The Spiritual Sword of Tamiya ryu:
Interview with Michael Alexanian Sensei
June 23, 2000
By Deborah Klens-Bigman
Editor's Note: Part two of this interview addresses
many questions, such as the subject of bowing, the difference between "do" and "jutsu," kata
practice, ego and the spiritual sword, training in Japan and the
study of a classical martial art outside of Japan.
This is the second part of a two-part interview with Tamiya Ryu iaijutsu
teacher Michael Alexanian, of East Lansing Michigan. In Part
1, we discussed some background of Tamiya Ryu and what
a "typical training day" in Japan was like.
DKB: Sort of a little more on that topic: There have been some
recent events, you know, like a lawsuit that was brought in both in
US Federal Court and a Canadian court by people who don't want to bow
to the mat before a judo bout. They feel bowing to the mat is a form
of Shinto, and because they're atheists, they don't feel they should
do that - it's a form of religion.
MA: Sure. It is very timely that you should mention this because
it has become an issue with one of our satellite groups. They live
in an area that is predominantly populated by people of Fundamentalist
Christian orientation. In some ways, it's dealing with the exact issues
you were just mentioning, about the judo people not wanting to bow.
The whole concept of bowing and studying an ancient art is very much
an issue with this satellite group of ours. We have to be very careful
how we present Tamiya Ryu in that area so that what we are doing doesn't
look like a form of worship.
DKB: People in the States sometimes make a distinction between "-jutsu" and "-do." The
feeling is that "-jutsu" is more of a technique and that "-do" is
more of a "way," that "-do" is more modern and "-jutsu" is
older, and that the "-do" forms are less combative and more
spiritual. I think these are all Western constructs, myself, because
I know that the syllable "-do" is actually used further back
than we normally think of it and people in Japan didn't make that much
of a distinction between "-jutsu" and "-do" for
awhile; but I was just wondering what your opinion might be with regard
to Tamiya Ryu - what is the spiritual element - you mentioned kokoro
already - could you elaborate on that?
MA: Sure. As far as Tamiya Ryu and spirituality, we are considered
not as a "-do" form but as a "-jutsu" form. The
actual whole name of our school is "Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu." Now
for me, I agree that a lot of the "-do" and "-jutsu" philosophies
are predominantly Western constructs. Personally, I believe that "-jutsu" is
more closely related to art. "-Do" is usually translated
as "path" or "way," but I've always understood
when you study a form which is "-jutsu" it first of all has
a sense of being older in many ways. A lot of the modern arts that
go with the "-do" suffix were originally "-jutsu" arts.
Kenjutsu became kendo, jujutsu became judo. In the Tamiya style we
never went through that - we always remained a "-jutsu" form.
I was always told by Tsumaki Sensei that the reason for that is because
the techniques were derived from actual real-life situations. You had
to be spiritually focused in the sense of always having that sense
of zanshin or total awareness. In the Tamiya style as I mentioned earlier
we have a great respect for the life of our perceived enemy or opponent,
and we try to respect that for as long as possible until we do have
to deliver a very strong strike to conclude the engagement.
have a hanging scroll in our dojo that our Soke
wrote that says "Tamiya shinden reimyoken" and
that, loosely translated, refers to the spiritual
sword of the Tamiya school. For us, our sense of
spirituality kind of revolves around the concept
that the sword that we actually use when we perform
kata is, in a sense, kind of a metaphor for the "internal
sword" that's used. As we practice kata we
have to have an empty mind, we have to empty ourselves
completely to focus on what's happening. As we
cut, or deal with our opponent in our defense,
we're also in a sense cutting away at the stuff
inside with that spiritual sword. We cannot do
these kata successfully with heavy amounts of ego
or negative emotion or anxiety. These are the things
that the reimyoken or spiritual sword cuts away
at as we practice kata.
