Monday, November 05, 2012

Lone Wolf and Bamboo Spear

 In my continuing efforts to ensure that I destroy myself I have started up yet another blog. This blog on the website Team Liquid, which is the largest community site for things related to the game Starcraft, will be naturally dedicated to things dealing with the limited amount of time I get to spend gaming every week. This blog will join the scattered and rag tag band of social online media that I try to run. I have this blog that I do not update as frequently as I used to. I have 3 tumblrs. A Twitter account I don't use much anymore. I have a Chamorro email sentence list I send out every day or so. I also have a weekly column in the Marianas Variety. In addition to all of this I am also doing National Novel Writing Month this month and although I already have 3000 words, I feel like I am behind.

The title of my Starcraft blog is "The Bamboo Spear."

I love writing about nerd-related things because I like to combine that aspect of my life, with my love for knowledge and history. As Starcraft 2 is a real time strategy game, where players mass armies and then hurl them at each other, the history that I teach in classes about warfare and the way it has changed over time, fits perfectly. 

Calling my new blog "The Bamboo Spear" is a perfect example of that.

The bamboo spear is a concept that was formed during the rapid period of modernization that Japan underwent during the 20th century. Japanese warrior hood developed in many ways through the expression of individual warriors prowess and skill honing. The samurai class however was slowly phased out by the end of the 20th century, for obvious reasons that they represented an entrenched, patrician warrior class, that needed to disappear to make way for a modern military system to take root. While modern system of warfare still require training and skill building, they are more focused on putting a particular set of weapons into the hands of soldiers. These weapons are supposed to be the best available at any time and will give their soldiers an edge against any others.

Although the samurai class was formally disbanded in the 19th century, the fact that it left the corporeal world, meant that it could become the stuff ideal for fantasies and myth making, something that is essential in how any nation conjures up its warrior identities (something that you can understand if you consider the way George W. Bush asserted himself as a "war president." Because he also exuded a sort of cowboy aura, it almost made sense for him to be reckless and violent, and so his war mongering became more acceptable in its time because of the way he seemed to match the mythical images that Americans had about how they wage war). Once the samurai were no longer the sort of tyrant war lord class, they could become the heroes of ole, and as Japan modernized and became poised to join their Western rivals in acquiring an empire, the spirit of the samurai underwent a transformation whereby all Japanese could now claim to possess it.

This became very important as Japan sought to expand its empire. The early victories of Japan in the 20th century came against countries that were considered to be more advanced than Japan by world opinion, China and Russia, but in practical terms were hardly so. But as Japan advanced further and further, they found that while the direct imperial interests of Europeans were waning, the interests of the US were increasing. The US held colonies in Guam and in the Philippines, and although their presence in both places was minimal (the US was training Filipinos and preparing to give the country its independence in the mid 1940's, and Guam was deemed an impossible to defend location and was simply abandoned to the Japanese in 1941), the US as a younger and more industrially robust nation, would be something Japan must be cautious about.

When the war began Japanese war planners knew that they would always be behind the US in terms of technology and the infrastructure of war. The US had the largest industrial economy in the world at the time, and if it was converted into a war time economy, Japan would have no hope of keeping up.

The Bamboo Spear is one of the philosophical ways that Japanese military strategist argued that they could keep pace with the ability of the US to wage war. Although the US was better technologically, they lacked the warrior soul of the Japanese. And in the minds of the Japanese and most philosophies of war, that soul was what won battles. If men had a determination and resolve stronger than steel, it did not matter if your opponents had weapons of steel while you fought with wood. The image of the Bamboo Spear was one that combined different archetypal elements of war from Japanese history. It on the one hand invoked the figure of the master of fighting, for whom anything can be a weapon, and who can defeat you before you can even think, because of his spiritual and mental superiority. It also however invoked a very anti-samurai image. The image of a lowly peasant fighting for everything with nothing more than a simple bamboo spear, but able to hold off seasoned and trained warriors, with not so much the weapon in his hand, but the strength and power of his soul. The Bamboo Spear brought together a formerly very elite notion of Japanese power into something that was very horizontal in its national appeal, something that claimed that the Japanese did haven't an inherent power that could help them win over their technologically advanced enemies.

As we know, things did not work out this way. The Japanese should have already known that the Europeans underwent a similar realization of the ways in which modern war is both inhuman and anti-human during World War I. The bravery that French, German and British soldiers showed along entrenched battlelines did little to nothing against the waiting bombs, chemical weapons and machine guns. The Bamboo Spear ideology pushed the Japanese to levels of sacrifice and self-sacrifice that I would argue are unequaled by any other country during World War II (although you could make arguments for China and Russia). They killed themselves in huge numbers and conducted suicide missions in huge numbers. 

