ZNKR Iaido in Finland

by José Martinez-Abarca

Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei Iaido was developed in the 1960s and 70s by an appointed panel of the All Japan Kendo Association (ZNKR or JKA). The original intention was to produce a standard that could be used for gradings nationally and internationally. The idea was to provide a common foundation as a way to unite the various traditional schools of iaido or koryu and to expand the scope of the ZNKR. It was not merely a method to get kendo players to pick up real swords as has been incorrectly assumed.

Although the twelve kata of ZNKR Iaido have come from various old schools, it should not be seen merely as a pot-pourri. ZNKR Iaido definitely has its own style, its own flavour. Furthermore it is a living art that is growing and developing around the world. As such, ZNKR Iaido is open to everyone regardless of their background and opens up a whole new world of possibilities not only in itself but in meeting and learning from practitioners of different styles of iaido.

ZNKR Iaido in Finland

ZNKR Iaido has, depending on how you want to look at it, been in Finland nearly twice as long as kendo or then only half as long. Confused? Intrigued? Ok, let me try and explain but hang in there, to tell the story of ZNKR iaido in Finland we need to go back to Japan and the age of the samurai.

Iai is often translated as the art of drawing the sword, (which has led to more than one person asking what kind of pencils do they need) this coming from the fact that the art’s distinguishing feature is the act of unsheathing the sword becoming a strike. The word iai comes from the expression ”Tsune ni itte kyuu ni awasu”, roughly translated, ”Be prepared for any situation!”.

Hayashizaki Shinsuke Shigenobu is attributed with having created iai in the fifteenth century. His father had been killed by a swordsman of great skill and he was honour bound to avenge him. As there was no way the young Shigenobu could beat the villain using conventional fencing techniques, he had to come up with something new and daring.

When he met his opponent, who in time-honoured tradition had unsheathed his sword and stood en garde, Shigenobu just stood there, sword in scabbard. As a result, his opponent could not gauge his reach or his intention and thus was at a loss what to do. Until it was too late of course.

So effective was this new, innovative style that it spawned a new school of swordsmanship, Hayashizaki Ryu, which then led to other schools being formed, some of which exist today but most of which died with their teachers. These schools are often referred to as iaijutsu, as their goal was to teach practical skills to professional swordsmen.

In 1870 came the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s modernisation. In with the new and out with the old. One of the things to go was the samurai class and the need for professional swordsmen. Thanks to the likes of Kano Jigoro, Ueshiba Morihei, Yamaoka Tesshu and, in the case of iai, Nakayama Hakudo, the old martial skills were not completely lost. Instead they were rationalised and transformed from military arts to ways for personal development or Do. The particular art that Nakayama developed was called Muso Shinden Ryu and was almost synonymous with iaido until the creation of ZNKR iaido in the 1960s.

Muso Shinden Ryu, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, Toyama Ryu, Suioryu, Hoki Ryu, Tamiya Ryu to mention but a few, are examples of what are generally known as koryu. Each one these “old schools” has a comprehensive curriculum of kata which can be over one hundred in some schools and covering a multitude of weapons. Some have their own organisations; some belong to bigger ones for example, the Dai Nippon Butokuden, Zen Nihon Iaido Renmei and of course, the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei or ZNKR.

In 1968, the ZNKR launched its “Seitei kata” or representative forms, a “Best of Iaido collection” one could say. These were intended to give an overview of the essence of iaido to beginners in the art as well as giving a “common language” and a unifying factor to the various koryu in the ZNKR.

With me so far? Now that you have an idea of the iaido’s background in Japan I hope it will make it simpler to understand the situation in Finland.

The first documented time iaido was practised in Finland was at an aikido seminar in May 1971 in Pietarsaari. Ichimura Toshikazu sensei, who was a 6th dan renshi in iaido, would teach ZNKR iaido in addition to aikido. From this time the bond between aikido and iaido in Finland has been strong with successive sensei keeping up the tradition of teaching aikido and iaido. One of the prime movers in Swedish iaido, Komaki sensei, ( 7th dan iaido renshi, 6th dan kendo) taught ZNKR Iaido in Finland in 1980 as did Michioka sensei (kendo kyoshi 7th dan, iaido kyoshi 7th dan) with the help of Watanabe-sensei (iaido 5th dan) and Konno sensei (kendo 6th dan, iaido 4th dan) in Turku in 1983. The first official iaido and jodo seminar to be organised by the FKA was held in 1997 in Pori under the tutelage of Momiyama sensei(Renshi 6th dan).

Despite the early start, ZNKR Iaido would not be officially recognised in Finland until 2000. Instead, other styles under different organisations would flourish the largest following having MUSO SHINDEN RYU under Takada-sensei (iaido kyoshi 8th dan) who visited Scandinavia for the first time in 1986.

ZNKR iaido was kept alive largely through the efforts of Mikko Salonen who had a training group in Helsinki. Things were to change in 1999 when José Martinez-Abarca moved to Finland and became the main trainer in Helsinki and the FKA’s first (and up to now only) official iaido representative.

Iaido became an official part of the FKA in 2000 and in the same year a Kyu grading system was implemented. This year Finns also made their debut on the international iaido scene taking part in the summer seminar in Great Britain and Sakari Myllymäki was the first Finn to grade 1 kyu in Europe. Asko Pitkänen of jodo fame has the honour of being the first Finn to grade 1st dan in Japan.

In 2001 Finns ventured into the world of iaido competition taking part in the European Championships in Brussels. This was more of a reconnaissance mission in which the social aspect of iaido was explored to the full also not to mention Belgium’s finest ales!

In 2002 Finns took part in the Swedish Iaido Open seminar and competition (head sensei Tadashi Fujita, Hanshi 8th dan) where the Iivonen brothers graded 1 kyu and brought home four competition medals.

Finland’s first full, official team took part in the European Championships in Stockholm

in 2004 and Niklas Dahl became the first Finn to win a medal.

The following year, Raili Parkkonen (4th dan iaido) joined Finland’s ranks. Raili, who was born in Finland, grew up in Sweden where she lives and practises iaido. After regaining her Finnish nationality, she joined the team and won the ”Fighting Spirit” medal in Bologna!

This year the medal count was doubled with both José Martinez-Abarca and Niilo Kiesiläinen winning ”Fighting Spirit” medals in Brighton.

Although it is easy to measure our development through success in competition, this is by no means the raison d’étre of ZNKR iaido. More important are the promotion of iaido around Finland and the raising of the quality of iaido practised in Finland. To help us, we have had the help of notable visitors including Morihiro Kimura (Kyoshi 8th dan), Takao Momiyama (Renshi 6th dan), Peter West (Renshi 6th dan), Rolf Radakovits (6th dan) and most recently Robert Rodriguez (Renshi 6th dan). Thanks to them, we have been able to build a solid base for ZNKR Iaido in Finland. It is being practised regularly in four cities with more to come in the near future as we continue growing and improving. Our strength does not come from the quantity of our members but from the quality of their commitment to maintain the standards and traditions handed down to us by those who go ahead, our sensei. We look forward to your help and support to make Iaido an integral part of the activity of the Finnish Kendo Association.