When we use the term "spiritual" in our dojo we make it
very clear to the students that this is not a religious spirituality,
that the spirit we're referring to is inner spirit more closely akin
to a combination of ki and kokoro, ki being the actual inner force
and kokoro being the heart. We see kokoro as the source of ki, in a
way. Many people say the ki is located in the hara or tanden area but
for us in many ways ki and energy originate from the kokoro - the heart.
Part of that is respecting the principles of Bushido, and especially
the principle of jin or compassion towards one's opponent. For many
of the people that I've worked with, both regularly in the dojo and
in seminars, this is an issue that has come up. A lot of people may
think that's kind of wimpy - you're not jumping in there and "slicing
and dicing" and doing all this stuff. I say, fine if that's what
you want there are other styles out there where you can do that. You
can go study Toyama Ryu because the Toyama style, being designed as
a last resort on a military battlefield, was basically "slice
and dice" - you take him out before he takes you out. There's
no time to really focus on respecting your opponent or preserving his
life as well as your own. In Tamiya Ryu, situations are based in a
framework where there is some sort of thinking going on. The person
who's attacking you has obviously thought out some kind of strategy.
You realize there are points where you can deliver a minor wound to
the opponent instead of a full-blown cut, and that will be enough to
deter the person from going farther. We rely a certain amount on the
element of surprise as well. As I mentioned earlier, the idea when
drawing the sword of not revealing to your opponent what kind of cut
you're going to make until the very last moment is very important too.
DKB: How did you come to have the equivalent of a teaching
license when you came back to the United States? How did you come to
be authorized to teach?
Michael Alexanian performing
Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Kata #2, "Oshi Nuki"
Michael Alexanian performing
Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu
Kata #3, "Yokemi"
Michael Alexanian performing
Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu,
Kata #5 "Mune no Katana"
MA: Tsumaki Sensei and Soke Sensei and I had several discussions
about the possibility of a formal branch dojo in North America. In
fact, as I found out later, it had been a long-held dream of Soke Sensei
to have an international foreign branch in the Americas. I think when
I came along, they realized that this was something that both Dianne
and I were serious about in a very deep, committed way. It may have
restored some of their faith that, well, maybe there is still hope
that we can realize soke's dream and have a branch in North America.
In the Spring of 1996, I went back to Japan to visit with Soke Sensei
andTsumaki Sensei. We told them about the construction of our dojo
and the Japanese garden at our home, and that this was going to be
a dojo specifically for Tamiya Ryu. Soke was just overjoyed. He brought
out my formal commission, referred to as the "Shikucho Ishokujo," which
hangs up in the dojo, licensing me as a branch manager of the United
States Tamiya Ryu organization.
As I said, it had been a long-held dream of Soke Sensei's, so I think
in some ways my training and my progression up the levels of Tamiya
ryu is a little non-traditional. I know in many schools there are years
and years between one rank and another. I was very lucky. Partly (probably)
because of my constant practice and work, I was able in the space of
seven years to go basically from shodan to godan. I think they moved
it along a little quicker than they would have partly due to the opening
of the North American branch, but now things have settled more into
a state of normalcy. It has been approximately two years since I took
my last formal examination for fifth degree or godan, and sensei says
from this point on we are back to the normal system, so there will
be a gap of approximately four to six years in between when I test
for godan and when I test for rokudan.
Over that time, Sensei will choose which kata I have to perform for
the test. So I think in this case I will have to do a certain amount
kata to get to rokudan from both the kihon waza, the basic techniques,
and also from the advanced. I think Sensei is waiting until I have
more experience with the advanced techniques, so he can make a determination
of what I will perform.
But one important thing to remember is that this dojo and this organization
is not what we call a test-driven group. Testing to us is really immaterial.
