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The Spiritual Sword of Tamiya ryu:

Interview with Michael Alexanian Sensei

June 23, 2000

(Part 2)

By Deborah Klens-Bigman

Editor's Note: Part two of this interview addresses many questions, such as the subject of bowing, the difference between "do" and "jutsu," kata practice, ego and the spiritual sword, training in Japan and the study of a classical martial art outside of Japan.


This is the second part of a two-part interview with Tamiya Ryu iaijutsu teacher Michael Alexanian, of East Lansing Michigan. In Part 1, we discussed some background of Tamiya Ryu and what a "typical training day" in Japan was like.

The Interview

DKB: Sort of a little more on that topic: There have been some recent events, you know, like a lawsuit that was brought in both in US Federal Court and a Canadian court by people who don't want to bow to the mat before a judo bout. They feel bowing to the mat is a form of Shinto, and because they're atheists, they don't feel they should do that - it's a form of religion.

MA: Sure. It is very timely that you should mention this because it has become an issue with one of our satellite groups. They live in an area that is predominantly populated by people of Fundamentalist Christian orientation. In some ways, it's dealing with the exact issues you were just mentioning, about the judo people not wanting to bow. The whole concept of bowing and studying an ancient art is very much an issue with this satellite group of ours. We have to be very careful how we present Tamiya Ryu in that area so that what we are doing doesn't look like a form of worship.

DKB: People in the States sometimes make a distinction between "-jutsu" and "-do." The feeling is that "-jutsu" is more of a technique and that "-do" is more of a "way," that "-do" is more modern and "-jutsu" is older, and that the "-do" forms are less combative and more spiritual. I think these are all Western constructs, myself, because I know that the syllable "-do" is actually used further back than we normally think of it and people in Japan didn't make that much of a distinction between "-jutsu" and "-do" for awhile; but I was just wondering what your opinion might be with regard to Tamiya Ryu - what is the spiritual element - you mentioned kokoro already - could you elaborate on that?

MA: Sure. As far as Tamiya Ryu and spirituality, we are considered not as a "-do" form but as a "-jutsu" form. The actual whole name of our school is "Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu." Now for me, I agree that a lot of the "-do" and "-jutsu" philosophies are predominantly Western constructs. Personally, I believe that "-jutsu" is more closely related to art. "-Do" is usually translated as "path" or "way," but I've always understood when you study a form which is "-jutsu" it first of all has a sense of being older in many ways. A lot of the modern arts that go with the "-do" suffix were originally "-jutsu" arts. Kenjutsu became kendo, jujutsu became judo. In the Tamiya style we never went through that - we always remained a "-jutsu" form. I was always told by Tsumaki Sensei that the reason for that is because the techniques were derived from actual real-life situations. You had to be spiritually focused in the sense of always having that sense of zanshin or total awareness. In the Tamiya style as I mentioned earlier we have a great respect for the life of our perceived enemy or opponent, and we try to respect that for as long as possible until we do have to deliver a very strong strike to conclude the engagement.

We have a hanging scroll in our dojo that our Soke wrote that says "Tamiya shinden reimyoken" and that, loosely translated, refers to the spiritual sword of the Tamiya school. For us, our sense of spirituality kind of revolves around the concept that the sword that we actually use when we perform kata is, in a sense, kind of a metaphor for the "internal sword" that's used. As we practice kata we have to have an empty mind, we have to empty ourselves completely to focus on what's happening. As we cut, or deal with our opponent in our defense, we're also in a sense cutting away at the stuff inside with that spiritual sword. We cannot do these kata successfully with heavy amounts of ego or negative emotion or anxiety. These are the things that the reimyoken or spiritual sword cuts away at as we practice kata.

When we use the term "spiritual" in our dojo we make it very clear to the students that this is not a religious spirituality, that the spirit we're referring to is inner spirit more closely akin to a combination of ki and kokoro, ki being the actual inner force and kokoro being the heart. We see kokoro as the source of ki, in a way. Many people say the ki is located in the hara or tanden area but for us in many ways ki and energy originate from the kokoro - the heart. Part of that is respecting the principles of Bushido, and especially the principle of jin or compassion towards one's opponent. For many of the people that I've worked with, both regularly in the dojo and in seminars, this is an issue that has come up. A lot of people may think that's kind of wimpy - you're not jumping in there and "slicing and dicing" and doing all this stuff. I say, fine if that's what you want there are other styles out there where you can do that. You can go study Toyama Ryu because the Toyama style, being designed as a last resort on a military battlefield, was basically "slice and dice" - you take him out before he takes you out. There's no time to really focus on respecting your opponent or preserving his life as well as your own. In Tamiya Ryu, situations are based in a framework where there is some sort of thinking going on. The person who's attacking you has obviously thought out some kind of strategy. You realize there are points where you can deliver a minor wound to the opponent instead of a full-blown cut, and that will be enough to deter the person from going farther. We rely a certain amount on the element of surprise as well. As I mentioned earlier, the idea when drawing the sword of not revealing to your opponent what kind of cut you're going to make until the very last moment is very important too.

