I was listening to NPR the other day on the way to work and they had an interview with Takagi Kikue, an 83 year old survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Takagi San’s openness in sharing her experience with Americans, and her ability to grow beyond the nationalism she grew up in and to embrace the world without seeming bitter even after the horrors she lived through brought back memories of my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei. He was a grand gentleman when I met him. Tall for Japanese, particularly of his era, he was already in his seventies when I first met him.
He was leading an iaido demonstration at the Minakuchi Castle ruins, It was quite the display. I remember that Suda Sensei had borrowed a suit of armor and was wearing that for the demonstration. 20 or so people swinging swords and a guy in full armor before a castle turret and gate makes for quite a site. I wish I’d taken more pictures. I was there because I’d heard there would be an iai demonstration. I started looking for iaido after I got to know the swordsmith Nakagwa Taizoh because I wanted to be better able to appreciate the incredible swords I was always seeing and handling when I visited him.
I somehow got myself introduced to Takada Sensei and asked about studying iai. At the time I lived 5 minutes from the castle, but I was planning to move to Yokaichi soon. Luckily for me, Takada Sensei was teaching in Eichigawa, just 2 train stops and a 5 minute walk from where I would be living. They held practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the half of the community gym not being used by the local kendo club at the same time. It turned out that Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were both senior members and teachers of the kendo club as well as teaching iai.
Both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were Japanese Imperial Army veterans. In 1993 there were still a lot of veterans of The Great Pacific War around. Takada Sensei invited me to come train at their dojo.. He was the senior teacher, and although both he and Suda Sensei were 7th dans in iai, and both were in their 70s, I found out later that Takada Sensei was Suda Sensei’s teacher. They were both amazing, quick and strong.
I made the effort to go to iai practice, still a bit apprehensive about being a gaijin doing a classical Japanese martial art. This was 1993, and gaijin in classical budo were still extremely rare. The only worthwhile books on the subject that I had seen were Donn Draeger’s, and they didn’t fill me with confidence that someone showing up, gaijin or Japanese, would be automatically welcomed into the family.
|Takada Shigeo Sensei|
Fortunately for me, Takada Sensei was a grand, warm, outgoing human being who was delighted to have someone interested in the art he taught. He had me practicing the first night when I arrived to ask if it might be ok to learn iaido. I was expecting every myth and legend about starting a traditional martial art that you can imagine. Anything was possible in my active imagination, and I envisioned scenarios from having to sit outside for a number of classes to having to perform outrageous demonstrations of my sincere desire to learn (having seen what kindergarten and elementary students in Japan often had to go through with wearing shorts all winter for school to toughen them, and some of the gatsu (guts) training that junior high and high school sports teams go through (thousand fungo drill anyone?), I was more than a little worried about what I might have to do to prove I was serious.
It turned out my biggest concern was how soon I could get an iaito, hakama and keikogi. At first, Takada Sensei lent me an old one the dojo had, but I needed to get a hakama and keikogi right away. That called for a quick trip to Kyoto. I’m always up for a trip to Kyoto, and an excuse to browse through all the budo shops around the Budo Center is always welcome. So I found a beautiful indigo, cotton hakama. It cost more than I could afford while buying an iaito though, so I saved money by asking my sister-in-law to sew ties on an old judogi and turn that into a keikogi. Takada Sensei seemed ok with that.
Budo such as iai were born in a place and time where anyone who wasn’t Japanese had no rights in Japan, and in fact just being from somewhere else and being in Japan was a crime punishable by death. In that time and place, to be Japanese was to be sure you were the finest flowering of human accomplishment. The rest of the world was filled with barbarians who would surely benefit from the civilizing influence of Japanese culture, but were probably too barbaric to really appreciate it.
Less than a hundred years after that world came to a violent end, torn apart from within, Japan was at war with much of the world, driven in part by a firm belief in the superiority of the Japanese culture and spirit.. Takada Sensei and Suda Sense both served in that war in their youth. The budo the studied in their youth had a frighteningly nationalistic bent to it. People like me were clearly barbarians utterly incapable of appreciating the subtlety and profundity of budo and other aspects of Japanese culture.
