Belmont: Students Explore Iaido Swordsmanship at Japanese Culture Center

Iaido students practice 
Iaido students practice swordsmanship at the Tenshinkan Dojo,
Lakeview Japanese Culture Center (1016 W. Belmont)  (Photo by Julian Zeng)

Belmont Stop IconBy Julian Zeng
The Red Line Project

Posted: Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hard work and repetition are the two keys to mastering martial arts. 

“That’s all it is. There’s every secret you need to know about martial arts,” said Ken Pitchford, a sensei at the Tenshinkan Dojo at the Lakeview Japanese Culture Center, 1016 W. Belmont Ave.

Pitchford Sensei is an instructor of iaidō, traditional Japanese swordsmanship, specifically the art of drawing and cutting in one motion with a sword.  The specific class Pitchford Sensei teaches is of the Mugai-ryū discipline, an old style that this year celebrates its 285th anniversary of the death of the founder, Tsuji Gettan Sukemochi.  

A practitioner of Mugai-ryū Iaidō for approximately 29 years, Pitchford Sensei first began his martial arts training as a member of the military on assignment in Okinawa, Japan.  It was in Okinawa where Pitchford met Dr. Gordon Warner Sensei, the first non-Japanese to obtain a rank in Japanese swordsmanship (both kendō andiaidō), and had “the privilege of being one of Warner Sensei’s students.” 

Students prepare to practice in pairs

Iaido students prepare to practice in pairs. (Photo by Julian Zeng)

As Japanese martial arts have developed over the years, Pitchford Sensei described how many dangerous elements and lethal moves were taken out of fighting styles that made them more general. These changes, in essence, are meant to improve “the minds and bodies of young men and women,” said Pitchford Sensei.

“As we get into the modern age, these martial arts become generic. Kendō is generic swordsmanship,” said Pitchford Sensei.  “You put on armor, you use a bamboo sword and you get to beat each other.

“That’s relatively modern -- now there’s old kendō, kendō’s got a 300-year-old history...however, in the old days, you practice your style of swordsmanship, and kendō was a non-lethal way for you from your style and me from my style to test who’s the better, modern kendō is basically a sport.”

Iaidō, on the other hand, is less of a contemporary evolution and more rooted in traditional practice.  Iaidō is associated with drawing the sword from its scabbard, striking and cutting an opponent, removing blood from the sword’s blade, then returning the sword to the scabbard.  Veteran students practice with sharp metal blades, while less seasoned students use wooden “mock” swords.  

Paul Tzirides, one of the more experienced students in the class, originally wanted to study aikidō, a martial arts style in which the practitioner defends oneself while also preventing their attacker from injury, based in throws, grabs and strikes.  While primarily an aikidō dojo, the Lakeview center is open to hosting Pitchford Sensei’s koryū, or classical, style of swordsmanship.  Most of the other martial arts classes taught at the Tenshinkan Dojo are classified as Shin Budo, or “new martial arts.”

“I had a passing interest in swords and things like that...and I came here and I talked to some folks, and someone mentioned there’s also this iaidō class,” said Tzirides.  “I came down and I met Pitchford Sensei and a couple other students that had just started class with him.  I had lunch with them and it was very personable, so I decided this was something I wanted to do, and yeah it’s 10 years later now.”

Pitchford Sensei stressed the difference between modern kendō and traditional styles like the Mugai-ryū Iaidō, which are kata based.  

“Kata are prearranged sequences of movements, attack and defense.  For traditional martial arts, that’s the queen of disciplines, that’s what you do,” said Pitchford Sensei.  “[Iaidō] is traditional swordsmanship, so we practice kata over and over and over.”

There are 20 basic techniques that are concentrated on in Mugai-ryū Iaidō, 10 sitting and 10 standing.  Sitting techniques, while unpractical in fighting situations, only exist because they are practiced privately, not against an opponent.  Practice is mostly formal. 

Certain kata techniques, like cutting, involve intense repetition; Pitchford Sensei cited the old standard amount of cutting to be 1,000 strokes per day, though this amount is certainly only for the most dedicated and advanced practitioners of the craft.


View an audio slideshow of Pitchford Sensei and Iaido students
practicing swordsmanship at the Tenshinkan Dojo.  

Will Cordero, who has studied with Pitchford Sensei for about 6 years, always had an interest in swordsmanship and its practice.

“I did a little bit of research online and looked at a few different places.  I actually started in [Pitchford Sensei’s] kendō program back in 2005,” said Cordero.  When kendō died down somewhat, Pitchford Sensei invited Cordero to join his iaidō class...I just started doing it and [I’ve] been addicted ever since.”

One experience that stood out in Cordero’s mind was when traditional Japanese headmasters came to the Tenshinkan Dojo to observe and practice with him and the other students. 

“It was really awesome to see the headmasters be really appreciative that [Pitchford Sensei] runs things just like they do in Japan,” Cordero said. 

So how does swordsmanship, a practice much less widely used than in the past, remain a viable craft?  Pitchford Sensei, while understanding swordsmanship may seem old-fashioned in the 21st century, sees great value in its discipline and instruction.  

“On the certificate given out from our Japanese Iaidō Federation, we don’t get a certificate in swordsmanship...[it’s a certificate in] strategy.  A swordsman is considered a strategist, and that’s kind of another thing that distinguishes swordsmanship from other martial arts in Japan,” said Pitchford Sensei.

“You’re a strategist, you gotta think like a these are the kinds of things I think keep swordsmanship viable -- the discipline, the fact that it’s a deep martial art, the more you learn the deeper you find it is.  It’s for personal improvement, and it makes you a strategist -- who doesn’t want to be a strategist?”  

The benefit of learning iaidō and other martial arts is just as valuable from a student’s perspective.

Respect is paid to the sword
Respect is paid to the sword before and after practice (Photo by Julian Zeng)

“It’s one thing when you train and you start learning something that’s old or purportedly old, but then to actually be saturated in that history, to meet the people that are part of that lineage, to see all the things that go into a huge part of your life ... to find that groundwork and then to realize that you’re also a part of it, that was huge,” said Tzirides.

“That whole time [I spent] sleeping at the dojo here and sleeping at, there’s a dojo in Palantine, you know, I’d go there and train with them, those kinds of things really changed my perspective on life.”

Pitchford Sensei echoed Tzirides sentiment.

“Swordsmanship has always been considered a vehicle for improving yourself as a human being," said Pitchford Sensei. "Of course it’s a lethal martial art, but it’s also improving yourself as a human being."

With a mission of hard work and repetition, the keys to success in martial arts can also be applied to everyday life.  

The Japanese Culture Center was founded by Toyoda Shihan, famous for his martial arts background in aikidō, in 1978.  Mr. Toyoda was also founder of the Aikido Association of America.  According to the Japanese Culture Center website, Mr. Toyoda “elected to make martial arts instruction his life’s work.  After arriving in Chicago, he envisioned a facility where various disciplines devoted to ‘the way’ might be united under one roof.”

The Japanese Culture Center is a realization of that dream, and has branched out to two other dojos, which include the Soshinkan Dojo in Burbank, Ill., and the Ryoshinkan Dojo in Arlington Heights.

The Lakeview Tenshinkan Dojo, while primarily devoted to aikidō, also offers classes in Bujutsu, Shorinji Kempo and Capoeira, to name a few.

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