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Tidbits, Tricks, and Trivia for Students of the Sword

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Martial Arts of Japan

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by Robert Lange

    This article, quite frankly, is intended as a hodge-podge of miscellaneous information for the sword student. It is a collection of things intended to help, and tricks of which you should be aware. Several items are directed specifically toward the do-it-yourselfer, to aid in restoring or cleaning a sword.

Things to Watch For
    When looking at a sword, you will note the generation of a certain “spiritual” feel from within. This is keiki. A flashy blade is hanayaki and an ornate one kinko, both of which are only good for tourists. The subdued feeling of elegance called shibui is to be sought. When a student has finished looking at a sword, or following practice, the weapon should be cleaned and replaced in the sword bag (katana bukuro). The himo are wrapped around until the proper length is left and an ornamental knot (cho musubi) is tied so the two loops and the tassels (fusa) are equal in length. If you have no idea what this knot is, you will find it on pages 113–115 in Warner and Draeger’s Japanese Swordsmanship.
    If the blade you wish to examine is in military mountings, the little thumb latch on the tsuka is the oshijo. More and more good blades are being seen in military mounts, so don’t pass one up without looking at it. Those fine scratches sometimes seen are called hike.
    After using your tsuchi, the little brass hammer, to push out the mekugi and remove the tsuka, you may find a nakago that just doesn’t look or feel right for what you expect after observing the sugata, sori, jihada, etc. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous sword collectors who are quite good at certain tricks. One of these is aging the nakago of a newer blade and trying to sell it as a Kotô. Usually this is done chemically, with acid or other caustic solutions. Chemically aged nakago will have an odor, and will feel wet or sandy and scaly. Another method of fakery is using heat to essentially scorch the tang, just like scorching the bottom of a pan on a stove. This type of aged nakago will feel dry and still somewhat sandy or scaly. An old blade will have a tang that is black, smooth, and feel oily.
    Another item in the nasty tricks department is the false yakiba. The worst case scenario occurs when the student cleans his sword with uchiko for the first time since he has obtained it and the yakiba disappears. This indicates it was put on with a pencil eraser. Try it on a junker war blade and you will find it is quite easy to produce a rather nice looking yakiba. Other methods of producing false yakiba include the use of acid or a piece of hazuya. The way to avoid this trap is to look for nioi and nie. If neither is present, the blade is probably not worth having anyway.
    One common trick used to hide flaws in the ji is placing a sweaty fingerprint over the flaw and allowing the fingerprint to rust. Sandpaper is also used, so that the problem is literally obscured from view.

