A little more than a year ago I started the study of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu. Before Tamiya Ryu, I studied Western Foil Fencing while in college. The switch from fencing to Tamiya Ryu was just a little challenging to say the least, as I carried over many bad and good habits from the practice of fencing. Some of my worst habits, and the areas I have the hardest time with are my footwork and cutting technique, or bladework. I was, however, surprised to find that my fencing training actually helped me in some ways. For instance, I found that I did not have too much trouble coordinating my sword techniques while moving at the same time. Fencing helped me the most, though, with my blade control and “distancing” (i.e. spacing between combatants).
When I began training in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, I had quite a difficult time with my footwork. I wanted to turn my back foot inward so that my feet were perpendicular to each other because my feet were so used to this basic fencing position for the feet. I still find myself turning the back foot in when I am getting tired or when I am concentrating on a new sword technique. This was very apparent when I was learning the Tsuki movement in the Kata known as Yokemi. I did the blade turn, catch, and Tsuki correctly, but then my feet reverted back to the way they are positioned in fencing. Instead of stepping through with my left foot, I almost did a lunge movement from fencing instead. I had no idea that I had done this until Sensei showed me what had occurred: that the lunge was ingrained in me when doing a thrusting movement with a sword.
I have, however, noticed that doing a sword technique while moving was not quite as challenging for me. The only area I really had to work on was doing the right footwork with the different techniques. I believe this was also due to my fencing background. Class after class we would practice the basic lunge and blocking techniques in different combinations back and forth down the gym floor. We had to make sure that our footwork with correct so that we were in the right position to either advance or retreat efficiently and quickly. By the time I started the study of Iai I was already used to performing sword movements while moving, so the sword/footwork coordination was somewhat in place. In addition to my footwork, my bladework in Iai has also been affected by my study of western fencing.
When I was learning fencing, I was taught to make all of my movements as small and compact as possible. The bladework consisted of mostly straight up, down and sideways movements with my arms, with most of the movements being done using my wrist and fingers. I was taught that large sweeping movements were too ineffective to be used, since many matches are won due to split second subtle moves. Now, when I have to do large, sweeping motions like Nukitsuke (the initial sword draw) and Kiri Oroshi (the downward cut), I tend to “chop” instead of getting a nice, big cut. My cuts have gotten a little better over the past year, but I still catch myself not cutting big at times and chopping instead. So even though I have brought a few bad habits with me, I also have brought some skills.
Western-style Fencing is very good at teaching someone how to properly control his or her blade. It is the main physical technique (besides footwork) that you have to learn to be successful in fencing. If you could control your blade, you had an easier time controlling your opponents and opening them up for an attack. The blade control went hand in hand with distancing, if one was lacking, the other was of no use. If you had poor blade control, no matter how good your distancing was, you had a hard time scoring. Your opponent would either circle around your blade, or tap your blade out of the way and score on you. It also held true that if your bladework was very good, but you had trouble with your distancing, you would also have trouble scoring. Bad footwork would place you either: 1) too far away from your opponent so that you would tend to lean into the thrust to make contact, or: 2) you would end up too close and jam yourself into your partner making your technique ineffective. Both of these can be seen in Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu when doing either bunkai or partner exercises. If your distancing is off, you will either completely miss connecting with your opponent, or you will end up being jammed and your technique will suffer.
Making the transition from Western-style Fencing to Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu has been a long and continual process, and I still make a number of mistakes during my weekly training sessions. This is all part of the learning process, though, and is one of the reasons why coming to class each week is so fun and enjoyable.
Joe Gallagher, Ikkyu
United States Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Michigan Honbu Dojo