Building a martial arts method IX

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Building a martial arts method IX

The kendo body

Many martial arts practitioners think that a kendo shinai, which weighs about 500 g, must be light and therefore easy to handle. I thought so too. But I soon found I was wrong, because a half-kilo shinai gets very heavy  when you start using it in combat, especially with an opponent who is better than you. A change of 50 g upwards or downwards makes a huge difference and your attack or defence action varies according to your perception of the weight of the shinai.
This prejudice of mine stood like a wall in front of me. In working to overcome it, I came to see the practice of kendo in a different way. The same was true of kenjutsu, Japan’s classical sword art.
To form an opinion about sword art, you have to understand that a true Japanese sword is much heavier than a bamboo one (shinai) – particularly the sword used in the feudal war period (15th to 16th centuries) and at the beginning of the Edo period (17th century).  This latter sword was three times heavier than a shinai, if not more. So even if you learn to handle a shinai or a bokuto (wooden sword) with ease, there is no guarantee that you can do the same with a real sword.

Additionally, there are a few rare masters of contemporary kendo who, at the age of 80, still know how to employ their undeniable capabilities in combat with the shinai. This is due not only to their technical ability based on long experience, but also to the physical capacities they have built up.
“One such 8th dan master over the age of 80 is diminished in strength and suppleness, and must ask one of his students to help him tie the laces on the back of his armour. But once he has his shinai in his hands, he can bring great force to combat with penetrating sword strikes and with a body (tai-atari) that can knock his opponent backwards.”
I have heard this same type of comment many times.

I think that this physical capacity depends on a range of qualities: the person’s physical strength, the strength of his ki (qi), his physical and perceptive powers which are constructed through the practice of a discipline. This set of qualities constitutes one’s second physical capacity.
The tai chi body is also a  body specifically formed by the practice of the method of that discipline, which forms a second physical capacity.

The samurai body and the jujutsu body

As for kendo, everything depends on the way you train and the objectives you’ve set. There are many people skilled in the form of competition combat, which is conducted according to certain rules. You attack your opponent’s head (men), but he leans to one side. Your strike touches the base of his neck or his shoulder, just as you receive a blow on  the wrist. Your strike doesn’t count, but his blow to your wrist does. You have lost and he has won….
In modern-day kendo, the tsuki (piercing) attack is restricted to the throat, a very limited target. The idea behind this limitation is important, because if you can manage to touch the small area of the throat, it means that you could also easily touch other, broader parts of the body.

This requirement for the aggressor creates in the defender an attitude of not needing to worry about a “piercing” attack to the stomach or to the chest. But such technical negligence would be unthinkable in a real fight.
So everything depends on what you are striving for in your practice: being able to win a point within the framework of competition rules, or practicing as though you were in real combat.
There are numerous points where modern kendo strays from the values of budo. Nevertheless, I feel that kendo is one of the rare disciplines that preserve the possibility of approaching, studying and developing the fast-diminishing values of Japanese martial arts.

In kendo, there are still a few masters over 80 who are capable of completely dominating young practitioners in free kendo combat. Eighth dan kendo masters are in this category.
In many other martial art domains, high-level grades (7th, 8th or 9th dan) are awarded by secret vote. In this kind of system, political and administrative considerations as well as seniority count for a great deal in the awarding of grades, whereas high-level grades in kendo are granted following a rigorous exam in which the quality of one’s capacities in combat is what counts most.
I want to stress this fact, because during a rigorous exam, there is no room for trickery or the complicity that exists in a complacent examination, because these grades must really be deserved.
It is not only a question of earning points in combat, but of demonstrating one’s decisive qualities as a fighter. Accordingly, an 8 th dan in kendo must in all ways be superior in combat to a person of lower grade. The rigour of the grades system in kendo is its guarantee. If this requirement were allowed to lapse, kendo grades would lose their value. Fortunately, their value is being maintained, which is why all kendo practitioners respect high-level dans. This way, grades have meaning.
Can we say the same for other martial arts disciplines in which grades are awarded by secret ballot?



Kendo and the sword

Certain kenjutsu (classic sword) masters have been heard to say the following: “Anyone who fails to grasp the true weight and nature of the sword cannot understand the sword art of the samurai.”
I think they are right.
They further criticize modern kendo with words like the following:
“Kendo is not the way of the sword, but shinai kyogi: a sports version of shinai fencing.”
Still another criticism is this:
“The way people use the shinai, they could never beat an adversary with a real sword.”
I think this is true too.

I have attended trials where people attempt to “cut bamboo with a sword” (tameshi giri). Although some kendo masters managed to cut them well, other 6th or 7 th dan kendo masters failed to do so, which gives rise to the following criticism:
“Those who train without being able to handle a sword cannot hope to practice the art of the samurai. “
Or this other claim:
“The practice of kendo is not realistic, since it doesn’t teach you how to use a real sword.”
I think that they are wrong to judge kendo in this way. 
It is true that most kendokas have not had the experience of wielding a real sword. Why? Because doing so is not necessary in order to excel at rule-based kendo combat.

If people criticise kendo in this way, we would have to ask the following question: “What do you mean by ‘realistic’?”

If the practice of kendo aimed atthe skilful handling of a true sword, we could indeed say that it is not realistic. The great majority of kendokas have had no experience wielding a sword, but what is more, they don’t want to! These kendokas will undoubtedly never have an occasion to use a true sword in their entire career in kendo, although this will not keep them from becoming excellent kendokas.

Realizing this leads us to the following questions.
In our society, it is against the law to carry a real sword. And besides, very few people even own one, whereas we can legally arm ourselves with a cane to use as a walking stick. So which situation is the more realistic? Knowing how to use a sword that we will never have a chance to wear, or knowing how to handle a stick or cane effectively according to the technique of kendo?
I think it all depends on the goals of your practice.

Contrary to the criticisms we have just seen, I feel that modern kendo could be very effective and realistic, if certain points were revised. I think that if we trained and associated unarmed combat techniques -- hand and foot strikes, throws, holds and locks -- on the basis of kendo, we could come up with a very complete martial art.

This is exactly what the samurai used to practice.

Differences between the kendo body and the samurai body

Let’s return now to our subject.
For the samurai, learning the art of the sword was quite different from learning modern kendo. For them, sword practice was not only the art of using this weapon with skill. It had to be associated with a strength that would enable them to slice through their adversary. Such power could only come from a body trained in a specific way that is almost unknown in the practice of present-day kendo.

For example, adepts of the Jigen-ryu sword school trained daily striking a post stuck in the ground. They were said to practice striking the pole 3,000 times in the morning, and another 8,000 times in the afternoon. When I came to live in the country, I tried this exercise. Instead of a pole, I set up an innertube from an old tractor that a neighbouringfarmer gave me. From the first day, even before I’d struck fifty blows, my hands were already full of bleeding blisters. It took me several months before I was able to do a thousand strikes a day. “Only”a thousand.

This experience gave me a basis on which to form a small idea of what was meant by the drill of “striking with a baton”. I didn’t continue any further. It was enough to understand the sense of this exercise, since I had set my sights elsewhere.
In the Edo period (1603-1867), in the villages around Kagoshima (feudal domain of Satsuma in southern Japan), poles were set up for this purpose in different parts of the village. Since several long wooden sticks were used in each session, piles of them were placed at the foot of the posts for people to use. Anyone passing by, including peasants, could pick them up and do the drill.

The force of the Jigen-ryu sword strike was fearsome. In a confrontation with this school, adversaries were taught to avoid the first attack. “Don’t try to parry it,” they were told. “Above all, do not cross your sword with theirs. Your only chance of winning is by dodging their first attack.”
This anecdote calls into question a claim such as the following: “In swordsmanship, strength is not necessary, because the sword is extremely sharp”.

For another thing, since samurais had to behave as worthy warriors even if they couldn’t use theirsword, the technique of jujutsu was necessary. They are not actually two different disciplines, since swordsmanship entails the physical techniques that are the basis of jujutsu. In a way, jujutsu arose in parallel with the art of the sword, which is efficient when based on jujutsu.
So now we can pose a question regarding kendo. Couldn’t an equivalent of jujutsu be formed in working on shinai exercises in modern kendo? This is where we should note the difference between using a shinai and wielding a sword. We could ask the same question of kenjutsu (classical sword)practitioners.
The sword art formed the samurai’s body to make him capable of assuminghis obligations as a warrior. If a kendoka wants to practice swordsmanship as the art of the samurai, his practice should not be limited to the handling of a shinai. He must at least be able to transpose his skills into a more general physical technique. I think that the first thing he must ask himself is this: “What will I have left if I don’t have my shinai?” The samurai were able to practice other disciplinesby transposing to them all their skills in swordsmanship. Using the sword they formed a martial body, which in a way is the samurai body, and so were able to use both their weapons and their body efficiently.
This was not because the samurai had learned minutely diverse disciplines, but because their swordsmanshipentailed the formation of a particular kind of body – i.e., the samurai body.
It is at this level that we find a fundamental difference with modern-day kendo.

