Sunday, 23 June 2013

Iai – more than drawing the sword

From a scroll of the Sekiguchi Shinshin ryu (1810), showing iaijutsu
practiced on a very interesting looking striking dummy. (From this website.)

The art of iai seems to be one of the most understood of the Japanese martial arts. It dates from at least the 16th century, and probably before that, and yet it falls into that uncomfortable ground of not being quite one thing or another. Is it for use in combat, or is it primarily a tool for self-discipline?

Of course, the comparatively modern discipline of iaido has as one of its stated aims the refinement of the character of the practitioner, but there is some contention about the whole discipline, based largely on the fact that the principle form of practice involves starting in a kneeling position known as seiza. Given the importance of this position in most forms of iai, it has always been something of a mystery as to how it developed.

There have been all kinds of explanations, some of them quite dubious, as to the origins of iai. For example, it has been explained as a battlefield art. It has also been claimed that there was no time that samurai would have the opportunity to draw their long swords from the waist when seated on tatami, it is essentially of no practical use.

When we think of samurai not wearing longswords indoors,
this is the kind of situation  (from Kawagoe City Museum)
that comes to mind. However, this was not always the case (see pictures below).

Although iaido (and some more traditional styles as well) are quite far removed from their ostensible purpose, i.e. drawing the sword, cutting down an opponent and returning the sword to its sheath, the direction in which it has developed – as a tool for polishing the self ­– does, in fact, owe something to elements that were an important part of the practice from the start.

Along with the physical practice of wielding the sword, it has a mental component that is vital – one might even say it is the basis of iai.

The ability to influence the opponent, to control him, before coming to blows, is at its heart, as earlier practitioners were keen to point out:

The founder of the Suio ryu, Mima Yoichizaemon Kagenobu wrote in the early 1600s:

The essence of our tradition, and the attainment of an unassailable position, comes from cutting down our opponents while the sword is still in the scabbard, stifling our opponent’s actions and achieving victory through not drawing the sword.

Similarly, Matsura Seizan, master of the Shingyoto ryu echoed these ideas some 200 years later:

(Iai) is not drawing the sword. When you match i (being or presence) with an opponent (ai comes from the word au, which means the spirit of opposition)… it is called projecting the spirit to give victory… the potential of drawing the sword and cutting down the opponent is present while the sword is still sheathed.

This aspect does exist in all bugei, but iai offers a particularly concentrated form of the practice. Starting in seiza highlights it even further. It becomes far more than drawing the sword.

However, I would not totally rule out the practical nature of iai from seiza. Watching the NHK TV drama Yae no Sakura recently, I was struck by just how threatening and dangerous things could be when men wearing swords meet in the small rooms of the inns and lodging houses frequented by the samurai in the Bakumatsu period (1860s). It is easy to see how skill in iai, both in the sense of drawing the sword as well as being able to control your opponent, would be very useful.

Being able to draw the sword from seiza, perhaps the most difficult and disadvantageous position from which iai is practiced, must have conferred a degree of confidence that carried over into other situations, not to mention the technical skills it helped to develop. After having practiced in this position, almost any other position, especially standing, is much easier.

It is a TV show, but this is the range at which iai might be used.

Kyoto was a rough city in those days ­– there were a number of highly visible assassinations as well as many of less well-known people. Secret political meetings were held in small rooms (with tatami, and swords) and the way you held or wore your sword was a matter of personal preference rather than agreed decorum. When violence erupted, it could be sudden and bloody.

This picture, taken in 1863, shows the guard
assigned to the Dutch delegation in Nagasaki.
Note the mix of modern and older weapons, and
for the sticklers for historical accuracy, note that
the centre figure is seated on tatami, in seiza,
with his sword thrust through his sash.

Perhaps it is a throwback to this era when, in the early 20th century, iai was promoted strongly by a number of well-known practitioners whose teachers had personal experience of those troubled times. Although the mood of the times had changed, it doesn’t require any stretch of the imagination that an art that had proved useful was passed on into more peaceful times.