Culture Military

Samurai skillz

In the military, there is this thing called the Mission Essential Task List, or METL.  It is, exactly as it sounds, a list of everything that needs to be done — or be able to be done — in order for the unit or individual to accomplish their mission.  The concept, though no doubt much more doctrinalized now, is not new.

The Bugei Jūhappan, or “Eighteen Warrior Arts,” is a flexible list of tactics and techniques used by the Samruai warrior class of Tokugawa-era Japan, and it roughly corresponds to the modern METL.  I say flexible, here, because as you can see below, the list contains more than 18 disciplines.  And the core disciplines changed with the school, domain, or individual warrior.  The exact list varies by source, and is based on earlier Chinese concepts and traditions.

These arts (or tactics/techniques/procedures; TTPs) are essentially divided by a specific weapon or activity.  Each of these gave rise to individual schools, styles, or ryūha.  Though, several schools both past and present, include some, many, or most of these arts in their curriculum.  In my experience, it is a comparatively rare thing to find a traditional school that limits itself to exclusively one.  And in those rare cases, it is usually because a member of a school eventually splintered off from the parent ryūha, and sought to teach one particular art.

Throughout the various schools, each approaches each art differently, thus the different schools and philosophies that have developed over the centuries.  And (also in my experience) in the examples of a school teaching multiple arts, there is generally a unified approach to every art.  For example, an empty handed stance or posture may be identical, or only somewhat altered, from that of a sword stance, or spear stance.  In that way, each combat technique is much easier to digest when training.  Though, this is also not always the case.

As some of these arts have come to us in the modern era, the dying out of other schools has led to specific ryūha now influencing a specific art.  For example, Yabusame (mounted archery) has many fewer extant ryūha than say Jūjutsu (hand-to-hand combat, grappling).  Therefore, the remaining schools that do teach mounted archery maintain the only living examples of that art.  As such, our current understanding of the various historical approaches and philosophies is now very limited.

(It’s another conversation altogether to discuss *why* unarmed combat may have continued to flourish down through the centuries, while mounted archery has waned.  Indeed, there are many examples of derivative arts that have developed *from* Jūjutsu, with their own added modern approaches.)

I would also like to be clear that this list in no way completes the catalogue of skills that were known to Medieval Japanese warriors.  There are a significant number of weapons not listed, uncommon as they may have been.  And there are many sub-divided skills within the arts listed.  An example of a skill that was certainly prevalent, though is not listed, is Tenmon/Chimon (analyzing and exploiting weather and terrain).

These are things that a “fully trained” Samurai would have had to have had some education and experience in.  There were, here and there, actual Samurai schoolhouses that were sponsored by various Daimyo (lords), within which Samurai of that particular realm would study and train some or all of these arts.  It’s also worth noting here that *mastery* of any of these takes years.  And I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head who had mastered any 18 on this list.  Though, based on some schools teaching most of them, I’d say there have been plenty of people around who were capable enough in most of them…if not masters.

The list:

  • Bajutsu – horsemanship (in and out of combat)
  • Bōjutsu – short staff tactics and techniques
  • Chikujōjutsu – fortification and seiging
  • Hojōjutsu – rope and tying tactics and techniques (other modern…uh…applications)
  • Hōjutsu – firearms tactics and techniques (mostly concerned with firing; actual tactics as we would define them had not been developed)
  • Iaijutsu – sword [quick] drawing
  • Jūjutsu – unarmed combat (dominantly, though not exclusively, grappling)
  • Juttejutsu – baton tactics and techniques
  • Kenjutsu – swordsmanship
  • Kusarigamajutsu – chain and sickle tactics and techniques
  • Kyūjutsu – archery (at one time considered the highest war art)
  • Naginatajutsu – Japanese polearm tactics and techniques
  • Ninjutsu – espionage (among other things)
  • Shurikenjutsu – small thrown weapons tactics and techniques (typically spikes, not stars)
  • Sōjutsu – spearmanship
  • Suieijutsu – swimming and waterborne tactics and techniques (some schools specialized in specific types of water)
  • Tantōjutsu – knife tactics and techniques
  • Yabusame – mounted achery tactics and techniques
  • Yadomejutsu – arrow deflection
  • Yawara – wrestling (very related to Jūjutsu)

Modern note.  Imagine getting your Expert Marksmanship Badge in Basic Combat Training (a trick that takes you about two weeks).  Then imagine being told that in order to become fully licensed — fully expert — you’d need another approximately 10 years.  That would be the equivalent of what these guys faced.

I’ve trained certain specific arts hours a day, every single day for multiple years.  Tested as needed, and have achieved what you’d call a “black belt”…which is roughly equivalent to having graduated high school.  Mastery is getting your PhD.  And although you don’t need a PhD in Katana to cut someone and not die yourself, if you want to *understand* the Katana…you keep training.  And not all of the Samurai intended to reach that level of understanding.  Most of them just showed up to work everyday and did whatever they were supposed to do, met the standard.

But some…some of them absolutely aimed to transcend.

Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the masters.  Instead, seek what they sought.

It’s good to be back.

– Theo –


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2 years ago

Great to have you back writing somewhere

2 years ago

I’m actually comforted that a “black belt” is a high school equivalent. I’ve been progressing through color belts the past year and don’t feel like I’ve mastered much of anything yet. It’s disconcerting to barely scratch the surface every couple of months before going on to the next thing. Maybe it’s just an introduction, a first order approximation, a time to learn the language and basic movements. Then the real work can begin.

But more importantly: You’re writing again! <3

Scott Hooten
Scott Hooten
2 years ago

Awesome. Great to see your words in print again and on subjects near and dear.

Carol Lynne Luelo
Carol Lynne Luelo
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott Hooten

Good to see you here !

2 years ago

Glad to see you back writing. As my father always advised never stop learning. Or Jack of all trades, master of none. There is always something new to learn.

Joy B
Joy B
2 years ago

Heeee’s Baaaaack!! Yay!!

2 years ago

Once again you provoke a fair bit of thinking. Glad to be reading your articles once again.

Micky Mitchell
Micky Mitchell
2 years ago

Awesome article!

Susan B
Susan B
2 years ago

Good to get back into that fascinating world of your, O. I would never have crossed this topic on my own, but love it in the specialty articles you set before me. 🙂

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