Grand Master Sekiguchi Sensei and The Legend of the Iron Knife…

The Grand Master Cometh
Sekiguchi Sensei visits Maui, part of his quest to preserve an ancient art
By Anu Yagi

Grand Master. It’s a heavy term, and one that—until now—I think I’ve tossed about with embarrassing frivolity. Applied in the real world, the title is no novelty, no Hollywood prevarication. Despite my personal interest in and study of the martial way and its masters, it took meeting one to begin to understand that, while earning title of Grand Master may be the ultimate honor, it also bears the weight of the ultimate responsibility.

In the case of 21st Grand Master Sekiguchi Komei Sensei, that responsibility strikes a hard balance. Head of the Komei Juku school of samurai swordsmanship, he’s charged with perpetuating the ancient art of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaijutsu to its most historic detail, breathing life into the school and its forms (waza) and seeing to its development.

In his 32 years as Grand Master, Sekiguchi Sensei has founded more than 20 schools internationally, each dedicated the study of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaijutsu—one of the best-documented schools of Japanese swordsmanship in the world, founded in the 16th century by Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu.

Attending to his schools and providing demonstrations at the behest of historians and enthusiasts around the world, Sekiguchi Sensei has traveled to over 50 countries. And this month, he returns to Maui thanks to the efforts of local, 21st century samurai under his tutelage.

Maui’s Komei Juku school was the third school opened by Sekiguchi Sensei and serves as the headquarters for Iaijutsu in the United States (Komei Juku Beikoku Honbu). Directing the school locally is Robert W. Montgomery —lovingly called “Bob Sensei,” by his dedicated students—along with his ultra-skilled right-hand man, Guy Junker.

Montgomery lived in Tokyo for seven years prior to moving to Maui in 1994, training under and traveling with Sekiguchi Sensei, and adding to his four-plus decades of intense study of Japanese martial arts. Among many accolades, in 1993, Montgomery was given the name Sekiguchi Kenshin by Sekiguchi Sensei, and in 2008 received the Nihon Bkunka Award from the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui for his “contributions to preserve and perpetuate Japanese culture on Maui.”

Twice weekly, Montgomery and Junker hold rigorous training sessions at the museum-like Maui Okinawan Kenjin Kai in Wailuku. Sensei and students alike dress in traditional, feudal-era Japanese garb—an intricate garment consisting of a heavy dogi top, the wide, tightly-cinched obi belt, and long, pleated hakama pants—the straps of which also affix the sword to the body, pulled across and flat along the along the waist and finished with a looping, cross-shaped bow.

In the dojo, the decorum is precise. Among lots of bowing (upon entering and leaving the premises, when speaking to or training with another student, or just for general niceness), one of the most beautiful, ceremonial elements of training comes at the opening and close of the training sessions, when respect is paid first to the sword, then to fellow students and finally to the teachers and masters of the present and past. In closing, the honors are done in reverse, lastly bowing to the sword.

While rankings are given, the hierarchy of the class is structured by the length of time dedicated to study rather than skill or aptitude. During the time when respect is paid to the blade and to comrades, practitioners form two lines on either side of a flag bearing the school’s mon, the lineup zigzagging in order of service-based rank.

This structure originated so that the masters at the head could keep their most trusted students close at hand for counsel. Traditionally, the master would assume the center position between and at the head of the two lines. Anyone desiring to speak with the master must approach him from between the rows of students, who are ready to defend at the slightest move of provocation.

Though Montgomery leads the school’s day-to-day operations, and though Sekiguchi Sensei only visits Maui annually (if that), Montgomery never assumes the head position. “That place is reserved for him. Sekiguchi Sensei is always here with us in spirit,” says Montgomery.

For ten days this month, beginning October 1 and ending October 10, that spirit will take human form. On the second night of his stay on Maui, I observed Sekiguchi Sensei as he assumed the space with quiet, comfortable authority, flicking the wide-legged pleats of his deep blue hakama as he quickly settled into seiza, a position seated on the knees.

There is a stillness to Sekiguchi Sensei’s that, as much as it might seem appropriate for a samurai grand master, is nonetheless shocking. Yet in action he has an explosive fluidity that I didn’t expect to see in the subtle forms of Iaijutsu.

Eyes focused and unwavering, Sekiguchi Sensei speaks—at great length, in deep, even-toned Japanese—about how Iaijutsu, though shaped in warfare, is ultimately about peace. “In our movements [of the sword], we must express world peace,” he says through translator and student Eddie Maiwa.

“We should look for the things we have in common and not look at how we are different from each other,” he continues. “We should not differentiate between our nationalities or races… Iaijutsu can be a common bond between people of all ages.”

A common bond indeed. The Maui students vary from young children to seniors, from artists to teachers to salespeople to scuba instructors. The class is a classic Maui mixed-bag, and the camaraderie and genuine affection among the students fills the high ceilings of the dojo with what feels like sunshine.

