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.

Martial arts, Uncategorized

Iaido and the Ronin Dojo Pro

Last night I was packing up my bags for another night of iaido practice.  Into the bag went my hakama, gi, and juban along with my obi and tenegui to mop the perspiration from my face and hands.  I check my sword bag for bokken, and sword cleaning kit.  Then I look to my sword rack and start to ponder, what blade do I take tonight?  Each one has its place on the rack and each will eventually be reviewed here.  Two iaito sit in the lowest rungs of the rack.  My trusty Minosaka basic series iaito is always a good choice.  I call it tombo and despite its basic style and fittings, it has held up to hundreds of hours of kata practice.  It is light and nimble but I haven’t used it in practice for some time now.  Next up is my Sword Store Iaito.  It’s a long 2.55 shaku blade and was the result of a very fortuitous craigslist purchase.  Poor fellow bought a very expensive iaito just to turn around and sell it to me for pennies on the dollar.  It is a spectacular practice tool.  I’ve named it Bean Pole due to its length and bean pod menuki.  It is my go-to blade for seminar and testing having struggled with me through several years of dedicated practice.  Tonight, however, my hand drifts higher on the rack to the shinken that occupy the higher rungs.

The shinken, or sharp sword, sit higher on the rack. Not because they are used any less than the iaito, but because they demand a higher degree of presence to wield than the iaito.  I question myself each time I take one up just as if it were a firearm. My hand gently flows from one tsuka to the next until it comes to rest on my oldest and most reliable of sharp swords.  My Ronin Dojo-Pro Yama Kuma, purchased through Sword Buyers Guide, has been with me since 2008 and has been through enough suburi and kata to rival my old bokken in terms of usage and familiarity.  This was my first shinken and has served me very well for the last 8 years.  As I took it into my hands I realized that this sword is truly exceptional at least from my point of view.  It is an old friend and I can trust it as I trust myself.  In this unconventional review, I’ll tell you why.

The first impression of my Ronin Dojo Pro was good.  In fact, I was ecstatic when I first held the sword.  I had owned a couple of lower priced swords of various makes that never quite felt like a real pillage and plunder sword.  As for exact measurements and details, I’m not going to put you through all that.  If you want that info, go to the manufacturer’s web site as they have it all there in its boring and tedious glory.  What I will give you are my impressions and experience in the actual, daily use of this blade for my practice of Eishin Ryu Iaido and cutting from various other ryuha.

I appreciated the Spartan aesthetic of the all iron koshirae and the soft but warm buffalo horn accents on the saya that combine to produce a shinken that I was truly excited to use in kata.  The only out of the box imperfection I could identify being that the ridgeline that runs the length of the mune deviates slightly to the right and does not continue all the way to the tip but veers to the right just a centimeter or so from the tip.  Also the saya, while very pretty, leaves a lot to be desired.  There is a lot of rattle when the sword is sheathed. Worse, it came practically filled with sticky grease that despite multiple cleanings with various implements, never seems to end.  It’s like the saya is a cosmoline fountain that was intended to house a monkey wrench.  It is the only truly inferior aspect of the sword and needed to be replaced if I intended to use the sword in my practice.  After several frustrating attempts to work with the manufacturer, I replaced the saya with one from Cheness Inc making the system fully serviceable as a kata sword.

To date this sword has been through the performance of many thousands of kata and even more suburi.  The koshirae has never loosened or been any cause for concern.  I haven’t even had to deal with the tell-tale rattling that occurs where the tsuba and tsuka meet that seems to affect most swords used in iaido.  While each of my iaito has developed the faint click that is usually an indication of substantial use, my Dojo Pro remains silent as I complete my cuts.  The ito wrap has taken the use well and hardly seems worn.  The only indication of the actual age and use to which the shinken has been subjected is the discoloration of the tsuba and fuchi where my fingers make contact and the faint scratches on the blade that are evidence of my learning to cut dry bamboo.  The sword has cut dozens of tatame mats, dozens of bamboo poles and more pool noodles, rolled newspaper, and water jugs than I can count.  My last cutting took place several months ago with a few good friends where it met with some North Carolina bamboo for the first time.  It cut very well and still produces good cuts and has a keen edge despite my developing technique.

