Yamashita’s dojo has never been a place for the walking wounded. And the sensei is supposed to be someone to imitate, not to pity.
So, when I am in the dojo in front of the students, I smother any outward sign of pain. I carefully choreograph my movements, hiding my limitations. I make my face a mask, haughty and impassive, and fool them all. Look, my expression lies, I have no limitations. I am in complete control. I am the sensei.
They all knew I had been shot, of course. They had seen me hobble into the dojo after a stint in the hospital. But that was months ago and while on a rational level they could acknowledge that healing takes time, on an emotional level, their expectations were for a reassurance of continuity. What they wanted from me was what they had wanted from Yamashita: they wanted to be amazed, to be challenged, to be inspired.
And if trying to live up to these expectations meant that my hip joint felt like it was filled with ground glass when I moved a certain way and my muscles twanged and cramped up, making my stomach tense with the effort it took not to groan, then that was what I owed them. It was what I owed him.
Besides, today we had visitors.
Asa Sensei looked at me. “So. You see the problem.”
He had brought some of his advanced students for a les- son, and we were both standing, watching them at work. It was an honor of sorts: Asa is a highly ranked kendoka who also practices iaido, the art of drawing and cutting with the katana, or Japanese sword. The art has connections with the older systems of swordplay that flourished in the overgrown garden of Japanese fighting systems, and iaido was a relatively new shoot grafted onto ancient stock.
Asa was leery of the tendency of modern iaido to lose some of its older, rougher flavor. He said that he brought his stu- dents to me so “they could be reminded of iai’s more elemental roots.” It was an elegant turn of phrase. He was, after all, an elegant man. He knew, like all of us in that room, that the sword arts were tools for the pursuit of higher things. But at heart, Asa shared the insight given to me by Yamashita: the sword is simply a blade. It may be curved and polished, dressed up with metal fittings and silk wrappings. But don’t get lost in the metaphysics; at its heart it has been sharpened so you can use it to hack at things.
Which is where I came in.
To an outsider, Asa’s students didn’t look much different from my own. They were dressed in the traditional uniforms of Japanese swordsmanship, working diligently through the solo exercise of sword kata. They were serious, focused, and intent. Their technique was solid and to see them in the act of drawing, cutting, and then sheathing the sword was a real pleasure: they were elegant and fluid. But there was of course an issue. We had been watching for some time and I hadn’t said a word. I had more respect for Asa than to point out their flaws.
But eventually he brought it up by asking me whether I saw the problem. We both knew I did. I looked at Asa and gave a small shrug, rocking my head back and forth. “The nukitsuke and noto are solid,” I offered, referring to the actions of drawing and then sheathing the blades. I was trying to ease my way into a critique.
“And yet,” he prompted.
“It’s a subtle thing,” I said.
Asa smiled faintly in amusement. “Is that so?” I didn’t reply immediately, so he continued. “Really, Connor, at this level of training, most refinement is subtle. I brought them here for a reason, you know.” He motioned me farther from the students. “It is a subtle thing, and I have been trying to make them aware of it.” His tone suggested he had not been completely successful.
“They’re kendoka,” I said, “they should understand about zanshin.” The word refers to a type of focus that is supposed to continue even after a technique is completed.
“Zanshin,” Asa sighed. “A thing best learned while fighting. But all their fighting is with bamboo staves, not real swords.” I nodded in agreement. Kendo students spar with bamboo foil called shinai.
“So, you want me to show them?”
Asa smiled faintly, but there was something feral in the expression. “For many of them, iai seems tame, without the excitement of a kendo bout. They go through the motions of the kata, but I am not sure they are convinced of its merits.”
“You want them convinced?”
Asa sighed. “Sometimes a sensei’s voice is so familiar that it is not always heard clearly.” He paused in thought. “I want them to experience something that will wake them up.”
“You could do it.”
“Of course. But I am an old man who started his training over sixty years ago. But you . . . you are one of them. It will seem more attainable seeing such skill from one so young.”
I almost laughed. I wasn’t feeling very young that morning and perhaps Asa knew that. But he was looking for a favor and I couldn’t say no. And in the back of my mind, I wondered: was it possible that Asa wanted me to show him something as well?
With Yamashita’s passing, there had been some consternation among the local hard-core Japanese sensei when I took over the training hall. It’s nothing new: the Japanese have many delightful characteristics, but they also harbor a deep chauvinism that fosters a belief that outsiders can never truly grasp the essence of their culture. They feel that there are subtleties that escape round eyes like me.
Subtleties. Maybe my choice of words and Asa’s echo was what got me wondering. He was a close friend of Yamashita and had, in time, come to a grudging acceptance of my role as Yamashita’s senior student. But with Asa, as with Yamashita, the world is viewed through the lens of the swordsman, where every event was a type of test.
I sighed inwardly. But it was a rueful acknowledgment of a situation I had been in before.
So, I went to give Asa’s students a lesson.
Every fight is an exercise in reaction and counter-reaction. Two opponents have an almost infinite series of potential moves they can make, conditioned only by the limits of human physiology and the weapons being employed. The kata of iaido are more limited: they are solo forms that are meant to be both exhibitions of specific technique and a distillation of a particular set of actions. They tell a story: a swordsman draws and cuts laterally at an opponent, who dodges back to avoid the blade. The attacking swordsman adjusts forward, bringing his sword around, point to the rear to ward off a possible second attacker, then raises his weapon and executes a decisive vertical cut, cleaving the opponent in front of him. Since it is choreographed and the sequence of actions never varies, the pitfall of an iaido kata is that it becomes a dead, and not a deadly, thing: a story without suspense, since each move is known beforehand.
In Yamashita’s dojo we practice kata as well, but with a difference. The swordsman is required to always remain open to a break in the kata’s pattern, to be alive to the fact that the action may not unfold as anticipated. Particularly in paired exercises, Yamashita’s dictum has always been, if you can break the pattern and take your opponent’s sword, do so. Your job is to fight, not to cooperate, and if the opponent’s moves lack focus, if the sword becomes “dead,” then you have an obliga- tion to point that out to your opponent in the most direct way possible. The demonstration typically involves bumps, bruises, and hard feelings.
Subtleties, yes. Niceties, no.
The above is an excerpt from Keppan: The Blood Oath (A Connor Burke Martial Arts Thriller) by John Donohue, Ph.D., publication date September 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399381.