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Old 04-22-2012, 01:15 PM   #1
Keith Larman
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tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

I wrote out something on this on my facebook page recently. Just because it's something I find interesting and I think has parallels with much that has been discussed here lately.

So I'll start it out how I started it there. For those who don't know me, I polish and mount Japanese style swords for collectors and martial artists.

On a Japanese sword saya (scabbard), there is a small knob on one side of the saya called the kurigata. The kurigata often has a ribbon/string/cord running through it called a sageo. The function of the kurigata in practice while wearing the sword thrust through the obi (belt) is to keep the saya from falling all the way out the back. It's a little "door stop" if you will. The swordsman will wear the sword on his/her left side (because if you put it on the other side that knob will be on the wrong side and digging in to your hip bone -- swords are asymmetrical in the mounting). Their hand fits in the area of the kurigata between that and the tsuba (sword guard) on the sword itself. To draw the sword the blade is drawn out as the saya is pulled down and back in the obi making the drawing motion really a smoothly integrated whole body movement.

Anyway, my question was... What is the correct distance between the kurigata and tsuba? And how *should* your hand fit in that space.

I have asked this question many times of different people. And I've received all sorts of different answers. I've had people tell me the hand is literally "scrunched up" inside the space between. I've had people tell me that part of the hand rests on top of the kurigata under the 4th and 5th fingers. I've been told they should be placed further down to allow the hand to fit completely inside the space.

I'll post a lot more later about the bigger picture. And also more about what I think this has to do with some of the discussions we have here about "correctness" in Aikido. But for now, well, I'm taking the kid to a soccer game. So I thought I'd let those who practice swordsmanship as well share what they were told.

And I am not going to be judgmental. Over the decades I've done this work I've heard many things and I find it interesting the different perspectives. But for now... Sunscreen, comfy chair, Ipod, and watching some 11-year-olds run around pretending to be Messi. My daughter's coach calls her Mini-Beckham. It's all good on a sunny, Sunday afternoon. Just thinkin' about it as first thing I'm doing tonight is slotting in kurigata on two custom swords I'm doing.

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Old 04-22-2012, 01:16 PM   #2
Keith Larman
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

The bottom line question is... Why? Why is it where it is? What is correct? And how did we get there? And what does it mean about us, how we learn, and how we carry on tradition?

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Old 04-22-2012, 03:36 PM   #3
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

Toby Thread gill can probably answer this for u. That is who I'd ask.

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Old 04-23-2012, 12:37 PM   #4
Keith Larman
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

The lead balloon sinks to the ground for a perfect landing... To quote Emily Latella, nevermind...

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Old 04-23-2012, 01:07 PM   #5
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

Quote:
Keith Larman wrote: View Post
The lead balloon sinks to the ground for a perfect landing... To quote Emily Latella, nevermind...
Did you find some kind of answer?

Gambarimashyo!
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Old 04-23-2012, 01:13 PM   #6
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

Quote:
Keith Larman wrote: View Post
The bottom line question is... Why? Why is it where it is? What is correct? And how did we get there? And what does it mean about us, how we learn, and how we carry on tradition?
Hi Bud
I live near the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, home of the largest collection of Japanese Weaponry in the world outside of Japan. Having seen so many swords I lost count, including many national treasures, I have never seen a consistency in the placement of the Kurigata.
Like you, I have heard any number of explanations offered by practitioners as well. Then again, stop and think; How many debates have we both been in, regarding Tsuka length? I have been in a room with two Menkyos in the same system, and one saying "That's too long" and another looking at the size of my hands and saying "Ah, perfect!"
Remember when we were being told those really long (like 14" or so) Tsuka never existed and I had pictures of them from the museum on normal length Katana? If I remember Toby had some as well.
I think many things are over stressed by modern practitioners, or have been conscripted into one tradition or another as a "standard" for their ryu specific model. While we have to consider everything-where does tradition begin to go past utilitarian purposes?
Dan
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Old 04-23-2012, 01:38 PM   #7
Keith Larman
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

Well, my point was to generate some discussion because among those who do swordsmanship they often have very specific reasons for various aspects of their arts. And as Dan has pointed out, often you'll find they tend to run head-long in to each other. It makes my life, well, "interesting" in terms of doing mounts. Anyway, I had hoped to spark some discussion about the topic as I have my own point of view having done a lot of swords for a lot of very different people. And having heard all the arguments before, I found it interesting as a meditation on what happens during "transmission" of arts over generations. Especially when context and conditions change.

