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Interview with Tetsuzan Kuroda

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #95 (Spring/Summer 1993)

Tetsuzan Kuroda
“In the world of traditional Japanese martial arts, kata or fixed forms constitute the essence of technique and guarantee the integrity of a martial system over the course of time. Aiki News editor-in-chief Stanley Pranin joins Yoshinori Kono and one of Japan’s leading swordsmen, Tetsuzan Kuroda, the headmaster of the martial legacy of the Kuroda family, in a disscussion which provides an in-depth glimpse into the concept of kata and the psychology of samurai warriors expressed in modern terms.”

Editor: As you know, the “Aiki Forum” section of Aiki News is devoted primarily to presenting people outside the world of aikido. I would like to ask you several questions about your family martial arts systemyour Your first name, Tetsuzan, is rather unusual. Is that your original given name?

Kuroda Sensei: Yes. At first glance it seems like an adopted name, but it is actually my real name. The fact that it is such an important sounding name has caused me some problems.

Many aikido instructors attach great importance to the sword. Would you describe the characteristics of your sword training method?

Kuroda Sensei: Since we stress kata [forms] training just as is done in other traditional Japanese martial arts, I don’t think there is anything that can be said to be particularly different in our method. I teach concrete, practical mental and physical techniques to enable students to realize the essence of the art through these kata.

A teaching called zegoku itto no koto has been transmitted in Japanese swordsmanship from olden times. When confronting an opponent one aims for a level where the movements of his mind and body control the opponent before he swings his sword. This is the highest level of swordsmanship. It seems to be a rather abstract spiritual teaching, but that’s not at all the case. It is an “invisible” technique which consists of advanced technical movements and the workings of the spirit based on these movements. All martial arts training begins with learning how to perceive this invisible element.

It may be dangerous to talk or write about things which cannot be seen with the naked eye, but we cannot understand what the bushi [samurai warriors] of earlier eras have bequeathed to us unless we recognize the fact that an inner vision capable of perceiving these unseen things is the basis of the martial arts.

Since the vision of ordinary people is only partially developed, they can only see those things which are visible to the eye. For that reason, people are completely unable to see true things. However, there are also instances when people are able to easily accomplish things that could be considered impossible as a result of knowledge acquired through training. It sounds like a matter of religion if I talk about hearing things which cannot be heard or seeing things which cannot be seen, but please understand that I am referring simply to an individual’s latent knowledge.

How was it that you arrived at this way of thinking?

Kuroda Sensei: Previously, I had my doubts that this knowledge was directly related to the martial arts, or that the practice of martial arts kata would enable one to read people’s minds. However, as it is expressed in the writings of my grandfather Yasuji, training in the martial arts is learning how to achieve unity of the sword and body, that is, of techniques and mind. If we ask how to achieve this unity, this answer is through the practice of kata. Everything which the traditional bushi attempted to transmit to future generations is contained in the kata. Through kata training, first of all, our eyes become opened.

At the present time I have a fourth-grader among my students. If I control his center line [seichusen], even he is able to clearly see my slightest mental movement and he immediately reacts by withdrawing slightly backward. He hasn’t been trained to concentrate his consciousness on any kind of spiritual training to see invisible things. He has simply practiced jujutsu and kenjutsu kata together with us.

Naturally, the mental and physical development of this boy is still immature. However, he is learning kata with eyes that are capable of seeing. In his practice he is conscious of what to do in the kata and how to move which part of his body in order to develop effective technique. It doesn’t matter that he is a child.

This is very different from learning a kata form as merely a refined, traditional movement or learning it exactly as one is taught. Therefore, during training at my dojo I begin teaching how to understand the kata and how one should understand each individual movement. We study why the kata have become what they are, why they must be done that way, what we are hoping to achieve by doing the kata, and what will result from practicing them. Isn’t that what the samurai of old were seeking and what they devoted their lives to?

