The real last samurai are still wielding swords

Monday, December 15, 2003

The new Tom Cruise movie "The Last Samurai" has renewed interest in the warriors of feudal Japan as mythologized in such films as "The Seven Samurai."

But students of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, the oldest Japanese martial arts system, are the real last samurai, said Dr. Robert W. Dillon Jr.

They practice swordsmanship techniques and tactics with a direct lineage traced to 1447. The essence of the oral teaching is transmitted through the practice of "kata," sets of movements that have remained unchanged since the system was created. The headmaster of the school in Japan is the direct descendent of the founder, 21 generations removed.

The Japanese government has designated Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu as an important cultural property. Dillon calls it "a living antique."

"It has been compared to the knights of Richard III practicing by Heathrow Airport," said the associate professor of theater and dance at Southeast Missouri State University.

Dillon started devoting himself to Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu in 1985. In 1994, he founded a martial arts club whose master-teacher, Sugawara Tetsutaka, lives in Japan. The members train two or three times a week at Tracy's Karate in Cape Girardeau, learning the fundamentals of classical Japanese swordsmanship: Fast drawing techniques, long and short sword techniques, paired swords techniques and techniques for using spears and a staff.

Another member of the club, Southeast philosophy major Kevin McCain, teaches kenpo karate as well. He said the swordsmanship practice has improved his concentration. "A big part is the concentration and what you learn from any kind of pursuit of perfection," the Jackson resident said. "You're constantly learning how to wield the weapon."

After graduating from Southeast, McCain hopes to travel to Japan to train in swordsmanship. There is philosophy behind the teaching, he said. "It seems to teach you that often the simplest way is the best."

As a theater professor, Dillon is proficient in the techniques of stage combat. But this practice means something more to him than learning a series of blade thrusts. "We don't practice for the purpose of learning to kill people," he said.

But swinging an aluminum-bladed sword focuses the attention. "It deals with concerns that are ultimate: Life and death and personal integrity," he said.

The practitioners are very serious. "It's easy to talk about character building," Dillon said. "It's hard to see it at work."

The practice does translate to Dillon's profession. "It is a way to learn about focus, to communicate about focus and teach focus," he said.

At the karate studio, the practitioners are able to do things that could be very dangerous in the real world.

"Knowing what you're doing is a good end in itself," Dillon said.

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