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The Sword Behind the Smile: Samurai Poker Face

Black Belt Plus

In Karate Way, often I’ve discussed the many Japanese idioms and sayings that refer to the sword. This aspect of colloquial Japanese reminds one of how deeply the sword and the warrior influenced the culture of that country. 

THINKING ABOUT THESE figures of speech, I remembered one that I heard as a child: umi no uchi no katana, “the sword behind the smile.” This is a curious saying. How should one interpret it? A smile behind the sword would seem obvious in meaning. You are ready, even eager to use the weapon and happy to do so. But the other way around? We associate smiles with politeness and friendliness. The sword hiding behind that seems incompatible. 

Much has been written about the politeness of the Japanese people in general and the samurai in particular. In Japan, the emphasis supposedly placed on manners is so pronounced that it’s almost a caricature. Old cartoons used to show the smiling Japanese bowing to his attacker before unleashing a judo throw or karate “chop.” Early accounts of martial arts in Japan de- tailed the conventions and etiquette that were supposed to be essential to the warrior spirit. Fights between samurai were thought of as a more pretentious version of Western dueling, with all sorts of conventions and rules. 

IN REALITY, combat for the samurai on the battlefield had virtually no rules. Studies conducted on the skeletal remains of those killed in battle have revealed that a significant percentage died from being struck by rocks. Other fatalities were inflicted by the edges of helmets that were used to bash skulls.

In duels, which became popular after 600 among the warrior class, the principle concern wasn’t adhering to protocol. It was satisfying strict govern- mental regulations about such things. The samurai were, after all, chattel. They were the property of their lords. Killing one in a duel could leave the killer open to a lawsuit for depriving the dead man’s lord of his property. 

So we should not place too much weight on the whole “politeness” aspect of the samurai’s behavior. The samurai were not necessarily courteous because it was nice to be so. They were mannered, at least in part, because it was a martial advantage to do so.

IF YOU’VE EVER WATCHED a boxing weigh-in, you know that scowling, grimacing and glowering can play a big role in pre-fight strategy. Similarly, confrontational displays like the famous Maori haka dances were once common in many societies. Displays meant to intimidate are central to much of the activity that precedes conflict, whether in a neighborhood bar or at the United Nations. 

The samurai indulged in this, to some degree. You can see it in the fierce, elaborately fearsome decorations on their armor. For the most part, however, trying to intimidate had limited effectiveness. Professional warriors are not easily frightened. The samurai didn’t do a lot of posturing because they didn’t want to give away any clues regarding their intentions. The more seriously you took your enemy, the less information you wanted to give him about your plan of attack. That included giving him any ideas about how tough you might be. 

There is a lot in the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai that’s wrong. (For example, assassins in medieval Japan did not carry Okinawan sai. And country folk, like those depicted in the movie, did not eat pure white rice. Their bowls were filled with rice mixed with millet and other grains because rice was too expensive to be eaten alone by the lower classes.) The portrayal of the samurai leader in the movie, however, is dead on. He smiles almost constantly, whether he’s angry or happy, plotting or relaxing. He doesn’t give any clues. He is smiling — with a sword always at the ready. 

SOME YEARS AGO, a behavioral scientist did a study that revealed that while Americans tend to look at a person’s mouth when trying to read his mind, Japanese are more likely to look at the eyes. The notion in Japanese culture is that the mouth is easier to control; the eyes can reveal more. This may be a clue as to why smiling — which Westerners often look at in one way — can mean something entirely different on a Japanese face. 

(Not incidentally, this has led to many problems in business negotiations between Westerners and the Japanese. Western businessmen complain bitterly that because their Japanese counterparts were smiling engagingly during talks, it was assumed everything was great — and they’re surprised that those smiling Japanese were completely opposed to the proposals on the table.) 

Certainly, we see this in the behavior that’s encouraged in a traditional dojo. Posturing, menacing expressions — these are not a part of train- ing. Not serious training, anyway. Instead, the focus is on heijo-shin, the “everyday mind” that reveals nothing and gives an opponent no clue as to our intentions. In fact, the enigmatic smile actually can be confusing to an enemy. “What’s he smiling for? What does he know that I don’t?”

A glowering face is easy to read in a conflict. A smile? That’s tougher to decipher, and the time and energy my opponent spends doing that is to my advantage. So what the casual observer may interpret as a friendly smile may be something entirely different.

You may not think about it, but your facial expression is part of your technical skill set. In real-life situations or in competition, there’s usually face-to-face contact before the action begins. The face you present to your opponent or your enemy can play a role in your strategy. Can a smile hide your own sword?

Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit and type his name into the search box.

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