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Saturday, Feb. 15, 2003

JAPAN LITE

'Yaido': the deep art of beheading people


Have you ever had the urge to behead someone? Now you can. Behead as many people as you like, and additionally slice off their limbs. But there are some restrictions: only between the hours of 7 and 9 on Tuesday nights at a particular dojo in the city of Okayama. Ueno-sensei would be your teacher -- eighth dan -- so you had best do what he says.

Welcome to the world of "yaido" (pronounced ee-eye-doh), the traditional sword fighting of the samurai warriors. Think of it as kendo with a sword instead of a stick. Although they don't behead real people anymore, this small group of five men wearing traditional black "hakama" hack up countless imaginary people in one session. "You try to visualize someone in front of you who is the same height and weight as yourself," said the soft-spoken Yagasaki-san, who is fourth dan.

Throughout the session, the men practiced various blows to the hapless imaginary person (hapless, in this case meaning without even a hap left): swoosh -- the side cut (beheaded!), another swoosh -- kneeling on one knee and cutting straight down (split in two!), swoosh -- the cut straight down (stabbed in the back!), and the last swoosh for finishing off: the diagonal cut (sashimi!). When finished, with incredible skill, these men grasp the sheath with their left hand and insert the sword with their right, never looking down.

Ueno-sensei, sitting next to me watching, unsheathed his meter-long sword. I winced and my stomach tightened. You could skewer cows with this thing.

When I held the sword, I was surprised how light it was -- wow, maybe even I could slice off a head or two.

It makes sense that Japanese history is fraught with beheadings -- they didn't have guns. Of course, nowadays you need a license to carry these weapons of mass decapitation. As a matter of fact, it's the same license needed to carry a rifle in Japan.

When you think about it, beheading makes a lot of sense. If you merely be-toed or be-eared someone, for example, you would have an even angrier foe. Besides, can you imagine carrying someone's toe back to the shogun?

Tentatively touching Ueno-sensei's well-sharpened blade, I have to admit that I thought it would make a great letter opener for those envelopes the Japanese seal so tightly up into the wee corners. Heck, you could toss the letter in the air and slice it open with one of these. Another toss would remove the stamps and cut out and save the return address. At the very least, a sword like this could make chopping vegetables into a culinary sport.

With all the gun control problems we have in the U.S., thank God we don't have swords to worry about. At the very least, people would insist on hunting animals with them. We would have announcements for the opening of the sword season for bear. Or the rabbit-skewering season, in which swords would act as spears.

But the point of yaido is really none of this. The appreciation of yaido is the same as for all Japanese cultural arts and comes from the control of mind and actions attained by immersing yourself in something so deep that you must focus all your energy on it. Whether cutting off heads or toes makes little difference.

Although sometimes I wonder if the business-minded Japanese really need hobbies that are so serious, Yagasaki-san proved he can also be a jokester as he feined unsheathing his sword while yelling, "Freeze!" Of course, as per Japanese protocol, he wasn't inside the dojo when he did that.

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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