THE DRAW: James Williams assumes a combative stance with his right hand grasping the handle of the sword. To illustrate how the sword stays almost stationary as the wielder's body moves, Williams begins the draw by moving his left hip back. He completes the unsheathing with both hips on the same line. The sword has yet to clear the body, and it's not necessary to turn the scabbard to cut any angle. Next, his right hip engages to power the cut. (This cannot be seen on the omote or "outside". It's the body that actually powers the technique.) He completes the initial cut, then moves into the single guard to finish the drawing and cutting aspect of the kata.
THE RETURN: the noto action begins when the cut is finished. James Williams brings his feet together as he moves the sword to the center line. He tilts the blade back toward his body, then makes sure the spine is near the opening of the scabbard. Next, Williams opens his body, just as he did in the draw, and aligns the blade and scabbard. Once the tip of the weapon nears the opening, he guides the blade into the scabbard without using his fingers. Williams' left hip moves forward, sliding the scarbbard onto the blade. His final position has his feet together and the sheathed sword repositioned for wearing.
In the pages of Black Belt, we deal with a variety of of Japanese sword arts-kendo, iaido, cutting, sport-style sparring with padded weapons and so on. How are the different from one another and from what you do?
First, sparring for sport has nothing to do with the Japanese sword arts. Kendo really doesn't have anything to do with old-style Japanese swordsmanship: it's just a modern sport. The movements and stances are completely different. From a classical perspective, using a shinai is different from using a swords. Iaido is a modern art: it has roots in the past, but what they do is not combat oriented.
I don't think the samurai would be able to relate to most modern Japanese sword arts. We use the term bujutsu, or "warrior study," to refer to all the things those warriors needed to know: swimming while wearing armor, shooting arrows while on horseback, and how to use the naginata, yari and sword. From the classical Koryu perspective, the sword was the foundation of strategy. All the movements came from it.

What's the best term to describe what you practice? Kenjutsu?

We do bujutsu. My system, nami ryu, has kenjutsu and iaijutsu, which is a subset of kenjustu that was useful when you had to draw quickly under stress.It also includes jujutsu, which is the strikes, drops and throws that are identical to the moves done with the sword, as well as shurikenjutsu, tantojutsu, hojojutsu, naginatajutsu and some kyudo. But the big three we work with are kenjutsu, iaijutsu and jujutsu.

Does your system also include test-cutting?
Yes. Tameshigiri is about making sure you can cut with the techniques you're practicing. A lot of people do it because they can. It doesn't necessarily mean any thing even if you can cut well.

Should martial artists who haven't trained in a sword art refrain from practicing tameshigiri?
It depends on what you want to lear. If you just want to chop things, there's all kinds of ways you do it. But swords are dangerous, and a mistake can be very costly. A big mistake can be life changing. I absolutely think you should get training first. Furthermore, it took sword makers a long time to create swords that are as good as they are. If all you do is cutting, you're not showing respect for any of that. There's something about a sword-when you pick one up, you're picking up more that just a piece of steel. You're accepting the responsibility to learn how to use it and the responsibility to lear how to protect and defend other people. You're taking up a task that's been passed down for millennia.
Are you saying that focusing on just sword techniques is incomplete?
Yes. The sword is the foundation of the training because it demands the most from you. With a sword, you have a quarter-inch gap. That raises you to a higher level of consciousness. It changes your empty hand technique.

How do you go about teaching beginners to wield such a dangerous weapon?
When we teach, we start by doing iaijutsu with a live blade. It's the edge of the sword that tells you whether your movements are right. The edge of the blade is the truth. Then, when you go to kenjutsu, which is usually paired practice with a bokken, you've just put away the real sword, and the lessons of the sharp blade are still in your head. That keeps you from trying techniques that have no chance of working with a real blade-things you might do with a shinai, for example. From kenjutsu, we go to jujutsu, which uses the same movements and postures.

How does a new student decide which sword art to focus on?
You have to ask yourself what you want to know. there's a place for all of them. Iaido, for example, isn't a combative are and doesn't have other aspects such as jujutsu, but it's great for movement and lots of other things. Kendo is a fine sport that develops fast reflexes, even though it doesn't have anything to do with kenjutsu.

Assuming a person wants to do a form of bujutsu that involves the sword, how should he proceed?
You have to find someone who teaches it. You have to be careful because a lot of people buy a sword, then look at YouTube and decided they know what's going on. You can't stick iaido and aikido together and think you have anything that's even close to classical bujutsu.

