Wednesday, July 30, 2008


When I was a kid, the mere sight of a sword got me really excited (nothing Freudian in that, I'm afraid). I can still recall being 8 or 9 and reading a cartoon: a traveling toy salesman was showing his wares at the local toy shop. His "toys" for sale consisted of real swords, a shield, a horned viking helmet, a spiked mace, and other implements of destruction. The caption from the unimpressed toy store owner was something like, "Haven't you got anything a little bit more ... fun?"

I remember seeing that and thinking, "That would be the coolest store ever!" and wishing (as only an 8 year old can wish) that I could find a toy store where they sold actual swords. You have to remember that, in that long-distant day and age (before the "Internet") you didn't have control over content - you couldn't just google "swords" and turn up all the information you ever wanted.

And so I went on in my way, scanning the newspapers for whatever else I could find. I watched "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and thought the final scene was just about the coolest thing ever and almost made up for the singing. I bought my Conan the Barbarian comics at the local smoke shop every month. Somewhere in there, I started to play Dungeons and Dragons. At some point, I think I must have visited the Royal Ontario Museum and seen their collection of swords and armour. I think I was a little bit disappointed that they didn't have at least ONE sword - maybe an unimportant sword - that kids could try out and swing around a little bit.

One day, I came home for lunch and found the new copy of National Geographic magazine, which had an article about the samurai. One page had a photo of a beautiful suit of armour. Another photo was of a sword. The caption said this sword was 600 years old. I couldn't understand how it was still so mirror-shiny. It was nothing like the knight's swords I had seen in the museum. The Japanese sword took on a special place in my mind from that day on. When people ask me why I came to Japan, I guess I really have to trace it all back to that day when I became obsessed with the samurai, and with their swords.

The sword continued to occupy an almost mystical place in my brain for many years. Eventually, I took up iaido, having essentially stumbled upon it at my university. The first time I went to see a practice, I think I almost had a heart attack. I didn't know what to expect at all (I'll say it again - this was before the internet! I didn't even know that iaido was an extant art, let alone being practiced outside of Japan) and I was prepared for disappointment if it had been a bunch of guys dressed in sweatpants wacking each other with homemade, wooden sticks. But they were wearing samurai clothes! And they all had samurai swords! Real samurai swords! Well, okay, they were replicas, but they weren't like those crappy plastic-looking replicas they sold at the army-surplus store. I was hooked. For all the wrong reasons, but I was hooked anyway.

Have you ever seen Conan the Barbarian? A very under-rated movie, in my opinion, even if it is a bit adolescent. Conan's family is slaughtered by a warlord who is looking for "the riddle of steel" - the secret power contained within swords and weapons that might give a man power over others. Later, when Conan comes to exact his revenge, the warlord admits that his obsession with steel was nothing more than a childish fantasy, that it is the man who wields the sword who is powerful. The sword itself is inert, a tool.

Gradually, I think I began to realize the same thing. Through a gradual process of disillusionment, I found out that swords were just lifeless hunks of metal, completely devoid of any mystery at all. I discovered that they were beautiful sometimes, most particularly when someone really skilled was using one. But in that case, they were just an extension of the individual, a manifestation of his or her technique. A good swordsman brings a sword to life, but just for a few seconds at a time.

I went to a sword show the other day in Tokyo. There were about 30 blades on display, from perhaps the Kamakura period onward. In other words, some of these swords were 800 years old. All of them were cutlural treasures. Looking at them, I felt the usual feelings I have at these exhibitions: absolute fascination at the level of craftsmanship; frustration at the lack of English information and my own inability to glean much from the Japanese explanation; a vague sense of wonder that something so old has survived to the present day in such good condition; and my childish feeling that I would like to cut something with them. But basically, I no longer felt that swords are magical.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling that way. All around the world, legends tell about magical swords that gave power to those who wielded them. But of course, the reality is that swords are just tools, for killing.

My friend told me about this clip of a sword being used as a tool for political change:

The clip is from 1960. So it's only a few decades ago that people in Japan were still using swords in this manner. If you include knives in this category, well, see my previous post on the Akihabara stabbings a few months back.

Satsujinken - the sword that takes life. Katsujinken - the sword that preserves life. The difference is only in intention. In iaido, we use swords as tools for personal development. So maybe we can, by having the right intention, accomplish a little bit of magic with them after all?