The Meaning of Martial Arts Training

A Conversation with Sawada Hanae

Sawada Hanae has been training for nearly seventy years. She holds the hanshi certification from the All-Japan Naginata Federation, and teaches both atarashii naginata and Tendo-ryu in Tokyo. Meik Skoss has been a student of Sawada Sensei in Tendo-ryu since 1976. This interview was conducted on December 9, 1996 at the Shinjuku Naginata Dojo.

Question: Sensei, thank you very much for taking time to talk with me. I’d like to ask you to share some of your thoughts about training in both the modern and classical martial arts. I believe that your family has been involved in the martial arts for many generations, and that your father was a kendo expert. What was his name?

Sawada Sensei: Yoshida Seiko. My grandfather was also a kendo hanshi. Everyone in my family received this rank.

From the Butokukai?

Yes. It is not a rank for a particular ryugi (traditional style).

What was your father’s style?

Shindo Munen-ryu. My grandfather also practiced a classical style, but I am not really clear on what it was and feel a bit uneasy about saying this as a fact. But it is all written down and there is a record of all the generations in my family and their styles. My ancestors were from the Marugame domain in Shikoku.

When did you start training?

I started training in second grade in my father’s dojo. But even though I started training so long ago, you have to keep in mind that there were days when my father wasn’t there, so I didn’t go to train, or days that I just sat and watched. I could get away with this because I was just a child. So you can’t really say that I was training, since I was only in the second grade. On top of this, I was just a little thing and was always training with people who were bigger than me. There were many times when I couldn’t hit my partner because I couldn’t even reach him. I didn’t train with other children. It wasn’t like today, when children just train with other children and not with adults. It was a lot different then; I was always getting hit.

Did you start budo because you liked it?

Of course not. We had a dojo in our house. That’s why I trained.

But you must have liked it, to continue.

It wasn’t really that I liked it, but rather that I had found something that was interesting. There was never any point where the training was complete. If I had thought at any time that I had finished, I am pretty sure I would have quit. But I never reached that point. I always felt there was something more for me to learn, so I continued to train.

All through the years, there were times that I hated it and times I wanted to quit for personal reasons. There were also times when I simply was not able to train and wanted to quit. But there was always something fun about naginata for me. I enjoyed the give-and-take with my opponents and coming to realize what to do in different situations. That was fun, so I kept training. I could keep coming back for more because I had realized there was more to naginata than met the eye. If it were an art that was easy to grasp, then I’m sure I would never have kept at it for this long. Don’t you think professional baseball players must feel the same thing about their sport? It is different for them, of course, because they receive money for playing, but still. We don’t receive money, so we are doing it because we enjoy it. We do it because we have found something that captivates us. So, as you can see, the attraction of martial arts is hard to understand from the outside.

Budo is not something that can be done in a day, or a year or two. With training, there is never a point where you can stop and say this is enough. There is a deeper level. The sons of samurai families began training when they were just little children. They began even before they shaved their heads and donned hakama. The number of years they trained is not comparable to the amount people train today.

This was just in the families of the bushi, or warriors, wasn’t it?

Yes, that’s right. Warriors were different. Private citizens were only that. But they, too, had to protect themselves, so they practiced various martial arts among themselves. They did this in some of the towns, or in the villages; Maniwa Nen-ryu was practiced in a village in this way.

When did you begin training at the Busen?

In 1934. What we, or at least I myself, did at the Butokukai in Kyoto was to practice six or seven hours a day. And we did this every day. Even though I was practicing that much, my father told me that one year was not enough. I was made to continue for two years, then three years. Most people finished after one year of practicing in this manner, then they went out to teach. But my father made me continue until the first semester of my fourth year, when I became ill with a bad case of pleurisy. Then my father finally allowed me to stop. But he still warned me that my training was insufficient.

In my student days at the Butokukai, we practiced the naginata kata for a long time and then we practiced kendo. In Tendo-ryu, there is both naginata and ken (sword). So we had matches with both naginata and ken. Then we returned to the beginning and practiced the naginata forms again. That was the way we all learned in the old days. So all the older teachers have experience with competition; we competed with kendo teachers. We did training in the forms, then competition. Then the cycle began again.

