Martial arts

Timing and Opportunity Within the Late Medieval Sword Arts of Japan and Germany.

In my last piece concerning Japanese and European late medieval swordsmanship, I sought to cast a wide net, drawing comparisons and highlighting similarities.  I also sought to identify some of the most obviously contrasting elements.  A net so wide could only lead to disaster and endless research and writing so I cut the piece and highlighted only some of the most basic aspects of each tradition.  I further narrowed my comparison by choosing only the Long sword in the Meyer tradition and the Katana in the styles Eishin-ryu and with the help of a good friend and teacher, Katori Shinto ryu.   While the actual tools employed by the practitioners of the arts differ in many substantial ways, the two traditions share many common principals.  We found that the foundational guards or kamae are also shared in common.  In this piece I will further narrow my focus and address the concept of timing in these amazing and complimentary dueling forms.  I will also include some examples from kendo to allow for closer tactical analysis as many styles of Japanese swordsmanship practiced today do not include fencing as part of their curriculum.

Timing in personal combat is always measured in relation to the opponent.  Both systems of swordsmanship measure engagement time in terms of initiative though the language differs slightly.  There are essentially three states of initiative. The opponent can take the initiative and attack first, the combatants can attack simultaneously, or the swordsman can take the initiative and attack the opponent first.  The Japanese call these states Mitsu no Sen naming each state of initiative individually, Go no sen (opponent initiative), Sen no sen (simultaneous initiative), or Sen sen no sen (advance initiative).  The Meyer system acknowledges these initiative states but tends to discuss them in terms of movement in the Vor (before) and Nach (after) and in terms of Gleich (simultaneously) and Indes (instantly).  As with most tactical and strategic concepts that apply to personal armed combat, there are strong parallels that can be drawn between these related disciplines.

During the onset of a contest swordsmen square off against each other closing distance evaluating the opponent and taking attack or defensive postures, somebody has to make the first move.  When the opponent attacks first, he has taken the initiative.  There are several possible responses to opponent initiative or being in Nach.  A response might be to receive the cut for parry and counter or move out of the path of the oncoming blade into a position to counter or perform Oji waza.  Japanese sword arts call this sort of response Go No Sen and it can be seen in kendo nuki waza or avoiding techniques.  Nach reisen or traveling after would be a European equivalent and can be seen in an execution of krumphauw from Nach in response to a cut. The European systems break the potential actions down further to include Indes Fechten or overtaking the opponent’s initiative after his attack has begun and beating him to the cut.  This can be seen in the “holy grail” of kendo technique, Debana waza which is an attack initiated after the opponent has begun his attack that overtakes initiative.

If both fencers attack at the same time we have simultaneous initiative.  Sen No Sen can be described as a situation where to prevent the opponent from gaining the initiative a fighter will attack in the instant that the opponent begins to execute their technique.  Debana waza is by definition sen no sen.  This simultaneous initiative or simultaneous attack is within Meyers longsword system Gleich Fechten.  It seems that with the Japanese systems we have some overlap here with the opponent initiative from the perspective of the German Swordsman.  Debana waza fits securely within Sen no sen for the Japanese but is from a longswordsman’s point of view clearly Indes Fechten.  Meyer describes Indes as being a state of quick judgment and refers to a commonly held belief that in refers to “inside” or within combat dealing with actions taken when actual combat is engaged.  Debana waza certainly fits this definition but being an action taken as an overtaking attack, is also Sen no sen for the kenshi.  Kendo is often thought of as an overly aggressive form of fencing because beginning students are strongly discouraged from any form of defensive action be they with the sword or by simply moving out of the way.  This is actually an attempt to instill within the kenshi sutemi or an aptitude for taking or overtaking the opponent’s initiative and committing to the attack.  Defensive actions, especially in a new student, will tend to train a more passive attitude during a match and unnecessarily limit a fencer’s arsenal and place them in a position where they will always have to react rather than respond.  This is why defensive techniques or Oji waza are taught later in kendo practice.

Finally, we come to the case of advance initiative or Sen Sen No Sen.  A preemptive attack made the instant the opponent commits to the attack but before they actually initiate it.  Among the Asian sword arts and the philosophies that have become associated with them this concept can take on a very esoteric feel.  The more utilitarian language of the Europeans can be of assistance in interpreting this concept.  Vor Fechten or attacking before the opponent can initiate their attack can be as simple as striking first but is in fact more a more complex action.  The initiative in a duel will constantly drift back and forth from one fighter to the other.  Meyer states that indes admonishes a fighter to have a sharp lookout and to read the opponents body language to gauge which techniques he will use.  This is the foundation of Sen Sen no Sen.  It is not so much a supernatural foreknowledge of the opponent’s intentions, but a knowledge born of experience that given what can be observed of the opponent the best course of action in to make a particular attack.  To properly demonstrate advance initiative, the opponent should be confident that they are about to make a valid attack on their chosen target.  This can be set up by the fencer in advance.  The fencer can take up guards that leave the opponent limited choices of attack or even subtly offer targets to the opponent in the hopes of setting up a chain of events that will lead to being able to make the preemptive strike.  Regardless the outcome should be that the opponent, having become confident in their coming attack does not see that they have lost the initiative until it is too late.

It should be understood that timing is fluid and that it is always measured in relation to the opponent.  Both the German and Japanese late medieval sword masters clearly understood and interpreted this in the best way that they could and explained their interpretations in the best manner available to them.  It should also be understood that despite having only three states of timing that the potential actions available within these states of timing are only limited by the system into which a fencer limits themselves.  For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot have a single style in combat, yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis.

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