.3.2 Yurusu Budo – Life

Life

If Nishio’s technical curriculum is centred fundamentally on the engagement with death, then his philosophical considerations with regard to the martial arts are firmly situated on the other side of the blade, with life. His philosophic and technical treatises stand as opposite edges of the Japanese sword, an object which he believes is emblematic of the Japanese martial traditions itself. Once again, interpreting this adage in an unusually literal sense, Nishio transposes the form of the katana onto his training method, with there being one sharp edge, which is fragile, and one blunt edge, which is thick and pliable. For clarity, the Japanese sword is usually made of three types of steel: hard and brittle crystalline steel on the cutting edge, flexible and high-tensile strength ‘skin steel’ on the outside of the blade and blunt edge, and slightly softer, shock absorbing ‘core steel’ in the centre of the weapon. The hardened crystalline steel cannot be used in a sword without the other two softer components – it would shatter on any hard contact with another blade. This is a criticism Nishio lays at the door of martial arts such as Karate or Judo and other arts which grow out of the more ancient traditions of war. Nishio’s project is to escape this particular rigidity in the old martial arts (kobudo) whose purpose ‘was to take – suppress, destroy, and ultimately take the life of the opponent’. In a comment uncharacteristically progressive of those in the traditional East Asian martial arts, Nishio states with refreshing lucidity that such an attitude or purpose to martial arts ‘cannot be allowed in modern society’. This is reflective of a deeper anti-conservatism present in Nishio’s thought which is vehemently opposed to dogmatism and the incurious repetition of form and mechanical reproduction of technique, a stance which I follow Nishio in. To be clear, Nishio’s philosophy serves as the soft and pliable steel which supports the cutting edge of technique. It is the depth of Nishio’s beliefs which allows his unorthodox training methods to stand in contemporary society, and saves them from irrelevance. Though Nishio believes that ‘in real martial arts a fight […] is to stand face-to-face with death’, his stance on how a practitioner should approach this encounter with death is clear: ‘people who know the foolishness of destruction and the preciousness of life should not destroy an opponent’.

The question here is how does Nishio marry the two concepts together – that of martiality as a direct encounter with the possibility of death and that of the practitioner who is resolved never to destroy an opponent? It is here that we find the most direct application of the name ‘forgiving’. In Euro-American languages and cultures, the term ‘to forgive’ is inextricably tied to the history of Abrahamic religion, and indeed, I would argue that all cultures which contain a monotheistic entity carry the same load with the term ‘to forgive’. In Japanese yurusu can also mean to permit or allow, which sheds more light on the issue at hand. Put simply: forgiveness implies an absolute law. As already demonstrated in the technique of yurusu budo, the practitioner is absolute, it is their choice and their choice alone which allows them to give or take life, to deal out or protect from death. Philosophically and technically, yurusu budo is completely coherent on this point. The martial artist, the trained and skilled subject, is completely sovereign and autonomous; she has the authority, moral right, justification, and capacity to determine her attacker’s fate in a single stroke without recourse to any other system of judgement. To forgive is to have the right and power to punish, yet choose not to exact punishment. To forgive is to allow or permit life when death is a matter of whim. This is the essence of the unity between Nishio’s technique and philosophy. In a purely technical sense, the practitioner focuses on killing techniques so that she may control them and restrain them. In a purely philosophical sense, the practitioner focuses on the moral imperative to preserve life, to control absolutely the lethality of both her attacker and herself. It is the fact that this is a choice which makes yurusu budo what it is. Just as Kantian ethics is predicated upon a consistent universal moral law which the subject electively acquiesces to under his own will, yurusu budo posits an imperative not to kill or cause harm which must always be upheld under the martial artist’s individual volition. Without offering the choice to also commit murder and grievous bodily harm, yurusu budo loses its ethical character; the fact that the artist chooses not to cause harm in the first place. Just as with a monotheistic God, or an autocratic ruler, death and life are reconciled only through choice. Martial encounters always include death because the practitioner has the ability to wield it at will, as if he carries it around in his back pocket. This encounter is only resolved as forgiving because the artist must always choose life and keep his Reaper’s scythe holstered.