What is there's no instructor nearby?
One of the reasons I broke with tradition and established nami ryu and the study groups is I know people are interested but often there isn't any place for them to train. I used to travel two hours to see Don Nage sensei for lessons. Even now, I travel to Japan to learn skills that aren't available here. It's not always easy. If you have to travel to attend a class, it should give a lot of material to practice on your own-probably more then a week's worth. Remember that the dojo isn't there to give you repetitious practice; he's there to show you stuff you can practice on your own.

And if a person has no regular access to a teacher?
You should go to seminars. Watching DVDs is good, but it's not as good as having someone correct you in person. Classical arts at a high level are designed to hide movements from your opponent, so with most of the material, you can't see what's happening. It's hiden, or hidden techniques. You need to have some contact with a teacher.

How often does a student need to spend time with his teacher in a long-distance relationship?
As often as you can.


For a newcomer to the sword arts, is the first step to buy equipment, to find an instructor or to read books and do research?
Assuming you've decided on a classical art, you have to realize that it's going to be time consuming, that you'll have to change how you move your body, that it will require dedication and that sometimes the results don't come as quickly as you'd like.
Then research the art you've chosen. If you have an opportunity to watch people do it, great. You might be able to see some demos on the internet, and that can be beneficial, but often you won't know if what you're seeing is being done right.
After that, you should seek out people who do it well. If you can find a school, watch a class. If the teacher is very serious and there's no laughter in class, you might want to think about what you could learn there. Some people think like that, but most people would rather not take it so seriously.

At what age would a new student begin buying gear?
If you're going to study at a school, your teacher will tell you when-and what size. there's no one right size for swords. It all depends on your body.

What kind of investment in involved? Thousands of dollars?
No. You can get a well-made sword for $700 or $800. Should a beginner look at his fist sword as something he'll inevitably wear out or damage and, and therefore, opt for a cheaper model?
If you're damaging your sword during training, something is wrong. You should buy the best sword you can reasonably afford.

What else does a student need?
If it's a classical sword art, you'll also need some sort of kimono or modified to like a keikodi. And you'll need an obi. A karate belt isn't adequate, and it isn't even Japanese form a classical perspective. You'll also need a bokken.

Is there a limit to how good a person can get by attending seminars and training on his own?
That depends on the individual. I've had people tell me that Miyamoto Musashi wasn't trained, that he learned everything on his own. That's not true. Just because he didn't get a mekyo kaiden from a classical school means nothing. People in that society trained all the time. His father was a martial artist. People learn from people. He didn't pick it up on his own.
In the beginning, you should try to do exactly what you were taught and get it right. Don't extrapolate. I made that mistake and had to go back and redo core movements. If your teacher in good and he's training you in a classical system, there will be things he shows you in the beginning that, if you don't get them right you'll have to go back and relearn. If you go to a seminar and are taught something, practice only that. Then find another seminar to go to.

At a seminar, is it OK to ask the instructor if you can demonstrate what you've practiced at home and have him critique it?
Some instructors may do that. Just remember that there are serious differences in how people more in different arts, especially now. Classical movement isn't common; a lot of the movements have been lost. You can go to a seminar and learn one thing, then go to a different seminar and find it's not the same. The main thing is to stick with one you like. Try to see that teacher or someone else in that style and often as you can.

How frequent should the visits be?
If you pay attention and practice hard at home, you can improve by seeing a good teacher once a month.

And if its once every two or three months?
You can still do it, but it's going to be a little boring and repetitious. It all comes down to your dedication to practicing what you;re taught. If your teacher sees that you've been practicing had, he'll show you a little more so you have more to practice at home. That's where the trust in you teacher come in.

What are the biggest safety considerations for beginners?
Swords are sharp. They will lop off arms and legs. They will kill you.
You could be swinging that sword around, not paying attention, and somebody walks to close and. ...If you hit someone in the arm while you're moving very fast at all, that arm is coming off.

Are there any other don'ts you'd like to mention?
Don't bang swords together. They're not toys, and they're not there for you to re-enact your fantasies. Exercise maturity and common sense.
Also, keep your fingers off the blade. First, the oil on your fingers is corrosive, and it can actually etch a fingerprint into the blade. The only way to get it out is to polish it. Second, you don't touch another man's blade out of respect. You don't pick it up, and you don't step over it. If he gives you permission to see it, there a process for looking at it, but you still wouldn't ever touch the blade.

What about cleaning the blade after test-cutting?
Yes. The blade needs to be kept clean, dry and oiled. At some tournaments, they cut and put the sword away with all the junk on it-I disagree with that. The samurai didn't do that. Whenever you get into competition, it takes on a life of it's own and gets farther away from what was done a long time ago. Now, that doesn't necessarily make it a bad thing.

