Physical Training Mar 2013
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From the Teacher's Corner 28:

copyright © 2013 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

I feel I must put this little note in before I begin. And that is to state that the following article (and any articles I write in fact) in no way represents any official stance by anyone or any organization. As a writer, I like to speculate on events or issues, to bring them up for the audience to chew on and ponder. These types of articles should be thought of as purely that: speculation and conjecture, for fun and frolic and in some cases to force the reader to do some mental gymnastics. As a writer, sometimes I want to challenge the prevailing view, sometimes to reinforce it, sometimes to shock the reader, sometimes to entertain. So, I just wanted to clarify my outlook and approach when I have my writer’s hat on.


All things become obsolete. One of my students cannot watch any movie from the 80’s. They are too obsolete. The special effects are too rudimentary. The technology displayed is too primitive. It’s like the Stone Age compared to what is displayed now, 30 some-odd years later. From a certain perspective, I must agree. Movies from the 80’s really look dated now. But it’s funny, we both grew up during that time. I can still appreciate the creative genius in some of the great movies from that time, like the John Hughes movies (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles) and the Spielberg movies (the Back to the Future series, E.T., the Indiana Jones series), to name some famous ones. When I was growing up, the technology in those movies was cutting edge. Now, it is an anachronism. Time marches forward and technology evolves and keeps on evolving.

Remember the old Mac II? Now it’s The New iPad. Big, old desktop models are now in museums. Tablets are the in-thing.

Whilst I was practicing kenjutsu one day, this same thought popped into my head. At our dojo, we practice both Yagyu Shinkage Ryu and Katori Shinto Ryu. As is common knowledge, Yagyu Shinkage Ryu traces its roots back to Katori Shinto Ryu. Katori Shinto Ryu is the ancestor, the parent art, from which Yagyu Shinkage Ryu evolved. Why is this important? Well, let’s explore it.

Everything comes from something before it.

Modern Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, the species that mastered the control of fire and the creation of advanced cutting tools. Homo erectus and Homo ergaster both evolved from Homo habilis (the species that first left Africa and spread to Europe and Asia, and the species in which we first see evidence of the use of stone tools). Homo habilis had itself evolved from Australopithecus, the species that achieved full bipedalism and loss of body hair.
* see: Human evolution

Every generation builds upon the achievements of the previous generation.

First, we moved on all fours. Then we evolved to bipedalism, or walking on two feet. Our ancestors climbed trees. But with a more terrestrial lifestyle, this prompted an adaptation in the form of reduced digit length. In Homo habilis, we see the evolution of the fully opposable thumb and with this giant leap forward came the advanced grasping-capable hand and the precision grip.* With the precision grip, that is when we find the early development of stone tools.
* see: Precision Grip

Each new iteration improves upon the advances of the previous iteration.

With the grip, the upright walking thus freeing the hands, and a larger brain (greater encephalization), early hominids would learn to find and use tools. First, we used simple tools* such as a sharp rock, bone, or a stick.
* see: Human evolution: Use of tools

Sharp rock cuts. Let’s sharpen the rock to a fine edge. This equals rudimentary knife. Sharpened stick equals javelin or rudimentary spear. Sharp rock plus stick. Sharp rock tied onto end of stick equals better spear. Well, you can imagine where this discussion is headed.

Homo erectus was a “tool-equipped savannah dweller”. Then they eventually learned how to smelt ore. That signalled the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age. With the technological discovery of bronze, all sorts of weapons became invented. Starting from the basic dagger gradually evolved longer daggers which became the sword.*
* see: Bronze Age sword

After the Bronze Age came the Iron Age. I am not here to lecture on the history of technology but you get the picture. In human evolution, the trend is that later generations improve upon the technological gains of the former generations. Each new iteration improves upon the advances of the previous iteration. In mathematical parlance, they call it successive approximations. Technically speaking, it is a problem-solving model or process that sees the ultimate achievement of the problem as the result of a series of successions of approximations, each building upon the one preceding it.

Let’s put it into the context of what I’m getting at. To create a better bladed weapon, you approach it through a series of successive approximations. Sharp stone becomes stone or flint arrow head. This becomes longer to become a flint dagger. Once we can smelt ore, the flint dagger becomes a bronze dagger. Once we learn we can shape the bronze into any configuration we desire, we can make it longer, more pointy, sharper. Hence, the development of the sword.

