In this series of articles, we examine parts of Master Yoshio Sugino’s seminal book Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu Budo Kyohan (A Textbook of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu Martial Training), published in Japan in 1941.
In this passage, Sugino Sensei discusses some important points about iaijutsu.
The Value of Iaijutsu in Modern Times
“From ancient times, the Japanese sword is the warrior’s spirit, it has been said. Today, at this time, not only warriors, but all Japanese people’s spirit (this is written in 1941). Learning how to use this Japanese sword is IAI JUTSU.
Through this IAI JUTSU, mind and body is trained and polished. Together with this, Japanese spirit is planted and grows. In modern times, war is fought scientifically with new weapons, but the thing that should be the root of it is the people themselves.
Mostly, during war, if a soldier’s spirit is inferior, then it doesn’t matter what new weapons we use. It will be impossible for enough power to fight to come out.
At the end, the last thing which decides, without modern weapons, with muscles fighting, we have to fight with the Japanese sword. In this situation, I think, for spirit and mind to develop, using sword study, IAI JUTSU’s value you cannot help but see.
On the other hand, in peace time, during daily life, through the true sword’s spirit power, to have and to hold is an inevitable, important factor.
From the beginning, IAI JUTSU was in the world a unique thing. Born in Japan in god’s technique it is called and this is not unnatural I think. To the Japanese sword I have dedicated myself, life and death, one unity of state of mind, an old soldier can get enlightenment (SATORI) from this way of life, to take and have, our teaching he must do I think.
At the same time today, through well done IAI JUTSU, working through the unique Japanese way, should be most natural.
This IAI JUTSU training, I eagerly recommend to do. The important reasons and merits let us list up:
-it doesn’t need a wide space.
-it doesn’t need strength of body. It doesn’t have arm power; that is not related.
-it doesn’t need an opponent.
-with a short time, you can learn to train.
-equipment is easy and simple and not expensive. ”
The 16th Year of Shōwa
Chiba-ken, Katori-gun, Katori-cho
Sugino Yoshio & Ito Kikue (1941). Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu Budo Kyohan.
In this excerpt, Sugino Sensei discusses iaijutsu. I like the way he expresses his views in this passage. It is sweeping and grandiose in its emotional impact and yet he makes some important philosophical points about the value of such an antiquated art form. Let’s look at some of the things he said.
“From ancient times, the Japanese sword is the warrior’s spirit, it has been said.”
“… through the true sword’s spirit power”
is no other weapon that epitomizes the image and spirit of the
warrior than a sword.
It is a primal weapon from our primordial days: a three-foot piece of sharpened iron.
It is a beautiful weapon: balanced, strong, deadly.
And in the case of the Japanese sword, it is a piece of art: polished, burnished, clear like a mirror. It is not just any three-foot piece of sharpened iron. It is a work of art.
It is a spiritual weapon: blessed by the gods and imbued, as tradition has it, by the spirit of a god. In ancient times, certain or special swords were thought to be imbued with magical powers, either inherently (i.e., Shinto) or divinely given (i.e., Buddhism). There are many old legends about swords with magical powers. And in the making of most blades, the swordsmith had the blade blessed by a god. In these cases, the sword was thought to have part of the divine spirit in it. And in other cases, it was believed that part of the smith's own spirit went into the blade during the making of the blade. There is a story of a sword made by one of Masamune's students, who was a violent and ill-tempered man, which no one dared possess because it was believed that this sword made whomever wielded it blood-thirsty because of the evil spirit contained in the blade.
With the advent of Bushido, the sword became representative of the soul and spirit of samurai: sharp, strong, beautiful in its symmetry, serene in the coldness of its steel.
“Through this IAI JUTSU, mind and body is trained and polished.”
It is Zen in action. The complete unity of mind and body in perfect coordination, with no distractions and no complications. All becomes one, in perfect harmony.
“Together with this, Japanese spirit is planted and grows.”
Japanese spirit is the spirit of Bushido. This warrior code is the one philosophy which has permeated all facets of Japanese tradition and custom.
“Mostly, during war, if a soldier’s spirit is inferior, then it doesn’t matter what new weapons we use. It will be impossible for enough power to fight to come out.”
Witness the Vietnam War. Enough said. The technological superiority and might of the US military did not overcome. This is the value of fighting spirit. And the reason why the concept of fighting spirit is so valued and admired in Japanese martial arts.
“At the end, the last thing which decides, without modern weapons, with muscles fighting, we have to fight with the Japanese sword.”
When you run out of bullets and ammunition, you pull out the one weapon perfect for close encounters. Think of Japanese soldiers in WWII stuck on islands like Iwo Jima, with no supplies and no hope of relief or salvation.
“… an old soldier can get enlightenment (SATORI) from this way of life …”
thoughts on how to interpret this phrase come to my mind. Knowing
yourself. Becoming one with your sword. Iai as a form of Zen, a type
of moving Zen…
is just you and your sword. The perfect moment.
You can probably think of your own way to interpret the meaning of this phrase. But I wanted to point it out because it is just so eloquently expressed.
So, what is the big deal about iai, whether it is iaido or iaijutsu?
Is it concerned with learning about the intricate parts of the sword, like what the parts of the blade are called or the type of fittings, etc…?
You certainly learn about those things in your course of study but no, I don’t think that it’s really about that.
Is it just swinging a sword around?
Well, any fool can swing a sword around. Iai is an art form, like painting. There is a certain way to do it and there is a certain style to the way it is done.
I remember lessons with my iaido teacher, Izawa Takehiko Sensei of Fujisawa. Do we just pull the sword out? No, there is a certain way to do it. Smoothly, quietly. Do we just hack at the guy? No, there is a certain way to cut, in a nice, clean arc. We are not butchers. We are sushi chefs, artists. You can chop a fish in half and eat it, or you can slice it finely, delicately, with precision and with style. You can eat fish and chips for cheap or you pay the premium for the style and art of sushi at the sushi restaurant. Do we just stick that sword back in the scabbard? Heavens, no! There is a certain way to place the sword back in the scabbard. Precisely, elegantly. This is not an art for the brutish. Iaido is all about style. Grace under pressure. Dignity. Elegance. We are dealing with Monet here, not paint by numbers.
“To the Japanese sword I have dedicated myself, life and death, one unity of state of mind, …”
What a beautiful phrase, the philosophy of the samurai.
Victor Harris, who translated Musashi’s Book of Five Rings (1974), wrote about kendo and Zen in the introduction to his translation and offered this view of Kendo, the Way of the Sword:
“Assailed with doubts and misery, his mind and spirit in a whirl, the student is gradually guided to realisation and understanding by his teacher. The Kendo student practices furiously, thousands of cuts morning and night, learning fierce techniques of horrible war, until eventually sword becomes “no sword”, intention becomes “no intention”, …
The first elementary teaching becomes the highest knowledge, and the master still continues to practice this simple training, his everyday prayer.”
Victor Harris (1974) (trans.). A Book of Five Rings. (p.7). New York: Overlook Press.
What is iaido? An art form that teaches you how to live your life, how to deal with life.
Iai is a way of life, an approach to life, an outlook on life.
That is the value of the study of iai.
Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mr. Tong also writes many articles on teaching martial arts. You can read them at: Physical Training: Fitness for Combatives Electronic Journal