I had kinda given up, but since a few folk posted, I'll repost what I wrote as a follow up on my Facebook page... And I think it does have some relevance to many of the heated discussions we have here.

---------------

Okay, thoughts on placing one tiny part (the kurigata) on a Japanese saya. What is correct.

Most will give an answer that says "in our style this is what we do". For me the response if often "Okay, but why?". Here's where I think it gets interesting for me, I think because I'm on the outside looking in on a variety of different lineages, styles, preferences, cultures, etc.

A very good friend of mine started iai back in the 70's. Small group. Only swords available were mogito from Japan, crap from elsewhere, or getting a sword mounted. This friend found a relatively decent sword and his sensei mounted it for him. The placement of the kurigata was like many antiques -- fairly close to the koiguchi. Now back track a bit... One estimate I've read based on bone studies was that the average Japanese male between 1602 and 1867 was 5 foot, 1 inch tall. Well, for me that is interesting as my wife is Japanese American and almost exactly that height. So over the years I've had her hold old koshirae in her hands and, well, voila, her hand when gripping but still relaxed fits almost exactly between the kurikata and the koiguchi.

So another related note. Talking with a sayashi from Japanese years ago I was told that first you ask what distance the martial artist wants. That's the first step for obvious reasons. They he said you try to convince him to consider the traditional method of measuring he was taught where you grab something of the correct size with a firm but relaxed grip. Measure that distance across the knuckles. That's the distance. The idea here is that if the hand fits between snugly but without pushing anything out when slightly relaxed, then all you have to do to dislodge the blade from the tight fit is squeeze the hand oh-so-slightly. The sword then pops out a bit, breaking the seal slightly, without much if anything of a visible "signal" that this has been done even with the thumb still on the tsuba ostensibly holding it in. The sword can then be tightly in the saya when not coming in to play, but easily brought to an almost completely loose state imperceptibly to anyone else, especially that fella in front of you also with a sword thrust through his obi. Then with the draw the blade is loose right from the start and you have maximal room for proper sayabiki in the obi.

Now consider a few other things. The placement of the kurigata on most iaito (or mogito if you prefer) is too tight for my hands. Why? Well, they're much closer to the placement on antiques, the "way it's always been done". But I go back to the 5'1" tall frames of the average Japanese male up until fairly recently. Have you ever looked at most antique armor? Yeah, few of us could wear that stuff. Most looks like they're child sized even, at least to me.

Now none of this means "this is right, that is wrong". I think that's the wrong way to think about it. And that's really what I'm arguing here. I just find it interesting to look at the history to see why we are where we are. And to sometimes gently suggest that people might consider rethinking assumptions...

So moving forward... This industrialist fella named Paul Chen decided to follow his passion of knife and sword making back in the early 90's. He met Bob Engnath at a sword show and also eventually got in touch with James Williams. Now James is a big fella, well over 6 feet (6' 4") if I had to guess. Big hands. James had Paul make a sword for his company that was selling a variety of things including bare blades made by Bob Engnath. So Bugei's "Bamboo" was born. With a kurigata about 4.5 inches down. Which I imagine felt great to James.

Funny thing was I remember the first time holding one thinking "Wow, that's way too far down". I'm 6' tall. It was then that I realized that when I practiced with my antique I was used to "crushing" my hand in the space. Or being told to keep my palm partly on top of the kurigata. Which got me first wondering about the history which spurred me to hit a local university and find a study on the average height of Japanese males in the Tokugawa era. Ah....

So now we have a lot of production swords with the kurigata placed fairly far down. That was the influence I think of Paul Chen's original decisions. Now one could argue they're too far down because it interferes with saya biki. Or one could argue that it is in fact correct because the hand fits in correctly for the taller modern practitioner. I'd argue that arguing about correctness is simply misplaced. Which is why I often glaze over when arguments start in person or on-line. It is silly because virtually all the arguments gloss over the complexity of the issue. They're all right or they're all wrong. It just depends on your point of view or what you consider important. And especially when it comes to production swords. They have to be placed *somewhere*. Maybe it should be tighter (and in all honesty I spec'ed a much tighter placement for the Peace Sword I designed for Bugei for this very reason).

