The Swordsman

By Jake Daniels

To view Laurie Moot's audio slide show of Karl Friday, click on the image.

To view Laurie Moot's audio slide show of Karl Friday, click on the image.

Dr. Karl Friday, in his office, does not seem like an intimidating figure. The shelves that give his cozy office a comfortably crowded ambience are filled with books on Japanese history, Japanese-English dictionaries, hardcover folios on Eastern culture and thought, histories and analyses of Japanese warfare (one of his specialties), and unknown tomes with pictographic characters lining the spine.

The wall above his desk is split between some large tapestry-like prints featuring samurai and a selection of photos from his SCUBA-diving experiences. Nestled unassumingly into the corner of the office, reaching upward from his desk toward the ceiling, is a row of small framed book covers, his minor self-homage to a devoted career. Attached to the wall behind him is a shorter version of the Japanese naginata, a long-handled spear-like weapon. Above the Amnesty International bumper sticker on his filing cabinet is another one that reads, “If guns are outlawed, can we use swords?”

As he leans back in his chair, lacing his fingers on the crown of his head, thumbs toward the ceiling, thick forearms shielding his ears from the fluorescent light, Friday looks like the casual academic. He dresses in a comfortable fashion, jeans, blue tennis shoes and a red long-sleeve shirt with the cuffs rolled halfway up his forearms. The rims of his eyes are crinkled with smile lines. A smile appears underneath his salt-and-pepper beard, both of which visually accent the laughter that occasionally breaks his speech. Slap him into a tweed vest with a bow tie, and you’d be looking at a warm and fuzzy cliché of a college professor in his teaching prime: one who talks with grand gestures and analogies, laughs at himself with an enviable ease, and seems like a naturally relaxed and friendly character.

But Dr. Friday could, according to his students, kill you.

“He’s probably the deadliest person I’ve ever met,” says Nick Adams, an art student who has known Friday for nearly six years.

Friday began the Kashima Shinryu club nearly 20 years ago when he took a teaching position in the department of history at the University of Georgia. At the time, he had been studying the art of Japanese swordplay for ten years under Sensei Seki Humitake, an eccentric marine biology professor at the University of Tsukuba nicknamed “Bearslayer,” whom he met in 1978 during a year abroad in Japan. A framed photo of his instructor, sword tip-to-sword tip with another man, hangs near the naginata.

“It was really very much an accident,” he says. “Kind of serendipity.”

A friend was walking through the biology department of Tsukuba when he spotted Humitake practicing. He brought the story back to Friday, who had been searching for a new school to continue his karate training. After a little bit of confusion – no, it’s not kendo, because you can kill with a single strike, and no, it’s not Zen, though it has a strong philosophical basis – and some discussion, Friday decided the instructor and the art were both “delightfully weird.”

He kept training after leaving Tsukuba to return to the University of Kansas to finish his master’s work in East Asian languages and culture then returned to Japan for two and a half years to work.

“I had gotten hooked on Kashima Shinryu by that time,” he says.

He sees the art as one of self-development and a guide to the michi, the path, that comes from a pre-modern Japanese worldview composed of Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism and other philosophies. He understands Kashima Shinryu as a conceptualization of a path to human perfection, the peak of a human existence that can be reached by any number of ways. The philosophical complexities of the martial art say that it is the same as a tea ceremony, or a religious practice, or playing the piano, and mastery of one becomes a mastery of all.

“It doesn’t abbreviate very well,” he admits.

Despite its not summarizing to something Western minds could easily wrap around, Friday has become a conduit for this way of thinking. One of his longtime students, John Hill, a self-described “giant redneck from Tennessee,” says that Friday gave him access to the michi and a new way of life.

He met Friday 20 years ago while doing his undergraduate studies at the university, before the inception of the club, at a demonstration. Hill, who stands somewhere comfortably over six feet, says Friday was half his size when they met.

That didn’t stop him from throwing the long-haired, bearded Hill around “like a sack of grain.” This was the moment of rapture for Hill, and he’s been a faithful student of Friday and Kashima Shinryu since, commuting from Commerce on Mondays and Wednesdays to help teach class as a senior student.

“Dr. Friday has given me access to a way of life,” he says. “As any good teacher should.”

**

Friday still tosses his students around. 

Monday nights are his teaching nights, when his schedule and that of the club match, and the martial arts room of the Ramsey Student Center replaces the classrooms. The mirror-walled room has high ceilings and padded floors, with large windows on opposing walls. One set looks out onto the dark lawn of the building, while the other provides a place for wandering students to stop occasionally and watch.

Tonight, a few students stop and watch the white uniformed students slide along the floor on the balls of their feet, wooden swords swinging as extensions of their arms. Two pairs of students trade careful blows, their carved swords clacking together rhythmically as they run through the same exercises. The large, bald John Hill watches one pair, stepping in with twangy comments, and Dr. Friday watches the other.

Friday stands at a distance from his students, chin down, almost on his chest, watching them from underneath dark eyebrows. The intensity of his gaze and his solid, barefooted stance gives him a different demeanor than that of a friendly college professor. For a few moments, as he hovers around the students well outside of arm’s reach, he seems far more serious. He lets them run through the basic exercise without interruption then steps in with a couple comments and a laugh, the steel gone from his eyes.

“It’s like a paintbrush,” he says, guiding one of the student’s swords. His analogies are a point of humor with some of the students: a paintbrush, an umbrella, skiing – most mundane activities and objects get brought into his lessons, with good effect.

As with most other Japanese martial arts, Kashima students are expected to be teachers almost right from the beginning, passing along their knowledge and understanding to more junior students. Friday figures that this means he’s been teaching nearly his entire career, about 28 years, after he helped start one of the first Kashima Shinryu clubs in Kansas. These days, he devotes his teaching to the University of Georgia’s club, which he says is one of four in the United States.

His enthusiasm for teaching shows through in his mannerisms. “Yeah, YEAH” he says as a student corrects the swing of her wooden blade. He laughs when he makes a strange analogy, shoulders shaking and eyes scrunching up at the sides. He politely moves one student aside so he can step in, and then grabs the blade of the wooden sword with a strong grip and moves it through the proper motions.

All of his movements with the sword are strong and precise, but almost seem lackadaisical. It’s like watching a bead of molten metal roll across a surface – strong and smooth, with a certain glide to its movements. He looks solid and graceful at the same time.

“It affects you in all sorts of subtle ways,” Friday says about Kashima. “It’s a system that focuses on control of situations, and I’m a little bit of a control freak.”

The real control elements of his class come after the wooden swords. The students practice their rolls, diving across the floor onto their shoulders and then coming to their feet in one smooth motion. Friday calls them around him and picks out the largest student in the room, bringing him to the center. He explains the basis of the move, a simple set of gestures that turn the opponents’ attempt to grapple against him, and then carefully and with utmost control rolls the student onto the mats. After repeating the flowing movement a few more times, sending the student tumbling to the floor again and again, the group separates into pairs to practice.

After class is over and everyone has been thrown to the ground a comfortable number of times, they line up along the inside windows and meditate for a few moments. They bow to each end of the line, clap in the traditional closing of class and disperse to collect their things.

Friday stands talking to the students after class, arms crossed in front of his chest in a comfortable stance. There’s no steel in his eyes, and no control in his movements. He is a professor again, just friendly and professional, an academic seeing to his students.

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