View Full Version : The Soft Sword of Aikido

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Stefan Stenudd
06-15-2009, 04:43 PM
http://www.aikiweb.com/columns/sstenudd/graphics/200906_shinken.jpg In addition to aikido I also practice iaido, the sword art. It was not my own initiative, but a consequence of practicing for teachers who did the same. Nonetheless, I have found it very rewarding. Actually, I suspect that there may be aspects of aikido that cannot be properly recognized and learned without some experience of the sword arts -- and the sword.

Some lessons to be learned by the sword art experience are quite obvious. For example, the need to begin with the taisabaki evasive movement is evident when you are attacked with a sword. You certainly can't block it, and warding it off is next to impossible with your bare hands.

The sword strike also teaches you to step out of the way with your whole body. Ducking is not enough. And only by moving boldly forward in your taisabaki movement can you enter into a position where it's difficult for the attacker to swiftly follow up with a new strike. Getting close to the attacker is almost as safe as being very far away. Anything in between is risky, indeed.

Understanding fencing and sword techniques also makes you pay attention to proper control of the attacker all through the aikido technique. This is exercised in tachidori, defense against the sword -- but you need to study the actual sword arts somewhat, in order to be aware of how the sword can be maneuvered by the attacker.

The precautions needed in tachidori may not be equally necessary against unarmed attacks, but if they are completely neglected there is a risk that your aikido techniques get sloppy, so that they are easily countered.

Some knowledge of the sword arts also increases the precision in your directions and the details of your movements. The sword is an extension of the attacker's aim, making it very clear. So you learn how to stay out of it, not just after your initial taisabaki step, but all through the technique. Just by imagining that the attacker holds a sword -- or a knife -- you will have a tool by which your techniques get increasingly trustworthy.

There is also a lot to be learned from the rhythm of the sword arts: the speed of the attack, what distance it demands, and what time is needed to attack with the sword anew. These things create a basic and surprisingly accurate understanding of many other types of attack, armed or unarmed.

There is at least as much to be learned from the sword itself, when you hold it in your hands. The Japanese sword is as beautiful as it is awe-inspiring. A well-forged shinken, the authentic sharp steel blade, has an exquisite balance that makes it feel like it can move all by itself. Its elegant curve is as natural as the flight of a bird and the trajectories of celestial mechanics. The sharpness of the edge is completely uncompromising.

In the Japanese tradition, the swordsman strove to forge his spirit and stature in accordance with the blade. He should become like the blade. The purity of its polished steel should be a mirror of the swordsman's soul, and his mind should be as sharp as the edge.

The swordsman needs to work on his movements until they become as exact as the cutting blade, which is utter simplicity. Just cut. Any additional movement, no matter how minute, counters the sharpness. The art of using the sword is the art of taking away everything that is not necessary, reducing each movement to only what is called for. This takes a lot of time and effort, as does forging the sword until it gets its sharp edge. Practicing with the sword, which is already sharpened, the swordsman is guided to a corresponding bodily sharpness.
Those are old warrior ideals, of course, and not altogether relevant in modern dojo practice, especially not in aikido, the peaceful martial art. But some of the sword art aspects are integrated with aikido. This is proven by the frequent use of tegatana, the hand moved like a sword.

One would think that this is awkward, since the hand is quite soft compared to the sword. But the steel blade is actually quite soft -- not its hardened edge, of course, but the way it cuts. It slices gently, almost like a caress, and the cutting strike is done in a very relaxed way, with almost no muscular tension. The sword falls as gently as if pulled by little more than gravity.

This is experienced in tameshigiri, the exercise of cutting objects in half. A forced strike will not make a clean cut. It should be done smoothly to let the edge cut by itself, as comes naturally to it. Because the edge is hardened and very sharp, it cuts softly, without effort. The curved shape of the blade adds to this, making the sword movement rounded and pleasant.

This surprising softness of the hardened steel is a paradox that is just as true for aikido, although the other way around. The soft and yielding techniques are completed without the use of force, and yet they are irresistible. What seems soft is hard, and what seems hard is soft. They meet at their extremes.Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido

06-15-2009, 07:14 PM
I appreciate your fine use of the English language in your post. It is certainly a beautiful read. As far as the blade's "caress," I feel it important to know that ending another's life and a gentle hug are two quite different things.

Now to my question:

Do you believe that training with the bokken, a "practice" weapon most capable of cracking the skull, jaw, and collar bone, to name a few, is adequate danger for all you've mentioned? Or is there something about a slicing weapon over a bashing one that makes training with the live blade so superior?


Stefan Stenudd
06-15-2009, 08:14 PM
Drew, I thank you for your kind words.
And I'll try to remember not to caress people with the blade.

The bokken works fine for exercising the principles and the awareness I describe, but only if you "pretend" that it's a real sword. That might take some experience with a shinken, at least once or twice.

I believe that you get a completely different way of relating to the bokken, and using it, if you have some experience with a steel sword. An unsharpened iaito might do the trick, too - but that's not as exciting...

06-16-2009, 06:26 PM
As an admirer and collector of the live blade, I own two katana, a wakizashi, the Rambo II bowie, and a folded pocket knife. All are razors except the one I most often use as a tool, the pocket knife. One of the katana is tamahagane. They can function for last-resort home defense, but my laser/lamp railed 17+1 rd. 9mm or .357 Mag revolver would take precedence for that purpose. But Aikido clearly isn't about pistol-quick-draw. In fact, as I know you understand, Stefan, it is about using sword-cut style movements to submit an attacker while - although oftentimes dealing excruciating temporary pain, or, if necessary, moderate destruction - not going nearly so far as separating torso from legs.

Anyway, I have swung both wakizashi and katana, using the latter once for a fun filled day of tameshigiri with economical half-tatami mats, and slicing yokomen clean through a three inch China doll tree branch twice. Even the tree was like butter to the live blade.

Yes, there is certainly something daunting and ominous - even crystalline and perfect - about the live blade, and you might agree that cross-training is beneficial as long as we are able to separate the weapons of certain death from the minimally injurious essence of Aikido.


Stefan Stenudd
06-16-2009, 06:34 PM
Drew, what I find rewarding for one's aikido practice is the surprising softness by which the shinken cuts. The sword movements are soft rather than hard, rounded rather than straight - and this experience transports well into aikido. Of course, I'm not talking about the battle field gore of it. That wouldn't be a hit among dojo friends...

06-16-2009, 08:52 PM
This makes perfect sense to me, and when I'm back on the mat I will focus on the empty-handed slice as opposed to the chop. Thank you again for your essay, Stefan.