Imperial Court whereas the warriors of the Sengoku were not? Was it largely a question of the Court playing off bushi against each other, or were there other factors?

KF: One caveat first: You need to be careful about that term “clan,” even as applied to the Sengoku era. There have never been clans, in the anthropological sense of that term, in Japan-or rather, extended clan-like family units have never been meaningful socio-political units. The daimyō-led organizations that get labeled “clans” in movie subtitles were much more broadly-structured political/economic organizations. Historians usually call them “domains.” Japanese sources do label them by the name of the daimyō house around which they were formed-the Takeda-ke, Uesugi-ke, etc.-but the translation of “ke” here should be “house,” not “clan.”

Samurai did make use of kinship ties-both real and fictive-and terminology suggestive of familial connections-kenin (“houseman”), ie no ko (“child of the house”), and the like-as a device for building and strengthening warrior alliances, but these efforts were more symbolic than efficacious. The bottom line is that, ideology to the contrary, kinship was never much of a guarantee of harmony in premodern Japanese society. Conflict, even out-and-out warfare, between in-laws, cousins, uncles and nephews, and even brothers was a near-constant theme of Japanese history. In practical terms, cohesion worked only within the smallest kinship units, that is, within nuclear families-houses, not clans.

Ok, so back to the heart of the question: The short answer is yes, Heian warriors remained under control because the court was able to play them against one another. But that just begs the larger question of why the court could do this during the Heian period and not later. And the short answer to that is that Heian warriors needed the court, and centralized authority, as much as the court needed them, but that arrangement broke down and shifted during the 13th century and later.

The political, social and economic order of the Heian period needs to be understood in terms of interplay between rural and urban elites, and balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. By the 10th century, private warriors had a monopoly over the means of armed force, and the court was rapidly fashioning a new working arrangement with warriors leaders and other elite residents of the countryside-one that relied heavily on personal relationships and private resources, offered provincial administrators expanded freedom of action and opportunities for profit, and yet maintained the basic social, political and economic hierarchies of the imperial state. Rather than signaling the imminent collapse of court rule, however, these accommodations preserved, prolonged and, in many ways, enhanced it, by co-opting provincial ambitions to serve the center. Freedom of local action was not the same as independence, or even autonomy, because the warriors themselves simply didn’t think in those terms yet.

Heian Japan remained firmly under civil authority and the idea of a warrior order was still more nascent than real. Far from being incipient provincial warlords chafing under courtier domination, 10th, 11th, and 12th century warrior leaders were men with one foot in the countryside and the other firmly planted in the capital-“bridging figures,” in the words of the late Jeffrey Mass-for whom the profession of arms was primarily a means to an end-a foot in the door toward civil rank and office. Their career goals-their hopes and dreams-pointed toward service to, rather than freedom from, the court. Consequently, whenever warriors stepped too far out of line, the court was always able to find peers and rivals more conservative in their ambitions and assessments of the odds against successful rebellion, to subdue them.

The balance began to shift, however, with the creation of the Kamakura shogunate. One way to understand the first shogunate, its relationships to the imperial court and to samurai in the countryside, and its role in governing Japan is to think of it as a kind of warriors’ union. Before the creation of the shogunate, warriors in the provinces were merely local government administrators or caretakers for estates that belonged to court nobles or temples. The court kept them politically weak by playing them against one another. By insulating an elite subgroup of the country’s provincial warriors from direct court control or employ, the shogunate ensured that samurai could no longer be managed by playing them against one another. In the long run, this created a mechanism for unraveling the fabric of centralized authority.

The existence of the shogunate rested on two competing obligations: On the one hand, it had a mandate from the court to maintain order in the provinces-to keep its own men under control and to use them to defend the court. This is what made the regime legal, and formed the basis of its national authority. On the other, the shogunate’s ability to carry out this mandate depended on the continuing support of its followers, which in turn hinged on its support of their ambitions for greater freedom from court control. Kamakura vassals across the country quickly learned to take advantage of this situation, manipulating their special status to lay stronger and more personal claims to their lands-and the people on them. Real power over the countryside spun off slowly but steadily from the center to the hands of local figures, and a new warrior-dominated system of authority absorbed the older, courtier-dominated one. By the 14th century, this evolution had progressed to the point where the most successful of the shogunate’s provincial vassals had begun to question the value of continued submission to Kamakura at all, and the regime fell in 1333.

For most of the fourteenth century, the existence of rival imperial courts, each claiming identical-and exclusive-authority offered warriors a choice of customers to whom to market their support. Leading warriors shifted sides repeatedly, in response to advantages and opportunities of the moment, playing each court off the other in much the same way that the court had once kept warriors weak by pitting them against one another. As this happened, it took a predictably heavy toll on central authority.

SA: It’s very uncommon to see an academic historian (as opposed to a ‘pop culture’ historian) who has had extensive training in traditional Japanese martial arts. Has your experience in this field led to insights in your published works? How have these arts evolved and changed since the days of extensive warfare in the Sengoku?