Takada Sensei could have carried the ideology and prejudices he was raised in with him throughout his life. Instead he transcended that. Budo, which when he began it had been co-opted as a tool for indoctrinating and preparing people for military service, became much more than that. Oddly enough for things that are called “martial arts,” budo like iaido managed to grow by shedding their militaristic accretions. Takada Sensei, who started budo while being prepared for life as a soldier, transcended his early lessons. He gave up his prejudice and grew.
His budo grew with him. When I met him, he was thrilled to be able to share his iaido with me. He really loved teaching me, and all of his students. I was his first non-Japanese student, but not the last one. Even in the very rural corner of Shiga Prefecture where we were, international students started to find the dojo as both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei made a point to let people know that international students would be warmly welcomed.
Takada Sensei enjoyed pointing to his sword, a beautiful 450 year old blade that still had the military mounting he put it in when he went off to war. He would take it out and say “This was for killing Americans, but now it teaches them.” He was very happy and proud that he, his sword, and his art, had grown beyond the limits and prejudices of his youth. Instead of an instrument of war, his sword had become a tool for bringing people together in a shared journey of growth.
Budo is not a static idea, and Takada Sensei understood this well. What budo means, the reasons for practicing it, the goals to be achieved along the path of practice are not stuck in one age or ideal. People argue about what constitutes “real budo” as if there was some point in history when budo was pure, pristine and perfect. Happily for us, that day never was.
Budo is not a something anyone can possess.Takada Sensei, with his sharply ironic comments about the change in the status of his sword understood and embodied that better than many. Budo started out as a very practical aspect of training soldiers to fight. This training blended with Neo-Confucian ideas and the influence of sado, tea ceremony practices, after the establishment of peace during the Tokugawa era. For 250 years the idea of what budo is was blended with ideas from all over Japan. With the opening of Japan new ideas flooded in. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a backlash developed against the seemingly overwhelming tsunami of new and foreign ideas. Early in the 20th century budo was swept up in the arguments about how Japan should develop any ideas of Japanese uniqueness. By this time though budo had developed too widely to be truly claimed by any one view.
Great budo thinkers and leaders from kendo, iai, kenjutsu, naginata, and judo argued and debated whether budo practice should serve the state, Japan or all of humanity. A few, like Kano Jigoro Shihan of Kodokan Judo, had sufficient status to be able to openly disagree with the militarists in power. Most teachers did not have significant status to protect them if they didn’t agree with those in power. Those who did agree gravitated to the big, national, budo organization. Those who didn’t generally kept their heads down and their opinions to themselves.
Everyone who grew up in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s grew up doing some sort of budo in school. Boys did kendo, judo, jukendo. Girls learned naginata. It was considered an essential part of the education and development of proper Japanese spirit.
Takada Sensei was a gifted and talented swordsman, with kyoshi certificates in both iai and kendo. I can still picture him handling his family’s heirloom sword with casual power and perfect control. When he swung it looked as easy and effortless as child with a bubble wand, and when he stopped the blade it was as sudden and solid as if he had driven it deep into a tree stump. Like his sword, he was polished and bright. Even in his late seventies, when I met him, his budo was bright and lively, polished smooth and shining.
He didn’t get there quickly. He spent decades and decades and decades on the path of budo striving to perfect his technique and himself. He wasn’t perfect, no one ever gets there, but he was a wonderful example to me of what the journey can be and where it can take you. From a young officer in the Japanese military to a lifetime of teaching people of all ages how to be a little bit better today than they were yesterday through training with the sword, he grew and matured. Along the way so did his budo.
By the time I found my way into Takada Sensei’s dojo in 1993 he had more than 60 years of budo practice and shugyo under his wide kaku obi. He’d been thinking about what budo was, and the budo Sensei was teaching when I found my way into his dojo was greater than just something that only native Japanese could appreciate and benefit from. Budo that wasn’t limited to training medieval warriors for life in a land of endless civil war. Budo that wasn’t limited to being a finishing school for the social elites who ran pre-modern Japan. Budo that certainly wasn’t limited to developing the spirit in Japanese youth to conquer and dominate the world.
Takada Sensei taught me and showed me budo that is for the world. His sword, instead of cutting down enemies as it was surely intended to do when crafted during the Muromachi Era, performed the miracle of binding together an old Japanese gentleman and an immature, young American. Budo grew from deep Japanese roots, but it is flowering around the world.