You mentioned Tendo-ryu. I believe you studied directly under the former headmaster, Mitamura Chiyo. Do you have any particular memories of training under her?

Chiyo Sensei never said anything to us, regardless of what we did. Every once in a while, though, she’d say, “Good!” When this happened, we wouldn’t even know what she was referring to by this “Good!” I used to think very hard when I trained, but finally, in the end, I quit thinking about anything. I was able to do the technique straight. This is what the “Good!” was for. It was not right for the strike to come from the side. It had to come straight down from above. It had to have all the right lines. It took a very long time to get there. I trained over and over again.

In Kyoto, when we went into the dojo, there was a big mirror for training in the changing room. Everyone would stand in front of it to practice. They would look and wonder how do the techniques straight. But I always went where I could train alone. I would do things over and again and would try this or that. Sensei would always know. She would come into the room, which was some distance away, because she hadn’t been able to hear my voice. She would ask, “Hanae-san, what are you doing?”

It’s like I am always saying: it is not about whose voices you hear. You can say, “That is his voice, that is hers.” What is important is whose voices you don’t hear. It is with these people that you begin. You, as a teacher, know what kind of training they are doing, or what state of mind they have attained. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. So when Sensei entered the room, I was really surprised. I thought no one would see. But Sensei knew.

My father told me about another example of this kind of awareness. He knew the priest, Nanzenbo, because he practiced Zen for a while. This was when Nanzenbo was quite old, just before his death, in fact. But my father was very impressed by Nanzenbo. When I asked him why, he explained that one day all the monks were sitting as they should be, practicing Zen. But my father was too hot so he went outside of Kaisenji, the temple he was at, and did his Zen sitting on a rock. Later, he went in to talk to Nanzenbo, who, after greetings had been made, asked him, “Where did you practice Zen today?” He could ask this even though he had never left his room. He was too busy for that, because he always had someone coming to see him. But he still knew. My father didn’t, at the time, understand how Nanzenbo was able to know this. People just aren’t this aware anymore. Only people who’ve studied or trained for a long time can sense such things. Someone who thinks he is great because of doing four or five years of training really has no idea.

Traditional Ways

It is sometimes difficult for foreigners to understand all this. Do you think this is because many elements of traditional Japanese culture are no longer very apparent in modern life?

Yes, that’s correct. There is a traditional way of thinking and doing things. For example, in the old days, homes always had a special room that contained a tokonoma (decorative alcove) with a hanging scroll and a flower arrangement. This was the place for the guests. You normally spent your time elsewhere. The flowers that were put in the tokonoma were more than just flowers. The arrangement wasn’t just a bouquet like you see today. There was a formal way to arrange them.

Then there is the calligraphy. You couldn’t hang just any old picture or calligraphy in the tokonoma. It had to be worthy. Now, we live in apartments and people hang all kinds of things all over their walls. But if you go out to rural Japan, you’ll still find people who have retained the tradition of keeping scrolls and flower arrangements in the tokonoma.

So, these traditions remain in various individual homes and families. In order to do this, though, you must study flower arrangement. You must do tea ceremony. Martial arts are merely a part of this tradition. You cannot become, or create, a cultivated person without doing all the different things related to the tradition.

You mean in the education or training of people?

Yes. When we were in school, everyone also studied the tea ceremony and flower-arranging. I continued studying both of them the entire time I was in Kyoto. Everyone at the Butokukai did. This is called shitsuke, breeding or training. Martial arts are one element of shitsuke. People who are fond of the tea ceremony continue their studies of the ceremony and then they teach others. In my family, both my older sister and I do naginata, though she has a bad leg now and can’t actually practice. Our ancestors did martial arts, so we preserve and continue that tradition, the same as in other martial arts families. But we didn’t do only martial arts. We also studied tea ceremony and flower arrangement. You must do many different kinds of things.

