A REUNION WITH MASTER TANABE MY MENTOR
By Shihan Dana Abbott
It was about four in the afternoon and my flight was on its final approach. As we broke through the clouds on this long 12 hour journey, I, again, was amazed at the vast differences between my country and the Land of the Rising Sun.
Early the next morning I dial Master Tanabe, who is and has been a prominent and respected figure in the Japanese martial arts community for close to a half Century. A staff member answers the phone, saying moshi moshi. With a push of the extension button, I am now connected to Master Tanabe my mentor of the sword. After a few moments of honorific greetings and small talk, he says, “Later this afternoon I would like you to come to Tokyo to cross swords with me”.
I take the Hanzomon subway line from my in-laws house in Yokohama which is about a 45 minute trip to Tokyo. Passing through station to station I gaze out the window and soak in all the foreign architecture, people and sounds and it brings back pleasant memories of the decade and half that I lived there. I arrive in Shibuya which is a suburb of Tokyo and make my way through the throngs of people during rush hour.
Reaching the dojo I ascend to the top floor and notice a pair of geta (Japanese traditional clogs) lined up on the first stair from the entrance. Aah, that immediately signals that he is awaiting me. Crossing the threshold I turn right and there in my peripheral vision I see Master Tanabe sitting in a seza position. As our eyes meet we smile, a smile a student receives from a teacher who has mentored him for a long time. We bow to each other saying a greeting that expresses the honor that is felt between a student and his master.
Master Tanabe immediately rises up asking which sword that I have been practicing with and teaching the most. I said the long sword and also stated that in the United States this sword is the most popular. He walks to the wall where a rack of swords and training tools are lined up in order of their various lengths. He then hands me a short bamboo sword and says, “Let’s start out with this one” handing me a 24-inch hatsuwari (bamboo split into eight lengths and enclosed into a leather sheath).
Master Tanabe and I each enter our own designated areas. We bow and assume our positions. We start with warm up technique training and exercises. I kiai, (shout of encouragement) attack and come into his center line executing single and multiple strikes. He, in turn blocks, evades and counters while encouraging me with his praise as he broadly smiles. In a short amount of time I am warmed up, my techniques are revitalized and my body is ready for action with the next combative weapon.
This time it is a padded combative short sword called a kodachi. For the next 20 minutes we fight and compete at full speed and power putting my body through its paces. As I covertly switch my sword from right hand to left I am looking for an opening as we both move into and out of our respective circles of influence. Sweat is flowing from my body and my uniform is wet as if I were caught in a London mist.
Forty minutes have now passed since I first entered the dojo. Master Tanabe says, “Let me see what you can do with this”, as he hands me a wooden shoto, another type of training sword used in the instruction of traditional aspects of the sword. He returns to the rack to select his own weapon. With sword in hand he cuts through the air with a few flourishes while simultaneously stomping his foot on the ground for emphasis. His foot hitting the ground makes you think that an infamous Japanese earthquake is taking place. It is hard to believe that sound could come from the very small foot of my Master. I have been trying to duplicate this sound for the past twenty years and if I do say so myself, I am well known for my strong foot emphasis, but I must admit, it is nothing compared to his.
Next, Master Tanabe tells me, “Let me see you execute Happogiri and then the Kodachi-Iai kata series”. As commanded, I go through my paces executing the various strikes, techniques and movements while Master Tanabe sets up the cutting stands. He has placed tatami mats on the pegs which are now ready to cut. Tatami mats are Japan’s carpeting. When these mats become worn they are replaced and the old ones discarded. But for a dojo there is another usage. They are rolled, soaked and used for test cutting. Tatami mats are extremely resilient and offer natural feeling and sensation of cutting through human anatomy.
Master Tanabe has me return to the weapons rack and choose a shinken from the many available. A shinken is a steel sword which has a very sharp if not razor sharp edge whereas, a dull metal sword used mostly in kata practice is called an iaito. Master Tanabe says, “Good choice, that is the sword I always cut with so let me see you execute a tsubamegaishi”. I stand in front of the first mat and with my right hand execute a downward diagonal cut from one to seven o’clock (hidari kesagiri) immediately returning with an upward diagonal cut from seven to one o’clock (gyaku giri). I turn to the next mat already in place. Master Tanabe says, “Now execute the same technique with your left hand”. For the next ten minutes or so I execute simple to difficult cutting patterns such as, roku-dan giri, mizu gaishi, tsubanmae gaishi cuts just to name a few.
With the completion of the last cutting technique Master Tanabe’s students start drifting in for the evening instructional class. This time I am given the honor of being their teacher and in charge of the class. I then take the students through their paces for the next 90 minutes having them repeat what I had done prior to their arrival. Upon conclusion of the class we all bow to each other. I start to change into my street clothes as the lower ranking students wipe down the floors as is required by their rank.
Master Tanabe and I leave the dojo, take a taxi and within minutes are in Tokyo’s Azabu district. As I am his honored guest I follow him to a Yakitori ya (café) of his choice. We are immediately seated in a secluded corner on zabutons or big square pillows which are placed under traditional Japanese tables. We order Asahi beer and local sake. Sitting across the table from each other is a seza position we bow and then click our 32 ounce beer mugs. We immediately downed half in a matter of seconds before we started to catch up with all the new happenings both in Japan and the United States concerning sword technique, fighting and tournaments.
Master Tanabe explained that my duties for the 2008 World Championships as International Director would be to help expedite and coordinate the different divisions and requested that I come to his office the next morning to go over all the particulars. He then looks me in the eye and says, “You did an excellent job leading the students today and your fighting ability is still strong and steadily growing”. But, with a sly smile Master Tanabe asked, “WHO EVER TAUGHT YOU YOUR STANCES AND CUTTING TECHNIQUES?? IT SURELY WAS NOT ME!!! You’re off center and need to lead the target more. You need to move your hand down about one-quarter inch and your foot should turn out an extra 2 degrees. Keep you back straighter and relax!!!”
Master Tanabe then pats me on my back, smiles and says, “Tomorrow we will practice the long sword”.