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.









The Warrior’s Concerto

boken practice print

con·cer·to /kənˈCHerdō/ noun noun: concerto; plural noun: concerti; plural noun: concertos

  1. a musical composition for a solo instrument or instruments accompanied by an orchestra, especially one conceived on a relatively large scale.

The etymology is uncertain, but the word seems to have originated from the conjunction of the two Latin words conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight): the idea is that the two parts in a concerto, the soloist and the orchestra or concert band, alternate episodes of opposition, cooperation, and independence in the creation of the music flow. – WIKIPEDIA

It’s Tuesday night.  The air in the Brookline dojo is hot and sticky.  The wood floors have been playing hell with my hakama all night and suri ashi stepping has been a jerky painful experience.  Now, my feet are aching from the sticky floor and the constant exertion of staying rooted but mobile. My wits raw from fighting the floor for possession of my hakama, and my hands ache.   I’m gripping my faithful old bokken too tight. The wooden sword has been with me for years and shows the signs of having been through this before.  I relax and fix my eyes on those of the old swordsman standing across from me.   Lou is an aged fellow, polite, friendly, and highly skilled.  Right now his gaze is all business and his sword is held at the ready.  Lou raises his bokken to Jodan no kamae, sword held high above the head, stepping forward with his left foot.   I raise my sword to Jodan in response.  He begins his advance and I move to meet him.  We stop just within range of attack, swords held high in Jodan no kamae, threatening a blistering fast decent and death dealing cut. I tell myself that I have time.  I have plenty of time.  Lou’s sword begins its decent.  “I have time.  Let it come.”   The wooden blade drops in a painfully slow arc as my mind races with alarms, options, and reassurances.  “I have time.”  The blade is on its way.  The aim is true. My wrist is going to be severed or at least broken by the wooden blade of Lou’s bokken.  “I have time.”  I can see Lou’s face, resolute and focused.  I see his body moving toward me.  I see his sword, dropping in its ever accelerating arc.  It’s close and it’s moving very fast now. “MOVE!”  The thought echoes through my mind too late.  My body has already started to move back, the sticky floor yielding to me like water as well trained muscles take over in place of a slower active mind.  I shuffle back a half step, stretching up and back a tiny bit to gain height and distance, lifting my sword slightly higher to move the targeted wrist up and away from the blow meant to sever it.  Muscles tensed and pressing forward, yearning to engage, despite moving away from my attacker.  I see the opening I’ve been waiting for. Lou’s sword passes close but safely past the wrist he was aiming for and down the front of my body, his missed strike pulling him forward leaving his sword low.  The forward pressure in my body is finally unleashed when the tip of my bokken starts to move.  I take a half step forward, my blade falling.  My sword and body stop moving in the same instant, the blade barely an inch from the crown of Lou’s head.  He raises his eyes to mine.  He should be a dead man right now.  He straightens and I lower the tip of my sword to a point just between his eyes.  He needs to see the danger he is in.  He has lost.  Lou shuffles back a half step, gaining distance, searching for a tactical advantage or at least a way out of danger.  I’ll not have it.  He has lost and this is over.  I press forward, the tip of my sword driving forward to his face.  He retreats and as we both move I raise my blade threateningly into Jodan No Kamai.  The finishing blow is coming.  He is done.  His concession of defeat is short but formal and we return to our starting points to have the confrontation again, and again, and again.  The conversation with no words is complete.  The story is told and I have expressed an honest, earnest desire to live and succeed despite the best efforts of those who might stand against me.  Another tiny victory in a life filled with a reasonable balance of wins and losses. We switch roles.  I initiate and lose while he responds to the aggression and wins.  I know there is a lesson there.  Sensei makes corrections and encourages us to continue.  He prunes away unnecessary movement, distilling the technique to be efficiently effective.  He stresses the importance of kendo kata for both Iaido practitioners and Kendo players.  He wants us to be better.  He wants us to succeed. We continue to practice kendo kata all night.  The dojo is quiet but vigorously alive and active.  Lou and I work together without talking for the most part.  Resolutely swapping roles and accepting our fate.  Here I’m the winner, here the loser.  There I was attacker, but here the defender.  Our timing and distance, once a recurring reason to stop and make adjustments, begins to flow together.  The swords are finding the proper distance.  The kata is flowing. We have found our rhythm.  Wants and needs fall away.  There isn’t any more trying.  We are practicing with calm determination and love for the art that we share.  There is communication but it’s not obvious to the lay observer.  The sheer amount of information being exchanged is staggering to contemplate.  Every movement, no matter how subtle, has meaning.  Nobody is going to die tonight, but life still hangs in the balance.  A life spent in devotion to a practice is the life that is being put to the test.  Have I been genuine to myself and my practice?  Can my truth overcome his in this? There is a meeting in the local government offices downstairs.  Shouts and stomping from a crowd of excited swordsmen is the last thing they want to hear tonight so we content ourselves with kendo kata.  Little do the officials know the life and death struggles that are being rehearsed just a few feet above their heads.  Lou and I know.  The danger that we are putting each other in was at the forefront of our minds when class started.  These kata are to be performed with intent and strong cuts.  We strike at real targets and pull our blows mere inches before they land.  We aren’t aiming to harm each other but we also aren’t holding anything back.  If Lou or I fail to move or parry a blow in time, serious or even deadly injury could result.  The timing and distance errors were as much a result of being over cautious and fearful of injury as from inexperience or lack of practice. As practice continues and everyone relaxes into their roles a change occurs.  The adjustments and corrections dry up and stop almost altogether.  I look up in between kata and realize that this is more than just a practice hall.  This is where stories of life and death are being played out.  This is a place where ego meets truth and peace has a home.  No blood is ever spilled here but illusions and preconceptions are challenged and shattered.  Nobody ever dies here but we all lay our illusions and limitations to rest.  This is not a concerto that any musician or conductor would ever recognize, but thoughts and emotions are being expressed in as true a sense as possible.  The players and instruments are moving fluidly from opposition, to cooperation. The players strive to accomplish their individual goals, but are still part of a whole that incorporates attacker and defender into a dance that can have only one outcome.


