An Article Explaining Seiza in Iaido
Reading comments of Nakamura Taizaburo a few years back, I became aware that the performance of iai from a seated position with an odachi was an odd sort of thing for a swordsman to be doing. As to why this is, a samurai entering a building would commonly leave the larger weapon at the entrance as a gesture of "I'm not here to murder you", and perhaps also to relieve one of the awkwardness of moving about with it. Indeed, even Musashi dismisses the idea of using a sword in a tight space; it would be exceedingly more practical to draw one's kodachi.
Recently however, I became curious again. In the occasional discussions that pop-up on the internet about Japanese history and martial arts, the Edo period and subsequent changes to samurai lifestyle and conflict in general are commonly presented as explanations for some of the apparent ineptitude in techniques associated with the era, seiza iai being one example. It seemed as good an explanation as any, but then I found this:
(Starting on page 3)
MODERN OMORI RYU PRACTICE
The Omori Ryu as it is practiced in the Muso Ryu is a highly formal set practiced for the most part from seiza. Great stress is placed on precise physical and mental form. The set is as much about reishiki as it is about Iaido, but since Budo begins and ends with reishiki, this is probably not a problem.
But why learn Omori first, what was the reasoning behind this choice instead of, say, a set of standing techniques. After all, the standing techniques are easier to learn, and they are "practical". Anyone seeing them would not be tempted to say that Iaido was less "combat real" than Iaijutsu. It probably isn't hard to reason why the Iai Hiza position is not used as the starting point. The pains in the left leg would just about guarantee that nobody would learn the proper techniques simply because of the distraction. What should probably be resisted however, is the temptation to say that since the Japanese student was used to sitting in seiza, it was a good starting point because it was familiar. Standing is even more familiar, and the position from which the sword is most likely to be drawn. Even if we accept Omori as the starting position, why would Nakayama Hakudo and Oe Masamichi then choose Iai Hiza techniques for the Chuden waza. The very last techniques we learn are the easiest.
Are they the easiest though? Surely the headmasters of the Muso Ryu from Hayashi Morimasa onward had some reason for making Omori Ryu the Shoden level. Letís assume they knew better than we and try to find some reasons.
The most striking thing about Omori is that a lot of the cuts are done from a kneeling position. This is handy because it doesn't allow the student to swing too far before the blade hits the floor. It removes the need to teach the student not to finish the cuts too low. Without being shown or told, the student discovers shibori and te-no-uchi, or at least discovers the need for them.
Kneeling also removes three out of seven joints from consideration while learning how to cut. This wisdom of this becomes apparent when you try to teach a beginner how to cut from a standing position. Tell a beginner to make a big cut keeping the hips low and the back straight. It won't happen. Now put the student on one knee and just ask for a big cut. The hips stay down since the toes, ankles and knees are not available to push them up. The back stays straight since if it moves the kneecap is likely to grind around on the floor. The hips stay square to the cut for the same reason. The student has only the shoulders and arms to swing with allowing you to concentrate on them.
The seiza position itself is useful. The saya must be properly controlled or it hits the floor. The back can be kept straight since only one joint (hip) is involved in letting it bend. Nuki tsuke is simplified with only one possible orientation of the hips (forward). Spiritually, the student begins and finishes in the most humble possible position, one that is close to the floor. The position is vulnerable to attack and therefore can't be aggressive as can Kiza or Tachi Ai. Moving up to a standing position from seiza requires great leg strength, giving the student a good root into the ground. Sitting solidly in seiza allows the student to know what that root should feel like while standing.
The list of benefits is long, think about all the instruction you have ever received in Iai, almost all of it can be examined in the Omori Ryu.
Omori is Shoden, it is the teaching set. It is the place where we learn to walk, later we run. Counting the partner practices, the Muso Jikiden Ryu contains somewhere around 60 kata in total. The average person could probably memorize that many movements in a month so the object of Iaido must not be how many techniques we can memorize. The point is to perform one technique perfectly at the proper moment. For that you need only one technique but you need to be able to do it properly. The argument is the old one of quality vs. quantity. To do Iaido you must know how to cut, Omori Ryu teaches you. To do Iaido you must know how to carry your sword, Omori Ryu teaches you. Patience, perseverance, perspective, perception, perspiration and all the other P words of practice (yes, even pain) are taught in Omori Ryu. It is Shoden, as important as your first breath of air.
Malcolm Shewan, in his book on Muso Shinden Omori describes the kata as idealized and often impractical movements which are not meant to be battlefield maneuvers. Instead they are a matrix within which we can re-live the experience of the man who created the kata. Omori is a complete set and we should look at it as such, seeing the underlying principles of the whole. The set is not "beginner's stuff"; if we could perform a perfect Mae (Shohatto) we would achieve the perfection of Iai.
