When I first went to Japan, I shared a small apartment in Tokyo with a giant Englishman named Andre Bardega, and there were deep grooves in the ceiling. This was because Andre was studying Iaido and using a real sword, and I had to be very careful whenever I entered his room.
Japanese martial arts are famous. Judo, Karate and Aikido are practised the world over and even Kendo, which requires more equipment, is becoming increasingly popular.
In Phnom Penh, you can study all these disciplines, and you can also study Iaido. Never heard of it? Well, Iaido is literally the art of “drawing a sword from a sitting position”.
A Samurai, a Japanese version of America’s Wild Bill Hickok, would never sit with his back to the door and would need to be ready for an enemy attack at any time.
In that case he would have to leap to his feet, drawing his katana (Japanese sword) in one smooth movement and dispatch his antagonist with one swift blow, or sometimes two or three to make sure.
One of Iaido’s greatest masters, Nakayama Hakudo, the only man to have received the ranking of 10th dan and Master Instructor ranking in Iaido, Kendo and Jodo, bore a striking physical resemblance to Wild Bill.
Nakayama, however, died naturally at the age of 86, while Wild Bill, sitting with his back to the door, was shot in the back of the head at 39.
Although it definitely sounds aggressive, perhaps Iaido is not strictly a martial art. There is no actual combat involved, and no opponent. Unless you carry a sword around (or perhaps a sharp umbrella), Iaido will not serve you well as a means of self-defence.
Neither is it a sport, since all competition is imaginary. In fact, it seems to have no practical purpose whatsoever.
In a way, Iaido is closer to the Japanese tea ceremony than to a martial art like Judo. The tea ceremony is a simple domestic task which has become ritualised and refined in every detail, from the whisking of the tea powder to the folding and wiping of the napkin.
Everything must be perfectly done, performed in one flowing motion without hesitation or thought.
Iaido also ritualises movements, from the drawing of the sword, rising from different sitting positions, to the flicking of the last shred of skin from the neck so that the head of the imaginary opponent drops elegantly and beautifully to the ground.
Instead of the folding of the napkin, there is the firm movement of the hand along the hilt of the sword as it returns to its scabbard, wiping off the coagulating blood of the enemy.
The sensei (teacher) who teaches Iaido at the dojo next to the Olympic Stadium is Osuga Katsunori. He also, somewhat heretically, teaches Kendo in the same place.
In Japan, Kendo and Iaido practitioners tend to regard each other with mutual disdain. Kendoka scoff at Iaido people as “just dancers” because they never actually come into contact with an opponent, and Iaidoka think Kendoka are just like kids playing with bamboo sticks and making a lot of noise.
Osuga-sensei, however, sees the two as complementary disciplines with no contradiction between them. This approach may be accepted on the international circuit, but would be unorthodox in Japan.
Regulars at the dojo include Japanese, Cambodians and a Filipina. The beginners have wooden swords, the more advanced use katana with real but unsharpened blades.
The session begins with cleaning, that is, sweeping the floor of the dojo with a broom. The person who usually arrives early to do this is a young Cambodian, Pitou Veng. He has only been practising Iaido for six months, but shows a rare dedication.
In this short period, he has made great progress.
So what inspired him to take up such an esoteric art? Watching old Kurosawa films such as “The Seven Samurai”? An interest in Zen meditation, perhaps?
In fact, his initial motivation came from Japanese anime, but he gradually found that Iaido, through its meditative processes, improved his concentration and awareness, especially in relation to people’s body language, the way they move and react.
It has also developed his self-discipline and physical endurance and he is determined to continue Iaido as a lifelong pursuit, even though the teacher, Osuga-sensei, is returning to Japan later this year.
Pitou would like to encourage other Cambodians to take up Iaido, though he realises that it requires a commitment and enthusiasm that few are prepared to give.
However, the other students are also committed to continuing their study with instruction from a sempai (senior practitioner) and the help of videos for practising the older style (Koryu).
Pitou may be the first Cambodian Samurai, but hopefully he won’t be the last.
Anyone interested in observing an Iaido session may arrange to do so by contacting the Cambodia-Japan Traditional Martial Arts Center. Facebook: PPKendoClub.