Thoughts on Iaido by Nakamura Taizaburo

Go read the article “Thoughts on Iaido”by Nakamura Taizaburo with Guy H. Power & Takako Funaya

Nakamura Taizaburo founded Nakamura-ryu, an iai/batto sword style, in reaction to what he saw as weaknesses in classical iaido. This article is a meditation on those weaknesses and the experiences that caused Nakamura to think differently about iai.

In general, I agree with most of his observations. I very strongly agree with him on points #4, #5, #9, and especially #19; however, we do #12 and #14 in our style and I would argue for them. But really, the reason I want to comment on this article is the insight it gives into how and why styles changed during and following the WWII period. It is useful for understanding both those styles that changed to accommodate new ideas gained in war, and those that moved backwards in a reactionary way out of disgust.

I am most struck by his talk of swordsmen who “experienced actual battlefield sword techniques” during the wars of the 20th Century (paragraphs 5-7).

Now, Koryu Iaido dogma claims that Koryu arts are pure because they were created and tested by warring samurai. Thus, current practitioners are unfit to alter swords arts because they have not been in real sword fights. However, this article makes it clear that for certain men, Japanese militarization gave them a combat opportunity to re-test and then alter their arts.

In some ways this sounds good for the martial arts, in other ways it is deeply, deeply disturbing. Nakamura discusses exchanging ideas with Takayama Masayoshi, a war criminal who was sentenced to twenty five years “[b]ecause of his sword testing in China.” As footnote #4 explains, the euphemism “sword testing” translates to “killing 10 Chinese prisoners of war with his sword.”

That image–a dedicated martial artist killing prisoners to perfect his technique–is a haunting one. It is perfectly understandable that many teachers refused to keep the lessons from the War and “reverted to old-school sword techniques.” In fact, I think I now understand why many lineages of iaido discourage tameshigiri (test-cutting).

But yet…as horrible as the Japanese war crimes were, were the samurai of old any better? Or do they just seem safe and pure because of the distance of history? Swords are designed for killing. We may play at creative-anachronism, but the real truth is messy and tinged with evil.

The artistic flourishes that Nakamura complains about do still need to be addressed; pretending that nobody learned to kill with swords in China does not change that. Thus we end up and a morally confusing place. I think this is why most students of the Japanese sword ignore the effects of WWII on their arts and say they are learning the “life giving sword” rather than practicing ways to kill people.

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