The Good and Ugly of Olden Times

This was posted in my martial arts blog, Jissen Budoka, as well.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Japan’s past recently. In my spare time, I’m working on rewrites for a novel in which 14th century Japan features prominently. Being my first foray into historical fiction, I’m finding the need to go back and do a lot of research about the time because the quick and dirty draft I wrote needs a lot of gussying up. I just finished reading Charles Dunn’s Everyday Life in Imperial Japan,  which is about a later period but one which would have shared much in common when it comes to everyday life. Presently, I’m reading The Taiheiki–which is about the 14th century, but which blends fact and fiction.

Doing such research encourages one to consider what it meant to live during that time. We all build constructs of the world to adjust for our limitations in knowledge. Some of these constructs hold up better than others, but they’re all simplifications. When one reflects upon a time before one’s experience–and particularly regarding a place with which one has limited familiarity–there are two major forms of fallacious reasoning that can take hold:

1.) The Golden Age Fallacy: This is the thought that everything was better back in the day–back before humanity started slouching toward craptasticness.

2.) The Outhouse Fallacy: This is the idea that any society that couldn’t manage indoor plumbing couldn’t possibly be worthy of emulation.

Of course, these simplifications are both true and false in some regard, and–as absolute statements–are absolutely false. The truth is something more like what Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested in Self-Reliance. Emerson described society as a wave, receding on one side as quickly as it advanced on the other. In other words, changes maybe seen as progress, but they also bring about the destruction of valuable knowledge. In martial arts terms, the spear becomes obsolete and the art of spear-fighting dies.

LastSamuraiThe movie entitled The Last Samurai revolves around this premise. Of course, in Hollywood fashion the forces of modernity are made entirely villanous and our heroes, the samurai, are entirely virtuous. In a way the movie is perverse in that it suggests we root for the medieval approach over our own.

When considering feudal Japan, Golden Agers point to it as a time during which virtue was paramount, craftsmanship was exquisite, and much culture flourished. They are right; but don’t set your time machine just yet because Outhouse Agers are also correct when they say that it was a time during which most of the population had no rights, wars ravaged the country, and in which farmers were not allowed to partake of many of the products they produced–but rather had to feed and cloth their families with inferior substitutes.

One should be careful to neither romanticize nor vilify the samurai. We should keep what is of value of the old ways without being a slave to the worst ways of our predecessors’ nature. One shouldn’t abandon everything old on the assumption that by definition everything abandoned to the past is refuse.

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