The Iaido Journal  Aug 2001EJMAS Tips Jar

Peter Swarczbord: The Iaido Interviews

Date: July 16-27, 2000
Instructor: Peter Swarczbord, fifth dan
Organization: AJKF/ AKF
Club name: Kenshikan
Location: Melbourne, Victoria
Along the far side of the dojo, near the doors to the armor and changing rooms, sits around fifty martial artists. Some are wearing kendo armor, a few wear white uniforms, but most are in dark blue.

Most of them aren’t Japanese.

They’re a motley lot of faces: dark and fair skinned; long and short-nosed; bearded and bare chins; big, bright eyes; the stern and not so mean looking, all piled into one group of skirts and smelly, sweat stained gear.

For myself, what would normally be an all-Japanese group of martial artists is now replaced by this group of Aussies; armed they are—to the teeth! Shinai, naginata, jo and ken lay by their sides, or in their hands, or both.

Before the 'front', or shomen of the training hall, beside a table that has been set up under the shomen, there stands a small elderly Japanese man—I later learn that he is Nagae sensei, the man in charge around these parts. His English is quite good. He welcomes the warriors on the far side of the room and the spectators lined around the dojo floor.

This is an enbu--a martial arts demonstration, he tells us. The warriors on the far side of the dojo will show us ‘their stuff.’ There’ll be iaido, jodo, naginata, kendo and a goodwill kendo tournament to wrap it all up.

We applause.

Quickly a group of warriors carrying sheathed swords moves to the floor, in two precise rows of four. They bow in unison, move closer to shomen, and drop smoothly down into seiza. These are the Iaidoka!

After gracious bows to their weapons, they place them neatly into the belts that are firmly wrapped around their waists.

Calm faces, more determined than relaxed, sit for a few seconds.

An action begins: the fingers lead as the hands slowly move towards the hand guard of their swords; thumbs push the blades slightly out of scabbards; the iaidoka slowly draw their weapons out, with the hips moving up; guided by invisible pull strings from the ceiling.

The cacophony of movement is mesmerizing; swords come out in unison, the speed of the draws increases, in tempo; the iaidoka are almost fully up on the hips; the swords are almost fully drawn: These two elements of movement then come together as one!

The swords deftly, smoothly break from the scabbards; the hips lock out as the right foot slides forward quickly, and the swords cut across the air from the left, blade horizontal, wrists locking in. Just as quickly, the swords stop at shoulder height, just past the head and eye level of an imaginary opponent--a kasso teki. There is a slight, careful pause. The energy, momentum and intent of these iaidoka flow from their swords, pressuring the target area. I can feel it: I'm sitting in front of them, taking pictures. They then move as one into an unbroken, uniform waza that slices from overhead...

There were many similar movements, placed under sets; scenarios with enemies set into patterns known as the forms--the kata: the building block and training tool of most, if not all martial arts.

Seventh dan Kendo, Nagae sensei and sixth dan Kendo, Swarczbord sensei sat at the front, under shomen, watching as the iaido, jodo, kendo and naginata people came forward in turn to perform.

Everything about the demonstration was Japanese, except for participants. But the commands, the movements and the demeanor were so authentically Japanese that for a few seconds I felt as though I were back in Japan, sitting in the stands of some budokan watching the rows of Japanese perform their techniques.

This demonstration was performed in a massive, modern dojo--a traditional and proper training floor of 400 square meters, easily accommodating as many as twenty iaido practitioners at once. This is the Kenshikan: A bona fide dojo, not a borrowed gymnasium or aerobics studio, but a genuine martial arts training hall...

The Birth of the Kenshikan

The late Mr. Kenshiro Otsuka was the primary force behind the Kenshikan.

Mr. Otsuka, a successful Japanese businessman, had believed that kendo 'preserves and represents the soul of Japanese culture.'

In 1941, in Tokyo, he established the Shidokan dojo in an effort to promote kendo. Later in his life, he and his grandson Hiroshi wanted to promote better, deeper understandings between Australia and Japan.

