Martial art uses real weapon, imaginary foe
NAHA, Japan — In a split second, a man clad in black hakama hacked the enemy with his Japanese sword without giving his foe a moment to agonize over his fate.
And then, showing no emotion, he sheathed his sword, sat down on the floor and bowed deeply.
Kenryo Nakaima is not a merciless murderer. He is a practitioner of iaido, the art of killing. Iaido (pronounced ee-eye-doh) is the only Japanese martial art that uses a real sword.
Iaido, the way of sword, was formed during the Ashikaga period, about 440 years ago, by a samurai named Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu. According to the International Iaido Federation, young Hayashizaki prayed to the gods at a shrine in Yamagata in northern Japan to help him find and kill a man who killed his father. Divine power gave him the secret of Iaido. His Iaido was later succeeded by Tamura Hyoe Narimasa, who taught the first three generations of Tokugawa shoguns, Ieyasu, Hidetada and Iemitsu.
In modern days, the ultimate goal of iaido is solely mental discipline, said Nakaima, a 33-year-old Naha hairstylist.
“The hardest thing in iaido is to face an enemy with an empty mind,” he said. “You must first dismiss all the worldly thoughts in your minds.”
Unlike other martial arts, however, there is no visible opponent. A practitioner challenges alone against an unseen foe with a sword.
“It may be imperceptible at first, but it will soon come into your sight if you practice long enough,” said Nakaima, who has been practicing iaido for 25 years.
He said that his enemy was usually about his own height and size.
“My imaginary enemy is my other self,” he said.
Nakaima’s father, Kenji Nakaima, teaches iaido once a week at the Martial Arena in Naha, opposite the entrance to the U.S. Army’s Naha Port. About 20 people, mostly men but a few women, young and old, attended a class one Thursday.
Kenji Nakaima, a retired German language professor, and his students are members of the Iaido Division of the All Japan Kendo Federation. The school they belong to is Muso Shinden Ryu.
The senior Nakaima, called Nakaima sensei (master), said there were 12 basic waza (set forms) in Iaido. Beginners first practice the basic forms, which would probably take three months or so to learn, he said.
“But, to bring them to perfection, it would take 20 to 30 years,” he added.
He stood on the wooden floor of the martial arena one Thursday evening, his students forming three lines, facing him. All of them bowed and sat down, quietly laying their swords before them. They bowed again. Placing their swords closer to them, they bowed one more time, this time to their swords.
“Once you take out your sword, you are not supposed to blink until the sword is back in the sheath,” he said. “At the moment you blink, you are off your guard, giving your enemy a chance to attack you.”
They rose to their feet, pulling out swords from the sheaths and began to perform iaido — quick steps forward, to the side and back accompanied by many stabbings, slashes and beheadings. No one uttered a sound. The serenity was broken only by the swooshing sound of the slashing swords. When one set of practice moves was over, they moved on to the next set. The practice continued for four hours.
Iaido practice using real swords was not always wound-free, said Nakaima sensei.
“It is not uncommon to get hurt during practice,” he said.
“Once, I slashed my arm by mistake,” the 28-year veteran iaido master confided. “Another time I inflicted a deep cut on my eyelid, almost reaching the eyeball.”
He was not a beginner, but a rokudan (six grade holder) when he experienced these mishaps.
“What we always have to bear in mind is that swords are lethal weapons,” said Nakaima sensei. “It is important to be humble and revere the mighty power of swords.”
He said that the swords’ beauty has the power to tug at the heartstrings of the viewers.
“But it is only iaido that adds further beauty to swords with their movement,” he said.
And that was only possible through the wielder of the sword.
Thus, the ultimate goal of iaido is perfection of swordsmanship.
“I feel that the sword is the one that demands it,” he said.
Yoshihiro Iwashita, who started taking iaido lessons 17 years ago and has been attending Nakaima’s class since October, said that iaido was a part of his life.
“I cannot recall what first fascinated me, but I started it so naturally, almost as a matter of course,” the 31-year-old Yokohama native said. “Maybe it is in my Japanese blood.”
Chris Cocks, a 29-year-old Canadian and English language teacher at the Haebaru Junior High School, was among the students. He has been taking iaido lessons for three years.
“What fascinates me is its aspect of self-control. It is always rewarding to come to practice iaido,” he said. “No matter how tired I am, or how bad a day I had, I become reenergized.”
Practicing iaido gave him moments to concentrate on something without affecting others.
“Iaido is moving meditation,” he said.