The word by word translation of theese japanese four kanji is: real-sword-victory-defeat, put simply to win or to lose by a real sword. Real sword means a blade that can actually cut, not just a iaito (a replica of a sword with no cutting edge that is used in training kenjutsu), a sword that can strike a fatal blow. The meaning of this saying is “fighting for your life (or death)”, and it implies the danger is so great that in the end you can loose your life for real, no playing, be aware and act accordingly.
Osensei wrote that in true Budō, and Aikidō is the ultimate manifestation of Budō, there is no kind of competition, above all no sportlike competition, because of its true nature which is shinkenshōbu.
Any kind of sport contest, even the more gory ones like some mma fighting, must obey to some rules so that to have at least some kind safety standard, this way the lives of the contestants are guaranteed. But this thinking is just the opposite of shinkenshōbu. The wide of this gap is properly true to me, but for the people who trains any kind of martial sport, or shallowly dip in the self defence study, there’s not such clear understanding.
Shinkenshōbu means that any action is allowed, it has only to be weighted on the scale of reaching life and escaping death, it doesn’t have to answer to a set of established rules or any kind of referee ruling. A sportlike contest has no common ground with this way of thinking, and according to Osensei doesn’t belong to the Budō sphere, or to the so often ill-labelled martial arts.
The fans and the ones practicing fighting sports believe that this kind of contest is the most truly realistic, the violence showing, the strenuous effort needed, the high percentage of serious damage may be true but if first of all you are preventing any chance of dying, or you are trying to prevent it, what is the true nature of this kind of contest? If you fight to survive, but remove any chance of dying, you are just playing a game, dangerous, violent, bloody but still nothing more of a game.
I’ll try giving some evidence of this, let’s look at strikes to the back. There’s no fighting sports where striking the back of the head or neck from the back is allowed. If you wilfully strike at the nape you’ll get immediately disqualified. Because of this, techniques of leg swiping and fight to the ground are getting such relevance. But, when a fighter dives trying leg swiping with both his arms, he really exposes his neck to a permanently disabling elbow strike. An elbow strike of this kind is not allowed, it’s too dangerous, and leg swiping must be stopped with techniques that are not so effective, so that leg swiping and ground fighting are at such a high popularity.
Always because of a permanent disabling effect eye gouging, trachea grabbing, striking to testicles, finger locks, and many others moves are not allowed. Because of this to build a muscle armour in fighting sport has such importance, and brought forward weight classes and such nonsense. In what kind of fighting, that wishes to have a realistic approach, can exist weight classes? Can you imagine warrior asking to each other how many kilos is their weight on a battle ground? Nature is true evidence that such way of discrimination in fighting for survival has no meaning, the opposite is true.
I’m not pushing forward the idea that Aikidō is more realistic than fighting sports, it has its own flawed way of translating reality to a schematic pattern, with his striking molded on vectors, his absorbing techniques and continuous pressure that are expression of a dilated time perception that goes with study in sensitivity. But I think that his adhering to the shinkenshōbu principle is something which get always neglected by people of fighting sports.
Every technique of Aikidō happens when uke, the one who attacks, is able to survive the most immediate counterattack: atemi, the striking to vulnerable spot of the body, and the no turning back unbalancing of a kokyūnage. If uke goes quite unscathed over this answer Tori will have to exercise his control using a waza, an Aikidō technique.
A deep understanding of this may happen if we look at the kind of fighting that was taking place on the battleground of past wars, with the protection of heavy armours one was quite immune to empty handed strikes, and tried to avoid at all cost to fall to the ground in the middle of a melee, he would rather try moving from an unbalanced condition to the next to get back his grounding.
The shinkenshōbu principle, in Aikidō, allows strikes of any kind, no limitations at all, and “fighters” takes this in account. If you are an Aikidōka, and you let yourself be touched on your face, quarrelling whether the strike was strong enough to knock us out or not is meaningless, you must be aware that you could have lost your sight and got unable to go on. No referee is giving you a break if you let your nuts be stricken. No one is getting disqualified if he is so good to strike on your back. Because of this a really different way to answer to strikes and menaces comes forward. Awareness of not exposing your body in any way will have you choose unbalanced movement over any kind of parring or closed guard. To defend your central line and axis is the first product of this way of thinking, and if you cannot embrace this way of looking at a fight you have no chance of understanding.
If you truly would like to understand the course of action, and reaction, of an Aikidōka try visualising your enemy armed with a long and sharp knife, how much strength is needed in one blow to cut an artery?
See, we are back to shinkenshōbu, fighting with a real sword.
When you look at Budō the same way you look at sport fighting you are prey to the same mistake again and again, the method of learning, exercising follows a different path, which is not in any way equivalent.
Just for sport let’s try pretending being Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth. You are able to move in a highly organised way, efficient and perfectly harmonious in a specific setting like a track. If someone showed you a video of an Eskimo, walking in his snowshoes, swaying like a penguin, would you be able to consider the effect of the snow on movement? Are you able to differentiate between the game of running on a track and having to move surviving in harsh conditions?
In Aikidō both Tori and Uke must answer the shinkenshōbu principle. Tori must evade the first strike and allow for musubi, the connection, to happen. There he can perceive clearly the center and central axis of Uke, so that he can exercise his control all along the execution of the technique to the end without giving up new openings to the blade of the attacker. Uke, after trying his first sincere strike, must keep on being aggressive in his connection, always being aware as much as possible to avoid any immediate sanctions.
This word “connection” frequently used in Aikidō is equivalent to being aware on many different levels, body, will, mind, breath and so on. If you cannot grasp the underlying of shinkenshōbu you’ll be just the same as someone looking the erratic movement of a man without knowing he is a prey to a sniper.
Shinkenshōbu way of thinking gives our daily practice a deeper meaning, it’s the fertile soil to a spiritual tension, it asks for absolute concentration, takes away anything that doesn’t belong to the moment and brings you to the present. This way the daily training of Aikidō is no more a playful practice, silence comes to you, and you have no way to keep pretending to be the someoneelse that you show in the face of society, you are your true self.