With this goal in mind they determined to set up the first authentic 'kendo dojo' in Australia. Through contacts with Nagae sensei, Hiroshi Otsuka went to Australia to visit the Melbourne Kendo circle and was impressed with their dedication and enthusiasm. In October of 1988 the Otsuka family flew Nagae sensei to Japan to meet with Kenshiro and openly discuss the intention to create a kendo dojo in Melbourne.

Through those discussions, and many more, it came to pass that a true kendo dojo would indeed be created in Melbourne.

Sadly, Mr. Kenshiro Otsuka passed away in January 1989, before the dojo was established however, Hiroshi saw to it that his grandfather's wishes were carried through.

In April 1989 a suitable building was obtained in West Melbourne and for the next year the dojo was created through the hard efforts of crafts persons, members of the dojo, and volunteers.

Built in a former motor parts design workshop, this 'Kenshikan'-- the 'Ken' from Kenshiro's name, the 'shi' meaning goodwill and ambition, 'kan' meaning house or hall, is an excellent facility with large, modern changing rooms and showers (plus Jacuzzi), a storage/kitchen room and at the front, a large meeting room, an office room, and a special room for the leading sensei of the dojo, Mr. Nagae. The dojo even has parking in the rear, and the location is only minutes from the central business district of Melbourne.

Everything about the Kenshikan (except the washrooms) is Japanese: the fresh flowers and Japanese calligraphy on the front tokonomi—Japanese entryway shelf at the dojo entrance; inside the dojo floor in the right upper hand corner is a sculpted bust of the late Mr. Otsuka; weapons line the left side wall of the dojo, and in the windows of the office, on the right side, sit various Japanese mementos from visiting teachers, plus the odd trophy. The actual dojo floor is an immense wooden surface, ready for serious training. The only difference between this place and Japan is that the practitioners are mostly non-Japanese, and instruction is mostly in English, with the proper Japanese terminology placed in.

The Kenshikan officially opened on July 15th, 1990 to a large crowd of city officials, some famous Japanese teachers like Mr. Haga and Mr. Nakakura (deceased), and spectators and demonstrators. Peter Swarczbord sensei emphasizes, "It was the huge generosity of the Otsuka's that brought the Kenshikan to life." The Kenshikan is now entirely managed and maintained by the Victorian Kendo Renmei and is owned by a 'trust' committee.

With roughly 90 or so continuous members the Kenshikan is a thriving training hall true to the intentions and wishes of the Otsuka family. Here there are classes in four of the arts--kendo, iaido, naginata and when they have the time, jodo. The physical atmosphere of the dojo is 100% Japanese; I highly recommend training here if anyone wanted to see and feel the large Japanese dojo atmosphere.


Captain of the ship.

This magnificently designed ship is complete. It has true, unswerving, solid leadership. This is what makes the Kenshikan a successful dojo. Under the tutelage of Nagae sensei and other prominent Japanese teachers of kendo, iaido and jodo, Peter Swarczbord, sixth dan kendo, fifth dan iaido and second dan jodo (as of July 2000) is clearly commanding the troops at the Kenshikan.

"Tony, what's this picture from?" We've come here mid-afternoon on a Saturday, before the demos to have a little two man training session. It's my first time in the dojo.

"Oh, that's a picture from one of the many times Haga sensei has been here to train us."

"Ah, OK. So that's Haga sensei there...and who's this?" I inflect strongly up. In the picture there’s one man who stands out; he wears a goatee and looks built like a fire truck. Tony looks once and starts to laugh.

"That, my friend, is Peter Swarczbord. He's the man here..."

"I guess so. He looks like one mean mother!" Tony breaks out again in laughter.

"You don't want that to get back to him!"

"You're probably right." I reply. Now I had an image of the character of the man; based on weak conjecture from this picture and what Ramon Lawrence had told me about an excellent iaido teacher. “Hard as nails!" I remember Ramon exclaiming at one point. Tony didn't help much by agreeing with what I'd heard. Peter definitely looked hard as nails. I was about to meet him in less than an hour and really, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would the guy give me the glance over and run me through the grind at the next iaido lesson? Would he be kind and moderate? I knew at the least, either way, he was a fifth dan, and for that reason alone deserved a certain level of respect.

Tony and I practiced. The demonstration people drifted in followed by Peter looking as strong and hard assed as the picture, maybe even a little bigger. Tony introduced us.