Each new iteration improves upon the advances of the previous iteration.

To create a better swordfighting style, you approach it through a series of successive approximations. Let’s look at a common example. In old times, they believed that you needed a lot of kamae*. Kamae are like a castle. You can’t get me in my castle. You’d have to break through my walls or break down my walls to get me. I am immovable. I am unassailable. I am strong. I can hold you off.
* defensive postures like gedan, sha/wakigamae, jodan, chudan or seigan, in/yo or hasso, etc…

Placing a great deal of importance on the attitudes of the long sword is a mistaken way of thinking… The reason is that this has been a precedent since ancient times…

Attitudes are for situations in which you are not to be moved. That is, for garrisoning castles, battle array, and so on, showing the spirit of not being moved even by a strong assault. In the Way of duelling, however, you must always be intent upon taking the lead and attacking. Attitude is the spirit of awaiting an attack. You must appreciate this.

Miyamoto Musashi
The Wind Book, A Book of Five Rings

Here, substitute “attitude” with “kamae”. Musashi is right. Kamae are for awaiting an attack, for showing strength, and for forcing the opponent to attack to a certain side or towards a certain opening. Musashi is also correct in observing that this type of thinking was a vestige of the ancient ways of thinking about swordsmanship. But the thinking changed and evolved toward the mid- to late 1500’s.

Whereas previous styles had 10-15 kamae in their repertoire (e.g., Katori Shinto Ryu), newer styles eschewed these. Musashi boiled his style down to five attitudes only (upper, middle, lower, left, and right). Other styles like Yagyu Shinkage Ryu dispensed with kamae altogether, regarding them more or less as archaic and obsolete from a tactical perspective.

Where older styles would wait for your attack from a certain kamae, parry it, and then respond to your attack, newer styles which cropped up at around the beginning of the Edo Period shifted their thinking. Instead of a reactive approach (waiting for an attack, parrying it, and then responding to it), the newer styles favoured taking the initiative and taking the fight to the enemy, a much more aggressive and proactive approach. Waiting for an attack, and successfully parrying it is fine… if you guess right. If you guess wrong or the opponent does something contrary to what you expected, you are dead. A dicey situation to be sure. In many ways, you don’t control your own destiny very much.

Musashi alerted us to the danger inherent in too reactive an approach:

The sure Way to win thus is to chase the enemy around in a confusing manner, causing him to jump aside, with your body held strongly and straight… By their study of strategy, people of the world get used to countering, evading, and retreating as the normal thing. They become set in this habit, so can easily be paraded around by the enemy. The Way of strategy is straight and true. You must chase the enemy around and make him obey your spirit.

Miyamoto Musashi
The Wind Book, A Book of Five Rings

If you think of it in kendo terms, it is similarly difficult to await an attack and to be able to parry it successfully. There are just too many possible things the opponent can choose to do.

The subject of the previous chapter – the universal desire for relative numerical superiority – leads to another desire, which is consequently no less universal: that to take the enemy by surprise… Surprise therefore becomes the means to gain superiority, but because of its psychological effect it should also be considered as an independent element… The two factors that produce surprise are secrecy and speed.

Carl von Clausewitz
On War
Book 3, Chapter 9

What is Clausewitz talking about? He is saying that it is the advantage of the attacker in that he controls those two crucial elements: secrecy (e.g., you don’t know what he is going to do) and speed of the attack (i.e., I think of it more in terms of the timing; the attacker controls when the attack will come so the defender is never sure when it will come). That makes it very difficult from the tactical perspective of the defender to predict what the attacker will do: when is the attack coming and how is it coming? Styles that base their tactics on reactive response theoretically will have a hard time dealing with any attack of a high-calibre.

So, I believe that later styles changed their approach (and this is only my personal opinion and conjecture). In this example from Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, we see the shift in thinking from reactive to proactive:

Whatever else may be said, the point of swordsmanship is to win – by trying various moves and by constantly changing...

Yagyu Munenori
Heiho Kaden Sho

So, in other words, not waiting for an attack. Instead, let’s initiate the action, even if it is only mental. Munenori also talks about “constantly changing”. In other words, he means no fixed stance. The Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) taught us this. Fixed emplacements are a thing of the past. The same is true of fixed formations, like in the Napoleonic times. They are easy to target and easy to take out. A mobile force is much more difficult to track and pin down and stop. Lessons from the engagement of the US and British armor in the Gulf War showed how devastating superior mobility (faster acceleration, faster top speed, superior maneuverability) can be. It is the modern equivalent of mounted cavalry. Excellent generals like Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, and Genghis Khan realized the importance of mobility.

Fixed stances (i.e., kamae), once the battlefield fighting was largely over, became obsolete in the new reality of one-on-one or one-on-a few duels and fights in the urban scenario (in a teahouse, in an alleyway, at an intersection in the town, etc…). There is no more armour, there are no big open spaces, no more big, heavy weapons. Mobility and fluidity now become paramount.

The opening kamae in the majority of the kata in Ono-ha Itto Ryu typically are gedan or chudan. In Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, there is mu-gamae (the stance of no stance, I guess you could call it). However, the uchi-dachi predominantly adopts chudan or seigan (akin to hira-seigan in Ono-ha Itto Ryu or kendo) as opening positions. The Edo Period styles have pared down the kamae to a few basic or generic ones.

Each new iteration improves upon the advances of the previous iteration.

Let’s take another example: cutting. In older styles, we see the prevalence of a multitude of cuts. Some famous examples include a maki-uchi, yokomen, do giri, ogasumi, sune giri, kesa giri, gyaku kesa giri, and the list goes on and on. 10, 15 different types of cuts. And of course, some designed to cut at openings in armour. But once armour became obsolete, so go the diversity of cuts. Why do you need 15 different cuts now? You don’t. In the Edo styles (Ono-ha Itto Ryu, Yagyu Shinkage Ryu among others), you see a paring down of the multiplicity of cuts to one cut or a few cuts. One cut, one slash, if it connects, is going to do some serious damage. It doesn’t matter where.

I think it is held in other schools that there are many methods of using the long sword in order to gain the admiration of beginners. This is selling the Way. It is a vile spirit in strategy.
Anyway, cutting down the enemy is the way of strategy, and there is no need for many refinements of it.

Miyamoto Musashi
The Wind Book, A Book of Five Rings

The multiplicity theory is dead. One cut is all you need. Ono-ha Itto Ryu? Kiri-otoshi. One cut. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu? Hakka hissho. One cut. One cut to rule them all…

Alongside the multiplicity of cuts viewpoint is the multiplicity of targets aimed for. My contention is that the paring down of the multiplicity of cuts also reduced the number of targets aimed for. Where you needed a multiplicity of cuts was in the context of armoured encounters where you could not count on one cut dispatching the opponent. You might have to take him apart piece by piece. Because of the helmet and shoulder boards and breastplate, your chances of landing a decisive blow in one stroke diminish rapidly. Add to that the possibility that, on the battlefield, your sword could be dull or damaged or in some way unable to cut due to constant banging and clashing of blades with other opponents as you try to fend off or advance through the hordes of the enemy rank and file. Hence, a multiplicity of cuts may be necessary. Different strokes for different occasions.

But my contention is that in the Edo times, with peace and the gradual reduction of battlefield encounters, a shift happened in the thinking about targets as well. In street brawls and urban fights, with no armour, you only need one cut. Consequently, you also don’t need a lot of different targets. Hit the hand or hit the head. That will end the fight quickly enough. With only one or at most two targets, you only need one type of cut. In this case, it really is a stroke for all seasons.

In Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, it is either the head or the fist. In Ono-ha Itto Ryu, it is the same: head (men) or wrist (kote) predominantly.

Every generation builds upon the achievements of the previous generation AND in so doing, renders the previous generation obsolete.

The styles of the Sengoku Period (the Warring States Period) employed big, wide stances, deep stances, frequent use of han-mi (body held sideways), big movements from side-to-side. For example, in cutting yokomen (side of head) or do-giri (side of waist), they would employ a big wind-up and move the body from one side to the other. Big, physical actions: jumping in, jumping out, crouching, moving to one side, moving to the other side, twisting, twirling, springing up, lunging in, etc… They can come at you from the sides, they can come at you from below, from all angles and trajectories. Very athletic, the agility required being very physically taxing.

Methods apart from these five – hand twisting, body bending, jumping out, and so on, to cut the enemy – are not in the true Way of strategy. In order to cut the enemy you must not make twisting or bending cuts. This is completely useless. In my strategy, I bear my spirit and my body straight, and cause the enemy to twist and bend.

Miyamoto Musashi
The Wind Book, A Book of Five Rings

Edo Period styles were much more compact, movements kept to a minimum. Any turns were rotations on a pivot but the emphasis was on staying centred, controlling the center. Actions were more energy efficient, conservative. Movement direction was much more linear, forward and back. Stances more upright, more frontal. Big and flamboyant moves wasted a lot of energy and were too obvious, too easy to defeat. They were also impractical in an alleyway, on a flight of stairs, in a hallway, in an enclosed room, anywhere in fact where you have walls and nowhere to run to. The battlefield now was in the towns and cities, in the intersections and in the various establishments in a town, in the backstreets, in someone’s front yard or rock garden, or on a bridge. The shift occurred to a more centred approach, less grandiose movements. This excerpt from Musashi illustrates well the unique conditions of fighting in urban scenarios:

In buildings, you must stand with the entrance behind you or to your right. Make sure your rear is unobstructed, and that there is free space on your left…
When the fight comes, always endeavour to chase the enemy around to your left side. Chase him towards awkward places, and try to keep him with his back to awkward places. When the enemy gets into an inconvenient position, do not let him look around, but conscientiously chase him around and pin him down. In houses, chase the enemy into thresholds, lintels, doors, verandas, pillars, and so on, again not letting him see his situation.

What’s the significance of this?

Conditions change, circumstances change, and evolve, which make previous understandings obsolete.

An interesting thought. Let’s look at a common example, the situation where you have a series of blocks or parries, for instance. In some of the kata of some old styles, you will see 2 or 3 blocks in quick succession. Block waist, block head, block waist. Or block head, block wrist, block waist. Will it happen? Maybe, but here we must think of the circumstances carefully.

Conditions change, circumstances change…

If we are wearing armour, this slows you down. If you’ve ever worn armour, it is heavy and awkward and your movements are severely restricted. The increased protection comes with a price: reduced mobility and agility. It’s a trade-off. You want more mobility? Take off the armour. So, if we are both wearing armour, with our speed reduced, the opponent’s cuts will come a bit slower. In this circumstance, three blocks in quick succession may be possible. Without armour, it’s too fast in real-time.

Take another example. In some old styles, we see the lifting of the opponent’s sword out of the way to open up a line of attack. Physically lifting the enemy’s sword up and pushing it off to the side or lifting it up so that when the opponent brings it back down into chudan, he will expose his wrist. Without the issue of armour, it doesn’t make much sense.

So, there you have just two examples of some of the techniques and ideas of some of the older styles that I believe became prehistoric once the circumstances and conditions of their creation became a thing of the past.

So what is my point with all this discussion?

There are people who study only one style and become immersed in it, naturally. And of course, those devotees will come to see swordsmanship only through that one lens. If you are hinging your success in a swordfight on the lessons learned through only one lens, this is a dangerous and precarious assumption.

It is difficult to know yourself if you do not know others.
Miyamoto Musashi

As I said at the start of this article, at our dojo, we practice both Yagyu Shinkage Ryu and Katori Shinto Ryu. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu traces its roots back to Katori Shinto Ryu. Katori Shinto Ryu is the ancestor, the parent art. Why is this important?

To know the child, it is beneficial to know the parent. My teacher, Kajitsuka Sensei, remarked to me that we are in a unique position in that we know the parent. We will understand the child in a wholly different way than someone who knows only the child but has never known the parent.

Likewise, in kendo, those kendo practitioners who also study Ono-ha Itto Ryu will likely have an appreciation and understanding of kendo far superior and more encompassing than the regular kendo practitioner. The serious ones do the research; the ones who want a deeper understanding of their art. At Sasamori Sensei’s dojo in Japan (Ono-ha Itto Ryu), I saw many kendo teachers there.

As a school teacher, each year, I meet the parents of the children I teach at parent-teacher interviews. Where I only knew the child before, once I meet the parents … ah ha, now I understand the child. And surprisingly enough, conversely, from knowing the child, from knowing his strengths and weaknesses and quirks and foibles, now I know something about the parents too.

Confucius say: To know the child, you need to know the parent. To know more about the parent, know about the child. Knowing all this, you will see the evolution of the species.

And why things are the way they are…

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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