Seventeenth Century Japan; Samurai, Poets, Swordsmen and Tea

The seventeenth century may have been the golden age of samurai.  Two men from that era stand out. One, Miyamato Musashi, wrote Go Rin No Sho, - The Book of Five Rings.  Musashi, who died in 1645, was one of the best, if not the greatest, Japanese swordsman.  From age 12 when he had his first fight to his death from heart failure at age 60 he was not only undefeated – defeated swordsmen died – but in his last 10 fights never unsheathed his sword; his opponents simply bowed and left.

The Book of Five Rings is a classic work on strategy and tactics, and uses the devise of setting various aspects of swordsmanship into five books named for the five elements. (Unlike the medieval west when the elements were four; earth, wind, fire and water, the elements were the same in the east with the addition of void.

This book is a must read for Japanese businessmen who regard business as war, but it is also read by military men and athletes.

At one point I engaged in a sport at which I became very good, but not quite the best.  My instructor finally told me that he had taught me everything he knew, and there was nothing left for me to learn about the mechanics of the game.  What kept me from winning was between my ears.  He assigned me meditation and the reading of Go Rin No Sho. 

The secret that I needed to learn was in the fifth book; "void".  After a swordsman has learned everything else he needs to go into a fight with “no mind”.  One has to surrender to the previous training.  The well trained brain will know what to do without conscious thought.  Conscious thought will get you killed.  I needed to think of nothing as I competed.  That, and the meditation did the job.

Miyamato Musashi lived in a cave where he wrote his book, and taught a school, Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu.  His life style was quite simple, but he was not a simple man.  Musashi was a master of the Tea Ceremony, and that was one of the things he was most proud of accomplishing.

For those of us in the West tea is a drink.  In Japan the Tea Ceremony was also called the Way of Tea.  There was a ritual in the preparation of the powdered green tea, and in the serving and drinking of the tea.  The ceremony was considered to be a bridge between people.

So, at one extreme, Musashi was a soldier for his master Samurai and his job was to kill his master’s opponents.  On the other extreme he sought to establish a path to common understanding.  This yin and yang made him a complete person.

Matsuo Basho was the son of a minor samurai who gave that up to become a poet.  That sort of career path seems strange today, but the sons of Lords have become painters and poets. 

Born the year before Musashi died, Basho studied Chinese poetry and initially wrote in a linked verse form , but eventually settled on the extremely terse form known as haiku.  Basho is now considered to be the best.  His early haiku are good, but in later years he studied Zen and his poetry that followed is considered to be his best work.

A haiku, written well, is deceptively simple.  It should at first glance be about something familiar that can be enjoyed on that level.  Good haiku has deeper meaning; something that pulls the reader emotionally into a greater understanding. 

The form of haiku uses a 5-7-5 syllable scheme of unrhymed verse.  Haiku translated from Japanese, of course, do not show that because the languages are completely different.

Here is the problem in translation.  This is, perhaps, Basho’s most famous poem.

“Furuike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto


- Basho


Note the syllable count comes out right, but this is what happens when it is translated literally:

Fu-ru (old) i-ke (pond) ya,

ka-wa-zu (frog) to-bi-ko-mu (jumping into)

mi-zu (water) no o-to (sound)

Here is the translation by Fumiko Saisho

The old pond-

a frog jumps in,

sound of water.

Elsewhere, “sound of water” is interpreted as simply “splash”.


Basho’s quotes about life and writing poetry are illuminating.  On writing: ““When composing a verse let there not be a hair's breadth separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.”

― Bashō Matsuo


On life: Some of his haiku have been translated keeping the original thought.

“Many  solemn nights

Blond moon, we stand and marvel…

Sleeping our noons away”

Matsuo Basho


The above haiku speaks of Basho’s life philosophy whish he said in a number of ways.  Elsewhere he said that his journey was his home.

The admonition to not let a hair’s breadth get between your mind and what you write is akin to Musashi’s concept of “no mind”.  However, no mind would be deadly if training and practice had not been first ingrained in the apprentice, and I wonder if Basho’s first poems were written in such a state of what has been called “flow”.

