Essential Principles of Nakamura Ryu Iaido

The late Taizabukuro Nakamura Sensei was unique in that he combined a mastery of swordsmanship with his unique ability as a calligrapher.

I was a taito honbun sha in northern China during World War Two; that is, I was officially authorized to carry a sword. More specifically, I was an army kenjutsu instructor charged with the task of teaching the battlefield techniques of sword, knife, and bayonet to both officers and noncommissioned officers of the imperial army.

I had received training in kendo before joining the army in 1932; in fact, at twenty years old, I was already a third-degree black belt in both judo and kendo when I enlisted. During unit training, I applied myself rigorously to all aspects of the military arts and taught kendo to the recruits, officers, and noncommissioned officers of my unit. In 1935 I was assigned to a “Boy’s Military School” as a kendo and jukendo (bayonet fencing) instructor. During this four year assignment, I also studied Omori Ryu Iaido. Then, in 1939 I was selected to attend the Rikugun Toyama Gakko (Toyama Military Academy).

I attended the Toyama Army Academy for six months and qualified as an instructor of jissen budo, the combat martial arts of sword, knife, and bayonet. These techniques differed from kendo and traditional iaido because they were for combat; they were exact, precise, and powerful. I may offend some, but these techniques were taught to kill effectively with one blow.

I also practice calligraphy. While teaching kenjutsu in northern China I was inspired with the thought that eiji happo, the eight rules of calligraphy, could be applied to swordsmanship. As I practised the ei character (this is to calligraphy what “do-re-me” is to music) I saw in my mind that these eight strokes of the brush traced the trajectories of the sword when cutting. The first brush stroke, soku, is the thrust of the sword tip; the second stroke, roku, is the left and right horizontal cut; the third stroke, do, is the vertical cut; and so on.

When I gazed at the finished ei calligraphy, I could actually see the eight cuts of the sword. Through my years of learning and teaching fencing I had sensed that there were few cuts in swordsmanship. When I contemplated the ei character, I was made to realize that there are only eight distinct cuts possible; any other technique, whatever artistic name it may have, is only a variation of the theme.

This realization was the beginning of my more profound understanding of swordsmanship. Eiji happo transformed to happo giri, which is auspicious since the Chinese character “ei” means eternal. Also, the number eight is both a lucky and auspicious symbol in Chinese numerology, indicating prosperity and implying myriad. Therefore, the eight ways of cutting are myriad and eternal.

I began to organize my realizations and ideas into a system of practical swordsmanship devoid of meaningless techniques. Through-out my research, I found that most old-school styles do not use the kesagiri (downward diagonal cut).

I wondered how this could be omitted-the kesa giri is the most natural cut to make, yet it was not being taught in either kendo or iaido. This must be due to the lack of objective, logical thinking: just passing on techniques without thinking into their deeper meaning.

I was determined not to fall into this mode of thought as I codified my ideas of fencing. My cutting techniques are effective in their simplicity: the thrust (either single or double-handed); the downward vertical cut; left downward diagonal cut; right upward diagonal cut; right downward diagonal cut; left upward diagonal cut; left horizontal cut; and right horizontal cut. No theatrics, just combat-effective techniques.

My system is based on studies of how to bring the sword blade to a halt following a cut, how to parry, and how to progress to the next combative posture by utilizing the sword’s kinetic energy.

The five kamae (fighting stances) are fundamental to kendo and iaido. They are the foundation of swordsmanship based on the old-school traditional styles and are the product of the painstaking research of our teachers’ teachers. However, I found that the five kamae were out of balance because they left defensive gaps on the left side of the body. To make up for this oversight, I incorporated three other kamae: left waki gamae, left hasso gamae, and right jodan gamae. So, adding to my inspiration of eight methodical cuts, I now incorporated eight defensive fighting postures.

There are various methods of noto, resheathing the drawn sword, which are extant; I have incorporated eight of them into my system. The Toyama Ryu technique of guiding only one third or one half of the blade into the scabbard is standardized throughout. This differs from the old-school technique in which the full length of the blade is dragged across the back of the left hand until its tip slips down into the scabbard mouth.

The eight noto which I incorporate are:

1) From chudan gamae, the right hand elevated as it draws the back of the blade across the left hand (Toyama Ryu).

2) Overhand grip, after left kesagiri.

3) Overhand grip, after right kesagiri.

4) From the reverse-sword position after left kesagiri, blade resting on right knee (Omori Ryu iaido).

5) From the reverse sword position after right kesagiri, blade on the left knee.

6) Overhand grip from chudan gamae.

7) From yoko ichimon-ji, so named because the sword looks like the horizontal Chinese character one (Omori Ryu).

8) From chudan gamae, the right hand lowered (Katori Shinto Ryu kenjutsu).

Here, I must say a few words about chiburi, throwing the blood from the blade. As performed in the old-school styles, the swordsman describes a huge “O” in the air, the blade travelling in a counter-clockwise direction. Beginning at the six o’clock position, the arm circles slowly to the twelve o’clock position, then it is brought forcefully down to the six o’clock position where it is abruptly halted.

The centrifugal force created by this movement is supposed to be enough to shake debris from the blade; however, this chiburi is ineffective. It is impossible to discharge flesh and blood so easily from the sword. The only sure method is to use a cloth or absorbing paper to wipe off the debris.

The chiburi used in Toyama Ryu iaido and Nakamura Ryu battodo is actually an “en garde position;” the sword is snapped down, point slightly elevated at knee level. From this position one can maintain zanshin, as well as convert easily to a thrust should you need to.

In creating Nakamura Ryu Happogiri, I have researched test cutting through an extensive range of experiences. I have killed three cows at war’s end so that hungry soldiers could eat. I have broken several meito (swords by famous smiths) in my dojo while experimenting-on two occasions by striking the blades on their back (muneuchi); and seven times just doing dodanuki (cutting straight down on a horizontal target). Also, as I have no experience with human targets, I accumulated knowledge directly from Takayama Masakichi sensei, who killed 40 people in China.

I have demonstrated test cutting many times on television, as well as during kendo and other martial arts tournaments. While performing test cutting, I always cut bamboo or thick rolls of rice straw as substitute targets. I always display the best sword techniques which I have gained from my experience: the blade angle-of-attack, blade arc-path, firm wringing grip, and spiritual aspects of the unison of sword, heart, and mind. This is true iaido, born from the basic sword of kendo and iaido.

From the seigan no kamae (a variation of chudan gamae), holding your sword with its tip pointed at your opponent’s eyes, it is said that “the sword is soul and heart.” Stand in chudan gamae, middle combative posture, with your heart as the core of yourself, like a big cedar tree. From this seigan no kamae you can generate ever-changing, kaleidoscopic techniques which are essential to both defense and offense.

Iai to wa,
hito ni kirarezu,
hito kirazu Jiko no renma ni,
shugi no michi.

Iai: not killing others;
not being killed by others.

Self-training and polishing,
the road to discipline and cultivation.

About the Author: Nakamura Taizaburo was born in 1912 in Yamagata prefecture. He resided in Tsurumi, Yokahama, where he presided over the International Iai-Battodo Federation until his death in 2003.