THE OBJECTIONS TO IAIDO AND THE RELATIONSHIP TO IAI-JUTSU
As was mentioned earlier, the fact that Muso Ryu begins with Shoden Omori has often created the impression that Iai-do is something overly concerned with form and etiquette, having nothing to do with "real" Iaijutsu. This is rather like watching someone hit a tennis ball against a wall and then saying the game is silly since the wall doesn't hit the ball back. Some of the comments on Iaido published over the last few years are informative.
Otake Ritsuke describes modern Iaido as being too fast on the noto; this is an affectation for show only and is dangerous. Iaijutsu instead emphasizes a fast draw and cut (haya waza) which is more realistic and practical.
Omori Ryu has a slow noto, but also a slow nuki tsuke. Both are slow to teach proper form. Chuden and Okuden contain haya nuki, fast draw, but even here, fast is not attempted until the draw is smooth.
Nakamura Taisaburo has several comments on Iai-do, claiming it is not practical or realistic. The comments are found in Draeger's Martial Arts and Ways of Japan.
1. Seiza was not a position the classical warrior would adopt, it cannot be done with the daisho (two swords).
The classical warrior was as likely to be wearing a tachi and a tanto as the daisho which was not popular until the Edo period. The shin-to or katana was not introduced until the middle 1500s and the matched daisho style was developed much later. The very warriors that would have carried and used the daisho, the Tokugawa era samurai, were those who developed and adopted the Omori Ryu. The upper levels of Muso Ryu Iaido begin from the "battlefield" positions.
2. The nuki tsuke of Iai-do is too slow; it exposes a suki (opening).
This is doubtless true for the beginner practicing Omori Ryu, but a beginner is almost by definition exposing suki most of the time. This would not change whether a slow or a fast nuki was being attempted. For the expert the draw can be slow or fast, the opening will not be there. As with most martial endeavors, speed is not as important is proper timing. If speed were all that was needed the heavyweight boxing crown would be held by a flyweight. The nuki tsuke of the Muso Ryu can be very fast in the upper levels of practice.
3. The kiri tsuke of the Iai-do student is weak since they lack experience with tameshi-giri (cutting practice).
To be flippant, there is no law that prohibits Iaidoka from obtaining straw while allowing Iaijutsu practitioners to use it. Tameshigiri can be practiced by anyone. When you begin practicing however, you have a better chance of succeeding if you have been taught the proper mechanics of cutting. A great way to learn this is by practicing Omori Ryu as was pointed out above.
4. The chiburi of Iai-do is not practical, only by wiping the blade on a cloth or a piece of paper would the blade be clean enough to return to the scabbard.
This is true. The Iai-jutsu of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu has a chiburi that consists of spinning the blade and then hitting the tsuka with a fist. The Toyama Ryu Iai-jutsu uses the exact same circular chiburi as does Omori Ryu. The chiburi "represented" by these motions would not be performed by the swordsmen involved after actually cutting someone or something. An Iaido exponent would doubtless use a cloth too.
5. The noto of Iai-do is too fast and is used only for show; the noto of the classical warrior is slow and demonstrates zanshin (lingering heart, awareness).
The student of Iaido had better demonstrate zanshin or the instructor will soon show its usefullness. As to the quick noto, it might be argued (by me only) that one should be ready for further attacks after finishing one opponent. One man thoroughly dead at your feet doesn't mean that all potential enemies are dead. By taking a long time to do noto you are leaving a suki of the same sort that is left with a slow nuki tsuke. In any case, fast or slow, drawing or sheathing you must be ready to change according to the circumstances. That is fudoshin.
6. The manners and customs of modern Iai-do students are careless. Most of them have a koiguchi that is chipped and scratched.
All beginners have a saya that is chiseled, nobody starts out perfect. Omori Ryu is a school that contains major influences from the Ogasawara Ryu Reishiki. Omori is a school of the manners and customs of the sword. It is also a school where the slow nuki tsuke is done, allowing the student to learn how not to scratch the koiguchi. A poor student of Omori Ryu will have poor manners but that is no fault of Iaido itself.
Nakamura goes on to say that modern practice should be a balance of old and new but the showmanship, sport and competition aspects should be discarded. The link between Kendo and Iaido should be recognized, the shinai is not a sword.
The article's author, Kim Taylor, appears to be a senior Iaido person in Canada (further details: http://www.uoguelph.ca/~iaido/).
There doesn't appear to be any citation for all the background and subsequent claims about Omori Ryu, but it doesn't seem particularly far-fetched either. It seems a lot more plausible than "Edo samurai were clueless", anyway.