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  • Kenjutsu - Japanese Sword

    Why is Sword Practice Necessary?

    As a rule, aikido practice comprises numerous sword exercises and techniques. The training with swords that are usually represented by wooden bokkens is really useful for aikido students as it allows them to feel better the proper trajectory of their movements, work out the intuitive perception of every aikido technique.

    Consequently, the series of partner exercises with the sword are perceived by aikidoka as a special beneficial system for learning the basics of the sword, while maintaining the spirit of Aikiken, where students move from the basic to the more complicated techniques, yet using the suburi forms to realize how to move the sword.

    In general, there are no certain standards of sword practice set by Aikikai. Instead, well-known aikido teachers usually base their lessons upon their own systems of practicing with bokkens. Some teachers also include practicing with jo, a long wooden pole. The necessity of sword practice may be supported by the fact that O-sensei (Great teacher), Morihei Ueshiba, regularly practiced with the bokken, as proved by many photos and movies.

    What is Suburi?

    Suburi represents the basic training required for mastering the skills in handling the bokken. Suburi usually consists of such solo exercises that help the students work out the techniques of cutting, thrusting, parrying, etc. This way aikidoka get prepared for more complicated swordplay with a partner. When the student is ready for the partner exercises, the teacher finds a basic system of introducing techniques from the rather simple ones to the most advanced, having applied the suburi basics. Suburi training loosens the wrists and improves heart rate. It is also used in iaido, kendo and kenjutsu practices.

    Aikiken and Iaido Union

    Aikiken is the special term usually used to describe bokken exercises practiced in aikido. The word meaning implies that the techniques should correspond to the major aikido principle. The vital energy ki of the defender (tori) should be blended with ki of the attacker (uke). On the simpler level, this principle is demonstrated by the taisabaki movements when the defender moves away to avoid the attacking sword, keeping to the certain rhythm of performing the counter moves. It is very important for the attacker not to stop his force, and avoid blocking his sword moving.

    Iaido, however, practiced without a partner, does not always use the aiki principles in the same way aikido does. Still, there are some really significant things to be perceived through iaido training. For example, the iaido students have a chance to experience the feeling of holding the real blade in their hands, as an advantage in comparison to using the wooden bokken in aikido. The students feel the right rhythm in a series of moves, while carrying through the blows and the thrusts.

    To make the conclusion, some experienced martial arts teachers advise their students to practice both Aikiken and iaido series of techniques and discover compatibility between the two. This way aikido or other martial arts students will gradually develop their sword mastering style that would lead to better understanding and performing of the martial arts techniques they have been practicing.





    "Bu-Do"-Concept in Samurai's Training

    The distinctive characteristic of mastering all Japanese martial arts is the tradition to put an accent on ethics and morality, enrichment of the spiritual world of a samurai in order to maintain a warrior's even temper, and only then taking care of the physical shape and strength. The moral concepts of such disciplines as kendo, aikido are reflected by a character which, if united with others, sounded as "do," being the basic of these words and implying the moral principle and close connection to the religious aspect of the military class's life.

    The moral base of the training of Japanese warriors was determined by Confucius teaching which considered "do" to belong to the specific ethic category. As for the religious aspect, it was based upon the "do" concept's direct relation to dzen-buddhism. The perception of "do" - the true way, or the truth - was just vital in fencing with a samurai sword, shooting a bow, wrestling, and swimming. It was the highest ideal of a samurai, and from the philosophical point of view to reach it implied self-perception and knowledge of one's inner world the necessary attributes of one's personal harmonious development.

    The oriental philosophical tradition often calls "do" to be the "way" giving life, reflecting the rays of light as the sun. In this respect the "do" concept is identical to the "dao," in Chinese philosophy and esthetics perceived as the eternal and integral part of the existing spiritual and material world, the way of nature.

    The "do" substance approaches a samurai to the goal of "the great teaching" -meaning the fusion of just a part with the whole. The "do" was believed to help a samurai feel and come into contact with divinity and witness its existence. It corresponds to the dzen concept of the "initial nature of Buddha," present everywhere, possible to be reached through satori enlightenment, reaching nirvana at the earth among other human beings.

