The Iaido Journal  Sept 2009
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One-on-One with Szen Larsen Kusano Sensei, 2009
(Sugino branch, Katori Shinto Ryu) 
Part One: The Nature of Japanese Swordsmanship

copyright 2009 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

The following article is the first part of an interview with Szen Larsen Kusano Sensei (5th dan) of the Sugino branch of Katori Shinto Ryu. In this article, Szen Sensei shares with us his thoughts about the nature of Japanese swordsmanship. Those interested in learning more about Szen Sensei can consult his group’s website: http://www.kakudokan.no/

Author’s note: This interview was conducted on August 7, 2009 in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Szen (pronounced “Sozen”) Sensei came over to Canada to conduct another special seminar in Katori Shinto Ryu. This was his third trip to Canada.

While Sozen Sensei speaks excellent English, it must be remembered that English is not his native language. At some points through the interview transcript presented here, I have added a few notes that may help readers as to what sensei might have meant since any discussion between two people will entail certain assumptions, background knowledge, and common understandings. Any errors in interpreting what sensei has said are entirely my own. I hope that readers will find the reading enjoyable nonetheless.

Sazen seminar, 2009

 Part One: The Nature of Japanese Swordsmanship


Question: There is still some confusion in the Western countries about what exactly is “kenjutsu”. What is “kenjutsu” and how is it different from kendo or iaido?

Sensei: First of all, let me say that Shinto Ryu is “old school”.*
(* “old school” as in old-style budo mentality, old-style methodology, the way budo was supposed to be studied and taught, old-style philosophy, etc…)

The so-called “do”* arts are modern. From the 1600’s onwards. The people into “do” were Shinto and Buddhist priests and the nobility. It was not for the common folk to engage in “do” arts. A lot of them couldn’t even read or write.
(* “do” or “michi” which in Japanese means “the Way”, “the Path”.)

I don’t like the term “kenjutsu”. We limit ourselves. Jutsu literally translated means “techniques”. It’s too narrow. I don’t like to use this term. It’s too limiting. Shinto Ryu is an old school of swordsmanship. I like the word “swordsmanship”. It includes “techniques”. It includes “jutsu”.

When people ask what I do, I like to call it “old-style ken-do”. Because in “do”, it includes so much more than just a technique or two or fifty. Also, the code that you practice by is in the “do”.
What is “the code”, you may ask? It incorporates respect for others, ethics, philosophy, how we conduct ourselves in the dojo, how we conduct ourselves outside the dojo, because with the ken-jutsu, with the techniques, comes great responsibility.

Question: Why is that?

Sensei: Because being a swordsman, and I am not talking about beginners, I am talking about proficient swordsmen, having mastered techniques, the “jutsu”, they have great power. Like a politician has power, a policemen has power, a doctor has power, even a schoolteacher has power. A swordsman has power too. What kind of power? Well, a force that enables him or her to overcome or subdue another human being.

So, with this power, in the world of the “do”, we’re supposed to do good. Like the philosophy about “the sword that gives life”.*
(* compare with the idea espoused in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu about the “life-giving sword”)

Question: Sorry, to get back to the question, how is it different from kendo or iaido?

Sensei: Yes, I see. Well, there is no difference, in my opinion. Historically, all schools of swordsmanship concentrated on handling the sword and use of sword techniques. But many of us know that in some of these old schools, schools now referred to as “iaido” schools, you can still find kata for two people for instance. *
(* i.e., partnered kata)

These are old schools with a modern name, like in a modern box named “iaido”. But iaido consists of many schools. Some may argue that there is no competition in iaido, but they do come together and compete. So, if you say that there is no competition in iaido, this is not true.

Question: In your opinion, what is the Japanese way of swordfighting or swordsmanship? How is it different from other types of swordsmanship like Western fencing or Chinese swordfighting styles?

Sensei: This is a difficult question. We do know some things however. We know, for instance, that the Japanese sword is in principle a two-handed sword. We also know that all styles of swordsmanship are based on the culture from which they were created.
(* Sensei may be alluding to the idea that to understand the Japanese way of sword-fighting, we need to consider the characteristics of the tool and the mindset of the culture which spawned the tool: What do they value? What ideal do they espouse to achieve?)

Question: Other types of swordfighting like Chinese styles or Western styles seem to have many exchanges of blows. Japanese sword styles typically seem to rely on one cut.* Do you think this is true?
(* Example: Kashima Shinto Ryu has hitotsu tachi, Itto Ryu has kiri-otoshi, etc… all of them espouse the ideal of the one perfect cut.)

Sensei: An interesting question! Hmmmm.

