Interview: “The Meaning of Martial Arts Training…”

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.

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.

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.

The above touches on a conundrum: how to present a practice, like aikido, to someone who has not done it before. Of course it is bad marketing to talk about all of the frustrations, as well as to be at a loss for words and struggle to convey that which can’t be verbalized. Usually, the tactful way to navigate this situation is to use general words and talk about results and experiences that an outsider might not only understand but find attractive. The catch is to include a hint of that which might keep the outsider curious or piqued, not leave with a sense of completely knowing what you’ve talked about. Of course, another effective way is to have the person see the practice him/herself, which would mean relying on the visual impact, or even experience a sliver him/herself (e.g., execute a throw), which would mean relying on conveying a feeling that is graspable i.e, not overwhelming, yet leaves a pleasant or inspiring impression.

The conundrum is seen in other forms, when the parties involved in the hypothetical conversation are at different depths of the practice, and/or have different inclinations to maintain or change their depths. For example, someone who is comfortable at their depth of practice may have some difficulty grasping how someone may be at a greater depth, or trying to change and go deeper. This disconnect is likelier if the person is not only comfortable with their depth, but either perceives that they have gone as deep as any normal or reasonable person would go, or haphazardly presumes that they have gone deeper than the other person.

From my experience, what has helped to navigate this conundrum is to continually try to get past my perception that my depth is this or that deep, that I know easily and thoroughly the other person’s depth, experience, place on “the path”, etc., and to let go of my tendency to cling to grasping the situation, the other person, and myself. These allow me to be freer to experience my own feeling, to be curious and interact more creatively and spontaneously with the other person, and to experience the pleasantly and constructively unexpected. This is all a lot to balance when there is an actual difference in experience, ability, etc., particularly when one’s role relative to the other person is to guide, help, advise, etc.

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.

This struck me as something many westerners would have a gut reaction against. It’s very patriarchal-sounding, regardless how true it is. It has a very clear, “I know more than you. I’m the teacher,” kind of vibe. Granted, it’s about ideal, or “true”, teachers. But for the interviewee, it’s simply about “teachers”. This presents a problem when the student is from the modern world, and has thoughts like, “Wait. Why does this person act like they know more than me? Why are they telling me things as if they know what I think, want, feel, etc.?” This amounts to the modern person responding with caution or skepticism, particularly to the opinions and perspectives of another human being. There is sometimes even a defensiveness, with a person jumping immediately to extremes e.g., “One shouldn’t simply blindly follow and obey everything a teacher tells them, etc.”

When I try to recall how I was when I was younger and met some influential people, such as my teacher, at the time I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t think outside certain small limits, etc. I reckon that my teacher either knew consciously or intuitively had the sense to leave alone and guide/intervene in the right degrees. As a person who has some limited experience in the teaching/leadership position now, I can tell that I myself have a better ability and sense to intervene or leave others alone i.e., leave alone to experience for themselves that which they might need to, that which they may have as a central theme or obstacle in their life, that which they need to overcome or go through at the time that fits them, etc. I’ve also come to know for myself that this is mostly about an intuitive sense, and only with exception some rational, linear, verbalize-able thing. The relationship aspect is interesting, such as when a student asks/challenges the teacher to “Prove it!”. Oftentimes discussion on the matter involve whether the teacher has the ability to do respond, and when the teacher should respond. My experiences, very generally, of “wise” teachers is that they will let you reject/challenge them and continue to relate with you without necessarily or directly responding to your challenge. So they’ve “intervened” i.e., taken some action, by acknowledging where you’re coming from but relating with you in a way that you may not have expected. Another way to say this is, relating with you in a way that draws out from you another way of relating. (This is touched on below: “drawing out a person’s spirit”.)

It may be constructive to grasp a student’s skepticism or wariness as a stage rather than a permanent state. It reflects the way the student currently sees and processes. From this initial stage, the teacher/senior and the student gradually get to know each other and establish some sort of rapport. If that rapport is one that is characterized by more straightforwardness and trust, then, as the student, you may feel open to having more faith in your teacher or senior, and accordingly feel more humility, gratitude, and desire to be service, while they may feel more inclination to share with you honestly and openly, without distortions such as sadism, need for control, or condescension.

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.

This speaks to what a budo teacher does to make him/herself a “true” teacher. There is ultimately no disconnect or separation between the roles. There is always a grasp, or understanding, of the other, the partner/opponent. This is not just about being able to talk about what the other part, or role, does, but seeing and knowing for oneself what the other person is doing now, and what they should be doing.

The “spiritual exchange”. This is the communication that is at a high level, that not only accesses but draws out something essential of the other person. The high level of “talking” and “listening”, of giving and receiving, of waiting and initiating/inviting. Very different from an exchange in which the other person needs only to give pithy, conditioned responses; the teacher, in this situation, does not let the student get away with that, while avoiding overwhelming the student with such demands.

There is some important distinction between just form and form with substance. It isn’t that you have to do something not resembling form or deviating from form if you are to have an exchange with substance. In fact, if your practice, such as budo, centers around repetition of forms, your doing the form should be more and more with substance. “With substance”, here, meaning more of you, straightforwardly, in a way that you reach and draw out much of your partner/opponent.

The characteristics of “shi” and “uke” further below.

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.

How to seek out and find such demanding situations while practicing aikido? First, before seeking out challenging situations indiscriminately, one should be mindful of what challenges are likely going to be to one’s benefit. There are many who expose themselves frequently to challenging situations, and cite the frequency  or degree of challenge as the basis for the validity of their practice or ability. When we see the ability of such a person, or their practice as they conduct it in an everyday kind of way, we should ask, what is their practice getting them. What do they seek for themselves by their practice?

One of the ways to be discriminating is to be able to know when one is encountering openings or not, when one is going against an opponent who is filling openings or not. Thus, when one is challenging oneself in a competition or some like situation, one should be mindful of the exact kind of challenge one is facing. Is it superior athletic ability? Youth? Personality e.g., aggression, fearlessness, recklessness? Is it at a time when one’s own state is less than optimum? Is it quietly filling openings? Is it simply being without openings?

Certainly it is stimulating and likely beneficial to interact with those whose sensibilities one is unfamiliar with. At the very least, one can experience the state of being startled or disoriented. And from there, work on how to be still, settled, and yet act and move.

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.

The above touches on how the seeking of challenges, or tests, is ultimately about oneself. Regardless of the result, did you move the way you wanted to? Did you fully act in the way that you were able to, in you “as is” state? Were you able to notice, or sense, this about your state? in the here-and-now? And how you have been training – how does it contribute to how you are, in the moment, under these specific pressures, these circumstances?

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.

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.


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.

This objection by the interviewer is common. “There is too much matching/colluding/collaborating in aikido.” One clear episode I have in memory is a series of interactions with Osawa sensei about how one should act, as uke, particularly with less experienced partners. At the time, I walked away dissatisfied with the overall answer from him, which was to really match the partner, even to the extent that partner doesn’t feel struggle or effort at throwing you down. Now, I appreciate that his answer struck more at the essence of what aikido practice – a practice without contests and in which you partner with people of various levels, temperaments, etc. – is about. BUT, the big caveat is, pay attention to openings, to kokyu, to vibrations. Just because you go in the same direction as another person, it doesn’t mean that you are in harmony or agreement with them. All the more so if you know which way the other person is supposed to go. If you do this latter thing, it is “just about form” and not about creative interaction, about exchanges of spirit. This is a very difficult proposition (to grasp intellectually as well as practically): how to be demanding of a partner, so that they interact with you on an essential level, not just form; how to interact with a partner so that you draw out their spirit; how to be, such that one interact and relates with a partner with the result that the interaction is more with spirit than just form.

The interviewer’s objection reflects a common perspective, from which one expects that the various demands (e.g., to see the opponent’s openings, close one’s own openings, act/move to one’s fullest potential, sense the energy and kokyu, particularly as it is attacking, encroaching, etc.) are from the external. Just to take energy as one example: it’s easier to sense and act (e.g., defend) relative to something that’s coming to get you; it’s harder to sense and act relative to someone/something that’s not intent on coming to get you or even relate to you fully; this is not about someone who is not interested in you – it’s about someone who is perhaps less experienced and less able to relate to you fully.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.


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