Australasian Fighting Arts Vol.16 No.3 May 1993
Article in the “Cutting Edge”
Anthony Karasulas Sensei, Kenjutsu instructor and contributor to Australasian Fighting Arts, invited the Takemusu Aiki Association and other organisatins to give an explanation as to why we think sword training is of importance in training in Martial Arts today, and to give any details about tournaments. The text of that article is reproduced here in its entirety. Several photos in the original article have been excluded.
Practice with the sword plays a vital part in the training of Aiki-Takemusu Aikido, or Iwama style Aikido. Morihiro Saito, 8th Dan, who is the Chief Instructor and keeper of the Aiki Shrine at Iwama, includes sword training along with staff, empty hand and knife taking, as an integral part of complete Aikido training, adhering to the methods as taught by the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, or O-Sensei.
O-Sensei studied many sword styles in his years of training, and by extracting the essence of all those he learnt, he created what is known as Aiki-Ken, or Aiki-Sword.
The sword used is called a bokken, a wooden sword, usually of Japanese Oak, curving slightly, and having no tsuba, or handgrip protector. The weight of the sword is not important, as it is better to practice with both lighter and heavier swords, so one is able to use comfortably any sword at their disposal. Also, a heavier, club-like bokken is sometimes used to practice tanren uchi, or hard striking, against a rubber tire, or a bundle of sticks.
Sword training in Aikido differs from all other styles. For example, in Kendo a straight stick, or shinai with a tsuba is used, and is primarily linear in its attacks and retreats. The body armour is not worn in Aikido either.
Aikido training is divided into three parts: (1) Tai-jutsu, or empty hand techniques, (2) Aiki-jo, or 5ft wooden staff training, and (3) Aiki-ken, which is the wooden sword training.
The importance of sword training in Aikido, or any Martial Arts training, cannot be overlooked. Although no-one is allowed to carry around swords these days, nor would anyone want to, sword training benefits Martial Arts training today in many ways.
Firsly, on the physical level. Regular sword training develops the arms and shoulders, and when used in conjunction with kiai, it strengthens the hara (the muscles around the stomach from where all power and movement is derived). It also develops the breath – as the sword is raised, so one breathes in. As the cut is made, one breathes out.
Practicing this way connects one’s techniques with the breath, so eventually, one’s self-defence can be as quick as a breath
Sword training also directly relates to empty hand techniques, which is the self-defence application of Aikido. In feudal Japan, techniques similar to these were used against attackers grabbing the swordman’s arms in order to prevent him from cutting. From this, Aikido was developed.
There is an important link between sword training and open hand techniques, and that is tai-sabaki, which literally translates as ‘correct and sufficiently economical evasive body movement’.
Sword training teaches the body to act as a whole, or a single unit, rather than having arms and legs moving separately. When the body is well connected and able to act as a single unit, it then has the capacity for good tai-sabaki, being able to quickly avoid an attack (in the space of a breath). With good tai-sabaki one’s chances of survival are greatly increased.
Survival in this sense is being able to pursue your goals, or to do what you want to do, without being caught by surprise. This easily causes you to ‘lose your centre’, and to possibly go tumbling over and ending up in a disadvantaged or uncompromising position. For those on the path of Budo, all events in our lives are a test of our centre. Your ability to survive depends upon your capability to read and deal effectively with unexpected surprises.
Learning a Martial Art is learning how to survive, not trying to win over other people. In this way, sword training develops what we all strive for; perfect technique.
During an attack, weapons are physically superior to the human body, regardless of how much development it has had. Flesh cannot resist the slash of a knife, bone cannot withstand the impact of a steel bar, so the first reaction is avoidance.
When training only in tai-jutsu it is with the hand, arm (or leg) against hand, arm and leg, so there is always some leeway for mistakes within the techniques. It is thus easy to pick up bad habits.
When attacked by a weapon, (eg. knife, broken glass, or a stick) there is absolutely no such leeway in the techniques to survive a confrontation without injury. Only by training with weapons can students gain an understanding of the importance correct body movement, and also realising the implications of doing resulting technique in certain ways.
In Aikido, sword strikes are mostly vertical cuts downward, along the line of attack. There are side strikes, but these require more advanced, circular types of tai-sabaki. This line of attack, in the straight cut, can also apply to the direction of a punch, kick, knife or bullet. In order to avoid injury, one must not step back or forwards, but off the line, while at the same time continuing with any number and type of techniques.
Very often during a tai-jutsu class, a student will make a mistake that is not readily apparent to themselves, or the rest of the class. In this case, the Instructor invites them to perform the technique again, but against a sword. As the line of attack with a sword is so obvious, the sword will quickly show up the fault, enabling a quicker and more thorough understanding of the technique.
Sword training is also of vital importance to two other aspects Martial Arts training; ie. distancing, and reading when the opponent is going to attack.
In Aikido, sword training consists of many parts; the suburi is a number of strikes and steps, that are performed in repetition, with correct breathing, and strength. Then there is an exercise in turning on the spot and cutting in the 8 directions. These are practices which can be done by the student alone at anytime, and will improve other techniques, with constant practice.
Then there is partner practice – be it sword against sword, sword against staff, or sword against open hand. Sword against hand is basically sword-taking,and finishing techniques, while against staff or another sword, it is an aid for developing good distance awareness, good stance, and the ability to read the opponent’s intention.
The partner – practice involves a series of set techniques – strikes, blocks, steps and counters, that are first performed slowly at distance, then closer and faster until it actually looks like a swordfight. During partner practice one of the most important things to keep in mind is the idea of awase, or blending with the opponent.
This is done by both partners coordinating their breath and techniques into one flowing and moving unit. It is impossible to effectively strike while inhaling, and it is foolish to exhale as you raise the sword, as you would have no breath to finish the technique. Hence it is important to breathe correctly, and this is developed through partner practice with the sword.
Advanced partner practice has two, even three attackers with swords, against one with a sword, so you can see that distancing and body movement are quite important.
Streetfighters need to use breath, too, when they attack – so by watching their breathing rhythms it is possible to realise an attack is imminent. However, this awareness can only be achieved through regular practice with the sword, that contains correct breathing.
This article has covered most of the aspects of sword training within Aikido, and should provide some interesting material for those interested in swordsmanship.
PS. In Aikido we do not have tournaments, as it is a Martial Art and the nature of the techniques are so final, and the weapons used being as they are, make it impossible to have a sportified version of this Art. However we do have seminars occasionally, and will notify AFA readers of any upcoming events.