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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2005

Kata and Etudes: Pattern Drills in the History of Teaching Swordsmanship

Charles Ham

    Teaching methods for the use of hand weapons during the19th century were remarkably similar in both Europe and Japan.  This paper analyzes Hungarian and Highland Broadsword and its companion publication The Manual of the Ten Divisions of the Highland Broadsword by Maestro Harry Angelo (1799 and 1800, respectively) and that system’s antecedents in the cutlass training of English speaking navies, and the exercise known as Tachi Uchi no Kurai from the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu (MJER) and Muso Shinden Ryu (MSR) schools of Japanese swordsmanship.  The training methods from both the Highland broadsword/cutlass tradition and the Japanese tradition have several common elements; chiefly that a more experienced swordsman leads a partner through a series of hypothetical swordfights.  These hypothetical swordfights are then memorized and practiced until the responses become automatic.  These extended drills, called “lessons,” “divisions” or “etudes” (Fr. "lesson") in early 19th century English and “kata” in Japanese, formed the foundation of training. 

    However, the etudes are fundamentally different from kata in one significant way.  In the Highland broadsword/cutlass tradition the basic strategy stayed the same, but the lessons were rewritten by the next generation of maestros who often dropped them in favor of drills and free sparing. This can be seen by looking at the manuals and drill books of successive maestros.  By looking at how the two sister schools, MSR and MJER, have very different interpretations of their kata in the late 20th century, one can see that the Japanese kata are kept more or less intact, but evolve due to differences of interpretation by various maestro over the years.  The author poses a hypothesis that this difference in how the skills are transmitted through the generations is a reflection of the unique values of the two cultures. 

On a personal note
Four years ago I started trading Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido lessons for saber lessons with a local fencing coach.  One day he brought in a set of singlesticks and said that this is actually what the militaries used in the nineteenth century to teach the use of the cutlass and the saber.  That caught my attention, and I was hooked on the new method and equipment. 

After doing some research I found the singlestick had a long and twisted history including being part of Olympic fencing 100 years ago.  It was a prize fighting weapon 200 years ago and was also used as a training tool for the Scottish Highland’s Basket-hilted broadsword.  By the late 19th and early 20th century the singlestick was used most often by navies to teach cutlass skills and was considered by most people to be the training tool for the cutlass, the same way the foil was the training tool for the court sword. 

I downloaded drill books from the Internet and joined online groups centered on singlestick and historical basket-hilted broadsword groups.  The groups that I joined were trying to revive singlestick, but two years after starting singlestick it turned out that there were two isolated groups in Great Britain that had been doing singlestick fencing continuously even after the weapon was dropped from Olympic fencing.  There are therefore unbroken lines of teaching in this tradition. 

One group I joined, The Cateran Society, is interested in the roots of the Highland Broadsword lessons of Harry Angelo.  Angelo collaborated with an artist named Rowlandson to publish a beautifully illustrated manual and a poster on the subject in 1799 and in 1801 and introduced the singlestick as the safety weapon for this style of swordsmanship.  Fifteen years later Angelo was hired to teach cutlass to Royal Naval shipmen and he used his Highland broadsword system for cutlass as well.

The Cateran Society was excited by the fact that their reconstruction of British Highland Regimental Broadsword skills was very similar to the living remnant of singlestick and took this as proof that their method of reconstruction was valid (1).  I would agree with them on this point, but what fascinated me were the differences between what the Cateran Society and the remnant groups of singlestick fencers were doing.  One thing different was the Cateran Society’s training methods revolved around learning etudes.  The Cateran Society was doing the etudes from Angelo’s poster, called “Divisions” by Angelo, or “Lessons” by the members of the Cateran Society.  These etudes struck me as being very similar to kata from Japanese sword arts.  However, the remnant groups, as far as I have been able to find out, do not use etudes in their training. 

Etudes and kata: 
There are two points this paper will explore.  The first will show that kata from the Japanese sword arts tradition, and etudes from the late 18th early 19th century in European fencing are essentially the same thing by another name.  The second point I want to explore is the method of transmission.  The Japanese kata tend to evolve, while each generation of fencing masters wrote their own etudes, which by mid century were reduced to simpler response drills.  The difference in transmission in these two traditions points to differences in the attitudes of the base culture of each tradition toward the art of the sword. 

Tachi Uchi no Kurai
In the Tachi Uchi no Kurai two people with wood swords go through a series of less than a dozen short mock sword fights (2).  One person, the Shidachi, is the student who plays the part of the winner, and the other, the Uchidachi, the more senior person, plays the looser.  The mock fights show combinations, have different types of initiative (sen in Japanese) and serve as examples of strategy. 