(Sensei seems to contemplate this question rather deeply so I offer an example to try to focus the question more)

Question: Sensei, an interesting example happened last year at Sugino Sensei’s seminar in Canada. A student asked why, in kata 1 when the uke tachi comes and cuts down on the kiri-komi and the kiri-komi sidesteps to avoid the cut, why the uke tachi could not immediately cut the do* (waist) in the same motion.
(* in the kata, the uke tachi, or uchi-dachi in other schools, comes to cut the kiri-komi, or shi-dachi, with a big overhead cut. The kiri-komi evades the cut by taking one step to his left side and the uke tachi’s cut misses its mark. The question posed by the student was, “Couldn’t the uke tachi then simply turn the blade and cut the exposed side of the kiri-komi since as he evades the cut, he leaves the entire right side of his body unprotected?”)

Sensei: Ah, yes. I see. This idea of relying on “one cut”. Well, you’ve got to follow through with the cut*. It takes time.
(* Here, presumably, once you commit to the cut, can you easily change, perhaps in mid-stream to another type of cut?)

It depends on the weight and the characteristics of the Japanese sword. *
(* Compare a rapier, a saber, Chinese straight sword, Chinese broadsword )

In order to change the direction of the sword, it takes time. Like a big ship*. It needs a certain distance to stop and to change direction.
(* An interesting tidbit of information: Sensei served in the Norwegian Navy in his youth.)

Executing a cut or a stab takes energy too. It is within the nature of the Japanese sword. It also depends on the intention of the strike. For example, do you believe (if you are the swordsman) that this is the final cut to finish the opponent? Or is it part of the strategy, only part of the fight? If you are restrained, you might be able to recover. It also depends on the type of opponent, on your skill, many circumstances.

In all schools, there are things called “the perfect moment” or “the ideal technique”. That’s what we are striving for. Who wants to go 10 rounds* when you can finish the guy in one stroke, one blow?
(* as in a boxing match)

So what does it take to achieve this “ideal technique”? Lots of training!!* (Sensei laughs)
(* Miyamoto Musashi said in his Book of Five Rings, “The Way is in training.”)

Just like the ideal spouse, it doesn’t exist. It never happens. It is an idea. Ideal and idea both start with the same word. It is an image in your head and it is not that it's unachievable, it is. It’s just very, very difficult. Now, about it happening in a kata, since this question of cutting concerns what happens in the kata. I think this is a question of methodology. Let me talk about the idea of kata.How do we learn the different techniques for blocking, cutting, defending, and attacking? In some schools, it is done in short sequences*. In other schools, they have long sequences.
(* i.e., “kata” in Japanese; pre-arranged sequences of movements)

Personally, I think they are all just sequences. *
(* I think here Sensei is alluding to the issue about what exactly kata represent; whether kata represent what happens in a real swordfight, whether kata represent a specific scenario in a swordfight, etc… which is a common question that beginners and novices have.)

In old-school kendo or kenjutsu, although the sequence of techniques are pre-set, we call them kata, our partners are not pre-set. Although you may know the sequences, the order of the techniques in the sequence, you do not know your opponent’s distance, you do not know his timing, you do not know his force. That makes for a lot of variables you do not know about! This is very different from dancing. In dancing, both partners follow the same rhythm, know what to do and when to do it. Sword kata do not work like that because one party is trying to break his partner’s rhythm, to break his concentration.*
(* in other words, Sensei is likely saying that you cannot sleep-walk through a kata, assuming that your partner will be accomodating. You must be in the moment, alert, and engaged.)

Question: Really? Is this intentional or unintentional?

Sensei: Yes, even in performing kata*. The master does so intentionally. A beginner may do so unintentionally. But it does happen.
(* presumably, during regular practice at the dojo.)

If your partner is predictable, that will be his downfall. So how to be unpredictable? Change pace, distance, force, all within the pre-set forms.

Question: We get the idea, which we see in Japanese movies like Seven Samurai, that swordfights do not last very long (for example, the fight scene in the town between the silent samurai and the braggart). Usually the fight is finished in one cut. Do you think the Japanese swordsman’s mindset embraces this idea of “one cut”?

Sensei: I’m not sure if the Japanese swordsman embraces this idea. We are talking about a trained swordsman, yes? They will know how extremely difficult it is to achieve.

Yes, we do strive for perfection. The perfect cut. Everyone is looking for the perfect technique. It is called perfection. We practice again, we persevere, eventually we give it up. We don’t give up swordsmanship, no. But we give up the quest for perfection. We just practice right, practice good. Because we can never find perfection. Perfection finds us.

Question: ?? (I am perplexed).

Sensei: Looking for perfection, you think perfection is somewhere outside yourself, instead of cultivating the art within yourself. Cultivate your body and mind. Cultivate the art within you. Cultivate the techniques within you to the point of perfection.

That’s when perfection finds you.



Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at: dtong@tokumeikan.com

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