Resoration and Maintenance
    Common problems everyone runs into include such things as rust and tarnish. The number one rule for working with swords is “IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO, LEAVE IT ALONE!” Polishing compounds, the finest grit sandpaper, emory cloth, chemical polishes, Western stones...all of these have been tried before and found not to work, so don’t ruin a blade by trying it yourself just to make sure everyone else isn’t wrong.
    The easiest thing a student can do to remove rust and tarnish is uchiko the blade every day for a month. This will usually produce very satisfactory results. If you get a blade fresh from the polisher, uchiko the hell out of it. Polishing opens up the grain of the steel and leaves a lot of water in there, water that needs to come out or the blade will rust within a day.
    Sometimes you will find a dark gray coloration on the steel. Use soft scrub with a small, clean piece of leather and circular motions. When through, rinse the blade well with water, then clean with alcohol followed by uchiko.
    Alcohol and acetone are good for cleaning off organic crud, but alcohol absorbs water vapor. When the bottle gets over half used, throw it away or keep it for other uses, but not for sword work.
    Thick crud will require the use of a scraper. Traditionally, bamboo, bone, or ivory was used. One of the best and easiest scrapers to get is at the local music store—buy a guitar bridge. The ends are already shaped properly and good ones are made of ivory.
    Occasionally a gray film occurs which cannot be removed by uchiko. Erase it with a pencil eraser. Be sure there is no grit in the type of eraser you use or you will produce massive hike. Many brands of erasers use fine sand for their abrasive action.
    When rigging out a new blade, you can usually find a tsuka with a reasonably close fit. Odds are, however, the mekugi-ana will not line up with the holes in the tsuka. Plug these holes with a chopstick and mark on either side. Remove it and cut on the marks. Then cut out the center section and slip the resulting two plugs in their respective hole adding a small drop of glue. Cut small circles of samegawa, trying to match the grain and color, and glue on. Drill the new mekugi-ana and you’re ready to go.
    Restoring metal fittings presents some major problems. Copper is better off being left alone. If you’ve just got to try something, boil the fitting in a weak soda solution. Don’t even attempt shakudo or shibuichi. (So, now that you feel you’ve been challenged, please don’t try anything with a good piece—or at least get one that doesn’t matter when you ruin it. Then give the solution explained above a try.)
    There are a few good tricks for achieving a patina on iron, especially tsuba. The old-fashioned way is to rub with a soft, cotton cloth. This method requires lots of patience. An easier way is to wrap it in a small bag made of soft cotton or several layers of an old T-shirt and place it in your hip pocket for a few weeks.
    For serious re-treatment of plain iron tsuba, soak the tsuba in a diluted caustic soda solution, then wash and scrub it with a stiff brush and soap. Mix paraffin, bees wax, and shoe polish (any color except black) and melt the mixture in a pan. Heat the tsuba until it’s too hot to hold, and then use forceps to hold it horizontally over the melted wax and dip. Remove the tsuba and shake it briskly, leaving it on blotting paper overnight. Re-warm it the next day and wipe with a cloth and tissue until no wax adheres. Brush well with a soft brush.
    Rough iron can be placed in the clear part of an open fire until it is a dull red. Then place the tsuba in ashes to anneal it by slow cooling. When cool, scrub the tsuba with soap and water, followed by heating to remove any water left after drying. Wax using the method explained above.
    Have you ever listened to group iai and thought you were watching a spaghetti western with the clanking spurs as the participants performed chiburi? The traditional answer to this problem issekigane, however, you may not have the skills nor want to cut on your tsuba. If the problem is only a matter of gap, trace your fuchi onto a polyethylene lid from a coffee can, margarine tub, etc., and cut to make a seppa. If you’re feeling frisky, obtain and use some brass stock instead.
    If the length of the nakago-ana is too long, use wire-cutters to snip off a small piece from a lead fishing weight. Place the tsuba on a flat, smooth, hard surface and lightly hammer the lead into the appropriate end until it fills the space. Then file to fit.
    When the sides of the nakago-ana are too large, the fishing weight method doesn’t work as well. The traditional method of narrowing an ana is to "mash" it using a punch in the necessary spots from both sides. If the piece is good and paranoia runs deep, go to the craft store and get a product called Liquid Metal. There are other brand names as well, all of which should work. Mix and pour, or squirt directly from the tube, then file to fit.
    With enough practice and experience working on fittings, you will become confident of your abilities. Obtain some 0.2-inch stock of mild steel or brass and make your own tsuba. When it’s cut out and filed smooth, patinate it using the solutions described above or try gun bluing. If that is all too simple, use your drill, chisel, and file to make a pierced piece and/or add hitsu-ana. You can shape the rim, try acid etching, etc.