The Tachi Uchi no Kurai, like kata in many Japanese sword arts, is supposed to be memorized and drilled until it is automatic.  The purpose of kata in all Japanese sword arts is to teach swordsmanship and kata are similar to drills in that the purpose is to have the correct actions put into the student’s motor memory.  Pedagogically speaking, the kata are basically two-person combination drills.  However, looking at Tachi Uchi no Kurai in more detail, the various sections teach more than combinations of attacks.  They also teach defense and give more than one option for similar situations.  Sections often have sister sections that start out the same, but the opponent, played by the senior, has different responses to the student’s strategy. 

Compare the first kata, Deai to the second one, Tsukekomi.  Both start with the opponents advancing toward one another with weapons sheathed.  The senior partner (Uchidachi) draws and cuts at the student’s (Shidachi’s) thigh with a one handed cut.  The student draws simultaneously and blocks the cut with a one-handed edge-to-edge parry that looks very similar to the cut.  From there, however, the two kata diverge.  In Deai, the senior breaks contact with the student’s sword and the student attacks the senior’s head with a two handed downward cut which the senior blocks just in the nick of time with a two handed cross block.  In Tsukekomi, the senior keeps pressure on the students blade so the student is forced to do a different counter.  While maintaining contact with the opponent’s sword the student steps forward left and grabs the senior’s sword hand with the student’s left hand.  Now with control of the opponent’s sword, the student stabs the opponent in the side. 

Kata three, Ukenagashi, and kata four, Ukekomi, also start out similarly, with two diagonal cuts across the body which are met with edge on edge parries.  In both the student keeps distance and maintains good defense while looking for an opening.  The senior, seeing no immediate opening, steps back into jodan no kamae, a ready stance with the sword held above the head, ready to strike downward. 

When Uchidachi steps back into jodan no kamae the student has two options: In kata three, Ukenagashi, the student goads the senior into cutting straight down by going to gedan, a stance with the tip of the sword lowered (3).  When the senior cuts down the student brings the sword up to parry the opponent’s blade and uses the momentum of the connection to swing the sword around and cut the opponent at the neck/shoulder junction.  In kata four, Ukekomi, the student uses a different technique that is even more difficult.  The student follows the opponent as he steps back and cuts with a rising cut as the opponent lifts his own sword into jodan.  Before the opponent has even arrived into jodan to assess the situation the student has cut him across the chest. 

The Tachi Uchi no Kurai are very carefully planned.  The student learns to neutralize common attacks and is given a couple of variations on how the opponent may respond to counters.  Since combinations are emphasized, one can see the strategy of MSR and MJER.  Strategy is not explicitly taught, but by internalizing the kata one should ideally start to use it even in stress situations.  Kata, therefore, are not just combination drills or response drills but are also a curriculum and a syllabus for the school’s deeper strategy. 

Angelo’s Ten Divisions
One sees parallels in Angelo’s Ten Divisions.  First, two people armed with singlesticks, a wooden substitute for the basket-hilted sword, engage in ten short mock sword fights.  The less senior soldier plays the defender and is led through the etudes by the more senior soldier as antagonist.  To go deeper we must examine Angelo’s poster more carefully, but the poster, like scrolls from traditional Japanese martial arts, was a memory aid for the student who was being taught by the regiment’s senior soldiers and therefore has some gaps (e.g. beginning guard positions and transitional movements).  The textbook used by the Cateran Society (Thompson, 2001) has filled in those gaps by referring to contemporary authors who also wrote manuals on Highland Swordsmanship but did not have official governmental sanction like Angelo (4).  However, the detailed illustrations clearly show the progression of two soldiers going through the Ten Divisions. The basic strategy of each exercise is clear even though some details are lacking. 

Angelo's mock fights show combinations, feinting, secondary intentions (attacking one target with the intent to move the opponent to expose another target) and strategy.  The various sections teach effective combinations and often have pairs of divisions that start out the same but have different responses by the senior partner or have variations on the combination. 

The first three divisions start out the same and build on one another.  They introduce a fundamental aspect of Highland swordsmanship – an attack to the head and then an attack to the leg (Thompson 2001: 92).  This system puts heavy emphasis on keeping distance and defense, therefore the student steps back with the lead foot (traversing) with each parry. 

In the first division, the student attacks the head which is parried and has to parry the senior soldier’s counterattack.  As soon as the counterattack is dealt with the student cuts for the lead leg of his opponent.  The senior soldier steps out of range of the leg attack and this division ends in a draw. 

The second division starts out like the first one with the student making an attack to the head followed by an attack to the opponent's lead leg, but the student is introduced to a new concept: he does not traverse with the parry just before the leg attack to gain some distance.  So the student parries an attack from the senior soldier without traversing (bringing the lead leg back behind the trailing leg) and once again attacks the leg.  The senior manages to avoid the second leg attack by traversing the target out of range (i.e. moves the right leg behind the left leg).  The second division also ends in a draw.  The third division is the same as the second division, but the second leg attack is extended to include a cut to the opponent’s ribs. 

Divisions seven and ten are both circular; they both teach an effective combination by having the student do that combination then have the opponent attack with the same combination so the student is forced to learn the counter.  In division seven, the student attacks the head to force the opponent into a cross guard (sword held above the head more or less horizontal to block downward blows directed at the head) and then the student attacks the exposed arm and side of the head.  The opponent manages to just parry with an inside guard and then the opponent counters with the same combination of attacks.  The student tries another combination of head and ribs which is then followed by the opponent parrying with a hanging guard and countering with the same combination.  While division ten has different combinations, it follows the same pattern of having the student do two effective combinations and the defenses against each. 

Angelo has also very carefully planned out his etudes.  Common attacks and defenses are taught and students learn a couple of variations on how the opponent may respond.  Like Tachi Uchi no Kurai, combinations are emphasized so one can see the strategy of his system.  Angelo however, did not just rely on the etudes to impart the techniques.  In addition, he published a manual, Hungarian and Highland Broadsword,  In it, he has plates showing explicitly one aspect of his strategy – to not parry attacks to the lead leg, but instead to move the leg out of range.  This leaves the sword available for quick counter attacks (Plates 16 and 17). 

Comparing Tachi Uchi no Kurai and Angelo’s Ten Divisions
The evidence shows that late 18th and 19th century etudes and 18th century kata are essentially the same training method under two different names.  To summarize, the two sets have a similar structure (less than a dozen short paired encounters) and the same content (combinations and counters to common attacks).  Both have sections that build on previous sections with variations in the opponent’s response, both have the same expectations (that students memorize the fictional encounters) and both have the same motivation (that these drills will allow the student to use combinations and strategy in stress encounters).  The only structural difference between the kata and the etudes is that in the kata the student wins decisively and has to pull the cut in order to not injure the senior partner.  In the etudes the opponent manages to parry the final cut from the student so the encounter ends in a draw.  I propose that this difference is just a reflection of two different safety methods the two systems devised. 

Method of Transmission 
To borrow a metaphor from University of Georgia historian Karl Friday, the underlying principles and strategies of a Japanese martial art tradition are like the flame or the light of the lamp, while the kata is the lamp itself (Friday, 2003: n.p.) (5).  Japanese traditional arts, be they the tea ceremony or the martial arts, use kata to teach, and the memorization and correct performance of the kata is a necessary part of advancing in rank.  These educational systems try very hard to pass on both the lamp and the light unchanged.  If the lamp can be passed on unchanged then there is hope that the flame is the same. 

I hypothesize that members of a traditional Japanese martial arts school see themselves as mastering an art form that has an idealized perfect form they are striving towards but may never realize.  Not unlike professional ballet dancers who do their basic moves at the barre every morning, they see themselves as pursuing an unchanging ideal and so practice the kata in a similar manner.  Therefore, there are really only two ways that kata can be changed.  The first way is when changes to kata are made by people at the highest level, like menkyo kaiden level (license of complete transmission) or soke (the owner of the school) to insure that the kata continues to teach the underlying principles and strategies of the ryuha.  These changes to the lamp are merely repairs to it to insure it continues to hold the flame.  The second type would be the unconscious change in small details made as the kata are transmitted.  Any such changes to a set of kata would be small, but over time these could add up to create very different interpretations.  In order to preserve the tradition, changes in kata should therefore be evolutionary in nature, not revolutionary. 

Fig 1 Danzaki

fig 2 Mitani
Fig 2 Mitani

Looking again at Tachi Uchi no Kurai, one can see the various differences that exist between the MSR and the MJER that suggest evolutionary changes have been at work.  With the first kata, Deai, both Muso Shinden Ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu have a similar basic structure, but the final cross block by the senior has considerable variation.  In Muso Shinden Ryu  the hilt is held to the right of the body (Danzaki, 1988: 249), but in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu  the cross block is done with the hilt held to the left side of the body (Mitani, 1986: 129) (see Figures 1 and 2).  The second kata, Tsukekomi, shows an even more important variation in that it is the student who does different actions not the senior partner.  As explained above Tsukekomi starts the same as Deai but has a different ending.  The student grabs the opponent’s right hand which is holding a sword and the student simultaneously steps in with the left leg.  The student then stabs the opponent.  The differences between the two schools are essentially how far to step in with the left leg.  In Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu  the student steps in so deeply that the left knee is forced into the back of the senior partner’s right knee and the senior partner’s right hand is brought across the body and pinned against the student’s hip(Mitani, 1986: 133).  However, in Muso Shinden Ryu, the student does not step in so deep, just far enough to allow the stab but prevent getting entangled with the opponent’s body (Danzaki, 1988: 251) (see Figures 3 and 4). 

