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Shinkendo is My Life

by Toshishiro Obata

Aikido Journal #101 (1994)

Toshishiro Obata enrolled at the Yoshinkan as a live-in student at the age of eighteen. At that time, he was a member of Wakakoma Pro, a company specializing in stunts and martial arts training for movie actors. He performed in a number of movies, while at the same time devoting himself to the study of various martial arts. At age thirty-two Obata moved to the United States and became a Hollywood actor, appearing in action films such as the two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, and Demolition Man. He continues to devote himself to both aikido and Shinkendo, his own original style of swordsmanship.

Breaking into the movies

I got started in the movie industry through Mr. Kunishiro Hayashi, the leader of Wakakoma Pro, a company of stuntmen and tateshi (specialists who instruct actors in the use of swords and martial techniques). After I joined Wakakoma Pro I soon began learning various aspects of the trade, such as how to ride and fall off horses, how to do flips using a trampoline, and the art of tate, which is the stage use of weapons and martial techniques. A few days a week for three or four hours a day I practiced with various swords and spears, as well as training in aikido, karate, and kendo. I also attended seminars where we spent all day long practicing cutting and being cut for the movies. After three years of training, I was qualified as an assistant tateshi. Occasionally I was allowed to conduct the training myself.

Budo training In Japan

At the same time I was an uchideshi at the Yoshinkan dojo, I was also learning kenjutsu under Nobuharu Yagyu, the twentieth successor to the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. During my seven years in Wakakoma, I also found time to practice various other martial arts including Ryukyu kobujutsu under Motokatsu Inoue Sensei, manrikigusari (the weighted chain) andjuttejutsu (truncheon) under Yumio Nawa Sensei, Anken battojutsu (sword-drawing) under Tesshinsai Uchida Sensei, and Kashima Shin-ryu at the Shiseikan dojo at Meiji Shrine. I took to martial arts like a fish in water. I was also learning Toyama-ryu battojutsu and Nakamura-ryu battojutsu under Taizaburo Nakamura Sensei, as well as movie action and weapons under Kunishiro Hayashi.

During that period my budo training was more important to me than my work in the movies. I never missed Nakamura Sensei’s seminars, which were usually held once or twice a year. When I assisted him I stood as close as possible so I could study his techniques carefully.

I was more-or-less penniless for the seven years I worked for Wakakoma and studied martial arts, but it was still one of the most enjoyable times in my life. I was able to concentrate on budo, and my training during that period later became the basis of my Shinkendo.

Around that time I won a national bottodo (sword-drawing way; a recent term sometimes used to refer to battojutsu styles that emphasize the “do”) tournament in which I was the youngest of two hundred competitors. I attribute my ability to win, in part, to the strong legs and hips I had developed through aikido training.

I also won an Anken battojutsu tournament against about one hundred participants. That tournament included a ranking test for first, second, and third dans in which participants were required to cut ten standing makiwara (straw bundles used as targets) in rapid succession. To qualify for third dan you had to cut a total of thirty over three consecutive rounds; in other words, ten perfect cuts within each ten second round. It seems I broke the record for the three consecutive rounds with my rimes of 6.4, 6.4, and 6.7 seconds respectively. I can only remember two or three other competitors who were able to cut ten makiwara within ten seconds for three consecutive rounds. In another competition I cut a bundle of six stalks of bamboo, after which I received a menkyo kaiden (highest level license). After all those competitions I felt I had no rival. Thanks to the resulting recognition, I was asked to help test swords forged by Kobayashi, a swordsmith who has since passed away.

I still occasionally test swords made by American swordsmiths. I’ve broken fourteen swords while testing their durability, but in the process I’ve discovered that swords with deeply tempered edges, as well as those with a high carbon content in their steel are more prone to breakage. I believe it’s my duty as a sword tester (tatne-shigirika) to help prevent injuries by finding out which types of sword are most suitable for tameshigiri (test cutting). Most sword practitioners don’t go so far as to learn about the qualities of the swords themselves. I believe this distinguishes me from many less serious swordsmen and I take a certain pride in it.

In the movies

I’ve performed in about fifteen Hollywood movies, but the English language is still my biggest challenge. Mastering English has been very difficult for me since I came to the United States at the age of thirty-two, which is much too late when it comes to learning a foreign language. Thus, my movie roles depend more on character and image than on spoken lines. I’ve appeared in movies such as Rising Sun with Sean Connery, Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, Black Rain with Michael Douglas and KenTakakura, Showdown In Little Tokyo with Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee, Shadow with John Lone, and Ninja Turtles I & II.

