Japanese Kenjutsu (Sword Arts of Japan)


My first experience with Japanese Kenjutsu was in 1975 at the ‘All East Coast Karate Championship’. It was one of the final demonstrations and listed as the high point of the tournament. The young Karate Master jumped out on the stage with a loud shout (kiai) and started to slash the sword in the air like he was cutting an imaginary opponent as he shouted. The demonstration lasted about 45 sec. and it was a blaze of steel and yelling. Then it suddenly stopped! The Springfield Civic center  was so quiet you could hear the popcorn crunching under our feet as we waited for the clapping, then there was a roar from the crowd and the Karate master received a standing ovation. I went home that night thinking about Japan and the Art of the sword.

I was only 17 at the time but it never left my mind. About 8 years later I was in Dayton, Ohio training with Grandmaster Dr. Hatsumi’s student Stephen K. Hayes. The class started with our bokken (wooden swords). I started to hold it like a baseball bat but Mr. Hayes soon showed us how to hold it correctly. Holding it like a baseball bat grip was very limiting and there was no flexibly to the movement. He started to lecture about the importance of getting a good feel of your basic taijutsu (Body Arts for Martial Arts) and then starting to move with the sword.

He had us try basic cutting in the air with our Ninpo Taijutsu, placing the sword in (kamae) positions that would be to our advantage when our physical and spiritual state was under stress from an attacker. This taught me a great deal about martial arts strategy. At the time the ‘Go Rin No Sho the Book of the Five Rings’ spoke about sword strategy and life. Mr. Hayes’ sword strategy which he learned from his teacher could be applied the same way to life but like all things in Martial Arts it had to be learned on the training floor with interaction with your training partner and a good teacher overseeing the process. In the old system of training in Japan things were understood via interaction and intuition. The deeper lessons and strategy were beyond words.

As a martial arts practitioner it is important to understand the history behind what you are studying, for example Kenjutsu. What does it mean to understand the sword and what it represents? If you consider the history of the blade it may mean the difference between life and death. Therefore the study of this particular art was never taken lightly. It was extremely serious. In today’s society we do not walk down the street with swords at our sides, however our mental discipline should be the same. The sword is not a glamorous toy to be slammed around in a dojo like what we see in the movies. The sword is a physical manifestation of the discipline of our thoughts. This is why the book Go Rin No Sho addressed the concept of strategy and life. In this way all of the learning that we acquire as students can be applied to all aspects of our life inside and outside of the dojo.

Introduction to Self Defense and Martial Arts

The arts of self-defense and martial arts are a study in human nature. If you look at why martial arts were created, you can begin to understand the base of primal human nature. Throughout time human beings had specific needs – whether it be to eat, sleep, shelter or defense. In our industrialized age these needs have not changed. We find ourselves protecting ourselves against local predators as well as global predators.

Self-defense developed out of a need for defense; these methods included studying not only physical but also psychological defense. There had to be a way to pass on thousands of years of personal and group defense in an orderly way. This became known as martial or war arts. These were generally passed on orally from tribe to tribe or family to family and in recent history (the last five or six hundred years) they were found documented in various kinds of media. This shows the serious nature of the study of personal protection over time. Without the passing on of information, these tribes or families were destined to repeat the same errors that occurred with their ancestors – loss of resources, life and in some cases whole generations. Whole civilizations were changed through the use and misuse of these arts.

What I’d like to talk about today is the base of self-defense that has not changed since time itself. Self-defense included things like awareness of the weather, political climate, resources, motivations and ambitions of the tribes or families. Today these have not changed. If one studies weather patterns, rain and snow tend to reduce, but not eliminate, crime on the street. The desire for money, narcotics, personal power are also all things that motivate the ambitions of a predator.

What we have to do as practitioners is create situations where the predator will have limited access or control to these things. If we go back, study and look at martial arts as they were passed on through history we can review the lessons of the ancestors or families of these systems and extract necessary information to keep us safe in today’s society. If we look at an ancient document of the Tenmonchimon as an example, it speaks of weather patterns, timing, movement and flow. So by extracting and studying this information from these old documents we can gain a perspective of personal protection that can only be acquired through the study of martial arts.