DKB: How did you come to have the equivalent of a teaching license when you came back to the United States? How did you come to be authorized to teach?

Yokosuka, Japan, 1997
Michael Alexanian performing
Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Kata #2, "Oshi Nuki"
Yokosuka, Japan, 1997
Michael Alexanian performing
Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Kata #3, "Yokemi"

Yokosuka, Japan, 1997
Michael Alexanian performing
Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu,
Kata #5 "Mune no Katana"

MA: Tsumaki Sensei and Soke Sensei and I had several discussions about the possibility of a formal branch dojo in North America. In fact, as I found out later, it had been a long-held dream of Soke Sensei to have an international foreign branch in the Americas. I think when I came along, they realized that this was something that both Dianne and I were serious about in a very deep, committed way. It may have restored some of their faith that, well, maybe there is still hope that we can realize soke's dream and have a branch in North America. In the Spring of 1996, I went back to Japan to visit with Soke Sensei andTsumaki Sensei. We told them about the construction of our dojo and the Japanese garden at our home, and that this was going to be a dojo specifically for Tamiya Ryu. Soke was just overjoyed. He brought out my formal commission, referred to as the "Shikucho Ishokujo," which hangs up in the dojo, licensing me as a branch manager of the United States Tamiya Ryu organization.

As I said, it had been a long-held dream of Soke Sensei's, so I think in some ways my training and my progression up the levels of Tamiya ryu is a little non-traditional. I know in many schools there are years and years between one rank and another. I was very lucky. Partly (probably) because of my constant practice and work, I was able in the space of seven years to go basically from shodan to godan. I think they moved it along a little quicker than they would have partly due to the opening of the North American branch, but now things have settled more into a state of normalcy. It has been approximately two years since I took my last formal examination for fifth degree or godan, and sensei says from this point on we are back to the normal system, so there will be a gap of approximately four to six years in between when I test for godan and when I test for rokudan.

Over that time, Sensei will choose which kata I have to perform for the test. So I think in this case I will have to do a certain amount kata to get to rokudan from both the kihon waza, the basic techniques, and also from the advanced. I think Sensei is waiting until I have more experience with the advanced techniques, so he can make a determination of what I will perform.

But one important thing to remember is that this dojo and this organization is not what we call a test-driven group. Testing to us is really immaterial. We do it when Sensei comes here because he always takes the opportunity to do that, but we don't really look at the accumulation of different ranks as the most important part of our philosophy of training. We are more concerned that the people who train with us learn Tamiya Ryu and learn the basics solidly enough that we can build on what they have. Also, that they're participating in something unique that not a lot of people do. The Koryu or the older styles in many cases, like Tamiya Ryu, are very, very rare, at least in the United States, and in places other than Japan. It's important to get Tamiya Ryu out there, and I think Tsumaki Sensei's dream, you might say, is to see Tamiya Ryu expanding farther, so eventually, on every continent, there is a main branch or honbu of Tamiya Ryu. Of course we were just overwhelmed and greatly honored to help Soke Sensei realize his dream of this North American branch. I think that is one of the key factors as to why we respect him so much.

It's quite interesting the relationship that has developed between Tsumaki Sensei and myself. When we're in the dojo, it's definitely teacher and student (or sensei and deshi). He's a completely different person there. When we're out of the dojo we have this sort of relationship going where Tsumaki Sensei, because he's about four years older than I am, I refer to him with a kind of chuckle as my oniisan - my older brother. I sort of affectionately refer to Soke Sensei as my ojiisan - my grandfather.

DKB: Our dojo doesn't belong to any federation, but Otani Sensei has told me that within our group, I am yondan. For the way he does things, it's ten years between fourth dan and fifth dan, so, I feel of like, yay I'm off the hook. It's fun to be free from the anxiety of having to test.

MA: We went to Japan in the Spring of 1999 to attend the Haru Taikai, the spring international gathering of the Tamiya Ryu. We have two annual gatherings, one in the Spring and one in the Fall. Members from all the branches of Tamiya Ryu from Japan, from Korea and the United States are invited to come and participate in training and testing. Usually Soke will give a lecture in the morning on some specific point of kata or overall technique. But I was kind of worried on this trip because we took some of our students with us, and it was their first time ever to test in Japan. I tested there several times before, so I kind of knew how the butterflies work in the stomach and all that, but I was a little nervous that Sensei was going to ask me to test also. When he said "mada desu" ("not yet"), I was so happy - a great weight was lifted from my shoulders, because I really wanted to focus on the students and their experience. It was really important for them. I believe that in a US traditional Japanese martial arts dojo, at some point in their training, the students should have an opportunity to go to Japan and participate in a large group event like that. In many ways it's a very humbling experience, and in many ways it's a very enlightening experience. Plus, you meet a lot of great people.

