The text below was published in Aiki News [later renamed Aikido Journal] #95 which appeared in summer 1993. www.aikidojournal.com
"In the world of traditional Japanese martial arts, kata or fixed forms constitute the essence of technique and guarantee the integrity of a martial system over the course of time. Aiki News editor-in-chief Stanley Pranin joins Yoshinori Kono and one of Japan's leading swordsmen, Tetsuzan Kuroda, the headmaster of the martial legacy of the Kuroda family, in a discussion which provides an in-depth glimpse into the concept of kata and the psychology of samurai warriors expressed in modern terms."
Pranin: As you know, the "Aiki Forum" section of Aiki News is devoted primarily to presenting people outside the world of aikido. I would like to ask you several questions about your family martial arts system. Your first name, Tetsuzan, is rather unusual. Is that your original given name?
Kuroda Sensei: Yes. At first glance it seems like an adopted name, but it is actually my real name. The fact that it is such an important sounding name has caused me some problems.
Pranin: Many aikido instructors attach great importance to the sword. Would you describe the characteristics of your sword training method?
Kuroda Sensei: Since we stress kata [forms]
training just as is done in other traditional Japanese martial arts, I
don't think there is anything that can be said to be particularly different
in our method. I teach concrete, practical mental and physical techniques
to enable students to realize the essence of the art through these kata.
Pranin: How was it that you arrived at this way of thinking?
Kono Sensei: First of all, I think one of the characteristics of training at Kuroda Sensei's dojo is that his understanding of the role of kata and the general understanding of kata in the martial arts world is quite different. I believe that from the Mejii period until modern times, including before World War II, kata were considered to be a substitute for actual combat. However, it is important to recognize that a person's body doesn't always move as he wills it. After understanding this, it is these kata that free you to become able to move in a technically correct manner. Nowadays, our understanding of kata is extremely vague. Therefore, Kuroda Sensei's ideas will, I think, be of great interest to people involved in aikido.
Pranin: Kuroda Sensei, do your thoughts concerning kata derive from the classical martial arts or are they uniquely your own?
Kuroda Sensei: I think it would be to
correct to say that they are unique to me. I could not get anyone to teach
me the things I most wanted to know when I was practicing kata. However,
it is only that I, a modern person, have explained the traditional kata
using modern terminology. The kata themselves have been preserved in exactly
their original form. Also, when I became able to see those invisible things,
I think I was actually able to see more clearly what the samurai devoted
their lives to because the kata were retained in their original form.
That's how my father would explain things
to me when he raised me. It is possible to perform kata training alone.
When your ability has progressed to the point that you can no longer see
bad points in your movements, you ask a senior to teach you by receiving
your uke. Then you can advance to the next level and the next. As a result
the kata becomes faster and faster. Movements executed at a speed visible
to the eye become invisible and a speed involving no movement evolves.
A gradual change in the ability of your eyes to see and the quality of
your movements occurs as you continue to progress in kata training. This
is why the samurai were able to stake their lives on it.
Pranin: Are these the principles which were taught by your grandfather Yasuji?
Kuroda Sensei: Yes. If you watch the
movement in a mirror you will understand clearly too, but if you see it
happen this way it doesn't at all seem that I have avoided the attack
of my opponent. Here, what will happen if I move my body to avoid the
attack by tilting to the left and I offer the explanation that the movement
of the kata did not actually avoid the attack? If this should happen then
what was transmitted by my grandfather would be lost. The kata, which
were handed down by bushi who said that jujutsu is so fast as to be invisible
to the eye and that throwing people was as simple as taking off a haori
[Japanese half-coat], would be destroyed and disappear. What I am trying
to explain here is the essence of the method for avoiding an opponent's
Pranin: Did your grandfather think about kata in a similar way?
Kuroda Sensei: Not at all. He just told
me to use the kata properly. For example, I was often told to lower my
hips. Sometimes even when I took a stance called iaigoshi and I lowered
my hips so far that my left knee almost touched the floor I was told that
my hips were still too high. This is the same thing that my grandfather
himself was told by my great-grandfather, Masakuni.
Pranin: Did your grandfather actually show you the kata himself?
Kuroda Sensei: No. When he began correcting
me after I had started training here seriously, my grandfather was already
in his last years and so he mostly taught me orally. As a result, about
the only times I was able to see his movements was when he gave an outside
demonstration. Even that was only about once a year. But, even though
I say "see," I tried as hard as possible to understand his invisible
movements which I couldn't grasp since I lacked the true ability to see.
I was unable to see the essence of his movements even though he showed
them to me so clearly. I desperately tried to understand his movements,
which would not have been diffcult if I had known the kata. He didn't
even draw my attention to the fact that I was overlooking the essence
of the techniques. In other words, my grandfather regarded training in
a different light than we do today. He recognized only things he could
see as visible.
