The Iaido Journal  May 2006
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Why do Sword Kata End in Killing?

copyright © 2006 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

Not too long ago I taught a high school gym class some iaido. About an hour into the class one student asked me why every kata ended up with a killing strike.

It was a good question, one that I hadn't thought about for quite a while, but one that every student of the martial arts should ask eventually. The answer you come up with will tell you a lot about where you are in your training, and in your life.

Miyamoto Musashi might be a good starting point. At the beginning of his life the country was at war and he saw the martial arts as something very practical. He used his skills to win many duels, a lot of them ending up with the other fellow dead on the ground. Somewhere around age 30 he seems to have stopped fighting duels, or at least killing his opponents during them, and started to think about what other uses the arts might have beside killing people. His conclusion was that the martial arts were capable of producing an enlightened person. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps he just grew into an adult, after all we do get inevitably more cynical, less idealistic and more aware of our own mortality as we get older. Perhaps that's all that's happening as we "gain enlightenment" from the martial arts, or meditation, or yoga or anything else that claims to make better people.

Perhaps, but the traditional martial arts are explicitly said to produce better people, as opposed to better killers. I say traditional arts because I'm distinguishing between military training and martial arts. Between learning how to kill in order to be better at killing and learning how to kill to be more likely not to kill. As I write that it occurs to me that the distinction isn't absolute. Both training schemes make it more likely that the trainee will kill only on behalf of the state, or when the situation demands it (as opposed to fighting and perhaps killing as a blind reaction which may be inappropriate to the circumstances), but one training scheme aims at making the act of killing more likely, the trainee more willing, while the other aims to make the trainee less willing to do so.

If the martial arts are about creating a reluctance to fight and kill, then why the concentration on killing in sword kata? I had told the students that each time they did chiburi (shaking the blood off the blade after the final cut) that they should imagine blood, bone and muscle falling away from the sword and hitting the floor. I did this because I believe it's unhealthy to swing a sword around without understanding what it's real use is. Apparently they got it. One student asked if there were any self defence kata in iaido. This amazed me, most of my students take a couple of years and some training in the upper levels of the koryu before they one day begin to suspect that not all iaido is about self defence. These kids got it right away. The main question though, was why the kata finish with a killing strike.

My answer is in several parts:

First I used the standard avoidance technique and said that not all kata do end up in death. For instance in Jodo there are several kata that end with the jo simply aimed at the opponent's eyeball and with him backing down. Now this may simply be a formal ending for practice with the reality being a dead body on the ground, but some of the kata don't actually have killing strikes during the kata... unless you count a broken wrist and a thrust to the solar plexus as "deadly". Of course they could be if the xiphisternum snaps off and punctures the liver, and of course the strike could be to the head and the thrust to the throat but they aren't, while in other kata they are. No "hiding the real techniques from public eyes" here as far as I'm concerned, they are simply kata that don't end in death.

As I said, this was an avoidance of the real question, and worse, implies that it should not have been asked, and would not have been asked if the questioner had more knowledge. If even one kata ends in killing the question is legitimate. The sword kata almost invariably do end up with someone dead, and it's hard to imagine anyone trying to use a sword as a restraint tool. That's right up there with using the modern police pistol as a yawara stick. You pull the sword or the gun and you've taken a long step toward a bag of meat on the ground. The reality of the sword is that it's for killing.

Which brings me to the first explanation of why sword kata end in killing strikes. That's the reality of swords, they are long sharp pieces of steel that have no other purpose than to cut into a body. They can't be used as can openers, screwdrivers or shovels. They're designed to wound and kill. It's a fact that swords look cool in video games and in movies you see a lot of sword swinging that's pretty glorious. A lot of students come to the martial arts looking to learn how to swing those cool swords, that's why I told the kids to imagine blood and bone on the sword as they cleaned it. Sure the swords in the movies look cool, but in the movies people walk away with "flesh wounds", they soak up 25 undefended punches to the head and still stand, they take multiple bullet wounds to the body and still charge, they survive sword fights. The reality is that people don't survive that kind of damage, the reality is that swords kill.

There are "sword schools" out there that look like movie stunt training but what I teach doesn't. It's boring, unflashy and about as likely to be seen in a movie as I am to be seen with the latest Hollywood starlet. Sword kata end in killing because we have to remember what swords do. When you forget that, you forget the reason you swing the sword... and you may just forget the edge is sharp and lose a thumb.

The second reason sword kata end in killing is the exact same reason that police and anyone else trained in the use of a handgun are trained to shoot at the centre of mass. The weapon is designed to kill, not wound or restrain or impair. Trying to hit a leg or an arm with a gun or a sword is likely to get you killed. They're hard to hit. The restraint aspect of these weapons comes before they are drawn. They should never be in your hand if you don't intend to use them to kill your opponent. There are some who argue that pulling a gun or a sword is a great deterrent and that you won't have to use them, just wave them around. Fine, but I wonder how many of those who argue that way are willing to have a dull sword or an unloaded gun to wave around. Pulling it without any intent to kill with it is not smart. It may be a happy ending if the other fellow runs away, but the person pulling the gun had better have the intent to kill or he may end up dead himself.

There is, I believe, a very good reason why the seventh technique in the koryu iaido school I study is for taking the head off of someone who is committing seppuku (ritual disembowelment). There's nothing romantic about that kata, no pretending we're movie stars, it's a brutal and cold-blooded act of ending a life. Somewhere in the dim dark past I read a quote from one of the last executioners of the shogunate who talked about this kata. He said that it was a mistake to try and be fancy about leaving a bit of skin on the throat so the head won't bounce away. After 5 or 6 beheadings he said the executioner's body begins to rebel against taking a life. The brain may be willing but the body is not, so wind up and swing right through and never mind the refinements. Just get the job done. Don't believe the body can have a say independantly of the brain? At the National War Museum in Ottawa there is a film showing the effects of "shell shock" I recommend watching it closely if you ever get the chance.

And so we come finally to my belief about why it's important to study how to kill with a sword, why the kata end in killing and why the student should visualize blood on the floor and on the blade. It's to take us to the viewpoint of that executioner. He had no more use for romance, for fancy technique or for looking cool. There is nothing "cool" about killing, despite what we may see in the movies or hear from the gangsta rappers on "the street".

But why study the martial arts at all? If we're not on "the street" or likely to be attacked in our peaceful neighbourhoods why do we need to learn that killing isn't romantic?

It's because we haven't had a war in a while. It's because camouflage jackets and pants are in fashion, because video games and music and movies make violence look romantic. It's because we have a generation of old men in charge who have never been in a war.

And old men send young men (and now young women) to war. Countries go to war when they've forgotten what war is, when war becomes something romantic. When war is seen as a way to accomplish something other than killing a lot of people, when it becomes a way to defend values or promote ideals or save someone from oppression then war will happen. People will die and a new generation will find out for themselves that waving shiny swords around isn't fun, or romantic or cool. The old men would like you to think that war is clean, patriotic, sterile. That bodies don't come home in boxes or bags, that you will get a shiny uniform and a shiny sword and you will wave it and the bad guys will all bow down and surrender to your splendor. The old men want you to believe, not to know, and without a generation who knows, they can make you believe.

We need to be reminded that war is about power, and domination and commerce, not about ideals and romance.

We need to be reminded that swords kill.

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TIN May 2006