Tachi-dori, the practicality of taking a sword from a skilled user.
From a recent encounter with my own shinken...
"The sword is deadly even in the hands of fools"
I think every serious student of iai will attest that to square off against a Japanese sword with one's empty hands is very much a futile endeavour.
Although within aikido we study several applications which involve "tachi-dori" (uke attacks with a bokken) unless a student is trained in Iai or some form of dedicated sword art, these 'attacks' often lack many principles akin to dedicated study of the Japanese sword... After all, aikido is a sword influenced art, not a sword art it’s self so it stands to reason that students won't handle a sword or bokken with absolute accuracy. The result of this situation is that aikidoists in general, fail to understand the dynamics of kirioshi (cutting action) and continue to rely upon kinetic (forward or rotational) motion of uke's body to facilitate their understanding of maai thus, being in a position effect technique *as they would* with strikes and empty handed blows however; empty handed blows and strikes - atemi and kirioshi are very different.
What we often fail to understand is that a Japanese sword cuts primarily on the back stroke using the last third of the blade (mono-uchi) to do most of the cutting, although a swordsman may well be projecting his energy 'forward' or towards his intended target, his posture will almost always be anything other than forward and the intention is to bring the sword very quickly back to one's centre.
In this situation, attempting to reply upon uke's body movement to assist in technique will result in tori being in the wrong place, and very much open to attack. Indeed a swordsman will also be looking to maintain his ideal maai and will adjust his position relative to his opponent even during kirioshi, making muto-dori 'no sword' application very difficult. It is understandable that we fail to comprehend the shear velocity with which the sword can be accurately wielded and, the wide range angles which can be achieved with little change in posture. This means we may well find ourselves attempting to deal with the weapon, rather than dealing with the person which is a primary tenant of aikido.
Muto-dori is in essence an absolute last resort, the risk is huge and requires absolute commitment. Distance and timing are of the highest importance however, unless a student understands the use of the sword themselves, it will be extremely difficult to judge when the time is right to attempt technique. Indeed the swordsman holds almost all the advantage and to attempt to apply empty handed technique will almost certainly result in injury; how severe ? That is indeed the question.
Within the book "Budo Hidensho" which was written/compiled in 1968. A loose translation courtesy of Jun Akiyama (aikiweb.com) reads...
Loosely translated from the section, "The truths regarding 'muto no jutsu'":
"Regarding the "Muto no jutsu" (the techniques/tactics of "muto"), it does not have to mean that we must always take away the opponent's sword. Also, it is not showing that one can take away the opponent's sword and make it into an achievement. It is the technique of not being cut when you do not have a sword yourself. The spirit of trying to take away the sword is not essential.”
Some commentary on the text states (translated),
"The "Muto Dori" of Yagyu Shingan ryu is rather famous, but there is no scarcity of the number of interpretations of its contents and meaning. When faced with a person who is wielding a live blade and without the benefit of armor, the "muto no jutsu" required to take away the sword is, in essence, throwing yourself into the worst possible situation yet still being able to achieve victory."
Loosely translated from the next section, "Victory is in not getting cut":
"One does not have to always take away a sword of a person who does not want his sword taken. In other words, an opponent with his heart set on not having his sword taken has forgotten how to cut; because he is too busy thinking about not having his sword taken, he will be unable to cut. In this situation, this is victorious for us as we are not going to get cut. Taking away the opponent's sword is not the objective; rather, we are training not to be cut when we are without a sword.
The techniques of "muto" are not aimed at taking away the opponent's sword, but rather, to be able to use the available tools around you freely. If you have the ability to take away your partner's sword, then it will not matter what your partner wields. So, you may be able to face a sword-wielding opponent with just a fan and still come out victorious. This is the crux of the "muto no jutsu." If you are walking around with a bamboo cane without your sword, even if someone tries to cut you with a very long sword, you may be able to deflect with your cane, perhaps taking away your partner's sword or not as the case may be, be able to control your partner, and end up not getting cut; that is victory. Take this into consideration as the crucial meaning of the "muto no jutsu."
Loosely translated from "The core of muto is maai"
"The objective of "muto no jutsu" is not to take away your opponent's sword nor to cut your opponent. Take away the sword from your opponent when he has the intention of doing nothing else but cutting you, but do not have the intention of taking away the sword from the beginning.
The primary objective of "muto no jutsu" is to take proper maai. You need to understand at which distance you can be with a sword-wielding opponent and still not be able to get cut. If you understand this distance, then you will have no fear of being cut; also, if you know that you can get cut, you can work on the tactics opposing that situation. You will not be able to use "muto no jutsu" without being in the range of having one's flesh cut. You will only be able to take away the sword if you are in a position of being cut - in other words, by getting cut, you can take away the sword."
Loosely translated from "Enter under the handle of your opponent's sword":
"In "muto no jutsu," have the intention of using your bare hands as weapons when your partner is wielding a sword. Because a sword is long and your arms are relatively short, unless you enter into your partner's body to the point of being in danger of getting cut, this tactic will not work. However, is it really possible to take away your opponent's sword? In order to achieve that, you must enter through the distance of your opponent's blade and enter under your partner's sword handle. Of course, this may not be possible depending on the time and place, but unless you are willing to go into your partner's body, it will be impossible to take away the sword."
The above translation raises several points for consideration when training muto-dori application. I think the opening statement from the "truths of muto no jutsu" sums up what we should be thinking and attempting to achieve.
"...it does not have to mean that we must always take away the opponent's sword. Also, it is not showing that one can take away the opponent's sword and make it into an achievement. It is the technique of not being cut when you do not have a sword yourself. The spirit of trying to take away the sword is not essential."
"...it is the technique of not being cut when you do not have a sword yourself."
From a tactical stand point entering under the handle of the sword (IE when it is raised to Jodan no kamae) is the safest option however; the speed at which a sword can be raised and then brought to bear is incredible thus; one's speed and perception of when to act must also be equally incredible.
"...Because a sword is long and your arms are relatively short, unless you enter into your partner's body to the point of being in danger of getting cut, this tactic will not work. However, is it really possible to take away your opponent's sword? In order to achieve that, you must enter through the distance of your opponent's blade and enter under your partner's sword handle."
What is essentially being described here is the principle of shomen uchi ikkyo. When we study both as uke and tori we must provide a degree of commitment to which ever role we play. If Uke, we must attack with spirit providing our partner with something to work with to achieve technique, equally so as tori, we should be committing ourselves to technique and developing the correct mindset - fudo-shin. Once these roles are correctly set, training can be realistic (within the realms of ability) and students begin to see the levels of commitment they must be prepared to undertake. Muto-dori illustrates this due to the risk factors involved.
The issue of correct spacing "maai"
Maintaining correct maai is essential in any aikido technique however; it is increased when a sword is in play, our training must accurately reflect the spacing required to deal with the person and NOT the weapon. This can only be achieved by having the weapon brought to bear by someone who knows how to use it correctly. Although we train with bokken, swinging a curved wooden representation of the sword is vastly different to the real thing, both psychologically for tori and physically for uke.
I am an advocator of learning how to correctly use the weapons with which we are training to deal with. I do not believe we are adequately equipped to disarm or indeed effectively neutralise a sword attack without first understanding the tactics and dynamics of sword use. If we understand this level of detail, adapting this information to suit our unarmed application becomes easier to comprehend.