Last weekend (9. – 11.12.2022) I participated in the Polish winter camp for Katori Shinto-ryu in Dojo Stara Wies. This year Ulf Rott(5.Dan) was invited as a teacher for the winter camp. He was supported by Jacek Krzeszowiec(4.Dan ,Lublin), Detlef Augustin(4.Dan, Berlin), Gerry Groenemeijer(3.Dan, Akranes), Rafał Sałapski(3.Dan, Warsaw) and Mateusz Kuduk(3.Dan, Krakow).
The Polish Winter Camp has been held annually in December since 2014. The only interruptions were during the Corona lockdown. Dojo Stara Wies is a European Budo center located about two hundred kilometers south of Warsaw. The camp is up on a hill on which the big dojo stands. Around it you can find the individual Japanese-style buildings where the martial artists stay during the camp in their free time. A further down at the bottom of the hill one finds the reception and the food hall. Each small cottage was equipped with a genkan and a wardrobe, three bathrooms, a kitchen, a tatami lined living area with carmine and 3-4 tatami bedrooms for two with futons. The sauna, tea room and small lake at the bottom of the hill should also be mentioned.
When you are on the big hill you feel like you are at the end of the world and surrounded only by nature. The silence when you were alone was magical and something that I as a city dweller experience all too rarely. The first night it was even snowing and the next day everything was white from the snow, which underlined the beauty of the place even more. Although the whole camp was in a very Japanese style, there was no Japanese food on site. But that’s not a bad thing, after all, the Polish food you got there was also very delicious.
Ulf Rott Sensei put a strong emphasis (as always) on the basics. He explained in detail why we perform the techniques as we do and explained their origin from the armored fighting. At the same time, Rott Sensei was open to questions and was always available to answer the students’ questions.
The social aspect in the evening was also very nice and very important. Often people went from house to house, met friends, drank and snacked together and talked shop with each other about the martial arts.
On Saturday evening there were also extensive exams for people who wanted to dare to the 5th Kyu, but also up to the 2nd Dan. My friend Mateusz Bryla informed me that infact 28 act persons took part in the exam that day. All gave their best, but unfortunately not everyone passed. What there was for everyone was valuable feedback from Rott Sensei.
A total of 90 people participated in the winter camp, a number that is in no way inferior to this year’s summer seminar with Sugino Sensei. In total, students from Krakow, Warsaw, Lublin, Bialstok, Szczecin and Tarnow came together, plus four Germans and one Dutchman ;). If I have misspelled any name here please forgive me and I’m thankfull for the kind hospitality of our Polish friends and their commitment and passion for the Katori Shinto-ryu!(And the beer… and the ham)
I would like to express my sincere thanks to my Senpai Michael Reinhardt. He was kind enough to give me the okay to use material he uncovered during his research on the history of the Tenshinshō-Den Katori Shintō-ryū Heihō. Without his research, this article would have been much shorter. Thanks also to Anna Puntigam who was kind enough to read this article and provide me with helpful feedback.
Our modern society still has to fight against sexist prejudices: many people still have the image that martial arts and combat sports are something for men, that women are perhaps too weak and it is not even possible for them to learn the martial arts and sometimes even the women themselves do not believe that they are accepted in the martial arts. Like a good friend of mine who is now passionately practicing kenjutsu. But in the beginning she was afraid she would not be allowed to learn the sword art she had chosen. Fortunately, she was wrong and can now proudly say that she is an Onna Bugeisha. This article is intended to dispel such prejudices and to show, through the history of Katori Shintō-ryū, the important role that women have often played in the martial arts.
The source of Shintō-ryū
Many people in the sphere of kobudo are well aware of the origin story of the Katori Shintō-ryū. Iizasa Choizai Ienao, a skilled warrior, is said to have retired one day, tired of war, to the grounds of the Katori Shrine in Chiba. There he is said to have devoted 100 days to extensive training in martial arts as well as meditation and prayer. Then one night Futsunushi no Mikoto, the deity of war worshipped at the Katori Shrine, appeared to him in a dream in the form of a boy sitting on a tree. In this vision, Futsunushi is said to have given the Mokuroku Heiho no Shinsho to Ienao. A scroll containing the deepest secrets of the art of war. Based on these events, the Katori Shintō-ryū is said to have been founded.
