„Care killed the cat“

Kasamatsu Shirō (1898–1991): Moonlit Night with Cat (1958)
„Curiosity killed the cat!“
This English proverb should be familiar to many. Cats are curious and this curiosity may kill them. The proverb warns people of unnecessary investigations or experiments, which could probably often bring misfortune.

But old proverbs have a habit of possessing much different meanings nowadays than originally intended. And this is exactly the case with the cat and its „curiosity“.

The original was quite different: „Care killed the cat“ and comes from a play by the English poet and playwright Benjamin Jonson (1572 – 1637), one of the most important playwrights of the English Renaissance, along with William Shakespeare. Both, by the way, were rivals.

In the context of the play where the quote appears, „care“ is defined as worry, anxiety or fear. And now the whole thing has a completely different meaning as the cat’s death is caused by too much fear and insecurity! Lo and behold.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the modern version using „curiosity“ came into existence.

This brief excursion into English theater history was necessary, yes…  🙂

In a recent conversation about martial arts, the topic switched to the importance of curiosity. I quickly realized how extremely important curiosity was for me to join the Hokushin Ittō-Ryū Hyōhō. And this curiosity has not diminished since!
But I also became painfully aware of how people often cannot muster up curiosity, especially in the classical Japanese martial arts, the Koryū-bujutsu. Interest is there, no doubt. But that should not be confused with curiosity.

Essentially, I am talking about the curiosity to take what has been learned over the years to the next level. Even for the practice of Taryū-jiai or Tameshiai in the old days, curiosity was probably the main driving force.

Kata-geiko is of course an essential part for the study of Budō. Even more so when it comes to Sōgo-bujutsu, that is, the application of different weapons within a Ryūha. One must study intensively the various characteristics of each tool (weapon) and learn how the school principles are to be used in the process.

But my understanding is, that Kata-geiko was never the ultimate purpose of even a single, classical school of warfare. Unfortunately, however, this is the prevailing opinion today.

One may argue that the „environment“ has changed in the decades after World War II and that Kata-geiko today basically defines or must define Koryū-bujutsu.

I do not take away anyone’s belief in this interpretation, but certainly I do not entertain this thought.

The curiosity to be able to freely and successfully apply the principles learned in Kata-geiko is just too strong and the experiences gained just too convincing.

Back to Benjamin Jonson, the English playwright: in his youth he was once a soldier in an English regiment in the Netherlands where he engaged in combat. And in 1598 he killed a man in a duel which took place in Hoxton Fields, a northern part of London. Probably, the man had a fairly good idea of what kills you and what does not.

(This is the translation of an article written and published back in 2018)


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