Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why do a sword art, anyway?

Let's begin at the beginning. Why would anybody practice a sword art in the first place? These are the conceivable reasons I could think of.

1. To learn how to kill someone with a sword.

2. Because it stimulates their sense of fantasy and lets them imagine being someone else.

3. For exercise.

4. For fun; either sheer physical enjoyment, or social interaction.

5. Because it is a form of self-improvement.

6. Because it is a type of "moving Zen". (This may be closely connected with #5.)

7. Because they want to become part of, and to perpetuate, a historical / cultural tradition.

The commenter a few posts back told me to: "... stop making the error of viewing the rest of the world through the window of one overly defined, poorly practiced, narrow example of what a sword art can be." I've tried to do that, and the above list represents every conceivable reason why I could imagine someone might practice a sword art. I've left out other reasons such as "I enjoy cutting myself" or "I look forward to having bad knees when I get older."

Reason #1 seems a bit odd when it is put bluntly. If you want to kill, there are more effective ways of doing it. You could join the army; they will train you, pay you, give you the tools, fly you around the world, and maybe even provide you with opportunities to kill people.

A very small number of historians might be interested in "historical" killing methods. I have heard about historians who look at battle injuries on skeletal remains to determine how those people died, and presumably, what kinds of techniques were used. It seems a very limited area of study, with very limited rewards, in my opinion. And unless you're writing a PhD thesis on the topic, it doesn't apply to you.

Few people would admit to doing a sword art for reason #2, but I suspect that most of us are, at least partly. That was absolutely the reason why I started. I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was an awkward teenager (I've stopped since I've become an awkward adult). I also thought the greatest comics ever were Frank Miller's "Ronin" and the Japanese manga, "Lone Wolf & Cub." I dreamt of enduring the hardships necessary to become a master swordsman. I imagined myself becoming like the stoic, tortured Itto Ogami, a lone assassin on the road to hell. How cool is that?

When I discovered a "Japanese Swordsmanship" club at my university, I was expecting people in karate-gi using wooden swords. Imagine my ecstasy when I showed up and ... Oh my God ... they were dressed up like samurai! And the best part ... they were using real swords! I almost passed out in my haste to sign up for the class.

Not everyone is as immature as I am/was. Either way, the "dress up" factor soon wears off, and people who may have started Japanese sword for that reason soon gravitate to something else, like Live-Action roleplaying, or Society for Creative Anachronism.

But still, there is something about doing sword arts that allows people to play a role. No matter what they are really doing or what they are really getting out of it, it lets them tell themself, "I am a wise martial artist on the path to enlightenment" or "I am part of an ancient tradition" or "I am becoming a killing machine." In other words, this is a sort of "meta-reason" ... the perception of why you're doing a sword art, regardless of the real reason or real result.

Reason #3 was exercise. Kendo is great exercise; iaido much less so. But for couch-potatoes like me, something is better than nothing. When I started iaido, I had been a sedentary teenager for years. Even the relatively easy movements in practice were strenuous. 18 years later, I am not much better, really (knees are far worse) but I am far more active than I used to be, and recognize the need for cross-training. I respect trained athletes. And I'm trying to get into better shape. If it weren't for iaido, who knows what I might be doing now?

But as far as a reason to practice sword arts? For iaido, exercise hardly rates.

#4. All of us, I'm sure, find sword arts "fun" on some level. We enjoy it, or we wouldn't do it. Young samurai may have been forced to practice martial arts - many Japanese school kids are, as well - but nobody is forcing us. We have friends in our dojo, or we take satisfaction in seeing some small improvement in our technique. Doing well at tournaments may give us an adrenaline rush, and a sense of self-esteem. But again, as with exercise, martial arts are not really "fun" when compared to other leisure activities. There are plenty of ways to meet like-minded people that don't involve physical pain, occasional humiliation, and getting up early on weekends to attend camps and seminars.

So, I don't think "It's fun" is a good enough reason.

I'll look at reasons 5, 6, and 7 next.

Why is it so hard to write about this stuff?

There was an interesting comment on my last post. If you haven't read it yet, check it out below.

Immediately after I read the comment, I wrote a response. It got longer and longer, and as I read it over, I felt like I wasn't really being clear. The more I wrote, the more confused my message became.

I saved the message, telling myself I'd work on it later and post the finished version. Well, the more I thought about it, the more rabbit holes I started to find myself down. The more I wrote, the more cans of worms I had to open.

