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  Field Notes From
The Samurai Way



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The Samurai Way On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Tom O'Neill



The Samurai Way On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Michael Yamashita




The Samurai Way On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Ira Block



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Michael Yamashita (top), Amanda MacEvitt (center), and Ira Block


 

The Samurai Way

Field Notes From Author
Tom O'Neill

Best Worst Quirkiest
    Partying in the graveyard? Why not? That's what I thought when photographer Mike Yamashita called me late one afternoon and said I just had to get over to Aoyama Cemetery, one of Tokyo's largest graveyards. "The cherry blossoms are peaking—it's mid-April—and, well, see for yourself," Mike said.
    My interpreter, Toko Nagase, and I arrived at dark, and instead of gloomy quiet and unsettling shadows, we encountered bright lights, drunken laughter, and all kinds of delicious smells. Dozens of picnics were in full swing in the spaces between tombstones. So reserved and dutiful during the workday—and for much of the work year—Japanese salarymen had loosened their ties and voices and converged by the hundreds on this warm night to celebrate spring and the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms, a custom that goes back to medieval days.
    Toko and I joined the merrymaking by buying yakitori (roasted chicken and beef on skewers), popping a couple of beers, and toasting the short, strange adventure of life.


    One Sunday afternoon a long, expensive taxi ride brought me to the Tokyo Sword Museum just as it closed. Something about the frustration of missing a chance to see antique samurai swords opened a deeper cut: I realized I had no idea how to cover the mystique and power of the sword in samurai culture, a key element of my story.
    A reporter can read all the history, but without some dramatic, intimate hook on which to hang a subject, it stays inert. I had hit a wall (jet lag didn't help), and I voiced my despair to my interpreter in the museum lobby. 
    Fortunately my miserable words were overhead by a man sitting on a nearby couch. He introduced himself and mentioned that he was friendly with a leading Japanese sword scholar and one of the country's most celebrated sword makers.  Can you help me? I asked. He picked up the phone and within a couple of days I had completed two amazing interviews. This guardian angel accepted my thanks, shrugged off my offer of a lavish dinner, and said, "Write a good story." Admitting the worst is often the shortest way to discovering the best.


    On my way to the town of Kakunodate, site of Japan's best-preserved samurai houses, I reviewed in my books some of the samurai's most famous battles. My mind formed images of warriors charging across grassy valleys with raised swords and lances, their generals in heavy armor firing arrows from horseback. I kept reading to put myself in the proper mood to step back in time.
    When I disembarked at the train station, I noticed a crowd gathered in front of a giant TV screen. On it solders in camouflage uniforms ran beside tanks. Helicopter gunships were firing rockets into the middle of a city. Assault rifles crackled, and smoke from bombs clouded the air. We were watching the fall of Baghdad to American troops.
    These visceral shots of modern war unnerved me. I lost sight of the samurai. Later, when a guide described how local samurai troops had repelled an attack on the river bank some 150 years ago, all I could think of were gunships, bombed-out buildings, and dust-caked soldiers. I knew I would write no romanticized accounts of samurai warfare.


   


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