Connecting through the sageo

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When using a sword, we are often bothered by the sageo, this is the long flat rope made of silk, leather or cotton, hanging down from the kurigata (the little piece of wood on the scabbard through which the sageo is inserted).

Peace time samurai would use it as an adornment with a fancy way of knotting it onto the scabbard. Obviously they were not fighting anymore and had the time to spend making beautiful but useless knots. In traditional sword schools (from mid Tokugawa, Meiji and until today) there is a whole set of etiquette on how to fold, put it on or in wearing it; however this has nothing to do with its original use. On the contrary it looks to me that the modern Japanese had to find a way to put it into use because they had no clue about what to do with it.

The Bujinkan deals with the Muromachi period of warfare, and making knots was not a priority for these warriors. Sensei commented that the “real sword masters were the tachi masters and that those using a katana used it because they did not know how to use the tachi”. Even though it seems a little harsh, this is right, when you become aware of the power of the tachi you understand the devastating possibilities created and how it can benefit your fighting abilities. To get a clear image of tachi waza think about the military world of today. Military men carry the equipment they have to be more efficient, they don’t wear equipment to look good. In order to stay alive they “adapt” their gear to their body, and to the situation. This brings us to the conclusion that the sageo had to be useful in some way.

First the sageo is a rope and a rope is used to tie. Tachi kumiuchi implies the use of yoroi (Japanese armour) and the upper part of the yoroi is supported above the hip bone by a big large obi (belt). Remember that the yoroi is moving quite freely around the torso because when you ride a horse the cylinder of the has to be able to move up along the body. Actually there is a lot of free space between your flesh and the plates of the yoroi. This kûkan gives dynamics to the yoroi and permits to receive heavy blows while dissipating the power of the hit.

 This belt was thick and round to support the and had three major uses: 1) It positioned the above the joint of the hip to free the movements of the leg. Without it the would cover the hip bone and prevent the legs from moving. Try the yoroi without it and you will be stuck in your footwork. 2) The is made of a heavy metal plates that would crush down the sides of your hip bone and create a lot of pain. The belt cushions the weight of the onto the hips. 3) The belt would carry many weapons by sticking them to the body/yoroi for easy use.

Using the belt for carrying weapons however does not concern the tachi which was hanging down low on the thigh and not on the hip. A tachi is not a katana and the holster bears two strings separated by about the width of the hand to hold the scabbard of the tachi. In comparison the katana is held at the koiguchi (tip of the scabbard). The holster is continued by a long sageo tied around the body and/or the waist to keep the sword in place and allow easy drawing in any situation. The sageo is tied up in the same way you tie your hakama. You do not make knots but fold it half crossed until the final knot.

Actually the sageo is connecting the sword to the body making it a “natural” extension of it. In 1991, I remember that sensei taught me many ways of tying the sageo around the body and the waist in a nearby temple in Noda for the sake of taking pictures (all pictures came out blurred). I forgot all about it until recently when we began to study the tachi kumiuchi.

Tied up properly, the sageo is an important device when using the tachi as it keeps the blade from swaying away from your hands and body and keeps it always ready for drawing. In tachi waza, the tsuka goes to the hand by the momentum created by your footwork. You do not grab it because you don’t see it as your vision is impeded by the kabuto (helmet) and the mask. With the sageo your movements and your sheathed blade are connected at all times.

Last year, when we studied the nawa we learnt the concept of connection, that all our movements were connected like a rope and that our weapons should move like a rope.  During daikomyôsai, sensei insisted that we should not severe the connection with a) our environment, b) our opponent(s) and c) ourselves. That was “en no kirinai”.

Because the tachi is used katate (one hand) and because the movements are very similar to those of hanbô jutsu, we can manifest this connection with the tachi as we are able to change hand (right to left and left to right) many times during the fight to get uke’s balance. Uke is blinded by the multiple angles created and cannot interpret our moves and therefore cannot counter them. The quality of our connection to nature, is “dis-connecting” him from himself, uke is only able to react to our multiple moves until it is too late for him.

But the quality of this connection isn’t limited to the manifested level of things by is also deeply related to Life. Playing with Japanese language, as usual, we have to see the connection between “sageo” (sword knot) and “sagasu” (to seek, to look for). So we can “look for” a deeper understanding of it. At a more spiritual level we see that further to our connection to the weapon (physical world), all our actions are linked to nature, and to the kami (spiritual world).

We are able to use the kanjin kaname, the eyes and the heart of the gods in our actions and stay fully connected to the ten chi jin of nature. In a Bujinkan dôjô each class begins with the following uta (Japanese transmission of wisdom):

 Chi-Haya-Buru

Kami-no-Oshie-wa

Tokoshie-ni

Tadashiki-Kokoro

Mi-o-Mamoru-ran

In his book “Chi-haya-Buru, a Japanese cultural treasure”, Craig Olson explains the deep meaning of it. “The Japanese Uta”, he writes, are “originally a form of oral transmission, (…) [the] venerable ancestor to the Haiku, (…) a link back to the origins of Japan (…). (page 3). A few pages later, when explaining the second sentence meaning “the teachings of kami” he writes: “the implication is that there was a personal connection between the composer of this uta and the kami that was passing along valuable lessons”. (page 51).

What we see, what we perceive is not the full reality. The quality of our connection makes it possible to integrate unseen information in order to survive and to live fully. “Developing the ability to understand the nature of our interaction with things that we cannot see is vital to our survival” (page 61). Tachi kumiuchi is bringing us to this level of understanding sensei’s budô.

Tachi kumiuchi is the key to encompass nature in our movements and the proper use of the sageo is what is connecting us to this new dimension. Positioned at the hip level, the sageo links the upper part of the body to the lower part; the ten to the chi and allows us to be moving like a jin (kami?).

So why do we wear a sageo? to be connected, to become one, and finally to become zero.

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