In regards to Iaido kata practice, the sword feels very much like my Sword Store Iaito.  The weight is nearly identical although it is shorter by about 3 inches overall.  The point of balance is slightly forward making it very eager to cut but also responsive to tenouchi and very agile.  The slim, wasted tsuka is double pinned and wrapped with silk or silk like ito, is very comfortable in the hand.  I never flinch while considering a two to three hour practice as it is as comfortable a sword to wield as any after a long night.  There is no bohi or fuller in the blade making it more ideal for cutting but as a result there is very little audible feedback for cuts.

When I purchased the sword it was with the idea that I would use it as an aid to my Iaido practice and eventually learn to cut tatame and bamboo with it.  The construction of the Dotanuki style 1060 carbon steel blade was supposed to be rather forgiving of botched cuts, which it has thankfully been.  What has surprised me to no end is the fact that after all these years and after thousands of kata and suburi, that the simple iron fittings and silkish tsuka ito have remained solidly attached and only slightly worn with use.  This sword which nearly didn’t make the cut while I was shopping has never failed to impress and even when inspected by those practitioners who aren’t fond of Ronin Swords or their management,  has always comported itself with grace and a razor sharp edge.

If you are on the market for a good low cost shinken for iaido that can do double duty as a cutter, and can deal with the need for a new saya, the Ronin Dojo Pro line of Dotanuki style shinken may be just what you are looking for.








Martial arts

Saya Biki

I recall hearing the term saya biki quite a bit when I began my practice of Iaido at Doshikai.  Eventually, I came to accept that the term referred to the movement of the saya during nukitsuke.  Over time, my perception of saya biki has come to also include the movement of the saya between nukitsuke and kirioroshi as well as the movement of the saya during noto.  These saya movements serve multiple functions and are often integral to being able to properly perform correct waza.  Within the framework of Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iai, saya biki and its proper application is fundamental and myriad.  As such,  a narrow examination of saya biki in Ipponme Mae will serve here as indicative of the system in general.

In the scenario presented in the All Japan Kendo Federation English version of Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iai, for the kata Ipponme Mae, “Detecting the harmful intention of the person in front of you, forestall it by using the sword tip to cut his/her temple in a horizontal action and then bring the sword downwards from above the head in a vertical action.”  As part of the instruction for the kata, saya biki is noted but never specifically named or explained.  It is only with practice, proper instruction, and correction does the importance of saya biki begin to reveal itself.

At the opening of the kata, the sword is drawn and rotated to cut horizontally across the opponents face at the level of the temple.  This drawing cut is nukitsuke.  Drawing a properly sized sword from the scabbard would be awkward if not impossible without the rearward movement of the left hand.  The drawing motion is two-fold; the sword is drawn from the saya while the saya is simultaneously drawn off the blade.  The long, broad muscles in the back are engaged as the core is thrust forward adding authority to the cut.  The left hand on the saya and the right hand on the tsuka continue in a single movement until the completion of the horizontal cut when they end in unison.  The result is that the saya ends its motion pulled sharply back with the kojiri pointing to the right.

During furikaburi, the sword is raised over the head in a thrusting motion directed behind the left ear and up.  The left hand on the saya moves as one with the right bringing the saya forward to a position in front of the navel and then grasping the tsuka at the level of the chin/ear.  The kata continues with both hands on the tsuka from the completion of furikaburi, through kirioroshi, and into chiburi.  At the completion of the vertical cut, kirioroshi, both hands are on the tsuka.  As chiburi is initiated, the left hand moves to rest flat against the hip where the saya passes through the obi.  The left hand remains there until the end of chiburi.

