Sakura-Con 2017 - Isao Machii Interview

Japan-A-Radio had the opportunity to participate in a group interview with Isao Machii, founder of Shuushinryu Iai-Jutsu Hyouhou (the Art of Samurai Sword Technique of the Mastering Mind), as well as a Guinness World Record holder for “Most cuts to one mat (suegiri)”, “Fastest 1,000 sword cuts”, “Most sword cuts to straw mats in 3 minutes”, and “Fastest tennis ball (820 km/hr) cut by sword”. The story of his training and foundation of his new school, including resistance towards his school seems to be lifted right out of the pages of a manga. He details his story as well as some of his World Record exploits in an extensive interview below.


Q: You've broken a lot of world records, is there any particular Guinness World Record that you are looking forward to breaking next?

A: Before I die I'd like to cut a real bullet.

Q: What is your motivation to break all these records, is it to test yourself or to test your abilities?

A: I don't actually think all that much about breaking records, most of them came about as part of a television program I was on, and that's how I got the chance to break them.

Q: Of the records that you do have, which ones are you the proudest of?

A: I'm proudest about cutting a bullet from a BB gun, and cutting a tennis ball fired at 850km/h.

Q: When you're choosing a sword to use how important is the feel of the sword, the make, the feel, how it cuts, all of that?

A: It is important, I carefully select the swords that I use for different purposes.

Q: In addition to sword mastery, you're proficient in other weapons and techniques, were any of them particularly difficult to master after sword mastery?

A: After I'd reached a plateau with my sword training and especially with the downward sword technique I began to master the shuriken and that was the next weapon that I practiced. And I mean the single straight blade, like a dart, not the several pointed star you see in manga or anime.

Q: Is it difficult to learn, the shuriken?

A: An interesting aspect of learning the shuriken is that if you are rotating your hips at all
when you are throwing the shuriken you can tell how much you've rotated by the impact of the shuriken, also the rotation will make the shuriken path curve instead of stay straight, also when it impacts the target it will either be straight on or at an angle or pointing upwards or downwards.

Q: Is there a specific way to throw the shuriken?

A: Usually you use an overhand throw to throw a shuriken, there aren't really many other options involved, but when I started to study shuriken I wanted to try many other ways of throwing it, for example if I was drawing it from a sword sheath, taking it out from the lower left at a slant and throwing it at a slant, and also from the otherside throwing underhand from a slant, and trying all the different directions and angles when throwing a shuriken.

Q: What inspired you to first take up sword training?

A: My original inspiration to take up sword training was that I had a hobby of collecting Japanese swords, and while collecting them, I naturally wanted to be able to use them.

Q: Is there any particular sword that you have that's your favorite, maybe one you received as a gift or that has a memory attached to it?

A: There are actually many weapons in my collection that I have strong memories and attachments to, my collection right now is over 1200 swords, so its hard to pick just one.

Q: You could arm a small army with those swords.

A: Yes, I could (laughs)

Q: When you watch sword action, choreography on TV or in anime, does it look like they're getting it right or are the techniques just all over the place?

A: When seeing how the use of Japanese swords is produced in manga or anime there is too much emphasis placed on the ability of Japanese swords to cut and the edges these swords have, and people often get the wrong impression that a good Japanese sword can cut anything because they see that in manga or anime, and every year I hear about people trying to reproduce things they've seen in fictional stories and actually breaking good swords. For example they much try to cut a tree in half, a living tree with roots in the ground, they've seen someone cut a tree in manga or anime, then they try to actually do that and they get their sword stuck in the tree or break it off, even good swords. The real world is definitly different than anime and manga when it comes to swords, and I think if more people understood the differences then maybe we could better protect the unique cultural heritage of Japanese swords and sword techniques. I'm hoping that people would have a deeper understanding of how these work.

Q: Now in Japan how many people exist that can forge swords in the modern era?

A: Only about 300 people can forge swords in Japan, but there are limits to how many they can make, you can't pump them out like a factory. By law, you can only make two swords per month, so people who make a living forging swords actually have a very difficult time making a living that way.


Q: At what time during your studies did you decide that you wanted to become a master and open your own Dojo?