Even though for a lot of our students who don't know the Japanese language there's a bit of a barrier, there are enough of us - both Americans and Japanese - who are pretty much bilingual who can help them out. It's great, and it's an important experience to be able to take an examination in the country where your art originated. That has a real unique quality. It's something people internalize and make their own. We usually draw the trip out; we don't just go to the Taikai, we also visit some places of importance in the history of martial arts. Since we're so close to Tokyo, we usually make a trip to Sengakuji cemetery where the 47 Ronin are buried. We visit the Budokan in Tokyo, just so people can see some of these places they've heard and read about. If it has a lot of historical significance, we highlight that in order to round out the students' sense of history in terms of martial arts.

DKB: I guess that brings me to what I think is my last question. This might be called the Meik and Diane Skoss question (laughter). It's their opinion that you cannot study a Koryu outside of Japan, that there's so much that's culturally imbedded in Koryu that specifically has to do with Japan that it's impossible to translate that experience. I'm figuring you must have an opinion on this....(laughter), you're on the record here.

MA: I'm on the record, okay. I think they are right to a certain degree in that to get the real feeling for learning a Koryu style you should in fact be involved in a true Koryu system. I won't get into the argument of "well is this a legitimate Koryu or not?"

DKB: That's okay, that's a whole other interview.

MA: But I think having the opportunity at least for a certain period of time to train in a Koryu style in Japan is important. I would not take back my experience of living in Japan and working with Tsumaki Sensei even though we were living some distance apart - it was some 2-1/2 hours by bullet train from where we were living to Yokohama. Because of the expense we couldn't go there all the time but still, the ability to be able to call up Sensei and say, "Are there any classes I could participate in? Is there something we can schedule?" That's a very nice convenience to have. Being in the actual country where the art form comes from does lend a certain amount of realism and a certain amount of uniqueness. That's why we try to offer that experience to our students. Every other year we make a trip to Japan to go to the Spring Taikai so they can experience what it's like. In our case, to be the only gaijin amongst three or four hundred other people doing Tamiya Ryu, the students and myself come away with a feeling of being more enriched and more knowledgeable about the school from watching the way other people practice. Tamiya ryu is very widely practiced in Japan. They have branches for example in Kanto, Kansai, Chubu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. It's really a very popular style, very popular with young people. I've seen students as young as sixth and seventh grade in middle school studying Tamiya Ryu. And I've seen people --Soke Sensei this year turned 95 - as old as 95, so age-wise and all a broad spectrum. I really think a student who is learning a Koryu style in America at some point in his training does need to go to Japan and experience what it is like to work with a group of Japanese who are learning the same art. Many times they can share experiences even through an interpreter. The Americans can talk to the Japanese and ask "why do you study this?" There's a certain amount of interpersonal interaction that goes on that I think is very important for Westerners who are learning the Koryu arts.

This is why for instance this year, even though I was not able to attend the Spring Taikai, I went over and trained with Tsumaki Sensei. Next year in the summer he will come to the United States to conduct training and testing. This will be his third visit. He came once in '96 for the formal opening of the dojo, in '98 with Soke Sensei for the first international Taikai here in East Lansing, and he'll come next year in 2001. So it's been about three years since he was here last. This will be an opportunity for students who may not be able to make it to Japan to interact with the person who they know is my teacher.

I think the schools that study Koryu systems here in the United States that do not offer students an opportunity like that - to either get their sensei over here from Japan so the students can work with him in a specialized environment, or to be able to go to Japan themselves to participate in a group event or training session - are really missing something. One of the reasons we got involved in Japanese cultural arts is that, when we began learning Toyama Ryu, we noticed that in our dojo there was no discussion of anything except Toyama Ryu. Anyone who has done any studying of Japanese cultural arts will realize that the same kind of spirit, the same kind of focus, the same dedication, the same commitment that you use when you practice the martial arts, especially the Koryu arts, is the same that you use when you practice other arts like kado (flower arrangement) or shodo (calligraphy) or haiku or any of those things. There's a certain spirit and inspiration behind all of them that is very similar. In fact, with shodo, one person told me that the way you hold the sword and the way you hold the brush are virtually identical. Even in terms of technique there's a crossover. So I think you can study a Koryu system without having lived in Japan, but you will miss something. If you don't at some point in your career get to Japan, and work with some of the higher-ups in that particular style or with others who are practicing it, or you don't have any interaction at all, you are missing out. If I were a student studying a Koryu art for instance, and I never had a chance to meet the Japanese sensei who's responsible for the style's existence or had a chance to go to Japan to work with others, I would feel there was something missing inside.