Iai Goshi is a demonstration of Zanshin or awareness and is a prescribed element of the remainder of the kata.  During noto, sheathing the sword, this awareness is demonstrated through proper saya handling.  The sword is sheathed rather than the sheath being sworded.  The practitioner must be aware of the position of the sword as it is drawn across the top of the left hand between the forefinger and thumb.  As the blade passes over the opening or koiguchi the left hand grasping the saya around and a little past the opening of the saya is moving back along the line of the obi until the tip of the sword falls into the saya opening.  The muscles in the back and chest are engaged in this motion and reverse direction to bring the saya and sword together ending with the tsuba in a position in front of the navel.  The thumb of the left hand comes to rest on the tsuba and the practitioner assumes taito shisei and completes the kata.

Saya biki is integral and persistent throughout this and all of the ZNKR kata.  It is necessary for proper and correct waza and as an expression of awareness and bearing giving balance to motion and allowing a better economy of motion in the performance of kata.


Martial arts

Metsuke in ZNKR Kyuhonme-Soete Zuki

Metsuke as it applies in Iaido is where the eyes focus during kata and the intention expressed in the gaze.   Per the scenario presented in the All Japan Kendo Federation English version of Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iai for the kata kyuhonme-soete zuki, “You are walking along, when a person suddenly appears from the left with the intention to attack you.”  The kata begins with three steps starting on the right foot.  The attacker is noticed at the initiation of the second step.  The eyes lead the head and start to turn as the hands take hold of the tsuka and the body begins to turn left towards the attacker.  The third step is only a half step used as a pivot to continue the turn.  The initial cut, a kesa cut from the right shoulder to left abdomen initiated during the turn and is completed when the left foot steps back.  The gaze that initiates the turn and precedes the cut must be strong enough to support the seme or pressure that is being applied on the attacker and focused directly on the imminent threat while still being wide enough to see the entire situation and not give away the intended target.

After the initial cut, the attacker is directly in front with the blade in their gut just above the left hip bone.  Metsuke is still directed forward at the attacker, focused in a wider way on the entire threat while still intense and pressing.   The right foot pivots slightly and steps back half a step into soetezuki no kame with the sword grasped with the left hand between the thumb and forefinger.  This is done with the hand held horizontally along the omote side at a point about midway up the blade.  The hand and sword are parallel to the ground.    Metsuke is still supporting seme which is forward despite the rearward movement.  The sword is then immediately thrust into the attacker’s abdomen as the left foot steps forward past the right.  The motion ends with the blade thrust into the attacker and parallel to the ground at the level of the navel.  Metsuke is still forward on the attacker who is standing with the blade deep in them.

Metsuke and the intention of the act remain with the attacker as the blade is withdrawn   The left hand does not move as the right hand withdrawals the blade first slightly rearward then by raising the right hand to chest height blade rotated over the fingers of the left hand with the point down and the edge facing down and to the right.  At this point Metsuke broadens in focus as it follows the body to the ground.  The gaze should be far away but present to support zanshin.  It remains thus through migi ni hiraite no chiburi, and noto.

Metsuke changes when taito Shisei is assumed.  The gaze is raised back to forward head level and does not change as the three withdrawing steps are taken.

Martial arts, Uncategorized

Ki Ken Tai Ichi: Unity in the Midst of Chaos

Ki-ken-tai-ichi or “spirit, sword, & body are one” are the essential elements to a yuko-datotsu (correct strike). This means that all three elements of the strike happen as one element and make the perfect strike. The ability to do this is the ideal which all practice should strive for as a goal.

– Kendo Promotional Exam Study Guide,

When I started practicing kendo at Doshikai Kendo and Iaido Dojo, I heard the words Ki Ken Tai Ichi often enough to understand that this was a fundamental concept to the practice of Kendo. It has taken a great deal of time, effort, and dedication to reach this point where I feel that I can address the subject and be confident that my treatment of the topic will be relevant. Ki Ken Tai Ichi is a state in which the mind/spirit/intent is unified with the shinai and body during the performance of a valid strike. A strike without proper demonstration of Ki Ken Tai Ichi will not be considered valid and thus will not be awarded a point.

