Interview with Tetsuzan Kuroda by Stanley Pranin

“Originally, kata training with a partner was conducted in a world where you didn’t get a second chance if you couldn’t parry the attack. It was a world where you couldn’t offer excuses and say, ‘Let me do it again!’…”

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 disscussion which provides an in-depth glimpse into the concept of kata and the psychology of samurai warriors expressed in modern terms.

Editor: 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.

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.

A teaching called zegoku itto no koto has been transmitted in Japanese swordsmanship from olden times. When confronting an opponent one aims for a level where the movements of his mind and body control the opponent before he swings his sword. This is the highest level of swordsmanship. It seems to be a rather abstract spiritual teaching, but that’s not at all the case. It is an “invisible” technique which consists of advanced technical movements and the workings of the spirit based on these movements. All martial arts training begins with learning how to perceive this invisible element.

It may be dangerous to talk or write about things which cannot be seen with the naked eye, but we cannot understand what the bushi [samurai warriors] of earlier eras have bequeathed to us unless we recognize the fact that an inner vision capable of perceiving these unseen things is the basis of the martial arts.

Since the vision of ordinary people is only partially developed, they can only see those things which are visible to the eye. For that reason, people are completely unable to see true things. However, there are also instances when people are able to easily accomplish things that could be considered impossible as a result of knowledge acquired through training. It sounds like a matter of religion if I talk about hearing things which cannot be heard or seeing things which cannot be seen, but please understand that I am referring simply to an individual’s latent knowledge.

How was it that you arrived at this way of thinking?

Kuroda Sensei: Previously, I had my doubts that this knowledge was directly related to the martial arts, or that the practice of martial arts kata would enable one to read people’s minds. However, as it is expressed in the writings of my grandfather Yasuji, training in the martial arts is learning how to achieve unity of the sword and body, that is, of techniques and mind. If we ask how to achieve this unity, this answer is through the practice of kata. Everything which the traditional bushi attempted to transmit to future generations is contained in the kata. Through kata training, first of all, our eyes become opened.

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