Samurai Education Commentary: The Risks and the Rewards of “Old School” Samurai Training

I was recently surprised to learn that some members of the martial arts community believe that kumitachi (paired partner drills) with a live blade are no longer practiced during samurai education. They think that such samurai training died out because no one in modern society needs to expose himself to such dangers. For people who want only a rudimentary taste of Japanese sword fighting, that belief may be accurate. But for those who value the work of all the martial artists in samurai history who devoted their lives to handing down the techniques and strategies used by their ancestors, it’s dead wrong. That’s because the men who’ve been entrusted with the stewardship of the sword arts and samurai education need to experience the control, focus, speed, timing and danger involved in samurai training. Great swords are forged under extreme heat and pressure. So are great swordsmen. During the history of the samurai, such swordsmen have been considered the living embodiment of their art. It’s only in the live performance of the original techniques that they can display the abilities that have elevated them to master level. They didn’t begin their samurai training as masters. A unique regimen was developed to guide them through the samurai education process. Risk and danger were present from the beginning of their samurai training. As they became more adept, the risk and danger were elevated.

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As part of their samurai education, new students of the blade are schooled in the fundamentals of the ancient fighting techniques. The movements they learn and the tools they use — wooden swords or dull metal swords — are designed to pose minimal risk. The omote or shoden techniques, which deal with the basics, are practiced first. The samurai education curriculum at this stage focuses on distance and timing, with speed being limited so that students will unconsciously absorb sensory input regarding the length of the weapons and the distances involved. Students undergoing samurai training learn their strengths and weaknesses before they think about those of their opponent. They’re guided by seniors, who strive to push them beyond their current understanding. Mistakes are pointed out and corrections made. The second level of samurai education is referred to as chuden, or middle-level, transmissions. The curriculum revolves around timing and distance. The speed of the techniques doesn’t necessarily increase, but the response time shortens. Timing is still predetermined, and the distance between combatants is smaller, meaning that strikes arrive at their destination sooner. The risk of injury remains the same when a practitioner is paired with a person of equal or higher skill, but the potential severity of a mistake is greater. The three-disc set Advanced Samurai Swordsmanship details a variety of cutting techniques, various attacks and defenses in two-man sword-sparring situations. Some of these situations involve equal swords, some are long sword vs. short sword, and some are even sword vs. an unarmed man! These methods for practice are explained first by Carl E. Long and then demonstrated with his sensei, Black Belt Hall of Fame member Masayuki Shimabukuro (Weapons Instructor of the Year, 2006), with particular attention paid to footwork, timing, hand positions and rhythm.
Second-level students of samurai education go through a forging process during which their nerves are tested by intense training. They begin to comprehend the dynamics of combat in which timing and distance vary. Kihaku, or aggressive intent, changes according to the partner. Yoyu, or the ability to leave a margin for change according to the circumstances, is stressed. During paired drills, the attacks become more realistic. If a counter or block isn’t properly performed, the results quickly and painfully become apparent — which is why training weapons are still used at this stage of samurai training. Instruction and correction are given kindly and with the students’ best interests in mind. Advanced students find themselves being initiated into the okuden, or innermost level of samurai training. Here, a push for deeper understanding and ability takes place. Sei to do (nonaction and action) is emphasized, as are rhythm and an intuitive connection between opponents. The student-teacher or junior-senior relationship manifests itself as a deep trust and respect for each other’s abilities and weaknesses. But trust is foremost. Either person is capable of changing the technique when necessary but chooses not to out of respect for his partner. So within the parameters of these samurai training drills, the action and intent become very real, nearly identical to the original intent of the combat techniques. Mental discipline and an immovable spirit are byproducts of this type of samurai training. The mind and the moves must be razor sharp, which is why live blades are sometimes introduced during kumitachi. Few people ever make it to this level of samurai education. Even fewer will experience it with a master swordsman. It’s marked by a relationship and understanding that develop over decades between members of a martial tradition. It’s not meant to be experienced by everyone, nor is it necessary for those who are capable to always address this level. Advanced samurai education is reserved for those who are willing to occasionally take risks to preserve a national treasure. About the Author: Carl E. Long has earned advanced rank in shorin-ryu karate, shito-ryu karate, Okinawan kobudo, aikido, shindo muso-ryu jojutsu and muso jikiden eishin-ryu iaijutsu. He’s the senior student of Masayuki Shimabukuro and the highest-ranked member of Jikishin Kai International under Shimabukuro. Long currently serves as vice chairman and director for the organization.
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