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The tactical belts, “Sakura” blade, and other gear that Tu Lam has designed for Ronin Tactics are truly cutting edge. But they’re inspired by traditions that are hundreds of years old.

Amber Hargrove sat down with Tu Lam to learn more about the history he brings to his personal defense classes and tactical designs.

Tu Lam’s life story begins just a few months before the fall of Saigon. He spent his toddlerhood in a refugee camp with his mother and his boyhood amidst Green Berets at Fort Bragg. His biography only gets more interesting from there, so don’t miss this video. What he says sticks with you.

Several times in the interview, Tu Lam alludes to how Japanese history and culture have contributed to this thinking, the way he trains others, and his gear designs.

True confession: My own knowledge of these traditions is pretty much limited to Shogun, a blockbuster miniseries in the 1980s starring Richard Chamberlain as an English sailor who loses his way in feudal Japan. He endures many trials and tribulations, but his chestnut locks remain awesome.

Shogun TV Guide cover

(Image: Vintage Ninja)

Much of what we see in American TV shows like Shogun or movies like The Last Samurai, however, is myth. Samurai films from acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa are more faithful to reality.

Clearly, I need to do some book learning about the history and traditions Tu Lam mentioned. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, along with some links to the articles that helped me get up to speed on the Samurai.

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Quick-Start Guide To Samurai

Tu Lam’s first duty station as a Green Beret was Okinawa, Japan. (Throughout his twenties, he served in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. He got to know Asia very well.)

He first learned about martial arts from his uncle, his step-dad, and their Special Forces colleagues stationed at Fort Bragg when he was a boy. But it was at his first post in Okinawa, Japan that he began to learn more about Japanese Samurai.

“Samurai” is Japanese for “those who serve.” In feudal Japan (beginning around 800), the samurai were an elite military class that served powerful and wealthy landowners. Their occupation and status changed as Japanese politics and culture changed. The Samurai tradition officially ended in 1868, when the Meiji Restoration ended the feudal system in Japan. Even so, the Samurai has continued to influence Japanese culture. In World War II, Kamakazi pilots were photographed climbing into their cockpits with Samurai swords on their belts. Admittedly, this was mostly propaganda. The soldiers would ditch the unwieldy, ceremonial weapons before they took off, this podcast explains.

Samurai blacksmith

A “fox spirit” inspires a blacksmith. (Wikimedia Commons)

Samurai Swords

The katana you’re likely most familiar with emerged during the 12th century, when Mongol invaders ravaged Japan. The Samurai charged with defense had to modify older sword designs to cut through the tough, boiled leather armor the Mongols wore. The katana’s curved design came in handy during close combat with Mongol enemies.

samurai with katana

19th-century samurai with ceremonial katana (Wikipedia Commons)

The Bushido Code

Tu Lam briefly mentions this code of ethics in his interview with Amber. The word “bushido” comes from the Japanese word “bushi,” which means warrior. To learn more about Bushido, check out this article from one of my favorite sites and podcasts, The Art of Manliness.

Ronin with sword

19th-century Ukiyo-e print illustration showing Ronin, sword in hand, moving towards a long-handled sword (naginata) (Library of Congress)

Ronin: The Wave Men

During periods of peace, Samurai were sometimes underemployed. Samurai who didn’t have a master to serve were called “Ronin.” Some became warriors for hire. But the idea that all Ronin were thugs is a misconception, scholars say. Many became trainers, schooling their pupils in sword fencing, martial arts, and meditation.

Ronin means “wave man” in Japanese—a man who needs to make his own way in the world and sometimes must wander from place to place. Notably, Tu Lam named his company and his training courses after the Ronin. He is a man who spent some of his toddlerhood literally drifting on the waves with other Vietnamese refugees in a boat, and he has been stationed all over the world. “That’s why I call myself a Ronin,” he tells Amber in the interview. “I need to find my internal strength.”

The Book of Five Rings

In 1645 (and just before he died), a Ronin named Miyamoto Musashi completed The Book of Five Rings. It’s available in modern English translations, including this one. There’s also a graphic novel that covers the book’s main points. In the interview, Tu Lam explains how much Musashi’s book has influenced his own thinking.

Musashi’s book is about much more than fighting. “The Book of Five Rings is, like The Art of War, a remarkable resource for entrepreneurs and other leaders seeking an understanding of modern warfare—also known as business, or politics,” writes Waylon Lewis in Elephant Journal. In The Book of Five Rings, Musashi applies the principles of fighting a good fight to set down the principles of living a good life in general.

Example: As a warrior, Musashi used two swords, one short and one long. Musashi expands the dual sword technique he’d perfected as a warrior into a philosophical approach to life—that you should always make good use of all the tools you have available to you.

Mushashi’s Best Quotes

Much of Mushashi’s advice is about how to develop on keen perception and an internal strength that allows you to cope with whatever outside circumstances throw at you. Here are some of my favorites lines from The Book of Five Rings:

  • “There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within.”
  • “Accept everything just the way it is.”
  • “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”
  • “You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain”
  • “Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.”
  • “If you wish to control others you must first control yourself”
  • “Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”