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Home > Columns > George S. Ledyard > April, 2004 - Weapons Training in Aikido
by George S. Ledyard

Weapons Training in Aikido by George S. Ledyard


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Weapons training in Aikido is fundamentally different than in Japanese kobudo in which the lessons of the battlefield have been distilled and handed down via kata over hundreds of years. Kata in kobudo provide a framework within which these specific lessons are passed on to each successive generation in a way that is "alive", well beyond the understanding of those who see kata training as mere repetition of old movements for their own sake.

In Aikido we do not have this. O-Sensei never studied any classical sword form long enough to attain top ranking. His weapons work was eclectic, taking what he felt fit into his developing system of Aikido. His weapons work varied from its parent arts just as his empty hand diverged from Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu.

So there is no weapons tradition in Aikido which goes back hundreds of years. Most of forms we have inherited weren't even created by O-Sensei himself but by his students in an attempt to systematize what for O-Sensei was a spontaneous reflection of his understanding of aiki as expressed through weapons movement. It was only as his students attempted to create structure out of his weapons technique, for their own training and benefit of their students, that we find the various forms that comprise modern Aikido weapons practice being created.

Many students interpreted O-Sensei's weapons work through the lens of their own weapons training experience. One can see elements of Kashima-ryu and Itto-ryu sword in some teachers of Aikido who attended classes offered for a time at the Honbu dojo. Saotome Sensei's kumitachi (paired sword forms) have a very Yagyu-ryu feel to them as does his use of the fukuro shinai (leather covered split bamboo sword) for practice. Nishio Sensei's sword work is influenced by his study of Kendo and Iaido. Saito Sensei is famous for creating a formal kata based weapons system out of O-Sensei's less structured technique. So if these various forms we have inherited from our teachers are not part of some inviolable tradition, then what are they? Quite simply they are tools. The forms have no essential value in and of themselves.

I once taught a seminar at a dojo in which there was a student who prided himself on how many forms he knew. The problem was that he didn't understand any of them. He completely misunderstood the purpose of these forms and their value. Weapons forms have various lessons taking place simultaneously. Certainly all forms practice should develop focus and concentration, precise timing and spacing, an imperturbable mind, speed and relaxed power, etc. Specific forms can also be designed to teach certain specific motor skills or techniques.

More than anything else weapons forms are designed to develop connection. I do this move, my partner does that response, etc. An opening is created which I instantly fill. The question that the student needs to ask is why? Why do I attack with that particular attack? Why does my partner step back and block? Could he have entered and cut me instead? Is there some aspect of what I do which forces him to step back and block instead of entering and cutting me? Could I really respond with that move if my partner attacked with intention and not simply to facilitate execution of the form?

This is one of the real strong points of Saito Sensei's weapons forms. He sets up a basic form and then there are variations which show how that form might be ended on the second move or on the fourth move, ended with a cut or ended with a takeaway. In Saotome Sensei's weapons work you find the use of the fukuro shinai which can allow to people to safely check on their understanding of the movements in a form. One can make a mistake without having the severe consequence of injury but with enough unpleasantness to give one an incentive to fix the problem... Nishio Sensei's Iaido background is evident on his weapons work and there's strong edge consciousness to his sword work.

In Legacies of the Sword - Kashima Shin Ryu and Samurai Martial Culture by Dr. Karl Friday there is a fascinating description of the way in which that school of swordsmanship uses the concept of omote and ura to talk about the teachings of the school. I found the concept so useful that I have started looking at what I do in my own sword work from that standpoint.

Each movement in a form has an omote and an ura interpretation. For instance, aikiken forms have a sequence in which an attacker will attempt to cut them; the defender will execute a block and then follow it up with a counter cut. This is a basic sequence. But it is the omote interpretation of the movement. First of all, the way in which most forms perform this sequence it can't be done in reality. If my attacker finishes his cut while I am still in the tip down covered position, I cannot remove my protection to cut him without exposing my own side to his counter cut.

So what is the "real" movement inside the "outer" form? First of all, it's important to realize that there are no blocks in swordsmanship. A block is a cut which didn't succeed. So what happens to this basic "blocking" movement if the defender moves directly into the attacker when he tries to cut? Instead of being a block or deflection, the blade is now under the attacker's arms instead of the cutting edge of his blade. In other words, a movement that is a defensive movement in the omote form becomes a finishing movement in its ura form.

Or, what happens if I change this movement from a two movement block and cut into simply a cut (one beat, one movement)? Instead of changing the "spacing" of the interaction to discover an ura variation as we did above, we can change the "timing" of the interaction. Instead of waiting for the attacker to finish his cut before we counter strike, we cut him as he strikes. The covering movement with the sword is there, in case, the timing is wrong and the attacker is coming in faster than expected. But the "intention" isn't to block and counter cut, it's to cut!

This interpretation uses the same model when describing empty hand technique. All throws are really strikes which we are a "choosing" not to do. So it is important when looking at all technique, weapons or empty hand, to understand where the ura interpretation is.

Another issue with forms is that in order to demonstrate a form, we establish an agreement between the two practitioners that they are doing the current move in order to facilitate the next movement by the partner. We call this awase which could be described as meaning "in phase" like two waves which oscillate up and down at the same time. In fighting, we would not normally want our attacker to be "in phase" but rather "out of phase" with our movement being just ahead of him or just behind him. This would preclude his ability to reverse or counter my technique.

To really understand a form you must play with it, changing the spacing, changing the timing, allowing it to change and spontaneously become something new as these elements change. No amount of mere repetition of a form in its original aspect will result in an understanding of the various lessons embodied within the form.

This no different than we practice our empty hand technique. We start with a technique as demonstrated by the teacher. The technique might be done static or slowly with flow but the interest of both partners is to produce the technique as shown by the teacher. Later the uke begins to make his attack a bit more realistic. This might result in nage needing to make various adjustments, or henka waza, to the technique in question. Finally, the uke might simply initiate with a specified attack but unless the nage is able to perform the technique correctly, uke will execute a kaeshiwaza, or reversal.

Eventually, there is no pre-arranged outcome and the two partners develop the ability to spontaneously adjust their techniques as the elements of an interaction change. This is how the weapons forms we find in Aikido should function. They supply a structure to weapons practice that wouldn't be there if the practitioners were merely sparring which allows them to investigate the principles which govern a martial interaction in a controlled and safe manner. As the skill of the practitioners increases the form itself becomes less and less a set piece and more a loose guideline which is not done exactly the same way twice. This process is necessary to develop a deeper understanding of the weapons techniques of Aikido.


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