I’m a woman, so I also needed to know how to cook and sew. When we were younger, we always made our own kimono. We basted them, then put glue on them. We waited for this to dry and then we sewed them. I even embroidered mine. Our children wore clothes that we made ourselves. In the generations before my own, women used to buy silk cocoons, unwind the silk, and then weave it into cloth. They also spun and wove cotton, and then they made clothes for their children out of this. My grandmother did this at my home. These days these sorts of things are cheap, so we all just buy them. But in my time, we all sewed.

Doing the laundry is the same. These days you just dump your things in a machine and all of the laundry is washed for you automatically. Before, though, first you had to soak your clothes in plain water. Then you had to fill a barrel with water and wash your clothes in it with soap. Then you had to change the water several times to rinse out the soap. Only then could you say you had done the laundry. Now you just dump it in and it is done.

Rice is the same. Nowadays, you just stick it in the rice cooker and turn on the machine. You can also buy frozen foods and just push a button. Presto. you have curry rice. These things have all become simple. easy. But professional chefs aren’t like this. They start by peeling the skins of potatoes and carrots. They start from the very beginning.

These days everything is separate. Restaurants here, laundromats there. Everything has become easy these days. I think perhaps this has made people simple, too. This is what I think, anyway. People have become so simple, it seems they don’t understand anything anymore.

Way of Teaching

I was taught a very long time ago by Chiba Sensei, who taught in the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras. He would say, “There is a hibachi, right?” Well, actually, let’s use the example of this cup, instead. There is a cup here, right? We, the teachers, see the cup from above. Those who can’t yet do the techniques see the cup from down here, from the bottom. They don’t even know the distance between the bottom and the top. Only those looking down from above can understand certain points. Other people, looking at it from below, cannot really understand the shape of the cup or its essence. Therefore, only doing something a little bit in the martial arts does not really mean you have done it.

Furthermore, training once or twice a week for ten years or so does not mean you’ve actually trained for that period of time. If you figure it out, you really have only trained four times a month. Sometimes you miss a class. But, even assuming you came to every lesson, if you count the hours, it still only comes to four times a month, not a full year of practice. So if you practice once a week for ten or twenty years, you haven’t really practiced very much. You may not even have practiced for five years, once you add up the actual hours.

So an instructor must be able to perceive a student’s actual level, as well as the top and the bottom of the cup?

That is what you must do. Plus, you have to train yourself and polish your skills, over and over again. So, even when you’re giving commands as you’re leading the group, you have to do so as though you’re facing each person individually.

Also, the kata, the correct form, must be there. You cannot understand it in parts. But you must understand not only the form, but also what is happening in between the forms, the whole time. For example, those people over there are having problems striking the lower leg, so I have them practice just striking the legs. I tell them to strike the shins in different ways and places. But I don’t sit just quietly and tell them how to do it. I show them. And when I show them how to do it, I have to do it right. When I show them, I get in there right away, and “Wham!” take the shin. I can do this because I’ve done it over and over again. It is not something that can be learned right away.

From our perspective as teachers, whatever budo you are talking about, they all have a common thread. We can look at a person and see if he or she is by themselves, looking self-important. If you train with a snobbish attitude, we will see it. If you are training from your heart, we will see that, too. We praise those who work hard by letting them know we know they did just that. Those who say, “I did great today, I am so good at this,” receive no praise. We’re concerned with the expression of the spirit. Unless you reach that state of mind you will never excel.

You have to be able to both do both parts, shi and uke, win and lose. You can’t do either one alone. You are able to practice because you have a partner. You can’t say you are good at it until you can have a kind of spiritual exchange, a give-and-take with your partner. You just think that you are good.

I teach by calling up someone’s spirit. Whether I’m teaching them kata or something else, I call up their spirit while I teach. If you don’t do it in this way, it never becomes the real thing. It ends up being just a pose.

I have noticed a difference between pre- and postwar martial arts instructors. Not only in training practices, but in thought patterns, too.

Today’s instructors are different. You could say they’re simply on an escalator. Once they get on it, they automatically get carried upward until they become an instructor. This is not how it worked for us. We had to practice very hard everyday for a very long time until we reached this point.

Only after you have practiced, and practiced hard, every day, morning and night, can you fully appreciate the value of a martial art. You have to train not only when you are here in the dojo, but even when you are home. You have to train always.

