Batto-do (抜刀道) is a martial art based on the techniques of sword combat practiced by the samurai class in medieval Japan. With roots going back centuries, batto-do (or colloquially, batto) is based on idealized situations in which two samurai of equal rank face each other in a fencing situation. The ten techniques, or kata (形), of batto begin with the swordsperson facing their enemy: since real (edged) katanas are used in batto, practitioners either perform the movements of a cutting technique by themselves (kata 形), or demonstrate their practical skill (jitsugi 実技) by cutting a rolled tatami mat which is placed on a stand to represent an opponent. From their starting position, the swordsperson draws their katana, advances and attacks. The swordsperson then sheathes their katana while maintaining an attitude of alertness—a technique called zanshin (残心), then retreats to their starting position. This state of focused alertness comes from visualizing oneself in a life-and-death duel, and it is essential to doing batto-do properly. To perform batto-do techniques in a sloppy or casual way would be dishonorable to both the practitioner as well as their instructor and teammates. In competitions and belt tests, highly experienced judges award and deduct points based on all aspects of these techniques: the location and angle of each cut, the point where the sword stops, the hand positions, body posture, footwork and even eyeline of the student are important. The judging begins rather generously at the shodan (first-degree black belt) level, and becomes progressively strict as one advances in rank.
The three Chinese characters in batto-do—batsu (抜 ‘to draw’), tou (刀 ‘sword’) and dou (道 ‘way’) together translate roughly as ‘the way of drawing the sword’. This name can be interpreted as meaning both the study of techniques—the literal way of drawing, using, and sheathing the sword—as well as the way of being a swordsman or woman in a deeper sense: through training and contact with other dojo members and sensei, one learns to temper (鍛錬) their personality, treating others with more respect and patience as one develops their sense of self-discipline, compassion, and humility.
Batto-do shares historical roots with the Japanese martial art of iaido (居合道), in which a large variety of sword attacks are practiced, including surprise attacks done from a seated position. In batto-do, there are only ten techniques to learn, but the ability to cut tatami targets with consistent control and precision is emphasized, which adds to the challenge. In Japan many martial artists come to batto-do via iaido or more combative arts like karate or judo.
For those experienced with HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), the practice of cutting tatami targets may look familiar, as will some of the cutting positions. You may also find it refreshing to study from manuals which have undergone constant revision and maintain a martial arts lineage that dates back centuries. Compared to the two-handed European longsword, HEMA practitioners tend to notice that curved katana blades tend to be shorter at around 69-74cm (27-29in), as measured from the hilt to the tip of the blade. The cutting technique tends to be different, also, as rather than a two-handed swing, batto technique requires a spinning motion in which the right hand pushes the blade in a rotation similar to casting a fishing line. This technique helps the blade of the katana achieve the right speed and angle to cut the target smoothly.
Will, the instructor and founder of Shishinkai, is not a sensei, but a branch chief (shibucho, 支部長). Beginning his training under Kunio Horiuchi Sensei as a member of the Shiseikai (士成会) dojo in Chiba, Japan in 2017, he achieved his 1st-degree black belt or shodan (初段) qualification in spring of 2018 before moving to the Boston area. As a shibucho, Will has been granted permission by the Federation to teach American students the basics of batto-do so that, after a year of training, they will become eligible to take their shodan test, which should be possible to do in Boston. See the ‘Lessons and Advancement’ page for more details.
The techniques taught in the Shishinkai dojo are those of the Japan Batto-do Federation (Nihon Battodo Renmei, 日本抜刀道連盟). The Vice President of the Japan Batto-do Federation, Shigeru Sugano Sensei, who holds an 8th-dan black belt rank, demonstrates this federation’s style of batto-do in this English TV program produced by the Japanese national broadcaster NHK: