Over and over, Singlemindedly, Without Doubt.
The film "The Devil's Blade" was a huge box office success in Japan, taking in 4.6 billion yen in just three days from October 16 to 18, 2020 and attracting an audience of 3.42 million people -both record numbers- despite the Corona virus lockdown. The film was a hit in a large part due to the boom in numbers of “touken girls” the many women who have become interested in swordsmanship.
It seems that we have entered a time in which people wish to embark upon a pilgrimage to the original places of swordsmanship.
This is not just a matter of going on a sightseeing trip, but it is more the sense of embarking on a journey to meet one’s true love.
Along with reflecting upon why this sword boom has occurred along with the appearance of the “touken girls” I also wish to talk about the role of the swordsmith.
In the village of Eastern Yoshino, located deep within Nara Prefecture, there is a swordsmith of genius named Kawachi Kunihira. In 2014, his abilities were recognised with his award of the prestigious Masamune Prize.
It is said that the greatest swords were produced in the Kamakura and Muromachi periods.
In particular, these blades were famous for their magnificent ‘Utsuri’ (Translator’s note: Bizen steel, often used for making Japanese swords, is known to be quite soft and prone to bend. Swords made from Bizen steel benefit from the use of the utsuri technique. This additional treatment in the steel produces hard (yet not too hard) parts of steel along the hamon as well as providing torsional rigidity and a beautiful visual effect on the steel’s appearance. The utsuri method produces a softer area in the blade’s surface which improves the flexibility of the swords, making them more difficult to break when used).
The quest to produce this quality of ‘utsuri’ still drives swordsmiths to unceasingly improve even 500 years later.
Kawachi the swordsmith studied the swords of the Kamakura period day and night in search of the mysterious technique to achieve this quality of "Utsuri".
One day, he happened upon this Utsuri technique in the Sakai area of Osaka (Sakai is a place famous for making kitchen and chef knives.)
He had heard a rumour that this technique could still be found in Sakai but he had no idea where or what to look for. However, he decided to go to Sakai to try and discover the secret of ‘utsuri’. Kawachi kept his ears pricked daily for any hint as to this technique. He eventually realised that a blade should be beautiful but is that is the only function of a sword, it cannot have ‘utsuri’. This is because the original priority of a blade is to be sharp. If he reverted to the original aim of blade making- that is to make a blade with a keen edge- he could also discover how to create ‘utsuri’ by returning to the original principles of sword making.
Likewise, in the Muden Juku, we have a practice technique in which we repeatedly practice the correct form in which we do not have to rely upon the muse of brute strength or power. By taking strength out of the technique in this manner, you realise that you become better when you don’t rely on brute force. This is “Muden aiki” which can be phrased as the admonishment: “don’t exert strength, don’t use strength, don’t ‘do’ anything.”
This is not just a matter of mentally considering things from many different perspectives. Rather, it is discovered by oneself through constant repetition of the correct basic form.
Unswervingly repeating this practice will eventually allow you to reach the conviction that this is truth of the matter.
The evolution of aiki in Muden Juku is contained in the attitude of “Earnestly practice over and over.” This motivation is powered by the attitude of “I can constantly improve and get better.”
Mr. Kawachi demonstrates a similar mentality when he talks about his work. He states that "I'm a craftsman so I work, this is what I do. Without thinking, I begin to work."
To work without thinking about working is ‘mushin mugame’ (No mind, no self)
To single-mindedly go to work without over analysis is the essence of a master craftsman. What happens when you work without planning on an advantageous result is that achievement is realised without thinking about it. This is ‘Shikantaza’.
When I entered the gate of training in zen, it corresponded to receiving the black belt in the training of budo (A black belt in Japan corresponds to the first step in serious Japanese martial training also known as shugyo)
I received a Koan (a conceptual puzzle designed to illuminate the mind) from the Roshi (master abbot of the zen temple) and I had to present my answer to this koan in an interview with the Roshi.
This interview is where our concepts of the world are confronted in a one-on-one encounter.
The Roshi did not offer any word of encouragement to my replies. Instead he remarked that " you have not sat in meditation long enough. Sit down a little more," With that, he rang the bell as a signal that the interview is over, leaving me to struggle with the koan.
In zen training this type of questioning does give you the answer. Instead, it is said that "The answer comes from somewhere else”. Essentially, what you must do is just sit! Sit down and all will be revealed! This is shikantaza.
On top of this training, something is brought to your notice and something like an inspiration occurs.
This is not something that simply happens within your head.
You first sit - physically practice. Then the realisation comes into being.
This method is also true of Daito Ryu aiki jujutsu, which I also practice.
By practicing single-mindedly and by not over analysing with the brain, someday, something will be surely understood with one’s being.
This is method of patiently developing one’s ingenuity by ‘trial and error’ is an important component in technical development.Therefore Japanese people think it’s ok not to use logical thought.
When Dr Hisashi Yamamoto, a Nobel Prize candidate chemist, analysed the characteristics typical Japanese people, he classified them as "introverted type", "sensory type", and "feeling type". It is said that these types typify the brain of the Nobel Prize candidate.
In contrast, he found the Western mindset as typified by the "Extrovert type", "Intuitive type", and "Thinking type". Therefore, he published the book titled 'The Japanese do not have to be logical'.
It can be said that the teaching method used in Japan is initially one in which learning is shaped by adherence to physical form without excessive thinking. It is not purely rational. This can be seen from the training of children from 5-6 years old in the old school (juku) system.
Archers following this method do not shoot to hit the target. You cannot shoot with this aim in mind. This is the same method used when practicing technique in Muden Juku. As soon as you think that “I am going to really throw my opponent”, your strength barges in, and the technique no longer is borne from skill.
In this way, even though the sword is originally used as a weapon, the Japanese sublimated it into a artistic pursuit that is that can be refined by posterity.
These common roots of Japanese culture- no matter the discipline- help me recognise the similar characteristics in the martial art that I pursue.
I would like to further refine this martial pursuit which is an intangible cultural property of Japan, and spread the art of the Aiki techniques of the Daito-ryu, which is a precious jewel, to the world.
November 4, 2020
Aiki Goshin jutsu Daito-Ryu Muden Juku
Founding Shihan Hiroo Iida