Fig 3 Mitani
Fig 3 Mitani

Fig 4 Danzaki
Fig 4 Danzaki

The Highland Broadsword/cutlass tradition shows a very different attitude toward the transmission of knowledge.  Unlike the lamp and flame metaphor of traditional Japanese education, fishing is a better metaphor.  The underlying principles and strategies are the important part of the education.  The etudes are just a tool to acquire the knowledge; like a fish hook, the etudes can be discarded once the prize (the skill or the knowledge or the fish) is in one's grasp.  By reading the fencing literature of the 19th and early 20th century one sees why this is: the masters of Western martial arts see themselves as engaged in the science of defense and are actively trying to find the best techniques and strategies as well as the best teaching methods.  Because of this attitude, changes tend to be quite radical when new "scientific" evidence is introduced.  The changes in this tradition are therefore revolutionary, not evolutionary. 

Soon after the publication of his manual and poster, Angelo began to occasionally teach navy seamen with the same methods.  With Maestro Angelo’s appointment as Naval Instructor in the Cutlass in 1813, the Ten Divisions were made official part of the British Royal Navy’s training.  This style of swordsmanship was later adopted by the other English speaking navy, the U.S. Navy.  Looking at the Royal Navy’s cutlass manual of 1873 (McGrath and Barton, 2002) and the U.S. Navy's cutlass manual of 1904 (Fullam, 1904) one can clearly see that they are inspired by Angelo.  In fact, Plate 153 from Petty Officer’s Drillbook USN (1904) is almost identical to the etching entitled “The Advantage of Shifting the Leg” from Hungarian and Highland Broadsword by Angelo. 

However, both of these later manuals have dropped etudes from their curricula.  Both have solo drills of the basic attacks and parries followed by instructions for partner training where two ranks of men take turns being attacker and defender.  The whole idea of a senior partner has been done away with – the petty officer or officer drilling the seamen is the expert while the partners are theoretically of equal skill.  The combination drills that do remain are not sequentially ordered to build on each other nor do they have variations.  Feinting and secondary intentions are also not evident in either training manual.  The emphasis of both these manuals is on getting the men ready to free spar, or as it was known at the time, “loose play.”  Instructions for running such practice between the men occupies a large portion of both manuals.  Free sparing, or loose play was not unknown in the days of Angelo but comments on it are missing from both his poster and manual.  This is a revolutionary change in the training process, no doubt brought on by the view that it was more scientific. 

The two manuals differ greatly in another aspect that shows revolutionary change: the guards.  The word "guards" in Angelo’s time meant both the ready positions from which the soldier/sailor waited for openings and for threats (called kamae in Japanese martial arts) but also referred to parries.  Angelo’s manual has seven guards but both navies have greatly reduced that number.  Interestingly enough, the U.S. Navy has eliminated the hanging guard while the Royal Navy continued to place great emphasis on it. 

Comparing Methods of Transmission
The ways the two traditions transmitted their skills in the late 19th and early 20th century are clearly different.  The Japanese preserved their kata and transmitted it with small changes creeping in over the years.  Their evolutionary changes can be observed by looking at the differences that exist in the two schools' present interpretations of the kata.  This supports the hypothesis that practitioners of the Japanese sword arts generally see themselves as pursuing an idealized form of art.  To them, seeing very little change was reassuring evidence that the style was not only true to its roots but the ideal it represented was a good one.  The Highland Broadsword/cutlass traditions saw themselves as engaged in a science.  They too were pursuing an idealized form, but not an art form.  For them change was a symbol of progress. 

We can see that, for at least a short time in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and most likely longer, on two different islands off two different continents the methods of teaching swordsmanship were essentially the same.  The Japanese have managed to more or less preserve this old way of teaching because several koryu, old schools, of swordsmanship have survived and still maintain the kata in unbroken lines of transmission.  The Western world long ago gave up using etudes to teach swordsmanship and this very fact speaks volumes of how the practitioners saw themselves and their tradition of swordsmanship. 