Brandon Lee (son of the late Bruce Lee), with whom I worked in Showdown In Little Tokyo, was an Asian-American action star with a very promising future. I was deeply saddened when he was shot by accident during filming in March 1993.

Many people don’t give tateshi the credit they deserve. In fact, however, many of them have trained very seriously in martial arts and are highly accomplished in many different skills such as horseback riding, kyudo, kendo, battodo, and tameshigiri.

Taiso (physical exercises) and taisabaki (body-turning movement)

Training in my dojo and at seminars begins with physical exercise and body-turning movements. We begin with warm-ups and stretching, and then move into intermediate and advanced exercises. I think my dojo is probably one of the few that practices things like forward and backward somersaults, cartwheels, handstands, forward and backward roll-falls, and back-flips.

I teach thirty basic body-turning movements and then move gradually into applications of these, for example, when you or your partner or both of you have a weapon. Those thirty basic movements can be combined to make three hundred or even three thousand applications. They can be applied to sword arts, aikido, karate, and so on, so that practitioners of other martial arts can easily understand them. I teach these movements as practical techniques.

The attack may change from an empty-handed lapel grab to a knife thrust or an attack using some kind of sword or stick, so these techniques may look difficult. But they’re all really just applications of those basic techniques; if you master the basic techniques correctly, you will be able to use other weapons easily. I’ve been studying and developing these kinds of body turning movements since I was in Japan and I believe they have broad possibilities in application.

I teach basic techniques first and when students have mastered these I have them execute techniques continuously, first stringing together two techniques, then three, then gradually working into something akin to kumite (controlled sparring). I’ve tried to eliminate as many unnecessary steps as possible. We don’t really do techniques that aren’t practical or that have been created simply to increase the number of techniques.

Many books have been written about breathing techniques and ki, so I don’t mention these things often. If I talk too much about ki, students may become “ki no doku” (a pun meaning “to have one’s ki become poisoned”), so I don’t really emphasize it. Instead, I have them explore ki through steady, regular training and movement. Ki is everywhere in our life, but it’s not something to be understood intellectually. Even if you understand ki intellectually, it’s not useful until you can integrate it into your physical movement.

Infusing modern aikido with new blood

Was Sokaku Takeda’s budo comprised only of techniques he had learned from his teachers? Or was it the outcome of his observation and study of many different budo from a very young age? I think both of these provided sources for his technique. The same may be said of Ueshiba Sensei. I think he may even have been fortunate not to have received all of the licenses from Sokaku, for if he had learned everything then the range of his study might have become narrower and he might not have developed aikido. I believe that Ueshiba Sensei learned a certain amount from Sokaku, and then, having considerable talent, recast what he had learned to create aikido.

During his early and middle years Ueshiba Sensei trained many students of exceptional caliber; but I feel sorry for those students who skim over the type of training he did in his earlier years and simply mimic the techniques he did in his old age, thinking that they understand aikido. Aikido is becoming deformed in many cases because of the assumption by some that Ueshiba Sensei’s later years were his best.

Sokaku Takeda and Morihei Ueshiba Sensei were both martial artists of the highest caliber and as such their techniques probably appealed strongly to other martial artists. Consequently they were always surrounded with good students. By the second or third generation, however, aikido is bound to deteriorate if people merely copy Ueshiba Sensei’s techniques. A copy is, after all, only a copy, and will not yield genuine aikido.

I think aikido needs an infusion of “new blood.” It needs to be capable of integrating the new. We need to study other budo rationally, rather than letting our own theoretical assumptions become the basis of our understanding. We need to study sword or jo under people qualified in those arts; otherwise, despite our best intentions, we risk straying from the correct path. There are, of course, many who will diverge from their original path intentionally.

I think it is difficult for the art of aikido to produce a great martial artist these days. Even those who begin aikido as children won’t become great if all they nave is a second-hand, ready-made training approach.

If more people don’t study or have some kind of exchange with other martial arts and bring what they have learned to aikido, then aikido is fated to follow the same path of decline as the Tokugawa Shogunate in the last years of the Edo period. Quite a few people practice aikido today, and I hope more of them will not limit themselves, self-satisfied, to the aikido they are learning now, but rather strike out in pursuit of the genuine article.

The meaning of budo training in the modern world

Most martial arts practitioners will attain an average degree of proficiency; eight out of a hundred will become instructors; three out of a thousand will become famous; but only one in ten thousand will become truly superior martial artists of the caliber of Jigoro Kano, Sokaku Takeda, or Morihei Ueshiba. Even people with a great deal of talent may turn to other budo or sports if they have no opportunity for that talent to bloom.

You can absorb things while you are still young, so you need to learn from a good teacher while you can still move your body. As we say in Japanese, “three years in the country, a cat nap in the city.” In other words, you waste time learning from a teacher with no ability, but you can master things in a short time if you learn from a good teacher.

Because we live in a relatively peaceful world these days, with little in the martial arts requiring us to risk our lives, and because of the strong influence of capitalist thinking, it is natural that people turn to more glamorous and perhaps profitable sports and martial arts. It is possible that aikido, having no gold medals, may come to somewhat of a deadend. But then, there’s more to life than gold medals, isn’t there?

I wonder if it is enough to do aikido to achieve health and harmony with nature? I believe people should really work to improve their own aikido, whatever the particular style. Occasionally I’ll meet some empty-headed aikidoka who tells me proudly, “I train only in aikido.” Such people think their own teachers are the best and therefore the techniques they have learned from those teachers must be the best They complacently assume that they do not need to study anything else. They also tend to criticize the techniques of others who are at about their own level, but from my perspective I don’t see much difference between them and those they criticize Without recognition by practitioners of other martial arts we become like the proverbial frog in a deep well, knowing nothing of the great ocean.

If someone says, “I don’t care what people think about me,” well, that’s the end of any discussion you might have. Whatever it is, it’s that person’s life. If people endeavor to change for the better, however, perhaps their surroundings will begin to change as well.

Water is useful to us in part because of its multiple forms, changing to vapor or ice and back to liquid agaia Water controlled and made to flow through pipes is useful to a degree, but natural water flows widely and freely and has many sources, like the Mississippi or the Amazon. Do you want to do aikido that’s like tap water or aikido that’s like the Mississippi River?

Students of Shinkendo

True kendo using real swords (shinken) is completely different from modern kendo, which uses shinai. One day, a swordsman, who has practiced kendo for fifty years and holds an eighth dan, came to enroll in my dojo. I think it took a great deal of courage for someone like him, a leading kendo teacher, to seek teaching from someone much younger than himself. He told me that younger kendo students tend to assume that high-ranking practitioners can use real swords and slice targets with no problem. In fact, however, he had never even held a real sword, let alone cut anything with one. Thus, he came to my dojo.

Sparring is the mainstay of training in shinai-based kendo, but they also spend a little time explaining how to grip the hilt in order to cut effectively. This teacher said he felt embarrassed teaching his students such things since he had never cut anything with a real sword himself. His biggest concern, apparently, was whether one should push or pull the sword when cutting. After practicing kata and tameshigiri for four months he seemed to have found an answer that satisfied him.

Once I received a telephone call from a young swordsman with twenty-five years of experience in kendo. He was a bit proud of himself as a longtime practitioner of kendo and he said he wanted to watch me cut bamboo with a sword. I demonstrated using some of the thick-stemmed bamboo that grows in my backyard. He took some of the pieces I had cut home with him and tried cutting them himself. I suppose he thought he could easily cut the bamboo using the grip he had learned in modern kendo. He was unsuccessful, of course; thick-stemmed bamboo like that is not at all easy to cut. Somewhat disheartened by his failure, he began to question the value and meaning of all the kendo he had learned. He brightened up a little when I told him to think of kendo as just a fine sport.

On yet another occasion I was visited by a Japanese who had practiced suwari iai (seated sword-drawing) for fourteen years. In his particular style, the sensei demonstrated tameshigiri once or twice a year in front of the students. The students kept hoping that they, too, would have a chance to try it, but the chance never came. The teacher would tie some thin green bamboo in place and then bring his sword down on the bamboo from the jodan position (sword raised above the head), but it would take him two or three attempts to make a complete cut. Sometimes he was able to cut the bamboo, sometimes not, and his students just watched and held their breath while their sensei struggled with the task.

That student said to me, “I realized then that it must be very difficult to cut something with a real sword. I’d heard about you when I was still in Japan. I decided to call on you when I heard you were here in Los Angeles.”

Rather than going into a lengthy explanation about Shinkendo, I thought it would be better simply to demonstrate. Lacking a proper target, I brought a bamboo clothesline pole from the back yard and told him to hold it tightly. He seemed surprised that I intended to cut such thick, well-dried stalk of bamboo without fixing it in place, but I made every cut successfully and he decided to enroll in my dojo that day.

A captain in the United States Army was my first American student. His father, a former Green Beret, had once told him that the Japanese sword is the world’s sharpest weapon Somewhat of a Japanophile and having some experience in suwari iai, he was searching for a genuine kendo teacher and heard about me through the Japanese Consulate.

He had thought of suwari iai as somewhat self-indulgent, involving the practice of a kata which does not suppose an opponent at all. Apparently his teacher had told him that the kata is for the purpose of training the mind and is related to Zen, so the Captain assumed that this was all there was to it Indeed, he was even taught that to cut something with a real sword is an insult to the sword, and therefore of no value.

Shinkendo kata have both slow and fast movements. In kumite you can work up quite a sweat, for example. You have to maintain an inner calm even when executing such rapid movements. On the other hand, even during slow kata practice your mind is permeated with burning intention, and the containment and channeling of this “energy” by the slow movements generates considerable power. The Captain likened this to a sort of “moving Zen” and was delighted.

People who just want to cut things and end up damaging the sword or treating it as merely a sharp cutting tool really have no business learning Shinkendo. Training correctly in the basics of using a bokken (wooden sword) is a must in preventing injuries, or damage to the sword. I’ve used my sword many, many times for tameshigiri, but the blade remains unchipped. Despite the Captain’s desire to try tameshigiri with a real sword, his sensei would not allow it, and he was unable to do so until he became my student. He is happier for the experience, and he now demonstrates tameshigiri at events on the army base. He has even won an award and been written up in a newspaper.

A Shin Taido instructor from San Francisco came to enroll after seeing a photograph of me cutting a makiwara from below on the cover page of my first book, Naked Blade. Apparently he noticed that in the photo my hip movement, the cut in the makiwara, and the trajectory of the blade were all in a single line, which he felt indicated a skilled swordsman. This man was one of the top members who was around when Hiroyuki Aoki created the karate-based Shin Taido system. Shin Taido incorporates some bokken movements, so he wanted to learn about real kendo. He comes to Los Angeles about twice a year for private lessons. It’s very impressive that this man was able to discern a person’s skill from only a picture.

A Japanese karate practitioner, who used to teach Shorinji Kempo in Japan and has taught karate at universities since coming to the United States, had trained with Benny Urquidez and was fairly confident in his abilities. In his karate training, he often practiced techniques against sword attacks. When his opponent attacked with a sword, he would shift out of the way and kick the swordsman. Having practiced such movements, he believed he could do muto dori (empty-handed sword-taking). However, after learning kata, kumite, and tameshigiri from me, he began to doubt the possibility of empty-handedly disarming a sword-wielding attacker. Still, he was a skilled karate practitioner with good hip movement, so he improved pretty quickly. It seems that the more he learned Shinkendo, the more keenly felt the impossibility of successfully executing a bare-handed defense against a sword. The sword cut of a skilled practitioner is about one third the speed of bullet. It may be possible to handle a relatively unskilled sword attack by an amateur, but it’s nearly impossible against a skilled swordsman.

Mr. Groswell in Arizona, a sixth dan in Shito-ryu karate who has numerous branch dojos, is another person who recognizes the value of Shinkendo. He is a very sharp man and even understands what I want to say before I have a chance to say it. Frequently, people who have branch dojos and many students learn forms through videotapes or books and teach a self-taught style. Such people may be able to demonstrate forms but they can’t teach important points since they have never learned them from a master of the style. Students, of course, believe in their sensei, so they think their sensei’s sword techniques are the best and practice them diligently. In that sense, Mr. Groswell’s students are fortunate, for although he is a teacher of karate, he makes no pretension of being able to teach sword techniques and has dedicated himself to studying sword from the very basics.

The essence of Shinkendo

Shinkendo consists of four divisions: kata and batto, suburi, kumite, and tameshigiri. Not only does Shinkendo make up for the technical deficiencies of kendo, iaido, and battodo, but it is also a budo that may be pursued as a way of life.

Kendo practitioners learning Shinkendo can learn how to grip a real sword and learn to use their right and left legs alternately. Furthermore, tameshigiri using makiwara or bamboo can be learned easily.

Aikido practitioners learning Shinkendo can improve their kumite and learn how to handle a real sword, and their free sword techniques will definitely improve as well. Techniques such as tachidori (sword-taking) will become more realistic and practical.

If iaido practitioners learn Shinkendo, I’m sure they can master the speed of standing techniques, kumite, and tameshigiri, and their movements will become more powerful.

I saw a program on Japanese-language television in Los Angeles this year in which members of a prefectural kendo federation in northeastern Japan attempted to cut makiwara of thin bamboo as part of a ceremony to mark the beginning of the New Year. It was terrible. None of the shihan or sensei could cut even a single makiwara. Finally, the mayor took the sword and succeeded using a diagonal cut. I was surprised to see that on television. I wondered what kendo has become and I was upset I thought they should change the name from kendo to something else. As I watched their disgraceful performance (maybe the participants didn’t feel ashamed, I don’t know), I felt that I couldn’t just look on it as someone else’s problem, and I strongly felt the need to introduce Shinkendo to Japan.

Even when I was relatively new to aikido and other budo, I could use the sword given to me by Kunishiro Hayashi Sensei, or even my poor fire-damaged military blade, to cut four or five makiwara at a time; I cut Japanese bamboo and thick-stemmed bamboo and six-foot wooden staffs; I cut bundles of eight or ten thin bamboo stalks. I made a kesa cut (a diagonal cut through the shoulder) through four makiwara at a National Battodo tournament. I could easily execute cuts like zenten (front turning cut), kesagiri, kiriage (upward diagonal cut), or yokogiri (sideways cut) with one hand using a real blade.

Reflecting on my younger days, I think perhaps I had too much confidence. I tried to cut six makiwara rather than five; seven rather than six; bundles of two, three, and four bamboo stalks at a time; the thickest part of the bamboo from the bottom of the stalk. Anyway, I focused all my energy on cutting. When I reflect on my training back then, I feel I was too carried away with cutting, but then I suppose I had a lot of energy.

As an uchideshi in aikido for seven years I had already learned how to use my legs and hips, as well as the basics of sword handling. If I had learned kata and to perform safe drawing and replacement of the sword, I probably would have had the skill equivalent to a fifth dan in tameshigiri-do (“test-cutting way”; not a term in common use in Japan).

Now, don’t you think something is wrong when the members of the kendo federation I mentioned earlier could not even cut one makiwara, a simple feat that I could have accomplished easily even twenty years ago!

I know of a Japanese individual here in the United States who turned suddenly from a karate sensei into a kenjutsu sensei. Such borrowed plumes, however, are bound to come off sooner or later, with his students stabbing themselves, cutting their own hands, or sticking themselves in the thigh. Such foolish injuries are all the responsibility of the instructor. This particular sensei couldn’t cut bamboo, so he sawed it and sandpapered the cut section. He was on the cover of a third-rate martial arts magazine It seems, however, that his students just respect him as their teacher and are satisfied with whatever he does.

From battodo to Shinkendo

The Japanese battodo world can be very indulgent with foreigners. I’ve heard of some non-Japanese receiving fifth dans after as little as half a year’s worth of Saturday training, or taking Remy Martin [an expensive liquor] as a gift and receiving third dan after only one lesson. Rumor has it that an Englishman stayed only two weeks and visited a number of different budo dojos and went home with a total of twenty dan rankings. What a complete joke!

A person who had gone to Japan and received a fifth dan came to visit me with an introduction from Nakamura Sensei who had urged him to study with me. I told him that if he already had a fifth dan then he was ready to begin teaching. He confided, however, that he had trained once a week for a half year, and in any case he had not understood Japanese in the beginning and so was unable to comprehend the teacher’s explanations. Furthermore, he had no experience in tameshigiri, which is very important in battodo, and he had never even had a chance to handle a live blade. He learned these things after he came to me, but his level was equal to about fifth kyu in Shinkendo. The Japanese do this sort of thing again and again, and that’s why battodo has been split into so many different branches. I think it’s terrible, especially with all those ridiculous rankings. I’ve heard that this sort of thing happens in other martial arts as well.

As far as teaching methods are concerned, I got tired of people making all sorts of analyses of things that I had discovered long ago. I got tired of the low level, so I basically threw battodo to the wind and created a new budo, Shinkendo. Althoug it’s a new budo, it has depth and a foundation in real sword techniques. Shinkendo is a real example of something that gets more interesting the more you practice it-“Continuation leads to ability,” as the saying goes.

Shinkendo has its headquarters in Los Angeles, with branches located in San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, two locations each in Arizona (Phoenix) and Illinois, Atlanta, Birmingham (Alabama), and New Zealand. I hope there will eventually be people who can spread Shinkendo throughout the world as well.

Mr. Toshishiro Obata Born 1948 in Gumma Prefecture, Japan. Enrolled at the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo at age eighteen. Learned kenjutsu under Nobuharu Yagyu, 20th successor to the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. Trained in many different martial arts while working for Wakakoma Pro, a movie stunt and tate company. Moved to the United States and became an actor at age thirty-two. Founded Shinkendo at age forty, which he now teaches in a variety of locations. He is the author of Naked Blade, Crimson Steel, Samurai Aikijutsu, Kama: Weapon Art of Okinawa, Ninja Training Manual. Has produced two videotapes, Samurai Aikijutsu and Crimson Steel, and is currently working on a second volume of Samurai Aikijutsu, a book about bo, and a Shinkendo videotape.

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