The Difficulty of Sword-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted October 12, 2002

Last evening, many students mentioned to me how difficult bokken training is. We did not do many suburi nor practice any particular techniques very hard, but the sutblety of the techniques and movements seem to be very difficult to catch on to. Many people do not realize how sophisticated Japanese sword techniques are and coming into practice thinking that it is very easy to “swing” a wooden sword, they are always surprised. Many come in with bad habits from self-practice or are too inspired by watching old chambara, Samurai movies. Why do people think that you can find the correct technique and methods of training in a popular movie? Why do people think that they can simply make-up the art of Japanese swordsmanship? This is too simplistic and unrealistic thinking. This is why swordsmanship “appears” to be so difficult. The difficulty is not in the technqiues themselves but it is in trying to undo the damage of all of the incorrect notions and distortions people bring to practice.

There is no wasted motion or effort in swordsmanship. Timing and spacing are of the essence. Imitating a pirate movie or old Samurai chambara will not do you any good at all. Please try to follow the instruction more closely so we can advance further.

One of my main concerns is that many students lower the point of the sword as it goes above the head just before the kiri-oroshi cut. This is a very bad point but many people do it this way in Aikido. I do not know why. By lowering the point, as the sword reaches above the head, you are exposing yourself to a thrust from tsuki to the throat. When the tip of the sword is lowered, not only are you open at the throat but you have no way to deflect such an attack.

Also, as you lower the tip of the sword too much, you break the grip of the left hand on the hand. This is your power grip on the sword and if you lose this, it is very easy to lose the sword completely from your hands. Finally, by lowering the tip over your head, you create too wide of an arch to cut the opponent. This is all incorrect from the standpoint of the most basic viewpoint of Japanese swordsmanship, we Aikidoists break too many rules of common sense and realism.

From many, many points, it is not correct to do this, yet so many practice this way. I think we are not paying close enough attention to our training. Or, we look at sword training as a mere exercise or sport and not concerned with timing and spacing and proper technique. It is in this manner that we take a wonderful and ancient art such as Japanese swordsmanship and reduce it to a mere exercise. Is the inevitable end of a martial art?

The Informed Eye-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted on September 29, 2002

The other day, I heard there was a discussion of whether of not Aikido was effective as a martial art of not. People who have to ask this question should not practice Aikido at all. There is nothing wrong with this superb and wonderful art we know as Aikido, I cannot say this about many people who attempt to practice it. If you don’t respect it, don’t do it. If you try to degrade or disrespect the art by your idle chit-chat, then it is better for you to discuss something else. There are many who truly respect this art and you offend them. O’Sensei is offended as well, why is it necessary to offend and disrespect O’Sensei? Please don’t give me this silly argument that you are trying to “study” or “research” the art, your arguments are like holding up a match and wondering if it will light or not if you strike it. Perhaps, it may not light, but in all probability, it will. It is like going into the kitchen and facing you sink and debating if water will pour forth if you turn on the faucet. Perhaps, there is a probability that no water will come out, but most likely, it will and you are simply wasting your time conjecturing on something which is totally irrevalent and unimportant to your life. Do you call this training? Do you call this Aikido?

I am sure many are offended by remarks right now but it is just too much. I remember one person looking at a very fine Samurai sword and he turned to me and asked me if I thought it was sharp or not? I replied: “What do you want me to do, see how easily it will cut off your head?” He was very upset with my remark and walked away from me, can you believe it? Ha!

Looking at this sword, you can easily tell that it is sharp and can easily cut off your finger if you touch it, why does one get offended when asking such a stupid question? I thought I was the one offended by HIS remark! It is exactly the same with this argument about Aikido.

A Samurai ordered a sword by Nagasone Kotetsu. Kotetsu was originally a gunsmith in the early Edo Period and later came to make swords at the age of 54. He died less than 20 years later, so there are not many of his swords in existence but they are known to be the very best and the sharpest ever made. When this Samurai went to pick up his sword from Kotetsu who had just finished forging it, he complained that he thought 200 pieces of gold was too much for it.

Without saying a word, Kotetsu stepped into the garden, drew the sword, and easily sliced off the corner of a stone lantern. The Samurai quickly drew out his 200 gold pieces to buy such a wonderful treasure sword but Kotetsu only smiled at him and said, “Sorry, this sword is no longer for sale!”

Many of you are like this Samurai and the Kotetsu blade, by the time you finally find out the true value of Aikido, it might be far away out of your reach! Please be careful!

Speaking of matches, there is another old story about the guy who struck every match in his pocket to make sure that they will light when he needed them. Even today, only a very, very few own a Kotetsu . . . .

As rare as a Kotetsu blade are Yagyu tsuba, Yagyu tsuba are tsuba made by Yagyu Renyasai and masters of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu of swordsmanship. In this country and Japan, I am considered somewhat of a noted expert on this subject. The other day, a good friend and a great, well known teacher of sword informed me that a spectacular and very rare example had been discovered and he recommended this one to me very strongly. When he faxed me a photograph, I was somewhat (very!) disappointed. It was of an unusual example not recorded in any of the Yagyu references and the design was very plain and simple but not in the Yagyu style. I think for some, it cannot even be recognized as a Yagyu tsuba. Actually, I still do not understand the design or meaning of it, not really typical of a Yagyu at all. The price was very, very high as well. I hesitated and really did not feel confident to go for it but my teacher and friend recommended it to me very strongly so I really had to think hard.. I did not give him my usual immediate 3-second approval but deliberated several days on it. Luckily for me, my friend is very patient with an idiot like myself! Finally trusting him, I said, “Fine! I will take it!” and sent off the remittance. I am quite certain O’Sensei or Kotetsu himself would not have been so tolerant with me!

It arrived just the other day and I am so emabarrassed I do not know how to face my friend or even know what to say on the telephone to him. How shamed I am of myself! It is truly so magnificent and wonderful, quite beyond my wildest expectations that, this time, I have really proved to my friend and myself that I am just a mere amateur with no eye or experience at all. The photos did not do it justice at all but it is the best iron I have seen in a very long time and truly a masterpiece of all Yagyu tsuba. Obviously, a piece made by Renyasai Sensei’s own hands.

I was very lucky this time but, for a moment, I felt like that poor, silly Samurai who missed owning a rare Kotetsu several hundreds of years ago or many Aikidoists today who train in Aikido but have missed it completely. . . .

Mental Attitude-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted February 1, 2002

When it comes times to make a crucial decision in our lives, it is already too late. Committment to how we live and where we want to take our lives must be determined in our hearts long beforehand, so when the critical moment comes, we know exactly what to do and can act spontaneously and immediately without any hesitation.

This may sound a little impetuous and rash but this is how the samurai lived long ago. Maybe we can’t live like this in today’s society where we calculate and speculate on everything we do. In old Japanese, this is called “akinai konjo” or “business spirit.” Early merchants in feudal Japan in opposition of the samurai ethic used to say, “I will only bow my head to pick up a penny,” or “When it comes to taking something, I will even grab the discarded peel of an orange.” We live like this today. We are very clever nowdays to measure porfit and loss to the tenth degree in everything we do. We have become so clever and smart, but perhaps, just a little too crafty (& underhanded)?

In the dojo, when a student is called or when one’s name is called in any instance, one immediately says, “hai!” in a good strong voice. At least this is how it used to be in most dojos. I don’t nowadays in other dojos today but this is an important practice here in my dojo.

When the “hai!” is strong and immediate without hesitation, the sensei can sense a “spiritual” or “mental” connection with the student. We are attune together. Sometimes there is a slight delay – just the very slightest delay. Immediately, the sensei can sense the “calculating” mind of the student. The student is thinking, “Did sensei call me?” (Student is sleeping, not paying attention, or forgot his own name.) Or the student is thinking, “If I answer maybe Sensei has a chore for me, what do I do ?” (Student is lazy or has a hot date and can’t be bothered with sensei’s little errands or wants to escape sensei.) Or the student is thinking, “Now what did I do?” (Student is guilty of something (?), student forgot his duties and thinks he is in trouble.) Or student is thinking, “Why does sensei always pick on me?” (Student is feeling sorry for himself or recently jilted by his girlfriend.) Or student in thinking, “Don’t bother me now I am busy!” (Student is too self-absorbed.) And on and on.

In everything in the dojo, an important but often neglected aspect of training is to maintain this mental connection with the teacher and to be constantly in tune and connected and aware. Once the student can understand how to make this connection naturally and spontaneously, he can naturally make this connection with everyone and everything around him in the world. This connection can only come about through a strong sense of awareness which we must determine in our heads from the very beginning. When we need it, it is already too late.

To accomplish this when we continually determine in our own minds and hearts to be constantly aware and on the ball. Without this strong committment and direction in our heads, we will always be a little slow and always, always late to the draw. Eventually, when the opponent attacks and beats us and left, we might even wake up!

There is a purity in the actions of a warrior and this is where their greatness lies. This awareness and connection we make with others, this strong sense of committment and determination we create within ourselves brings us to this purity.

Sempei-Kohai System-Furuya Sensei repost

originally published as part of a larger post on September 6, 2002

SEMPAI-KOHAI SYSTEM This literally means “Senior” and “Junior” and refers to a social practice of creating a senior and junior position among classmates in the dojo. Many people in this country use this Sempai Kohai system in their dojos. Not just in Aikido but in many other Japanese martial arts as it is the common custom in Japan. More often than not, however, I see this in its most degraded and abused form. Most people think of it as a practice in which the senior barks orders and humiliates the junior and the junior obediently obeys and suffers in silence. Although we see this a great deal in practice, this is certainly not what it is supposed to be. This is simply what it is in its most distorted form.

I think most people practice this in dojos without really knowing what it entails and the spirit in which this should be practiced. Of course, we see the kohai or junior following the orders and advice of the sempai or senior. But this is not simply a form of barking down orders downwardly to the next junior and the next and the next. Although the junior follows the instructions of the senior, it is the main duty and responsibility of the senior to take under his wing, guide, direct, support and even cover for the junior. It is a good way, in which a junior or new student can have a senior to show him the ropes and advise, support and recommend him to facilitate an easy entrance into the group or dojo and be more easily accepted among the other members.

If practiced in its true spirit, it is a social tool in which the uninitiated or new student can have an easy means enter the group and work his way up with the support of the seniors ahead of him. In its abused form, it is a downward or negative social tool, in which a senior barks down orders to successively lower and lower order of students as an act of humiliation or show of personal authority.

If the kohai doesn’t follow the advice and guidance of the sempai, he deems himself not eligible to enter the group as not being a good or proper member for the group or dojo. If however the kohai is unhappy because of the abuse or demands of the sempai, the sempai may show himself not to be a good senior, and in this system, there is no greater shame.

The sempai is a model for the junior which the junior follows in order to assimilate more easily in the group, dojo or organization and be accepted by the other members. The burden however, is not on the junior but always on the sempai to make sure that his kohai become model members and students.

Kohai do not have to suffer in silence and endure abuse. If there is a problem, the kohai is free to go and discuss it with his sempai. Again, the burden is on the sempai because he has the experience, his knows the ropes and he is an accepted and respected member of the group. The kohai generally knows nothing yet or is not yet experienced. The kohai only offense is to be non-cooperative or demonstrate a bad attitude or an unwillness to blend with the others in the dojo.

This is natural in any social structure of this nature. Although I am the chief instructor in my Dojo, I do not make many of the decisions, I rely on the consul and advice of many of my senior students (who are my kohai). I expect my seniors to be good sempai to all of the juniors. Even the president has his cabinet, all seniors use their kohai for advice and direction. This is how a creative, upwardly mobile, social structure is instituted. Just barking down orders from above does not do any good at all. In the old days, everyone started at the very bottom in the dojo. This was not a form of humiliation in the sempai-kohai system, it was to teach everyone what it is like to be a junior so they do not forget it when they reach the senior levels. It is in this spirit that one must practice this system.

Most of the kohai’s offences are the responsibility of the sempai. The sempai is burdened with the great responsibility of making each one of his kohai a successful member or student in the dojo. A sempai or senior who cannot guide his juniors well or always has discontent among his charges can no longer call himself a sempai. And this is a great source of shame.

In the abused form, we see much humiliation, abuse and torture just as it is depicted in ganster and bad samurai movies. This is all drama and fiction.

Just as one should be a good kohai, one should be a good sempai too. If there is a problem, I always blame the sempai first – because he is the one who is supposed to know better in the Dojo.

I do not use this sempai kohai system in my own Dojo because it is so easily subject to abuse. I hope those who talk about sempai and kohai really understand what this means. It would certainly save a great deal of suffering, misery and misunderstanding.

Aiki-Sword-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted on August 13, 2001

Aiki Sword is always difficult to learn as much as it is difficult to teach. In most classes, it can be frustrating. One basic reason for this is that we have not yet mastered the fundamentals of the sword. Many times, we assume that we can just pick up the bokken for the first time and simply do whatever the teacher says, afterall, how difficult is it to swing a wooden stick around? I agree, of course! But when we are talking about the sophisticated and complex movements of the Japanese sword, it is an entirely different matter. Each movement – each step, each cut, must be practiced over and over. The subtle points of the kamae must be perfected to create an invincible defense. The cut must be as with a real sword – not simply waving the bokken about in a futile, weak and meaningless manner. Each step of the foot is smooth – you cannot bounce your hips around – you cannot walk like you are about to fall off a tightrope. And then, with all that you must focus on, – you must completely empty your mind and let it happen naturally – almost as if you are letting it happen on its own. This cannot be accomplished so informally and easily without a tremendous committment of time and energy. yet we think so! Without a effort and practice, we think we can do anything so we are always disappointed when someone says, “No, that is wrong!” We are shocked!

“How can it be wrong?” I think to myself. I know when I am doing something wrong and I am not doing it wrong now! Don’t criticize me!”

Of course it is easy to be wrong and not even know that we are wrong and even be totally convinced that we are right! It was very funny to me yesterday when my student visited me in the Dojo to adjust my new computer. I think I have been using the computer almost as many years as he has been around. . . . As soon as he sat down at my desk, he said, “Sensei, your computer is much too low, you need to raise it by two or three inches.”

I was quite surprised at this because I have been using the computer like this for more than twenty years and I have found that there is nothing wrong. Besides, it is in the most logical and common sense place, on my desk, on front of me where I can easily get to it and use it! What could there possibly be wrong with this?

Anyways, I found a large old dictionary, about four-five inches thick, and propped my monitor on top. Oh my God! What a big difference! How stupid I am! I immediately noticed that the monitor is now more closely at the level of my eyes so that I don’t have to bend my neck just a few degrees downwards but can look straight ahead at the screen. Suddenly all the tension in my neck began to disappear! How come I didn’t think of this? Or, why didn’t someone tell me this many years ago? Just those few subtle degrees the neck must bend can make such a big difference in the angle of your neck and shoulders – and eventually create a lot of tension and suffering. I never noticed it before! And always thought that there was nothing wrong until I finally tried it out! That night, I decided to teach bokken, and thought of this morning episode over and over.

In bokken, we can be totally wrong and off by only a few degrees in the angle and never realize or notice ourselves what a big difference it can make in everything – to the point that we do not think that anything is wrong with ourselves at all and that we are even right – and be foolish enough to insist upon it!


PS: If you cannot treat the bokken as a real sword and train with it as a real sword and have the mental dexterity and focus to learn from it as a real sword, it is not real swordmanship and you are simply wasting your time.

Eyes in Sword-Furuya Sensei repost

July 30, 2002

Your eyes are very important in sword training, most students neglect to develop their eyes. Most Aikido students who practice sword do not realize how fast the sword can move. One must train his eyes to catch the sword and not lose their attention no matter how fast the sword is moving. This is not something that you can understand intellectually, it comes only from constant, diligent training.

Sword Psychology-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted on July 28, 2002

Next, let’s go into the psychology of Japanese sword technique because this has a great influence on the nature of the techniques. Although the goal of sword is identical to Aikido, its methods and mental attitude is very much different. This will be the next topic of discussion here. . . .

The mental attitude one should take in sword is quite different from Aikido although at its highest level, I imagine, it is all the same. In sword, the attitude appears slightly “darker,” I should say, to those not familiar with traditional swordsmanship but you will find as you begin to understand this a little more, that it is not “dark” at all.

When you hold the sword against your opponent or partner, one must give up all thought of surviving, winning and even living. Give up everything in your mind and become like a empty tea cup. Any attachment to any thought or notion will only hold you back, make you hesitate, stop the flow of your power and break your timing. One must attempt to become the sword itself and express its spirit.

If you think to win over your opponent or even try to save your own life, you will be defeated from the very beginning. In sword, you can let nothing stop or hinder you. Ultimately, this means that your ki must flow freely and strongly. This is the most difficult idea to understand in sword.

Once you understand this idea of becoming empty, you must then “stick” to your opponent. Draw a strong connection with him as if you are connected – not two entities opposing each other – but one entity moving as one.

One cannot react against your opponent, you must move with him as if you are the same as him. Not even like a mirror image. You must become the opponent himself. . . .

Once you understand this, we can begin to see where “technique” is born. A technique is NOT a counter measure or means to win nor is it a clever trick or ruse – this is hard to understand I know. A technique is an expression of your connection with your opponent. If you are not connected, it is not true sword technique, it is only chaos, confusion and violence.

Just as one trains his body to master the bokken or sword, one must train his mind to master the sword’s own master – the mind itself.

From ancient times, the sword has always been treasured as the ultimate weapon of the samurai. Not because of its beauty or value, but because it reflects one’s mind so clearly. If you are hesitant and vague, the sword will be hesitant and vague. If you are clear and free, the sword will be clear and free. If you are defeated spiritually, the sword will also be defeated.

If you have even a split second lapse in your focus, the sword will die for that one split second.

Because the sword will reflect your mind so clearly – it has also been said that, “the sword is merciless.” Please try to understand this spirit.

If you can grasp these ideas or at least keep them firmly in your mind, we can continue our sword study.

I recommend to my sword students to take down notes of all our sword classes and keep copies of these Daily Messages for your own future study. It will be a long time before we go over this same material again.

Cutting with a Sword-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted on July 27, 2002

Cutting with a Samurai sword is quite different from cutting with a kitchen knife or garden tool. You should take a good look at a real sword and study the shape and length of the bokken very carefully when you have the opportunity. It will help your training a great deal. Just by the length alone, it should be obvious that a 6 to 10 inch kitchen knife or meat cleaver works on a different dynamics from a nearly 30 inch long sword.

Typically, we put too much power in our arms and shoulders and we try to cut just from our upper body strength. This creates only a superficial or shallow chopping motion. With a Samurai sword, the idea is to speed up the cutting portion of the blade or monouchi, the first 25% of the blade from the tip, to create a penetrating, deep, slicing action. In order to accomplish this, the shoulders and arms should be relaxed and settled. The weight and power of the cutting motion should be centered in the tanden, legs and feet. The tip should move in a wide arch, from over the head, into the target and following through.

What I see happening most often, is that the power is confined to the arms and hands so the hilt of the sword is moving faster than the tip or monouchi. This is the opposite of what should be happening. Keep the hands relaxed but firmly on the hilt. Relax the shoulders so they are able to stretch nicely over head and come down in a wide arch. Focus all of your power into the tip of the blade. Create a deep, penetrating, unstoppable cut.

Once you have the correct form and idea in your head, practice this over and over and over again. The late Torao Mori Sensei, 8th Dan, practiced suburi 3,000 times a day without fail. We are not as good as he so our numbers should be proportionately much higher. . . . .

Finally, I recommend that you should begin the study of the sword itself. There is no way to understand this weapon unless you know all about it from top to bottom. Most students, I see, swing the bokken all of the time, but do not know anything about what the Samurai sword is like at all. This doesn’t make any sense to me.

The Edge to Training-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted on July 26, 2002

Most people, I think, look at sword as an exercise or “fun” kind of thing like playing “samurai” of knights of King Arthur’s Court. Maybe this is okay for kids but not for adults or serious students of the sword. As I mentioned yesterday, you must have the right and proper mental attitude before you pursue its study, always keeping in mind that the act of taking a life, symbolic or metaphorical or not, is not a good thing. From this standpoint, we try to understand sword. It is like Tibetan medicine which takes very poisonous and lethal metals and herbs and transforms them into life-saving medicines. We take a lethal art of the sword and transform it into a “life-saving” art. We derive tremendous internal power from the process of this mysterious transformation.

One aspect of Aikido today and sword training, for that matter, is how we understand it nowadays. We talk so much about harmony and ki and blending and all of these fancy words – which I use myself everyday in the Dojo. But how much do we really understand such wonderful, but difficult and profound ideas? Do we really study and understand them or are we just fooling others and ourselves? This is an important question to ask ourselves. I ask myself this question everyday here in this Daily Message. . . . each day.

Most will argue that in this day and age, we don’t need such martial arts mentality. We generally re-create Aikido into a playful exercise. . . whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not!

This is just like removing the tempered edge from a sword and blunting its point. It is like removing the attack from Aikido training. It is like taking the bullets out of a gun. It is like removing the flower from the stem. It is taking the sun from the sky, it is like removing the soul from the human being. . . .

Within all of this gibble-gabble, we ignore or neglect one point which O’Sensei always discussed without fail. Aikido is “fuhai no budo” – Aikido is invincible and undefeatable. Without understanding this one fundamental point about our training, everything else becomes meaningless, doesn’t it? Now we are at the first step to Aikido and sword training. . . .

The Cut-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted July 25, 2002

Cutting with a sword is the most difficult point of all. Because it is sharp and well made does not mean that it cuts “easily.” The sword is a very sophisticated weapon and must be handled properly. You must think of a Samurai sword as a very highly technical Precision Instrument, not a machete or a kitchen knife. The sword is difficult to handle so there must be great precision in learning, understanding and mastering sword technique. It is not simply “swinging” the sword around nor is it like chambara or Samurai movies.

Although one may learn to cut with a sword, the mental attitude is critically important to understand first of all. “Cutting” with a sword is NOT a good thing. It is bad – because you must take a life. It is bad because it means “killing.” It is bad because it means violence. There is no way to get around this, this is the reality of the sword.

The sword is a necessary evil in an imperfect world. Please do not forget this. This is why we treat the sword with great respect and awe. This is why we treat the opponent with great respect and care. One must not WANT to cut or kill. One must immerse himself, spiritually and emotionally and physically, with a strong and deep sense of righteousness, duty and compassion. This means that we should only think about doing right, protecting others and using the sword to create a better world at this moment. If we can perfect the ultimate goal of the sword – the sword would disappear with all the violence and fighting in the world at this moment. If we cannot do this, we have no right to use the sword at all.

There is a saying in Japanese found carved on the sword: “Before you draw the tempered blade, first temper and purify your own soul.” This is the first step to understanding the sword. Without this idea, you cannot learn it and you must not learn it. (Saki yakitachi o nukeba, masu masu masurao no kokoro wo togu bekari keri.)

Finally, you must understand that the sword “preserves Life” not “destroys Life.” This is the highest teaching of swordsmanship and without this in our minds at every moment, we will never perfect our training.