"Sensei, this is Chris Gilham. He just came from four years in Japan where he did iaido. He's going to join us for practice this week."

Sensei gives me the one up and down, glancing at my name written in katakana on the breast of my uniform top. I place my hand out.

"Chris Gilham. Nice to meet you Swarczbord sensei" thinking, 'I hope I said his name right.'

"Hello. Welcome" Short, tert, and a little surprised maybe. He didn't know anyone would be in the dojo before the demonstrations, let alone a Canadian iaidoist fresh from Tokyo.

"I hope you don't mind me training with you next week."

"No, not at all." There was little time before the demos and there was much to do. With that said he moved on to get started. Naturally, Tony and I stopped our little practice and helped set up. My initial impression (greatly influenced by what I'd heard before) was now truly, 'Hard Bastard.'

But the demos soon started and I was immediately convinced that whatever his character may have appeared to me, this dojo and his students were under his strong, vital leadership. His students carried themselves exceptionally well, and their performances were very impressive. If I were looking for a dojo to begin training in under the guidance of a western teacher, this place could very well be it. But there was still the question of his abilities, and his teaching methodology, that I wanted to explore and hopefully learn from.

After the demo a group of us went out for dinner. It was then that I became a little more acquainted with Nagae sensei and his wife (who teaches naginata), Swarczbord sensei and his wonderful family, plus Tony and one of the Kenshikan's main students, Claire Chan. At dinner we asked questions about training and teachers. Here things loosened up a little and I felt more welcome and at ease.

The next morning Swarczbord sensei and I talked a little more about iaido and training in general. I was beginning to remove this hasty label I’d applied to him. By no means is he a laid back, easy-going kind of person: importantly, and properly, he holds himself contained. There’s a measure of pride and confidence in him that carries the label, 'Teacher in this hall.' His ‘containment’ isn’t a negative or forced one either. I believe he carries this strength with him naturally. He reminded me very much of the leadership I saw in Ishido sensei of Kanagawa: firm, confident, but not overbearing or egotistical. In other words, 'He carries his ranks well.'

Unfortunately, an untimely arm injury kept him from full training, but the little that he did do at iaido practice that week was excellent. His demeanor, composure, technique and fluidity were very much high-level fifth dan material.

How was his teaching? It was largely teacher-led but very detailed and very critical. I liked it. Why? The basics...

Goofy and Peter Swarczbord

Finally! A Real Warm-up!

I have been smothered lazily into the Japanese idea of the warm-up. It took me a couple of years to get over it, but it happened to me.

Before my Japan years I had trained in Karate with Canada's Conroy Copeland sensei. In his classes we definitely 'worked-out': Solid warm-ups and heavy calisthenics plus stretching. These things, he believed, 'formed the platform on which the Karate sits.'

I believed in this emphasis on physical training. To this day I agree with heavy warm-ups, especially focused around basic techniques.

But in Japan warm-ups were almost non-existent. In most dojo people came in on their own time, did a few light stretches, and went right into kata training. I kept my own personal warm-up for two years in my iaido dojo, but eventually gave it up to move right into areas I wanted to work on which in essence became target specific warm-ups.

The 'routine' for iaido at the Kenshikan would probably cause many men and women iaidoka in Japan to have severe breathing difficulties and definitely sore muscles.

Working through sets of eight, Claire Chan led the group through many variations of suburi--cutting and stepping, cutting and lunging, cutting shomen and yoko men, cutting and lunging across the floor (Oh my legs!). We did enough suburi that twenty minutes of solid iaido callisthenic passed by us, as did a liter or so of sweat into my uniform. How I had missed the warm-up! After many of my forearm muscles had fatigued I was left to perform with pure technique--a brilliant insight thanks to this challenging start. Now I could only swing, with no power or speed, but pure form.

Swarczbord sensei's approach to getting class started was the ideal one I had envisioned for iaido classes. Never let go of the basics, and place them into the warm-up to increase the health of your students. This training will show in their overall iaido abilities.

After a short break, where I could gather my breath and composure, we went into a very detailed and fine-tuned break down of the seitei iaido. Swarczbord sensei watched and provided advice. We repeated, and he advised some more. We did this three or four times for each kata: each time sensei adding more depth and detail to his advice.

