“Samurai” as a concept has been one of Japan’s hottest exports in last few decades. The rise in the popularity of anime, martial arts, and anything Japanese in the West has piqued the interest of younger generations in a way that other cultural imports haven’t been able to match.
For many Japanophiles, their interest extends only as far as their wallet can take them. For a few, their interest in Japanese culture takes them to a much deeper level, such as trying to learn a Japanese martial art. For a lucky few, the desire and drive to actually become a samurai has spurred people around the globe to train in a style of swordsmanship called ryuseiken. Likewise, the founder of ryuseiken aims to correct the way the world thinks about samurai while teaching others the proper way of the sword.
Master Mitsuhiro Saruta travels around the world opening training halls, holding demonstrations, seminars, and tournaments primarily aimed at non-Japanese people.
Unless you’re deeply interested in Japanese swords, it is likely you have no idea who Mitsuhiro Saruta is. He is perhaps one of the few last real samurai, one member of a lost class and an old-style way of thinking. Saruta began training in the way of the sword at age six. After winning various kendo tournaments throughout his younger days, Saruta’s prowess and skill began to gain notoriety in the martial art world.
Saruta’s study of the sword eventually led him to travel to America. There, he realized that many people had the wrong idea about samurai and martial arts in general, just as many still do today. Purely wanting to learn a martial art, but being taught the wrong information about it and the culture from which it was born from the start is sad for both the teacher and the student. Saruta started studying batto-do as a way to change the way people see samurai and as an extension, Japanese culture as a whole. This led to the creation of ryuseiken batto-do.
Batto-do is a style of swordsmanship that primarily focuses on using sharp swords and actually cutting rolled tatami mats, called “goza”. While this may sound like the purpose of all sword-based martial arts, one would be surprised to find that many styles, such as kendo, do not use live blades or cut anything at all. The purpose of batto-do is to learn how to make the perfect cut.
While there are different ways to prove one’s skill, Saruta decided to test his with Senbongiri. “Senbongiri”, or “1000 perfect cuts”, is a way for a swordsman to test his cutting technique. A practitioner must cut 1000 rolled goza without failing a single cut. As there was no official record for Senbongiri in the 20th century, Saruta is considered to be the first to complete Senbongiri. He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having completed the feat in 1 hour, 36 minutes and 36 seconds. With skills now proven to the world, Ryuseiken Batto-do is, without question, one way for anyone to become a samurai.
Master Saruta has traveled across Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States opening dojos and training his disciples. He regularly visits to hold tournaments for his students in their home countries. However, the most recent tournament was held at the Ryuseiken Headquarters in Sakai City, Osaka. On May 21st, 2017, participants from around the globe gathered at a mid-sized auditorium for the 8th Annual International Batto-do Cutting Tournament.
Before the eliminations began, as special entertainment for the many foreign spectators and competitors, various unusual cultural demonstrations were performed by members of the community. Among these, men wearing traditional Japanese clothes played a song on conch shells and a children’s group played taiko drums. Of course, there were displays of unusual Japanese weapons as well.
The eliminations began after the weapons demonstration. Unlike a karate or judo tournament, where many matches are held simultaneously, only one match was held at a time. Two practitioners labeled red or white stands on a stage facing the judges and the audience where he or she cuts one or two goza. Men and women compete together and women also have a separate tournament with identical rules. The judges then decide who made the cleaner cut by holding up either a red or white flag. The judges do not only look at whether the cut was cleanly made, but also how the competitor drew and sheathed his or her sword, the angle of the cut, and the overall quality of the technique.
It is a single elimination-style tournament. Those that advance must cut two, three, then four goza at a time. One rolled goza is about the same thickness and weight of a human arm. Cutting one goza is difficult; cutting two, three, then four at a time is challenging even for the first place winners. Winners received a trophy, a cash award, applause from the audience, and sweet, sweet glory.
As a spectator, it’s easy to forget that what the competitors are holding in their hands are sharpened, deadly weapons. Even a small mistake could lead to a trip to the hospital or worse. Yet surprisingly, there was only one small injury during the entire tournament. Part of learning how to properly cut things is learning how not to cut things. As this is a non-contact sport, competitors don’t wear any sort of protection, and they’re barefoot, so the only thing preventing possible amputation is their own skill. Practice is the best guard you can have in this sport, so resist the urge to practice this at home.
With each successful tournament, Master Saruta comes a step closer to achieving his original goal. Learning ryuseiken isn’t just about learning how to handle a sword. To properly understand swordsmanship, practitioners must also study a way of thinking grounded in discipline, respect, and hard work. Perhaps what makes samurai “cool” isn’t the swords they carried, but the attitude they had.
Ryuseiken dojos around the world are always accepting applications. Why not sign up in the USA or Japan and learn how to be a true samurai?