Want to be a Samurai? Try Japanese Sword Fighting!
Surrounded in the middle of a room by three attackers, a Samurai warrior surveys the faces of his enemies. The Samurai shifts into a stance and waits. The enemy to his left steps forward. She pulls out her sword and raises it over her head. In a flash, before the sword falls, the Samurai makes a quick turn, killing all three.
"Cut!" exclaims the instructor after the three collapse. "Getting better. Let's do it one more time."
There is a battle at Chau's Martial Arts Center in Manhattan every Saturday. Japanese and American students act the role of Samurais, fighting each other with wooden swords. They practice the basic techniques of this traditional staged combat: drawing, cutting, and "noto," placing the blade back into the scabbard. The two-hour lessons resemble scenes from the old Akira Kurosawa movies, "Star Wars" or "Crouching Tiger."
"It's not just staged combat. I want my students to learn the Samurai spirit," says Rome Kanda, the instructor of this workshop.
An actor and acting director based in New York, Kanda teaches Tate, or Japanese sword fighting, for $20 a lesson. He and his actor friend, Yoshi Amano, started the workshop two years ago. Their students, all ages and genders, vary. Half of their dozen students are actors and performers who want to learn sword fighting skills, some are people interested in Japanese culture and a few are simply there to lose weight.
Drawing swords from a cotton band tied around their waists, students face each other pointing the tips of the swords to their opponents' throats. They rhythmically lash with their swords from left to right while moving their feet back and forth.
"Relax," says Kanda as he goes around the room to check his students' posture. "Don't swing the sword like a boomerang. Take that extra power off your shoulder."
Tate, or Tate-do, is a generic term for Japanese sword combat. According to Anthony Foo, assistant instructor at the main training center of Japan Iai-Tate Do Federation in Anaheim Calif., Tate was introduced to the U.S. around 25 years ago. The federation has around 100 students in three training centers; Anaheim, Chicago and West Virginia, where they teach "Katori Shinto Ryu," one of the oldest of several types of Tate.
Hollywood film producers found this foreign marshal art attractive. Kiyoshi Yamazaki, founder and chief instructor of the federation, was asked to teach Arnold Schwarzenegger for his first film, "Conan the Barbarian." Yamazaki's students have included such celebrities as Sting, Richard Hatch, Sandal Bergman, Wilt Chamberlain, Bridget Nelson, and Grace Jones.
Japanese sword fighting methods will be displayed in a coming movie "The Last Samurai", starring Tom Cruise. The movie is a 19th-century epic depicting the destruction of the Samurai class in Imperialist Japan. Cruise will play a colonial who travels to Japan to help train the Japanese emperor's army in new methods of fighting. Some of the students at Chau's auditioned for Japanese warriors' part in early May.
"I was looking for something to make me stand out as an actor," says 26-year-old Yoshihisa Kuwayama, who has been practicing Tate techniques for two months. "I think Tate can train me both physically and mentally to become a better actor."
But, not everyone enrolled in the workshop is there to prepare for movie roles. "I have always been interested in marshal arts, but didn't want to get hurt," says Atsuko Jingu, a 42-year-old woman, a manager at the New York Hilton.
In just two lessons, she was taken by this unusual training exercise. "The tension and the relaxation that comes after it refreshes my mind," she says.
Some Americans like the regimen of traditional Japanese culture. "I have loved Japanese Samurai films ever since I was a child," says Shawn Mullin, a 31 year-old librarian who came to the workshop for the third time. "Sword fighting is brutal but beautiful. And that to me is what Japanese history and culture is all about."
Mullin even bought his own sword so that he can practice at home. "I want to learn more movements and the slicing techniques," he says.
Through word of mouth, the workshop is gradually becoming popular among curious New Yorkers. "We welcome anyone who is interested in Japanese culture or the Samurai spirit," says Amano, co-founder of the workshop. "Our next goal is to popularize Japanese sword fighting by performing live shows."