The life giving sword  

Monday, 16 July 2007

This weekend sees the visit of Hatakenaka sensei to Canterbury for a 4 day iaido seminar. This is a most significant event and one, which although I am looking forward to, I am also a little nervous about. From what I have read, Hatakenaka sensei is a hard taskmaster. I just hope my poor knackered body can stand the pace. The driving force behind this seminar has been a guy at the University who runs a karate club that includes iai-jutsu as part of its syllabus. The school that they follow is not a classical style, but one derived in the 1930s to teach Imperial Army officers how to use their Army-issue weapons. I don't know this guy, but I have seen the kata that they practice because they have posted videos on the internet. It does indeed seem a very "practical" style. This has prompted me to think about the differences between a "do" and a "jutsu" style and the implications that each have on the "why" we practice, as opposed to "what" we practice.

Most martial artists understand the difference between "do" and "jutsu" to be the difference between using martial arts as a means of self-development as opposed to learning how to win real fights. I read something recently that says this differentiation is actually a modern Western invention and has no meaning in Japan. However I am pretty sure that is incorrect.

Modern Japanese people in general have an abhorance of physical violence, and to resort to violence to settle disputes is to considered to be extremely course behaviour. This attitude comes in large part from the period immediately after the last war, in which the Japanese population paid an extremely high price for their nation's aggressive behaviour. Before the war, Japanese martial arts had become closely associated with nationalistic philosophy and for this reason, martial arts were all banned by the occupying American forces after the war. Even though the ban was lifted in 1953, This association between nationalism and martial arts still exists in the minds of many Japanese people. To see Westerners flailing around with swords makes many of them uncomfortable still.

Yet despite this, it is clearly recognised that the discipline and personal growth that the pursuit of martial training can achieve brings many positive benefits. So it was that the "do" philosophy, with its emphasis on personal development as opposed to combat effectiveness, has become the prevalent one in Japan today and the rest of the world. There are however a significant number of people - mostly in the West - that regard combat effectiveness as an important goal for them. Hence the rise in MMA and the endless discussions in martial arts magazines about "would it work on the street". I think when you are talking about unarmed styles, I think this can still be a valid point of view. We live in a violent society, and many people feel the need to equip themselves with effective fighting knowledge - this "jutsu" knowledge. However, as we don't (yet) live in a society where life and death encounters with a sword are common, I struggle to see the relevance of "jutsu" when it comes to the sword arts.

Iai-jutsu (Toyama ryu to give its technical name) arose as a practical response to a practical need, that of training Army officers to use their weapon to kill effectively. This is a very different objective to training in a classical style to improve awareness, concentration and co-ordination. Personally, I find it rather disturbing that anyone would want to follow this path. You don't, for example, see "Canterbury Bayonentting Club" listed anywhere, yet iai-jutsu amounts to the same thing. And, because it was designed to teach inexperienced students the basics quickly, it lacks the depth of a classical style.

I don't like to be critical of someone else's school, but I have to be honest and say that I feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea of "iai-jutsu" as I have seen it demonstrated. There is, for example, one technique in the syllabus that looks like it was intended to behead a kneeling prisoner. This is about as far away from the practice and philosophy of classical Japanese martial arts as you can get. I can only hope that this weekend will prove a revelation for these "iai-jutsu" guys to think again about what they are doing.

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