Sunday, 13 February 2011

Saya no Uchi - principle and practice

From Ratti & Westbrook's Secrets of the Samurai

One of the attractions of the Japanese martial arts are the esoteric sounding concepts it contains. One such is saya no uchi, which literally means 'within the saya' and is a shortening of a phrase which can be translated as 'victory is obtained while the sword is in the saya'.

It is an interesting concept, but like many others, it is open to a variety of interpretations. The principle differences in this case lie on either side of the line separating the classical martial arts and the more modern disciplines. Whatever we call them, we can see quite a large difference between the older disciplines which claim their primary focus is combat, and the more modern ones, especially those that have positioned themselves as modern budo. Their aims and philosophies also colour their interpretations of concepts such as saya no uchi. The differences are sometimes slight, but they are telling.

If we look at the mindsets at the two extremes of these positions, the differences are quite clear. This is a description of the aims of modern iaido:

"Iaido does not actually mean overcoming an enemy, but overcoming one's own self. The only and the most dangerous opponent in iaido is the practitioner himself. Victory in iaido consists of a forgiving heart and avoidance of fight. Iaido means training toward human perfection. In it there is never a murderous intention to kill another human being. It is said that with endless practice the practitioner learns to understand his place in the universe."

Contrast this with the opening line of Hirayama Shiryu's Kensetsu (Sword Theory), written at the beginning of the 19th century:  
  My swordsmanship is for slaying the enemy brutally. 

With such different perspectives, it is no wonder that concepts contained in both arts are interpreted differently. In iaido, the normal interpretation of saya no uchi is that it means winning without drawing the sword; a victory of the spirit. It is held out as a kind of ultimate goal. How exactly this is to be achieved is not clear, but it is sometimes held to be a kind of moral position - the ability to win without fighting.

This is in sharp distinction to the stance taken by combat oriented arts, in which it refers to the positioning that puts one in a winning position prior to the fight. Rather than winning without fighting, it is attaining victory before fighting. On an individual level, this might involve extremely subtle movements, but could easily be extrapolated to large scale conflicts involving armies. Sun Tzu expressed just this concept when he wrote:

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

We might be justified in regarding it as a strategic or tactical principle, in fact. However, in the classical martial arts, such principles were not left as theories, but were taught through concrete techniques and applications, though often ones in which the mental aspect was also vital. Matsuura Seizan, writing in the early 19th century, alludes to this in his Joseishi Kendan:

I will tell you the key to learning this: the potential of drawing the sword and cutting down the opponent is present while the sword is still sheathed. Even as you glimpse an opportunity as the opponent moves, that cut is already present in the sheathed sword. 

Which is to say, the sword is in operation even though it is still in the saya. The technicalities of this are another thing entirely, but those who are familiar with this from personal experience will recognize the truth of Seizan's explanation.

That is not to reject the value of resolving conflicts without fighting. In fact Seizan gives an example of this from his first meeting with the man who was to become his teacher in Confucianism, Minagawa Kien. This was a man not particularly known for his swordsmanship, a scholar, in fact, but who wore two swords as men of his class did in those days. Seizan, who was young and serious about his swordsmanship, made fun of Kien for wearing swords despite his scholarly demeanor. "What would you do if I attacked you now?" he asked. Kien was not in the least perturbed, but replied that every time he picked up his swords he did so with the resolution to use them, and so he was perfectly prepared to use them now, if necessary. If Seizan wanted proof, he had only to attack him and he would show him. Seizan backed down and was forced to admit that he had been defeated by the strength and sincerity of Kien's commitment. This is much closer to the saya no uchi of budo, but Seizan doesn't comment on whether he regarded it as an example of the concept or not. I rather think he didn't, although he does say how impressed he was with Kien.

I will take this chance to recommend my book 'The Samurai Mind', published by Tuttle and due out next month, which includes translations of Seizan's Joseishi Kendan and Hirayama Shiryu's Kensetsu. It is by me, of course, which is another good reason to check it out.


  1. Basically, the killing sword vs. the life-giving sword. Yagyu Munenori.

  2. It need not be one way or the other. As the saying goes: "if you want to live in peace, always be ready for a war."