In the background of this legend, two goddesses should not go unmentioned. Amaterasu no Mikoto and Marishiten.
Amaterasu is the most important deity within Shintoism. She is the goddess of the sun and light. One of the most famous myths about her is how her brother Susanoo offended her so much that she retreated into a cave in dismay and imprisoned herself with a powerful stone. This plunged the world into darkness and all the gods had to come together to devise a ruse to lure Amaterasu out of her cave. Her grandson Ninigi became the ruler of Japan. Niningi fathered the first Japanese emperor, Jimmu, together with the daughter of the Dragon King, making Amaterasu the ancestress of the Japanese imperial house.
Marishiten is an ancient deity originally from pre-Hindu India. There she was known as the goddess Marici and was a goddess of war, dawn and patroness of warriors with the ability to make her worshippers invisible. She was often depicted with multiple arms, weapons and three faces. From dawn to dusk she is said to have ridden across the sky on wild boars. As a goddess, she continued to be worshipped in some cults within Buddhism, reaching Tibet and China. There she took the name Molizhitian. In China, she was even adopted as a goddess by some Taoist sects. Then, when esoteric Buddhism reached Japan, she came with it across the sea as a Marishiten and took a place in the Japanese spiritual world.
Futsunushi was one of Amaterasu’s generals. At her command, Futsunushi descended to earth with Takemikazuchi to drive out the last demons, monsters and hostile spirits and to pave the way for Ninigi’s reign. Marishitens role was to train both deities in the art of war. She was their teacher. Without these two great goddesses, the Katori Shinto-ryu would not exist today in the school’s mythology.
Yamato Nadeshiko – the ideal Japanese woman
The traditional Western as well as the Japanese image of women do not differ very much from each other. The woman has to stay at home, run the household, raise the children and obediently follow her husband.
And yet, for a true Yamato Nadeshiko [大和撫子], there is something in which she essentially differs from her Western counterpart: she also had to be strong and defend the house in the absence of the man! This fact is especially underlined by the naginata, a long sword lance. The naginata proved early on to be an extremely dangerous close combat weapon. However, as armies grew larger and larger, the spear soon took over as the favored weapon, replacing the naginata. Spears were much easier to use in formations and easier to handle. The naginata did not disappear from the battlefield overnight, of course, but it stayed at home more often, and sooner or later it ended up in the hands of samurai women. As a long weapon with some leverage, it served the women well and compensated for disadvantages in strength. A small and petite woman trained on the naginata could easily strike down a larger, stronger man.
Due to these circumstances, the tradition developed that samurai women were trained on the naginata. This circumstance led to the fact that the Naginata today in Japan is also considered a “women’s weapon”. Of course, there are also men who practice with the Naginata, but culturally Naginatado is considered something “for women”.
Woman of the Iizasa family
Nevertheless, the Katori Shintō-ryū was and is run purely patriarchal for generations and the typical western practioner knows not alot about the women of the Iizasa family.
However, a few facts can be found here. Iizasa Choizai Ienao the founder of our school built his dojo near the Katori Shrine. There it stands to this day, the Hombu Dojo of the Katori Shintō-ryū. Of course, it has been rebuilt and renovated over the centuries. What is remarkable, however, is that Ienao’s wife is enshrined there with him in the dojo. Unfortunately, I do not know the name of his wife, but there together with him she is sitting next to him, holding a naginata in her hand. As the wife of a samurai that she was.
The second woman of the family that I would like to highlight is Iizasa Toi Sensei. In the official history of our school, the 18th Soke Iizasa Morisada died suddenly, without a male successor. For a time, under these conditions, the school was then led by the then Shihan with Yamaguchi Kumajiro as Kyoju, responsible for the technical transmission of the school. Later, a young man married into the Iizasa family and was adopted as a successor into the Iizasa family and installed as the 19th Soke Iizasa Kinjiro sensei, the father of our 20th Soke Iizasa Yasusada.