On a practical level there are certain identifiers that will indicate that the kenshi is demonstrating proper Ki Ken Tai Ichi and has achieved yuko-datotsu.   To have properly demonstrated Ki Ken Tai Ichi, the kendo player must synchronize the impact of the mono-uchi with the landing of the leading foot. This is simultaneously accompanied by a strong kiai to express whole hearted intent and dedication to the cut. While this sounds like a simple matter of timing, the reality is that it involves a complex series of events that bring the body’s center into harmony with the movement of the limbs, breath, and shinai resulting in a cut that occurs in a single beat and is punctuated by a resounding kiai. This is the essence of the ideal strike and the only strike that will be considered valid for the purposes of scoring. I might hit my opponent over the head all day but without proper Ki Ken Tai Ichi, I will never score a point or win the match.

On a more esoteric level, Ki Ken Tai Ichi takes on a more all encompassing aspect. When we break the concept down into its individual components, the idea of a supreme unification between an individual’s KI, Ken, and Tai is very intriguing. The mind/spirit complex which tends to maintain a constant dialog in relation to the environment struggles against focus. The internal dialog is chaotic and spends most of its time over thinking and analyzing what the senses feed it. The shinai is at first an alien body in relation to the self. Initially, the student has to exert a great deal of conscious effort in controlling the shinai. This effort is confounded by the erratic internal dialog. Constant practice breeds a close, personal relationship with the shinai while repetitive training creates instinctual action that releases the conscious self from its responsibility to control and direct the shinai. The chaotic conscious mind is put to rest as it switches from the discursive mode, talking its way through the match to an objective focus on the shinai and the task at hand. The present moment is the only time in which valid strike can occur. The body, which always exists in the present moment, is the foundation that when rooted into by the mind/spirit allows the newly present and aware kenshi to manifest Ki Ken Tai Ichi and achieve yuko-datotsu.

The concept of Ki Ken Tai Ichi serves a very valuable and foundational role in the way of the sword. It is a tool that allows the kenshi to develop a capacity for mindful, correct action and nurtures a sense of calm even in the midst of chaos.


Japanese and German late Medieval Swordsmanship: Worlds Apart, Ages Removed, Alive Today

“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.”

-Joachim Meyer, Kunst des Fechten, 1570 Capture


The sword and the very special place it holds as part of the human experience fascinates me. As a child I was raised on tales of King Arthur and the glorious sword Excalibur. Later, I found other tales and was enthralled with the adventures of Beowulf and his venomous sword Hrunting and the magical swords of the Spanish hero El Cid Tizona and Colada. As I grew older I came to know some of the tales of Japan and the three sacred treasures of Japan one of which was the great sword Kusanagi. As an adult, I have spent the majority of my free time seeking out and training with teachers who could give me even the smallest bit of instruction. From Chinese Dao and Jian, to the European saber and long sword to my favorite, the Japanese Katana I have been fortunate not to have cut anything off. As martial artists, we are lucky enough to be living during a time when the arts of swordsmanship are experiencing a kind of rebirth. The living arts of the east have found new homes in the west and ancient sword arts of the west are being rediscovered and reinterpreted for the modern practitioner. Unfortunately, many who practice these art forms do not understand how the martial traditions of the east and west share similar foundations. Here we will briefly examine the morphology and basic techniques of the medieval long sword and the katana highlighting the common features that can make the living arts of Japan a valuable tool to assist in understanding historical sword arts of medieval Europe.