So now let me add yet another factor... Some styles prefer longer sugata (longer blade lengths). So why is this an issue? If your style uses longer blades then things like sayabiki become more significant. So pushing the kurigata up towards the koiguchi to allow a more aggressive sayabiki makes sense with a longer blade. Ironically the longer swords might benefit from the shorter distance on the saya, something I keep in mind when I"m mounting swords. It may look "off", but in a functional sense it may in fact make more sense to allow the blade to clear the saya more easily during a draw. It gives them more room without distorting their bodies to get the blade clear of the saya. Frankly with some of these I am astounded they can do it. I have a roughly 32" blade here I'm reworking to put up for sale and I can't for the life of me draw that thing cleanly. The limitation is on my form, I realize that, but it makes the point that even a half inch of extra clearance makes a huge difference.

Then with a shorter blade the placement in fact doesn't matter nearly as much -- it will clear very quickly with a larger practitioner. And sayabiki becomes less of an issue.

So... We have the "correct" placement for vastly shorter people setting the standard for "correctness" for placement. To the extent where in some styles I wonder if the whole hand crushing fit is something that is partly influenced by longer blades but also by larger hands holding saya made for shorter fellas.

Me, I was greatly influenced by that drunken sayashi (Yeah, I fed him a lot of single malt that night). In a larger sense the idea of fitting the saya to the hand made a great deal of sense to me, especially in some tactical fashion. Of course it isn't the "correct" answer, I hope I made it clear that I don't think there is a "correct" answer. But I wanted to point out that something as seemingly minor as the placement of the kurigata is actually a fantastically complex and layered concept. And it is just one tiny aspect of thousands in mounting a sword. But as a means of figuring out a nice place to put a kurigata for a given person, it was a nice starting point. For those customers who leave it up to me I get them to measure their hands. Then that guides my placement.

You guys swing them. Tell me where you want it and that's where I'll put it. But I also encourage people to think more deeply about why it is the way it is. Things evolve for all sorts of reasons and sometimes our understanding depends on a rather superficial take on a topic. Sure, things become "encoded" within some styles. But often I wonder if the rationale for A over B is sometimes more about "well, it just worked out that way" due to some random and ultimately totally unrelated reason C. There are always grains of truth and experience involved. But sometimes I think it's also somewhat random and capricious. Much like most things in martial arts. And often our explanations of "why something is the way it is" can stop us from seeing that maybe there are other ways that can and might work better. And that we often subtly lose things through acceptance of post hoc explanations rather than taking the greater effort of trying to see things in a more complex, nuanced fashion.

No answers actually. Really only more questions. But I think this is one distinctive aspect of these arts and crafts. It ain't so simple. It ain't necessarily so. And being confident as to what is "correct" is almost always myopic since the complexity virtually guarantees each one of us, myself included, is probably missing some other detail that could upset the entire apple cart yet again. So we end up with the idea of emptying that cup whenever possible. But then hesitate to change anything without a damned good understanding of why you might be doing that.

Last edited by Keith Larman : 04-23-2012 at 01:46 PM.

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Old 04-23-2012, 01:43 PM   #8
Keith Larman
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

Yup, Dan, heard it all so many times I usually go in to a sort of involuntary shut-down every time someone mentions tsuka length. Oh, please, let's not go there again...

On that note I remember seeing a fantastic piece. I think it was a Naotane. Specifically made for some important person in its original mounts. Damned near totally straight tsuka. 2 pins. Reversed menuki and probably a bit over 12" long. With NBTHK papers for the Koshirae saying the mounts were historically significant. All around some time when someone was telling me all the things that were never done that were done on that particular tsuka... Exceptions aren't the rule, but in a world with a *lot* of exceptions, why do some insist on making rules in the first place?

Anyway, got thinking about these things watching someone teaching some Aikido movements that struck me as a great example of looking exactly how it should look with a complete lack of anything substantial behind it. Then watching a friend practicing iai with his hand jammed uncomfortably between the kurigata and koiguchi of his iaito... Just got me a thinkin' about how we get from point A to point Z sometimes...

