Songbook From the 16th-Century Spells Out Samurai Customs, Tactics and Baby Names

The newly translated Japanese text offers kernels of advice to warriors who had yet to face battle

Tsukahara Bokuden sur le lac Biwa
Wikimedia Commons

Study archery, show respect for horses, drink a little alcohol before a battle (but don’t overindulge), be sure to pack some sun-dried plums, and never be concerned about whether you will live or die. These are some of the rules and kernels of advice offered to samurai warriors in newly translated 450-year-old Japanese text called The Hundred Rules of War.

The text includes a series of instructional songs for warriors who had yet to face battle, offering practical advice about selecting the right sized horse, using a spear in battle and cultivating bravery. It also gives advice on baby names: the best samurai name, it argues, is Yumi, which means “bow,” Owen Jarus reports for Live Science.

Much of the advice in the book is attributed to Tsukahara Bokuden, a legendary swordsman of the Sengoku period (circa 1467 to 1567), a century marked by war and upheaval. But Eric Shahan, a translator specializing in martial arts texts, who completed the English translation of The Hundred Rules of War, cautions crediting Bokuden as the true author. "I have no way to confirm how authentic [the book] is," he tells Jarus of Live Science.

Shahan has experience translating Japanese documents with mysterious origins. Just recently, he translated The Sword Scroll, a medieval samurai text, which contains passages that have been attributed to two different samurai warriors, from different time periods.

Shahan, himself a martial arts devotee, says it’s important to date all of these documents correctly in order to lay out the history and evolution of martial arts. He notes that books on martial arts didn’t appear in Japan until the 1600s, when the country unified under the Tokugawa shogunate.

Bokuden, the possible author of The Hundred Rules of War, would have been a great source of advice on warfare and life. Bokuden was renowned for his skill as a swordsman but also for his ability to use his cleverness to circumvent violence. In one folk tale, recounted by martial arts scholar Susan Lynn Peterson, he encounters a bully who laughs at him when he says his style of fighting is “the school of no sword.” Bokuden challenges the ruffian to a fight, saying they should go out to an island where they can fight undisturbed. The bully gets out on the island and Bokuden pushes boat back into the water, leaving his opponent stranded and calling out behind him that this is the school of no sword.

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