Before we can begin to compare the styles and technique of the two sword arts, an understanding of the morphology of the two swords is necessary.

long sword diagramKatana anatomy

There are obvious differences between the Katana and the Long Sword. The most notable being the shape, length, guard, and edge placement. The long straight blade of the long sword contrasts greatly with the gentle curve of the Katana which is often 45 inches or less overall. The guard of the long sword serves a tactical function during binding (tai-attari) and half-swording while the guard of the Katana served to balance the sword and to keep the hands from sliding up onto the blade. It was mainly defensive in nature as the shorter arc of the curved blade makes binding more dangerous than with a longer straight blade. A common misconception among those who are not familiar with the katana is that it is a single edged sword. While this is true of some iterations of the design, the most commonly seen blades used in Japanese sword arts have two cutting edges the Ha and the short edge of the Kissaki as defined by the presence of a yokote. Many ryu ha draw a distinct difference between the use of the Kissaki and the Ha and their application. This is analogous to the idea of the long and short edge in the European tradition and the difference in the application of the two edges. Both swords were primarily used in two hands but could easily be used in one hand and have specific techniques associated with single hand use.

The steel that was used in both blades was of the highest possible quality. It is commonly believed that the steel used in Japan was of a much higher quality than was available in Europe.  The reality is that by this period in history the knowledge gap that had given the east a comfortable lead in the technologies of metallurgy and steel craft had been closed for some time.  Good steel was hard to come by in large quantities in japan and this shortage was instrumental in the creation of what would come to be one of the most famous styles of sword ever.  A recent polishing and examination of German sword and spear blades, Katana No Kantei, by a renowned Japanese sword polisher and appraiser seemed to show that while heavily damaged by improper storage and attempts at restoration, the steel was of remarkably high quality as reported by Stefan Maeder of Kokugakuin University.

It is important to understand that while Japanese swordsmanship has been maintained as a living tradition the art of Long Sword fencing was abandoned at the dawning of the renaissance in Europe. The usefulness of the two handed sword in battle was eclipsed by the advent of the firearm and its use as a civilian self-defense weapon was rejected in favor of the shorter, single handed sword. The rebirth of the art of Long Sword fencing today is the result of many intelligent and dedicated scholars and martial artists who have undertaken the task of translating and interpreting the surviving historical fencing manuals. The various schools of historical European martial arts (HEMA) have slowly begun to reemerge from the ashes of history and it has been revealed that throughout the documented history of Europe, effective and sophisticated martial traditions were evolving in parallel with those of Asia. Unfortunately, resurrecting these long abandoned arts it is a daunting task and has produced nearly as much bad information as good.

One of the principal issues I see with this kind of interpretive study is the practice of using only primary source material and drawings to form the foundation of a martial practice. This can lead to a wildly misguided understanding of proper posture and body mechanics. As we will see in the following images, if we were to assume that the images of Japanese kamae, taken from historical documents, are representations of proper posture and stance, we would not look anything like what is commonly accepted as proper today. In many cases, the exaggerated poses in the historical images may serve a purpose other than trying to depict proper kamae. The artist may be trying to give subtle clues to the initiated as to the proper direction of attack and defense or the application of physical and mental pressure. The images presented here should not be taken as representative of proper Long Sword or Katana form but as examples of historical texts that may or may not have been produced with the intention of teaching proper technique.

While it would be impossible to fully explore the similarities between the various ryuha and European schools of medieval swordsmanship given the scope of this article we can draw some conclusions by exploring the major guards found in historical texts from both traditions. The Following images will depict some of the guards taught by the German fencing master Joachim Meyer and are taken from his 1570 training manual.With the exception of Jodan No Kamae, the images of Japanese origin are taken from the historical text Shinkage-Ryu Heiho Mokuroku and drawn by Yagyu Sekishusai to accompany the descriptions of techniques given previously in The Life Giving Sword by Yagyu Munenori.   Both the Japanese and European guards can be assumed with either the right or left foot in the advance position and are not static postures to be fought from but rather transitory stances to be assumed as part of a greater strategy.

