It is with great joy that I am writing these few lines of presentation about Ishido Sensei’s interview.
When I saw the beginning of the project proposed by Gabriele Gerbino I had some doubts if we would be able to make it happen. I’ve been proven wrong and you can’t imagine how happy I am that I was wrong.
We are welcome your summer holidays with an interview with Ishido Sensei, whose introduction is useless. Reading the words of the Sensei is always exciting and is a source of important reflections. We have the whole month of August to let them maturing inside us, read them and read them again, carefully!
Of course I want to thank Ishido Sensei for the patience and availability he has always had with us, Gabriele for this idea, for having setting up the interview and for the Italian translation with Anna Rosolini, Aurélien for having materially made it in the Kawasaki dojo and patiently translated it for us. Thank you so much for this work. At this time when contacts with Japan are limited, it is important to keep enthusiasm alive within us and find other forms of study and relationships.
I also take this opportunity to thank all the Kiryoku editorial staff for the huge work they have done till now.
Happy holidays and very good reading, but stay tuned because the surprises of this fantastic editorial staff are not over… we will meet again in September.
Translator’s note: this interview was carried out in the usual manner in Japan, i.e. with the interviewee giving his answers verbally and the interviewer then writing them down (or, in this case, translating them) based on notes/recordings. Therefore, the answers are not verbatim but have been paraphrased to convey what Ishidō Sensei means as accurately as possible. Any errors or misunderstandings are thus my own.
Interview with Ishido Sensei
Unfortunately, only very few of your interviews were translated in other languages, but in some of them you briefly mentioned the relationship with your father, O sensei, Ishido Sadataro. Can you describe a bit more in detail what kind of teacher he was for you?
He was very much a romanticist. He was also very strict but attentive and encouraging with me, often saying “that’s fine, you can do it”.
During your early budo development, did you have any “role model”, source of inspiration or goal that made you want to keep up the keiko and progress more and more?
I first started studying kendō from my father at the age of 5, taking up iai later when I was 10. At the time, I remember Sano [Shigenori] Sensei, who lived in Yokosuka and was under the All Japan Iaidō Federation (AJIF), had absolutely amazing iai, especially nōtō, but I was mostly taught by my father. Until 7dan, I only trained enough to pass each grading (about two hours a month) but I went to see the All Japan Iaidō Taikai taking place in November in Fukushima the day before my 7dan grading and noticed Kawaguchi [Toshihiko] Sensei, who got second place in the 6dan division. I found his iai to be utterly stunning. The next day, when I went out for my grading, at 31, I was number one in my group, Kawaguchi Sensei (36) was second, and Tamaki Atsushi Sensei (40) was third. We both passed and I asked Kawaguchi Sensei how much he trained per day and he replied “2-3 hours a day”. As I said, up until that point, I’d only been training 2 hours a month so I started thinking how much better I’d be if I trained every day. It was shortly after that that I encountered and was influenced by Hashimoto [Masatake] Sensei, Nukata [Hisashi] Sensei, and Sakamoto Kichirō Sensei from Ōsaka.
Was there any fellow iaidoka (not sensei) that kept you motivated?
In your opinion, what is the correct mindset to adopt to progress in iaido?
This is a very difficult topic. Although iaidō is a budō, as a specifically gendai (modern) budō, it is now practiced as a hobby and is thought of as such but it was originally conceived of as a job. In the Edo Period (1603-1868), it was a means to protect one’s family and home but this started to change in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) when the world of the warrior disappeared. One part of this change was the drastic decrease in the number of schools of budō from around 600 down to the 12 or 13 currently in existence under the ZNKR in addition to, I think, another 15 or so that remain outside of the ZNKR.
In terms of mindset, it should basically be taken as method of ningen keisei (an effort to achieve complete spiritual and physical maturation as a human being) but the finer details of one’s approach depend on the teacher. My own opinion is that, while the form represents the mindset of the past, it should be thought of in terms of its present incarnation as a hobby through which its goal of ningen keisei can be achieved.
In some other interview you said that a turning point for you was passing your 7th dan exam, after which you started to train long hours every day. Can you tell us more about this? What did your keiko regime look like? Was it solo practice?
As I’ve already mentioned, I only trained one hour or so a month until my first 7dan grading attempt in Kyōto and, when I failed, I started training two hours a month. Once I passed 7dan, in order to reach or surpass Kawaguchi Sensei’s level, I started training 6 hours a day from 9am to 3pm. In terms of the contents of that training, the first priority was to learn each kata correctly and, from there, sufficiently understand the riai and meaning of each kata. Once this was achieved, my training was aimed at ensuring that my own body and spirit were consistently moving in the right way.
Why should someone start practicing iaido today?
It teaches you how to live your life with an understanding of other people; this is why it is called “iai” [referring to the literal meaning of the two kanji used to write iai: 居 (“i”), meaning “to be”, and 合 (“ai”), meaning “to adapt”, “to match”, “to meet”, “to come together”]. You learn about interacting with other people, greeting them, listening carefully to what they have to say, and also being kind to those beneath you when speaking to them. Why do we do this? If you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, think about what you are saying from their perspective and ask yourself whether it is accurate, it will help to avoid confusion and discomfort on either your side or theirs and lead to harmony between you. But this also requires that your mind and body work be in synch; this can be achieved through iai.
What are your goals and future challenges?
There is no end to what I am doing – it’ll never be finished – and there is a lot to teach so my only goal is to keep going. There are always new people to meet, new ways of thinking and new things to learn but, as a human being, what I need to do and teach must be done and taught in the right way until the end.