    This way a samurai could reach the military art and the art of samurai sword fighting contiguous to "the true way" and join 'the endless harmony of nature." The inner training of a samurai was of the major significance and was given the bigger part of their attention than the outside physical shape and strength of a samurai. The meditation was of the great importance for working out the strength of character. It provided a samurai with the spiritual foundation and mentally balanced state for performing one's major military mission as well as successful practice in fencing with a samurai sword, shooting, etc. The samurai aimed at reaching the state of "increased readiness".

    In spite of including a number of purely mystical elements, the meditation provided some practical benefits - for example, a samurai developed the proper breathing ability absolutely necessary while one is involved in any physical activity. Before the training fighting, the samurai were in the pose characteristic to the dzen-buddhism monks, ready for contemplation, and tried to breathe deeply and evenly. It helped to prepare the samurai's respiratory apparatus for physical work and contributed to the further rhythmic functioning of the lugs during the battle with the enemy when the body required the extra amount of oxygen.

    The strength of samurai's spirit was beneficial for developing and keeping one's self-control, presence and soberness of mind during the training and real fighting. However it does not mean that the samurai neglected the physical factor. The physical education, being the second important element of the military discipline, implied a warrior had to sharpen one's techniques in the most meticulous way, develop one's physical power, persistence, working out almost instinctive phenomenal reaction and coordination of movements. All the mentioned skills were reached after the everyday prolonged practical training.

    Everyone who is going to follow the way of warrior, has to realize the importance of a simple rule - in order to master and perfect the art of fighting with a samurai sword and become a real samurai, it is necessary to change every aspect of one's life - take care of one's mental and physical health as well as be persistent in regular training.

    Ken-jutsu: Japanese martial art

    One of the most popular martial art where use of Samurai sword was involved was kenjutsu. Kenjutsu has a long history and was actually practiced by samurai as an art of performing sword's practice between two people. Kenjutsu is considered to be an older martial art than kendo, for which the first is often confused. The main difference between two of them is that, generally speaking, kenjutsu is a combative study aimed at defeating the opponent, while kendo is more pacific. Although some people see kenjutsu as merely training, the philosophical aspect was also very strong. Training with the sword played a major role in educating not only person's skills, but more one's spirit. In order to improve one's ability to handle a samurai sword, a person would learn to achieve an utmost calmness and concentration. Only a swordsman who has found the way to harmonious self would derive the maximum benefit from this practical study.

    Kenjutsu equipment

    A person practicing kenjutsu was taught to exercise with classic Samurai swords: katana-wakizashi and no-daichi. The swordsman would rise to eminence of the martial art if he could handle two swords simultaneously.

    But more often usual equipment of those who practiced kenjutsu art was wooden training sword, which was a replica of t real blade, called bokken. It was used on the initial stage of kenjutsu regular training in order to make it more or less safe. During training a student would protect himself from possible injures and the sword from damage. Bokken were used not only in training but simply to learn drawing the sword. In some cases, where exceptional care was required, kenjutsu students employ sword made from bamboo tree, having a leather coat or steel swords without cutting edge.

    As well as in other martial arts, those who practiced kenjutsu wore traditional garment which consisted of full skirt-like trousers(hakama) and a jacket(keikogi) worn with the belt.

    Kenjutsu practice

    Kenjutsu study usually began with the number of excercises(kata) to prepare for the more complicated ones. A student (deshi) would initially learn alone and with more practice proceed to pair training. Basically students were taught two training techniques: how to cut and thrust with the sword during battle, acting on the defense or on the attack.
    Main weapon used in kenjutsu practice was katana (long sword), which was targeted only at certain parts of the body: the wrist, the head and the legs under knees.

    Kenjutsu principle

    The main principle of kenjutsu martial art was to fight the opponent ruthlessly, when there with no place left for defeat. A battle finished with the victory of the kenjutsu "warrior" meant a lot of privileges, high social status and other benefits, while a defeat could just ruin all the efforts obtained though laborious training and would often mean loss of the income from the lord. All the fencing techniques that were used in kenjutsu practice were strictly stick to bushido(samurai code), where any deviation could be seen as unworthy. The target was defined quite clearly. Of course, real practice would show that samurai code was frequently broken and such things as careless cuts occurred quite often, but the main principle was that the wound, which was inflicted in manner, which didn't correspond with the bushido was no longer regarded a true kenjutsu practice.