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Old 04-23-2012, 01:48 PM   #9
Keith Larman
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

And interestingly enough I'm in my workshop right now slotting in kurigata on two new hand carved saya. Both at roughly 4" down from the koiguchi. And last week I did one for someone who is taller with larger hands and he wanted it at 3.5. It's all cool for me. Just interesting sometimes...

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Old 04-23-2012, 11:16 PM   #10
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

I don't think Toby comes around AikiWeb much these days, just too busy. Tantalizingly, though, I have heard stories that Takamura had a collection of notes about how various schools set up their rigs. Sadly, I believe these are lost.

Anyway, I find it very easy to believe that people serious enough to join a school and actually train would trick out their rigs just like a fly fisherman, a baseball player, bobsledder or any number of serious guys obsessed with excellence and looking for an edge. They'd be in the door of the craftsman with a bunch of bespoke enhancements from which blade they choose to be mounted, to how it is polished, and a cool tricked out paint job, I mean, elegantly lethal mounting.

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Old 04-23-2012, 11:40 PM   #11
Keith Larman
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

Quote:
Doug Walker wrote: View Post
I don't think Toby comes around AikiWeb much these days, just too busy. Tantalizingly, though, I have heard stories that Takamura had a collection of notes about how various schools set up their rigs. Sadly, I believe these are lost.
I remember chatting with Toby about this one time with a frosty beverage (or four) in my hand. I'd kill to see those kinds of notes. I"m such a freaking geek about this stuff and I love hearing the stories, especially when it comes to Takamura. There is so much variety and yet so many say "this is why we do A instead of those idiots that do B" out there. I'll have to look up a quote by Compton about exceptions to the rule. Japanese swords really are a case of one exception after another. Then so many will sit their talking about "what's absolutely right" and ignore all those annoying exceptions...

Quote:
Doug Walker wrote: View Post
Anyway, I find it very easy to believe that people serious enough to join a school and actually train would trick out their rigs just like a fly fisherman, a baseball player, bobsledder or any number of serious guys obsessed with excellence and looking for an edge. They'd be in the door of the craftsman with a bunch of bespoke enhancements from which blade they choose to be mounted, to how it is polished, and a cool tricked out paint job, I mean, elegantly lethal mounting.
Exactly. What I find really interesting is that most of the high end mounts I've seen over the years tend to vary in all sorts of subtle ways. Yet damned year every mogito or iaito has the same short distance between the kurigata and koiguchi. And so many take *that* distance as somehow being absolute. When the fact is that the overwhelming majority of iaito saya are mass produced from templates. Which is why the distance is "standardized". Really good quality koshirae tend to vary. Which makes me thing the sayashi either asked the customer "hey, what do you want and how big is your hand?" rather than just doing some arbitrarily selected thing. What I find interesting today is how many big westerners will tell you that your hand is "supposed" to be crammed in to that really small space. I have visions of the sayashi of old looking at them saying "hey, dude, just move it a half freaking inch and give yourself some room!".

But hey, again, I just mount them. You guys swing 'em.

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Old 04-23-2012, 11:51 PM   #12
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

My favorite story about correctness and tradition is about the wife that would always slice a small bit off of the end of a roast before putting it in the roaster to cook. When asked why she does that she replied that was the way her mother taught her. She called her mother and asked her why she did it that way and was told that was how her grandmother taught her ( the wife's mother ) how to cook a roast. She then called her grandmother and asked her why she cooked a roast that way and the grandmother told her that her roasting was small and in order to fit the roast in it she had to slice a bit off the end .

dps
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Old 06-10-2012, 09:29 AM   #13
niall
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

I checked with my sword teacher and heard the same, Keith. It came from the small hand size. So there is no reason at all that the distance can't be increased. But I also agree that a slight compression of the hand lets you prepare to draw the sword more quickly. The emphasis should be on slight. Interesting question.

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Old 06-10-2012, 12:46 PM   #14
graham christian
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Re: tradition, craft, knowledge and historic inertia...

Couldn't resist coming on this thread, out of depth, knowing little and with one of my best mates.

However I offer this: maybe you could look at it simply like a mass production vs. made to measure thing.

Standards could be made up for the first and could be for the general usage. Then the more professional would want one to suit their personal preference.

This would equal no real standard.

Just sayin.

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