Training Tips
    Training ideas abound and every instructor has more than he can show you. Here are some that are very effective and which you may not already know.
    Use bokken of different lengths, 18–60 inches, sized in 6-inch increments. Ideally, bokken with their tips broken off can be cut down for the shorter lengths, but the longer ones will require some woodworking skill. Oak dowels may be used. Round the tips and tape the tsuka.
    Every sword student gets confused while trying to learn chiburi. “Strike the guy to the right in the mouth with a hammerfist,” “Cut a man in front of you with hiki-kesa-giri,” “Sling the blood off...” Most of us have heard those and more. “There’s no way those are all the same,” you say. Yes, they are, and when you understand that, you will be performing this action correctly.
    Fill a bucket with water, stick the tip of your bokken in until it reaches the bottom, then pull it out and try chiburi. The first step is to get the water to sling off. Once you’re proficient at that, lay out some butcher paper and observe the pattern made by the water as it lands. This will teach you about angles, arcs, and what you’re doing wrong (or right). Please don’t feel the need to follow the example of one student and add red food coloring to the water. (Yes, it really happened)
    Physical repetition is the only way a technique will become ingrained, thus the endless hours of suburi and keiko. One trick to increase your abilities and discover the problem areas is to do everything so slowly, it takes at least a full minute just to get the sword up into jôdan-gamae. I have yet to see a junior who can perform a technique as slowly as a senior. They always concentrate on more speed and miss the details. Slow down.
    To increase your understanding of the various techniques, principles, and concepts, dig out your copies of Kanji & Kana and Nelson’s and look up the literal meaning for every single term you know. Don’t concern yourself with the actual word at this point; concentrate upon the meanings of the individual ideographs. The use of names for techniques is relatively modern, but those chosen were selected for a reason. Studying the literal meanings will lead you to a much deeper understanding of the techniques and your art. An example is heihô. Every martial artist knows this means “strategy.” Fine. What are the roots of the Japanese understanding of strategy? Look up hei and you find “soldier” [K&K 784/N201]. That’s pretty obvious in meaning, so now you look up ho, and read “law.” [K&K 123/N2535]
    “Soldier-law” illuminates a perspective you may not have thought about before. Now you will understand why some old writings refer to warriors as heihô-jin.
    If you don’t have a copy of both of these references, you should. So get them. If you don’t have either, you’re not serious about your studies.