What are you training for?


noun: training

1. the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior.
2. the action of undertaking a course of exercise and diet in preparation for a sporting event.

I am a member of several groups that actively engage in the martial arts. The various arts are of Asian and European origin but are all decidedly American in attendance.  The American cultural attitudes and expectations are all present and accounted for.  In many cases the lust for quick results and desire to purchase a quick fix often taint the students perception of the art.  A focus on the martial aspects of any martial art is a common occurrence for both teacher and student.  A student preparing for a tournament, testing, upcoming fight or other event is surely training.  A student who is still mastering the basics of an art form  is certainly training the body.  The question arises then, why continually train and for what?

It is important to be impeccable with ones speech as much as possible.  You see, I am the student that once became focused on the goal.  A goal, any goal implies an ending.  The very use of the word training implied that I was training for something.  Whatever am I training for?  There are always tests, tournaments, seminars, and of course the odd brawl among my martial arts brothers that I am always ready for.  So again I ask, what am I really training for?  I’ve devoted a substantial amount of time, treasure, and energy into the martial arts and learning all I could about my chosen path among them.  What do I gain?  What have I achieved with all my training?    I gained all those things that are advertised about the martial arts; fitness, discipline, confidence, skill.  I gained all of that, years before and in many different aspects of my life.  I didn’t need the martial arts to gain these attributes.  Of course the training in the arts reinforced these traits but I didn’t need the martial arts for this.  Maybe I wasn’t training for anything.

It came to me one day when I was leaving for the dojo.  Everything ached that day from a rough night with my kung fu brothers.  I was not looking forward to Iaido and a sticky, hot summer dojo.  My best friend sent me a text as I walked out of the house telling me that she hoped I would have fun at training.  Fun was the last thing I thought would happen but at the same time I realized that not only was I certainly not going to have fun but that I wasn’t actually training.  Some where along my path I had failed to notice a change in my goals and motivations.  I wasn’t doing this for fun and I certainly wasn’t training for any goal.  The only goal was to continue exploring this amazing world where violence and pure communication come together.  I want to make art and this is not something I can train for.  I can train all the skills to death and become an amazing technician of martial skills but I won’t be an artist until I let go of any kind of goal driven motivation.  To strive for only the benefits granted by a dedicated pursuit of the martial arts isn’t enough.  I am striving for something more but also something far less.  I’m not looking for belts, titles, a legacy or fighting skill.  I don’t want to teach these things or achieve recognition.  I am not training for anything.  I am making art.  I am offering up a story for anyone willing to come see.  My sword is not a weapon.  Its a tool and I’m going to use it to cut the story of my life out of the fabric of reality.

I am not training any more.  I have moved past the desire to obtain anything from my art.  I am maintaining a practice of personal growth and cultivation.  A practice that leaves the dojo with me every day.  It permeates and influences all of my thoughts and actions.  I have a practice that includes and is centered in the martial arts but touches every aspect of my life.  Regardless of my location or status, my dojo is with me every day at all times.  My practice lives in me.  My vision of what that will come to envisage is as blurry as can be and I like it that way.  I can’t tell you how this path will end, or even remember how or when it began for me but I can tell you that today, I am not training.  I am going to practice.