Kono Sensei: First of all, I think one of the characteristics of training at Kuroda Sensei’s dojo is that his understanding of the role of kata and the general understanding of kata in the martial arts world is quite different. I believe that from the Mejii period until modern times, including before World War II, kata were considered to be a substitute for actual combat. However, it is important to recognize that a person’s body doesn’t always move as he wills it. After understanding this, it is these kata that free you to become able to move in a technically correct manner. Nowadays, our understanding of kata is extremely vague. Therefore, Kuroda Sensei’s ideas will, I think, be of great interest to people involved in aikido.

Kuroda Sensei, do your thoughts concerning kata derive from the classical martial arts or are they uniquely your own?

Kuroda Sensei: I think it would be to correct to say that they are unique to me. I could not get anyone to teach me the things I most wanted to know when I was practicing kata. However, it is only that I, a modern person, have explained the traditional kata using modern terminology. The kata themselves have been preserved in exactly their original form. Also, when I became able to see those invisible things, I think I was actually able to see more clearly what the samurai devoted their lives to because the kata were retained in their original form.

The kata which were transmitted to me—for example, the kenjutsu kata—are not like what one sees commonly these days where the opponent waits, exposing his head, neck, and body, and where one strikes his stopped sword. I may be stating it inappropriately, but in simple terms, that kind of swordwork is just a flashy display. The instant the sword and body of my opponent move, my sword has already cut him through.

If you think about it carefully, isn’t it obvious? No one would actually stand and wait for his head to be cut. The kata I was taught were to be practically applied. If you failed to parry the opponent’s sword, his sword would strike your body. When I was a boy and asked someone to be my uke—even when I would ask him to strike slowly—his movement was so fast for someone like me that I was quite tense.

Originally, kata training with a partner was conducted in a world where you didn’t get a second chance if you couldn’t parry the attack. It was a world where you couldn’t offer excuses and say, “Let me do it again,” if you made a mistake. Doing things properly in martial arts practice is exactly the same as behaving properly in modern society. Learning not to repeat mistakes or not to offer excuses in kata practice is to have absolute confidence in your own techniques, abilities, and skills. Although that level of confidence might appear to be the maximum for your present level, it might be considered a low level if it is viewed relatively. Such absolute confidence is necessary at all levels of martial arts training. In other words, you must completely trust in yourself. There is nothing other than what you can do yourself.

In kata training, the person in the role of uke is always the senior partner. When training alone you may think that what you are doing is satisfactory, but when your back and shoulder are cut and you are warned of the distorted movement in your body when your opponent parries your sword, you have to realize that if it were an actual situation you would be cut and die. No excuses can be accepted in training where your very life is at stake.

That’s how my father would explain things to me when he raised me. It is possible to perform kata training alone. When your ability has progressed to the point that you can no longer see bad points in your movements, you ask a senior to teach you by receiving your uke. Then you can advance to the next level and the next. As a result the kata becomes faster and faster. Movements executed at a speed visible to the eye become invisible and a speed involving no movement evolves. A gradual change in the ability of your eyes to see and the quality of your movements occurs as you continue to progress in kata training. This is why the samurai were able to stake their lives on it.

Lightning fast sword draw
Now let’s consider the concept of kata from the jujutsu standpoint. Training begins from a seated position which is called idori or etori. In the first kata there are many steps in our movements compared to aikido techniques and it takes a long time to get to the point of throwing our opponent. Therefore, young people, especially, when watching our training express doubts and say things like, “If you were to move that slowly you wouldn’t be able to respond fast enough in a real situation, would you?” or “Wouldn’t it be more effective to train to deal with punches and kicks from the beginning?”

Of course, it is natural for people in general not to understand the meaning of these kata. Also, even if we consider the old Japanese lifestyle where people spent a great deal of time in a seated position, does it make sense to think that in a world dominated by swords someone who is seated could be grabbed by the lapel and attacked with a dagger? It is natural to wonder whether they seriously practiced such techniques at a time when the reign of sword was absolute. Even today, the kata really seem to be quite unrealistic and useless.

I take a common sense viewpoint with respect to these kinds of kata. In other words, I believe that kata are not substitutes for actual fighting. If there were such a thing as kata that can be used in a real situation, I would like to see them. I think that it was in this sense that Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei used to say that one should not attach too much importance to kata. However, this is something that only a man of his stature, who has already reached that level, can say. We ordinary people would lose all clues about how to execute real techniques if we were to reject the kata.
Now, I would like to explain what we are attempting to learn in the kata we practice where the opponent attacks by seizing our lapel and attempts to cut our right carotid artery with a dagger held in his right hand. The opponent comes to cut my neck on the right side with his dagger. In this situation, the movement required is to avoid his attack by withdrawing my right shoulder while remaining facing toward the opponent without breaking my center line.
Are these the principles which were taught by your grandfather Yasuji?

Kuroda Sensei: Yes. If you watch the movement in a mirror you will understand clearly too, but if you see it happen this way it doesn’t at all seem that I have avoided the attack of my opponent. Here, what will happen if I move my body to avoid the attack by tilting to the left and I offer the explanation that the movement of the kata did not actually avoid the attack? If this should happen then what was transmitted by my grandfather would be lost. The kata, which were handed down by bushi who said that jujutsu is so fast as to be invisible to the eye and that throwing people was as simple as taking off a haori [Japanese half-coat], would be destroyed and disappear. What I am trying to explain here is the essence of the method for avoiding an opponent’s attack.

Usually what happens is that only the hips and upper body turn and it is not really a movement where one draws back the right shoulder. In the beginning everyone is a beginner. It’s normal for the shoulder not to move. The purpose of the kata is to cause you to realize that you do not move. In this initial movement you must first learn to “open” your right shoulder and right chest. Moreover, you have to learn not to turn either shoulder.

Under such conditions, it is normally impossible to do this movement. It’s exactly the same when you change from right hanmi to left hanmi. You need a body manipulation technique because you shift your body while in a turned position without having turned your body. In this manner, just by watching the first movement, you understand that no one at the start can execute the technical movement to handle an opponent’s thrust.

If you avoid the attack to the left without understanding this principle, this is not avoiding the attack but merely getting out of the way. Even if you move according to the kata, in the beginning you turn both shoulders, and you are not able to move the right side of your chest. However, if you understand the meaning and practice the movement required, you will eventually grasp the principle transmitted from olden times that the person who first initiates an attack will always lose. An understanding of the qualitative difference between avoiding the attack by opening your body and “getting out of the way” is of incalculable value.
If a person moves according to the kata without understanding what the forms are really trying to teach, the practical aspect of the theory that one always wins if the opponent initiates the attack will be lost. The movements of drawing back the right shoulder and drawing or opening the left side of the chest are based on shifting the hips relatively to the right or left. Opening the right side of the chest without pushing out the left shoulder, and moreover, shifting the body without turning either shoulder, that is, shifting the body in a straight line along the center line is an important movement which can be used directly in jujutsu or iajutsu.

You are more quickly able to develop an inner eye through continuous practice of each individual movement in this kind of kata while communicating with your own body. Since in this kind of training the use of power is absolutely prohibited, you learn to move in a relaxed manner as is suggested by the term yawara [softness]. Your progress will be greatly slowed if you put power into your movements. After training in this manner, one of my students, who had practiced no-contact karate from junior high school through university, said one year after enrolling, “Up until now I thought that the punches of professional boxers were fast, but the other day when I saw a bout for the first time in quite a while, I couldn’t help but think that the punches really looked slow. I wondered why they were so slow.” This was his opinion of the movements of professional sports compared to the standard of the traditional kata.

I spoke about this earlier, but people’s eyes can hardly see true things. They can’t tell what is fast or what is slow. I teach the kata slowly. Even when I do the movements of the kata slowly, they are unable to see them. True speed is not a question of fast or slow movements.