There are numerous jujutsu schools, each with different techniques, because they arose simultaneously from the martial activities of the samurai in different periods.
During the time of the feudal wars, a major problem for the warriors was that they had to fight with heavy armour on the fields of battle.The school of jujutsu created during this period developed a particular range of techniques. Instead of throwing his adversary, all a samurai had to do was pull his head back so that his neck would break due to the weight of his armour. In times of feudal peace when fighting took place in ordinary clothes, such a tactic would be replaced by a holding or throwing technique. And so techniques changed depending on the way of life in different periods.
The classical schools of jujutsu taught both unarmed and armed techniques: sword, spear, stick, cord, etc. All disciplines begin with unarmed techniques, as this is the starting point for all martial arts that use weapons.

The specific body

As we have seen, armed martial arts, including the sword art of the samurai, enabled them to form the martial body they were famous for. This physique provided them with the martial strength they needed to express themselves in both armed (sword) and unarmed combat.
For example, the subtle strength and way in which they were able to carry and handle a sword enabled them to seize the wrist, arm or body of their opponent to exert a pressure or torsion that would immobilize or throw him. A samurai was not a mere specialist who could not manage without his sword. Sword training enabled him to build the martial strength that could also be applied in other domains. So jujutsu was a supplement for their swordsmanship, and its development affected a physical principle of the samurai.

This is why the samurai had a way of walking that was so special and so difficult to hide. For example, even when they disguised themselves as normal town-dwellers, dressing, wearing their hair and successfully imitatingthe speech of people of this social order, it was very hard for them to disguise their hard-wired way of walking. That is, in the Edo period (1603-1867), one could tell just by watching how a person walked, what social class he or she belonged to.
This is expressed by the following terms: bushi-aruki“samurai walking”: walking with the handsheld in front of the hips and moving the same hip and shoulder together; hyakusho aruki“peasant walking”: leaning forward with the hands ready to carry a burden on the back or shoulder; shokunin aruki“craftsman walking”: moving easily as though on a scaffold carrying work tools; chonin aruki“merchant walking”: shuffling forward as though ready to lean on a counter.

Have you seen the film“The Last Samurai”?
The story of this film takes place during the time of the Seinan-senso (Seinan war) in 1877, when the samurai of the Satsuma domain(modern-day Kagoshima) rose up against the new Japanese government.The government emerged victorious thanks to its use of modern (Western) military force. Japan at that time was investing most of its energy in attaining two objectives: enriching the country through industrialisation and strengthening its armed forces.
This latter objective was closely linked to the system of education. Japan was already aware of the likelihood of future conflicts with China and Russia. Thanks to enormous national efforts, Japan would prove victorious in these two wars in 1895 and 1905 – an exceptional feat for a nation that had just emerged from feudalism. Western military marching became the model to follow in the national educational system.

From then on, all Japanese began to walk in the same way, no matter what class they came from. Samurai, peasants, craftsman and merchants all had to learn to walk in the European way. The European physical education system was adopted in compulsory schooling.
I have written this short summary in order to explain how the very different ways of walking of the Japanese people were finally unified. This means that there used to exist distinct physiques depending on a person’s social class, and that the samurai body was in itself a technical achievement.

I mentioned earlier the Jigen-ryu school of swordsmanship. In the film “The last Samurai”, the American actor Tom Cruise takes sword lessons and receives numerous blowsto the body. But in such a case, it would have been impossible for him to receive so many blows from a wooden sword, even during training, without being seriously injured, if not killed.

But after all, it was only a film.

To be continued...



Interesting websites

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Kenji Tokitsu's official website
Tokitsu-ryu Portugal
Dojo Lello. Tokitsu-ryu Suiza

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