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The Many Sides of the Martial Arts

By Gary Gabelhouse

The debate has gone on and on for as long as I can remember. Which art or discipline is strongest, what kind of training is best, are pure or eclectic arts best, tournament versus budo karate, are martial arts street effective?

The other day I was reading one of these lively debates in a discussion forum on a martial artist versus a fighter and it made me think back to the day before when I was cleaning one of my Japanese swords (nihonto).

There is a practical parallel here between Japanese swords and the martial arts (beyond the obvious). The Japanese sword epitomizes and is "defined" as a number of different "things" by different people throughout the world . . .

Many collectors of Nihonto regard such blades (as does the Japanese Government) as "art." There are thousands of people -- many within organized nihonto appreciation groups (Token Kai) -- who consider the Japanese sword to be a piece of art -- clear and simple. They spend years and thousands of dollars to distinguish the smiths' artistic trademarks -- wild, artistic hamons (patterns) -- wonderful steel grain accomplished through unique foldings of the steel -- bits of nie and nioi on the blade that serve no other purpose other than that of art -- wonderfully intricate and rich koshirae or mountings and furniture. Thousands if not ten's of thousands of people who, for themselves, perceive the Japanese sword to be a wonderful object of . . . art.

The kenjutsu (classical sword arts) practitioners and Iaido-ka (art of sword drawing) see the sword as an extension of their own physicality to be "used" in the practice of their martial art. Oftentimes the sword is judged on its cutting capability, while sometimes it is judged by its weight and "feel" or the blade's "life." Regardless, these people define the sword as something they USE. This often puts them at odds with the art collectors. To use an old nihonto for ANY practice is considered asinine and ignorant by the art collectors. The art collectors place their blades in humidity-controlled safes, mounted in "resting" mounts or shira saya. On occasion, the blade is drawn as one would pull a curtain across a Renoir. To even think of USING the blade is as unspeakable as paneling one's den with a Mattisse. But many Iaido-ka I know practice using old koto-period nihonto--and the functional distinction here is the word "use."

A friend also recently suggested to me that while that a good sword can be admired through looking or touching, he personally finds that the ears are what one should experience it with. In the hands of a true master, the sword creates a distinct sound as it cuts the air and stops instantly. It is the blending of the expert practitioner and the perfect sword in action, where the true beauty lies.

There are those who define the Japanese sword as embodying the very spirit of the Japanese people -- and an extension of the smith's spirit -- and as a representation of local kami and spirits, as well. One often saw the central points of many Japanese shrines to be nihonto -- "blades of spirit." Many times the smiths are, themselves, priests and the making of each sword entails copious quantities of religious regimen. So, for some, the Japanese sword is a very spiritual thing -- a religious object.

Some of the modern metal workers see the Japanese sword as a challenge to their own metallurgy. They study blades and practice their own techniques of folding and quenching. Since they oftentimes sell the blades they make, they have no problem with forging a blade for money, and some do so as their livelihood. They integrate the new technology of today with the traditional methods of yesterday, and . . . sell the result.

Military historians as well as W.W.II GIs and/or their widows see the blade as a weapon -- clear and simple. The historians study its significance in the history and culture of Japan and the GI's and widows have altogether different memories. It is extremely common to have a widow answer an ad of "Will Buy Japanese Swords: Top Dollar." The widow just wants the thing out of her household--doesn't like it. For the old GI, he may remember where he was when he liberated it, or the circumstances that led to him taking it off the dead body. Yet, for the militarialist and the GI, the Japanese sword is a deadly and very real . . . weapon.

And so, too . . . those who practice martial arts, practice for different reasons -- personal reasons. And from where I stand, training kata and fighting NHB or point tournaments are not mutually exclusive activities (sure, you can't do'em all at the same time). However, I believe everyone has a "personal intent" for training martial arts -- for me, personally, I refer to it as "the path of my heart" -- and that intent may be the expression of many or only one personal factor(s). In my opinion, this is one of the GREAT things about the martial arts -- its individuality. The art, just like a mirror, reflects the purpose or intent of those who practice it. Those seeking fighting techniques, will FIND fighting techniques. Those seeking good health and physical fitness, will FIND that fitness. Those seeking confidence by being able to defend themselves, will FIND that confidence. Those seeking a strong and calm spirit, will FIND that spirit. As my teacher would say, "ALL the answers are found . . . on the floor."

Another Viewpoint: Emulating the Masters

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