On 3 May 2010, I fought in a re-enactment of the Battle of Kawanakajima in Yamagata-ken. I really wanted to start this post by saying I rode into battle, or even that I strode into battle, but, in truth, I stumbled out of a river hacking and coughing into battle.
Back in January, a friend I met thanks to the bizarrely small world of Japan studies invited me to participate in the fourth battle of Kawanakajima (川中島戦い 第四次合戦) as part of the Yonezawa Uesugi Matsuri during Golden Week. While foreign women are sometimes allowed to participate in some Japanese costume parades and re-enactments, we wouldn’t be playing the role of handmaidens. All the extras, regardless of ethnicity or sex, got to play samurai. Getting to cross-dress in a period costume and hit people with a fake sword for a whole day? That’s like Christmas, Halloween, and a trip to Takarazuka all rolled into one!
We arrived around 9 am at Yonezawa High School, which is adjacent to the battlefield. Volunteers helped dress us in armor, and when I looked at my reflection in the mirror, I barely recognized myself. My foot-soldier outfit was a short white under-kimono, tabi, and a pair of red monpe as under-armor; on top, I had boots, shin guards, armored sleeves, and an armored tunic with a belt for my sword and my banner. I absolutely loved wearing the armor, especially the arm-guards, mainly because they looked like Ashitaka’s from Mononoke-hime.
After we all got dressed, we went out to the “camp” to practice sword fighting and discuss battle tactics. Running in formation proved more difficult than I had thought it would due to some turns—it was really hard to keep track of where the people on either side of me were going. Still, running in the light armor was surprisingly easy. Afterward, we ate a manly lunch of Yonezawa beef in a bento.*
The battle wasn’t until 2 pm, so we had a lot of time to kill posing for photos and watching the crowds and other participants. Around this time, the spectators started showing up in droves. The rest of our commanding officers arrived, and as I photographed them waiting in line for water with the rest of us, a man dressed as a ninja rolled up on a bicycle. While I stood there slack-jawed, he hopped off and went into our tent as if this were a perfectly normal mode of transportation for a ninja. I should note that a daytime ninja wears brown, not black, to blend in with the natural surroundings.
Our side, the army of the Takeda Shingen (武田信玄), was the “away team.” We were going to fight on the turf of the Uesugi Kenshin (上杉 謙信 ) and his army, who, in Yamagata, are the “good guys” and come to the battle in a grand parade. When they finally marched across the bridge in their procession to the cheers of the crowd, we received orders to get in formation. Heads held high, we marched onto the battleground. Before the actual battle, the generals made grand speeches and toasted while we lowly foot soldiers, who were all raring to go, sat and baked in the heat. The tiles on the dark-colored armor were hot to the touch, and we were roasting by the time the battle actually started. Alas, the life of a low-ranking samurai was less glamorous than I had hoped. But then a sudden gush of wind began blowing the sakura off the trees and onto the battlefield.
Thanks to a cold snap this spring, the sakura had bloomed later and stayed longer nationwide. In Fukushima and Yamagata, they were still in full bloom during Golden Week, whereas in areas more to the west, our sakura season had ended weeks ago. There is, of course, the famous saying
「花は桜木、人は武士」–Among flowers, the cherry; among men, the samurai. The association of the sakura’s short but blazing glory with that of the warrior who dies in battle is a motif one sees over and over in Japanese literature and film. **
Struck by the imagery of the moment, I got my motivation back from the clutches of the cruel sun just in time for the initial skirmish. In order to prevent trampling and heat stroke, no one was allowed to “die” (fall over and play dead after receiving a hit to a critical point like the chest or stomach), but damned if we didn’t try to kill them all anyway. I dueled with several women on the opposing side, and technically killed them all within three strokes. I can understand saving your strength for the real battle, but the women (and a good number of the boys) weren’t even trying to fight back! I had just baked in the sun for hours on end to fulfill my primal competitive needs to hit people with a fake sword (what are sports, after all?), and dammit, it’s a battle, not a tea party! Fight me or get off the field!
The first skirmish didn’t last long, and when our commander shouted 行け！, the command to retreat, we booked it off the field. To my amusement, our army retreated straight through the bleachers full of spectators, and, to twist Eddie Izzard’s words, what could be more surprising than the First Battalion Foreign Transvestite Brigade? I got equal amounts of 「ええ？！外国人だ？」(“Eh? A foreigner?”) and「すてき〜」(“How handsome!”). Apparently there are a good number of foreign participants each year, and this year was certainly no exception, but everyone from the spectators to our own army seemed shocked at not just that so many of us were non-Japanese but that so many of us were also women.
Panting from running in the heat, we crossed the river via the bridge, where we got stared out by pedestrians and drivers alike. Since we were supposed to look the part, I kept my back straight, my head high, and didn’t smile. On the other side of the bridge was the path leading down to the river bank, and we headed down that road to wait for our next set of orders.
Click here for part two.
*In Japan, eating (red) meat is still associated with masculinity—hence the term 草食男子 (herbivore men) for the “new breed” (really, the new gender) of young men everyone is up in arms about.
** That is not to say that Japan is all cherry blossoms and bushido but that Japanese culture loves this image in the way Americans love the image of cowboys, freedom, and the open range.