I could feel the points he emphasized becoming more pronounced and stronger in my own waza. The pointers embedded themselves into my overall form. This methodology reminded me very much of Higuchi sensei's teaching style in Yame city, Kyushu. Things like metsuke, nukitsuke, kirioroshi and seme were well covered. Sensei talked about other elements of kata training as well: things like timing and the 'feel' of zanshin.

I particularly liked the idea that zanshin is present from the moment one enters training until one is finished. Zanshin doesn't come out at certain times in certain techniques: one should create and hold onto zanshin throughout the entire training regiment. When one turns or sits for a new kata, there is zanshin; when one stands up and moves back, there is zanshin; when one is between katas and creating the proper breathing rhythm, there is zanshin.

To my surprise, sensei allowed me the last forty minutes of four of his classes to present the Muso Shinden ryu forms to his yudansha. In the Kenshikan they have mainly focused on seitei iaido for the past ten years, practicing koryu rarely. This was a ripe opportunity for his students to gain the valuable knowledge that in iaido, especially koryu, there are lots of 'perspectives.' Some of us managed to meet for training outside of regular times, and sensei even came to a Friday night 'session', with his family, where we covered the entire Omori, or Shoden set of MSR kata.

A short interview with Peter Swarczbord sensei

How long have you been involved with the martial arts?

I started Judo at 6, but only for a little while. At 15 I became involved with Shotokan Karate. At 22 I started Kendo. I've been doing Iaido for 18 years.

Why did you start kendo? What attracted you to it?

I saw some photos of kendo in action and wanted to try it.

Who have been your principle iaido teachers?

Haga sensei, since 1983 and Yamashibu sensei of Okayama, from 1992.

How about your ranks?

I've been iaido fifth dan since '97. I made sixth dan last year in Kendo.

How long have you been teaching?

Well, I'm not really a 'teacher' yet. I’ve been 'assisting' with other's iaido and kendo. Maybe from '97 I would say that I became a 'teacher' of iaido.

Where have you graded for iaido?

All my iaido ranks were taken in Japan.

What is it about iaido that attracts you most? (He leans back, “That’s a tough question!”)

Iaido requires a depth of focus into the training. There is a calm and deep state in iaido training versus kendo, which is more active and explosive. The type of practice of iaido-the kata training creates a focused spirit.

Do you have a favourite art?

It's very hard to separate them. They all have equal standing with me, although one may get more attention than another due to time restraints and student numbers, for example.

What is your teaching approach?

Basics: basics through the warm-up. A strong warm-up to develop a better technique. I'd say 50-50 in the warm-up and actual class. I also take what I can from my trips to Japan and what the teachers give me when they are here, and try to apply it. I do my best to keep it all authentic.

What will one get out of iaido? If I come in and look at iaido for the first time and ask you 'What can iaido do for me?' how will you answer?

Well, one will not only develop martial ways (which in fundamental ways can be applied to self-defense, not with an actual sword, but in terms of frame of mind and confidence), but through the physical vehicle of training they will learn about themselves.

What do you consider to be the most important points in iaido training/waza/practice? For example, some people talk about metsuke and nukitsuke....

Every part creates the whole. Can't answer that one the way you may want me to (But you did sensei!). Like an apple: take away some vital component of the apple, and it is no longer an apple. (Hmmm…)

What makes the difference between a 'good' iaidoka and an 'exceptional' iaidoka?

The iaidoist who has heart into what they are doing. Not just the great technique, but also the heart.

I hope you don't mind me saying, but I do notice that you are a hard trainer: kind of a 'hard bastard'. What do you think? (He leans over with a little laugh as he rubs his head...)

I'm like the captain of a ship here. We have mostly junior students so I try to keep the reigns in a little bit and control the class, more than the Japanese iaido class might be run. But I think I'm helping them to create solid technique through hard warm-ups. Someday, when they mature in the arts, I hope the class can take a more distributed approach to training, with the seniors playing more active roles.

Anything you'd like to add or say in this interview?

Yeah (he smiles and is very sincere), we welcome anybody to come on down and visit the Kenshikan. People are always welcome here...

TIJ Aug 2001