KF: I think that having some kind of hands-on experience with traditional weapons is useful in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways to historians looking at military topics. Having field experience with an army in combat would also be very helpful-although, for better or worse, I don’t have that.

Certainly actual involvement with bugei ryūha (martial training organizations) is crucial to meaningful analysis of the workings-the anatomy and physiology-of traditional martial art. These are very kabalistic organizations and the only way to really understand what they do and what they’re attempting to do is to experience it.

My work on samurai and military history has led me to some interesting realizations about the history of the bugei as well.

The conventional wisdom on Japanese martial art (ryūha bugei) ties its evolution closely to the history of warfare. It starts from the premise that systems and schools of martial art originally developed as tools for passing on workaday battlefield skills, in response to intensified demand for skilled fighting men spawned by the onset of the Sengoku age. Warriors hoping to survive and prosper on late medieval battlefields began to seek instruction from talented veterans, who in turn began to codify their knowledge and methodize its study. Thus bugei ryūha emerged more-or-less directly from the exigencies of medieval warfare. But-so goes the tale-the two-and-a-half-century Pax Tokugawa that began in 1600 brought fundamental changes to the practice of martial art. Instruction became professionalized, and in some cases, commercialized; training periods became longer, curricula were formalized; and elaborate systems of student ranks developed. Most significantly, however, the motives and goals underlying bugei practice were recast. Samurai, who no longer expected to spend time on the battlefield, sought and found a more relevant rationale for studying martial art, approaching it not simply as a means to proficiency in combat, as their ancestors had, but as a means to spiritual cultivation of the self.

This is basically the story I summarized in my Legacies of the Sword book. It begins from the logical assumption that ryūha bugei originated as an instrument for ordinary military training, and evolved from there into budō, a means to broader self-development and self-realization. But there are some problems with this picture that become clear if you juxtapose it against recent research on medieval warfare.

It‘s clear, first of all, that ryūha bugei couldn’t have accounted for more than a tiny portion of sixteenth-century military training. There were at most a few dozen ryūha around during the 16th century, but armies of that era regularly mobilized tens of thousands of men. In order for even a fraction of sengoku warriors to have learned their craft through one or more ryūha, each and every ryūha of the period would need to have trained at least several hundred students a year. Ryūha bugei must, therefore, have been a specialized activity, pursued by only a minute percentage of Sengoku warriors.

An even bigger issue, however, is the applicability of the skills that late medieval bugeisha concentrated on developing to sixteenth-century warfare. For one thing, strategy and tactics were shifting, from the 15th century onward-precisely the period in which bugei ryūha began to appear-from reliance on individual warriors and small group tactics to disciplined group tactical maneuver. Which means that ryūha bugei, focusing on developing prowess in personal combat, emerged and flourished in almost inverse proportion to the value of skilled individual fighters on the battlefield.

All of the recent scholarship on late medieval warfare, moreover, argues that swords never became a key battlefield armament in Japan-that they were, rather, supplementary weapons, analogous to the sidearms worn by modern soldiers. While swords were carried in combat, they were used far more often in street fights, robberies, assassinations and other (off-battlefield) civil disturbances. Missile weapons-arrows, rocks, and later bullets-dominated battles, throughout the medieval period.

On the other hand, almost all of the ryūha that date back to the sengoku period or earlier claim that swordsmanship played a central role in their training, right from the start. Tsukahara Bokuden, Kamiizumi Ise-no-kami, Iizasa Chōisai, Itō Ittōsai, Yagyū Muneyoshi, Miyamoto Musashi and other founders of martial art schools were (are) all best known for their prowess as swordsmen.

Initially, I wondered if the place of swordsmanship in medieval martial art represented a major piece of counter-evidence to the new consensus on late medieval warfare. After all, if bugei ryūha started out as systems to train warriors for the battlefield, and made swordsmanship central to their arts, wouldn’t that suggest that swords were more important to medieval warfare than the new scholarship would have us believe?

After wrestling with that question for quite a while, it finally struck me that the problem might lie in the first premise of this argument. All of the questions that were bothering me (why did bugei ryūha emerge at a time when generalship was rapidly coming to overshadow personal martial skills as the decisive element in battle, and the key to a successful military career? Why were there so few ryūha around during the Sengoku era, and why did they proliferate so rapidly during the early Tokugawa period, after the age of wars had passed? And why was swordsmanship so prominent in even the earliest bugei ryūha?) become much easier to answer if you just set aside the premise that bugei ryūha originated as instruments for teaching the workaday techniques of the battlefield. And the truth of the matter is that there’s little basis for that hoary assumption, beyond the fact that war was endemic in Japan when the first martial art schools appeared. The received wisdom rests, in other words, on what amounts to a post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy.

It seems likely, then, that ryūha bugei and the pedagogical devices associated with it aimed from the start at conveying more abstract ideals of self-development and enlightenment. That is, that ryūha bugei was an abstraction of military science, not merely an application of it. It fostered character traits and tactical acumen that made those who practiced it better warriors, but its goals and ideals were more akin to those of liberal education than vocational training. In other words, bugeisha, even during the Sengoku era, had more in common with Olympic marksmanship competitors-training with specialized weapons to develop esoteric levels of skill under particularized conditions-than with Marine riflemen. They also had as much-perhaps more-in common with Tokugawa era and modern martial artists than with the ordinary warriors of their own day.

Basically, I’m arguing that there was no fundamental shift of purpose in martial art education between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries. Tokugawa era budō represented not a metamorphosis of late medieval martial art, but the maturation of it. Ryūha bugei itself constituted a new phenomenon-a derivative, not a linear improvement, of earlier, more prosaic military training.

(For the full argument, see my “Off the Warpath” piece, in Alex Bennett’s Budo Perspectives [Auckland, New Zealand: Kendo World Publications, 2005], 249-68.)

SA: In “Legacies of the Sword” (a study of Kashima-Shinryu written with Seki Humitake), you make the point that many traditional Japanese martial arts use the language of Buddhism, Shinto, Confucianism (and Neo-Confucianism), and Taoism to describe their arts because “…shrines and temples were the vehicles through which the Japanese conceptualized their universe, and they provided the only terminology for questions of physical science or philosophy”. In effect, religious terms were used to describe very ordinary and “down-to-earth” pieces of information. Have the trappings of religious language perhaps put too much emphasis on the spiritual and philosophical aspects of sword training, overriding their original primary role of training fighting men and warriors?

KF: Yes and no. As I suggested in my answer to the previous question, I doubt that formalized martial art training ever had a primary function of training fighting men for combat. It was always about something bigger-or more abstract, anyway. This is why swordsmanship could be so central to ryūha bugei: swordsmanship represented a symbolic sine qua non of personal combat: the favored weapon for off-battlefield dueling, and a kind of michi within a michi for bugeisha, then as now. It’s also why martial art training evolved so rapidly during the early decades of the Tokugawa period: Specialization, formalization, and idealization of ryūha bugei weren’t inherently deleterious to military preparedness, because this form of martial training had never been about readying troops for war. Military science writ large continued in other forms (particularly the emerging science of gungaku) while martial art schools continued to focus on personal development.

That said, budō training was never-until the modern era, anyway, part and parcel to Zen or any other religious practice. It was a separate-parallel-path (michi) to self-development, one that had its own internal logic. Martial artists borrowed both vocabulary and concepts from Buddhism, Taoism, and native religious traditions, but very few cast what they were doing as an expression of any of these traditions.

Moreover, the distinction between the physical and the spiritual that this question’s premised on is Western and artificial. Traditional Japanese worldview and pedagogy doesn’t separate mind, body and spirit the way that post-Cartesian Western thought does. In the traditional Japanese context, distinguishing between physical and spiritual factors in training is roughly equivalent to making distinctions between internal factors (muscle control, focus, concentration, strength, timing, etc.) and external ones (gravity, wind, etc.) in, say, learning to shoot an arrow. You can separate them for analytical purposes, but they’re really all part of the same big package. In traditional bugei conceptualization, what we describe as “spiritual development” is an essential component of developing high levels of skill in fighting.

That’s the really cool thing about the underlying premises of traditional Japanese martial art: To really master violence, you have to get yourself to a place where you utterly transcend it. Fighting is a natural phenomenon like any other; the more closely and optimally your movements and tactics harmonize with the principles of natural law, the better your performance in combat. On one level, this is a simple deduction, as obvious as the advantages of shooting arrows with rather than against a strong wind. But the worldview of premodern Japan didn’t distinguish physics from metaphysics. So to the samurai, the difference between corporeal and spiritual considerations in martial training was simply a matter of the level of sophistication and expertise at which the task was to be approached.

SA: In the Western world, Zen is usually viewed as encompassing the whole of Japanese Buddhism. It’s also often presented as being the single biggest philosophical influence on samurai culture. As “Legacies of the Sword” points out, bugei are “compatible with any religious affiliation or lack thereof”. Do you feel the impact of Zen on Japanese martial arts and samurai culture has been exaggerated in the West while the influence of esoteric Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Shinto, and the like, have been largely ignored?

KF: Certainly this is true of most of the literature on Japanese martial arts aimed at popular audiences. Most of the recent work, particularly the stuff written by scholars and people directly involved in classical (koryū) arts has pretty much left this fallacy behind, though.

SA: “Samurai, Warfare, and the State in Early Medieval Japan” is probably your best known book and (along with the work done by Thomas Conlan) radically changed the way Western academia viewed the way that samurai went to war. Particularly interesting were the ‘nuts and bolts’ discussions of the tactics used by individual samurai, such as why a mounted bowman would want to keep the enemy on his left side, or how the physical attributes of Japanese horses precluded the types of cavalry charges one would see in an American western. How difficult was it to piece together these practical tactics from the sparse sources at hand? What caused you to be skeptical of the ‘honorable name announcing/arrow exchange’ model as presented in the war tales of the period?

KF: The broad outlines, and even many of the details, of individual and group tactics are pretty clear, if you just read the sources with reasonable care. Some of the details, though, take a lot of reading between the lines and speculating. The patterns of maneuver and options available to warriors trying to approach an enemy I outlined fall into the latter category. They’re really just conclusions derived by reasoning from basic points and principals that are clear in the sources (the weight and construction of armor, the abilities of Japanese ponies, the nature of bows and arrows, the preference for keeping opponents to your right while approaching on their left, and the like).

The “honorable name announcing/arrow exchange model” is really just a silly old canard, invented more-or-less from whole cloth by earlier historians. Not only does it make no sense whatsoever when considered in light of practical matters on the battlefield-how, for example, could dozens (much less hundreds) of warriors milling about on battlefields possibly identify appropriate opponents while everyone is shouting at everyone else?-but it also runs contrary to the anything-goes approach to warfare portrayed in accounts (even literary ones) of Heian warriors.

At the same time, having heroes boast of their pedigrees and accomplishments at the onset of combat, a narrative device known as “naming one’s name,” is a very natural literary embellishment, common in epic literature throughout the world.

Those factors alone ought to make us skeptical about how often warriors actually engaged in reciting their CVs and pedigrees at one another. Add to that the fact that there are no examples of this behavior (beyond simple references to warriors “shouting their names”) in any sources written before the 14th century, and you really have grounds for suspicion.

What’s more, even in later medieval literary accounts, instances of resume reading are a lot less common than customary reconstructions of early medieval warfare would have us to believe. In the Kakuichi-bon Heike monogatari (the most elaborately-embellished version of the text), for example, there are only 19 incidents, 13 of which appear in the same chapter, during the battle at Ichinotani, and three of which are by the same individual, delivered within minutes of one another. And none of these incidents had anything to do with warriors pairing off to fight one another-almost all of them involved warriors either waiting outside or inside fortifications, taunting the enemy.

What’s happened, over the years, is that historians’ have simply accepted the premise that early samurai warfare was ritualistic and governed by gentlemanly rules, and allowed the blinders imposed by preconceptions to restrict their views of their sources, and preclude consideration of alternative interpretations. Historians who have identified and endeavored to explain ritual and formality on early medieval battlefields have done so because they expected to find it there.

SA: Over the years, what has the critical reaction been to your downplaying of the historical veracity of ‘honorable combat and the unbreakable code of bushido’, and the evidence presented that the samurai considered ambushes, treachery, fire attacks, slaughter of civilians, and other underhanded behavior to be perfectly acceptable? Do you have any interesting stories concerning the reactions of those who might have been suffering from ‘Bullshido Denial’?

KF: I suspect that there must be a fair number of people out there who are unhappy with the idea that the early samurai were just as practical, and no more romantic or ritualized in their behavior, than later samurai or warriors in other times and places, but I haven’t really taken any fire on this that I can think of. The reviews and citations I’ve seen have all been positive (on these points, at least!). So have the reactions of audiences when I’ve lectured on the subject.

SA: Why were fortifications of the Heian and Kamakura eras largely ‘purpose built’ structures thrown up quickly and just as quickly abandoned? Why weren’t more permanent structures such as those seen in the Sengoku (whether yamashiro or Azuchi-type) favored?

KF: Permanent castles, of the sort you see in Japan during the Sengoku period, are generally a reaction to a need for on-going defense-an on-going atmosphere of more-or-less constant warfare (or threat thereof)-and/or a symbol of political authority. Neither of those conditions really applied to Heian or Kamakura Japan.

Both periods were really pretty peaceful, over all. Warriors simply didn’t feel the need to heavily fortify their homes. Military power was, moreover, not a source of political power, so there was little or no symbolic value to living in a castle. (In fact, the opposite was probably true: living behind fortifications would have made a warrior look weak and afraid of something, which would suggest a lack of political clout.) Heian and Kamakura warriors lived-for the most part-like other rural elites, because they identified with their non-warrior peers, and wanted to be identified with them.

There were some permanent-or at least potentially permanent-fortifications constructed during the Heian and Kamakura periods-the forts in the northeast during the Former Nine Years’ and Latter Three Years’ Wars, or the Taira fortress at Ichinotani during the Gempei War, for example-but tactically and strategically speaking, late Heian and early Kamakura fortifications were defensive lines, not castles or forts intended to provide long-term safe haven for armies ensconced within. Their purpose was to concentrate campaigns and battles: to slow enemy advances, thwart raiding tactics, control selection of the battleground, restrict cavalry maneuver, and enhance the ability of foot soldiers to compete with horsemen.