Meanwhile, outside the sky has grown dark. Weary lines are drawn across the faces of the students who have trained hard tonight, Sekiguchi Sensei relentlessly instructing them, “mou ichido,”—“again”—more times than I could count. After paying respects and closing the class, Sekiguchi gives a quick, fond farewell before departing, declining dinner.

Lingering long after the last students have left and the dojo has been locked down for the night, I chat with Junker and Maiwa in the parking lot.

“Sekiguchi has a hard life,” Maiwa says, his Japanese accent thick. “There are no masters anymore. They are going extinct! It is such a big responsibility to know everything. Not everything, but mostly everything.

“What happens when Bob Sensei cannot do this anymore? When Guy Sensei is busy with his business?” he asks. “When I have no money, and must work? Who does it then?”

It’s a question that plagues students, and—even within inner circles—seems to have no concrete answer. Contentment rests only in the fact that, for this diverse, growing school, the future appears bright—and at its head, a true master.

The Legend of the Iron Knife
Hundreds of years before James Cook, a shipwrecked Japanese captain and his sword landed in Wailuku…

Fraught with intrigue and historical significance, “The Iron Knife” is among the most intriguing sagas of Hawaiian oral tradition. Preserved by King David Kalakaua in his book, The Legends and Myths of Hawai’i – The Fables and Folk-Lore of a Strange People, the tale draws a captivating connection between the Japanese and early Hawaiians that predates Captain James Cook by over 500 years.

Originally published in 1888, “The Iron Knife” is set in the 13th century and tells of the first—and most “disastrous”—“attempt to consolidate under one general government the several islands of the Hawaiian group,” as endeavored by the king of the island of Hawaii, Kalaunuiohua (Kalaunui). As Kalaunui readied his army of 12,000 for an invasion of Maui, the king could not have fathomed the fierce talisman that awaited him: a mysterious foreign implement being kept discretely on the Valley Isle, arguably the first piece of metal brought to Hawaii.

Two years prior to Kalaunui’s invasion (which Waipio’s revered prophetess, Waahia, warned would be “Good in the beginning! [B]ad in the end!”), news had been brought to Wakalana, principal chief of the Maui’s windward end, that a bizarre, capsized vessel was moving toward the coast. Led by Wailuku’s Wakalana, five survivors were pulled from the wreckage just before “the last fragment of the wreck disappear[ed] in the abyss of raging waters.”

The three men and two women who survived are described as “white, with bright, shining eyes,” and though stripped “almost without clothing,” the wrecked ship’s captain—his Hawaiian name recounted in legend as Kaluiki—did manage to preserve his sword.

“No such terrible knife had ever before been seen or dreamed of by the natives… the long, sharp sword of the captain, harder than bone or seasoned wood, and from its polished surface throwing defiantly back the bright rays of the sun, engaged their ceaseless wonder and admiration… [W]hen they learned it was a weapon of war they felt that the arm that wielded it in battle must be unconquerable.” As word of the weapon spread, islanders from far and wide came to catch a glimpse. Within a short time, “it began to be mentioned as a sacred gift of the gods.”

Returning to Kalaunui’s invasion: the army from the island of Hawaii landed in Lahaina. Leading the battle was the young pukaua, or captain, Kualu, a strapping warrior reared by the mysterious Waahia. Kamaluohua, the moi of Maui, learned of the onslaught and gave a call to arms to the district chiefs of the island. Wakalana and his men responded with 800 strong, including the Japanese captain Kaluiki—brandishing his revered blade.

However, the Maui assembly was vastly outnumbered. Kamaluohua was captured, and his allied forces driven deeper into the mountains. There, at the close of the battle, the young Kualu encountered Kaluiki, who headed the last stronghold of defense—a mere 200 men defiantly lodged behind a low stonewall. Striking it away from Kaluiki, he “thrust the sword into the earth, pressing it downward until the hilt was covered,” before marking the spot with a large stone and counting his steps as he left the body-strewn field. During the sunset sacrifices celebrating their success, Kualu sought Waahia and shared with her word of the strange sword.

Recognizing its value and fearing that Kalaunui would learn of the weapon and claim possession himself, Waahia implored Kualu to immediately lead her to the hiding place. With the sword in her possession, Waahia continued along with the advancing army—which brought the battle to Molokai against the alii-nui Kahokuohua—and hid it “in a cleft in the black rocks of the pali encircling Kalaupapa,” where the battle ensued.

Taking Molokai, the army pressed further and conquered Oahu, capturing the chief Huapouleilei of the Ewa and Waianae districts. However, Kalaunui continued on to Kauai without fortifying his conquests and “greatly underrated the military abilities of Kukona [the moi of Kauai], as he overrated his own.”

Waahia divined ill fortune of the battle to come. Though she foresaw the crippling defeat of the army of Kalaunui, she advised her beloved Kualu to continue, trusting his warrior skill and telling him “circumstances will open a way and you will escape.” When Kualu asked of “the long knife,” Waahia replied, “[It] is where I alone can find it. Leave the secret to me; it will be of service to us yet.”

