Kano Jigoro was a unique martial arts figure. Born into a financially stable family in the sake business, Kano had access to certain societal perks from a young age. One perk that he put to great use was education. A student of classic literature, philosophy, and pedagogy, Kano quickly became one of the bright minds of his day. Amongst his regular studies, he dedicated much of his life to the pursuit of Jujitsu.
A man skilled in both martial arts and philosophy was considered ideal by the Samurai in a post-warring-states Japan. What made Kano different than a typical warrior though was his ability to innovative teaching methods and push his ideas to the public.
Kano was born in 1860, coming into adulthood right as the Meiji Restoration was picking up steam. One of the key elements of the Meiji Restoration was an “opening of doors” to Japan, providing access and legal trade to outside nations. While many Japanese citizens and lawmakers resisted the idea of mingling with foreigners, Kano saw it as an opportunity to grow. Not only did Kano do significant work to get Judo and Kendo involved in the Japanese school systems, he was constantly looking for opportunities to enhance and empower Japanese culture as it related to the outside world.
In 1879 President Ulysses S. Grant embarked upon a worldwide goodwill tour and visited the Emporer of Japan. While there, Grant witnessed a Jujitsu demonstration, of which Kano played a part. This demo sparked an interest in Jujitsu and Judo which quickly worked its way back to the U.S. Professors and men of influence in the United States began traveling to Japan in order to train and invited Judo instructors to America in order to share some of their art.
The steady spread of Judo persisted throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s. Concurrently, in the early to mid 1900s karate was beginning to reveal itself to the outside world, including Japan. It was the combination of Judo’s existing popularity, karate’s early exposure, and war that ultimately brought the Okinawan fighting art to the United States.
1. Judo Inspires and Intrigues a Young Generation
In the 1920s through the 1940s a generation of young Americans were born into a world that possessed ready access to The Far East. They might not have realized it, but just a few short years before their birth Japan had been a completely closed country wherein visitors without express permission to dock could be executed on sight. However, to the youth of the 20’s-40’s a new and interesting sport was working it’s way from Japan, often through Hawaii, and into the United States. It was Judo, and with the skills of Judo, it was said, a small man could toss about a much larger man with ease.
Men such as Yamashita Yoshitsugu, Tomita Tsunejiro, Maeda Mitsuyo, and more had been teaching and putting on demonstrations for a number of years in the US. Judo was even seeping into pop culture as professional wrestling demonstrations frequently featured mysterious Judo players with inexplicable skills.
Young men and women of this generation grew up with a sense of mystique surrounding the Asian fighting arts and wondered if they too could master these methods. When World War II struck a number of men were sent overseas. After the conclusion of the war many of these men were stationed in Japan as peacekeepers. It was during that time they had an opportunity to search for Judo. Directly after World War II America had placed a “Peace Clause” on Japan, disarming them and quelling many activities that were seen as martial in nature. However, Judo was deemed more of a sport than a fighting art and so it was allowed to stay. In addition, karate had been integrated into the University system and also adapted to be a sport. The American servicemen in Japan, while looking for Judo, sometimes found karate instead.
From the time of World War II all the way to the Cold War and eventually the Vietnam War, American men were sent to Okinawa to maintain peace and prepare for combative engagement. These men also sought out Judo. There was Judo to be had on Okinawa, but karate was in even more abundance. It was that initial generation of servicemen, both in Japan and Okinawa, that truly started the birth of karate in America when they returned home from duty.
2. Judo Provides a Framework for Schools
When the American servicemen returned from Japan and Okinawa they were rarely well-off in terms of finances. They had earned a living while in the service, but it was still difficult to secure a large building to train in. As a result, the much more established Judo locations proved enticing both in terms of cost and accessibility.
There are many examples of some of the earliest karate pioneers borrowing time and space inside of Judo halls. In the Vine Street Dojo in Cincinnati both Harvey Eubanks and William Dometrich established their programs. Chris DeBaise, a protege of Peter Urban, taught Chuck Merriman inside the dojo of “The Judo Twins” in New York City. The examples are plentiful, and there can be no question that the facilities established by Judo helped karate in its earliest stages.
3. Judo Lays the Groundwork for Competition
Karate in the United States has grown in two primary ways, one as a traditional means of self defense, the other as a sport. The impact of competition karate was immense throughout the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s. While it has tapered in its cultural impact, tournaments and competitions are still an important part of karate’s culture. Judo helped set the scene for that development.
In 1953 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) created its First National Judo Championships in San Jose, California. Judo had been a staple in smaller contests throughout the American University system and was creating well attended, well operated events. Meanwhile, at that time, there were barely more than handful of operating karate schools in the United States. In 1946 Robert Trias had started his fledgling program down in Arizona. Other pioneers like Ed Parker, Cecil Patterson, and more would come later, but by the time they were established Judo was already operating at a nationwide level.
When pioneers like Trias ultimately organized and staged their own events, there was a strong example set by the Judo governing bodies. This was important not only as a guidepost for the likes of Trias, but also as a precedent for the American government in how to handle Asian martial arts in a sporting arena. Before Judo, homegrown combative sports like boxing and wrestling were the primary focus. Judo broke the ice and proved that a foreign art could sustain massive appeal.
It can be funny to think about how young karate is internationally. We think of it as a practice rooted in generations of tradition (which it is), and yet it is still in a state of growth and experimentation. Some of the earliest pioneers of the karate in the West are still with us, and for that we are thankful. We as karateka should also be thankful for the tireless work of those Judo players who came over from Japan, braving a new world to share their art. We should also remember the early American Judo players who had the courage and curiosity to take on a different culture, get thrown around countless times, and share what they learned with the world.
“The Art of the Japanese Sword” is an extensive tour through the methods of sword creation, preservation, and appreciation. More than that, it is a celebration of the creativity and dedication of a culture in refining a tool of war into an implement of extreme philosophical and aesthetic beauty.
In this review I would like to present the contents of the book as well as its pros and cons as a title. I will give my opinions on whether or not it is worth the investment, and provide links for those interested in learning more.
What’s In the Book?
This book is broken up into five major sections exploring different aspects of the Japanese sword. The sections are as follows:
* Kansho – Appreciating the sword
* Rekishi – History
* Tamahagane and the Tatara – Traditional steel making
* Sakuto – Making the sword
* Finishing the Sword – Polishing, habaki, and saya
Japanese martial arts are known for their extreme attention to detail and extensive usage of etiquette. The katana is the most revered of all weapons and as such features no shortage of etiquette in its handling. Many people do not realize that even in the viewing of a blade there are correct and incorrect methods of handling. These subtle matters are important philosophically as attention to them reflects a person’s own character and understanding of the art of the sword. Small etiquette techniques can also help the viewer in comprehending minor but important details in the sword itself, such as weight, balance, construction method, reflectivity, and more. The first chapter is entirely dedicated to educating the reader on these matters.
The rest of the chapters are just as detailed in their coverage. High quality pictures are used throughout to add historical context to the work as well as demonstrate to the reader the differences in sword construction described by the expert authors Yoshindo Yoshihara, Leon Kapp, and Hiroko Kapp.
All aspects of the katana, down to the most minute portions of the blade and furniture, are done with careful attention. By comparing and contrasting the different styles, “The Art of the Japanese Sword” provides the reader with a rare glimpse into the painstaking precision of the sword making process.
Book Pros and Cons
Pros: This book spares no expense in terms of production quality. It utilizes a thick paper stock and glossy print due to the high number of images. Many of the images are generously sized and in clear resolution, making this one of the most visually interesting books ever made on the Japanese sword. The design and structure of the information presented is also well done, utilizing easy to read fonts and digestable organization. A book with this much content could easily become overwhelming or boring, but this book manages to avoid those issues through clever usage of color and images.
The level of informational detail is probably the strongest aspect of this book. I have personally been studying Kenjutsu for about eight years and there are a lot of details and subtleties brought up in this text that I was not fully aware of. It was enlightening and a resource that I suspect I will come back to frequently as my understanding of the Japanese sword continues to grow.
Cons: The level of detail in this book may be considered overwhelming or tedious by some. This book is not a thrilling adventure, filled with stories of Samurai and test cuts that penetrate multiple bodies. This book does not deal much in the intrigue and mysticism that draws many people toward the Samurai. That being said, if you are interested in the nitty gritty details of hours upon hours of extreme focus and labor that goes into the creation of a sword, this book will show you the way.
Final Thoughts and Where to Buy
Most of my martial arts books are used for research and personal development. I mark them up, put sticky notes in them, and otherwise abuse them. Not this book. I find myself handling “The Art of the Japanese Sword” very gingerly, carefully scrolling through pages as I appreciate the images and information. I realize now the intentional effort put into this title – it’s own beauty and refinement reflecting the nature of its source material. I intend to have this book on display either in my home or in my dojo.
The price point is, in my opinion, very reasonable for the quality of the book. If you are a Kenjutsu lover, someone looking to understand the fine details of sword construction and etiquette, this book might be for you. Click the link below to learn more:
Sparring with short weapons for the first time can be a jarring experience, especially when facing longer implements like bo, shinai (bamboo sword), or spear. Kata and pre-arranged drills can teach good handling and combinations, but when the opponent is live and aggressive short weapons can feel a little lacking.
One of the first things students usually realize when they take up short weapons in a sparring environment is that the opponent rarely hangs around long enough for combinations to work as planned. They find themselves poked, prodded, and otherwise harassed while catching nothing but air with their own attacks. One of the most common end results when watching a match such as this is an agitated small weapon user, slowly losing ground until they decide to execute a full out bum rush into short distance range. They usually get in, but only after taking two or three solid shots on the way. Of course, if it weren’t for the padding and control of the opponent the small weapon user would have been severely injured before completing their attack run.
Having been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment and seeing it happen to others, I know one of the most common mistakes small arm practitioners make– living too long in the dead zone.
What is the Short Weapon Dead Zone?
Most martial artists are used to setting distance in empty hand sparring. Typical distance for sparring is just about close enough for the lead hand of both contenders to touch when extended. Hitting the body or head of the opponent would require an aggressive step inward, allowing the defender an opportunity to react (theoretically).
When using a short weapon such as tonfa it feels as if the distance should be set the same way. However, that empty hand sparring distance is almost exactly the ideal distance for a bo user to strike without needing excessive body movement. The end result is unfortunate for the tonfa user – getting hit swiftly and with little warning.
Take a quick look at the picture below. Observe the standard distance set between the bo user on the left and the tonfa user on the right.
If you look specifically at the black tonfa figure, you’ll notice he/she is in typical fighting distance for empty hand (roughly). However, you will also observe that the action end of the bo is already in range to strike. A clever bo user will keep their opponent in this range for as long as possible.
Understanding Superior Zones
Look again at the image above. The shadowy gray tonfa figures show two zones where the tonfa user is no longer at prime risk. The farther out figure has an action end of the tonfa near the end of the bo. Although this will likely feel far away to the tonfa user, it is actually the ideal passive distance for him/her to set.
On the other hand, the close in shadow shows the ideal active distance. Although the tonfa user is still at risk, he/she is in prime location to do direct damage to the bo user. Once the dead zone of the bo is penetrated the short weapon user, with duel weapons and quicker manipulative speeds, is at a distinct advantage.
If the tonfa user is able to acquire either of these zones, the fight should be more manageable. Of course, that begs the question, how does one go from the passive outside distance zone to the close action zone? It inevitably requires moving through the dead zone.
Moving Through the Dead Zone
At first most small weapon users try the same tactic for penetrating the dead zone. They wait for an attack, try to block, and then rush into their opponent. Unfortunately, a bo or sword can be retracted at exceptional speeds and the small weapon user tends to eat multiple attacks on the way in. This is generally where an over-reliance on pre-arranged drills do a disservice to the student. A tonfa user may be in the habit of blocking, then swinging in retaliation, and finishing with a punch or swinging strike. Unfortunately, when attempting kumite (sparring), as soon as the block is made the bo user is retracting and striking again. The short weapon user tends to find themselves gaining no ground.
There are multiple tactics that can be used to avoid this core problem, but I’d like to share three in particular: simultaneity, sticking, and braving the gap.
Eventually most good empty hand fighters discover that if they block and counterattack at the exact same moment they tend to have better results. The same goes for weapons, especially if you happen to have two of your particular implement (sai, tonfa, tecchu, etc). There’s an added twist with small weapons work though. As the long weapon attacks, the defender needs to have an aggressive inward movement. The small weapons user needs to engage forward at the same time as the attacker, thus cutting the distance in a surprising fashion. This can be difficult because it requires moving deeply into an attack.
In Okinawa tode and kobudo we use the term “muchimi”, or stickiness. It is the essence of making contact with an opponent and maintaining that contact so as to better feel their intentions and manipulate their body and balance. Muchimi is more difficult to execute with weapons due to the unusual angles and hard deflections of the implements, however it is still very possible to achieve. Instead of hard blocking as a small weapons user, one can instead block-and-trap or parry-and-follow in order to keep contact with the aggressors implement. As a result, the small weapon user can “ride” the longer weapon as the opponent attempts to free it or retract it.
Braving the Gap
I often call tonfa and other short implements “weapons of bravery”. The movements required to make them effective demand complete resolve and commitment. A tentative attack or half-hearted leap will inevitably be deflected, dismissed, or suppressed. Braving the gap means waiting for a moment of over-confidence or laziness in the opponent’s defense and then completely cutting through the dead zone with a leap or short dash. This of course is one of the highest risk tactics but when effective can completely overwhelm the opponent.
It’s important not to confuse braving the gap with simply running in with abandon. Braving the gap requires pinpoint control of distance, waiting patiently in the passive distance range until the opponent reveals him/herself.
A Piece of the Puzzle
Distance control is only one piece of the combative puzzle. Timing, angling, psychology, and technique all play a factor. Not to mention, this article assumes combative engagements begin with a chance to establish distance (ignoring the reality of surprise attacks). Of course, that is one of the natural weaknesses of sparring, and the value in diversifying training. That being said, there is no feeling quite like having a bo or sword swung at you with unpredictable and focused intent.
One Final Note
As a weapons practitioner gets more experience the zones mentioned above tend to get tighter. The difference between the dead zone and passive zone can seem almost imperceptibly small, especially to the opponent. When this occurs, the opponent tends to swing, fully expecting to hit their target but missing just slightly. It requires a masterful understanding of the opponent’s length, technique availability, and mental intent to control distance in this manner. A worthy goal to strive for!