For instance timing: there are good times and bad times of the day to travel. Personal crimes like robberies, muggings, hold ups etc. tend to be less during rush hour when its very busy but a few hours before or an hour and a half after rush hour are times when the streets are vacant – everyone is at their destinations. These are times when the predators start to practice their crafts. Knowing about this timing can help us understand when good travel times are and when times tend to be riskier. We come home from work and find a robber has ransacked our house. If one just looks at the statistics put out by the justice department or by asking local law enforcements you will see that a majority of robberies occur during times when we are safely at work.

As you can see, we have only taken one element of traditional martial history (and just in this one example) we can notice how vast the application is to our daily activities. Remember that the first and most important point about self-defense or martial arts is reducing our vulnerabilities. By studying risk assessment we can get a true picture of how vulnerable we are and how safe we are. This has nothing to do with paranoia but only increasing our awareness. If we deny our vulnerabilities we open ourselves up for more danger. By assessing potential risk and addressing it we can live in more comfort because we can avoid the risk or danger. Martial arts address these risks.

Personal Safety and Control

by Mark Davis
Copyright © Boston Martial Arts, September 2002

Self-defense starts with the awareness of ones environment and awareness of the human body. The interaction of the two is a critical point to understand. When the environment changes and danger is present the body reacts to these changes, physiologically and emotionally. The response that happens is that adrenaline is released into the body which prepares muscles for what is commonly known as the fight or flight or adrenal response. This heightened state of alert is meant to prepare the body for emergencies, however due to the sudden dumping of adrenaline, people may have a different reaction altogether. Some people may even interpret this reaction as fear. In combat when the body first sees danger happening it prepares to protect itself and if during this preparation the mind and body are not operating together then a certain degree of confusion may arise. At this point the mind may not be prepared to deal with such an unfamiliar situation or unfamiliar physiological reaction. For example a person may loose control of their muscles and they may not be able to either run away or fight back. They may feel a sudden rush of blood and elevation of pulse rate which may hinder their breathing. In addition their vision may narrow due to the adrenal response. These are a few examples of possible occurrences.

Predatory behavior

The predator will exhibit certain characteristics in relation to the adrenal response. Predators tend to have more experience with the adrenal response than the average citizen, sometimes they call it a ‘rush’. Predators also know that if a certain situation presents danger to them to take flight. They will always look for easy targets, to lessen their chances of getting hurt in a confrontation. Predators know that their general surrounding environment is one that has to be watched carefully. Since a predator is aware of the potential of things changing in his disfavor, his rush or adrenal response might be one of violence. For example, he will show a weapon, yell or be very loud, pounce and hit or exhibit a variety of aggressive gestures.

The preparation for conflict using martial arts.

In martial arts there are specific ways to train in such a way that one can prepare for trouble. One of these important points is to understand that whether or not one is trained in martial arts, everybody is vulnerable to circumstances and unexpected events. When a martial artist prepares it is necessary to train the proper muscles for conflict and also train the mind in a proper fashion for conflict. The mind and body have to be able to act as one. This is called ki, generally known as the timing between the mind and the body. For example if the timing is off on a car engine it will not be able to function properly. The same is true of the body and mind, if they are not synchronized then a failure may result. When ones’ heartbeat suddenly increases narrowing the vision we interpret this as fear, in reality it is the body preparing itself for combat and allowing for a more focused vision. If properly trained this burst of sudden adrenaline could create masses of release for energy such that a 104-pound person could take down a 300-pound person.

My uncle was on the police force and he arrived on the scene of a young woman and child being crushed under a car. With the assistance of his partner they physically lifted the vehicle to assist the victims. The result of this intervention was damage to his back but it saved the lives of the mother and her child. So as we see in the above example if the energy is properly channeled at the right time, it is not guarantee of success, but the chances of reaching safety are significantly increased.

Given time, the right attitude and the willingness to learn, understanding the adrenal response in association with martial art training can lead to great skill, confidence and awareness.

* In part two of this article we will talk about our external environment, how this affects our personal protection and awareness but most importantly we will discuss how to keep safe and maintain a happy and beautiful life.