samurai swords

A martial arts expert offers invaluable tips for navigating the complex — and potentially very expensive — world of the Japanese sword collector.

When I moved from Japan to San Francisco in 1971, I brought along a few Japanese swords and bladed weapons. Back then, most Japanese swords in the United States could be purchased for $5 or $10. Sometimes an expensive item such as a daimyo-tachi (feudal warlord's long sword) would sell for $50. A complete set of yoroi (armor) would go for about $200.

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Breath control, footwork, stance and posture are the key points that seventh-degree black belt Russell McCartney, founder of ishi yama ryu battojutsu, discusses in this tutorial on the Japanese sword.

When it comes to the Japanese way of the sword, it’s fair to say there’s more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, external movements play a major role in drawing a blade and effecting a cut, but the internal skeletal and muscular mechanisms are every bit as important. Often called the “inner principles” of movement, they have four main components. 1     Breathe The primary element of action is breathing. The flow of air into and out of your body is directly connected to how smoothly you flow from movement to movement and how polished you look. Your inhalations and exhalations should be calm, smooth and full. It’s essential to observe the transition from moving air in to moving air out. If you lack proper muscle control, it will be noticeable to an opponent who’s looking for an opening to attack or to a judge who’s grading you as you cut. Beginners tend to gasp for or gulp in air because of nervousness or overextended action. It takes time and effort to cultivate the ability to stay well oxygenated. Try repetition drills that raise your aerobic levels and stationary meditation that calms and centers you. 2     Footwork Places Stance Don’t stand flatfooted with your feet relaxed. The bones of your feet can move a considerable distance within the skin that encases them. Their musculature must exert firmness to take up that slack. Use your muscles to anchor yourself to the surface you’re standing on. Grip it with your toes and brace yourself as if you’re resisting a strong wind. You should allow your heels to settle onto the surface so they provide a direct connection from the bones in your legs and hips to the ground. Then, when you drive from your heels, you can move with minimal delay. Imagine a wild animal, coiled and ready to spring into action. It’s poised, with its breath flowing in and out, muscles ready to strike. Use your breathing to relax and energize your muscles and to keep them fresh. Release the tension in your body to avoid stiffness and cramps. 3     Stance Supports Posture Your posture should provide balance for your intended direction. Feed it too much, and you telegraph your intentions. Give it too much angle, and you lose your balance point. Give it too little, and you stress your structure and fatigue your muscles more quickly.

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No article can magically make you a master of the samurai sword, but the tips outlined here, from iaido instructor Minobu Miki, will put you on the martial path to that destination!

Westerners are attracted to iaido because it’s a fascinating method of sword fighting with roots that can be traced back more than 400 years. They like the formal training the art entails, as well as the ritual and tradition that inspire them to wonder what it would have been like to wield a sword in battle against a warlord’s army. “Another reason people like iaido is because instructors usually discourage them from over-emphasizing competition,” says Minobu Miki, a karate master who’s studied the sword art for more than 40 years. “That helps them control their ego and avoid having to prove themselves as they journey toward enlightenment and a higher level of mental and spiritual development.” For practitioners of other martial arts who wish to embark upon the iaido journey, Miki offers these eight steps to mastery. 1: Find the Right School It’s best to enroll in an iaido school that’s internationally recognized and certified. That will ensure that you’re learning proper technique from a qualified instructor in a safe environment, says Miki, who is the chief instructor of the Japan Karate-do Organization. While karate schools can be found in just about every town in the United States, iaido schools are rare. That makes learning iaido similar to learning how to fish: You have to go where the fish are. A good way to start your search is to inquire at local dojo that teach karate, aikido and other traditional Japanese arts. 2: Obtain the Right Equipment You should buy at least three swords for your arsenal. The first is a bokken, or wooden practice sword. As a beginner, you’ll use it to hone your techniques. Consider getting two or three bokken because eventually you will have to practice sanbon kumitachi (pre-arranged three-point sparring drills) in which more than a little wood-on-wood contact will occur. The second type of sword is a dull metal practice weapon. Like the bokken, it’s used for solo practice and partner exercises. The third type is a samurai sword with a live blade. Although such a weapon may be your prized possession, don’t take it to the dojo unless your instructor tells you to. In the wrong hands, it can be deadly. As an iaido stylist, you’ll need a three-piece uniform: a hakama (pleated trousers), a keikogi (heavyweight jacket) and an obi (belt). You may also need to purchase a pair of black tabi (traditional split-toed socks). 3: Adopt the Right Attitude “Many people think that iaido is about attaining a high rank, cutting objects with a sword, and looking cool by carrying a sword and wearing a hakama,” Miki says. “But that is not what the art is all about.” Rather, iaido is a serious form of training, and you must dedicate yourself to learning etiquette and protocol. You must adopt the formalities of caring for and handling the sword. You should know that even though your primary physical task is to learn how to draw your blade, cut your opponent to shreds and return it to its scabbard, you will likely never have to wield your weapon against an attacker. 4: Learn the Right Basics True warriors know that the hardest part of combat is not the fighting but the waiting. Likewise, learning the formalities of iaido is tedious and time-consuming. They include learning the proper manner for entering the training hall, the etiquette for beginning and ending class, the way to bow to the sword, the method for picking it up and putting it down, and the technique for attaching it to your belt. The proper methods for cleaning, transporting and storing the sword are also covered. You’ll also learn how to position your body. Iaido teaches three such positions: shoden, which is the full kneeling position; chuden, in which one knee is up and one is down; and okuden, in which you’re standing. Each position has its history and applications — for example, shoden and chuden could be used if a samurai became injured or crippled in battle. “The person who is true to his training at this early stage will progress rapidly,” Miki says, “and in time he will have a basis to practice iaido at any training hall in the world.”

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In this exclusive e-book excerpt from Budoshoshinshu: The Warrior's Primer of Daidoji Yuzan, the teacher and military philosopher advocates the often-overlooked benefits of curiosity, discipline and commitment.

Editor's Note: The following text is an adapted excerpt from the samurai training philosophy e-book Budoshoshinshu: The Warrior's Primer of Daidoji Yuzan, translated by William Scott Wilson (who also translated the samurai training philosophy e-book Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors.) Budoshoshinshu: The Warrior's Primer of Daidoji Yuzan is a collection of 56 essays promoting the ideals of the samurai class, which were fading from favor during the author's lifetime (1639-1730).It is essential for men who would be warriors, even if they are of low rank, to select a respected instructor of military affairs, receive instructions in the martial arts, and to come to a deep and detailed understanding of even the secret principles of military strategy.
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This student of Seiseki Abe and former chief instructor at Steven Seagal’s dojo will be the cover story for the June/July 2014 issue of Black Belt. Watch his elegant aikido moves in this NEW exclusive behind-the-scenes video!

The June/July 2014 issue of Black Belt magazine will feature a cover story on aikido's Haruo Matsuoka, a student of Seiseki Abe and the former chief instructor at Steven Seagal's Tenshin Dojo. In the story, titled "Synergy, Strength & Simplicity," Haruo Matsuoka is shown executing a number of empty-hand aikido moves, as well as aikido moves for defense against weapons, in a profile wherein he discusses what makes aikido applicable for everybody as a traditional design for modern living. Still photos, however, don't do his elegant yet powerful aikido moves justice. So we proudly present this bonus video of Haruo Matsuoka's aikido moves in action from that shoot — along with a breakdown of the feature stories for the June/July 2014 issue!

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