In the 14th century, during the Nambokuchō wars, Kusunoki Masashige and other Go-Daigo loyalists followers introduced a new tactical paradigm for fortifications as rallying points, sanctuaries, and symbols of resistance. While most twelfth- and thirteenth-century defense works had been constructed across or adjacent to roads, beachheads and other travel arteries, Masashige and his allies ensconced themselves in remote mountain citadels, whose purpose and presence defied Kamakura authority, and served as a beacon to other recruits. Compact enough to be easily defended on all exposures, and located on terrain sufficiently treacherous to render them difficult to approach quickly or in large numbers, these forts weren’t easy to take by direct assault, which meant that relatively small numbers of warriors could tie up sizeable enemy forces for long periods, buying time and credibility for Go-Daigo’s cause, and whittling away at the morale of Kamakura’s troops.

That wasn’t, of course, an entirely new tactic; Abe Yoritoki and his son, Sadatō, had done something fairly similar during the Former Nine Years’ War of 1055 to 1062. Yoritoki’s principal strategy for this campaign was to strategy throughout the conflict centered on ensconcing himself and his followers behind walls, in hopes of outlasting Minamoto Yoriyoshi’s patience and resolve, playing on the eagerness of Yoriyoshi’s government troops to get back as soon as possible to their own lands and affairs.

But Yoritoki’s and Sadatō’s fate in this conflict illustrate the pitfalls of this sort of strategy: it’s hard to hide this way forever. If the other side doesn’t lose interest, it can probably outlast either your resolve or your supplies. In Sadatō’s case, he eventually got impatient and came out to fight.

Masashige (and his allies) was up to something slightly different, since he was trying to keep a cause, rather than just himself, alive. By establishing large numbers of forts (and sometimes abandoning old ones for new ones, before the old ones fell) he kept a metaphorical flag flying that signaled that Kamakura was not, in fact, invincible. He was really playing off widespread dissatisfaction with the shogunate among both Kamakura vassals and other warriors, hoping that if he could maintain the credibility of Go-Daigo’s crusade against the shogunate for long enough, warriors would start rallying to his side. But this was pretty much a novel situation-the circumstances Masashige was attempting to exploit hadn’t existed in previous conflicts.

SA: “Samurai, Warfare, and the State” also questions the idea that samurai armies were from top to bottom largely a collection of uncoordinated individuals on the field of battle out only for their own glory, showing that at the lower levels they were comprised of units of warriors that trained extensively together and who displayed a high degree of cooperation. What prevented the cohesiveness of these smaller bands from manifesting itself across larger groups?

KF: Mostly political circumstances. Heian and Kamakura era armies were temporary, irregular assemblages, constructed through complex private military networks. Warriors knit together needed forces by calling on the members of small core bands of fighting men, subordinate allies, and (unless the conflict was a purely private affair) military officers of provincial governments. The troops involved were bound to their commanders by short-term contractual promises of rewards, rather than by standing obligations to service.
That meant that commanders had few, if any, opportunities to drill with their troops in large-scale, coordinated group tactics, and made it impossible to field disciplined and well-articulated armies. Samurai lacked the resources to gather larger numbers of troops and maintain them while they train or fight together long enough to develop enough unit cohesion to engage in large-scale group tactics until well into the 15th century.

SA: Your latest book, "The First Samurai: The Life And Legend Of The Warrior Rebel Taira Masakado" was not only an excellent biography but also a well done account of the political and economic conditions and background that the rebellion played itself out upon. From the title, cover, and packaging, it appeared to have been aimed at a more general audience than is the norm for most scholarly books. Was this your intent when writing it? If so, how did your writing style and approach differ from something written with academia in mind?

KF: The First Samurai was written for John Wiley & Sons, which is a semi-academic trade press, so my mandate here was explicitly to produce something that would appeal to a general audience. I was after something that would serve some of the same functions as good historical fiction, informing readers about the period while entertaining them with a good story. I was also trying-I’m not sure how successfully-to straddle the fence, writing with a focus and in a style that would interest and entertain real people while still maintaining academic credibility and value.
SA: The picture you paint of Masakado is that of a 'reluctant rebel'-someone who did not have rebellion in mind when he launched his initial attacks and was somewhat painted into a corner by circumstances. It seemed he was actually rather happy operating within the framework of the Heian Imperial state. Given that, how did he end up being seen as a rebel while fighting what he saw as being personal, locally based conflicts?

KF: I’m not sure that Masakado, and other provincial warrior leaders like him, were actually happy within the framework of the state so much as they were resigned to it. Which is to say that they weren’t necessarily big fans of the System, and they were putting a lot of energy into working the system and working around it, but they weren’t looking for opportunities to overthrow it either.