Way of Training

These days, many instructional books and videos are available. What do you think about people using such things to learn new techniques?

A book will prove or verify what you have already learned; it will help you understand what you can already do. It is not to copy from. You don’t look at a book, do the form and then ask what is wrong. You look at the book to show yourself what you’ve already learned. But it isn’t like that these days. People look at a book, copy the form and say they know how to do it. But this is not budo. It is merely mimicking the forms.

Tendo-ryu focuses on kata practice, but we all also practice atarashii naginata, which includes matches. What is the importance of shiai for martial arts training?

You have to test your forms through these matches. Just doing the forms and saying to yourself, “I did it,” isn’t enough. I always tell my students they have to practice the forms and they have to actually strike people in competitive bouts to be able to understand the art. They may practice striking when they train by themselves, but these “strikes” may not actually connect. They won’t know this unless they are in a match. They may practice hitting a lot, just by themselves, but they simply can’t understand that the form alone is not going to work in a match. Competition very rarely follows form and it’s not wise to think that it will.

So, as we do naginata techniques, we go straight forward. In the beginning, we have the fundamentals. You should just go straight forward with these. Your opponents will be alert and you can’t depend on them to just stand there while you strike. You have to be able to make split-second decisions and attack based on these decisions. It doesn’t do you any good to strike late. I always tell you not to stick too closely to your opponent.

When you train or compete, what should your aim be? One time I came back from a demonstration at Kashima Shrine with you and Kuroda Sensei, and I remember you saying then that the object is not winning, it is “not-losing.” I’m not sure what you meant by that. In my case, I don’t want to lose. I hate losing. But up until now, I have had very few decent matches. What should I be feeling when I train, when I use the naginata?

You should train by noticing when and where your partner is open. Or about how they are not open at all. You should be thinking about how to strike the opponent where they’re open. Matches are tameshiai, a mutual testing or trial. You are testing each other.

By testing, you mean testing yourself?

Of course. You aren’t there to test the other person. You are doing it to teach yourself. If you want to know what the goal is, it is to become “empty” and to do naginata without actually thinking of anything. This doesn’t mean to just stand there and do nothing. But you can’t understand this until you do it.

If you don’t become empty of desire or conscious thought, you can’t do it. Just thinking about how to do something isn’t it. Considering how to excel isn’t it. It’s nothing but doing it over and over, until your spirit enters into it and your body does it naturally, without thinking about anything. It’s not something you understand merely by hearing about it. It is something you must do and realize yourself, with your own body. There’s no other way.

So I shouldn’t be thinking of winning or losing at all?

You hate losing, right? But only through losing can you understand what it means to win. But you only know about winning. You need to lose and then examine your mental state. You have to realize, “Ah, this is what it feels like to lose.” Then, you must do the same thing the next time you win. If you don’t know what it feels like to both win and lose, then you cannot win. If you can’t lose, you can’t win. This is a very important thing about martial arts.

In naginata, people are wrong who think they won because they were able to do this technique or that. That is only striking someone. Being able to face your opponent’s spirit with your own and then win, though, is not something that’s picked up in a mere ten or twenty years of training. It is not an easy thing to do. This is something one understands only after practicing every day for many years.

These days I have one student who is a little bit arrogant, so I am always mad at her. She has no empathy at all for the spirit of her partner. She believes she is superior and acts as if she’s the only one who knows anything. This just shows that she can’t do it. Unless you and your partner reach the same level, then you can’t do the technique properly. You might have good technique, but if you fail to understand the spirit of your partner, then you are doing nothing but the outward form. When you stand together, you have to help your partner. If you don’t help, then your partners will never improve. They will always remain at their current level.

So you mean, pulling someone up?

Yes. This does not mean only from outside, with the form. Rather, you must pull them up by their spirit, from the inside. The atarashii naginata training method called hikitate geiko literally means training to pull or raise someone up. But no one here does that. This is because they are strong enough. Though they think they’re helping to pull each other up, they’re really just fighting each other, not helping.

It seems to me that, in the Ueshiba style of aikido that I have practiced, there is an overemphasis on blending, or matching, and not enough concern given to what I suppose one could call “reality” in a combative situation.