training at Meyer's hall


The Basic Guards:

Ox Tensetsu Ransetsu

This is Ochs (Ox) in the Meyer School of The Long Sword and corresponds to a Kamae called Gasumi in various ryuha. In both the Japanese and European schools of swordsmanship this guard is very versatile allowing the swordsman to strike to all the major cutting arcs and to thrust from a high guard. One peculiarity that shows up in long sword fencing that is not present in Japanese schools is the existence of the “Thumb Grip” wherein the fencer places the thumb of his leading hand on the flat of the blade to assist in point control during the thrust and to add leverage and speed during molinelli.


Pflug (plow) is easily recognizable as similar to Chudan No Kamae and is used in an almost identical manner. Both cuts and thrust are possible from this guard and the opponent must always be wary of the point. This guard tends to keep the opponent at the greatest distance allowing more freedom of movement. One interesting note that needs to be emphasized is that because of the placement of the two cutting edges on the Long Sword, reverse cuts can be easily made from Pflug and all of the major guards. With the katana, the sword must be rotated to complete a reverse cut as in the Seitei kata Kesa Giri.

Vom Tag Jodan

Vom Tag (from the roof) is the major high guard and shares many of the same benefits that Jodan No Kamae grants. Powerful blows that enter over the top of an opponent’s defense are possible. German variations on this guard move the blade to a position over either the right or left shoulder. This seems to correspond to Migi or Hidari Jodan. The tighter arc of the curved sword makes cuts with the Katana faster, but the added length of the Long Sword tends to compensate for the slower cut as the opponent can be engaged at longer range. In Italian traditions, this advantage in length could be magnified by executing a one handed cut from this guard. This can be witnessed today among practitioners of Kendo and one could easily imagine a Japanese swordsman surprising an opponent who may have assumed he was out of range with a left handed, cut from the high guard.

Gedan Olber

Alber (fool) is a deceptive guard much like Gedan No Kamae. Despite its name in German (fool), it can be inferred from its Italian name (half-iron door) that it can be a powerful defensive posture specifically when one considers the ease with which a short edge cut could be made to the wrists, legs, or groin of an unwary opponent.Meyer states that the guard is used primarily to entice a foolish or naïve opponent to strike and create an opening for the counter. In the text, Meyer seems to be describing something akin to Go no Sen.

Waki Game Wechsel (2)

The Side Guard or Nebenhut shares many applications with Waki No Kamae. One of the main differences being that in the German school this guard is often associated with the end of a cut from the high guard. As can be seen in the image from the Japanese source, the guard may also be used to draw the opponent into attacking a perceived opening. In the above image the swordsman appears to be presenting his shoulder as a target. From any of the major guards discussed here a swordsman should be able to strike to all of the major cutting arcs as discussed below.

striking planescutting planes 2

Meyer’s Cross (left) depicts the eight cutting arcs that can be made with any cutting implement. The point in the middle is of course for the thrust. It is commonly assumed that because of the curvature of the Katana that is was not a thrusting weapon. This could not be more untrue. The length of the blade and the fantastic cutting edge made it a devastating cutter, but its thrusting ability is attested to in the many Kata that employ the trust. The second image depicts divisions of the human body as taught by Meyer in his 1570 manual.

Cuts in the European tradition are used primarily against un-armored opponents. The heavy armor commonly associated with medieval warfare made the cut an almost useless attack and so alternate methods of attack were developed. Half-swording, gripping the sword blade at mid length and using the sword as a short spear as well as attacking with the cross guard were common methods of dealing with armored opponents in Medieval Europe. Within the framework of this article we are focusing primarily on unarmored combat with the sword and not making a comparison between the Knight and the Samurai. While both warriors were employed as cavalry, the tactical differences dictated that they be used in different ways strategically. European heavy cavalry (Knights) were primarily intended to deal with opposing cavalry and to support infantry as part of the charge. Japanese mounted knights (Samurai) were primarily mounted archers before the end of the Warring States period and would not be employed in the same manner as European knights. It should also be noted that in Europe, the bow was not considered to be a Knightly weapon while in Japan it was readily embraced.

