“You’re getting a little stressed,” my sempai observed. “Smile, even, when you do the kata. It’s soooo easy!”
Well, actually, it was hard for me to reconfigure and fix what I was doing wrong, but my sempai was trying to get a point across: when you do iai, it shouldn’t look mechanical or stiff. It should look like your body is flowing, easy and smooth, like it was the most natural thing in the world to be splitting someone’s head in half vertically. And in order to do that, your face had to be relaxed as well. Clenching one’s teeth, grimacing or glaring would only translate facial tension into whole body tension.
This is a concept widely accepted in koryu circles: the notion of having what we would call a “poker face.” The enemy can’t read your emotions or deduce your intentions. It’s mugao (“no-face”) and mushin (“no spirit”). But the literal translation doesn’t really mean you have NO face, or no spiritual energy. It means, rather, that the surface of your external appearance, such as your body and facial posture, reflects a relaxed, flexible spirit. Your face isn’t set like a granite stone statue, teeth grinding against each other, and your spirit isn’t dead set on only one way; you’re able to react to the situation at hand quickly without mental blockage. You have a relaxed, natural, everyday expression.
As I was learning a new iai form, I had inadvertently and unconsciously gotten a bit stressed out, tightening my wrist too much, thinking too hard about getting the movement right. While still focusing on my movement, I had to also relax my tight muscles, including those in my face.
That explains why our own iai sensei used to almost nearly smile when they did iai. Their faces were so relaxed, and they reflected a calm, engaged spirit that allowed their bodies to move effortlessly with the sword.
I think many of us in the West, and even modern budo practitioners in Japan, sometimes forget or are unaware of this attitude. Certainly, in modern budo tournaments, the often-seen demeanor is one of aggression, the better to scare the competition and/or the better to appear tough and gutsy, as people think martial artists should be.
You can’t win a modern budo tournament, it seems, unless you strut and puff out your chest and project a manic facial expression in kata competition, or act like a supremely overconfident street punk in tourney fighting. So you glare bug-eyed, grit your teeth, lock your knees and puff out your chest. You da man! (Or you da woman!)
Some of this difference is cultural. If you look at koryu budo, they sprang out of the classical Japanese warrior culture, like Noh drama. Noh uses masks for the main actors, and this form of theater prides itself on subtlety. There is no heaving of the body and torrential sobbing as in the more plebian-class theater of Kabuki. Rather, to denote sadness, the head of the masked performer will tilt downwards only ever so slightly, and a single open palm goes in front of the face gently. The depth of sorrow is contained in that stylized gesture, recognizable instantly by a libretto-carrying observer who is following the chanting with an annotated text. You don’t need overt, over-the-top wracked sobbing. One tear supposedly going down a stoic face is all you need to convey terrible sadness.
Again, there are cultures where “let it all hang out” is the way to go. That’s fine for those cultures. But for the classical Japanese warriors, it was more like “still waters run deep”’; bombastic extroverted expressions are not as truly deep as restrained displays. Think of it like the British upper class restraint of ages past, the “stiff upper lip” that controlled waves of feeling. It’s not that they didn’t have strong feelings. It’s that in that stratified society, before tell-all expose gossip newspapers and reality shows, it wasn’t considered in good taste to put it all out in front of the public.
As my sempai remarked, that attitude of restraint is actually hard to do. Based on individual habits and cultural breeding, students of koryu will often carry their emotions on their sleeves because they are, after all, fallible human beings. The bad thing about that is that in a real fight, so the classical warrior attitude goes, if you show all your emotions, the enemy can “read” your mind and beat you. This may not matter much in a battle using longer range weapons, such as rifles, RPGs, cannon, helicopter gunships or ICBMs, but it meant a lot in close quarter combat when you are up and close in sword-fighting distance and you can literally look into the enemy’s eyes.
As one example, there is a set of kata in my jujutsu school in which you are using a short sword against a long sword. It’s a last ditch effort because most of the advantage belongs to the swordsman with the longer-reach weapon. You close the gap and deliberately appear small and intimidated in order to lull the swordsman. Some of us students were having a problem stepping into the low, unassuming stance.
My sensei remarked, “You are trying to lure the enemy in. So you have to deliberately appear weaker than you are. And that’s a hard thing for many budoka to do. All their lives they train to appear tough and strong. So it’s not easy for bugeisha to look weak.”
He was right. The hardest thing to do, and the most deceptive, is to appear unassuming, especially if you’d been training for decades to NOT be weak or defenseless.
And for me, the most vexing opponent would have to be someone whose face and posture I can’t decipher. Pugnacity and aggressive attitude, I can see and adjust for. Fear in an opponent is something that dogs can literally smell, and many human predators can somehow innately sense. But a face that remains the same even if you thought you whacked him a good one? Unnerving. Especially when that opponent comes back with a powerful retort, all with that same unwavering (fudoshin) face.
While I needed a reminder myself to relax my tight jaw, I remember trying to work with a short-term student on relaxing his body. He had previously done some work with a former karate teacher who had cobbled together his own modern iai system, he said. Okay, fine. But whenever he drew his sword over his head, his left hand would flare open, fingers splayed apart, like a kabuki actor’s pose, before theatrically grasping the sword hilt. He would also grit and bare his teeth, and bug his eyes out. I told him that was good for kabuki woodblock prints, and I don’t know what he was taught in his modern iai school, but in koryu, those displays of exaggerated facial expressions and gestures were counterproductive. They also stiffened the rest of his body too much.
Sadly, he either never quite seemed to get the concept of relaxing, or he thought I was feeding him a line of bull, and he soon enough dropped out, unable or unwilling to transition to my way of thinking.
Showing focus and eye-strength (metsuke) are different things, of course, from exhibiting false bravado. It’s not about aggression; it’s about concentrating on thejob at hand. One teacher of koryu remarked that a classical warrior’s expression was much like the dedicated and focused expression of a sushi chef or traditional woodworker. The chef wouldn’t glare or grit his teeth at having to cut a slice of raw fish to slap on some rice or plane the surface of a piece of wood. He just concentrated and did it. So too, the classical warrior wouldn’t expend precious energy on bombastic expressions. He just went and did it.