Why The Sword? by Kim Taylor, Nana Dan Iaido and Go Dan Jodo, CKF

When you begin researching what sword art to practice, it’s often helpful to come in with a somewhat different viewpoint. I would suggest that you forget the Anglicized Japanese terms that tend to get thrown around on the net, they can be more of a distraction than a help. I’m talking about such terms as koryu/gendai, jutsu/do, iaido/kenjutsu/kendo and others.

Instead I’d ask myself:

How is it possible to train in any sword art? What methods would one reasonably and efficiently use or create to train?

Full contact with sharp swords and no protection? Obviously not, so one starts modifying the equipment or the method of practice.

Possible schema to classify the various arts.

1. Solo with real sword.
2. Partner practice with blunted, buttoned, or ersatz sword and choreographed exercises.
3. Full contact random or freestyle practice with safety equipment.

Next I’d ask:

What is the purpose of this training and how does the end purpose affect the training methodology?

One might train for

1. Warfare (conventional or otherwise)
2. Dueling
3. Civilian combat (police)
4. Sport
5. Cultural reasons (tradition within a culture, ethnological study)
6. Spiritual reasons (self-discipline, perceived religious connections)

1. Warfare. This is a bit impractical these days, as is 2. Dueling and 3. Civilian Combat, although the Japanese police do use the martial arts for fitness training at least. These three seem to more historical than current reasons. I know of nobody anywhere that is doing the Japanese sword arts with the intent to kill or injure another, and I hope I never do or we will all be in trouble.

4. Sport. Kendo, Chambara, Tameshigiri, Iaido, and Jodo all have sport aspects to their training. There may be others that I’m forgetting, I’m on my first coffee of the day. Sport is a pretty common way for folks to get into sword, and for some the thrill of competition continues through their lives. Another thing I include in the sport area is fitness, although I am beginning to think that fitness is becoming less connected with sport and more connected to cosmetic medicine.

5. Cultural reasons. Here I’d include an interest in conserving and investigating your own culture (if you are Japanese) or someone else’s (if you’re not). I’d also include the less benign aspects of cultural activity, such as promoting ultranationalism as was seen in the past. I suppose I would also include being involved in a cultural pursuit which is supported by the sword arts. I’m talking about anime, star wars and cosplay type activities.

6. Spiritual reasons. This is what we are all supposed to be in the arts for isn’t it? To become better people? That’s the common line anyway, even for those who point out that it’s a cover (with the sport argument) that allowed the resumption of the arts after the Second World War. The argument is without function today, the arts are in no danger of being banned and the old ultranationalist danger is past. This leaves us with a question whether the present arts are good for self-improvement or not. To that end I would point to any physical art anywhere and you’ll find someone saying that it “builds character”. Go from there.

With that structure you may now be able to decide what you’re looking for, and that will give you an idea of which art to examine but here’s one more item we have to consider about the Japanese sword arts, and that’s the availability of a class. It’s no use deciding that you want to study something like Niten Ichiryu without considering who is teaching and where. The internet creates a general feeling that everything is available everywhere, and cheap fuel for transport has helped, but in this case there is a problem of supply.

I’ve really got to say that given the choice of doing a Niten class once a month and doing kendo three times a week, you go with kendo. If you practice Niten at Guelph you’ll do it once a week max. If you’re absolutely convinced that this koryu holds some secret or special teaching… well no, you’re still not any better off practicing with me because after 30 years of sword I still don’t know any secrets or special unbeatable techniques. I just know that time in equals skill out. It’s all about breathing (the more you do it the better you get at it).

To avoid a bigger post here, see the following for my arguments:

http://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_taylor_0301.htm (compared to smelly old diesel-powered kendo, koryu is “new and improved” to the western eye)

http://ejmas.com/pt/ptart_taylor_0802.htm (written a couple years ago but relevent to the topic at hand).

Good luck with the search.

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