A: When I first started studying Iaido I did not have the intention of starting my own school or breaking away from school that I was with, but as my skills progressed and my level increased I found out that at the time, there was no one, no masters that were currently practicing that could actually perform the techniques that Iaido was said to be able to perform, for example cutting something in mid-air really fast, or taking one swipe to cut something through in that particular manner. At that time, teachers made excuses about their inability to perform those techniques that they were supposed to with Iaido. For example they said that if you are fighting an opponent it's ok to take two strokes instead of one, so the first stroke and then the second stroke would finish off the opponent, and this was the excuse they used for not being able to finish off an opponent with one stroke. As I was studying Iaido I thought: “what's the point of Iaido if you can't finish your opponent with one stroke? Isn't that the original purpose of Iaido?”. So I began to research a way that it would become possible to use those techniques that my teachers were unable to teach me. I did search for other teachers first who could teach me these techniques but I was unable to find one and so I thought that I would have to study these myself. I took about one year, everyday swinging the sword as practice, just concentrating on that, and I took a scientific approach to this, for example, when you cut something with the sword it leaves small scratches on the blade, if you look at the angle of the scratches and how deep they are you can learn a lot about exactly what's going on when the sword cuts the object. So I used all of that as data to rediscover how these techniques were done, something that nobody could teach me but that we had heard was possible.

Of course, practicing everyday takes a lot of time so my wife helped with the finances with her job. Once I began cultivating this approach and was studying on my own on how to do these techniques, my style became very different from the high level teachers at my school. My school at the time was Eishin-ryu and the masters of that school were called “soke”, and my techniques began to differ from them and they would actually correct me and say that I wasn't doing it right, you're not doing it the way that is done in this school, and that bothered me. So after a while I realised that it would be easier to not to have to explain to everyone around me and be corrected by everyone around me if I created my own school and changed the name of the style of Iaido I was practicing. My wife actually gave me this idea and with her encouragement I picked a name and founded my own school.

Q: What kind of difficulties did you encounter in setting up your own school, especially in the modern era, and did you encounter any resistance or pushback from people in the school you were breaking away from, or from anyone else practicing Iaido at the time?

A: To answer your first question, it was not difficult at all to found a school in the modern era. It's quite easy to found a new school and give it a name and establish it as an organization, and actually lots of little fragmentary groups have done that in recent years so the number of schools in a number of martial oarts has greatly increased.

To answer your second question, yes I did encounter resistance. Because I was founding a new school with the intention of evolving the art past what it had already achieved at my old school there was a great deal of resistance from my old school in founding my new school because I was very serious. In the existing traditional Iaido world, often refered to as “denme”, there's even now quite a lot of resistance that I am taking and in some cases there's often interference with activities that my school tries to put on. For example there's a seminar every year in Hong Kong that various Iaido practitioners can come to and share their work together, and we'd heard that if I attended this seminar in Hong Kong there would be a lot of attendees, something like 300 attendees which meant we could pay back the cost of travel via the fees from the attendees. However when I went there were far fewer people, only 5 or 10 people. When I asked why I found out that a large number of people had made plans to attend but one of the main schools had said “if you go to this seminar you would be expelled from our school”, and cancelled, so that's just one example of continuing resistance from most of the traditional schools.

I think this is because in many of the traditional schools, the teachers who teach the techniques cannot actually use them in practice, they lack the power behnd the techniques to actually use them. My school is emphasising the ability to actually use the techniques, to really perform these moves. I think these teachers who don't have the ability to actually show results in practice are afraid of being found out and that's why there's such resistance. Even now, there might be people who see me performing Iai, and really want to learn my style but are not able to stick with it because for example, you might be a 5th-dan master in another school, but if you come to my school you have to start over from zero, you're treated as a white belt, someone who's just starting because to me, having a 5th-dan from another school doesn't count for anything, and there's a lot of resistance to that of course. So there are high level practitioners from other schools that come to my school for a couple of times but tend to disappear after that and it happens fairly regularly so its somewhat hard to retain new students.

Q: For your demonstration at Sakura-Con, how much of it is from a class you would normally teach your students, and is there any particular technique you were excited to show us?

