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The Nature of Modern Martial Arts

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by Kenji Tomiki

Aiki News #95 (Spring/Summer 1993)

This essay has been edited with the help of Fumiaki Shishida of the Japan Aikido Association from tapes made during Aiki News interviews with Kenji Tomiki Shihan in 1979. Tomiki describes the evolution of the martial arts and stresses the historical inevitability of competition to keep these arts alive. He also emphasizes the need to look at budo from a broad educational perspective so that its essential value will be preserved and can be spread throughout the world.

From live blade to kata

The Japanese fought with real swords up until the beginning of the Edo era. Those who are known as the founders of various schools of swordsmanship, such as Musashi Miyamoto, Sekishusai Yagyu, and Tajimamori Yagyu, grew strong and cultivated their abilities by using their skills to kill.

The famous duel on Ganryu island between Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki is one example. Kojiro was, despite his youth, one of the best swordsmen of the western region of Japan, while Musashi, though a middle-aged man, was known to be the best in the eastern region. People were curious about which of the two was strongest, and so the duel on the island was set up.

This contest was similar to a modern sports match. Two excellent men challenged each other for the right to be known as champion. However, they used real swords and unfortunately young Kojiro was killed. Musashi, on the other hand, survived and became famous. Survivors such as Musashi became the masters of various schools of swordsmanship. It is not possible to know one’s true martial ability without fighting. During the peaceful days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the government issued an official notice prohibiting such violent killings. Thus, swordsmen began to practice kata [forms] exclusively.

When you train in kata you must release your strength at the very last moment. It is permissible for the swords of the opponents to knock against each other, but one must stop just short of killing his adversary. Thus, it is necessary to practice the basic movements for a long time before beginning to train in the actual kata. One must be able to stop the sword no matter where it is. It is dangerous to attempt to practice the kata before having learned the basic movements. Once the basics are learned, the teacher will then instruct the student to strike at him.

Kata practice used to be conducted like this. Suppose you were a student [in the early Edo period] and I were your teacher. [When executing a kata], you would have to stop your wooden sword at precisely the right place when you came to strike at me. If you didn’t move sharply you would get cut. I would tell you to repeat the movement or to move forward —in short, you would practice until you were drenched with sweat. Then I might tell you to strike my kote [wrist]. If you became confused by this instruction this would be a sign you were not yet good enough. You would have to practice hard until you were able to match swords without any mental agitation. At that point you could be regarded as having mastered the kata. The teacher would then invite you to strike him anywhere since you would have mastered all of the kata over long years of practice. He would then advise you to test your sword skills. In Japanese, this is known as kokoromiai, to test one’s ability. People would do this with either wooden or real swords, since protective gear had not yet been invented.

Kendo becomes a sport

Shinai kendo, or sports kendo, came into being in the middle of the Edo era. This was during the Shotoku era [1711-1716], over 260 years ago. Shinai [bamboo swords] were used because the wars were over and it was a time of peace. Since the mid-Edo era, however, people often waylaid passersby to test their sword skills in actual situations. As we see on historical dramas on television, they would waylay samurai, taking advantage of darkness. If they were not lucky, they were killed. The use of the shinai did not mean that participating in contests was wrong, but that teachers wanted to keep their students from injury or even death. [Note: after the middle of the Edo period, contests which resulted in injuries or death were prohibited. The samurai began to practice only kata. When they could no longer train for matches they had no way of testing their true abilities nor could they experience the essence of technical principles. As a result, their skills degenerated. In order to correct this, shinai kendo, or midare geiko [freestyle practice] in jujutsu, were developed. This is the beginning of competition in the martial arts (from Budoron, a collection of Kenji Tomiki’s essays, published by Taishu-kan, p. 21-22)].

At that time swordsmen only practiced kata and were forbidden to kill since human life was considered important. I think this is a characteristic of Japanese martial arts. Kendo’s ultimate secret is found in not killing. Religion of whatever variety teaches the value of human life. When an educated person of common sense has become skilled, or in other words, has attained mastery of the innermost secrets of swordsmanship, he comes to believe it is better not to kill others. Even though the techniques allow one to instantly kill an opponent, the swordsman concludes that it is better not to do so. We can find this recorded in the transmission scrolls of some classical martial arts schools. For example, mutodori [no-sword technique] is one of the secrets noted in the transmission scroll of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu.