Whatever the case, reading Basho’s poetry, even in translation, is a joy.

This is my favorite:


“A cicada shell;

it sang itself

utterly away.”

~ Basho

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Comment by Rodney Roe on January 14, 2018 at 1:49am

Kosh, that is a lot of work. Thanks, anyway.

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 14, 2018 at 1:58am

ABG 2.0 I had a top hat raku kiln and something ate the fiberglass lining I haven’t repaired it. It is as you describe, an obsession. I reformulated a turquoise Barium glaze recently subbing calcium for the Barium with nice results. Can’t wait til it warms up again.

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 14, 2018 at 5:20am

ABG 2.0, I can't disagree with anything you said.  I fire electric ^6 now.  I used to help a friend fire his groundhog kiln.  Depending on the weather it took about 13-14 hours to get to temperature and close the door.  The process is an event.   People dropped by with food and chatted.  Some were neighbors and some had things in the kiln.  I've fired in summer and winter.  Once with a windchill of 10F when the fire felt so good that I caught the frayed hem of my jeans on fire.  Flames leaping three feet above the chimney after it got dark toward the end of the firing.  And then the interminable feeling wait to see what came out.

Thanks for sharing your photos.  Your work is nice.  Wish I could feel that seductive surface.

I wonder if there are other potters here?

Comment by Steel Breeze on January 14, 2018 at 6:50am

well......when i'm trouble shooting a machine i sometimes have to have a 'conversation' with it,that count? i was stationed in Japan for a coupla months.....great people,and a society that mixes ancient with ultra modern smoothly....

Comment by koshersalaami on January 14, 2018 at 8:24am

By the way, you said something in the post which explains a lot. You said that the Japanese view business as war. In the seventies and eighties, the US was losing because we didn’t view business as war and didn’t understand the extent to which Japan did. 

Comment by Tom Cordle on January 14, 2018 at 12:37pm

I confess to ignorance about most of this history and poetry, so thank you for sharing. However, before I was even a teenager, I was introduced to haiku by my Uncle Mike, a talented painter and lover of philosophy and deep thoughts. Indeed, one of the poems he was fond of was the one you mentioned about the frog, which I reduced to "frog jump; pond splash"; the idea being that nothing happens until the frog jumps, or that he who remains safely on the lily pad goes nowhere. Here's another Uncle Mike would quote:

"Such cold I feel
My dead wife's comb
Beneath my feet"

Much later in life, that poem inspired me to write one of my songs was a similar sort of theme "The Coldest Spot in Hell".

I can also relate to the "void"; several times I've been involved in incidents where I miraculously avoided injury by driving out of or around the danger. I can assure you, there was no conscious thought involved, merely reaction – what one mighty ascribe to "instincts". However, this was not simply instinct, at least not in the classic sense of that word. My reactions were in part the result of experience and of a certain amount of training. Living in Michigan, I would take my car to the nearest parking lot after a heavy snowfall and practice getting in and out of spin-outs. And lest I anger the gods with hubris, let me hasten to add my salvation was also in large part due to plain, dumb luck.

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 14, 2018 at 1:39pm

@koshersalaami, the conversation through limericks; while an unusual choice of poetry form, communication through poetry was once a "thing" in Japan.  The renga, - linked poem composed in tanga form 5,7,5,77 - was often a conversation with the 575 part composed by one person, and the 7,7 part a response.  This was done by poets, aristocrats and the man on the street. The link below goes into detail on the various forms, history, Chinese influence and Western influence on Japanese poetry today.

Comment by Rodney Roe on January 14, 2018 at 1:46pm

Tom, thanks for the comment.  Someone wrote a book on "fast" and "slow" thinking.  Most of what we do is "fast"; driving to work being a good example.  It uses a sort of experience based condensed, short-hand thinking that is continually being updated.  Conscious thought is much slower.  I engaged in shotgun sports - skeet, trap and my favorite sporting clays - competition involves letting go and trusting your body. Conscious thought was not only unnecessary, but a distraction that caused mistakes.

Your uncle Mike sounds like someone i would have enjoyed knowing.


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