A Tooth­pick When You’re Hun­gry

There was a say­ing in old Ja­pan: Bushi wa kuwanedo taka-yoji. Roughly trans­lated, it means “When he’s hun­gry, the sa­mu­rai uses a tooth­pick.”

Black Belt - - KARATE WAY - by Dave Lowry ABOUT THE AU­THOR: Dave Lowry has writ­ten Karate Way since 1986. For more in­for­ma­tion about his ar­ti­cles and books, visit black­belt­mag.com and type his name in the search box.

There are lay­ers of mean­ing to this. Un­der­stand­ing them gives us in­sight into the war­rior cul­ture that’s had such a di­rect ef­fect on the mar­tial arts we prac­tice to­day. IT’S FOOL­ISH to talk about sa­mu­rai as if they were a mono­lithic, nev­er­chang­ing in­sti­tu­tion in Ja­panese his­tory. The sa­mu­rai class var­ied widely in its makeup, in­flu­ence and be­hav­ior. There were pe­ri­ods when they were al­most con­stantly at war and times when they were lit­tle more than fop­pish dilet­tantes. Clearly, gen­er­al­iza­tions are im­pos­si­ble.

How­ever, over the cen­turies, a dis­crete cul­ture be­gan to take form. In part, prob­a­bly, be­cause of the class strat­i­fi­ca­tion that dom­i­nated so­cial and po­lit­i­cal life in Ja­pan, the sa­mu­rai came to see them­selves as dif­fer­ent. To be sure, they didn’t al­ways live up to their own col­lec­tive sense of self. It’s doubt­ful they were en­tirely aware of that sense in any com­pre­hen­sive way. They did, how­ever, un­der­stand that their role in so­ci­ety was un­like that of any other class. How an in­di­vid­ual re­acted to that, how he em­bod­ied it — or per­verted it — said much about him.

TO USE a tooth­pick — as if one has just eaten a sump­tu­ous meal, even though one’s belly is empty and aching — can im­ply many things. It can be pre­tense. Think of the guy who pur­chases a new lux­ury car on an al­ready maxed-out credit card and then drives around as if he’s fi­nan­cially flour­ish­ing even though the cred­i­tors are al­ready gath­er­ing at his door.

There were sa­mu­rai with tooth­picks who ab­so­lutely fit this be­hav­ior. They would swag­ger about with their twin swords, ar­ro­gant in their po­si­tion over the com­mon­ers who, iron­i­cally, were the source of ev­ery bite of food that went into their mouth. Yes, the samu- rai were looked up to by those of the lower castes, to some ex­tent, as ex­em­plars of virtue and self­less brav­ery. They were also mod­els of con­tempt, re­garded as par­a­sites. They were held up as fig­ures of ridicule, and the tooth­pick proverb can be in­ter­preted that way. It winds up be­ing about a haughty buf­foon pre­tend­ing to be well-fed and sat­is­fied when in re­al­ity, he’s noth­ing but a starv­ing fail­ure.

There’s an­other layer of mean­ing to be found in the im­age of the hun­gry sa­mu­rai with his tooth­pick, though. JA­PAN, THROUGH MUCH of its his­tory, has dealt with famine. The last of these oc­curred in the late 18th cen­tury, caused by bad weather and dis­as­trous gov­ern­ment poli­cies. Even in good times, hunger was a fre­quent part of daily life in Ja­pan. Ma­jor riots oc­curred when farm­ers and other pro­duc­ers ob­jected to high taxes, paid in rice, on dwin­dling food sup­plies. (In­ci­den­tally, in vir­tu­ally all these riots, farm­ers armed with rakes, hoes and other tools put the sa­mu­rai to rout.)

Dur­ing pe­ri­ods when hunger plagued Ja­pan, others could grum­ble and com­plain. The sa­mu­rai, how­ever, of­ten pro­jected an air of calm sto­icism. Think of an inn of the sort fre­quently de­picted in sa­mu­rai films. Farm­ers, mer­chants, the kat­sugi men who haul prod­ucts up and down the high­way — they’re all com­plain­ing about the cost and scarcity of food while long­ing for a meal that will leave their belly full in­stead of pinched. And there sits a sa­mu­rai, tooth­pick in mouth, say­ing noth­ing. His im­per­turbable self-con­trol has an ef­fect on the crowd. “Look at that sa­mu­rai,” they say. “He must be as hun­gry as we are, but see how he con­ducts him­self.” IN THIS WAY, we can see how a sa­mu­rai could be a model for others, dis­play­ing cool­ness, re­fus­ing to com­plain. This is a kind of lead­er­ship that came nat­u­rally to at least some of the sa­mu­rai class. They saw them­selves as spe­cial, as peo­ple who needed to serve as ex­em­plars, as men who had a duty to live up to the ex­pec­ta­tions of their po­si­tion. If we look at the say­ing in this light, we can see where a sa­mu­rai would have pre­tended to be full when he was ac­tu­ally hun­gry be­cause he be­lieved be­hav­ing in that man­ner would make others con­sider their own be­hav­ior.

To­day’s mar­tial artists are not sa­mu­rai, how­ever. Sa­mu­rai are so far from mod­ern so­ci­ety that it’s im­pos­si­ble to think of our be­ing re­lated to them any more than we could iden­tify with a gal­ley slave on a Ro­man ship. Life is just too dif­fer­ent. Nev­er­the­less, it’s use­ful for us to re­flect on our own roles, in the dojo and in life.

Do we think of our sta­tus as black belts, masters or ex­perts as a sign of how spe­cial we are? Do we saunter about the dojo as if we’re elit­ists, pos­sess­ing some re­mark­able tal­ents? If so, we can ex­pect that, like the pre­ten­tious sa­mu­rai with the tooth­pick, there are peo­ple who will be qui­etly ridi­cul­ing us. We will be seen as ar­ro­gant, grandiose clowns.

If, on the other hand, we re­gard our train­ing as a means to be­come more hon­est and to pol­ish our in­tegrity, we should see, as well, that there must be ex­pec­ta­tions of us. We can set the stan­dard for good, un­selfish be­hav­ior. We can act in such a way as to make others look up to us.

Ev­ery­one knows, if not true hunger, at least some level of dis­com­fort in life. How we re­act to it, like the sa­mu­rai with his tooth­pick, says much about the se­ri­ous­ness of our mar­tial arts train­ing.

The sa­mu­rai were looked up to by those of the lower castes. They were also mod­els of con­tempt.

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