When you speak of matching, if your kokyu, or breathing, does not match then you do not match. You are thinking merely of form, aren’t you? But in order to do aiki, both your spirit and that of your partner must enter into play and then come together. When you study aiki, this is what you are studying. What you are doing is not. You think only about winning since you hate to lose. Only by losing, again and again, can you know what it is to win. Aiki can only be understood through repetition. You have to do it over and over, not thinking of your own winning. This is the same thing the student I mentioned above is thinking: “I am strong. Everyone else is no good.” This isn’t the case. If you can reach the point where both you and your partner become strong together, that’s when you’ll have something to say. Only then will you understand what is meant when we talk about aiki. “I am strong. Everyone else is no good. I hate losing.” This is not martial arts. You only become strong through winning and losing, over and over again.

The martial arts aren’t about winning. There’s a sort of give-and-take, winning and losing, all thanks to the partner with whom you train. Only through this give-and-take can you excel in budo, can you make progress.

There are people training with children, who sometimes allow the children to hit or throw them, aren’t there? If you can’t do this, both you and they will never make progress. It’s useless if little children think they will always win. So, when you train with children, you must become just like a little child. When they try techniques, this must be accepted and you must react as though you have really been struck or thrown, no matter how small the power. Then this becomes training for you, as well. It is obvious that, if you used your full strength, you would win against a small child. But you have to allow them to hit you sometimes. You must allow them to be proud of striking you, of winning against you. You must help them build their spirit. Then you will get training, too. And you will become a better martial artist. If you always win, and everyone else always loses, you are not really doing martial arts.

You must train in this manner? For example, in the case of Tendo-ryu, you must perform uke’s role with that spirit?

Yes, that’s right. It is, then, basically the same as hikitate training. You must look at your partner. When she strikes straight forward, you must be ready for this. If you are afraid and strike out first, this is not training-it in no way pulls the other up to a higher level.

So, as you can see, martial arts are not at all simple. Until you reach that state of mind, where you can train selflessly, you have to thoroughly study many techniques and principles. This involves training with many people. To train with only one person is wrong. If just two of you always train together, you will never be any good.

So, for example, you shouldn’t train only with someone who is your best training partner? You should train with someone with whom you don’t match well.?

You must not do the same thing all the time. If you have one thousand people, you have one thousand different partners. All have different spirits. You will learn a great deal by being able to train in the same way with all one thousand people. That’s the kind of thing we are doing in the martial arts. If you can only do it with one person, then you cannot truly do it. It is the same in kendo, judo, and the other arts as well. In martial arts, one practices winning and losing. You practice again and again, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. This is how you become trained. You are not doing it for others. This is how training happens.

Even the worst people have something that they are good at. Even the tiniest child wants to do his or her best. So you must be able to train even with this tiny child or with this unskilled person. “I won’t train with those people because they are no good.” This is absolutely not the right attitude.

You must avoid having a hard heart and thinking that you alone are skilled. If you possess a heart that is hard like this, you are in trouble. You will make no progress. You must always have a free spirit. Everyone is different.

If you can’t do the kata with anyone and everyone, then you’re not really doing the form. If you practice earnestly, eventually you’ll come to understand whether you are more or less skilled then your opponent. If you always try to be the strong one, if you’re a braggart, then you will not improve. Kokoro, or spirit, is difficult to understand, not simple at all. Even with Zen, there are some people who understand right away and some that never comprehend it. The same holds true with naginata. Some people grasp it right away. Others never make it that far because they aren’t really practicing. If you don’t practice, you can’t make it that far. Just because you are able to talk about it means only that you can put it into words, it does not mean that you have actually trained.

If people don’t take corrections and then try to integrate them into their training, then they have no meaning. Just because they try it a few times doesn’t mean they can do it. So, as you see, training is not a simple thing. You never reach a state where everything is right. You do something a couple of times, and you may even feel good about it. But unless you have practiced something a thousand times, you cannot really say that you’ve done it. If you can’t do it the same way a thousand times, then you aren’t really able to do it.