Returning to the island of Hawaii, to her secluded home among the pueo of Waipio, Waahia learned that her prediction had come to pass. Kalaunui’s army had been slaughtered and the king had been captured by Kauai’s Kukona, along with the royal captives of Maui, Moloka’i and Oahu. Because Kukona had no ambition of ruling the islands, he immediately released all but Kalaunui, “secur[ing] the lasting friendship of the chiefs of Oahu, Maui, and Moloka’i.”

Kaheka, Kalaunui’s queen, was grief-stricken by the news and when Kualu—one of the few survivors from the battle—returned, she condemned him for “cowardice and order[ed] him from the palace.” This banishment was a particular blow to Kualu, as it meant certain end to his romantic connection with Kapapa, the daughter of Kalaunui and Kaheka. When he learned that Kalaunui was still alive, he rejoiced at the opportunity to liberate him and regain his respect—and the hand of Kapapa. Waahia, however, warned that this would take time, and they relocated to Molokai’s Kalaupapa where the blade still lay hidden.

Eventually, after consistent denial of trade negotiations with Kauai, the Waipio palace sought the counsel of Waahia, still on Molokai with Kualu. Kaheka and her counselors agreed to Waahia’s terms: that she would attempt the liberation of the Hawaii island monarch alone—and that, should she be successful, her yet undisclosed demands would be met.

Waahia arrived on Kauai during the five-day feast of the festival of Lono and presented herself to Kukona, offering these words:

“Oh the long knife of the stranger,
Of the stranger from other lands,
Of the stranger with sparkling eyes,
Of the stranger with a white face!
O long knife of Lono, the gift of Lono;
It flashes like fire in the sun;
Its edge is sharper than stone;
Sharper than the hard stone of Hualalai;
The spear touches it and it breaks,
The strong warrior sees it and dies!
Where is the long knife of the stranger?
Where is the sacred gift of Lono?
It came to Wailuku and is lost,
It was seen at Lahaina and cannot be found.
He is more than a chief who finds it,
He is a chief of chiefs who possess it…
O long knife of the stranger,
O bright knife of Lono!
Who has seen it? Who has found it?
Has it been hidden away in the earth?
Has the great sea swallowed it?
Does the kilo see it among the stars?
Can the kaula find it in the bowels of the black hog?
Will a voice from the anu answer?
Will the priests of Lono speak?
The kilo is silent, the kaula is dumb.
O long knife of the stranger,
O bright knife of Lono,
It is lost, it is lost, it is lost!”

Rumor of the weapon had already reached and intrigued Kukona. Having failed to recover it, he agreed to Waahia’s demands—including the release of Kalaunui and the marriage of Kualu to Kapapa. Within three days Waahia returned to Molokai to inform Kualu of what she had accomplished and to recover the blade from its hiding place and deliver it to Kauai.

As for the iron knife? “The sword of Kaluiki, the ransom of a king, remained for some generations with the descendents of Kukona; but what became of it in the end tradition fails to tell.”

The original preface of The Legends and Myths of Hawai’i introduces Kalakaua’s compilation as “legends… selected as the most striking and characteristic of what remains of the fabulous folklore of the Hawaiian group.” In the book’s forward by the late Glen Grant, the reader is cautioned that with “any literary treatment of oral traditions, there is always a large measure of artistic license, especially when the work is so closely tied to nationalistic as well as political movements.”

Grant draws specific correlation between these “nationalistic,” and “political movements” in relationship to the story of “The Iron Knife.” Around the time Kalakaua translated these stories in his baroque, Gothic style, Japan’s “rapid industrialization and modernization since 1868, [had it] emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the Pacific.”

Kalakaua was “[t]he first royal monarch in history to circumnavigate the globe,” and in his travels of Asia, was “[g]ranted a private audience with the Emperor Meiji [and] accorded the privilege of being the first person to ever publicly shake the hand of the ‘son of heaven.’”

Kalakaua initiated the allowance of “single Japanese males to immigrate to Hawaii for the purpose of working on the sugar plantations,” in an (unsuccessful) effort to “increase Hawaiian birthrate through intermarriage.”

But, in private negotiations with the Emperor, Kalakaua— well aware of the “American expansionists… clamor[ing] for the annexation of the islands”—also proposed a “startling scheme: [where] Japan’s monarch would become the ruler of an empire called Oceania, which would unite the Polynesian and Asian races against white colonialism.” The Emperor, wary of Western reaction, “politely” declined.

While Grant postulates that a “desire to arouse the animosity of American expansionists may have motivated Kalakaua to include the Hawaiian legend of ‘The Iron Knife’,” the story is still an enthralling, pre-plantation connection between Hawaiian and Japanese cultures. And, serendipitously so, the infamous blade made it’s first appearance in Wailuku, a place that, nearly 750 years later, modern swordsmen of all backgrounds, circumstance and inspiration still call home. Maui Time Weekly, Anu Yagi