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Shohatto: The Heart Of Omori Ryu Iaido

By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Editor's Note: This article is part of a continuing series of articles on the Japanese art of iaido, the modern discipline or way of drawing the sword that assumed its present form in the early 20th century. Iaido was derived from iaijutsu, a sub-specialization of kenjutsu (sword arts) that was practiced by professional (samurai) warriors and involved methods of drawing the sword and cutting as a single motion. This article focuses on the first of twelve kata known as Shohatto within the foundation set (known as Shoden) of Muso Shinden ryu iaido (meaning, “transmission [of] divine vision”), the style of sword drawing that the author teaches. In iaido and many classical sword arts kata(prearranged sequences of movement) are used as the primary tool to teach and transmit the art. For more information on Muso Shinden Ryu iaido see:Omori Ryu: The Foundation of Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido. For other articles on iaido by this author visit the Reading Room under the heading “Iaido.”

Historic Background

As discussed previously in my series of articles on iaido (the Japanese art of drawing the sword), the Omori ryu kata of the Muso Shinden ryu are the shoden (beginning curriculum) of the Omori ryu style of iaido. Shohatto is the first form in the Omori set. Though we can straightforwardly translate the word “shohatto” to mean “rules,” its meaning goes deeper than that. The Shohatto kata contains the basic elements of Omori ryu, and, more broadly, of swordsmanship in general. By learning the “rules” of Shohatto, one learns the rules of the art. Drawing, two types of cut (single-handed and two-handed) resheathing, and etiquette are contained here. My teacher, Otani Yoshiteru, says you can learn the principles of sword technique from Shohatto. If you learn the principles, “style does not matter.” In other words, the principle is the same regardless of technique. Learn the principles, and the technique comes naturally.

At New York Budokai, Shohatto is the first form (kata) the beginner learns, and the one he or she must perform for every dan test (the term dan indicates rank, or black belt level above lower kyu levels of achievement used for beginner grades), regardless of what other kata must be performed. In this essay we will consider the importance of this kata in depth.

In the first place, I should point out that unlike some kata in other martial art styles, iaido kata are brief. All iaido kata begin and end with the sword in its saya (sheath). In between an imaginary opponent (or opponents) is quickly dispatched. There are several reasons for the brevity of iaido kata: for one, to mercilessly cut up an opponent when one could simply dispatch him is unpleasant, to say the least, not to mention dishonorable. Second, the bunkai (applications) of iaido kata is all based in reality. As historical accounts show, a sword fight, once someone initiates one, is over very quickly, almost before spectators realize what has happened. One (or more) person falls, the other (hopefully) walks away. End of story.

Early 20th Century observer E.J. Harrison recorded the reminiscences of a judo teacher named Yokoyama who witnessed a fight between a ronin (masterless samurai) and three younger opponents:

The ronin...advanced steadily with the point of his weapon directed against the samurai in the center of the trio...the samurai in the middle gave way [as he advanced]...The right-hand samurai...rushed to the attack, but the ronin...parried and with lightning rapidity cut his enemy down...The left-hand samurai...was treated in similar fashion, a single stroke felling him...The samurai in the center, seeing the fate of his comrades...took to his heels. (Ratti and Westbrook 1973, 123-124)

Though not a first-hand account, the story illustrates the speed with which a duel could take place.

To lengthen sword kata so the trainee has more to do, therefore, contradicts the spirit of the art form, and it’s useless in terms of learning technique, since a confrontation would not happen that way in all likelihood. In spite of its meditative qualities, there should always be credibility in iaido technique. Though this can be seen as a contradiction (learning the proper way to kill someone as a means to meditate on life and death), I assure you it’s not. Without the proper technique, how can your meditation be any good? Or, put another way, if your technique lacks integrity, so will your meditation.

The bunkai (application) of Shohatto is fairly straightforward. The iaidoka (the iaido practitioner) sits in seiza (kneeling position), hands at rest. An opponent across from him makes a hostile move, i.e. brings his hands to his sword in preparation for a draw. The iaidoka reacts by drawing as he rises to his knees, steps forward and cuts across the opponent’s face. Depending on the draw, this cut could be aimed anywhere from the opponent’s eyes to his neck. The iaidoka may or may not connect with this cut; but in any case, the attacker refuses to back down. The iaidoka follows up by moving closer to the opponent and cutting straight down his center – a kirioroshi cut. This cut extends from the top of the opponent’s head to his navel, and is enough to disable or kill him. The iaidoka then ends by cleaning the blood from his sword, stands up to better view what has happened, and returns the sword to its scabbard.

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As can be seen from the photo sequence, the first movement, once a threat is sensed, is for the iaidoka to bring both hands to the sword. The left hand takes the saya (sword scabbard) and the right takes hold of the tsuka (grip). At the same time, the iaidoka tucks his toes under him as he begins to rise to his knees. By the time he is on his knees, the sword is more than halfway out. The iaidoka draws the sword toward his opponent with his right hand, while the left hand pulls the saya around his body to the back (sayabiki). The shoulders stay relaxed and squared to the opponent. The iaidoka's weight remains centered - he does not lean toward his opponent. As the cut is completed, the iaidoka positions his right foot, knee raised.

As he repositions his sword in jodan (high position) for the next cut, the iaidoka pulls himself forward, repositioning the right foot as he makes the final cut. The iaidoka then stands as he begins o-chiburi (a small fast action designed to splash off blood from the blade), switches the position of his feet (perhaps the better to see his fallen opponent) and sheathes the sword.

Shohatto practice begins the process of concentration and focus that leads to good meditative practice. While one hears about the meditative aspects of martial arts practice not much is said about how to get to the meditative state. The bunkai (application) of the Shohatto kata aids focus and leads to concentration, one of the prerequisites of good meditative practice. As the practitioner learns to focus and concentrate on the hypothetical situation at hand, distractions fall away. As the distractions dissipate, there is room for meditative contemplation to take place. This process takes many years of practice, but it is the heart of iaido for the long-time practitioner.

Shohatto practice enables the iaidoka to build skill, strength and flexibility needed to pursue the rest of Omori ryu (the other eleven kata and technique in the beginning curriculum) and the balance of Muso Shinden ryu iaido kata. Beginning kata from seiza (kneeling position) not only trains one in the most basic of postures, but the position is also an important physical aspect of traditional Japanese culture. Combined with reishiki (the way to bow), the Shohatto kata teaches not only the rudiments of Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido technique, it teaches etiquette and acquaints the beginner with the traditional arts of which iaido is a part. Rising from seiza strengthens the quadriceps, hips and lower back. Proper drawing, cutting and sheathing of the sword are therefore taught from a relatively slow and stable position and complex set of movements. The slow, formalistic pace of Shohatto benefits the beginner and aids the teacher in imparting technique.

A less direct benefit of Shohatto practice is that it introduces the beginner to the complexity of iaido practice, and the patience needed to engage in it. As such, Shohatto practice is useful in “weeding out” potential students whose temperment may not be suited to the sustained practice of iaido. Many Westerners (as well as modern Japanese) find sitting in seiza to be uncomfortable at the beginning. Sayabiki (pulling the scabbard with the left hand to bring it around your behind left hip, a movement used to facilitate the rapid drawing and cutting movement with the sword) is a complex technique that can take years to learn properly, let alone executing a proper cut. It takes perhaps six months before the quadriceps can handle the slow, sustained movement. The lower back and hips must work to keep the body straight. Determination to learn the first Shohatto kata (or not) reveals the student’s intention perhaps before he is even aware of it himself. The student who complains about Shohatto is a poor candidate to learn the rest of the Muso Shinden ryu kata. On the other hand, it is very moving to watch a determined student overcome whatever physical limitations she may have as she strives to perfect the form.

Shohatto has many levels of meaning for the iaidoka. On a basic level, it is a patterned response to a hypothetical attack. As the first kata taught, it acquaints the beginner with basic technique; for the experienced practitioner, it is a way of returning to the sense of "beginner's mind" whenever it is performed. The advantages of that mindset though often alluded to, are rarely spelled out: courage, humility, patience and contemplation.

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About the Author:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

iaido, Shohatto, Omori Ryu, Omori ryu kata, iaido shoden, iaido beginning curriculum, Otani Yoshiteru, New York Budokai,iaido bunkai, iaido sword applications, Japanese sword

Read more articles by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

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