…on relationship with Europe…
Recently, Louis Vitalis sensei released some of his Budo Memories in which he talks about the early development of Iaido and Jodo in Europe thanks to your precious help and input. Can you share with us these memories from your point of view? What major challenges did you face?
The first thing was the difference in countries, birthplaces, and ethnicities, not only different from Japan but different from each other. There are also differences in religion, language, and lifestyle. This is unlike Japan, although we do also have different ethnicities. The original inhabitants of Japan were the Ainu but others started arriving from various places and pushed the Ainu northwards towards Hokkaidō. Nowadays, people often say “we are the true people of Japan” even though, to me, that’s not quite correct. Australia is similar in this respect. This is not the case in Europe. What is a “true English person” or a “true French person”? It’s a very difficult topic but we must face up to it. For the last 43 years, I have been passing on the technical and spiritual sides of the ancient Japanese bu, dō, bujutsu, bushidō, and budō bearing these differences in mind and in such a way that those differences are understood by those I teach. I get a lot of questions on those topics at seminars and talk them through with people but, even after all this time, there is still a lot of work to be done and it remains one of the biggest challenges.
After 40+ years of budo relationship with Europe, what do you think of its current level and what do you envision for the future? What advice would you give to the new generation of european iaidoka and jodoka?
The current technical level in Europe is very high but the way of thinking is quite different. This is because we do things differently from before. Before, you listened to your teacher, practiced as long as it took to receive Menkyo-Kaiden, you became independent, but even then you didn’t follow your teacher until your death. In kendō in particular, people practice under many different teachers in many different dōjōs so it has been spoiled and lost its variety. However, in my dōjō, we are sticking to the old way so, for example, if a kendō student asks if he may also go practice elsewhere, he can do so with any worries but, in the case of iai, the student and I would discuss, I would give them a letter of instruction to give to the other teacher and they would then speak with that other teacher. This is no longer the way it is done in kendō, primarily because there is a lack of understanding of the role of the teacher and their relationship with their students. In Europe, this is further complicated by situations where, for example, someone begins training under a 3dan but eventually overtakes them and reaches 5dan or higher; they can’t really call that person their teacher anymore. People in Europe need to carefully consider what it means to be a teacher and the teacher-student relationship.
Last year you decided to establish a more structured Jikimon system. Can you explain how such a system is important?
This goes back to what I just mentioned with regards to the teacher-student relationship. The point of establishing the Jikimon system is to clear up any confusions with regards to those relationships in the international Ishidō group and clarify everyone’s relationship within the group.
Does your teacher-student relationship with European students differ from the teacher-student relationship you have with Japanese students who can regularly train in your dojo? If so, how?
I think it’s a bit more strict with my European students. With them and the wider Ishidō group in Europe, things have been clearly discussed, agreed, and confirmed (which doesn’t happen with Japanese students) so I think it’s a bit closer to the real thing.
In Europe, a lot of people stop practicing iaido around the 4th or 5th Dan. Not sure if the same happens in Japan as well, but it seems people struggle to keep practicing iaido their whole life. In your opinion, what are the major challenges blocking people to keep practicing iaido? What advice can you give both to them and to their teachers?
People might stop practicing for any number of reasons but I think the best way to practice such that people can stick with it is to not push yourself too hard and simply take your training one step at a time. Through your training, continue to grow as a human being. Just as in life in general, there will be bad times and good times but I think the best way to continue is by being honest with yourself both in life and in your training.
In Europe there are people and groups that think competitions are superfluous in budo. What do you think about that? How did competing shape your iaido development?
The truth is that competition is not necessary. We train for ourselves so competition is not the goal and, even when we take part in competition, we don’t face our opponent like in kendō. In either case (iai or kendō), I’m not sure how far you can trust the judging but, as a system, it’s there to check your level when you’re doing your best. On top of that, there’s also a sense of competition with the other person and it can also be a way to check yourself. To check whether you can compete and perform iai with a calm mind (heijōshin) without getting nervous or upset. For these reasons, I think that it’s better to take part in competition, particularly nowadays, when neither competitor will lose his or her life, unlike the old days when it was much harder as either one of you could live or die.
What would you say to people in Europe who are going through hard times without the possibility to train in the dojos, go to seminars or take part in taikais?
The current situation is making it very difficult for iai activities to continue, not only the technical side of training and improving one’s abilities but also the social aspect of meeting, talking, and training with one’s peers and teachers. The path of iai is difficult enough when we are able to train and not being able to is an added difficulty but there is no end to iai. I encourage people to have patience and take every opportunity to train when they can.
Also, think about the concept of the saying “bunbu ryōdō” (roughly “the cultural and martial ways together”); this means that a complete and well-rounded martial artist should be educated and erudite as well as a competent fighter. Physical training, which necessitates a space/dōjō, is only one side of practice and exercising one’s mind with study, which can be done anywhere, is the other. This is also connected to the idea of “jiri itchi” (“theory and practice as one”). So, people who are currently unable to practice can take this opportunity to explore the “bun” side of iai.
Very interesting article ! Thank you for posting. Kind regards. Patrik
This interview is so nice, I am reading for the third time and still learning from it. The fact that Ishido Sensei only trained 1-2 hours per month until 7dan gives me hope as I live in a foreign country, so no help at all with my daughter, I need to work and do domestic chores as well, so there is still hope for me to learn Iaido. Thank you for this amazing interview