A: So speaking about yesterday's panel, I had originally planned to show the foundational technique Iai, not Iaido as the whole school but Iai, to Sakura-Con but I was not able to do that. Iai is a partner exercise, there's two people facing off with each other, and if they're not roughly the same level then someone could get hurt, it could be dangerous. When I was trying yesterday with some kind people from a local Iaido school, we found that the difference between our two levels was too much, so for example if we were to try and demonstrate Iai, the other person performing the drill might not be able to take the force of the blow of my sword or not be able to react as quickly to protect themselves from me, so it could be extremely dangerous so we decided to not proceed with that. What we did do was show some Iai “katas”, or forms and also letting everyone who attended experience for themselves some forms, some motions from Iaido that you can do bare handed, letting everyone know that you can do foundational basics without a sword and letting them experience that.

Q: What does Iai consist of?

A: The meaning of the term “Iai” is widely misunderstood, it is widely understood as you're standing, you have a sword, you take the sword out of the sheath and you cut in one motion, that is generally referred to as “Iai”. My understanding of Iai is more of a way of thinking, a way of being prepared at all times. For example you might think of Iai as just the moment that you take the sword out of the sheath and started cutting but it starts much earlier it starts when two people come together and start thinking about cutting each other, or it starts even earlier than that, for example, we're all sitting here and someone might come and attack me, at that moment, Iai is able to take that attack and respond with absolutely no hesitation and that is what Iai means to me.

Q: How much of your training is mental, or spiritual versus physical?

A: From my perspective none of my training is mental or spiritual, its all physical. The reason I think that way is that I don't think spirits and physical strength have anything to do with each other. Lets say that you watch a movie and there is a very strong villian. That person doesn't have spiritual strength but is very physically strong. If spiritual strength is required to be strong at these techniques everyone would be a saint or a monk and be extremely morally correct, but that's not the case. I'm in fact doing Iaido because its what I want to do. Researching and practicing and raising my own level is what I want to do and that's why I'm doing it. Of course the people around me say that because I say that not a lot of students come to my school (laughs), but that's actually the truth, and I wouldn't want to say something different.

I'm not pursuing the course to really practice the spritual side or the mental side of the discipline but there is one exception and that is that I do take very good care of the weapons. Taking care of the swords is a very important part of practicing, if you do not take good care of the swords or do not really revere them then you will not be able to increase your level and progress in your study. Although I'm not pursuing the spiritual side of the profession I do use my imagination very often and sometimes this is called image training, as opposed to physically training 24/7, you can be imagining a situation and deciding how you would react in that situation and this is something I do very often. For example when I'm riding a train I'm imagining what would happen if someone with a sword was to attack me in a particular way, how would I react, how would I take the blow. If I think of something interesting, a new way of approaching the situation then I take that idea and try it in practice with one of my students. If we find something interesting about it then we would work on it further and we'd practice that.

My ability to use my imagination in this way to do image training was based on a history of poverty at my school. I do have over 1200 swords that I've collected but when I was young I didn't have a single sword so I had no choice but to imagine myself using a sword, use image training and develop that as part of my style.


Q: Was there anything that you were looking forward to at Sakura-Con and in Seattle?

A: I'm not really a sightseeing kind of person because I'm continually image training inside my head. Yesterday though I was at the convention center and being exposed to this world was a very interesting experience for me. I went around taking photos of all the different cosplayers because it was just a new experience, a new atmosphere, it was very interesting. It made me think that I want to participate in cosplay and I'd like to come again, I've really been enjoying the opportunity.

Q: If people in Seattle, at Sakura-Con want to learn your style is there a school, an affiliated school or branch school they can go to?

A: There is a Seattle branch of my school, I don't remember the exact name because we just call it the Seattle branch of my school (laughs), but the leader of the branch is Mr. Onaka and they hold practices twice a week.

Q: What is your favorite anime or manga?

A: One manga that I read recently is called “Katana”, and I really enjoyed it, it's about swords and spirits associated with those swords. It's similar to Touken Ranbu which is a game where swords are personified, so yes, that's one I read and enjoyed recently.