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.


The Encounter at Old Farmer’s Meadow.

The sun was hot on his back, threatening to roast him, slowly baking his eyes and nose.  Both itched and burned from the dust and grass pollen but he didn’t move so much as a muscle.  The beast might notice him.  It had been sitting there for what seemed an eternity; waiting, watching.  It hadn’t seen him but only because he was still as a corpse.  He made his breaths shallow and slow.  The sound of his own breath rushing in his nostrils echoed in his ears with each repetition.  There was no way the beast could hear it from where it perched but he slowly opened his mouth a tiny crack and breathed in and out slowly through it.  If the beast could smell fear it would know exactly where he was.  He was so scared.  He hadn’t ever expected to see one of them for real.

His neighbor’s uncle had been taken two summers past and a friend that he had played in the forest glen with as a young one had been taken just last week.  It had always been somebody else, always somebody who had not been careful enough.  It was always somebody who wasn’t as smart or quick as he was.  Smart and quick wasn’t going to get him out of this one.  He could hear his mother’s warnings and admonitions to be safe and keep an eye on the sky repeated relentlessly in his head like an echo that never faded.  Nobody had ever seen one of these and lived to tell about it.

The wind picked up just a bit, lifting his hair for an instant then letting it fall.  The beast swiveled its vicious head towards him it’s black soulless eyes falling it seemed directly on where he lay among the tall grass.  His breath caught in his throat.  He started to shake.  He wanted to bolt from his hiding place and dash towards the safety of the woods and home but the beast stood between him and salvation.  These things were supposed to fly, not sit there on stones and wait for you.

“Don’t move,” said a voice.  “It hasn’t seen you yet.  If it had you would be dead.”

He knew the voice was in his head, but he had the oddest sense that it was whispering in his ear.

“Who is that?” he asked himself but not himself.

“Who I am doesn’t matter.  The question you need to be asking yourself is how we are going to get ourselves out of this?” replied the voice.

“There is no getting out of this.  It’s looking right at me.”

“It’s looking right at us, and yes, there is a way out of this.  We can do this.  I will help.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m here with you.  That’s all that matters right now.  You aren’t alone any more.  We can get out of this together.”

“I’m scared.  It’s just sitting there.  It has been for hours.  It must know I’m here.  Somehow it knows I’m here and it’s going to kill me.”

“Then why not stand up and let it happen?”

“I don’t want to die!  Not like this.  Not here, alone in this wretched field.  Not by that thing.  I’m still young.  I still have a future.”

“I’m here with you,” said the voice.  “That thing will not be the death of us.  Of course we are going to die, but not here.  Not now, and not in the claws of that good for nothing beast.  We have to think.  We can do it together.”

He had stopped shaking.  What or who was this talking to him?  Where had it come from and could he trust it?  His mind was racing, his heart pounding.  The sun was so hot.  He felt like he was roasting where he lay.  The bright sunny day that had drawn him into the meadow was now his enemy, working with the beast to seal his fate.  He should have never left the woods.  He was safe there.  He had never seen the beast.  Nobody ever saw the beast in the woods.  Gods above, why hadn’t he listened to his mother and the elders?  He could be safe at home right now eating and chatting with his family and friends, but he had to be adventurous.  He had to be the one to push the boundaries, to question everything and take nothing for granted.  What was he always looking for?

“If you keep thinking like that you won’t ever get us out of here.  I can help, but I can’t do it for you.  If we are going to live you will have to find your courage and make a decision.”

“Who are you?  Get out of my head!  You aren’t helping, you are scaring the shit out of me almost as much as that beast sitting there staring at me.”

“We need to work together in this.  I’ll explain everything as soon as we are safe, but I need you to calm down and look around.  There is a way out of this and we will find it.”

This was insane.  His eyes started to slowing scan to the right then to the left.  He took his time looking and thinking.

“What the hell am I doing?  I’m doomed and now I’m going insane.  I have a voice in my head.  I’m going nuts and I’m going to die screaming.”

“There!  That’s our way out.”

Almost half way between where he lay in the grass and the beast’s perch, a small mound of debris crowded into the worn battered branches of a small shrub.  It seemed like mainly sticks leaves and dirt.  The Wind knew what else might be tangled in that mess.   The Shrub lay in a shallow depression that would fill with running water during storms, another hazard that he had been warned away from.  He hoped his mother wouldn’t find his body.

“Oh please.'” He tried to feel the earth beneath him but could only feel grass.  Coarse matted grass.  “Maybe that damn beast will carry me off, far away, to eat me?”

“You can make it to that shrub before the beast can.  I know you can.  You are fast; The fastest of all your brothers and sisters.  Faster than anyone in the family or any of the neighbors when you were in school.”

He hadn’t run for fun in such a long time.  He remembered the feel of the ground nearly pushing him away with each step.  It was so effortless, so easy to run faster than the wind.  It felt as though he could fly at times.  Wait, he was tensing his legs!

“What the hell am I doing?”

He startled himself.  He thought for an instant that he had screamed that aloud but the beast didn’t move.  Its black, glossy eyes seemed to be looking straight at him but at the same time look everywhere at once.  His legs had stopped any silly notions of running.   For now, that is.

“It’s the only way.  You just run.  Run like you know you can.  Run to life and I will do the rest.”

“You are crazy, and I am insane.   I’m lying here in the meadow, about to die a bloody, painful, scary damn death and all I can do is lay here arguing with an imaginary voice in my head that’s trying to get me to commit suicide.”

“Who said I was in your head?”

“Shut Up!  I can’t do this.  I just need to lay here until it leaves.  That’s safer.  That’s the only way I have any hope of living through this.”

“It’s not going to leave.  It knows you are here somewhere.  It will stay till it finds you.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!  Just go away.  Please just go away.”

He was starting to shake again.  He could feel the tears starting to roll down his face.  The beast would see.

“You have to go now!  It sees us!”

The best started to shift.  Great, glossy, sharp wings spread as the creature bounded into the air.  Those great wings beating, powering the massive thing into the air.


It was all he could hear, all he knew.  He was running.  When did he start running? He was still fast.  Faster than ever, and by a great deal!  He looked up and nearly stumbled.  The beast was nearly on him.  Vicious claws outstretched and grasping.  It was fast.  Faster than he was and he was running towards it!

“Close your eyes!”  The command echoed in his head then he was leaping, head first into the shrub.  This was unreal.  He felt like a passenger inside his own body but yet not.  His legs were burning, his chest heaving, about to burst.  His eyes were closed now; he could feel the debris as it exploded around him.  It hurt.  He could feel something sharp stab into the soft skin of his side. Was that the beast’s claws?  Those grasping, tearing, ripping claws were reaching for him now. He could hear the beast now crying out, wings flapping frantically.  Frantically? What had happened?

He could see again.  He was running.  Into the forest!

“I’m alive!” He called out loud and into the air this time.  He wanted the voice to hear. He wanted everyone to hear.  “I’m alive, I’m alive.”

He dared a quick glance back as he continued running on beneath the forest canopy. The beast was nowhere to be seen.  He ran a bit quicker.  The debris pile and shrub looked as though the beast had gotten the better of them.

“Better the bush than me,” he said aloud but also to the voice.  “Now I think you owe me an explanation.  Who are you, and where did you come from?”  The silence he received was somehow disturbing. It was downright frightening.  He stopped running.  “Hey, I owe you one.  Hello?” He felt alone and scared now; more so than when in danger from the beast.

“Shit.  I really am going crazy.”  He continued on at an easy trot, reaching out with his senses, looking for the beast, looking for the voice.