I don't know if I've answered the question or not, but my philosophy is almost 50-50 in a way. It's not mandatory to live in Japan for an extended period of time to learn a Koryu system. You can learn it from a qualified instructor in another country and that could be the United States, it could be Australia, it could be Europe or Canada, but there is a certain element which I feel is lacking, a piece of the puzzle if you will, if you have no interaction or contact with Japan and you study that system. I know that we're maybe a little unique in that we do try and have this alternate year thing where one year Sensei comes here and the next year we go to Japan, but if we didn't do that, I would feel almost like I was slighting my students in a way. When Dianne and I were living in Japan and studying with Tsumaki Sensei, to be able to perform and practice this old-style art in that country - there's just something about it, you can't put your finger on - but it feels so good. It's not that you can't do it in the United States - you can. I just think there's something missing.

DKB: I definitely think studying in Japan gives you an advantage. On the other hand, if the teacher has a lot of cultural grounding and he passes that on to his students, it can also help a lot. This is what my experience has been with Otani sensei. When I did go to Japan to the Tenshinsho Jigen ryu dojo for example, and I've been to many kendo dojo in Kyushu when I was doing kendo, what we learned basically as etiquette and deportment - how to behave in class - in our class in New York, works well there. There's basically not much of any slippage at all. We were nervous because we were outsiders, but we knew how to behave. And knowing how to behave, we did fine. People were gracious and helpful and didn't think we were a bunch of clods (although I could tell a few times that's what they were expecting) because we knew from our teacher how we were supposed to conduct ourselves and how the structure of the dojo works. We could take that knowledge with us and use it; so I think there's a lot to be said for a teacher who has a thorough cultural grounding and can pass that on to the students. I definitely agree you should go to Japan, even if you don't get to study any particular martial art, just go, because even in people's body language you can see certain things, if you're observant, that will contribute to your training.

MA: I can see why the Skosses feel the way they do. It's kind of like learning the Japanese language - the best way to become fluent is to live in Japan and use it every day.

And it's the same with anything we do really. The more we do it, the more familiar it becomes to us, the more we internalize it and make it our own. I think if you don't have that element there is definitely something lacking. You were talking about students being prepared before they went to Japan. We do a similar type of orientation. Because we have experienced going to the Taikai in Japan for Tamiya Ryu, we do tell the students what they can expect, that when they meet certain people at the Taikai, that this is how they should comport themselves and so forth. At last year's Taikai, during the testing part of the day, one group of older Japanese got up - I think they were testing for shodan - and for some reason fate conspired against this group and everything they did was problematic from the very beginning. They got all lined up and they started automatically doing their opening reishiki (etiquette) and the judges were all shouting "Yame! Yame! Yame!" ("Stop! Stop! Stop!") because nobody said "Hajime" ("Begin") yet.

So right from the very start these people had lined up and gotten ready to do their test, and the person who was judging or managing the test hadn't even said anything yet.

At the banquet afterwards where my students and Dianne and myself ate dinner with Tsumaki Sensei and Soke Sensei and members from the group in Yokosuka, Soke started going on and on in a very loud voice about how well the Americans and Westerners had performed and how this one group of Japanese couldn't hold a candle to them. Tsumaki Sensei was standing behind him whispering "Otoosan! Otoosan! Dame yo! Dame yo!" Like, "Quiet! Quiet! We don't want them to lose face," but Soke was apparently so pleased with how our students from North America performed that he just really wanted to make sure we knew it. I think being there was part of the reason they performed so well. Here they were, among hundreds of people doing the same thing that they do. Here in the United States they feel a little isolated, but that sense of community and camaraderie is one of those elements that is missing if you don't go to Japan and visit a dojo and interact with a group that does what you do.

DKB: That's all my questions, sensei. Thank you. I appreciate your taking the time for the interview.

MA: You're welcome.

More information about Tamiya ryu Iaijutsu and other traditional Japanese arts in East Lansing, and about the Michigan-Shiga Sister State program, is available through Michael and Dianne Alexanian's website, They can be contacted via email at

Photos Courtesy Shakunage Consulting, Inc.

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About The Interviewer:

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.

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

iaido, iaijutsu, martial arts, Japanese sword, katana, Tamiya Ryu, kata, bunkai, budo

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

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