Subduing the Demon in the Blade
Subduing the Demon in the Blade
by Hal Drake, Pacific Stars & Stripes
Sunday, November 13, 1994
For five years an Army captain at Sagami Depot has been held hostage by a Japanese swordsman. But Guy Power was seized without a struggle, and willingly forfeited a lavish ransom -- spare hours and long weekends, along with being in constant danger from a whistling sword that could maim, scar or kill.
Released at last, Power said, he still wasn't free. Going home to retire, Power felt the power of Taizaburo Nakamura, the supreme sensei who taught him a master swordsman's art.
There was tripod-perfect stance, the shrill whimper of a bone-cutting blade, artful dodge and deliberate miss. No blood was sought or drawn. Power gratefully thanked his captor for lessons well learned.
This was warehouse knowledge, to be richly distributed to others. With sixth-degree credentials, Power is qualified to teach what he learned, feeling the impulse to pass it on.
Iaido - the way of the sword, in which one of the most lethal crafts in the world is taught to empower the student with a gentle nature and peace of soul.
Knowledgeable in iaido, he can hack through a human torso or sever a head with one long, swift stroke. He won't because this is not the way. It would be betrayal of entrusted power and shameful surrender toakuma, the demon in every raw and tempered blade.
Himself a sensei now, Power had shaved his head for summer comfort and looked more like a Buddhist novitiate than a practitioner of the sword. He explained his career -- long fascination with martial arts, crowned by his mastery of iaido, as he pulled on montsuki hakama - a flowing costume that was executioner black and appeared to be half skirt, half tuxedo.
First, as the son of a career Army officer in Bangkok, Power took up taekwondo, which transforms soft fists into flat-knuckled clubs. In 1970, at a dojo in Charleston, SC, Power's hand first closed on the haft of a sword. In the Air Force and then the Army, he felt an urge to learn more.
In the long gallery of martial arts, Power knew, he had found his niche. He learned one classic form and in 1983 moved into another - Toyama Ryu, which taught awareness of power, tempered always by grace and restraint.
A former soldier who brought him into iaido spoke of a distant place called Zama and another faraway name - Nakamura, the teacher who taught teachers.
Toyama Ryu, Power learned, hadn't always stressed spirituality. It was first the Japanese Imperial Army system of fencing, taught to soldiers and cadets for cut-and-thrust combat. At the Toyama Institute in Tokyo, they learned to fight with sword, bayonet and a short blade about the size of a Bowie knife. Skilled graduates could dispatch enemies with a single thrust.
The school did not live beyond the war years, but the modified school of swordsmanship did.
Power tells of intense study at a dojo in Los Angeles, when he could get down from Fort Irwin. Sent to the Monterey Institute of International Studies (CA), he learned Japanese and literally embraced a new culture, marrying his teacher.
After serving as an infantry officer in Korea, Power moved on to U.S. Army Japan headquarters at Camp Zama and then the smaller depot, which stocks on-call war goods.
"Then," Power relates, "something wonderful happened." In 1990 a Japanese worker invited him to a dojo, and Power stood in an exalted presence. Beckoned by Nakamura, he didn't resist -- became a captive to his art and teaching, paying a formidable bounty of sweat and time. "I never thought or dreamed I would study with the master himself."
Now, with others, he changed into sword costume on the hard, glossy floor of a junior high school gymnasium. Power's hand found the haft of the blade and it was drawn with flawless flourish and raised above his head - his body in crossbow stance, the sword suddenly descending and turning in a lateral flash, then thrust and swung in every direction, seeming to move in a prismatic pattern. But Power was firmly set, not moving a foot forward.
There was a patter of applause. Much of iaido is formalized precision of speed and stance. A skillfully drawn blade, followed by correct posture and movement, draws approval. Power was at home here or in any dojo, his foreign face invisible as Japanese watched his proficiency.
The aged Nakamura was absent, but assistant teachers animated the swordsmen, telling them to watch every step and thrust, keeping slow and careful control of the invisible akuma.
Working singly or with mock opponents, Power had been told many times and didn't have to be told again. He has yet to be nicked and has never drawn accidental blood.
"Our master said that no matter how much of a master you are, you still have to remember that the sword has a spirit in it. And if you forget that for a minute, the sword will bite you. It can be a devil if your heart's not pure and if you're not careful."
If not harnessed by conscience, the malevolent akuma, with the power to behead or disembowel, may do its worst. Those who possess an instant-death skill must never strike for blood.
"You have to think about the spirituality of swordsmanship," Power said, "not wanting to hurt other people, to remember that everything has spirit."
In the hands of iaido, the sword becomes katsujin-ken, a spiritual spectre that gives life by granting serenity, through control of the spirit within the sword and the spirit within the swordsman.
Power spoke as the swordsmen moved and single-syllable war cries were expelled, as they were in the days blades thrust over battlements and enemies fell.
Power was asked if iaido, taken back to America, could change the ways of those steeped in violence.
"It would work on some people, those who are aggressive because they don't have outlets or people to show them courtesy or respect for them as humans."
Others, no. They would be like the ronin of feudal Japan, disgraced and masterless samurai who could only be mercenaries or bandits. Power hopes to hang out a shingle as an iaido teacher, using a kind of sixth-sense character mirror to size up any potential student.
"I would be very careful who I teach" he says. "You could misuse these teachings with a stick or a broom or, heaven forbid, a Japanese sword. And there are plenty of those swords left over from World War II, all over the States."
Iaido, Power allows, could be a terrifying force to turn loose in America. But that shingle will be there, for sincere initiates, "if somebody doesn't steal it first."