Issue 13.6: Dec. 2010 - Jan. 2011

Sensei of the Sword

Story by Paul Wood
Photos by Matt Mallams

Komei Sekiguchi is the twenty-first head master of a rare and rigorous Japanese martial art known as iaijutsu. He holds his katana, or sword, a venerated weapon with a blade that is three feet long.

The large room is quiet,
its stillness broken only by the occasional whistling of a razorsharp steel blade arcing through the soft morning air. Or the metallic ringing of sword sliding against sword. Or now and then a harsh kiai (yell) from a student executing a centuries-old maneuver designed to deliver instant death.


The setting is the Okinawan Community Center in Paukukalo, Central Maui. It’s a serene, high-ceilinged room with ample floor space—space being a critical consideration when you’re wielding weapons that are over three feet long. Twice weekly this room serves as the dojo (training hall) for Komei Juku Beikoku Honbu, a small Maui group that is the US headquarters of a rare and rigorous Japanese martial art known as iaijutsu or iai.


But this week the schedule is different. This week in early September the Maui students of iai—there are only a dozen or so—are at the dojo every day, for this is the high point of their year. Sekiguchi Sensei, the grandmaster of the art form they study, has traveled from Tokyo to refine and encourage their practice. The Maui students are dressed uniformly in traditional black-and-white gear, shod in white tabi (socks). Their sensei (teacher) stands apart, clad in sapphire robes embroidered with golden inscriptions. He is a short man though formidable and rock-steady. With sword in hand he is a living samurai, his face an empty mask, his movements swift and true, his kiai— “eee-EE!”—like a gunshot.


Weapon down, he projects a boyish enthusiasm and warmhearted wit. Because he speaks almost no English, he relies on theatrics, pantomiming his stories, passing out Japanese candies, manipulating the students bodily to convey his points, sometimes resorting to a pocket-sized electronic Japanese-English dictionary. He is the embodiment of aiki in yo ho: blending soft with hard. Soft on the outside, hard on the inside.


Komei Sekiguchi, now in his mid-60s, is the twenty-first head master of an antique discipline known properly as Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaijutsu, a cultural heritage transmitted by the Tosa Yamauchi family and presented to Sekiguchi in the 1980s by the twentieth head master, Masamitsu Onoue. Iaijutsu is respected but not widely practiced even in Japan. As Sekiguchi often says, “Iai is easy to enter, easy to quit.” There are no colored belts to measure levels of achievement. There are no contests to win, no opponents to best. “No need opponent,” Sensei reiterates as he works with his students. “Biggest enemy of self is myself.” 




Simply put, iai is the art of quickly drawing the sword in self-defense and immediately slaying the attacker. The practice consists of tireless repetition of certain kata, or quick routines. Each kata is begun in a state of alert calm, usually kneeling. Then, in a seamless sequence of ceremonial gestures, the martial artist will rise, deliver a fatal downward stroke, quickly shake (figurative) blood from the sword and with great mindfulness return the weapon to its scabbard. There is a kata for responding to every conceivable form of ambush, and every micro-element— angle of blade, elbow, foot, eyes—is analyzed and rehearsed until proper form becomes automatic and the artist can focus instead on inward qualities such as moral correctness and dou chuu sei (serenity while in motion).


The edge-of-death discipline of iai arose of necessity during the Edo period in Japanese history, a time when conflicts were being resolved not in armored ranks on the open battlefield but in everyday dress on city streets and down alleyways. Conditions required an acute awareness of the present moment, a deep inner peace and lightning-quick responses more intuited than planned.


Such qualities are valuable in themselves, so as urban bloodletting became less acceptable and as the samurai class took on more sedentary administrative roles in Japanese society, iai took on new purposes: preservation of samurai culture, rigorous physical training, spiritual discipline above all. Thus, the sword—one of humanity’s finest killing tools—became a means of attaining inner peace. “My school, peace,” says Sensei. “Other schools, maybe not.”


He’s moving among his Maui students, who stand in repose. A session in dojo with him is mostly silent. When students do need to scurry through energetic motions, he says to them, “More quiet.” He clarifies: “The meaning of ‘quiet’ is not silence, but ‘more calm.’” He tells a story of a martial arts contest in which one side cheered and stomped like football fans and the other behaved in the appropriate manner, bowing, without ego attachment to the notion of “winning.” He uses household electricity as his metaphor to characterize different approaches to martial arts training.


Schools that clash and compete, he says, are like “DC,” direct current. Schools that emphasize the give-and-take between opponents he likens to “AC,” alternating current. Using his electronic dictionary, he punches up a word meaning “circuit” or “circular path.” With hand gestures he suggests that the energy in iai always cycles through the students—through their hands, hearts, minds—and through the Earth itself. He speaks of “heart-to-heart contact” and of peace.