    Sometimes, the battle was more successful if a swordsman was concentrated on defense rather than victory itself. As every swordsman possessed quite unique technique, such principle became more reasonable. Besides the swords movements are so quick that they surpassed the actual moves of the swordsman. Only an excellent warrior with the peaceful state of mind and absolute self-control could become more or less close to Kenjutsu basic principle.


    The Samurai and Their Swords

    The Samurai's Origin

    What associations come into your head when you hear the word "samurai"? Probably you imagine a brave warrior fighting with a legendary samurai sword and think of such concepts as honor, devotion and justice. Who in fact were the samurai? They represented a class of warriors who loyally served their superiors (the word samurai means "to serve"). This class appeared in the period of the 9th-12th centuries as the result of struggle for land which started between influential Japanese clans, the Minamoto, the Fujiwara and the Taira being the most powerful of all. They were subdivided into two groups - samurai, who were knights-retainers, and bushi, meaning warriors.

    Thousands of years of Japanese history were marked by the battles conducted by clans comprising several families and ruled by a chief. While some of the samurai were taken for service by a feudal landowner, the majority of them belonged to the ruling class and was honored to represent the highest of the four existing social classes, especially in the period of the 15th - 18th centuries. During this time the samurai were the only ones permitted to carry swords. Their mission was to conquer more land and defend their territory. In return, the samurai were given land, as well as prominent position within the court.

    Over the time the clans realized they could find the compromise which led to their uniting and gradually up to the 18th century the fighting stopped. By that time Japanese way of life was significantly influenced by Western customs, having caused the process of modernizing which also contributed to the end of wars.

    In the 19th century in Japan there appeared the modern army and military equipment and the samurai service became no longer required. Moreover, in 1876 a law prohibited wearing swords and the samurai class disappeared.

    However, till the present moment the ideals attained by the Samurai have aroused much admiration and idealization. Nowadays, they have embodied the principles of the bushido and unshakable loyalty, as well as the imperturbable attitude towards pain or death.

    Samurai Swords

    Initially, the samurai fought mainly with bows and arrows, while riding a horse or on the ground. In the late 13th century the situation changed - fierce battles with the Mongols, followed by the samurai's defeat, made the samurai look for new strategies. The samurai swords became the primary weapon of the warriors and the samurai exceedingly practiced fighting on foot.
    The samurai became well-known for their experience and excellent skills in both armed and unarmed fighting. Their armor consisted of a helmet, a breastplate, arm and shoulder shields, leg and thigh protectors, and a belly wrap.

    The two Samurai swords, the daisho, always accompanied their masters. The sword was the tabernacle of a samurai's soul. One of these, the katana, which is over 24 inches, became synonymous with samurai while the other, the wakizashi, a samurai's "honour blade," was shorter. The samurai held to a belief that their swords enclosed the essence of their warrior's skills and influenced the course of the battle and had the tradition to give their swords names.
    There was a ceremony of giving a wakizashi to a male child when he has reached the age of thirteen, followed by giving him an adult name and initiating him into a samurai. A young samurai also received the permission to carry a katana.

    The samurai ran onto the battlefield crying out their family name, rank, and achievements, and fought with an enemy of the same rank. Having won the battle, the samurai would cut the loser's head off. The samurai brought the heads of the enemies of the highest rank to the capital and displayed them for the city's authorities.

    The Samurai and Bushido

    The samurai were frugal in their habits and were not attracted by wealth as pride and honor were their life priorities. Their courage became really legendary and to lose one's life in battle was the greatest honor they could bring to their lord and family.