However, there are several documents from which it is clear that Morisada’s widow, Iizasa Toi sensei led the school in this difficult time after Morisada’s death as the 19th Soke and appears as such in a number of historical documents of that time. Among other things, she was responsible for the renovation of the Hombu dōjō and had collected money for it.
Donn F. Draeger is a famous pioneer of Japanese martial arts. He was one of the most famous US-Americans who popularized Japanese martial arts in the West. In the 60’s he also began to learn Katori Shintō-ryū under a then young Otake Risuke and is generally considered to be the first Westerner to learn the school. However, this assumption is wrong!
Olive Lloyd-Baker, born in 1902 in Gloucestershire England and her good friend Ms. Janes were the first two western students of Katori Shintō-ryū.
Ms. Lloyd-Baker came to Japan for a short period starting from mid-April 1927. There she stayed at the Imperial Hotel. Through the contact of Ms. Noguchi Utako, a member of the British Embassy, both women were introduced to Kaneko Masamitsu under whose guidance they learned Katori Shintō-ryū. They were instructed daily from 10:00 to 12:00, especially in the use of the naginata.
Itō Kikue Sensei was born on September 30, 1906 in Sawara, Chiba. The Itō family had held an important role as shrine guardians of the Katori shrine for generations. Itō Kikue sensei began her training in the Katori Shintō-ryū at a very young age under the supervision of Hongu Toranosuke sensei. Together with Sugino Yoshio Osensei she wrote on the Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū Būdō Kyohan. She probably was responsible for the chapters concerning Naginata. She taught Katori Shintō-ryū Naginata in public schools during the 1940s and retired from the affairs of the ryūha after World War II to work as an elementary school teacher.
I hope I could show by several examples that while Katori Shintō-ryū, like many facets of society, is dominated by men, women nevertheless had an important place in it and the martial arts in general. The martial arts in Japan was never a place that was closed to women, but one that was traditionally quite open to them.
Before the time of the Corona Pandemic, our keikojo gave two demonstrations every year. One in the summer at the summer festival of the German-Japanese Society of Berlin and the other in the winter at the Japan Festival in the Urania.
Many people surely have in mind people smashing bricks with their bare hands or a group of people performing the same kata in perfect synchronization when they think of the word “martial arts demonstration”. What also often exists are staged show fights including athletic gymnastics. A real show like you know it from the movies, accompanied by music to amuse the audience and to promote the own dojo.
However, such a show is far removed from classical demonstrations in Kobudo. In Japan, demonstrations began as something called honoenbu (奉納演武). These were ceremonies often performed in internal circles at shrines. The purpose was to honor the gods and the ancestors of the tradition and to demonstrate his skills before them. Only much later were these demonstrations opened to the general population.
Now here in the West we do not have Shinto shrines and our enbu are not honoenbu either. What remains the same is that the purpose of an enbu is to demonstrate the skills of the dojo. And this throughout, from the youngest beginner to the teacher. It should reflect the full spectrum of skill in a dojo. So nowadays the purpose of an Enbu is not to amuse or impress the audience, but rather to have a stressful training situation for the members. It is practically training with spectators.
Giving an Enbu is nerve-wracking. The environment is unfamiliar, often forcing you to work at an unfamiliar distance. The ground is uneven and in the grass you can often trip over a stone or branch. When performing on a stage, you have to deal with getting bright spotlights in your face. Also, children and teenagers are often merciless in commenting and ridiculing what they see there. This all contributes to an increased adrealine level which often leads to mistakes. The art of a good enbu is to be able to react appropriately to these mistakes, so that in the best case they are not noticed by the untrained eye of the audience.
From my own experience I can say that it is quite valuable to make the experience of an Enbu as a participant. It forces you to be more relaxed in front of an audience, strengthens your self-confidence and teaches you what it is like to be in an unknown situation. Of course, I’m still a little nervous before every Enbu, because every performance is different.
The set Omote no Iai in Katori Shinto ryu is a set of “crouching” techniques for drawing the sword. This kind of Iaijutsu for me is the hardest part of Shinto ryu, physically as also mentally. Especially for the longest time doing these techniques correctly wasn’t possible for me. With my heavy weight the burden on my heart and knees was for a long time too much so that for one or two years I only could practice them standing up.
Now after losing something around 20 Kg it is finally possible for me to start practicing them correctly again. Of course it is still hard for me to do them so I alternate between the crouching and standing version. But for now it is a start again. My goal for now is to be able to jump again from this crouching position
Kenjutsu[剣術] is a term that translates simply to sword technique. Many may also have heard the term Kendō[剣道]. Kendō, translates to: The way of the sword and is as a term today used primarily for modern Japanese fencing. Kenjutsu, on the other hand, is used for the sword techniques of the schools of Kobudō[古武道]. While these schools share some amount of fundamentals, the techniques and strategies taught in them are sometimes very different. Therefore, kenjutsu should be understood primarily as an umbrella term rather than a stand-alone martial art. There is no such thing as “the” Kenjutsu, but only Kenjutsu of different schools.
This pluralism goes so far that there are traditionally other school-specific terms for the sword techniques of the individual school. In the Katori Shintō-ryū[香取神道流] taught at Kobukai Berlin, the traditional term is actually Tachijutsu[太刀術]. In the Tatsumi-ryū[立身流] it is Tōjutsu[刀術]. The attentive reader may have noticed that both terms, Tachijutsu and Tōjutsu use the character Tō[刀]. Today’s more common Kenjutsu, however, uses the character Ken[剣]. Japanese characters can be read in different ways therefore 刀 can also be read as Katana and 剣 can also be read as Tsurugi. So there are two completely different characters for the term sword.
This is because the characters originally meant two different types of Japanese swords. Tsurugi are the swords used in Japan well before the time of the samurai and were probably imported from China. They are double-edged and straight. In contrast, the katana, the famous samurai sword, is a curved sword with only one edge that is also classified by many as a saber. A convincing explanation why people nowadays speak of “tsurugi technique” when they train with a katana might be found in the mythological and religious significance of the sword in Japan. At the time when the origin myths of Japan were written down the katana did not exist yet, warriors used tsurugi as swords in them. So did the kami[神], the deities and spirits of Japan. And it is said that fencing is an art taught by the kami. And by using the term kenjutsu, they tried to emphasize this mythological, religious context. Which plays an important role in the Japanese self-image. As one of the three Imperial Regalia is also the Sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the grass cutter.
In the Katori Shintō-ryū, kenjutsu is practiced in various contexts. The Omote no Tachi[表之太刀] set, for example, is said to deal primarily with fencing in armor, and Gogyō no Tachi[五行之太刀] in comparison deals more with fencing in everyday clothing. The signature move of the Shintō-ryū is the maki uchi. For the maki-uchi, the blade is not raised above the head, but is placed on the left forearm and struck from that position. The rationale for this is that the ornamental fittings of the kabuto, the helmet worn with the armor, hindered the samurai to attack with a powerful sword strike reached out from behind the head. A Bokutō[木刀], a wooden sword about 1m long, is used as a practice simulator. In the Shintō-ryū, a tsuba[鍔], the guard of the blade, is not added to the Bokutō, as hand protection as the student should not get used to rely upon or get accustomed to it. The full curriculum of the Katori Shintō-ryū includes basic drills, as well as advanced and “secret” techniques for fighting with the longsword. In addition, as an advanced student, techniques for using both the short and long sword simultaneously are practiced, as well as advanced techniques with the short sword.
This Blog is an older article from me, i believe from mid’2014. But i will probably re-edit it in the near future.
Katori Shinto-ryu is one of the oldest extant Martial Arts of this world. Her origin is tightly linked with the Katori Dai-Jingu[Great Shrine], one of the oldest and most important Shinto Shrines in Japan, only exceeded maybe by the Ise and Kashima Dai-Jingu.
This three Great Shrines, or more accurate the kami associated with the shrines: Amaterasu no Mikoto(Ise), Takemikazuchi no Mikoto(Kashima) and Futsunushi no Mikoto(Katori), play an important part in origin mythology of Japan written down in the Nihonshoki and Kojiki.
Amaterasu is the japanese Goddess of the Sun and claimed Ancentress of the Japanese imperial House. She gave both Gods of War, Futsunushi and Takemikazushi the order to descend on Izumo to negotiate with Okuninushi no Mikoto about the surrender of the Land to Amaterasus Grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto.