Which in turn, made me think: why is it so hard to write about - or at least reach any conclusions about - martial arts?

I'm going to try and devote the next few posts to hashing out a few things. I'm not expecting to uncover any actual "answers" but at the very least, I might be able to illuminate my thought processes a bit.

Update Oct. 6: I wrote a big comment which probably should have been a post of its own.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I stumbled across this video recently.

Because I am essentially a petty, cynical person, (hey, I'm trying to change...) my first reaction was a kind of jaded "So what?" People who do a lot of tameshigiri (test-cutting) like to laugh at those of us who do iai when we fail to cut something when we try it for the first time. It seems to justify in their minds that iai without tameshigiri is pointless or delusional even, reinforcing their conception that they are training properly and we're not. And while it is certainly common for people who have never done tameshigiri to fail at it the first few times, the fact remains: it's really not that difficult to cut a straw bundle. A bit of practice and you're off to the races. It's not enough to hold most people's interest, and the trouble of rolling up and soaking straw mats means most people just can't be bothered.

But as the video went on, Mr. Machii started cutting more and more unusual items. I must admit that I was impressed that he cut the cucumber so perfectly! Seeing it in super-slow motion revealed that his cut was right on target, splitting the cuke in half with a flawlessly horizontal cut. That took a great deal of control. My inner cynic piped up with: "Well, how many takes did they do before he cut it really nicely?" but the more things he cut, the more I thought, Wow, he really is talented.

Next, he cut a rubber ball, fired at him at 120 km/h. This too, was impressive, and would have required great skills. I don't know how much more difficult it is to cut a ball with a sword, than (for example) to return a pro's tennis serve - I've never tried either - but the fact that he cut from the scabbard impressed this iaidoka.

There are lots of other examples of him cutting objects online: metal pipes, metal sheets, 6mm plastic BBs ... the list goes on and on.

So I was feeling a lot of respect for Mr. Machii, when I watched this video of him demonstrating "Shushin Ryu" iaijutsu. I wasn't even bothered by the fact that he is listed as the soke. You never know; some people inherit these arts at a young age because there isn't anyone else to take over.

It seems as though he takes Eishin Ryu techniques, kind of mashes them up a bit, then does them so fast that he can't really control his sword. And he gives it all a new name, declaring himself the Soke. Great. Just when I let down my cynical guard for ONE second ...!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Ontario Open Iaido Tournament

I was back in Canada ever-so-briefly (well it seems that way, looking back) in August. I was happy to have the chance to stop in to the Ontario Open Iaido Tournament, held at the beautiful Japanese Canadian Cultural Center (or JCCC) in Toronto. This is a very well-organized annual event. This year, the tournament was held on Sunday, following an all-day seminar on Saturday, which I sadly wasn't able to attend.

The whole thing seemed to run very smoothly. I was asked by one of the organizers how it compared to tournaments in Japan. I would say that it compared very favourably, both in terms of organization and quality of competitors. I did feel that the atmosphere was a tad too quiet -- despite being held in a huge room, but you could hear a pin drop! In Japan, the audience is a little bit larger, and correspondingly noisier.

I couldn't stay long enough to find out who won. (I showed up, disrupted things, and then left, which is kind of becoming "my style".) So ... anybody care to leave a comment with the results? Onegaishimasu.

Carole Galligan

Ed Chart

Showing fine form in front of the JCCC logo

Kanagawa Prefectural Tournament

Way back in June, I stopped by the Kanagawa Prefectural Iaido Tournament, just to say I went. It was also a chance to show my girlfriend, "This is iaido" as she had never seen it before.
Kanagawa is a very strong prefecture when it comes to iaido, so the level was very, very high. It was humbling (gut churning?) to see 2-dans, shodans, even mudansha, who have better technique than me.

I didn't stick around for long. Interestingly, the Budokan was within walking distance of my (then) apartment, so I walked home from the tournament. Prior to that, I had no idea where it was or that it was so close!

Now that I have moved to Yamato city, goodness knows what (or who) might be right around the corner. No matter what it is, though, I guarantee you I will discover it about a week before I am scheduled to move next.

On to the pictures...

Ozaki Sensei

Part of the 8-dan Kyoshi demonstrations

Ishido Sensei

Yet another "blurry-but-kind-of-interesting" photo from my poor little camera.