#82: When We Talk About Japanese Swordfighting

Thursdays I go to kendo practice, and though I’m still a beginner, I’m allowed now to participate in the full set of practice drills like the six-year-olds. In the drills we split into four or five lines, beginners in front, each line facing a different teacher. You bow to the teacher, who acts as target. Draw your bamboo shinai and perform the strikes. Put away the sword. Bow again. Go to the end of the next line.

The feedback varies from teacher to teacher. One will tell you to relax your shoulders more while another will tell you to swing straighter and another will tell you to charge faster with the follow-through. The pace is quick, there is a lot of yelling, and when you don’t have the shinai out you’re standing in line watching fellow students of all levels, from beginners to the kendo equivalent of black belts, swinging, charging, yelling. You see examples of the proper form, and you see also the newest students making the same mistakes you made weeks before.

There seems to be some common faulty model that every beginner starts with of how to wield a sword. Their feet tend to be too wide apart, and the grip too close, and they’re swinging with their arms instead of their shoulders. But even if you’ve never touched a bamboo sword, you can spot good form. You can just tell. You see it in the energy of the movement, hear it in the sound of the bamboo hitting the teacher’s armor, sense it in the physical readiness of the air around swordsman.

So what’s happening in that gap between the faulty model and the what seems to be innate ability to perceive the right one?

I just posed this question without having an answer so thinking out loud here: Maybe it’s the presence of form itself, the specificity of “correct” form, and the history that lives inside that form. There are reasons you stand with your feet a fist and a half far apart and don’t cross them (balance while moving), just as there are reasons you carry the sword with the blade facing up (so you can draw and be ready the smallest possible movement). But these rules didn’t come about all at once. They were invented, tested, challenged, refined, across generations. From the first time you pick up a shinai you begin stepping through the history of Japanese sword fighting. You become myriad human beings over the course of centuries, and your teachers do for you what time did for the sport: usher you along the phases of its evolution.

It’s not inventing the universe to make an apple pie, but it kind of is.