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Great Martial Arts Books

by Meik Skoss

Aikido Journal #105 (1995)

I think Groucho Marx was the one who said it: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” This column is a short list of the books on the different martial arts and related subjects that have helped me in my own studies, and that I would like to recommend to you. Several are very well known, maybe even classics. Some may be obscure to people who haven’t read much about martial culture or military history. A few may even be a little far afield of the “usual” list of likely suspects in a martial arts rag and are examples of my personal taste. Still, I can honestly say that I think these books have been useful, thought-provoking, and good friends. Dunno if they’ll give you all the answers you ever wanted, but I’ll bet they will help you ask a few of the right questions.

To begin, there is The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu. The version I prefer is the one translated by Samuel B. Griffith, if for no other reason than that he was a career USMC officer who fought in World War II and afterward. Later, he continued his studies and this book is a publication of his dissertation for a Ph.D. at Oxford University. The edition by Thomas Cleary (from Shambhala) is good enough, but he appears to be merely a scholar. In my opinion, he doesn’t have the kind of experience or necessary expertise to really understand the subject.

It wouldn’t hurt to compare Sun Tzu with two of the Western authorities on warfare and strategy: Jomini, also titled The Art of War, and Clausewitz, On War. There are many editions of these works, both of which have served as a sort of “bible” for generations of professional military officers in the West.

On martial arts in general, Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, written by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith is one of the first encyclopedic books on Asian martial culture. A bit out of date in some respects, it is still, in my mind, the best over-all introduction to Asian martial culture. Available in a paperbound edition from Kodansha International. Draeger also wrote three books, all from Weatherhill, on the Japanese martial arts and ways. They are titled Classical Bujutsu, Classical Budo, and Modern Bujutsu and Budo. These have long served as the standard books on the subject and are important sources. Buy them!

Koryu Bujutsu: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan, is a collection of essays about the historical, psychological, and technical aspects of the classical martial arts. All of these essays were written by foreigners who have lived and trained in Japan for an extended period of time. The book was edited by Diane Skoss and published by Koryu Books. The plans are for it to be the first of a series of somewhere between three and five companion volumes.

The three books by Draeger, the one co-authored by Draeger and Smith, and the essay collection edited by Skoss, should be required background reading for anybody studying a Japanese or Okinawan martial discipline. Indeed, they would serve well for every serious student of any of the Asian martial arts.

Regarding the individual Japanese and Okinawan martial arts in their own right, there are a number of books that should be on everyone’s shelves. I suppose listing them alphabetically, by art, is the most efficient way to do this.

Starting with aikido, there are several excellent technical volumes. The Bieri/Mabuchi translation of Budo Training in Aikido, by Morihei Ueshiba, Minato Research Co. (long extremely expensive and difficult to obtain, now generally available in a trade paperback edition), and Aikido, by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, published by Japan Publications (again, Larry Bieri was the translator) are books that will serve very well. Actually, they’re the best books of technique available. Kodansha International has a fairly recent publication, Budo: Teachings of the Founder of Aikido, which is a collection of prewar technical photographs and writings by Morihei Ueshiba, translated by John Stevens. It makes a good companion to Budo Training in Aikido. Another book I can highly recommend is Gaku Homma’s Children and the Martial Arts, a North Atlantic publication. Although it is focused on children and aikido, I think that it would be good for teachers of anymartial art, regardless of their students’ ages.

An interesting collection of Ueshiba’s thought, Essence of Aikido: The Spiritual Teachings of Morihei Ueshiba, should also be included on your reading list. John Stevens translated this book, too, and Kodansha International published it. Usually, I think Stevens is way out there in the bozone with his absolute worship of “Morihei’s Martial Mastery,” but he did a good job with these two books.

For historical aspects of the art several works published by Aiki News are good: Aikido Masters: Prewar Students of Morihei Ueshiba, and Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu, a book on the Daito-ryu and its history, both edited by Stanley Pranin. To get a good overview of the art, The Aiki News Encyclopedia of Aikido is, of course, essential.

Iaido has become more and more widely practiced outside of Japan and there seems to have been a sudden increase in books on the subject. All things considered, I think G. Warner’s and D.F. Draeger’s book, Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique & Practice, is still the best around, although I have a few quibbles with it. It’s published by Weatherhill. Another book that is of interest is Toshihiro Obata’s Naked Blade, from Dragon Books. It covers Toyama-ryu battojutsu.

There have been some other books on Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Mugai-ryu that I’ve seen, but I have not found them to be very good in terms of either the content or overall design. Several other books are out, one from England on Seitei Iaido, the other an American volume about a made-up “combination” of two well-known classical schools, the Itto and Katori Shinto-ryu. The latter volume is of quite a dubious character (it is really little more than a very poor demonstration of Seitei Iaido). They are of no value whatever, so be sure not to waste your money on them.

Jodo is next. There’s not a great deal available in English, unfortunately. Jodo: the Way of the Stick, written by Pascal Krieger and published by the Association helv