You can also say that the fastest movement is actually no movement at all. This is called zegoku itto. Apparently in Chinese kempo they also have arts like ta-cheng ch’uan or i ch’uan where it is said that no movement is the fastest. Although the body in this kind of movement is apparently motionless, it is actually moving. My student unexpectedly said the same thing to me. Looking at my seated posture he said, “Even though you are motionless your whole body is moving.”

Morihei Ueshiba said a similar thing concerning speed.

Kuroda Sensei: As long as we are talking about martial arts, it is necessary to preserve this kind of body and mind movement. Also, you can regard this as a technical problem. It is exactly the same in iai. How is it that I win while seated holding my unsheathed sword at my waist in a situation where an opponent has already drawn his sword and is about to attack me with it? It’s not at all persuasive to say that this is possible because it is an iai kata, and you absolutely cannot stake your life on it. Since this seems to the normal eye like a situation where my opponent is already fifty meters ahead in a one hundred meter sprint, one would think that there is no chance of winning.

However, a reversal of the circumstances occurs when the technique required in iajutsu is fully executed. These are the body movements of suwarigamae, ukimi, hidari hanshin, saya no okuri, and hanare. Originally, iajutsu was a matter, technically speaking, of not drawing the sword. That is the kata curriculum. This is only an extremely natural technical level if viewed from the standpoint of a world consisting mainly of unusual movements called hiden or gokui [secrets or mysteries of an art].

Generally speaking, a technique where the opponent is sent flying “when one merely extends his hand” is considered to be a secret technique, but it is nothing more than slightly extending one’s arm in an unusual movement when the opponent is mainly executing normal movements.

That type of movement where you lightly extend your arm will have no effect on someone trained in true martial arts. Indeed if one doesn’t strike with full spirit one is risking his life. There are always more advanced techniques, and this cannot be understood at all from the standpoint of common sense movements. However, from the standpoint of someone who has trained with a complete understanding of techniques from the beginning, everything will seem natural. It will simply seem to be the result of accumulated training and the degree of training. The kata are what lead one to this level.

After I met Kono Sensei, I too tried to study the subject of realistic iai techniques in July of 1991. I did not do this as a kata but adopted a standing position. Then my opponent struck me at will from the seigan [stance with sword aiming at opponent’s eye] or jodan [upper] stance with a bokken or shinai.

To state my conclusion first, I can win as long as my opponent strikes first. Until I had done this, I believed that I couldn’t react fast enough when I imagined my grandfather as my opponent. I used to think that I would end up getting cut every time, and also that as long as an opponent had already drawn his sword, it would be impossible to handle his attack in time.

However, I realized by doing this practice why I managed to react in plenty of time. This led me to understand a great many things. I was then able to make progress in my training. The combative distance [ma] I originally thought it was necessary to adopt was the so-called “disappearing form” [kiesareta katachi]. I then had to change to the next step which was the nukitsuke [split second it takes to draw and cut the sword] distance.

When I practiced this with my students, the speed of the attack was irrelevant, and I could win easily. This was only because I had developed the eyes to see the movement of the opponent’s spirit. This inner vision is, in Kono Sensei’s words, a spirit of technical dimension called rapport or telepathy or the working of the brain—I can’t find the appropriate words for this.

If you can understand how diffcult this kind of spiritual movement or act of drawing the sword is as a physical technique, I think you can understand how iajutsu can cope with kenjutsu technically. In that sense this applies to everything, but I think that these iai techniques are generally considered too lightly.

Did your grandfather think about kata in a similar way?

Kuroda Sensei: Not at all. He just told me to use the kata properly. For example, I was often told to lower my hips. Sometimes even when I took a stance called iaigoshi and I lowered my hips so far that my left knee almost touched the floor I was told that my hips were still too high. This is the same thing that my grandfather himself was told by my great-grandfather, Masakuni.

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