In modern terms, they were like middle class office workers, business owners and the such. On the one hand, folks in the middle may have a lot of resentment for the wealthy-particularly the hereditary wealthy-and for the way the system is stacked in their favor. They don’t particularly like paying taxes; they’re fed up with lazy, stupid or corrupt politicians; and they’re annoyed at doing all the work that makes it possible for the top 2% of the population to collect 80% of the wealth produced. BUT, they rarely lean toward revolutionary ideas. Their aspirations aim toward rising in the system, not taking it down. They are, after all, in the middle, and have no desire to fall back into the lower economic classes, and they understand (even if only subconsciously) that they’re also beneficiaries of the system, at the expense of the poor. They’re also generally pretty well ideologically indoctrinated into the system, and generally tend to see it as flawed-and often very unfair-but still the best alternative out there. They want the safety and security (personal and economic) that the system provides for them, and don’t want to give that up. And they generally believe that rocking the proverbial boat is more likely to cost them what they already have than to get them more.

Provincial and other warrior leaders were in pretty much the same situation during the Heian period.

Masakado did actually end up rebelling against the court, but the process was almost accidental, and his rebellion seems to have been a gamble at creating a negotiating position for himself, rather than a sincere attempt to break away from court authority. His historical reputation as a rebel probably stems from both the fact that he lost, and the fact that he came so close.

His troubles began as a series of spats with relatives and local rivals, during which he took great pains to stay within the good graces of the law. His undoing came when he got mixed up-through a very complex set of circumstances-in a local quarrel involving one of his allies in Hitachi province that resulted in-again through a complicated sequence of events-his troops occupying and looting the provincial capital. That put Masakado unequivocally on the wrong side of the law.
In traditional accounts, Masakado at this point just went crazy, taking over the provincial headquarters in seven other eastern provinces and declaring himself to be a New Emperor in the east. But the declaration of a new kingdom (and his title of New Emperor) appear only in a literary account of his adventures, and can’t be corroborated by more reliable sources. And there’s another way to read his advance from Hitachi to the rest of the East: He was trying to strengthen his hand in order to negotiate a pardon for the fiasco in Hitachi.

As Bob Dylan pointed out, “Steal a little and they throw you in jail; steal a lot and they make you king.” Having already crossed the line into rebellion against the state by his actions in Hitachi, Masakado was in trouble. But he kept negotiating for a pardon, even as he was gathering up the keys to the provincial capitals over the rest of the east, which strongly suggests that what he really wanted was simply to make himself formidable enough that the court would have to deal with him, rather than simply take him out. Other warrior leaders-including Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder of the first shogunate-followed pretty much the same strategy successfully. The difference between Masakado’s case and Yoritomo’s was mostly one of luck and circumstances, so Masakado lost while Yoritomo pulled it off.

Masakado has gone down in history as a rebel in part because he lost, and in part because of the fact that he scared the bejesus out of the court, which responded with hysterical proclamations of his evil acts and the need to destroy him. Shōmonki, the literary chronicle that shaped his reputation for posterity, was written for a court audience and therefore played to this vision and these sympathies.

Masakado’s insurrection,and that of Taira Tadatsune a century later, also play well into both the old scenario of a rising warrior class in the provinces just waiting for the right chance to take over-which makes Masakado a harbinger of medieval things to come-and the predilection of Marxist historians in Japan to cast things in terms of seething class conflict-on-going battle between the central government and provincial elites. Masakado fits either story better as a rebel than as a middle manager trying to keep the IRS from throwing him in jail.

SA: You use an interesting comparison of Minamoto no Yoritomo and Masakado to illustrate that a vassal could successfully rebel against the state and then once again be welcomed back under its banner-providing that one could put together a string of victories impressive enough to merit being taken as a serious enough threat by the Imperial Court. This helps to reinforce your theory that the Heian court managed to keep itself at the center of things and exert a great measure of control on the warriors-rather than wanting to form their own new state, most rebels were really looking more to improve their individual positions under it. Why did Masakado fail at this while Yoritomo succeeded, despite a long string of impressive victories? Did he perhaps try to overreach himself?

KF: It was mostly a matter of luck and circumstances. One of the things Yoritomo had working in his favor was and additional two centuries of evolution of the system, giving him a larger undercurrent of warrior resentment of the status quo to tap into. The other was the absence of alternatives-there really was no more palatable choice available to send against him as champion of the court, making rapprochement with Yoritomo the lesser of several evils. Initially the court was even less happy with Yoritomo’s enemies, Taira Kiyomori and his sons, than they were with Yoritomo, and welcomed his efforts to get rid of them. Later, the court did try to commission rivals to take Yoritomo down-first his cousin Yoshinaka and then his brother Yoshitsune-but Yoshinaka turned out to be an even bigger pain than Yoritomo (so the court ended up turning back to Yoritomo to get rid of Yoshinaka) and Yoritomo was able to out-maneuver Yoshitsune.

SA: Your essay in "Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries" is somewhat of a sequel to "The First Samurai"-"Lordship Interdicted: Taira no Tadatsune and the Limited Horizons of Warrior Ambition". This details the rebellion of Taira no Tadatsune-a descendant of Taira Masakado who was the ancestor of the Chiba daimyo line. Once again, it shows how a simple personal dispute escalated into a rebellion-but seemingly was far more serious and much more destructive than Masakado's, laying waste to large portions of Shimosa, Awa, and Kazusa. How did this scorched earth policy contribute not only to Tadatsune's early success in staving off the Imperial Court but also his eventual surrender and execution, as well as help ensure that his family line was allowed to continue (and eventually, as the Chiba, control Shimosa for hundreds of years)?