For example, Niwata Sensei, the iaido teacher, took the hachidan exam for years without passing. Then, one day he went in and passed the exam. Once he passed, he couldn’t believe what a simple thing it was that he hadn’t understood. He understood because he had finally reached the state of mind necessary to see. You train in order to attain this state of mind. And this can’t be taught.

My younger brother’s wife is doing calligraphy. She recently told me it was getting difficult and she was considering quitting. I told her, “You are planning to quit at the most important part of your training. How long has it taken you to reach this stage?” “It has taken a long time.” “Why would you quit now? Now, when you are at the point where you are finally able to learn the more important parts of your art?” If she quits, all her training to this point, between ten and twenty years, would go to waste.

Would you please say a little more about the idea of training with a “pure spirit” and how one ought to practice?

When you’re doing your art, you have to make your spirit pure. You must not be concerned about whether people are watching or not, whether your junior is paying attention, whether you are teaching correctly. All of that is unimportant.

Martial arts are not for merely showing off the forms. One is supposed to do them from the heart. But if I speak of this heart, this spirit of the martial arts, it’s difficult to understand what I’m talking about. People who don’t train, can’t understand.

If there are desires, it’s no good. It takes years to get rid of desire. People have desires in their heart. If I do this, will I look good? Will it go well, if I do this? They think about lots of things. The more you think, the more you end up running around in circles. In order to reach this desire-free state, you have to have attained a certain state of mind. Without reaching the state of a pure spirit, you cannot progress in martial arts. You cannot show that you have reached this state unless you truly have. People training are all making the same movements. But it shows when someone has a pure spirit. We can see it. We notice this achievement and think to ourselves, “He has finally become serious, he has finally attained the necessary state of mind.” People might come up and tell us how much they have learned, how well they have performed. But when we look at them, we know. We think to ourselves, they just haven’t got it yet, have they? You can only see this when you have become capable of looking from above, from this state of mind, as I explained earlier with the example of the cup. You can’t see it from below.

This is a bit of an odd question, but what is your objective in training? After all, there is no one above you. The same was true for your teachers, Mitamura Sensei and Nishigaki Sensei.

My objective is to train with young people while maintaining the proper spirit. That is why, when I practice with others in Tendo-ryu, I tell them to cut straight and true, and I will do the same. I can’t tell them what to do unless I am doing it first. I also have to do it with a pure and proper spirit. When you practice with somebody else, you must do so with the proper spirit. Then you can raise yourself to a higher level. It’s not something to be done only for appearances, so that you look good, or so that you don’t get hit by the other person. You have to train over and again. It’s like I was telling you earlier: we are looking from above, so we can see what you are thinking about quite easily. We know the shape of the cup. If it is a big cup, we know that. If it is small, we know that, too. We are looking from above, thus we see it all. To attain this state of mind takes a very long time.

I was talking earlier about my teacher, Chiba Sensei. He wrote the most beautiful calligraphy. I would never tell him this directly, though. I once said to his wife, “Chiba Sensei’s writing is so beautiful, when I look at it gives me a feeling I can’t explain. There are some places where the characters are delicate and thin and other places where they are very strong. But, over all, there is an incredibly beautiful balance. The paper he chose is just right. There’s something in it which goes straight to my heart. It stills my soul. It makes me feel quite calm, that the world is beautiful. When I look at such things I wonder at their beauty and wish that I, too, could achieve that kind of spirit.” His wife, who has since passed away, commented, “Hanae-san, I didn’t know you thought about such things.” I replied, “When I look at something like Chiba Sensei’s calligraphy, I can’t even explain how beautiful I feel inside. It can only be described as beautiful.”

Dolls are the same. All dolls are different. A beautiful doll is one that emanates the spirit of the person who created it. A doll artist does not think to himself, “Now, I’ll make a beautiful doll.” Rather, he makes it with a pure, beautiful spirit. The outcome is thus this beautiful doll. Without this pure spirit, it isn’t possible. If he worries about whether or not the doll will sell, or whether it will be appreciated, the doll will not be beautiful. Nothing created with these kinds of questions in mind can be beautiful. That is the difficult part of spirit: it is a thing you can’t show others.

Copyright ©1997 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Koryu Bujutsu: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan.