Living by the Sword : Would-Be Samurai in UCI Club Find Iaido Emphasizes Discipline More Than Combat

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In all likelihood, Rudy Berdine is the only sword-wielding professor of international business and marketing at Cal Poly Pomona.

In addition to his academic duties, Berdine is a dedicated practitioner of several martial arts, including iaido, which focuses on the Japanese samurai sword, or katana . Berdine started a Pomona campus iaido club, which did so well that it has led to the formation of one at UC Irvine.

Launched in spring of this year, the UCI club now boasts about 45 members, primarily students but also including members of the community. Greg Rothberg says it is the most successful new club since he took over as UCI's director of intramural and club sports three years ago and the fastest-growing martial arts club on campus.

The club meets for two hours on Friday afternoons to learn from Berdine the formal iaido techniques (the dancelike kata ) and stances ( kamae ) and something of the philosophical underpinnings of the art, the roots of which stretch back centuries.

"This is not some made-up kind of art. We have a direct link going back to Japan," Berdine said. The teachings of Kashima Shinto Ryu, a figure from the mid-16th Century, remain important in the modern practice of iaido, but the sword was already an icon in feudal Japan by the 13th Century.

Swordsmanship declined in Japan after the island nation's cultural isolation was breached in the mid-19th Century, but it was revived as a martial art in this century. In the United States, interest is on the upswing.

Many beginners are drawn in by a fascination with the sword itself, Berdine said. (When he surveyed members after establishing the UCI club, many of them cited as the source of their interest the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle's movies.)

The sword "just sparks a certain look in their eyes," said Binh Tranh, a premed student who established the UCI iaido club with Berdine and helps him administer it. Tranh also noted that UCI, with its large Asian population, has a high interest in the martial arts.

"I'm really fascinated with the ancient Japanese culture," said student Julie Kim while attending an iaido club meeting for the first time on a recent Friday. She had seen flyers for the club on campus and "took a chance" on joining.

Would-be samurai who join with visions of clanging sword battles will soon learn that iaido puts more emphasis on physical and mental discipline than on combat skills. The aim of the art is "not to battle an external enemy, but to battle our own weaknesses," Berdine said. "It's more a battle with oneself. It sounds very esoteric, but it actually applies to everyday life."

The art employs a strict moral code: "We see ourselves as honorable. We would never initiate an attack," Berdine said.

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Beginners start with practice wooden swords, graduating eventually to unsharpened metal blades and only later to real swords. Before ever taking on an opponent in competition, a student learns an increasingly complex series of kata, choreographed sequences of defensive moves against an imaginary opponent.

The very drawing of the sword is a precise maneuver. Mental awareness, zanshin , is a tenet of the art, as is ki , the harnessing and projection of a "universal energy."

Berdine began studying iaido five years ago with Sensei Kiyoshi Yamazaki, an Anaheim-based master swordsman who helped to choreograph such sword-and-sorcery epics as the "Conan" films with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He met Tranh, a fellow student then, and contacted him when he considered starting the UCI club.

Tranh has stayed with the art only sporadically, but Berdine went on to earn a first-degree black belt (he also holds black belts in tae kwon do, a Korean art, and bando, a Burmese martial art). For his iaido club meetings, Berdine brings in other black belts on occasion, including Yamazaki, to help teach the class.

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Self-defense serves as a draw for many of the martial arts, but not directly in iaido, Berdine said, "since we cannot carry a razor-sharp sword on the streets." Still, many of the moves are closely related to aikido, and the art of iaido does cultivate physical strength and agility.

More importantly, Berdine says, the art cultivates a mental discipline and harmony that carries over to other aspects of life, from work to exams to personal relationships.

The club meets each Friday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the martial arts room of Crawford Hall at UCI. New members can stop in at any time during the quarter. The current session will end Dec. 3 (there is no Friday meeting), and classes will resume at the same time after the holidays.

Community members are invited to join. Cost for a quarter is $45 for students and $60 for non-students. For information, call Berdine, (714) 588-6429.

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