Iaido cutting planes

The diagram above was presented at the 2004 AUSKF National Iaido Camp by Ueno Sensei for illustrating the cutting angles involved in the ZNKR kata. (I did not attend)

If we take Meyer’s cross and overlay it onto the image of the swordsman above then compare it to the diagram presented by Ueno Sensei, we can see that:

A: there are only so many way to cut up your opponent

B: the cutting arcs from ancient European Long Sword schools correspond closely to those taught in a “living” sword art practiced today.

Tactical Movement:

Ki Ken Tai Ichi: Spirit, Sword, Body, One. Essentially the unification of the sword and the swordsman into a single unified weapon system is a foundational concept in Japanese swordsmanship. The realization of this concept is still sought on today’s modern battlefield. Defense research organizations in the employ of almost every nation with a standing army are constantly looking for ways to make the soldier and his weapons function in a unified way as it is an accepted fact that this is the state in which a warrior is most efficient and effective. As part of Japanese swordsmanship this concept has taken on a more esoteric flavor but still retains the most fundamental truth in that the sword must act in accordance with the will, and body of the swordsman to be effective.

If we look back at Meyer’s text, we can see that while the concept was never given a name, it certainly appears to have been understood to a degree. The following is taken from chapter 7 of Meyer’s long sword book and is presented as part of his twelfth rule:

“He who steps after striking deserves less joy in his art.

“That is that every strike must have its own step which shall occur at the same time as the strike, if you would do otherwise with the elements which you resort to, then step too early or too late, thus it happens around your play, and you thus bring yourself around your strike, thus learn to make the steps right so that your opponent cannot work as he really wants, bringing on a stop, particularly so that you upset his grounding or place as it were. In attacking now let yourself mark this, and position yourself as if you would make large and far steps, but actually stay closer with your feet correct, and attack him. So much is then built on from here. Since all of this must be learned and used in fencing, this must be known.”

The most prominent difference between the two traditions of swordsmanship seems to be the more esoteric feel of the Japanese styles. This is the direct result of the influences of Shinto and Buddhism on the martial philosophies of Japan. Without this influence and the redirection of martial culture in Japan from one focused on war to one focused on the “Way” it can be argued that these living arts may not have been passed down through the ages to be available today. The animistic influence of Shinto was also instrumental in instilling a respect for the sword as an object that could embody Spirit. This led to a respect for the sword that until recently was believed to be unparalleled in the west.

In Europe, religious and mythological significance and the notion that the sword could possess a soul of its own were not uncommon in the pre-Christian era. It was only after the widespread growth of Christianity and it’s acceptance by post Roman Europe that the physical world and the old animistic faiths were cast aside in favor of looking to the afterlife and the human soul as being of primary significance.The respect for the sword as an object of reverence went into decline laying the stage for the eventual loss of the ancient arts of fencing in favor of more modern systems of combat. The once treasured blades could then be disregarded. Forgotten by those they served so faithfullyand left to rust without regard for the spirit of the thing itself.

In conclusion, the arts of swordsmanship when stripped of their cultural flavor look surprisingly similar. A Teutonic Knight and a Samurai of the Sengoku period had essentially the same view from behind the blade and an identical perspective when looking down the blade of an enemy determined to kill them. As a martial artist, I strive to always keep an “empty cup” in the way Bruce Lee advocated in “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” but also fully embrace his doctrine of taking what works and discarding what doesn’t when I attempt to understand and put into practice the teachings of masters whose lineage ended hundreds of years ago. In this age of instant global information exchange and the diminishing of cultural barriers, it is only prudent that the living arts of Asia be embraced as a valuable resource for the interpretation and evaluation of the re-awakening martial arts of medieval Europe.