Miscellaneous Trivia & Terms
    “Everything has a name.” Truer words were never spoken, especially when considering the martial arts. Some of the following terms and items you will have heard and know. Others may provide the answer to that question you’ve had for a long time, but didn’t want to bother asking Sensei.
    Kenjutsu-ka study a smattering of other weapons, in addition to the sword. Do you know all the parts of each of them as well as the sword? A serious student should at least know the major ones.
    The yari has few parts to recall, as does the naginata. The butt cap is the hirumaki or ishizuki, while the pole is called the nagaye. It is made of kashi, Japanese white oak, and the metal collar at the blade end is the sakawa. The rings, used for support, are sei. Since the seniors are sitting back saying, “I knew all that,” what’s the name for the decorative, hand knot below the lower metal fitting?
    The naginata never varied much in form. The early version, known as nagamaki, basically used a pole 3–4 feet long with a blade 2–3 feet in length. Naginata poles varied in length from 6–18 feet, but the most common was 6–7 feet. Blade lengths range 14–30+ inches, depending on the period in which they were forged.
    The yari, however, has quite a few different shapes and sizes. The standard triangular cross-sectioned form is called su-yari. When one side of the triangle is wider than the other two, it is referred to as hira-sangaku-yari. Yari with blades over one foot in length are known as taishin-so. A square cross-section is ryoshinogi-yari, while the popular cross-shaped head is properly called magari-yari, although it is commonly known as jûmonji-yari. A forked head is referred to as futomata-yari. Specialized forms include the makura-yari (pillow spear), which was kept next to a warrior’s bed; nage-yari, a short heavy spear for throwing; te-yari, a short, hand spear; and the uchi-ne, a short spear about 18 inches long with feathers at one end, designed to be carried in a palanquin and thrown if necessary. The form known to most sword students is the keikô-yari, or practice spear, the padded end of which is called the tampo. A short and stout form with a broad head is theinoshishi-yari, a design for hunting boar.
    The “parts” of the staff weapons are all essentially the same, so the bô will be used for an example. The tips are called kontei or saki, while the middle is the chukon-bu.
    That’s all for the bô, but there’s always the new guy who whips out a pair of nunchaku and says, “How about these?” The connecting cord is himo, or kusari if it’s chain. The end of each rod where the cord enters is known as konto and the hole is ana. If the rod is mentally divided into thirds, the upper portion with the cord and hole is the jokon-bu. The middle section is chukon-bu as in the bô, and the lower section, the kikon-bu. The end away from the cord is the same as the bô, kontei.
    The tonfa handle is the tsuka, as is the case with a sword, and the knob at the end is the tsukagashira. When holding a tonfa with the short end away from the body and the longer end against the forearm, the end closest to the body is called the ushiro atama. The opposite end is the mae atama, while the sides are sokumen. The flat side against the arm is the shomen and the opposite side is soko. The striking areas are monouchi.
    Experimenting with various weapons is fun and occasonally interesting results occur. The sai has a few tricks within its arsonal that are worth figuring out. The handle and knob at the end are the same as the tonfa, tsuka and tsukagashira, while the shorter, curved prongs are called yoku. The tips of these are tsume, while the tip of the long spike is saki. The distal 2/3 of the long spike is used for striking and referred to as monouchi as on most weapons. The slightly expanded area where the base of the long spike, the top of the handle, and the two short prongs join is the moto.
    The parts of the kama are similar to those of a sword. The tip, edge, back, and ridgeline are kissaki, ha, mune, and shinogi, respectively. The kashira of the kama is the base of the blade where it curves 90-degrees and enters into the tsuka, the tang, or nakago, continuing into a slot cut into the wood where it is rivetted. The end of the handle is the soko.
    One word of caution for using kama seriously. Fill the gap of the slot around the nakago with body filler, glue, or something similar. Then wrap that end from the top of the wood to at least ½-inch below the slot with cotton string or cord. For additional strength, saturate the cord with varnish, enamel, lacquer, etc., of whatever color you choose.
    Once in a great while you may find a shotô that appears overly thick and which tapers drastically toward the kissaki. When you draw the blade, you find it has a square cross-section, with no edges, and a small “hook” near the tsuba. This is a hachiwara, or helmet splitter—but it was not really used for splitting helmets. It was used for controlling and possibly bending or breaking sword blades, and was the forerunner of the jûtte. The jûtte was a symbol of rank carried by the Chief of Police, and was not seriously intended for subduing drunk samurai (as has been offered as an explanation by some authors). Of course, seeing is believing, so make a sturdy jûtte out of wood and try some kumitachi with it. You will learn very quickly that the thought of trying to subdue even a half-trained swordsman with one is ludicrous.
    After use, a sword should immediately be cleaned. Your instructor has shown you the proper way, but it is still amazing how many students miss the ha and the last half-inch of the mune above the kissaki. Pay close attention to these areas.
    Most people think paper is paper, but this is erroneous. Hôsho is the type with which most people are familiar, referring to it as rice paper. Actually it comes from the inner bark of the mulberry tree. The type specially used for cleaning swords, however, is washi. A clean, sharp sword is referred to as shimaru while the term urumu is used to describe a dull, dirty one.
    A sword student should be familiar with a bit of Japanese history, especially with regard to how it relates to his art. The name Minamoto Yoshiie (known as “Hachiman Taro,” eldest son of the god of war) ranks high on the list of who’s-who in Nippon bujutsu. He is considered the greatest warrior in Japanese history. Legend states that all he had to do was put on his kabuto (helmet) to make entire armies surrender.
His younger brother, Shinra Saburo Minamoto Yoshimitsu, follows as a close second in fame, and was another great warrior. He is credited with developing the Daitô-ryû, deriving the art from sword techniques and by studying war dead and dissected bodies. Knowing the Japanese feudal mentality, it is highly probable that new techniques were “tested” on condemned criminals to determine if and/or how well they worked. Yoshimitsu also created the Takeda-ryû of kyûjutsu and the Ogasawara-ryû of yabusame (mounted archery).
    Although modern students may refer to training in bujutsu or budô, the term used for the martial arts prior to the 1600’s is bugei.
    Since Japan has been militaristic throughout its history, a student should know the various military powers involved. The Kamakura government was a bakufu, or military government, ruling 1192–1333. The Ashikaga Bakufu was based in Kyôto and the family was founded by Ashikaga Mutso-no-Kami Yoshiyasu, the grandson of Minamoto Yoshiie. The Ashikaga were in power 1337–1573. The Tokugawa Shôgunate ruled 1603–1868, and was the last bakufu to date.
    The study of the sword and its related art of iai have gone by many names throughout history. Swordsmanship has been referred to as:

Pre-Heian — gekkikan, tachikake, yôtô

Heian — hyôhô, hyôhô-shigeki, hyôhô-tojutsu (Heian to Edo), kenpô (Heian to Edo), tachiuchi, tôhô (Heian to Edo), tôjutsu (Heian to Edo)

Edo, Meiji, to Present — gekken (mid-Edo to end of Meiji), heihô (Edo to Present), kenjutsu (mid-Edo to Present), kendô (Meiji)

    The art of iai has been called: bakken; battô; battô-jutsu; giken; iai; iai-battô; iai-jutsu; iai-nuki; iawasu; isô; nuki-ai; nuki-uchi; rito; saya-no-naka; saya-no-uchi; tachi-ai; tsume-ai; and za-ai.

    Why is history important? The Japanese have long emphasized the development of the complete warrior, not just his technical expertise. He was expected to be able to compose instantly and recite a haiku at any moment. Haiku is a form of poem comprised of three lines having the syllables arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern, and made famous by Bashô, the art name of Matsuo Munefusa. Poetry contests were quite popular. Many noted swordsman had superb calligraphy and were also masters of the cha-no-yu (tea ceremony) and ikebana (flower arranging). Such abilities relate to the concept of bunbu-ryôdô, the combination of civilian and military training.
    Warriors trained in the classics of Chinese literature, in addition to the arts of war. The modern student would do well to study the works of the past as well. Musashi’s Go Rin no Sho is well known to all martial artists, but not that many sword students have read its precursor, Hyôhô Sanjûgo-kajô. The Heihô Kaden Sho is another famous treatise written by Yagyu Munenori in 1632, the English translation of which is available as The Sword and the Mind. An earlier work from 1580, the Heihô Okugi Sho, was written by Yamamoto Kansuke for the Kai Takeda to teach strategy and techniques. There are two books entitled Bubishi, (Wu Pei Chih in Chinese), the Chinese work consisting of 240 chapters and covering military tactics from the Ming Dynasty and the Okinawan version detailing Chinese martial arts and medicine. Tsukahara Bokuden, considered the greatest swordsman in Japanese history, wrote a collection of 100 waka about kenjutsu, called collectively Bokuden Ikun Sho.
    A waka is another form of poem, consisting of 31 syllables comprised in 5 lines of 5-7-5-7-7. This is the usual form a jisei, or death poem, should take.
    The famous zen priest Takuan Sôhô wrote a letter to Yagyu Munenori about the mental attitude of a swordsman. This is entitled Fudô Shinmyô Roku and is presently available in English as The Unfettered Mind. In 1700, Hagakure was written by Tsunemoto Yamamoto, a samurai of the Nabeshima Han, expressing an idealistic concept of how to be a true samurai. A famous book on weapons, Honcho Gunkiko, was written by Arai Hakuseki and another on kenjutsu, Tengu Geijutsu Ron, was produced by Chozon Shissai.
    These are but a few literary sources, valuable for rounding out the sword student’s training. One modern resource that should not be overlooked is the high-quality video tape.
    A significant problem noted in the area of literature and video is selfishness. Unfortunately, the attitude many practitioners have is that they worked long and hard for, or were lucky to find, the knowledge they’ve gained, and they don’t want to share the knowledge with anyone else. This attitude is sometimes reinforced when already reluctant practitioners do loan a video or book, only to have it lost, ruined, or kept for an excessive amount of time.