After Okuninushi surrenderd, both Futsunushi and Takemikazuchi lingered on earth. Futsunushi marched to the East and fought Demons and other evil Kami who scourged the Land. This way he added new parts to the Kingdom and trough his martial skill lay foundation for a wealthy and secured country Japan.
Takemikazuchi assisted Jimmu Tenno, descendent of Ninigi and founder of the imperial House to subjugate further Land in the East. [It must be noted that the Myths differ and maybe both, Futsunushi and Takemikazuchi could be names for one and the same Kami. But i will probably write more about this in another Blog.]
It’s transmitted in Katori Shinto-ryu that the founder Iizasa Choizai Ienao settled in proximity of the Katori Shrine at the age of 60, after becoming a buddhist Nyudo[Lay priest]. There at the shrine he devoted himself to martial, ascetic and spirituel exercises every day and night. After 1000 days he had a visionary dream. There he meet Futsunushi as a young boy, sitting on a plum tree. Futsunushi gave Choizai a scroll, the Mokuroku Heiho no Shinsho, and transmitted to him the heavenly secret Techniques of martial arts and Strategy. Through this heavenly wisdom he founded Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu Heiho. The Tenshin Shoden part translates in „Heavens true and correct transmisson“. Meaning the transmission from Futsunushi to Choizai.
Most students of Katori Shinto-ryu know this of course. But many are not aware about the role of the buddhist Goddess Marishiten in the whole story.
Marishiten is a goddess of war and patroness of warriors. The deity is often shown as a woman with three heads or faces, eight arms and different weapons in the hands. She also a Deity of the Dawn and Dusk with power over Sun and Moon. She is driving with her heavenly carriage pulled by seven Boars on the heavens.
But sometimes she’s also portraited as Man, which shows she is incorpurating female and male aspects. She is granting the warriors who pray to her with incarnations and mudra help trough blending of their foes with bright light. This way her proteges become invisible to their enemies.
Next to Marishiten exist also other tantric warrior Deitys which get referred in different Ryuha[Styles/Traditions] like Bishamonten and Fudo-myoo to name a few.
Which special role Marishiten plays in Katori Shinto-ryu can be found in the Katori shinryo shinto-ryu kongensho [godly origins of the holy Swordtradition of the Katori Shrine] scroll:
„Through a divine vision, Marishiten taught Futsunushi no Mikoto that there are divine sword scenarios known as Itsutsu, Nanatsu, and Kasumi, and divine spear scenarios known as Hakka. Marishiten also brought one volume on strategy and displayed a sword called Ame no Totsukanomi Tsurugi“
p.214, D.Hall 2013, The Buddhist Goddess Marishiten
Which means the knowledge transmitted by Futsunushi has his origin by Marishiten The scroll further explains which meanings this Scenarios of Katori Shinto-ryu are holding:
„The spear techniques(Hakka) and sword techniques (Mitsu no tachi, Nanatsu no Tachi, and Itsutsu no Tachi) are all elements of the self-defense ritual matrix. The first element is the Purification of Body, Speech, and Mind […] . Collectively, the four elements are a single one of Body Armoring (Hikô goshin 被甲護身). “
p. 215, D.Hall 2013
Which shows that the techniques of esoteric tantric buddism weren’t only simply a part of the curriculum but the whole curriculum of the School was heavely linked to this rituals in the beginning next to the pure martial aspects of the Tradition.
Marishiten gets called trough use of Kujiho[Fingersigns] and Jujiho[drawing in the hands with ones finger] and an incarnation from japanized sankrit.
The point of this different rituals, which seem for most western people probaly nothing more like esoteric superstition, is to reach trough meditation a state of mind where one is fearless and literally believes to be invincible(because of the protection of Marishiten and Futsunushi) and to link it to the Finger and Handsigns of the Kuji- and Juji-ho. Thus this signs become anchors to instantly activate the wanted state of mind which should lead to a better performance in battle.
„Ôtake Ritsuke believes this to be the case, and feels that the performance of the Goshinpô and the Kuji no Daiji were much more efficient for battlefield preparation than the practice of zazen.“
p.216, D.Hall 2013
These rituals weren’t done and transmitted because of reasons of pure faith. But because they showed an effect at manipulating the warriors state of mind. Which, of course got amplified by a strong enough faith in the deity.
So the next time before a training session i bow not only in awareness to Choizai and Futsunushi, but also Marishiten.
David A. Hall, The Buddhist Goddess Marishiten: A Study of the Evolution and Impact of Her Cult on the Japanese Warrior
Katori Shinto Ryu as a martial art has a very interesting characteristic. In contrast to some other sword arts of Kata-Bujutsu all exercises end in a stand-off situation. Ukedachi evades at the last second and Kirikomi doesn’t have to stop his technique unnecessarily. This is often quite different with other traditions. There Ukedachi often pauses and Kirikomi/Shidachi stops his technique in the last moment. So we can state that the Kata of the Katori Shinto Ryu are designed in such a way that if both partners do everything right, they can train in full seriousness together without the risk of serious injuries.
This side of the Katori Shinto Ryu can be seen as katsujinken. Katsujinken[活人剣 ] is the life-giving sword. But since Katori Shinto Ryu also has a practical application it is also important to pay attention to the other side: satsujinken[殺人剣 ], the killing sword.
The applications of the Katori Shinto Ryu are shown nowadays mostly to the more advanced students. And often they reveal themselves in the process of long practice. However, there are sometimes people who teach Shinto Ryu more or less legitimately and who advertise to teach the “Bunkai” of Katori Shinto Ryu. Or to show them on self-produced DVDs which they sell on the internet.
I honestly think such characters are ridiculous. Why will you ask yourself now? Well, that is quite simple. With the use of the Japanese word Bunkai to describe the applications of the Katori Shinto Ryu these wannabe samurai surely want to make a big impression. However, they only show that they have no idea of the Japanese language and no deep knowledge within the Katori Shinto Ryu.
Bunkai is a word that is often used in the modern karate world for the applications of kata. However, Bunkai does not mean application. Bunkai[分解] means to analyze and disassemble the kata. If you show a new student a short movement sequence from the kata, which he should practice, then it is already Bunkai, even without any reference to the practical application of these movements. The actual applications are called oyo[応用] in Japanese.
And as already indicated, while both terms are well known in the budo world through their origin in karate, they are not used in the Katori Shinto Ryu. The Katori Shinto Ryu has its own terminology here. The term used for the Shinto Ryu applications is: kuzushi. Wait a minute, you will say for sure. I know Kuzushi from Judo and Aikido! That means to break the balance! And of course you are absolutely right. But as is so often the case in Japanese, words have several translation possibilities. Kuzushi or the basic form kuzusu[崩す] can be translated as ‘destroy’ or generally as ‘break’. And while in the unarmed martial arts this means breaking the balance, in Shinto Ryu it means breaking the kata. And so Katsujinken transforms into Satsujinken. For the sake of completeness: I would also like to mention that for example Sugino Yoshio osensei often simply spoke of shiai-waza, i.e. fighting techniques.
I hope I was able to give you a little bit of interesting information with this article and explain to you in a comprehensible way why you should avoid the claims of people to teach the Bunkai, of the Katori Shinto Ryu. On the other hand, I am perhaps only a real nitpicker.
Katori Shinto Ryu Warrior Tradition by Risuke Otake
Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu Budo Kyohan by Yoshio Sugino and Kikue Ito
Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts by David A. Hall
Recently I attended a seminar for Katori Shinto Ryu in Prague. The people who hosted the seminar also belonged to the Sugino Dojo and were following the French Federation for Katori Shinto Ryu.
The seminar was very interesting and we did some exercises, which I recognized by the techniques, but which I had never seen before in this form. Also the Kumi-Iai forms of the Yoseikan Shinto Ryu created by Minoru Mochizuki, his synthesis of Kendo, Iaido and Katori Shinto Ryu, which are still practiced in the French Federation, I found impressive.
But something I noticed was that the etiquette at the beginning of the training was completely different. As I know it from Sugino Sensei and my teachers, they bow to the Kamidana twice, then they clap twice and finally they bow one last time. But in Prague this part was left out. Also the position of the sword was different. While I know it in such a way that one puts down the sword normally on the left ready for use, the sword was put down in Prague in a peaceful spirit on the right.