    All the life of a samurai had to be based upon bushido code - Way of the Warrior, the philosophic teaching and practical code of life initially influenced by Zen and Confucianism. This may be compared to the European concept of chivalry. According to the bushido, the major virtues of a samurai had to be modesty, fidelity, honed skills in martial arts, self-sacrifice, polished manners, affection, purity of thought, and honorable attitude towards the death. The samurai were so devoted to bushido and their warlord that they would not hesitate to lose their own lives if it was required in fighting or by performing seppuku (hara-kiri), a ritual suicide - an act to uphold one's honor. It is important that the bushido influenced not just the samurai's etiquette in battle, but their personal lives as well. The samurai taught themselves to control one's emotions, no matter pain or joy, and behaved in composed manner at all times. The word of a samurai did not require signing any contract. Being sincere warriors of virtue, the samurai did their best to live in harmony with their surroundings.

    Samurai women

    The role of a woman in Japan was often argued. Initially a woman played quite a superior role, which was reflected in Japanese mythology, where we can see the dominance of the Amaterasu sun goddess, as well as Izanami wife of the Izanagi god was considered to be absolutely equal with her husband.

    There were times when combative women would handle troops and take one of the most powerful fortifications by assault. Later the dominant role of a woman was gradually fading. During the Heian period (710-1192), women were even less dominating, though their cultural contribution was quite high.

    Another type of women was women of buke, which actively supported their husbands in their fight for political and military leadership. Brought up in war traditions they were the embodiment of their men and also referred as a privileged class.
    Samurai women as well as their husbands, brothers and fathers were also devoted to a clan chief and were taught to serve him displaying complete obedience. It would also imply a talented swordsmanship. No wonder women of buke were skilled in the use of Japanese swords so that they could defend themselves from the enemies and if necessary to commit a suicide. Moreover, historical records prove that in many situations women of samurai class were mainly preoccupied with military duties and in times of war would defend their honor at the battlefield alongside with their husbands.

    In cases where a real danger of falling prisoner, samurai women were not only quite decisive to die by hand of the male relative or his chief , but also undoubtedly could kill men if they couldn't commit ritual act, having no mercy on themselves and their children.

    Samurai women and suicide
    Samurai women used suicide as a protest against unjust treatment. One of the most shining examples of which was a story told by Francois Caron, who was an imperious regent of Higo province in 1600-1673. He conceived to kill one of his vassals in order to conquer his wife. After the death of the vassal, his wife took some time to grief over her husband death and called all the clan members and her huband's friends. During a ceremony she suddenly fell off the tower and broke her neck in the eyes of everybody. Though such suicide ritual was not characteristic for ritual self-destruction, it was one of the most efficient forms of protest. Being very decisive and fierce as well as buke men, women could take the responsibility to revenge upon those who would kill their chief or someone, who offended him.

    Famous women warriors
    Probably one of the most famous and brave women known through Japanese history was Tomoe Gozen, a wife of Minamoto Yoshinaka from Kiso. If talking about this legendary samurai woman, one would readily accept that she possessed a great deal of vigor and reckless courage, was very skilled at swords handling and riding. Usually she would enter the battlefield with her husband, inspiring warriors around her with the only appearance and courage. Tomoe displayed a white fury typical for a professional warrior.
    They say that during a battle at Awazu she killed some enemies and their commander, who tried to catch Tomoe. As she flicked a horse, the sleeve of her clothes had left in his hand. Tomoe was so furious that she turned around, attached the chaser, cut his head and later took it to give it to her husband.

    Another heroic warrior-woman was Hojo Masako, a wife of the Minamoto Yoritomo first well-known shogun. She was considered to be very shrewd, smart, ingenious and courageous woman. While her husband was alive, she had great influence and after his death was so powerful that in actual fact she was the one to run the country. Though we could well say that supreme power of the country resided to woman, Hojo Masako was not an actual leader of the country, but her real power and influence was spread quite vastly.

    A woman who became history as a talented warrior, was well-known for perfectly handling naginata Japanese sword was Nakano Takeko. The defense of the Wakamutsu Castle(1868) was a great epic in Japanese history(the battle is seen in "Last Samurai"). Fighting along with samurai warriors of Aizu clan, Nakako Takeko defended ranks of the army in the fore and killed numerous enemies and finally was struck by the shot. In order to avoid a dishonorable death she asked her sister to take her life by cutting her head. Today her name is inscribed on the monument in Aizu Bangemachi temple.



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