Actions and postures
    The names for the primary movements and postures used in kenjutsu are learned easily enough and are well known. The common terms are usually used, regardless of whether bokken or shinken are employed. This is not sufficient for the senior, however, so a look for some of the transition moves and the odd posture or two is in order.
    Consider a few motions involving the uniform. The slapping of the hakama legs outward when lowering into seiza is hakama sabaki. When performing formal reishiki during kumitachi, the sleeves and hakama legs are tucked up. These actions are referred to as ude-makuri and shirikarage, respectively. The tying back of the sleeves is known as tasugigake, frequently called just tasugi, which is—technically—the name for the cord used in the process.
    Although the term for wearing swords (haiken) is well known, the act of placing the sword in the obi is taitô and that of removing it dattô. Being unarmed and not wearing a sword is marugoshi.
The action of using the thumb and forefinger to push the tsuba and loosen the habaki in the koiguchi is koiguchi-no-kiru (cutting the koiguchi). As the sword is drawn, the position of the saya with the ha up is tate-zaya. At the moment before saya-biki, the abrupt pulling of the saya off the kissaki and around, behind the hip, the scabbard is turned ha-outward, a position known as yoko-zaya. Upon commencing nôtô, the left hand grasps the koiguchi, an action called koiguchi-o-yutaka-ni-nigiri. The act of drawing and cutting in one action is nukitsuke, a term sometimes used interchangably with kiritsuke when referring to the opening cut of a kata. The action of drawing a bokken is bakken.
    After thrusting with a sword, it must be pulled out of the body it pierced, an action termed hikinuki. Two similar blocking actions are marudome and torii-uke. The former has the arms bent and fingers pointing inward while the latter uses the edge up and arms straight upward.
    Shin-no-gamae is a posture with the left foot leading and the wrists crossed embracing the sword. Holding a sheathed sword in hand, but near the hip as if worn, is teitô, while the same posture with a bokken is nukimi-gamae. Carrying a sheathed sword with the left arm hanging down naturally by the side is sagetô or seitô. When in chûdan the right side of the sword is shizoku, the dead side.
    Any rapid side-to-side maneuver may be called tsubame-gaeshi; however, this term is also used for the whip-like slash performed from hassô-gamae to hassô-gamae, developed by Sasaki Kôjirô, and also called tsubame-giri. A similar action from hassô to hassô and back again, but using kesa-giri, is tonbo-gaeshi (returning dragonfly).
    Modern iaidô has a series of 12 kata (9 daitô, 3 shotô) known as Nippon Kendô Kata, which were developed in 1912 by the Butokukai for the Kendô Renmei.
    Students will have preferred techniques with a specialty or favorite technique being known as tokui-waza.
    In combat, especially when armor was worn, the disabling stroke was not always fatal. Often, the one on the ground was pushed, shoved, tripped, or thrown to that position without a sword stroke ever reaching home. Warriors had a code of empathy in which the defeated person would not be allowed to suffer. A finishing stroke or coup-de-grace, the todome, was peformed, which involved a thrust through the throat with the ha up and angled so it would pierce the brainstem.
    When facing an opponent, one is supposed to be relaxed in mind and body, with no preconceived thoughts and not concentrating upon the enemy, a state called mushin. The beginner, however, will have a mind full of thoughts and ideas, making plans about how to react to different attacks. This frame of mind is called ushin. The act of initiating an attack is sente. Some advanced concepts regarding initiative are sen-no-sen, go-no-sen, and sen-sen-no-sen. The first is seizing the initiative just as aite attacks. The next is recapturing it with a counter attack, and the last seizing it just as aite thinks about attacking.

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