We do it when Sensei comes here because he always takes the opportunity to
do that, but we don't really look at the accumulation of different ranks as
the most important part of our philosophy of training. We are more concerned
that the people who train with us learn Tamiya Ryu and learn the basics solidly
enough that we can build on what they have. Also, that they're participating
in something unique that not a lot of people do. The Koryu or the older styles
in many cases, like Tamiya Ryu, are very, very rare, at least in the United
States, and in places other than Japan. It's important to get Tamiya Ryu out
there, and I think Tsumaki Sensei's dream, you might say, is to see Tamiya
Ryu expanding farther, so eventually, on every continent, there is a main branch
or honbu of Tamiya Ryu. Of course we were just overwhelmed and greatly honored
to help Soke Sensei realize his dream of this North American branch. I think
that is one of the key factors as to why we respect him so much.
It's quite interesting the relationship that has developed between
Tsumaki Sensei and myself. When we're in the dojo, it's definitely
teacher and student (or sensei and deshi). He's a completely different
person there. When we're out of the dojo we have this sort of relationship
going where Tsumaki Sensei, because he's about four years older than
I am, I refer to him with a kind of chuckle as my oniisan - my older
brother. I sort of affectionately refer to Soke Sensei as my ojiisan
- my grandfather.
DKB: Our dojo doesn't belong to any federation, but Otani Sensei
has told me that within our group, I am yondan. For the way he does
things, it's ten years between fourth dan and fifth dan, so, I feel
of like, yay I'm off the hook. It's fun to be free from the anxiety
of having to test.
MA: We went to Japan in the Spring of 1999 to attend the Haru
Taikai, the spring international gathering of the Tamiya Ryu. We have
two annual gatherings, one in the Spring and one in the Fall. Members
from all the branches of Tamiya Ryu from Japan, from Korea and the
United States are invited to come and participate in training and testing.
Usually Soke will give a lecture in the morning on some specific point
of kata or overall technique. But I was kind of worried on this trip
because we took some of our students with us, and it was their first
time ever to test in Japan. I tested there several times before, so
I kind of knew how the butterflies work in the stomach and all that,
but I was a little nervous that Sensei was going to ask me to test
also. When he said "mada desu" ("not yet"), I was
so happy - a great weight was lifted from my shoulders, because I really
wanted to focus on the students and their experience. It was really
important for them. I believe that in a US traditional Japanese martial
arts dojo, at some point in their training, the students should have
an opportunity to go to Japan and participate in a large group event
like that. In many ways it's a very humbling experience, and in many
ways it's a very enlightening experience. Plus, you meet a lot of great
Even though for a lot of our students who don't know the Japanese
language there's a bit of a barrier, there are enough of us - both
Americans and Japanese - who are pretty much bilingual who can help
them out. It's great, and it's an important experience to be able to
take an examination in the country where your art originated. That
has a real unique quality. It's something people internalize and make
their own. We usually draw the trip out; we don't just go to the Taikai,
we also visit some places of importance in the history of martial arts.
Since we're so close to Tokyo, we usually make a trip to Sengakuji
cemetery where the 47 Ronin are buried. We visit the Budokan in Tokyo,
just so people can see some of these places they've heard and read
about. If it has a lot of historical significance, we highlight that
in order to round out the students' sense of history in terms of martial
DKB: I guess that brings me to what I think is my last question.
This might be called the Meik and Diane Skoss question (laughter).
It's their opinion that you cannot study a Koryu outside of Japan,
that there's so much that's culturally imbedded in Koryu that specifically
has to do with Japan that it's impossible to translate that experience.
I'm figuring you must have an opinion on this....(laughter).....so,
you're on the record here.
MA: I'm on the record, okay. I think they are right to a certain
degree in that to get the real feeling for learning a Koryu style you
should in fact be involved in a true Koryu system. I won't get into
the argument of "well is this a legitimate Koryu or not?"
DKB: That's okay, that's a whole other interview.
MA: But I think having the opportunity at least for a certain
period of time to train in a Koryu style in Japan is important. I would
not take back my experience of living in Japan and working with Tsumaki
Sensei even though we were living some distance apart - it was some
2-1/2 hours by bullet train from where we were living to Yokohama.
