On Choosing a Sword by Masayuki Shimabukuro, Hanshi
Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, as we all know, is classified as a system of iaijutsu. However, we must remember that iaijutsu, although indicative of the prevailing strategies behind the use ofthe sword, is a component of kenjutsu. In short, as a complete sword art, iaijutsu cannot exist in separation from kenjutsu.
Many iaijutsu waza were codified to transmit strategies and methods of simultaneous defense and counters against surprise attacks, as opposed to techniques of combat that begin after swords have already been drawn. As I alluded to above, Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu contains extensive practice in both aspects of sword combat. That being said, it should stand to reason that the sword a practitioner chooses should be suitable for each aspect or “mode” of our art. It would be neither logical nor practicable to require one sword for situations requiring “iai techniques” and another for “kenjutsu techniques”.
Considering the range of principles, techniques, and methods that we study, it is natural that a practitioner would have many questions about choosing the right sword for their practice. There are many important considerations to keep in mind when selecting a sword, including, but not limited to length, weight, curvature, and geometry. We typically offer general guidelines or suggestions with respect to considerations such as length. Additionally, some budo arts have specific requirements with respect to the dimensions of the training weapons that they use.
However, the approach to choosing the “proper” sword is really not quite so straightforward and is often ultimately based on personal preference. Added to this reality is that through diligent training, one’s skill grows and one’s waza changes. Often, a student finds that he or she needs a new sword, perhaps a longer sword, or a heavier sword, that reflects these changes. One has to keep in mind, however, that each sword, long or short, light or heavy, has advantages as well as disadvantages. For instance, a shorter sword may be easier and quicker to draw, but a longer sword may afford the practitioner greater reach. The samurai of feudal Japan faced the very same questions with respect to swords and the various iaijutsu and kenjutsu arts that they practiced. And given the significance of the sword to a samurai at that time in Japanese history, such concerns were of great importance.
A samurai’s ability to serve, in fact his very life, depended on his ability to wield, as well as properly choose, his sword. However, despite the importance of these questions, it was rare that a samurai would receive direct verbal advice or guidance as to how he should select his most important weapon. Then, as now, students most often emulated their teacher with respect to the sword they selected. As an example, if the teacher taught using a heavy sword or bokken, expressing great power in his waza or kumitachi, than the students would be likely to select heavy swords as well. If the teacher used a lighter sword, and executed his techniques with great speed and dexterity, then it was highly likely that they would choose lighter swords as well. If the teacher used a longer sword, or a shorter sword, the students would follow suit.
Knowing this, a good teacher often employed a strategy, usually unbeknownst to his students, to help them find the type of sword best suited to their body types, skill and individual attributes. If the teacher typically used a heavier sword, he might start teaching with a lighter sword. Seeing how fast and dexterous the teacher’s technique suddenly appeared, the students would often begin to use lighter swords as well. After teaching with this lighter sword for a period of time, the teacher would switch back to the heavier sword. Having grown accustomed to light and fast techniques, the students would be surprised by the power of the teacher’s technique, and in an attempt to “catch” this aspect of his technique, would switch back to heavier swords. Over time, the teacher would repeat this process, changing from lighter swords to heavier swords and back; from shorter swords to longer swords and back. With each change, the teacher quietly helps each individual student find the most proper sword. Additionally, through this process, the students would, as a result of direct experience, develop skill, polished technique and internalized strategy with a wide range of swords. In this way, they could also determine what type of sword was best suited for them. This is a very compassionate teaching method!
My experiences studying under Miura Sensei were no different. Miura Sensei never told me directly what type of sword I should choose. In fact, Miura Sensei’s way of teaching any aspect of iaijutsu often was to demonstrate something once! It was my responsibility to absorb, understand and develop whatever it was that he had just shown me. His method of teaching me how to choose a sword was the same. Miura Sensei used the same sword, regardless of the training format, whether practicing iaijutsu and kenjutsu. Knowing that I had been wondering about how to choose a proper sword, he once gave me the opportunity to practice with his. Of course, at such an early stage, Miura Sensei’s sword seemed like it was perfect, that there could be no better sword than his. But was that really true for me? Was my impression based on my respect for my teacher? What I learned from his example was that to find the sword best suited for me, as well to fully develop my technique, I had to practice and gain experience with a wide range of swords.
