Letters and Swords

16th-century warlord Uesugi Kenshin viewing the moon, from One Hundred Aspects of the Moon woodblock prints by Yoshitoshi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While watching the movie Top Gun on Netflix,1 I got to thinking about how different cultures view the “ideal man”, or “ideal person”. This reminded me of a Japanese yojijukugo phrase 文武両道 (bunbu ryōdō). Breaking it down, the phrase means:

  • 文 – letters, literacy or cultural refinement
  • 武 – martial prowess, or martial warfare (also used in 武士 “bushi”, an alternative word for samurai)
  • 両 – both
  • 道 – paths

The meaning here is that the ideal person is a one who has an equal measure of literacy and martial prowess. The image of samurai as “warrior poets” has been immortalized in literature and art, and an inspiration for modern Japanese as well.

My wife growing up in Japan studied calligraphy for many years and got certified to teach, while also doing kendo (Japanese fencing) from middle school all the way through the university where we met.2 Nowadays, we kind of joke about this with our kids, but we are proud to see that both of them have taken up some kind of artistic interest, but also do sports as well. Further, we try to raise them as bilingual as possible.

The origins of this ideal are interesting and rooted in Chinese-Confucian thought where the ideal is that of a “gentleman”, a man both cultivated learning and virtue. The early Japanese Imperial Court (6th century – 12th century) was heavily based on the Chinese Confucian model where the Emperor was supported by a bureaucracy of scholars and administrators, all trained in Confucian classics, and highly refined.

Much later, in the Edo Period, when warfare finally ended for 250+ years, samurai were needed as administrators, so they had to be well-lettered, but also still had to maintain martial prowess in case the Shogunate called upon them for warfare. Serve the Shogunate in times of peace, and in times of war. During the early-modern Meiji Period, such samurai transitioned to businessmen and government officials, and the ideal persisted in the education system, business culture, military, etc.

Of course, the ironic thing about “ideals” is that for every person who embodies an them, there are plenty of people who don’t. So, it’s hard to say whether the majority of samurai sincerely upheld this ideal or not. Similarly, the “All-American Boy” that I knew in high school ended up getting his girlfriend pregnant shortly after graduation, and was forced into a shotgun wedding… or so I heard. 😏

1 TL;DR this movie really hasn’t aged well. I loved it as a kid in the 80’s, but as an adult, I stopped watching after about 20 minutes.

2 Long story short, we met at the local university kendo club by pure chance, and the rest is history. I definitely did not embody 文武両道 and only did kendo for about a year then quit after a foot injury that still lingers 20 years later, nor did I learn any cultured arts growing up welfare and with a single mom working two jobs. Nevertheless, in spite of coming from two different worlds, we’ve been happily married since then. Love is funny that way. 😏

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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