KF: Heian military campaigns focused on the destruction or apprehension of opposing warriors. The objective-the definition of victory-entailed eliminating the enemy, rather than simply occupying his lands or driving him off them. That meant that Tadatsune didn’t need to crush the “government army” sent against him, only to hold it off and to survive. And he was able to achieve this by denying it a base of operations anywhere on the easily quarantined Bōsō peninsula or access to the resources of any of the provincial governments there, forcing the commander, Taira Naokata, to stage his operations from Hitachi and Musashi. Tadatsune appears to have concentrated on keeping Naokata perpetually at bay-denying him both a base of operations on the peninsula and a decisive confrontation-while Naokata presumably spent a good part of his time and energy burning crops and homes belonging to Tadatsune’s supporters, in an effort to force him to stand and fight.

Later reports of the devastation in the peninsula suggest that fighting must have been brutal, and nearly continuous between the closing months of 1028 and the summer of 1030. In spite of this, clearly neither Tadatsune nor Naokata and his allies were able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other. By middle of 1029, the court was becoming impatient with Naokata’s lack of measurable progress-especially in light of the destruction in the provinces and the disruption to the flow of taxes and other revenues to the capital-and was considering replacing him. In 1030 they recalled him and replaced him with Minamoto Yorinobu.

Yorinobu’s appointment represented a fundamental shift in the court’s strategy for the campaign. Naokata was a personal rival to Tadatsune. And while his personal interest in Tadatsune’s downfall probably contributed to his enthusiasm for the fight, it also served to put Tadatsune’s back against the proverbial wall, making the conflict a matter of familial honor and leaving him no graceful way to negotiate with the government’s commander on the scene. His only option, then, other than a galling surrender to a hereditary enemy, was to stand fast, while attempting to maneuver around Naokata-over his head-through his patrons in the capital. When the court proved unreceptive to these overtures, and Naokata proved unable to crush Tadatsune militarily, the conflict settled into a seemingly interminable-and highly destructive-stalemate.

Yorinobu, on the other hand, seems to have established some sort of master-retainer relationship with Tadatsune a couple of decades earlier. By replacing Naokata with Yorinobu, then, the court was offering Tadatsune an honorable out-a means of negotiated surrender. By this time, Tadatsune was also tired of the fight and the stalemate. And so, recognizing this opportunity for what it was, Tadatsune unstrung his bow, and prepared to come to terms with the court. As it worked out, though, Tadatsune died (apparently of illness) en route to meet with Yorinobu to surrender.

In the aftermath, court opinion was deeply divided over whether Tadatsune’s sons Tsunemasa and Tsunechika should be run to ground, because they were technically still in rebellion, or simply left alone, as a matter of expedience. Eventually, the latter view prevailed. The court diplomatically concluded that Tsunemasa and Tsunechika had originally intended to surrender with their father, but that when Tadatsune died in route to the capital, they had become concerned about being put in prison, and thus becoming unable to perform the proper mourning rites for him, and, that the two deserved time to conduct these rituals, and let the matter drop.

Ironically, the exhausted condition of the provinces brought about by Tadatsune’s war-making-the very conditions that forced him to capitulate-served the interests of his descendents in the long run. They were a principal factor in the Council of State’s decision to let not-quite-sleeping dogs lie with respect to Tsunemasa and Tsunechika, which, along with its decision to return Tadatsune’s head to his followers rather than keep it on display, amounted to a kind of pardon for Tadatsune and his heirs. This in turn ensured that, unlike those of Masakado-whose rebellion ended with the virtual extinction of his line-the fortunes of Tadatsune’s family were not ended by his war. His sons remained powerful landholders in the Bōsō area, where their descendents resurfaced in the history books a century later, under the surname Chiba, as key players in the Gempei War (on Yoritomo’s side).

SA: As an educator, what do you feel have been some of your more impressive success stories? What do you find most gratifying about teaching? What sort of disappointments have you encountered? Do you see the movement in academia away from pre-modern Japanese studies towards modern studies reversing itself at some point?

KF: I do a lot of teaching, and a lot of different kinds of teaching-history, martial art, scuba and other things. What’s most rewarding, and what I enjoy most, is the process of helping people open new doors for themselves-exposing them to new worlds, new ideas, new ways of thinking, or helping them develop new skills.

My biggest career disappointment has been that, with the exception of my one year as visiting professor in Hawaii, I’ve never been able to teach as part of a team-to be part of a program. Here at UGA, I’m affiliated with what is for all practical purposes an American History department, and I’m the only faculty member on campus with an actual degree in Japanese studies, in any field. My role in the department boils down to teaching novelty courses that students take to fulfill the distribution requirements for courses in multiple geographic areas or courses on premodern history. I get no opportunities to work with graduate students and no chances to do advanced work even with undergraduates. We do get students seriously interested in Japan studies here, but we don’t have the program to support that interest. Ironically, I often find myself trying to persuade the students I’d most like to have in my classes that they should transfer to some other school, where their interests would be better served.

Sadly, I’m afraid that I’m not terribly optimistic about the future of medieval and classical studies in the US. The student interest-at least at the undergraduate level-is still there, but faculty support is minimal and fading. History departments are increasingly focused on modern history (at UGA 16 of a total of 34 full-time faculty work primarily on the 20th century-nine of them on the post WWII period-and seven more work in largely in the 19th century; a colleague admonished me a few years ago that “you’ll never get anywhere in this department unless you get past your obsession with premodern stuff”), and even area studies departments are losing ground to political and financial constituents who want to see more of themselves in the curriculum. Predicting is always a risky business, but I frankly don’t see any reason to expect any of that to change in near future.

SA: You’ve been featured on several television documentaries, particularly those on History Channel, that deal with the samurai. How does your approach to preparing for these shows differ from writing? Have you ever had a problem with something you’ve said being taken out of context, or cut together in a way that misrepresents your viewpoint?

KF: Dealing with TV people-and the media in general-is always fun, but it can be frustrating too. The problem is, of course, that they’re looking primarily for an entertaining story, and for a simple one, while history is mostly about complexities. When you’re doing interviews for TV and the media, you have to concentrate on being very brief-which, as you can probably tell from my answers to the questions above, I’m not very good at-and on sound bites. That’s always challenging, and can be a lot of fun.

The level of frustration involved depends largely on the producers and writers you’re working with. Most that I’ve dealt with are pretty earnest about wanting accuracy-albeit rarely at the expense of brevity or a good story line-and most really do listen to their experts. Some, however, have trouble understanding why historical interpretation changes over time and are reluctant to let go of outdated sources and ideas. And at least a couple have been addicted to erroneous information and just won’t let anyone change their minds about it. I’ve had one or two incidents where something I’ve said or something one of the other talking heads for a program said has been used to support exactly the opposite of the point I (or they) was (were) actually making. (Better not to go into specifics here . . . ) Quite a few of my colleagues refuse to do TV history programs for just this reason. But I operate on the better-to-light-a-single-candle principle. And besides, I’m a ham.

SA: What projects are you currently working on that we can expect to see in the foreseeable future? Have you considered writing any ‘family histories’ for clans such as the Taira or Hojo, or perhaps the early development of clans that were to achieve their greatest notoriety in the Sengoku (such as the Takeda or Shimazu)?

KF: I’m currently working on editing a textbook on premodern and early modern Japan that will be a collection of 30-some state-of-the art essays by 20-some authors-the best names in the field-so it should be quite something, when it all comes together. It's for Greenview, and will be called, "Japan Emerging: Introductory Essays on Premodern History." We're looking at a release date somewhere during late 2011. I’m also just getting into a new project on Minamoto Yoshitsune, which should be, like the First Samurai book, kind of a biography that showcases the period.

SA: Your books on warfare have been extremely influential on the current crop of historians specializing in military matters. What are some of the recent books and authors (either Western or Japanese) that you have found particularly enjoyable and informative? Whose work has made the greatest impact on you and helped develop your approach to history?

KF: My biggest influences were probably my two principal teachers, Jeff Mass and Cappy (G. Cameron) Hurst. But the field (premodern Japan) is small enough in English that I try to use and keep up with everything. In Japanese, I’ve found work by Amino Yoshihiko, Suzuki Masaya, Kawaii Yasushi, Kondō Yoshikazu, Fukuda Toyohiko, Hayashi Rokurō, Hodate Michuhisa, Yasuda Motohisa Fujimoto Masayuki, Gomi Fumihiko, Ishii Susumu, Sasama Yoshihiko, Seki Yukihiko, Noguchi Minoru, Shimomukai Tatsuhiko, Takahashi Masaaki, Toda Yoshimi, Uwayokote Masataka, and Takahashi Tomio particularly useful. I’ve also drawn a lot of help from work by Bernard Bachrach, Michael Waltzer, John Keegan, Otto Brunner, Kelly Devries, Michael Howard, James Turner Johnson, Stephen Morillo, Nagahara Keiji, Joseph Needham, Matthew Strickland, and others, in European military history.

SA: Thanks, Professor Friday, for your time and expertise. This has been a very illuminating discussion and we look forward to seeing those new books!

All of Professor Friday's books can be purchased on Amazon through the SA Store by clicking on the book titles in the article.


  1. Very interesant interview, magnificat...

    Greetings from Spain!!!

  2. Given Karl's interest in Japanese/Korean interaction, I'm surprised that he didn't write anything detailed on the Imjin Wars...