What's your advice for the student who learns something at a seminar, then goes home and tries to teach it to his friend?
Until your teacher says you're ready to teach, don't teach.

 

Is it essential for students to delve into the history and culture of Japan when they're learning a Japanese sword art?
I find it critical because if you're studying a classical art, you're studying a strategy first. If you're studying a battle strategy, you need to know what the landscape is like in Japan to know why things were a certain way. And if you don't study the history, you'll only get a tiny piece of things. For example, were your techniques designed to work against armor or on the battle field or against civilian garb-flesh, bone, and silk? So when the practice at home they need to make sure no one is nearby.
Yes. When you've got a live blade in your hand, it's a whole other world. Your first time with a live blade should not be when you're home alone; it should be when you're with you instructor. He'll show you what to do, and you should do just that. Don't whip it around because it feels good.

Do a lot of accidents occur because students try to do something they saw in a movie?
The almost always happen for that reason.
When you train, small things are always going to happen. The bottom line is, the sword never forgets its a sword. But sometimes we forget. It bites, and that's what keeps us on the straight and narrow. Do only what you've been shown and be patient with your progress.

How often do equipment failures happen?
I haven't had an equipment failure. Certainly, you should be very careful of less-expensive swords. Stainless-steel swords are not swords; they're "swordlike objects." They break very easily. Do no use them for anything. If its sharp and hard, it's dangerous.
That's why I say buy the best sword you can afford, not necessarily the fanciest sword. But even with the best sword ...many tears ago in Japan, a master was doing an iaido demonstration and the mekugi (pin that connects the handle to the blade) came out. When he drew, the blade went flying and hit a boy and killed him. The teacher offered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) on the spot. That's why all our blades have two mekugi. When I'm doing stuff, I constantly push on the pins to make sure they're in place.

What else causes accidents?
When you start hacking away at things in your backyard, the blade probably isn't hitting at the proper angle, and that can cause problems. Anybody can walk out and start whacking stuff, but that makes you just another goofball. You're not doing anything that a warrior would do, and you're not respecting the sword.

How tough is it for Westerner to study in the United States and then go to Japan to continue his training?
There are advantages and disadvantages to being a foreigner in Japan. The biggest advantage is, you can ask questions. You don't have to have to follow in lock step. Don't try to be Japanese. However, you should always show respect for the teacher, his traditions and his culture.
But it all depends on who you're training with. There are some people who've gone over and done very well. It's not, however, a panacea. Don't think that by going there, you'll learn better that you can learn here.

What are some of the benefits of learning the Japanese sword arts?
I look at the sword as a combat weapon. I don't look at it as a tool for personal development-although you can certainly get that from the training. A long time ago in Japan, they talked about "the killing sword" and the "life giving sword." One aspect of that is, the only way you can protect -the only way the sword can give life-is if you can kill. If you're not capable of cutting down evil, you can't protect anybody. The only proper use of the sword is to cut down evil to protect and defend. You can do all the pretty movements, but if you haven't learned how to use it as a killing tool...

Specifically, what benefits could a practitioner of kung fu or taekwondo expect?
It's a completely different study. You'll have to give up those operating systems if you're learning a classical system. Personally, I think it's a far deeper and richer endeavor.

What if the student's background is in a Japanese art like karate? Will that give him an advantage?
Even then, it's probably not going to make a difference. Between what we do and modern kendo, judo or aikido, it's light years.

Why would anyone elect to give up what he's been doing and take up a totally new pursuit, then?
It's a lifestyle. Don't look at it like you're going to get a belt rank-because you're not. It's a broad study in which you're walking the path of the warriors, not tiptoeing around the edge of the meadow. It's a connection to the past. It teaches you things about life that you can't easily learn elsewhere.

THE INVERTED DRAW: James Williams assumes a ready stance. He moves his right hand, palm up, under the handle in preparation for the draw. The action begins and he moves his left hip back. The blade clears the scabbard and begins to cut. Williams completes the gyakiugirage technique, then excutes a kesagiri.

THE GRIP: The sword is grasped with the thumb joint well to the inside of the handle. The opening one the elbow needs to face forward to align the shoulder (1). When the elbow is correctly positioned, the kasane ( thickness) of the blade bisects the radius bone three to four inches above the wrist (2). The correct grip shown from the side (3). The position of the thumb knuckle in relation to the handle (4).


THE MAINTENANCE: The mekugi (pins) are driven out using a mekugi hammer. Once they're removed, the handle can be separated from the blade.