Because of the expense we couldn't go there all the time but still,
the ability to be able to call up Sensei and say, "Are there any
classes I could participate in? Is there something we can schedule?" That's
a very nice convenience to have. Being in the actual country where
the art form comes from does lend a certain amount of realism and a
certain amount of uniqueness. That's why we try to offer that experience
to our students. Every other year we make a trip to Japan to go to
the Spring Taikai so they can experience what it's like. In our case,
to be the only gaijin amongst three or four hundred other people doing
Tamiya Ryu, the students and myself come away with a feeling of being
more enriched and more knowledgeable about the school from watching
the way other people practice. Tamiya ryu is very widely practiced
in Japan. They have branches for example in Kanto, Kansai, Chubu, Hokkaido,
Kyushu and Shikoku. It's really a very popular style, very popular
with young people. I've seen students as young as sixth and seventh
grade in middle school studying Tamiya Ryu. And I've seen people --Soke
Sensei this year turned 95 - as old as 95, so age-wise and all a broad
spectrum. I really think a student who is learning a Koryu style in
America at some point in his training does need to go to Japan and
experience what it is like to work with a group of Japanese who are
learning the same art. Many times they can share experiences even through
an interpreter. The Americans can talk to the Japanese and ask "why
do you study this?" There's a certain amount of interpersonal
interaction that goes on that I think is very important for Westerners
who are learning the Koryu arts.
This is why for instance this year, even though I was not able to
attend the Spring Taikai, I went over and trained with Tsumaki Sensei.
Next year in the summer he will come to the United States to conduct
training and testing. This will be his third visit. He came once in
'96 for the formal opening of the dojo, in '98 with Soke Sensei for
the first international Taikai here in East Lansing, and he'll come
next year in 2001. So it's been about three years since he was here
last. This will be an opportunity for students who may not be able
to make it to Japan to interact with the person who they know is my
I think the schools that study Koryu systems here in the United States
that do not offer students an opportunity like that - to either get
their sensei over here from Japan so the students can work with him
in a specialized environment, or to be able to go to Japan themselves
to participate in a group event or training session - are really missing
something. One of the reasons we got involved in Japanese cultural
arts is that, when we began learning Toyama Ryu, we noticed that in
our dojo there was no discussion of anything except Toyama Ryu. Anyone
who has done any studying of Japanese cultural arts will realize that
the same kind of spirit, the same kind of focus, the same dedication,
the same commitment that you use when you practice the martial arts,
especially the Koryu arts, is the same that you use when you practice
other arts like kado (flower arrangement) or shodo (calligraphy) or
haiku or any of those things. There's a certain spirit and inspiration
behind all of them that is very similar. In fact, with shodo, one person
told me that the way you hold the sword and the way you hold the brush
are virtually identical. Even in terms of technique there's a crossover.
So I think you can study a Koryu system without having lived in Japan,
but you will miss something. If you don't at some point in your career
get to Japan, and work with some of the higher-ups in that particular
style or with others who are practicing it, or you don't have any interaction
at all, you are missing out. If I were a student studying a Koryu art
for instance, and I never had a chance to meet the Japanese sensei
who's responsible for the style's existence or had a chance to go to
Japan to work with others, I would feel there was something missing
I don't know if I've answered the question or not, but my philosophy
is almost 50-50 in a way. It's not mandatory to live in Japan for an
extended period of time to learn a Koryu system. You can learn it from
a qualified instructor in another country and that could be the United
States, it could be Australia, it could be Europe or Canada, but there
is a certain element which I feel is lacking, a piece of the puzzle
if you will, if you have no interaction or contact with Japan and you
study that system. I know that we're maybe a little unique in that
we do try and have this alternate year thing where one year Sensei
comes here and the next year we go to Japan, but if we didn't do that,
I would feel almost like I was slighting my students in a way. When
Dianne and I were living in Japan and studying with Tsumaki Sensei,
to be able to perform and practice this old-style art in that country
- there's just something about it, you can't put your finger on - but
it feels so good. It's not that you can't do it in the United States
- you can. I just think there's something missing.
DKB: I definitely think studying in Japan gives you an advantage.
On the other hand, if the teacher has a lot of cultural grounding and
he passes that on to his students, it can also help a lot. This is
what my experience has been with Otani sensei. When I did go to Japan
to the Tenshinsho Jigen ryu dojo for example, and I've been to many
kendo dojo in Kyushu when I was doing kendo, what we learned basically
as etiquette and deportment - how to behave in class - in our class
in New York, works well there. There's basically not much of any slippage
at all. We were nervous because we were outsiders, but we knew how
to behave. And knowing how to behave, we did fine. People were gracious
and helpful and didn't think we were a bunch of clods (although I could
tell a few times that's what they were expecting) because we knew from
our teacher how we were supposed to conduct ourselves and how the structure
of the dojo works. We could take that knowledge with us and use it;
so I think there's a lot to be said for a teacher who has a thorough
cultural grounding and can pass that on to the students. I definitely
agree you should go to Japan, even if you don't get to study any particular
martial art, just go, because even in people's body language you can
see certain things, if you're observant, that will contribute to your
MA: I can see why the Skosses feel the way they do. It's kind
of like learning the Japanese language - the best way to become fluent
is to live in Japan and use it every day.
And it's the same with anything we do really. The more we do it, the more familiar
it becomes to us, the more we internalize it and make it our own. I think if
you don't have that element there is definitely something lacking. You were
talking about students being prepared before they went to Japan. We do a similar
type of orientation. Because we have experienced going to the Taikai in Japan
for Tamiya Ryu, we do tell the students what they can expect, that when they
meet certain people at the Taikai, that this is how they should comport themselves
and so forth. At last year's Taikai, during the testing part of the day, one
group of older Japanese got up - I think they were testing for shodan - and
for some reason fate conspired against this group and everything they did was
problematic from the very beginning. They got all lined up and they started
automatically doing their opening reishiki (etiquette) and the judges were
all shouting "Yame! Yame! Yame!" ("Stop! Stop! Stop!")
because nobody said "Hajime" ("Begin") yet.
So right from the very start these people had lined up and gotten
ready to do their test, and the person who was judging or managing
the test hadn't even said anything yet.
At the banquet afterwards where my students and Dianne and myself ate dinner
with Tsumaki Sensei and Soke Sensei and members from the group in Yokosuka,
Soke started going on and on in a very loud voice about how well the Americans
and Westerners had performed and how this one group of Japanese couldn't hold
a candle to them. Tsumaki Sensei was standing behind him whispering "Otoosan!
Otoosan! Dame yo! Dame yo!" Like, "Quiet! Quiet! We don't want them
to lose face," but Soke was apparently so pleased with how our students
from North America performed that he just really wanted to make sure we knew
it. I think being there was part of the reason they performed so well. Here
they were, among hundreds of people doing the same thing that they do. Here
in the United States they feel a little isolated, but that sense of community
and camaraderie is one of those elements that is missing if you don't go to
Japan and visit a dojo and interact with a group that does what you do.
DKB: That's all my questions, sensei. Thank you. I appreciate
your taking the time for the interview.
MA: You're welcome.
More information about Tamiya ryu Iaijutsu and other
traditional Japanese arts in East Lansing, and about the Michigan-Shiga
Sister State program, is available through Michael and Dianne Alexanian's
website, www.shakunage.org They
can be contacted via email at email@example.com.
Photos Courtesy Shakunage Consulting,
About The Interviewer:
Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido
at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying
extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata
(halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's
Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation
on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study
Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association.
Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese
martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the
summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman.