Physical Training Feb 2008
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Changeless Sword Schools?

copyright © 2008 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

Changeless Sword Schools?

Many people assume that for the old sword schools there has been little or no change in technique over the last hundred years, but that would seem to be a risky assumption. Oe Masamichi rearranged, changed, and modified Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu when he assembled the various Tosa Iai into the current form of the school and there have been documented changes since that time. The arts are in a constant state of flux from generation to generation, teacher to student, and as body type changes so will the way the movements are done and look.

The arts do change.

But you really need to define "change" before talking about it. Is Ryuto from Muso Shinden-ryu Shoden (and MSR... THERE'S a major change since Meiji in itself, being an entirely new school by some accounts) really a "change" from Uke Nagashi of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu Omori? It depends on how you look at it, defined as "you're attacked from the left while sitting in seiza, draw and deflect, turn toward the opponent and cut diagonally into his body", both techniques are identical. They are performed differently, have different targets but fundamentally....

Changes to the art or the student?

As for changes to the school due to the student's body type, I'm 6'2" and 240 pounds (that's big and fat in metric) and haven't found anything in MJER so far that's impractical for my size. I use a longer blade than some, but not as long as others, I've actually used anything from about 2.45 to 2.7 without too much trouble adjusting, but prefer 2.6 shaku. So changes to me but not many changes in the art to accomodate to me. For others the art does change without too much fuss and bother. If you can't kneel down, you do the techniques standing, no big deal.

What about equipment changes?

If you change the trappings do you change the art? That's a bit of romance and conservatism coming in there I suspect. We all like things to stay the way we first learned them but in something like Kendo we've now seen graphite shinai, titanium men, and velcro closing hakama, the equipment is changing, like it or not. Is this going to have an effect on the spiritual aspects of kendo? I doubt if green hakama would have as much effect as changes in the rules or in judging, or the massive influx of competitors and funding if kendo becomes an olympic sport.

Any proof that the old arts are changeless battlefield arts?

I don't have any direct evidence, but I will argue from example.

Many people express doubts that kendo is a combat effective weapon art and claim that the old sword schools are, usually by stating that the old schools have a lot more techniques and a lot more, or different targets. I would invite people to wander over to EJMAS and look at some of the articles we have there on Western sword arts and the walking stick as self defence. A good example is a Journal of Western Martial Art article where Robert Lovett analyses Fiore Dei Liberi and points out that you have an attack, a counter and sometimes a counter to the counter but that's about it. Combat is generally rolling around on the ground after that point, or re-set and starts again. The cane articles are usually very practical and contain extremely few techniques, learn a couple well and go at it.

Most telling though are the wartime bayonet courses which generally are "block, thrust, get back"

My point is that during wartime when you need the most combat effective arts, they get very simple, during periods of peace, combat arts done for recreation tend to get more complex.

I once started gathering information on western knife fighting to check this theory, manuals from WWII tend to have few techniques and an emphasis on targets, as you get to more modern texts you start to see more and more targets, more complex approach moves, and a somewhat less clear and clean theoretical underpinning as you get various "outside" influences on the author.

I wander... kendo is a very simple art with few targets but those targets are the correct ones for unarmoured fighting with weapons. Hit the head or thrust the throat to end the fight, hit the wrist to disarm, hit the body to check.

DON'T go for the legs unless you've got a longer weapon than your opponent (like a naginata) since you'll simply get hit on the head for your troubles.

People often unfavourably compare kendo to the Filipino arts since those have lots of fancy movements and multiple targets and whatnot. I know a top Canadian kendoka who also did arnis, and asked him once if he ever used any of the arnis in his kendo. The answer was no, but that if he wanted to hit his partner when doing arnis he simply did "men".

When facing an opponent with a stick or sword what can be more important to learn than "opening-hit" the instinct to hit a target the instant it becomes open.

Kendo sensei with a walking stick vs robber with a knife... who would you pick. If I wanted to learn how to actually fight with sticks I'd be doing kendo I think.

So a competitive art like kendo has pared down the multitude of techniques over the years to, admittedly, those that fit the rules. Wartime weapon training also tends to be very concentrated with few techniques and few targets. The further away from competition or war, the more complex the art seems to become, so by using this reasoning, I would suggest that the old sword schools have indeed changed, and that they have got more complex over the years with more techniques covering more theoretical situations.

Change happens.

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Physical Training Feb 2008