Unfortunately I had not asked the reason for this. But I thought that this had to do with the religious connotations of the ritual. But when I discussed this difference with someone I realized that many people are not aware of what the ritual we normally do actually means.
Katori Shinto Ryu as a martial art is very closely linked to Japanese Shintoism. As close as it is in the name: Katori Shinto Ryu.
Here is a video of a normal Shinto prayer:
Does anyone recognize that?
Our etiquette at the beginning and end of training is a Shinto ritual. The small talisman at the Kamidana or often the calligraphy of Katori Shrine serves as a spiritual connection to Katori and the Kami Futsunushi no Mikoto, who according to legend introduced the founder, Iizasa Choizai, to the deepest secrets of the art of war.
The ritual, as far as I have understood it, has the following meaning: The first bow serves to announce yourself to the Kami. The second bow is a way of paying respect to the kami. The clapping serves to awaken the kami and to gain his attention. Then one pauses briefly to ask/pray for something. Like for example a safe training. And the last bow to it is to politely underline this request.
Does that mean that you have to believe in Futsunushi no Mikoto in our martial art? No, Shintoism is a form of faith without dogma. Especially since “believe” has to be defined more precisely.
Each person has to decide for himself whether he can connect/accept this ritual with his own religious views or not. But of course one would first have to know what this ritual means to make a informed decision.
Every year the seminar with Yukihiro Sugino Sensei takes place in Leer, Germany. This means 6 days of training in Katori Shinto Ryu, while you have the opportunity to sleep and eat under one roof with Sensei and other members of the Ryuha. For me this is always the highlight of the year.
Last year Sugino Sensei gave a speech, an important one for me. All people at the seminar tried to train slowly and cleanly in order not to make any mistakes under Sensei’s watchful eyes. Too slow and silent like we should find out soon, when he asked us to gather. And he told us all how important it is to train “seriously”. After all, it’s not dancing that we train but a budo! Therefore one should train with the correct attitude of mind, so that we transmit our intention to hit to our partner. Not just going through the moves mindlessly. That is at least what I think I have understood.
What Sensei criticized here was the missing of Ki Ken Tai Ichi. A fundamental principle in Budo. Ichi stands for “as one” or “together”. Tai for body and Ken for sword. Ki, how many surely know is mostly translated as “energy”. And it stands for the power of life and breath that is available to every human being. In movies and comics this is often used described as a “mystical” energy. It helps the martial artist to accomplish superhuman things. Apart from such exaggerated portrayals, there is another translation of Ki that needs to be addressed. Namely those of “spirit”, “heart”, or “attitude of mind”.
Ki[気] is very often used in the Japanese language. Mood is in Japanese Kibun[気分], emotions, feelings and sensations are Kimochi[気持ち] and Sakki[殺気] is blood thirst and/or killing intention and there are still innumerable more such examples.
In this sense Kikentai-ichi[気剣体一] is to be understood as: “Sword, body and mind as one”. But what is the right spirit now? Now in my opinion it is to want to hit the partner. But even that is easier said than done. If we talk about training “seriously”, it doesn’t mean that you should suddenly flex your muscles and hit with the sword violently while screaming your lungs out of your throat (of which I all too often plead guilty to myself). But that you aim where you want to hit and “fire” your technique at this point. The intention must not only be to make “the technique”. But one must want to hit. Which in turn means the partner has to evade for real and there is and should be a controlled element of danger.
This kind of training, underlined by a powerful scream, is good Kiai in my opinion. To avoid misunderstandings: Nowadays Kiai is often synonymous with the word battle cry. But the scream itself is Kakegoe and only a symptom of Kiai. Kiai IS the right mental attitude. Well, of course not only, but that’s another topic.
One last point I would like to add: My own observation is that when I train with Kiai without concentrating on the mistakes of my partner (something I do all too often) and my partner also does his best, the training doesn’t exhaust me too much. It’s more like I’m getting energy back from training. And I think this is quite an interesting thing. Especially when you consider that Ki is energy as well as spirit.