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An Interview with Leonard Pellman, Author of Flashing Steel

May 9, 2008

Flashing Steel

What is Eishin-Ryu Swordsmanship?

The term “Eishin-Ryu” is a convenient abbreviation for Muso Jikiden Eishin-Ryu, which is the most widely practiced style of iaido or iaijutsu. “Eishin” refers to Hasegawa Eishin, a samurai of the late 16th and early 17th century who adapted iaido (which was probably called batto-jutsu at that time) to the recently shortened samurai sword we now call the daito or katana. So, it is the practice of samurai swordsmanship in the manner of Hasegawa Eishin.

What is the difference between iaido and iaijutsu? Which is your preferred term and why?

In practice, especially in the physical skills, there is no visible difference between iaido and iaijutsu. People who practice iaido perform the same techniques in essentially the same way as people who practice iaijutsu. The difference is chiefly semantic and therefore philosophical in nature, and there is no clear dividing line that separates the two.

Those of us in the Jikishin-Kai tradition prefer iaijutsu, because it denotes a koryu (“old school”) art—an apt description for a style that was founded in the late 16th century. The term iaijutsu also implies that the primary emphasis of training is on battlefield effectiveness, rather than on the artistic merit of its techniques. Merely calling a practice iaijutsu does not make it so. Instead, the intentionality of one’s training that makes it so. By calling the art iaijutsu, we are using a semantic distinction to underscore our philosophical approach to training.

What are the major benefits of iaijutsu practice?

In a nutshell, it makes life better. There is a Japanese proverb that sums it up nicely: “If you take the easy path, life is difficult. But, if you take the difficult path, life is easy.” Iaijutsu prepares you for the difficult path by developing discipline, positive attitude, character, and an unwavering determination to accept nothing less than success. This is the “difficult” path, because it requires personal commitment, endurance, patience, and effort—qualities that are rare in fast-food societies, but qualities whose payoff is a productive, meaningful, and fulfilling life.

You have written that literally translated, iaijutsu means “the art of remaining face-to-face.” What does the iaijutsu practitioner remain face-to-face with and what are the benefits and implications of this?

At the most basic level, it means being face-to-face with one’s opponent. Another term for it might simply be “close-quarters combat.” But, to fully understand the concept of iaijutsu, we must look at the nature of its techniques. In iaijutsu, the practitioner begins at what appears to be a tremendous disadvantage; that is, with a sheathed sword facing an opponent who, in most cases, has already drawn a sword and is either attacking with it or about to initiate an attack. In other words, you start each technique just one swing of the sword—a fraction of a second—away from death. So, the deeper meaning of iaijutsu is remaining face-to-face with death.

When, after years of training, one is able to fully internalize this concept of always being just a heartbeat or a blink of an eye away from death, it puts all of life into crystal-clear focus and priority.

One reader described Flashing Steel as “a masterwork of philosophy disguised as a technical manual.” What thoughts were behind the decision to interweave the meaning and tradition behind iaijutsu with technical information and procedures?

We never considered any other alternative! For Sensei and I, the two are inseparable. Technique is derived from philosophy and philosophy is derived from technique. It is a further a reflection of our understanding of iaijutsu versus iaido. Without an appreciation of the philosophy and purpose of a technique, you are just moving around and swinging a sword. Only when coupled with its full meaning and purpose does a technique have any value to the practitioner.

Iaijutsu is a martial art with a fascinating history and lineage of teachers. How does this historicity affect and add value to the art and its practice?

For one thing, it means the techniques really work! They have been proven over centuries of use. It also means that the art we practice, and the methods and philosophy we are being taught, are genuine—not something made up by a self-appointed “master.” For me personally, it provides a sense of connection to the past, together with a profound sense of responsibility to serve as a link in that connection to future generations as my small contribution to the art and to humanity.

The book’s foreword acknowledges the everyday acts of violence and terrorism that have become part of our daily lives and suggests that increased training in traditional martial arts could “create a safer, more peaceful world.” To those unfamiliar with martial arts, this might seem counterintuitive. What role can martial arts, and iaijutsu in particular, play in creating a culture of peace?

In iaijutsu we have a saying: “Onore ni katsu,” which means, “conquer your self.” Although we practice an art that appears violent on the surface, the purpose of our training is not to develop the ability to defeat an enemy, but to develop the character and discipline needed to conquer our own shortcomings and weaknesses. Violence is an act of fear and weakness. Those with strength of character don’t need to resort to violence. However, by virtue of our training, if someone else behaves violently, we also have the ability and courage to defend ourselves and others from them.

What first drew you to the practice of martial arts and iaijutsu in particular? What about iaijutsu practice do you find most illuminating and inspiring?

I was an exchange student to Japan in 1968. In 1973, I returned for a second extended visit. While there I attended the wedding of my elder Japanese “sister,” where her uncle performed a demonstration of the Seitei Kata (standard techniques). I was spellbound. His movements were graceful, yet obviously deadly, and his focus was so intense it was almost palpable. That day I decided I would someday learn this art, but I didn’t meet Sensei until 15 years later.

What I still find illuminating and inspiring is the fusion of philosophy with action that we discussed earlier, and the fact that no matter how much I train I always have so much more to learn.

What is the relationship between teacher and student in iaijutsu? Who are some of the most influential teachers you have had?

My only true iaijutsu teacher has been Shimabukuro Sensei. I have been privileged to have attended a few days of training with Miura Hanshi and some of his other high-ranking disciples, but Shima Sensei is the only one with whom I have a true student-master relationship. Again, we have a saying: “Shi-tei fu ni,” meaning “master and disciple are not separate.” Even though we are separated by some 2,000 miles, we still think alike and share a bond that is unique to the master-disciple relationship. Even though we have some fundamental differences—in our cultural heritage, religion, life experiences, and so forth—when it came to writing Flashing Steel we were completely of one mind.

The first edition of Flashing Steel was published in 1995. What are some of the major differences readers can expect in the updated and revised edition?

The most notable difference is the updated photography. In the original edition, our approach was to photograph only the major points of action and describe the movements that connected each photograph to the next. In the Second Edition, we took the opposite approach, using photographs of the intermediate stages of movement to fill in the gaps. As a result, we went from about 350 photographs to over 1,700 in the new edition. Our early feedback from readers is that this has made the techniques much easier to follow. Also, between the publication of the first and second editions, the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei added two new Seitei Kata, which we included in the Second Edition. Of course, little has changed in the history, traditions, and philosophy of iaijutsu, but we also tried to clarify our explanations of many of the vital philosophical or historical issues in the Second Edition.

What are some further resources for those interested in learning more about iaijutsu or beginning to train in the art?

Of course, we still offer the 7-part video series that Sensei and I made shortly after Flashing Steel was originally published. The Jikishin-Kai International (JKI) now publishes a quarterly newsletter for members, and each issue contains information that either amplifies or adds to the body of knowledge in Flashing Steel. And Sensei and Carl Long recently collaborated to produce a video series on the Eishin-Ryu Batto-Ho techniques that are not described in Flashing Steel. These are all available on the JKI web site (http://www.jikishin-kai.com).

What do you think the future holds for iaijutsu?

Since the original publication of Flashing Steel in 1994, interest in traditional, authentic iaijutsu has dramatically increased. Much of this is due to the unflagging dedication and efforts of Shimabukuro Hanshi. But I also think that a good deal of that growth has been because people all over the world are recognizing the value of training in these traditional koryu arts and seeking out the information and instruction. I’m quite certain the Internet has had much to do with this. So I see a bright, long, and growing future for iaijutsu worldwide in the years ahead.

What are you working on now? Can we expect more writing on martial arts from you in the future?

I am personally working on two major projects at this time. One is my doctoral dissertation. My research field is human performance technologies, and my dissertation focuses specifically on the correlation between the pervasive use of networking technologies and the dramatic increase in managerial and knowledge worker stress.

The other is a comprehensive book on Okinawa kobujutsu—the ancient weapon arts of the Ryukyu Islands, such as the bo (6-foot staff), sai (3-pronged truncheon), tonfa (grinding-wheel handle), kama (sickle), eku (boat oar), and nunchaku (flail). Once again, my goal is to elevate people’s understanding of these arts by integrating their history and philosophy with the techniques presented. I expect to complete it early next year, and I’m hoping Blue Snake will be interested in publishing it!

So, yes, I think it’s safe to say that you can expect more material from Sensei, me, and perhaps others of his senior disciples.

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