An Article By Dave Humm
This article contains graphic images of postoperative injury sustained by a Japanese sword
I would like to thank and acknowledge Mr. Don Rice and his family for allowing me to use the photos of his injury together with written content relating to his accident contained within this article.
As a student and instructor of both Aikido, Kendo and Iaido I am constantly reminding myself how easily the techniques I teach (regardless of the philosophy or ideology associated to them), can result in serious injuries... Injuries which have the potential for life changing results.
The following article is a stark and poignant reminder to current Japanese sword users and, more importantly, to those who have a desire to study or indeed just own a sword; just how much physical risk is involved.
As a professional working within a strong Health and Safety environment, I have to say that accidents, all accidents, are ultimately preventable. Accidents always have root causes and, with a little investigation the “root cause” is often quite different to what appears to be the initial source or reason for the accident.
Martial arts training is absolutely no different (from an H&S perspective) than many other activities, as individuals we're constantly making ‘micro’ risk assessments of what and how we do things in our daily lives however, complacency, which is little more than poor behavioural attitude can and often does replace efficiency particularly when we’ve been doing something so much it becomes almost second nature in our normal routine; here, we increase the risk of an accident.
It is important to remember that when training with a weapon of any description, the moment it is in one’s hands it becomes potentially lethal. It doesn’t matter how safe you think you are, how skilled or experienced you have become, a weapon is a weapon and you cannot escape that fact. Weapons are designed primarily to do one thing. To Kill People this is especially true of the Japanese sword.
Despite the romantic notions often associated with it, its use and the Samurai who held it in such high regard, the Japanese sword is one of the most efficient cutting edged weapons ever conceived. Never forget that.
So how hard would it be to kill someone with a Japanese sword ? The answer to that macabre question is simple..
“The sword is deadly even in the hands of a fool”
The Near Miss
Only recently I witnessed in sheer horror one of my students drop his sword whilst performing chiburi; luckily the blade fell away from him (and others in his proximity) yet still narrowly missing his leading foot, the blade, a contemporary but traditionally constructed shinken (with its ha professionally dulled) buried its self impressively into the floor sufficiently enough to make everyone realise it would have cleanly penetrated the students foot with ease. Add to this; had the blade still been sharp, we’d have been looking at a potentially very serious cut to the students body had it fallen toward him or anyone else.
What caused this “preventable accident” from happening?
Believe it or not, his ex-wife and a related situation which created an unfavourable mindset for the student earlier that day prior to arriving at the dojo.
What would have prevented this ‘near miss’?
Firstly the student in question should have known (given the time he’s already spent in the art) to have approached me and briefly explained his state of mind, he and I are good friends socially anyway thus there was no real reason not to have. Also, as instructor I have to take a degree of responsibility; I noted earlier in his training that he was having a bad class, in hindsight, I should have asked him if there was a problem.
Risks are present in almost everything we do, thing is, we don’t always appreciate what they are.
My Own Failure
I myself have been the epitome of complacency and I'm left with the scar as a reminder.
Whilst teaching the basics of nukitsuki and noto (two key aspects of Iaido) I noted one of my students extending the index finger of his left had during the point where the sword blade and hand briefly come in to close proximity during the re-sheathing of the sword. I stopped the class and made a specific point on how this error would likely result in a laceration (or worse) to the index finger should the cutting edge and the finger actually touch, this is despite the fact that I don’t allow any of my students to use live edged weapons, and there’s a reason for this of course. I on the other hand had chosen to train that day with my shinken normally used for tameshigiri (test cutting) I did so because of vanity – I like the look and feel of the sword.
Having made the safety point to the class we returned to our lesson, within seconds I had sliced almost a third off my own left index finger; this was done because I failed to concentrate on my own performance but focused on that of my students. Complacency replaces efficiency.
Accidents are learning experiences; thankfully I’ve learned three valuable lessons of my own.
- Never EVER use a shinken for iai study
- Never EVER mix my own study with a sword whilst taking responsibility for others
- I set the worse possible example for my students that day, no matter how I excuse the injury; I was a complete and utter idiot.
My injury however pales into petty insignificance, a minor scratch compared to that sustained by a gentleman named Don Rice.
The Stark Reality
On the 12th April 2005 a post appeared on Sword Forum International informing its contributors of a terrible and somewhat horrific injury to one of its members. The injury having been sustained sometime the week prior.
Following initial posts of good wishes from various contributors, Don himself posted his first of several replies. Included within his first post was this image
Whilst looking at this image, I want you to imagine what your wife, husband, daughter, son indeed any member of your close family would feel seeing you maimed in this way? And for what..? I also want you to consider a situation; and the impact upon your family's lives should they ever get a phone call from the Police advising them of your responsibility in injuring (or worse) someone else.
People need to realise that even just owning a sword of any description carries inherent risks, whilst many contemporary swords require very little looking after risks still exist.
Many cheap imitation “samurai” swords are made of a fairly brittle 440 stainless steel, these swords are given sharp edges and constitute a real risk to those who can otherwise walk in off the street with no comprehension of what they are purchasing, and buy one of these a wall hanging ornaments.
Sharp is sharp regardless of how much you pay.
The adage “play with fire and you’ll get burnt” is perfectly true in these cases, even with expert training and regular practice, use of a Japanese sword carries risks. If you’re prepared to accept these risks (which are easily manageable in a good well run dojo) training in a Japanese sword art can be both rewarding and a means of personal development however; to cast your eyes glibly over this article and the images contained in it means at some point in the future, you’re very likely to encounter the sharp side of your poor attitude. In my humble opinion… Better YOU than someone in your close proximity !
If you are considering study of a sword art, please, please seek instruction from accredited experienced instructors and NEVER EVER rush to work with a sword. Listen to your instructor, learn from his/her experiences and train and remain as safe as possible.
A fleeting uncontrolled encounter with a Japanese sword is enough to change the rest of your life, not to mention the lives of the people who love you.
Mr Rice admits he had no formal training in a Japanese sword art, he also states that he should not have been attempting to train using a live blade, his only information relating to Japanese sword use was books and other reference material.
Mr. Rice Wrote:
"I do not have any formal training in this and I have only briefly looked over books and diagrams on the subject , so I was being an idiot for even thinking of doing this sort of thing with a live blade ....period ! "
"I honestly should not have been doing what I was with a sharp blade in the first place "
The sword which penetrated his left arm was not a cheap imitation. The impact of this injury upon Mr Rice and his family is essentially immeasurable. Mr Rice is not some impressionable young adult with romantic sword notions or, without common sense, the fact that Mr Rice was susceptible to complacency is a direct indicator that we are all at risk.
"...accidents are learning experiences"
Make sure you learn from Mr. Rice's experiences
This article first appeared here
Unfortunately Mr. Rice has since passed away in 2008, my condolences to his family and friends.