In harkening to this concept of forgiving and forgiveness (the ‘life-giving sword’ [katsujinken] as opposed to the ‘death-dealing sword’ [satsujinken]), Nishio makes the presumption that another’s life is ours to rule and distribute to begin with. For Nishio, the trained martial artist is, by dint of being a trained martial artist, in a position of moral superiority to her attacker. This is expressed not only through the logic of forgiving, but more explicitly when Nishio states that ‘Aikido was founded to lead Japanese martial arts in a better direction’, ‘[Aikido is] a budo that shows the opponent how he/she should live and prosper’, and further, ‘the Aikido way of leading is alive in real society’. Nishio firmly believes his art, his interpretation of Aikido, is apart from other martial arts (‘Aikido was born with a completely different purpose than that of the old martial arts’) and also apart from, or even in a position to lead in, a wider social context. As with many students of the Founder, and plenty of other devotees of the more esoteric martial arts, Nishio entwines his –do with a universal moralism which strikes with a force almost akin to religion. This is not to say that I don’t agree that Aikido and other martial arts have a role to play in society, I believe very much that the martial arts can be extremely powerful forces in the development and enrichment of the young, the old, students, professionals, teachers, parents, children, men, and women. What I do not believe is that any particular martial art, or the martial arts as a whole, should declare itself as a figure of leadership in society. To do so is to re-enact the egotism which I have already criticised in Pranin’s work in the previous chapter; it is to suggest that, on some level, the art and its practitioners are beings above and beyond the average human, somehow transcendent, and closer to a universal moral ‘good’ than everyone else. Though Nishio never says this in such extrovert terms as Pranin does, his logic tends towards the same end point, that his particular art, Yurusu Budo is the one true ‘-do’ in the world which, if only everyone knew it, would grant us all wondrous enlightenment and freedom from the human vices of violence and retribution.

To summarise so far; Nishio’s technical syllabus is a deeply interdisciplinary yet ultimately single-minded pursuit of perfect control over killing techniques. Nishio’s philosophical methodology demands that this technical mastery must be predicated upon the order to never kill an attacker. Together, these two elements unify to produce the concept of ‘forgiving’ martial arts for which Nishio’s style is named. Able to wield killing techniques at will, the practitioner is held by a moral responsibility to never use them for violence, to never take life. The practitioner therefore is placed in a position of effective omnipotence in a martial encounter with any given opponent, able to destroy that opponent at will, but always electing to preserve his life. It is this choice which is vital to the unity of Nishio’s system; the artist is always one who chooses, who is a responsible and compassionate agent in himself. The freedom to choose to forgive rather than kill is an essential characteristic of Yurusu Budo. The problem here is that, while this element of choice does produce practitioners who are able to demonstrate themselves as morally upright martial artists, in the same stroke, it undermines the practitioner’s ethical standing. The practitioner can never engage with their partner or attacker as an equal in this situation, he is always in a position of superiority, one only reinforced by the technique of Yurusu Budo. The martial artist spares her attacker, but in doing so demonstrates her attacker’s insignificance and immorality when compared with the infinite forgiveness of the artist herself (the artist could theoretically receive infinite attacks and spare the attacker each time, according to the logic espoused here). The only way the practitioner, and the art, engages with her opponents is to lead by example, to presume superiority and to mete out endless gestures of magnanimity, equivalent to wagging your finger at a rough child (‘I could have killed you, I am that far superior to you, but I didn’t, aren’t I showing you good morals and haven’t you learnt your lesson?’). Nishio’s moral imperative never to kill is admirable, but the ethical logic which arises from his techniques is untenable, since it does nothing more than situate the practitioner in the seat of God, a kind of accidental egotism which honestly seeks to treat other people, especially opponents and attackers, with respect and dignity (you attack, I forgive), but ultimately reduces them to ignorant and unenlightened creatures there to have their eyes opened by the vast presence of the learned artist (‘now I have spared you, come and learn the way of forgiveness with me’).

These problems are further compounded by a problem of inheritance from O-sensei’s famously cloudy terminology. Nishio cites the Founder as saying ‘one step implies discontinuity. You should take a half-step, there should be contact’. Nishio includes this teaching in the technical sense by dictating that the practitioner should always be a half-step ahead of their partner, such that he is always in a position to lead the attacker’s intent (or, as one of my own teachers, Mr Brown, would say: ‘we let uke think that it’s his own idea to attack’). The essence of this typically opaque saying is that the ‘half-step’ should be understood in the sense of ‘meeting half-way’. If ‘one step implies discontinuity’, or rather, the Founder uses ‘one step’ as a metaphor for conflict, for direct opposition, then the ‘half-step’ is used as a metaphor for non-conflict. I believe this formulation is meant to represent a kind of ‘conversation’ between martial artist and attacker; ‘I offer a half step, which in turn allows you to offer your own, which allows us to reach a conclusion’. In other words, the ‘one step’ is a move which cancels, which opposes and overrides the attacker’s intention, the ‘half-step’ is a move which takes that attack’s intention seriously and is prepared to deal with it in its own terms. ‘One step’ is like a argument, each party has their views but spend little time listening to the opposing ones. ‘Half-step’ is like a conversation, only through listening to, engaging with, and taking seriously your opponent as equal, is a satisfactory conclusion reached. This is epitomised especially when Nishio says ‘I think practice means communication’, and ‘the heart of aiki […] is to reach mutual understanding’ – for Nishio, technique is like language.

This is all well and good, and perhaps one of the most admirable and excellent principles espoused by Nishio’s martial arts, yet it appears to be in direct conflict with the logic of ‘forgiving’ as proposed so far. The logic of the ‘half-step’ is all about equality between uke and tori, between attacker and defender. The martial artist of the ‘half-step’ always takes her opponent seriously, as her equal, and, as her equal, does him the respect of a committed and sincere defence. Yet, as we have already seen, the ‘forgiving’ martial artist is in no way ever the equal of his attacker, he is infinitely superior to her. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the ‘forgiving’ martial artist and his opponent. The artist always holds part of his technique in reserve – the lethal part – such that his attacker is spared, but always exists in a position of impoverished power, the relationship between the two is entirely one-sided, as I have already explained at length. This is even more evident in Nishio’s term irimi isshoku, the one-step entrance (the technical predicate of yurusu budo), which is completely at odds with the ‘half-step’. Whether this is an issue of mistranslation failing to carry across Nishio’s meaning into English, or whether this is a matter of Nishio simply changing his views over time without it being properly documented is unknown. It is clear, however, that Nishio’s martial arts cannot both espouse the idea of being ‘forgiving’ and also endorse ‘technique as dialogue’ at the same time – the two approaches are in direct opposition. ‘Forgiving martial arts’ is absolutely based upon the idea of a transcendent martial arts user who withholds the killing aspects of his techniques. True, there may still be a communicative aspect to this style of martial arts, but it has been demonstrated many times over that only one member of the pair here really gets to speak; the practitioner forgives, that is, places the attacker at her mercy – the attacker is never in a position to express himself here.

Nishio’s schema is caught between two disparate imperatives: the absolute martial artist, and the ethical human being. The artist of yurusu budo must be absolute, be able to kill at will, as Nishio’s concern with the effectiveness and relevance of traditional martial arts amply demonstrates; indeed, the method of forgiving can be argued to be based purely upon this singular ideal. Opposite this, Nishio is very much concerned with respecting the lives of other human beings, with never acting on an impulse to destroy or diminish individual sovereignty. Particularly in his use of the ‘half-step’, his discussion of the ‘life-giving sword’, and his belief in technique as communication or ‘contact’ this is evident. These two principles are irreconcilable as I see it: the forgiving martial artist cannot approach her enemy as an equal, the principle of forgiving forbids it. The ‘half-step’ is incompatible with irimi isshoku, since the latter is a single step which renders an attacker helpless, and the former is an offer which opens dialogue. The forgiving martial artist is never sincere, since she is always holding back some part of her technique; she never takes her opponent seriously, since to do so would be to kill him. If he cannot respond to his opponent seriously or sincerely then no conversation is possible; the forgiving martial artist cannot ever take his attacker’s intentions on their own terms, nor receive them in a sincere exchange. It is for this inconsistency more than any other that I believe the model of yurusu budo cannot be sustained. While I think that, as a technical thesis it has a great deal of merit, and equally, Nishio’s teaching of the ‘half-step’ is something that does have great depth and value for martial arts, I believe the ‘forgiving’ aspect of Nishio’s martial arts must ultimately be dispensed with. For the reasons of its internal inconsistencies and its ethical stance, I do not believe that this particular iteration of martial arts can continue to act as a stable martial method and philosophy.

.3.1 Yurusu Budo – Death

‘Certain people in the world of Japanese martial arts began to doubt that Aikido was a martial art. This was only natural because people at that time blindly followed the same training practice as their younger days.’

‘In martial arts, the key to defeating the opponent is to advance a half-step rather than a full step.’

‘Martial arts is to be able to, at any time, defeat and destroy the opponent that confronts you and not doing it. It is to make sure not to destroy the opponent but to greatly spare the opponents life.’ – Shoji Nishio.

Shoji Nishio’s training at the Aikido headquarters school in Tokyo began in the 50s. He approached Aikido from a background of Karate and Judo and later would incorporate all three approaches and also dedicated training in the sword and the jo into a single system he called Yurusu Budo, or, ‘forgiving martial arts’. While Nishio never considered himself outside Aikido, it is arguable, and clear to see from his demonstrations and technical catalogue, that the technical syllabus, its practical applications, and the philosophy that Nishio taught are all a far cry from the standard Aikido practised today and in his own time. In what follows, I will consider Nishio’s ‘forgiving martial arts’ from a technical, practical, and philosophical standpoint in order to explicate what, I believe, are key elements of his particular style, and elaborate on why I believe this conception of martial arts contains inconsistencies which I find untenable. I will also suggest which regions of Nishio’s method I build upon and believe can be carried forward in advancing a further discussion on martial arts in the future.

Death

            Nishio’s work arises from death – the death of Aikido as a martial art, the death of the Founder, the death of the martial traditions in Japan, the death of militarism and violence, and the encounter with death itself. This may appear unclear to the reader as it stands, but will be elaborated upon most clearly through the birth of Nishio’s technical forms, which I am examining in this section. In his own lifetime, Nishio experienced a generalised doubt over the efficacy of Aikido as a martial art. He certainly states that from other quarters in the public eye and in other arts themselves, many were sceptical as to the martial practicality of Aikido techniques. He never says this outright, but I believe that he also experienced this doubt in his own mind. Certainly, as a martial artist who was never constrained by one style or form, I believe he would have had to continuously doubt each style on its own from one aspect or another, else why would he have continued to push for new configurations and combinations of martial arts? Why would he have continued to question and explore if not for doubting even his own understanding of his arts (he does express that numerous times in his life he found himself unable to comprehend the Founder and Aikido’s teachings)? Indeed, Nishio did speak on his fear that one day the accusations laid at Aikido’s door would one day become a reality; that Aikido would fade into the same realm that much exported Tai Chi exists as now – a health practice or general wellness/fitness form of exercise: ‘We are finished if we only do “Aiki Dance”’. It is from this starting point that Nishio begins to develop his technical syllabus.

As I see it, there are two fundamental concepts which undergird Nishio’s technical curriculum: techniques are identical with or without a weapon in hand, and they all emerge in a single entering step known as irimi. These are both tenets that he credits the Founder with discovering, and thinks of himself only as a vessel for transmitting. Yet, when compared with the vast numbers of students who also studied under the Founder in the same time period and with the same teachings, Nishio’s approach is still unique amongst them. The obvious point of comparison would be the Iwama school of Aikido, disseminated by the Saito family, which also believes in rigorous weapons training and the application of striking techniques within Aikido, or the various schools growing out amongst the students of Seigo Yamaguchi, who was vastly influential in his time at the Tokyo headquarters school, and is cited by Nishio himself as an inspiration. The Iwama system has its own completely formalised set of fundamental and paired practice kata (forms) for both the sword and the staff, which are derived directly from how the Founder taught Morihiro Saito during his lifetime. The Iwama school’s use of striking is also more or less entirely confined to the use of striking within Aikido technique as disseminated by the Founder in the 50s and 60s. Yamaguchi’s techniques had a heavy resonance with the sword techniques, though I do not believe he taught a formalised sword or staff system amongst his Aikido students, instead focusing on how the sword form and empty-handed form were intimately linked. He was also famed for having an uncannily light touch, when throwing, pinning, or striking a partner, but was altogether rather orthodox (if exemplary) in terms of the technical syllabus he followed.

Where Nishio’s art differs is in its breadth and rigour when confronting problems universal to all martial arts, and in exploring other arts in conjunction with Aikido. Nishio openly taught and encouraged the practice of other martial arts in his dojo, particularly sword-drawing techniques (iaido), jo techniques (jodo), and striking and grappling methods from Karate and Judo. As opposed to Saito’s system which was completely ‘in-house’ so to speak, Nishio’s was sourced from masters in other styles who had little or no experience of Aikido to begin with. Nishio’s Aikido, therefore, contains a technical breadth which outdistances plenty of other schools across all styles of martial arts. Within Aikido, it is arguably also the style which contains the most direct correspondence between sword movements and empty-handed movements, some would even argue it is the only style of Aikido where the body movements between empty-handed and armed are truly identical. However, this does lead to some angles of entry which appear as bizarre and unnatural to the average Aikidoka. Nishio’s ikkyo from shomen uchi requires entering to the outside before cutting back to the inside in order to rotate back to the outside again to apply the technique. The angle of entry on katatedori kaitennage is unusual too in its obliquely diagonal engagement, and plenty of Nishio’s applied techniques simply don’t exist in other schools of Aikido (choking techniques or shimewaza, for example). Where most Aikido is taught with the essence of a single entry point which takes balance and allows the immobilisation of your partner, Nishio’s sometimes appears unnecessarily convoluted, leaving the practitioner open to counterattack, particularly in some iterations of his shihonage and kotegaeshi.

Nishio explains these movements through his experience in Karate, Judo, Iaido, and Jodo. Interpreting the Founder literally, every movement in empty-handed technique can be identically replicated with sword or staff in hand. This makes impossible certain movements in conventional Aikido, where the length or unwieldiness of weapons in close quarters makes it impossible for the technique to be carried out without some variation on its direction or fluidity. Thus, as a practitioner experienced with the sword and jo, not only does Nishio map his empty-handed techniques onto weapon-taking techniques and armed-vs-unarmed techniques, but also teaches sword-vs-sword, sword-vs-jo techniques, and even solo iai (sword drawing) forms corresponding to his entire curriculum. Further, he takes special care to make sure his Aikido movements are compatible with the principles he takes from Karate and Judo such that the spacing and distancing particular to his style allow for Karate-style strikes and Judo-style throws at any point in the technique. As if this wasn’t enough, Nishio also ensures that counter-techniques or continued attacks from Karate or Judo types of martial arts are unable to interfere with his techniques. In the aforementioned version of ikkyo, he demonstrates the outside-to-inside movement is necessary to allow the possibility of two or three throat and rib strikes and negate the chance for the attacker to reach tori (the thrower) with a follow-up punch or kick. In his katatedori kaitennage, his obliquely-angled entry puts him at a distance which allows him to deliver his own strikes, but puts him outside of uke’s (receiver’s) reach. It is the same with turns and rotations which seem odd or unnecessary – they negate the possibility of a counter move from a practitioner experienced in striking, throwing, or grappling styles outside of Aikido, or even the possibility of a counter from within Aikido itself.

Such an unusual variation on standard technique, no matter how rigorous, drew plenty of criticism from those in the mainstream, with such highly ranked masters as Koichi Tohei even suggesting that Nishio’s martial art no longer resembled Aikido at all. Additionally, plenty of martial artists in the competitive scene, or combat sportspeople still have no issue deriding Nishio’s particular training method for its own lack of a competitive element, suggesting that without competition or oppositional combat, there is no way to directly test the reliability of the art. This, in some ways, is precisely the point of such technical rigour. Since throughout Nishio’s career he drew together multiple disciplines, finding fault with one to repair that fault with another, to evolve his art to no longer resemble any traditional style, and equally to continue to court criticism from other bodies from which the style may enrich itself, would not have been against the technical goals of Nishio’s Aikido at all. Was Nishio a ‘mixed martial artist’? In the sense that he did indeed blend arts together, yes, certainly, this was the case. Would it be fair to call his work ‘mixed martial arts avant-la-lettre’ in the vein of Bruce Lee, who is credited with the same? I do not believe Nishio would not have identified himself with MMA for reasons I shall cover later, and I do not believe his technical repertoire resembles that of the conventional MMA ring, particularly given how many of his techniques are designed to be executed with the bladed sword, or strike to the eyes and groin (which are all, of course, not permitted in MMA competitions). I actually think the same of Bruce Lee’s art, which I hold is actually more similar to Nishio’s style than either, I think, would acknowledge. In a way, despite identifying himself staunchly as a follower of the Aikido of the Founder, Nishio’s Aikido is technically much more akin to something whose ultimate goal is to transcend the boundaries of any single school of martial arts and act as a unified martial art encompassing the whole world of martial techniques.

This is embodied especially in the technical principle of irimi which is the singular entrance from which Nishio used to say the entire technical possibilities of his system sprung. For Nishio: ‘one step […] irimi lets innumerable techniques emerge’, ‘it is to lead the partner’, ‘it is possible with the principle of irimi issoku [entrance in a single step] to instantly destroy the opponent’. It is evident here that from this single step, this irimi, Nishio’s whole technical syllabus is simply a way of expressing and achieving that entrance, that possibility of destruction where ‘at the very moment of contact [… you] can control the opponent’. Though for Nishio, this is an aspect native only to Aikido, even from his own inclusion of innumerable other arts, it is evident that this is a concept which crosses multiple practices and traditions. This is also clear in Nishio’s use of no distinct stances in his training, which is also inherited from the Founder: ‘if you stand naturally, you can enter immediately when your opponent is about to move’. Yet when looking at Karate or Chinese forms like Xingyi Chuan or Baji Chuan, even in spite of the extensive training in low stances, one finds the more experienced practitioners reducing and reducing their use of stance in both practice and form. In competitive environments too, Karate practitioners, Kung Fu practitioners, even those in Muay Thai or Silat and Kali tend to adopt ‘free stance’ when fighting – a far cry from the technical and fundamental practices they go through using horse stance, cat stance, back stance, front stance, etc. Nishio’s method forgoes the idea of the use of singular stances to begin with in order to be able to better execute his ‘one-step entrance’ – irimi, which is, in my contention, a concept applicable to, or even at the heart of, all martial arts. Nishio’s martial arts could, in its technical essence, be boiled down to nothing more than these concepts: The irimi issoku in which the opponent is instantly destroyed, the absence of stance, which allows the multivalent execution of irimi, and the mutability which unifies armed techniques with unarmed ones. Why I have called this section ‘death’ is for the reason that Nishio’s technical syllabus, as I believe I have demonstrated above, is utterly preoccupied with existing on this boundary between living and dying, sparing and killing. The fully realised ideal form of Nishio’s technique is a painstakingly constructed effort to gift the practitioner complete immunity from harm while allowing them to deal mortal blows to their enemy (a horizon which not just Nishio’s art, but innumerable others also gesture towards). The martial artist is placed in the position of a God, or, if you prefer, of the Reaper (there is no difference between the two here for my purposes), one who delivers and withholds death at will. This is the spectre at the heart of Yurusu Budo – its forgiveness relies upon omnipotence.

This is my understanding, roughly put, of Nishio’s technical method – the ideal form. The astute reader will have already begun to pick up on inconsistencies within my outline of Nishio’s method and indeed, though I very much admire this way of training, I have my own reservations about the implications of the model of Yurusu Budo outlined above. I will explore these in further detail in the discussion of its underlying philosophy, which I turn to next.