Peacetime iaijutsu and the seated techniques of jujutsu

In Japanese swordsmanship a person can completely defend himself using only a sword. Ushiwakamaru immediately blocked Benkei’s strike with his naginata [see editorial, p. 5]. A skillful swordsman can use either a short sword or a long sword. He can, wielding a jutte or iron stick, control an opponent attacking from any direction. This is kendo. The principle of kendo is to defend yourself using a sword wherever or however an opponent comes to attack.

Iai [sword-drawing] was developed during peacetime. Warriors were clad completely in armor during the era of Hachima Taro Yoshiie [1039-1106], or in the Kamakura period [1185-1333] or the War of Kawanakajima [1555-1561]. In those days, as we read in the old war stories, warriors would grapple, jostle and pin down their opponents in order to finish them off with a stab. Sometimes captured warriors were held as hostages, and the fight ended when a samurai was subdued. Samurai did not necessarily use swords for the entire duration of a fight. Beginning in 1543 when the Portuguese brought matchlocks to Tanegashima Island, the methods of war changed. Nobunaga Oda, an outstanding warlord, formed a matchlock brigade, and had half of all of his troops use them in the battles of Koehazama and Nagashino. The opposition’s armor was useless against the firearms. After that time warriors began to wear less armor.

When peace came the samurai no longer wore protective equipment. For example, Ryuma Sakamoto [1835-1867, important political figure of the Meiji Restoration] was killed at an inn while drinking tea, by an assassin charging at full speed down the corridor. What could he have done to defend himself? If he had had a sword, he could have cut the assassin’s leg before the assassin could slash at him. That is iaijutsu. Iai was developed long after peace had been established.

On the battlefield, iai was hardly necessary. During the Edo period, people who practiced jujutsu emphasized seated techniques. From the historical point of view we can say that goshinjutsu, or the art of self-defense, is protecting oneself against any attack at any time, and from any direction. There is no Japanese martial art which does not include an element of self-defense.

Battlefield martial arts and defensive martial arts

Japanese martial arts can be divided into two categories, battlefield martial arts and those used primarily for self-defense. The first were used during wars over political or ideological differences between provinces, while the latter were used to cope with violence and as legitimate civil self-defense. Although one should not try to kill an attacker even in self-defense, there are situations in which it is necessary to do so to save one’s own life. This is the purpose of defensive arts.

Self-defense as safety education

There are no prearranged situations in the martial arts. You must be able to defend yourself from any attack. In Japan, swimming was also considered to be a martial art, as it was a necessary skill for samurai during wartime. In peacetime, people die by drowning. When typhoons or tidal waves occur, or in a shipwreck, swimming is very important and could save one’s life. Thus, it is now taught as a part of safety education. Another example is sports, which are now a part of the educational curriculum. Participation in sports sharpens children’s senses, and this can be useful in preventing, for example, traffic accidents. Many victims are the aged or youngsters, whose legs and hips are weak. Practicing sports is, in a sense, an art of self-defense. You can die by falling from a rooftop if you are hit in the wrong place. You can slip and incur a concussion. Thus, ukemi [falling] can also be seen as part of the art of self-defense. We must view physical exercise in this broad way; aikido and judo also include these aspects.

Dislike of violence, but not of people

Moreover, the best part of practicing martial arts is that you learn good manners. This is also a form of self-defense. For example, if you were to hear someone dashing down a corridor intent on killing you, you could freely avoid the attack the moment the assailant entered the room. On the other hand, if it turned out to be an acquaintance, you would politely ask him to come in. The movements of Japanese etiquette and the basic postures of martial arts such as kendo, judo, and aikido correspond, and this was noted in the Edo period by Sogyo Yamaga in his Bukyo Shogaku [A Buddhist Primer] and in the Bukyo Zensho Koroku [Compendium of Buddhist Studies] by Shoin Yoshida. Etiquette is preparedness. It is the way you show your respect for another person. Budo holds at its core respect for the character and humanity of every individual. So if you have truly understood budo, you will naturally not dislike a person, but rather his violent conduct. For example, there are some Chinese-style documents which were transmitted in the Yoshin martial tradition, which was the basis of Tenshin Shinyo-ryu jujutsu. “It is a secret technique of this school and it may kill an opponent who is wielding a sword or a spear. Therefore, not winning means death. This jujutsu will kill the opponent’s bad spirit but not his innocent body.”

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