The leader of the Maui group, Robert Montgomery, or “Sensei Bob,” has already told me, “For Sensei the inner qualities are more important than perfect accuracy of form. Inner calm, attentiveness, awareness of everything around you.”


The students come from a variety of backgrounds. One’s an artist. One’s a masseur. One owns a dive company. One’s a college-bound high school graduate. One woman teaches sixth grade. She brings her granddaughter. Sensei Bob is a retired businessman now in his late 70s. He studied for many years in Japan with Sekiguchi Sensei, and he manages the US branches of this martial art. Sekiguchi has students in more than fifty countries (Lithuania, Holland, Cuba …) in addition to the eight hundred students associated with his main Tokyo dojo, the Komei-juku.




In this training Sensei uses three words again and again: Contact. Communication. Peace. The students pair up, raising sword tips to touch. Now instead of solo kata, they will move together under his guidance. He has come to provide the narrative behind their disciplined solo work.


The swords touch. Contact. Now what? It’s an improvisation—one moves, the other intuits a response. But this is not fighting. “Communication,” says Sensei. He takes one of the students in his hands and moves him gracefully across the dojo floor. This improvised duet looks for a moment like dance class. “Communication.” The students return to sword-on-sword action, moving forward and back, the paired kata resolving ritually as one student’s weapon stops just above the other’s skull or to the right side of the neck.


Then peace and noto (the return of the sword to its saya, its scabbard). This sheathing of the weapon is no casual gesture. It is the goal of all previous exertions, and it is alarming to watch. One hand surrounds the very mouth of the scabbard. The other hand extends to its farthest while holding the tsuka, the handle of the weapon. The blade’s tip gets inserted into the scabbard mouth. Then the sword, its razor edge up, runs swiftly home just centimeters from the hand of the warrior.




Sensei Bob explains, “The essential thing is to take all that energy and put it away. So you know it’s waiting there until you pull the sword again.” He adds, “The next level is to win with the sword still in the scabbard. Win through negotiation.” He shares the following as a typical saying of Sekiguchi Sensei: “The sword is a tool by which the warrior can judge himself, by his disciplined effort to nurture and show respect for others. Wearing a sword is an outward expression of the warrior’s preparedness in all circumstances.”


Sensei moves through his training time fluidly, without apparent formal instruction or plan, responding intuitively to the students. After a break, for example, the advanced students sit in a row watching as Sensei sits on the dojo floor shoulder-to-shoulder with Michael, the college-bound lad. With gestures, Sensei dares Michael to attempt to grab and steal his sword. For the next half-hour without speaking a word, Sensei presents a fascinating sequence of simple moves that thwart his “opponent”: a twist of the scabbard and the torso that turns the opponent directly onto the open blade; a spin that squeezes the opponent’s arm in a vise grip; another easy turn which has the opponent tumbling across the dojo floor.


“Very important,” Sensei says. “From outside, looks very violent. But inside, about communication and peace.” Then Sensei brings another student forward to attack him all-out. They both have bared swords drawn. Sensei neatly deflects and reverses every one of the student’s lunges. Then Sensei exchanges his sword for a short knife and still manages to defend himself gracefully against the student’s sword. Finally Sensei stands weaponless and barehanded, and he succeeds in defusing strike after strike from a swinging samurai.


After the display there is no applause, no explanation. Sensei ends by saying simply to the students, “So now we just do kata.” Then he turns to look at me and says, “Human communication.”


At the end of the training session, the students talk freely about their experiences. The sixth-grade teacher, whose name is Sarah, says, “I was a very clumsy kid, always falling down the stairs. So this wasn’t easy for me at all. When I first started coming here a year and a half ago, I would confuse right and left. I’m so much more flexible now, more relaxed. Everybody’s so nurturing here, so willing to show and to teach.” In fact, one of the five tenets of Komei-juku training is this: “We the students … will be cooperative and will endeavor to bring benefit and prosperity to each other.”


As a relatively new student, Sarah prefers to work with the wooden practice swords, avoiding the holy terror of live steel. But she admits that the lethal steel has an amazing ability to make a person alert, present and honest. Ironically, though, instead of turning the dojo into a violent, competitive place, the swords demand a reverse response. Says Sarah, “The dojo is a quiet place in this noisy world. While I’m here, that whole other world is gone for a while. It’s meditation time. Me time. I get energized coming here.”


That energy seems to come through and from the swords themselves. Sensei Bob has me hold one. The long, mirrored sword slides forth, silver extending from the black scabbard, the tsuka ample enough for both hands, the weight of it not much more than a nine-iron golf club but the arcing blade keen enough to nick the wings off a flying moth. I mention the paradox of it all, that such a weapon of war could become an instrument of inner peace. Sensei Bob’s face wrinkles into an enthusiastic smile. “That is,” he says, “one of the more challenging and interesting things about it.”