At this point, one may be wondering what type of sword is the best. A large part of the answer depends on one’s body type, skill and expression of strategy. However, considerations such as the length of a sword can be important. A longer sword may allow for greater reach with respect to targeting. Sasaki Kojiro was famous for a very long odachi that he used, and he was never defeated until his duel with Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi is said to have defeated Sasaki Kojiro by carving a bokuto that was slightly longer that Kojiro’s famous “Drying Pole”, eliminating his advantage of distance.
It is important to keep in mind that a longer sword is not necessarily better or more advantageous than a shorter sword, especially if one’s technique is flawed. The concept of chotan ichi mi illustrates this effectively. If one has a three foot sword and advances one step, they have a reach of six feet. However, if one retreats three feet, their effective reach is zero! Therefore, a longer sword is no guarantee of victory. Additionally, as stated above, a shorter sword can be drawn more quickly. But once drawn, the swordsman has to have the skill to get inside of the enemy’s defenses. In this way, a swordsman with excellent technique can effectively defend himself using a wakizashi or kodachi against an enemy wielding a katana or even a yari or naginata! Although this approach to technique and strategy is very difficult, it is also very effective. Yamaoka Tesshu, the founder of Muto-ryu (and a master calligrapher) was renowned for his use of very short swords. The issues of advantage and disadvantage also apply to the weight of a sword. A heavier sword may seem to cut more effectively, but a lighter sword is easier to wield with great dexterity!
Training methods may also dictate what type of sword or bokken that you choose! For example, the nature of Ono-ha Itto-ryu Kenjutsu practice demands a fairly heavy and strong bokken. Eventually, other factors such as age, health or perhaps declining strength will influence how one selects a sword. Whereas one may have favoured a heavy sword at one’s physical peak, the onset of age and frailty may demand that one use a lighter sword in later years. It should be clear now that one’s method of selecting the proper sword for his or her practice and skill level is not solely based on artificial constructs such as one’s height in relation to the length of a sword. Rather, your choices should be based on properly guided, direct experience. But the responsibility of making the correct choice lies with the student; the teacher only offers guidance.
One final point that bears consideration when choosing a sword is the cost. This means that one shouldn’t base one’s choice on how inexpensive a sword may be. One should try to purchase the best sword that they are able, even if it means saving for it for a long time. Budo is about growth, self-improvement and polishing one’s character; the sword that one practices with is a “training tool” used to help one in this purpose. One should therefore save their money in order to obtain a sword that is worthy of their budo. Perhaps one has to eliminate spending in other areas in order to purchase such a sword. This in itself is another form of discipline which also serves to teach one an aspect of the value of their art. Additionally, although one may be prone to treat a valuable sword with greater respect than a less expensive sword, how one treats and cares for their sword should not be based on the price of the sword. Its value is far greater than its actual cost, because one’s sword is their training tool in budo, and budo is beyond price!
Ultimately, one’s iaijutsu and kenjutsu skill should be such that one’s technique is not constrained by the type of sword that one chooses. One’s technique must be adaptable to a shorter sword or a longer sword, or a heavier sword or lighter sword. Whether one is practicing iaijutsu waza or kenjutsu kumitachi, he or she should be intuitively cognizant of the differences, and their strategy and technique should naturally reflect this. While the choice of sword may dictate elements such as strategy, ma-ai or targeting, one’s technique should not be adversely affected in any way. What is important is how one uses the sword that they have. One must swing a light sword like a heavy sword; a shorter sword or a longer sword must be wielded with the same skill; there is no difference! The intent is the same, no matter what! This is real budo!
This article is part of the new issue of the Kagami – Spring 2009 JKI Newsletter.