The Iaido Journal  Dec 2009
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One-on-One with Szen Larsen Kusano Sensei, 2009
(Sugino branch, Katori Shinto Ryu) 
Part Three: About Kamae

copyright 2009 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

The following article is the third part of an interview with Szen Larsen Kusano Sensei of the Sugino branch of Katori Shinto Ryu. In this article, Szen Sensei discusses the technical issue of kamae in the Katori Shinto Ryu school of Japanese swordsmanship.
Part Three: About Kamae

Question: In Katori Shinto Ryu, there is an importance placed on kamae. Why is this, and why is kamae important?
Sensei: We have to define “kamae”. How to define “kamae”? We have to look at the meaning of the word kamae. In my opinion, there are two types of kamae if we define kamae as a “preparatory position” or, in other words, a position in which we are prepared.

There are two ways to be prepared:
  1. with regards to a technical position: sometimes the sword is facing this way, sometimes that way. The body faces this way or that. There are various positions.
  2. with regards to a mental position: the readiness of mind, when you are mentally ready to face an opponent.
Yes, in some schools, even if you don’t believe in positions, no matter how you place yourself in dealing with an opponent, you are in fact in a position. Whether you decide to name the position or not, you cannot NOT be in a position of some sort. And to me, in my opinion, when facing him (my opponent), if he wants to define his position or not, it really doesn’t matter to me.

In Shinto Ryu, we have a number of positions because they are part of a strategy.

Shinto Ryu kamae
A collection of the kamae used in Katori Shinto Ryu.

We like to believe that we know what we are doing. We are in this position for a reason. Why would you assume a position for no reason? Then you would either be extremely skillful or extremely foolish. So either you know what you are doing or you don’t know what you are doing. If you don’t know what you are doing, then don’t put yourself in that position.

This brings to mind an anecdote. Every once in a while, Sugino Sensei ( Sugino Yukihiro Sensei) comes over and asks you, “What are you doing?” Or sometimes, he asks, “What did you do that for?”  Usually, my answer is “I don’t know.” Then he says, “Then, don’t do it.” So, the lesson here is make sure you know what you are doing.

So obviously, if you’re doing something wrong or silly or foolish, then stop doing that because you’ll get yourself killed. I know because it has happened to me A LOT!!!! (Sensei laughs.) That’s the honest truth.

Sugino Sensei
Szen Sensei being instructed in Shinto Ryu by Yukihiro Sugino Sensei in 1993.
In the background, Yoshio Sugino Sensei watches.

Half the time, I have no idea what I’m doing but that’s OK, because I’m learning from my mistakes. So, back to the question of positions or not positions, to my way of thinking, it’s just semantics.

Question: Is kamae for attack or defence?
Sensei: In our school, when you are in a certain position, that’s because you’re about to do a certain thing. With regards to attack or defence, we take turns attacking and defending. If you’re in a position and it’s your turn to attack, you attack. And if you’re in a position and it’s your turn to defend, you defend. That’s following the form. ( following the kata). But if you’re in a certain position and you can only defend or attack but not both, you’re in a lousy position. You have limited your options. Actually, I don’t know if such a position exists in Shinto Ryu, one where I can only do one thing.

Question: One thing??
Sensei: I mean, for instance, just to attack or just to defend. (This is an intriguing question: the purpose or aim of kamae, in general and with regards to each particular kamae.)

Question: What do you mean, if you don’t mind my asking?
Sensei: The kamae is “readiness”. And we don’t know if I am ready to defend or attack.

In no kamae

Question: Why is this?
Sensei: Because kamae is neutral. So when I say a kamae is a “position of readiness”, it doesn’t say “readiness for what?” (another interesting question: readiness for attack? readiness for defence? Leads to interesting thoughts about the popular maxim that “a good attack is the best defence”…)

Why don’t we know what we’re ready for? Because it hasn’t presented itself. We’re not psychic. We must be ready for anything, even dying. So that is why you never assume a position (i.e., kamae) unless you’re ready to face the consequences. In the old days, at least one consequence was loss of life. And in today’s society, if you don’t want to submit yourself to danger, then don’t fight or engage in a fight.

Question: Would you say that Katori Shinto Ryu is focused more on attack, defence, or counter-attack?
Sensei: I think in Shinto Ryu, like in most schools that I know of, it’s all about equilibrium, the balance. The tools to be able to do what you need to do and when you need to do it.


Question: In your opinion, what is the fundamental philosophy or idea of Katori Shinto Ryu?
Sensei: This is a really difficult question. I really don’t know if there are any dogmas in Shinto Ryu.In my opinion and I think it is only my opinion, the philosophy of Shinto Ryu is about… “staying alive”!! (Sensei has a good laugh about that one.)

Question: You have studied Katori Shinto Ryu for a long time. What makes it so fascinating an art to study? In other words, what keeps you interested in studying it?
Sensei: A good question! Shinto Ryu is diversified, for sure. There are many weapons, many techniques. But I didn’t pick Shinto Ryu because of the name of the school, the techniques, or the weaponry. I decided to study it because I found a good master, a good teacher. (Sugino Yoshio Sensei)

Sugino Yoshio teaching iai
Szen Sensei being instructed in Shinto Ryu iaijutsu by Yoshio Sugino Sensei.

And seeing what the teacher was able to do was truly fascinating. He made me want to study. Also, even in the pre-set forms, there are so many variations and deviations that it gives this school of swordsmanship tremendous depth. Even after so many years, it is still fascinating to me. I am continually discovering new things about this art and this is what makes it very profound.

This is why I study.

For more information about Sugino-style Katori Shinto Ryu in Canada, visit:

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