However, this paper brings up many questions that the author hopes will be addressed by other scholars.  First of all, in the realm of anthropology: How do people in various martial arts communities view change?  How do they see themselves fitting into the tradition of their martial art?  In the realm of pedagogy: How effective and efficient were kata/etudes for training fighting men?  Etudes were dropped by the West in the 19th century when swords were no longer being used on the battle field and only rarely on the field of honor, so evidence suggests that they did have at least some effectiveness in teaching prior to that time.  If etudes are an effective teaching method, why are they effective? 

Furthermore, there are also many other similarities in form between Angelo’s etudes and Tachi Uchi no Kurai.  Both Angelo’s set of etudes and the kata of Tachi Uchi no Kurai have attacks to the leg defended by counterattacks to the head, edge parries and many other stylistic parallels.  Of course human anatomy and physics is constant between Japan and Great Britain so one expects some parallels but the parallels are stronger than one would expect.  I look forward to seeing more research on the parallels in swordsmanship between Japan and the West.

As a novice to the European traditions of the arts of defense I often depended on the knowledge of others.  While they are too numerous to thank individually in this limited space, I would like to say that the maestros and scholars in this field who answered my numerous requests for information were unanimously kind and generous with their knowledge and time.  I hope to have the opportunity to meet my generous pen-pals someday in a dojo, salle, salon, or taigh suntais soon. 

End Notes
1. For The Cateran Society’s curriculum please see Thompson, 2001.

2. The number of kata in Tachi Uchi no Kurai varies within this tradition from seven to twelve.  I consider it likely that these kata were done in the 19th century with bokuto (wooden swords).  There are photos of Nakayama Hakudo (a.k.a. Hiromichi, the last Headmaster of MSR) and his son and photos of Nakayama Hakudo’s protégé Danzaki and an unidentified partner doing these kata with actual swords.  However, it is most likely that Tachi Uchi no Kurai was practiced at the end of the 19th century with bokuto since kata in the 19th century were commonly performed with bokuto by the vast majority of Japanese schools of defense.  Furthermore many traditions in Japan currently use wooden weapons for training and use real or at least realistic-looking weapons for demonstrations. 

3. There are several variations in Tachi Uchi no Kurai between the Muso Shinden Ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and there is even some variation within the styles.  Any detailed description of a kata in this essay will be from MSR unless otherwise noted. 

4. Thompson filled in the gaps by referring to the work of Anonymous Highland Officer (1790), Mathewson (1805), and McBane (1728).  Original source material in scholarly journals is generally preferred, but having read Anonymous Highland Officer, Thompson’s conclusions sound logical.  Furthermore, Thompson's book has been favorably received by the Western martial arts community.  Therefore as a novice in the Western fencing tradition I have referred to his explanations when the meaning of the original poster is unclear. 

5. Dr. Friday, Menkyo Kaiden (license of full transmission), Kashima Shin Ryu (a traditional school that has both weapons and empty hand techniques), was speaking both about his areas of expertise and the method of transmitting knowledge in his school.  His books on Japanese history and Kashima Shin Ryu are very enlightening and very readable. 

Amberger, J. C. (May 2005). Officers and Gentlemen: On The History Of Fencing At The U.S. Naval Academy.

Anonymous Highland Officer (1790). Anti-pugilism: the Science of Defense Exemplified in Short and Easy Lessons for the Practice of the Broad Sword and Single Stick.  London: J Aitkin. 

Angelo, H. and Rowlandson, T. (1799). The Manual of the Ten Division of the Highland Broadsword.  London: H. Angelo. 

Angelo, H and Rowlandson, T. (1800). Hungarian and Highland Broadsword.  London: H. Angelo

Corbesier, A. J. (1869). Principles of Squad Instruction for the Broadsword.  Ohio: Navy and Marine Living History Association

Danzaki, T. (1988). Iaido Sono Riai to Shinzui.  Tokyo: Taiku to Supotsu Shupansha

Friday, K. (2003).  Discussion on the transmission of kata after Friday’s demonstration of kaiken (dagger) verses tachi (sword) kata from Kashima Shin Ryu.  Guelph Ontario. 

Fullam, W. Lieut.Comdr. (1904). Petty Officer’s Drillbook.  Annapolis: Naval Institute

McGrath, J. and Barton, M. (2002). Naval Cutlass Exercise.  Portsmouth UK: Royal Navy Amateur Fencing Association.

Mitani, and Mitani (1986). Shokai Iai: Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. Tokyo: Tokyo Inshokan

Thompson, C. (2001).  Lannaaireachd: Gaelic  Swordsmanship.  United States: Ceilidh House.

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