A Story about Two Swords

There is a folklore legend (though I have heard it said that this legend is true, I don’t think historically the two could ever have met given the eras their work dates from) about the two Japanese swordsmiths Muramasa and Masamune and it goes something like this. The two are placed in a situation where they must challenge each other over who can produce the finer sword. The swords they produce will be hung down blade first in a river to test how well they cut. Muramasa, the younger of the two, produces a sword with an exquisitely sharp edge which slices through everything in the river including leaves, branches, fish, etc. etc. Masamune’s sword however, cuts nothing at all when it is hung in the river. In spite of this, Muramasa is not declared the winner of the contest. In the version I wish to relate, I think the quality of the swords is judged as a draw or left ambiguous with no winner declared. It is consistent throughout the various iterations of the tale, however, that Muramasa’s swords are declared cursed blades or demon blades, and Masamune’s are called divine or holy swords.

Why did Muramasa not claim victory? Why was his sword, which was sharper and the better cutting implement not judged to be superior? The monk who judged the competition suggests that while Muramasa’s sword is clearly an excellent blade, it knows no restraint and is bloodthirsty (if you don’t like anthropomorphising bits of sharp metal, sorry, gonna have to deal with the metaphor), which is why it becomes known as a cursed blade. It is a sword which must always draw blood otherwise it will never be satisfied, a blade which cuts indiscriminately. Masamune’s on the other hand is a sword which never cuts without reason, which never cuts without purpose. It is a sword which espouses discipline, forgiveness, and restraint, and always seeks to avoid bloodshed, which is why it cuts nothing in the river. As such, the monk calls this blade divine, a blade which has the moral character making it worthy to judge a person, a blade which has the right to choose whether to give or take life.

So then is Masamune’s blade the better sword owing to its dignity and conscience? Not, perhaps according to samurai tradition. The samurai (if you really buy into all that) thinks of himself as his master’s sword above all other things and like a soldier his highest tenets are loyalty and obedience. A sword has no place choosing who or what it cuts in this tradition. It is simply a device for murder and a servant which follows orders. In this, Muramasa’s sword is superior, its only purpose to cut, never to judge what deserves to be cut or otherwise.

Can a better be decided?

I would argue that the answer is no, that the martial artist should always wield both. If your only sword is a Masamune, then you’re Jesus turning the other cheek, which is surely admirable in many respects and if you’re willing to sacrifice even your life for a belief in forgiveness then mad props, go for it. But, I’d argue that the real test of a martial artist isn’t really in self defence. It’s my firm belief that almost all situations which demand self-defence are avoidable. I think push only comes to shove when it’s someone else who you, as the martial artist, become obliged to defend. And I can’t really turn the other cheek on someone else’s behalf if they’re getting beat up.

And here I’ll need Muramasa’s sword. If it becomes necessary, should I need to kill in order to perform self-defence of another person (or whatever term you want to come up for that that’s neater and less of a mouthful), I believe that if I am a martial artist, I should definitely have that ability. Of course, I should always avoid using it if I can, but I should know how. I believe this is part of all martial arts, though Aikido is quite explicit about it. When Aikido calls itself ‘the forgiving martial art’, I believe this is what it means. The Aikido practitioner ought to be able to destroy his or her enemy at any time, but he or she should always choose not to. That’s what it means to forgive. It is to have the power to exact a punishment for wrongdoing, but to withhold that punishment out of mercy. And for that the martial artist needs to hold Muramasa’s sword in one hand and Masamune’s in the other, which is why I say that one cannot choose one over the other.

There are plenty of other interpretations for this folktale, and plenty of other ways of demonstrating the same principle (often called katsujinken [roughly: life giving sword] and satsujinken [roughly: life taking sword] in the traditional martial arts of Japan). I just thought this one was a nice story.

Anyway, this one has been quite heavily martial arts-focused (even compared to some of my others, which I consider less so) so if that ain’t your thing, thanks for bearing with me this far. Or perhaps you could consider it something of an ethical lecture too, if that’s any better?

Cheers for reading~

Geebs.