The Art in the Way

Art, can be defined as the creative expression of thought and emotion through intimate knowledge of one’s perception of the self. It is the truest form of communication. To create art, one must know their medium so intimately as to be able to express the nature of your soul through the act of artistic manipulation of your raw materials. The nature of the medium must be understood to be no different from that of the artist. Communication through a medium takes place when the illusion of separation is set aside. To be a Martial artist, martialist, or martial athlete  is nearly the same thing. However, the act is as important as the effect for the artist. For the martial artist, continuation of the practice is the goal.  This may lead some to believe that artistic skill cannot be effective when confronted by technical skill.

This is a false assumption that is held by many today. Obtaining technical skill is a precursor to any artistic endeavor. An artist must know his tools well enough to communicate with them. What many martial sports have lost is a firm base in a martial philosophy. This philosophy would demand that victory over an opponent be sought as an end to any martial action. However, technical skill applied to obtain victory is not Art unless there is a component of honest self expression applied as part of that victory.  Understanding that your opponent and the self are in fact part of a single whole is the first step.  To obtain a victory The martial artist will understand that no aspect of their practice can be divorced from any other.  Separating form from function and function from intention will result in something other than art.

Art is communicative by nature and requires a deep understanding of one’s own perception and intentions. This knowledge need not be conscious but must exist all the same. This is why the truly great among athletes can be said to be artists as well. They communicate their intentions through their actions without conscious effort and thus obtain what the artist seeks. This is an accident and is rare. Even war can be an artistic endeavor under the right circumstances.

Art has no material substance outside of the minds of practitioners and admirers. Paper is paper and paint is paint. Sound is just noise until emotions and ideas are expressed through it. Only the communicative value assigned to it makes paper and paint into art and sound into a force that can move a person to tears. Thus, it cannot be owned by anyone but the individual artist and those who receive the information being communicated. The student learns from the teacher. Under the instruction of a good teacher, the student will be brought to the edge of understanding. He will learn not only the physical skills necessary to perform the techniques of the art, but he will also learn the philosophical beliefs of his master as they relate to the art. The student will also be encouraged to form his own philosophy after preconceptions have been eliminated. If the student is ready, he will make the art his own. At this point, the art becomes the possession of that student; for good or for ill, that student owns his art. He is free to do with it as he pleases.


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.



Reiho is often defined as etiquette, respect, or courtesy in English. I have often described it as such when trying to explain the concept to those who do not practice a form of Budo. In his blog, Geoff Salmon defines Reiho as the physical component to Reigi; the Japanese concept translated and defined in English as etiquette. I prefer this definition. Drawing a distinction between the physical components of proper etiquette does not diminish the fact that fundamentally even the smallest acts of Reiho can demonstrate the essence of Reigi.
When understood to be a physical manifestation of etiquette, Reiho can be seen to permeate every aspect of the art of Iaido. The proper layout of a dojo, the correct fit and wear of the practice clothing, how we wear the sword, how we clean the sword, our very hygiene, posture and even the way we place our thumb on the tsuba while wearing the sword are all forms of Reiho. Every action during practice should be approached with the attitude that even in the smallest actions; the total sum of proper etiquette should be expressed.
The most obvious expression of Reiho to the outsider is bowing. This is the classic example for most westerners of Japanese martial etiquette but is rarely understood for what it truly is. The bow as stated earlier when performed with proper humility, respect, and intent can embody all that is true of etiquette in Iaido. The Iaido practitioner who understands etiquette will always bow more deeply to those who are their seniors in the Dojo. They will also hold the bow for an instant longer than those who are more senior. These physical manifestations are not a form of worship, as has been improperly asserted by some, or an act of submission. They are a signal to those who know that this individual is not only ready to receive the teachings imparted in the dojo but that this person takes their practice seriously and has begun the process of internalizing the basic concepts of the art. Budo can be dangerous if practiced without the proper attitude and concentration. Proper demonstration of Reiho is also a signal to others that the practitioner understands the importance of following direction and is unlikely to do things to put others at risk during practice. The bow as an act of correct Reiho will demonstrate correct Iai.
To me, Reiho is also means by which I can demonstrate my sincere gratitude and desire to learn. It is a defining element of my practice which necessitates that I strive to learn and understand more about this complex concept that can be so hard to define. I was once told that the waves on the ocean are not fundamentally different from the ocean as a whole. That the ocean is waving at us all the time. Reiho as a fundamental aspect of the practice of Iaido can demonstrate the very essence of Iaido when performed correctly. From the instant we enter the dojo, with every breath, movement and thought, we strive to demonstrate Reiho and the essence of Iaido.