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29th January 2011- The Way of the warrior
Origins of martial arts in Japanese woodblock prints

Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal – these are some names that commercialised and perhaps formed the image that most people have of martial arts today. However, true practitioners would argue that amidst this glamorised vision, much of the origin and essence of this discipline has been lost and perhaps misconstrued. In a world where we have more efficient means of self defence or destruction, just this alone should indicate that perhaps we need to question the essence of martial arts - that something more important lies beneath the kicks, punches, throws etc. and that the vision of it simply being a devotion to simply fight is rather short sighted perhaps. 

In the present time martial arts are often regarded as a sport. What distinguishes martial disciplines from other physical activities? The answer rests in the name itself - the definition relates it to “arts” rather than “sports” which perhaps implies the importance of the spiritual and also philosophical aspects of these practices that transcend the mere physical skill. 

Japanese martial arts have gained popularity in the West in the past century and this tendency can be seen continuing into the present day. Various martial practices are no longer limited to closed schools or to the Japanese military, resulting in their knowledge becoming accessible for very wide public all over the world. Most modern martial arts (Gendai Budo) such as Karate, Aikido, Judo, Kendo or Kyudo were developed during the 20th century, but the martial tradition that still underlies them has its origins in the military of the medieval Japan. 

By exploring the lifestyle and practices of old Japan, one soon realises the discipline, control, and the orderly nature which is an aspect respected and upheld by the majority of people practicing martial arts. The awareness of the physical self, and the surroundings, one may go so far as saying is the practice of attaining a mindfulness through meditation. From the moment a student enters a dojo, it is a spiritual training ground escaping from a world cluttered with technology. Changing into the ‘gi’ (training outfit) the student moves away from the mindset of brands and image. The overall practice is that of bettering ones mental being, through the physical art form - this aspect, which is the true essence of the training, is an area often left unexplored and not acknowledged, and instead, the dominant flashy side - from breaking tiles with bare hands, and jumping high kicks, tend to be the dominant interpretation for most people. 

The Japanese Gallery in London makes it possible for all to explore the foundations of martial arts by means of an exhibition displaying historic Ukiyoe woodblock prints. While certainly being neither a primary source of knowledge about particular martial styles or techniques, nor providing an accurate historical account of their development, Ukiyoe prints do facilitate an insight into the old Japan, from where much of the essence of martial arts draws its foundations from. 

The display itself features a number of prints by famous Japanese woodblock print artists from Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) to Hokusai (1760-1849) famous for his world renowned Great Wave. Some depict scenes of famous warriors with their weapons, as well as prints specifically illustrating martial arts. Captions will aim to highlight a background to martial arts. Also on display will be an original samurai armour and a set of swords. The gallery, established in 1978 in fact holds one of the largest collection of Japanese prints available to purchase from £10 to top museum pieces, ranging from antique through to contemporary pieces. 

A free talk has been organised exploring this topic, by the director and staff of the gallery as well as guest speaker Shihan Chris Rowen of the Bunbukan. A longstanding client of the Japanese Gallery, he has collected Japanese prints for over 30 years and in response to his invitation to talk, he said: “This is a wonderful opportunity for people to view and have access to the art forms of Budo or martial arts and their early influences depicted through the medium of Ukiyo-e which should concern people interested both in martial arts and Japanese culture in general. The martial arts have encouraged to balance both the physical activities found in Budo with aesthetic practices in more peaceful times such as Chado (the way of tea), Zen meditation, Shodo (the way of writing), Ukiyo-e, etc. and the concept of the pen (Bun) and the sword (Bu) which is one facet. Japanese Gallery have put together a marvellous exhibition in a great venue giving a wonderful opportunity to visit these thoughts and concepts. A must-see!”. 

Perhaps some may question the distinction between the violent aesthetics of some of these warrior prints, and the spiritual harmony associated with practice of martial arts. This in fact stems from the difference between the concepts of bujutsu and budō, often respectively described as “classical martial arts of self-protection” and “classical martial ways of self-perfection” respectively. Bujutsu refers to the combative systems designed by warriors in the time when the military class ruled the country, with the ultimate goal of defeating the enemy, while the concept and practice of Budo descend from a later period of political stability and peace where the philosophical aspect came to the fore. One may argue that in the West, many still perceive and practice martial arts as bujutsu, a method of fighting, instead of realising and training as a budo practice where the training takes place at a more internal level. Perhaps this exhibition at the Japanese Gallery may serve to be a source of inspiration for visitors to question what we today call martial arts and what was, and what is, the way of a true warrior. 

The exhibition will run from 20th November to 20th February. Admission is free, exhibited items will be on sale. The Japanese Gallery is open seven days a week 10 am till 6pm. Visit our homepage www.japanesegallery.co.uk for a small selection of our pieces. email info@japanesegallery.co.uk to be updated of our guest speaker talks, free of charge, during the exhibition, and to receive updates and future events at the gallery. Japanese Gallery 23 Camden Passage Islington London, N1 8EA www.japanesegallery.co.uk info@japanesegallery.co.uk +44 (0)20 7226 3347