I find the most haunting rendition of the Bamboo Spear concept from the manga Lone Wolf and Cub. Ogami Itto, former executioner for the Shogun wanders Japan with his young son Daigoro, seeking vengeance against the Yagyu and their leader Retsudo for the death of his wife and the loss of his post. By the end of the manga, Ogami has killed all who stood in his way, including the children of Retsudo.

Retsudo, who is already old and prior to the rampage of Ogami, sees the determination of his foe and calls in every Yagyu asset, including their elite “Grass” forces from around Japan. The first battle between Ogami and Retsudo was epic, but ultimately ended in a draw. In preparation for their second and final battle, Retsudo has the Grass attack first through deceit, one of their members is sent to “polish” Ogami’s sword when in truth, he actually weakens its integrity.

After that the Grass ninja assault Ogami in multiple ways from multiple fronts. They all fall, but not in vain. Those who strike first do so with the intent to kill their opponent. After this proves futile and no one can seem to break his guard, they change their strategy.

Towards the end of the Grass attacks, they don’t even attempt to hurt Ogami himself, but instead attack with swords in metal scabbards. Knowing that they cannot actually wound him, they instead give up their lives in order to strike a blow or two at his great dotanuki. Even if they cannot strike the killing blow, or even strike the blow that breaks his sword, every hit is meant to build up to the moment where at least the seemingly unstoppable Lone Wolf can be deprived of his weapon and his ability to fight.

The writer alludes to the will of heaven being on Ogami’s side. That while the lay of the land, the masses against a single warrior (with a child strapped to his back for most of the fight) might seem to tilt against the Lone Wolf and Cub, it is heaven who decides who is the victory in any battle. But through the sacrifice of the grass, the way they changed their tactics to not go from being the one who strikes the killing blow, but rather reminiscent of the great Haitian General Toussaint L’Overture, the one who makes the opening. 

This dimension of sacrifice is present in all wars, but it becomes clouded and obscured as it is not something for polite conversation. It is part of the calculus of war in which human beings are numbers to be crunched. It is part of the brutish nature of war, where not everyone can be heroes and not every sacrifice is noble or even worth it. Sometimes it is the grinding of flesh, the piling of bodies in order to achieve an end. It is fundamentally anti-human, but it is necessary to win wars.

It can be inspiring in its own way, but the singular hero, standing above the fray will always dominate our understanding of war as it is an easier concept to integrate. It is much more comforting to believe in.

But as you read Lone Wolf and Cub and see wave after wave of Grass ninja smash against the blade and hell-bound tenacity of Ogami Itto, you can see why the Japanese during their age of imperialism could have believed themselves capable of taking on anyone. So long as they possessed that fanatical ability, that willingness to sacrifice, they could crack the armor of anything, and overcome anyone.

The short conversation between Ogami Itto and the last of the Grass Ninja Kagami Tenzen is one of my favorite from the entire manga. I have typed it up below.

KAGAMI TENZEN: Itto! We damaged your dotanuki! Not Retsudo-Sama! We alone!

KAGAMI TENZEN: Do you call us cowards?

OGAMI ITTO: No! Such trickery is a part of battle, I thought my guard was perfect.
OGAMI ITTO: It was cunning worthy of the Yagyu’s Shinobi.

Kagami Tenzen, the last of the Grass, as he is dying from a sword in his chest present Ogami with a rosary.

KAGAMI TENZEN: A ninja’s life, like these seeds. Hard. Plain.

KAGAMI TENZEN: We die at our master’s whim.

KAGAMI TENZEN: And thus we make rosaries from the seeds of the corpse tree.

KAGAMI TENZEN: The corpse tree. Some say the Bodhi tree of the Sutras.

KAGAMI TENZEN: Beneath that tree the Buddha received enlightenment. How better to pray for our souls?

KAGAMI TENZEN: And for the souls of you and your son.

KAGAMI TENZEN: And so let us pray.

Warrior’s way. Shinobi’s way.

KAGAMI TENZEN: Why do we fight, humans all?

KAGAMI TENZEN: The grass withers, your life drains away.

KAGAMI TENZEN: Pray. Accept the rosary of the grass.

KAGAMI TENZEN: Pray the rosary of the corpse tree…

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