|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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