Aikido of Charlotte
The martial arts are a pretty dogmatic discipline. We tend to practice techniques as instructed, concentrating less upon the historical context from which they arose. It’s ironic because so many of the legendary teachers and grandmasters whose skill we seek to emulate were, themselves rebels and revolutionaries. I like to think that in aikido, which has a rich and clearly defined lineage, we make an effort to embrace the art’s origin and background. But, as it owes so many of its traditions to the samurai of feudal japan, it can be easy to forget or ignore.
This was brought home to me the other day, while I was teaching a class on aiki-jo. Almost everyone who approaches aikido has some cultural context (or at least assumptions) regarding the iconic samurai katana. And, correct or no, they readily apply that background to its wooden counterpart, the bokken. However, the jo’s place in history is comparatively obscure, even though its invention is rooted in one of the most fascinating of samurai legends.
The most famous swordsman in Japanese history was undoubtedly Miyamoto Musashi. Tall, powerfully built, ferocious and iconoclastic, Musashi epitomized the spirit of the shugyosha – developing his revolutionary two-sword style, Niten-ichi Ryu, while wandering the Japanese countryside. Long before he became the worldly and refined renaissance man of his later years, Musashi was the most successful duelist in history, facing off in at least 60 duels and never meeting defeat.
He outfought a virtual army in Kyoto’s Yoshioka clan, faced off against the spear-wielding monks of the Hozoin temple, and survived his most famous duel against the virtuosic Kojiro Sasaki. But few realize that the closest he came to being beaten was at the end of Muso Gonnosuke’s jo staff.
Muso Gonnosuke was a samurai of the 17th century, and like most of his class, had trained in a variety of weapons since his youth. As was typical, he gravitated toward the long sword as his instrument of choice. Brash in demeanor, as strong as Musashi, and extremely skilled, Gonnosuke quickly established a reputation for dominance. He took on a number of devoted followers, and traveled from one prefecture to another, refining his art. On his jacket, he is said to have embroidered “The Greatest Martial Artist Under The Sun”.
Upon meeting Musashi while on their respective travels, Gonnosuke challenged the young shugyosha to a bout with wooden swords. Musashi was still in the early stages of refining his Niten-ichi approach. Nevertheless, he easily stopped Gonnosuke’s traditional attack using his jujidome “X-block”, which would later become one of the signatures of his 2-sword style. Gonnosuke was utterly dejected by this ignominious defeat, to the extent that he retreated from duels to meditate and practice at a small shrine in Fukuoka.
He spent 37 days focused entirely upon deep meditation, training until exhaustion, and reevaluating his entire approach to the martial arts. At the end of one particularly draining session, he collapsed in front of the shrine’s altar and had a vision. He described being visited by a small child, who offered the strange advice to “Know the suigetsu (a pressure point at the solar plexus) with a round log”. Having spent the better part of his life studying martial disciplines, Gonnosuke immediately interpreted this to mean that he should create a new weapon which would help him to solve Musashi’s impregnable defense.
Compared with the impossibly refined craftsmanship of the Japanese katana, or the fearsome technology of firearms, still in their infancy, Gonnosuke’s invention seems almost ludicrously primitive. He carved a short round staff, about 4 shaku long. This would be considerably longer than even the longest tachi of the period, but significantly quicker and more maneuverable than the 6-shaku bo or the much longer yari and naginata also used by samurai. Gonnosuke abandoned his use of the long sword in favor of this simple implement.
There are varying accounts of how the 2nd duel between these legends transpired. In the most popular version, Gonnosuke was able to use the staff’s double-sided nature to position himself over Musashi’s X-block, ready to flip the jo down toward the swordsman’s solar plexus. This resulted in a stalemate, and the only draw of Musashi’s career. Afterward, a more humble and introspective Gonnosuke went on to dedicate his life to the short staff, codifying it into the art which still bears his name; Muso-shinden Ryu. (The kata “Suigetsu” remains an integral part of the system.)
Centuries later, O-Sensei integrated the jo into the modern aikido which we practice. In it, he clearly saw both its strong ties to Japan’s traditional budo, and also a weapon which can be used, paradoxically, for good. As we see in our practice, the jo is not “inherently” lethal. It has no edge, and an experienced aikidoka can use it to throw or immobilize as well as strike. O-Sensei also frequently used the jo as part of his “misogi” practice of spiritual purification. Though not a sword, in our art, the jo exemplifies katsujinken – “the sword which GIVES life”. Retaining an appreciation for its historical (and legendary) context can only enrich our practice.