Pranin: Training exchanges for the purpose of researching techniques and practice among different teachers is not common in the aikido world, but you and Kono Sensei have engaged in training exchanges. How did you happen to meet Kono Sensei?
Kuroda Sensei: Kono Sensei wanted to observe my practice and that is how he first came here.
Kono Sensei: That was in May 1983. When I visited, we spent from six to about 10:30 p.m. in a small restaurant talking about things, including episodes about his grandfather, Yasuji Sensei and the latter's father, Hiroshi Masakuni Sensei, and I forgot all about the time. Then, the following month I was invited to the first traditional martial arts demonstration of the Saitama branch of the Dai Nihon Butokukai association.
Kuroda Sensei: I knew very little then.
Kono Sensei: Still, the night I visited was quite a shock for me. If I had merely been told exciting tales, I might only have listened half-heartedly since there are many such stories, but I sensed an authentic quality in Kuroda Sensei's way of talking and a power which was different from what a person would feel simply hearing stories from his grandfather. I was really overwhelmed.
Pranin: Then it was after that experience that you began training exchanges with Kono Sensei.
Kuroda Sensei: That started about one
year after I first met Kono Sensei. At that time my biggest weak point
was jujutsu. I just did the movements of the kata sequentially and my
uke would take the falls.
Kono Sensei: I was truly amazed at his enthusiasm for training and the speed of his progress. In our training exchange in February 1989 his movements still felt jerky, but four months later in June, he could execute the movements smoothly and it felt as if you were being pulled into his technique. It was like a white belt progressing in four months to fourth or fifth dan in another martial art.
Pranin: I would like to have Kuroda Sensei explain here in detail how he reevaluated his family jujutsu, known as Shishin Takuma-ryu, and about the so-called invisible movements.
Kuroda Sensei: My exchange training at
that time with Kono Sensei really caused me to study hard. My students
didn't understand how they were becoming unbalanced, nor did I understand
anything except that my execution of the kata which had previously been
rigid had now become soft.
Soon after that my students started saying they couldn't see my movements. I first thought that they were saying something to the effect that they couldn't see my movements because I executed them quickly in a single rhythm. At that time--the situation is still the same--because there was no one more advanced than me and I couldn't see the actual movements of a more advanced person, I asked a lot of detailed questions of my students such as, How was the movement I just did? or How is this? and I was completely dependent on their ability to perceive invisible things. Then the students, who in the beginning had responded that they didn't understand, became able to see. Little by little they became able to point out the details of the distortions in my movements. I thought to myself how helpful if would have been to have someone of at least my level to show me the same movements, but that too is a matter of fate.
My training progressed especially during
that period when I had my students watch my practice every day. They told
me that my movements were invisible. Just after they enrolled they said
that I was fast, but my later movements were invisible to the eye compared
to my earlier way of moving. They said that they could only understand
the beginning and end of the movements. Soon, even when I would move unintentionally
they would say they couldn't see it. I said, Really? and asked
which movement was invisible. Naturally, when I did the movement looking
in the mirror, since I was moving consciously it felt fast and I actually
experienced it as being fast, despite the fact I was watching deliberately.
At that time, I was actually able to experience for the first time what
are variously referred to as disappearing movements, speed
invisible to the eye, divine speed, and such things.
However, when I actually did this kind of fast movement in practice, even ordinary people could tell it was fast, but it was a false speed like that recorded with a stopwatch. The speed of a true movement is not like this and the beginning and end of the movement are almost simultaneous. Therefore, when I do the kata at normal speed or slowly, my students and people who are capable to some extent of seeing these things can understand the instantaneous changes in the true movements and say they are both fast. On the contrary, when I exert myself to do a movement attempting to show a bad example to beginning students, the same people say my movements are slow. However, beginners are the opposite, as I mentioned earlier, and can't tell what is fast and what is slow.
In any event, I was finally able to understand that original jujutsu was fast enough even to cope with the sword. Therefore, I now understand the role of atemi [strikes to vital points] in jujutsu. When your opponent is someone without inner sight, you can execute an atemi on him to any vital point without being parried.
Kono Sensei: Of course, I think this is something shared by all arts including kenjutsu and iajutsu, and does not include only jujutsu. Also, I think Kuroda Sensei's progress in jujutsu is related to the fact that he trained for a long time starting as a boy with Yasuji Sensei in an art which incorporates the use of weapons.
Kuroda Sensei: I am very pleased that Kono Sensei always evaluates me highly, but from the time I was a boy I was always sneaking out of training and I never received training the way my grandfather and those before him did. This has always caused me embarrassment. Therefore, I would again like to stress the fact that such emphasis being placed on someone like me and also the fact that I have acquired something which causes me to be evaluated highly is actually thanks to the kata.