Friday, May 29, 2009

Testing Yourself and Your Art

I often read about people who say that if you don't test your skill in freeplay then you're not a swordsman, or words to that effect, and I'd like to explore that a bit.

What do they mean when they say that? Well, mostly what they mean is they want to see if this stuff really works, then they want to see if they're any good at it. And it only seems logical that there's no other way to test that other than freeplay, right?

Well, here's the problem with that kind of thinking: Newtonian physics seems a lot more "logical" than relativistic physics; in fact, the latter is so counter-intuitive sometimes it's hard to wrap your mind around it. None the less, when we measure the effects it turns out Newton was wrong; close (for the wrong reasons and only in mild conditions), but wrong.

So it is here; the “logical” answer of an ignorant mind is wrong because it doesn’t posses all of the facts. First, how will you test that the techniques work? Freeplay isn't a fight, it's not even much like a fight. In a fight with swords you know you can easily die—for real. Not lose a bout, not get teased by your friends, *die*. That means you never, ever ignore an attack because if you do, you'll get killed. In freeplay, however, people often take risks they never would if a sharp sword was swinging towards them—they make a calculated gamble on the basis that they might pull their trick off, but in real life they wouldn't be that stupid.

And they think that this factor isn't a big deal—another failure of “logic.” Many techniques in the KdF only work because of the “threat factor” inherent in some techniques. One of the big reasons we never see any actions from the bind in freeplay videos is that people leave the bind because they think they're fast enough or lucky enough to get away with doing so, even though they should know it's bad technique. And usually their opponent isn't very good, and maybe they *are* fast and lucky, and so they get away with it sometimes. In real life, however, once you're in that bind your opponent's point is aimed at you, and if he does his job right and you leave the bind you're going to die on his point. So KdF techniques are geared around your opponent doing things the way he would if a *real* sword was aimed at him. Modern foil fencing actually tries to take this kind of thing into account with its rules about right of way, but that doesn't work all that well—rules intended to make a sport like combat never do.

So, clearly, you can't test these techniques to see if they work because you're not using them for what they're designed for. But that's moot: The techniques work, they really do. German people weren't stupid. Liechtenauer's art wouldn't have been the most famous and widely-written-about and copied art in all of Germany for more than 150 years if it didn't work. So people who doubt this need to get over themselves and stop pretending they're qualified to have a contrary opinion on this subject.

All right then, so what about testing yourself to see if you can really *do* the techniques? Sorry, but you can't do that, either, at least not in freeplay (but see below). The safety rules, safety gear and artificial structure of a sports bout make for a kind of fighting that's too different from a real fight for their test to have any meaning.

Let me make an analogy here: I usually compare kendo and kenjutsu, but something I wrote yesterday reminded me that most people have no idea how huge the gap between those two is, so let's compare judo and jujutsu (real jujutsu, not that silly, unrealistic, sportified version the punk rockers in Brazil play with). In essence, Kano-sensei developed judo as a means of discipline and spiritual development, not as a true combat system. Oh, he saw value in self defense applications, and a good judo dojo will work on those quite a bit, but that wasn’t his primary goal. He developed a system of freeplay called randori which could be practiced safely as a means of helping the student practice the *principles* of judo, but, in fact, when you look at the self defense aspects of judo you find that the majority of the techniques they teach there are not permitted in randori. Kind of telling, eh? Why aren’t they permitted? Because they’re *dangerous*!

Judo was developed from jujutsu, but in jujutsu there’s no randori. Do you know why? Because the techniques can’t be done safely in a competitive environment. After all, they’re like the self-defense techniques that Kano-sensei forbade in judo randori! In randori you try to break someone’s balance so you can throw him, and there are rules to ensure that you throw him in a way that won’t cause serious damage. If you can’t break his balance you switch to another technique and just keep going until the time in the bout expires. That art isn’t all there is to this is proven by the fact that there are weight categories in sport judo; this is because it often takes a lot of strength to make some of the techniquess work.

In jujutsu, however, you don’t just try to break someone’s balance, and you don’t use much strength to do it, you normally use a strike—called atemi-waza—to render him unable to resist. I’ve met lots of people I can’t unbalance well enough to do a hip throw just using movement on the mat and a push-pull motion of my hands, but I’ve never yet met anyone I couldn’t throw easily after first stuffing my fingers into his eyes!

So, in actuality, randori “tests” neither the techniques of the system to see if they work nor the practitioner’s ability to use those techniques because the safety rules and artificiality of the bouting rules change the nature of combat so radically. As I said before, it was only intended to be a way of practicing the root principles of the system; the need for strength and power comes in only when you pervert it into a sport.

Early in the 20th century the Tokyo Police Department held a contest between well-known judo and jujutsu experts to determine which would become their official martial art. In a closely-fought contest with numerous safety rules the judoka won, but it was a near thing. The reason they won isn’t that judo is a better system of combat—it’s manifestly not, nor was it intended to be—but because they got competitors who were just *better* at the sport. Real giants (not literally; one was remarkably small) of the art who were very good at what they did. Actually, all of the winning team were jujutsuka first, anyway. When you get competitors who are very good at their sport and pit them against each other it doesn’t prove that one approach is better than the other, it merely proves which side had the better competitors. In this case the difference is even more profound because there was no jujutsu in the competition. That’s right, none. Do you know why? Because the safety rules meant that most of the techniques that make jujutsu different from judo weren’t allowed. And what was left? Judo. So jujutsu wasn’t tested at all in the competition, and no one in it tested his ability to perform in combat. All they did was see which side was better at a sport.

This analogy is perfectly suited to the KdF. Consider Ringen: In Codex Wallerstein Master Ott (or whomever wrote it) tells us that: “Although a weak fighter in a serious fight can be equal to a strong opponent, if he has previously learned agility, reach, combat techniques [by which he means joint breaks, etc.—HTK], and death blows, in a friendly fight strength always has the advantage...” (Wallerstein ff. 15r-15v; Zabinsky pp. 66-69) In other words, a weak fighter can win in a lethal fight if he uses reach and agility *and* joint breaks *and* strikes to vital targets, but in a sporting environment the stronger wrestler will usually win… just exactly like the difference between judo and jujutsu. So we can’t practice combat Ringen in a competitive environment any more than we can practice longsword in a competitive environment. That’s why we practice Ringen just like they practice jujutsu in traditional Japanese dojo: in a carefully-controlled drill environment, not in freeplay.

And this analogy holds true for the longsword too: The addition of safety rules, the ability to ignore risk, the safety gear you need to wear that prevents you from executing many of the techniques, the gamesmanship or playing of the rules, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam… All conspire to prove that when you do freeplay you are *not* testing your ability to fight, merely your ability to play a sport.

So the “real” swordsman isn’t the one doing freeplay, he’s just playing a game. It might be fun, and if he’s willing to lie to himself it might let him pretend he’s a mighty warrior doing his art “for real.” But in reality what he’s doing has no more combat relevance than handball, and what’s more, he’s ruining the efforts of those who are trying to resurrect a lost art because by changing how it’s done, they take away from the historical art in favor of a new version designed for 21st-century notions of sport.

“But,” I can hear you shouting in anger, “if all that’s true, how can we learn to do our techniques under pressure against a resisting opponent? Don’t you see how important that is?” Of course I do, but that’s a different question, and one that has nothing to do with freeplay. I’ve written before about how you use a series of progressive drills, starting with controlled and carefully-scripted ones and progressing to more and more free-form drills against a resisting opponent. By the end you’re engaging in very short bouts of what could almost be considered freeplay, but there are important differences: By absolutely controlling what both partners can do you can eliminate safety concerns without softening the rules and you can prevent people from gaming the rules because if someone tries you merely stop, explain the error, and continue on. I’ve written about these drills elsewhere (look at older blog entries) so I won’t go into great detail about them here, but done correctly, these kinds of drills come closer to real combat than any freeplay system ever has. That’s swordsmanship. That’s art. That’s real.

Is this approach perfect? No, of course not, to be perfect we’d have to fight real bouts with sharps with death on the line, and none of us will ever do that. So no, none of us will ever perfectly master our art, it’s true; but then, you know what? we don’t need to, because none of us will ever be in a life-or-death swordfight. But we’ll come a lot closer than someone doing freeplay, and we’ll do it without ruining the art all of us are working so hard to resurrect as those who practice freeplay do.


Michael Geib said...

Hi! I'm a jujutsu student in Baltimore as well as a student of the German longsword as the text of Liechtenauer outlines, and I was very intrigued by your most recent blog entry (though I've read through the other previous ones and those are very thought-provoking as well, my favorite topic being the zornhau). As for this entry, while I was expecting the kendo-jujutsu parallel I was not expecting the judo to jujutsu comparison which I believe you handled very nicely. I agree with your points as well, though I do have a question: I am a proponent of learning the longsword through drilling, but should the controlled bouting you've described ever replace drills? Since the "bouts" are to evolve from controlled drills, I wonder if at some point the drills become a source of review alone. Keep up the good work, I look forward to later entries!

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Michael,

That's an excellent and insightful question. It sort of depends upon how we define "drills". I'm a great believer in working the fundamentals over and over and over again throughout your life. In one sense, just cutting the pell is a kind of drill, and I believe you should never give that up. And I still work through most basic drills I've devised to get better at them (e.g., the Zwerchau Cutting drill). So I would say all the things I teach as "fixed drills" should be practiced for as long as you train.

Having said that, certain kinds of drills--the ones I call free drills--have levels for a reason. Let's take the first one: At level one the teacher announces what attack he'll use, let's say a Zornhau, and instructs the student to counter it with a specific counter, let's say Zornort. That's a great drill for a fairly new student, but once you've reached a certain level you shouldn't need to be told what the teacher is attacking with or how you should respond; that's a fourth level drill.

I would say that once you've graduated to fourth- and fifth-level drills (fifth level is the same as fourth except your teacher tries to counter your counter and you have to counter that) there's really no point in turning back to doing them on a lower level. They're really the same as the first-level drills, it's just that you don't know what to expect.

So I think that at the highest levels of training you should be doing pell work, basic or "fixed" drills, and fourth- and fifth-level drills almost exclusively for your own personal training. Of course, at the highest levels you should also be spending a lot of time teaching, and you'll be amazed at how much that will teach you.

Does that answer your question?


Michael Geib said...

Excellent, that's exactly what I needed, thanks for your quick reply!

Pansophistisms said...

Hi -

The German originators of your art might not have been stupid, but you might be. Before you take offense, allow me to qualify my statement: for many years no one you have trained with or under has had the opportunity to test their skills in a real sword fight. Therefore, you are quite ignorant as to whether or not you are training the techniques you learn appropriately, regardless of how valuable they may have been when taught by their originators.

You are ignorant as to whether your system of progressive drills is effective, and you are similarly ignorant as to whether or not freeplay can be effective. I am not a swordsman, but my guess is that in reality they both can work - the drills you describe and some forms of freeplay. The key, I'm sure, is correct mentality, in both forms of training.

Incidentally, you are wrong that Koryu Bujutsu never spar (don't you think it was a stretch to make that assumption anyway, considering how many schools there are/were?). Certain lines of Araki ryu Kogusoku (comprehensive school, founded 1573), for one, engage in certain forms of freeplay. They seem to find it valuable - what makes your insight so much better than theirs? Years of combat experience?

It might also be noted that schools that focused on Jujutsu arose only after the close of the Sengoku Jidai - it is highly debatable whether or not their teachings were based on real insights from hand-to-hand combat experiences, or instead attempts to distill hand to hand knowledge from previous Bujutsu ryha.

I do practice Judo, and I assure you it can be quite fatal. The reason we tend not to get hurt much (seriously hurt, at any rate) is because we train to absorb throws and we practice on mats. Ground techniques can easily break joints (we allow our opponents to surrender) and chokes occlude the carotid arteries and I assure you will cause unconsciousness and eventually death (if they remain applied).

I am not prepared to compare and contrast the efficacy of Judo with Jujutsu (Koryu Jujutsu, not these modern amalgams), but I assure you it offers some devastatingly effective skillsets. Good Judoka become very proficient at staying on their feet, removing the feet of others out from under them, and controlling/incapacitating them on the ground. These are the skills that are imparted by randori/shiai alone, and I trust them more than any other I have learned. In a combat situation there is obviously always the issue of closing the range - but without a weapon it is verrry difficult to stop a determined grappler from doing so.

I'm not sure what your issue with Brazilian "Jujutsu" is - admittedly the marketing is very irritating, and its popularity rankles, but ultimately it is just a school that specializes in Judo style newaza. It is nowhere near a complete combat system but no serious practitioner purports it to be so (unless he is trying to make money). I assure you it can teach you to control and neutralize an opponent on the ground very effectively - this alone in isolation is a very valuable ability.

Finally, we now know that Einstein's generalized theory of relativity fails to accurately predict the motion of stars in galaxies, and the motion of galaxies in the universe. This is why physicists/cosmologists have proposed the existence of dark matter (for which there is no genuine evidence ) - they wish to save the general theory of relativity. No one is ever perfectly right because we will never be omnipotent.

Fundamentally I agree that freeplay is not necessarily necessary, but I also disagree that is necessarily a bad idea.

Hugh Knight said...


First, if you were honestly attempting to avoid giving offense, then I suggest you study the differences between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorant I certainly am (although that doesn’t prove me wrong), stupid I am not.

I am certain my system of progressive drills is effective; after all, I stole it from koryu bujutsu. I am also sure that free play always changes the art from which it springs because it always has; you might have recognized this from the fact that I refer to this problem as “The Kendo Syndrome.” It is not a matter of good intentions, it is an inherent flaw in the very idea of trying to accurately reproduce a serious fight in a format safe enough for sport.

While I recognize that some koryu schools do practice free play, they didn’t in their original form; they have turned away from their original practices in doing so. They certainly practiced lethal duels, but not sportive competitions of the sort practiced today. The same thing is seen in Eishin-ryu, which, although a koryu, now practices iai-do, not batto-jutsu. They have given up the combat-oriented nature of the original old system in favor of a more modern form (e.g., doing techniques from seiza rather than iai-goshi; see Draeger’s "Classical Budo". Koryu which continue their original practices do not practice free play—witness the quote from Otake-shihan I posted in a later blog post about “game players with toy swords.”

And yes, these schools with modern free play do consider it valuable—in the same sense that kendo-ka consider it valuable: As a way of training the spirit. When done with that approach it *is* valuable, but that doesn’t mean it adheres to the original combat tradition. They give up actual combat relevance when they practice free play. One could argue this is far more valuable than combat efficacy: after all, we no longer defend ourselves with swords. But for those of us trying to resurrect a lost combat art it is useless; you might as well try to re-invent Katori Shinto-ryu through randori.

So, to answer your question, my insights come from learning the lessons of real schools of swordsmanship.

I agree with you that judo can be very effective in martial applications, just as modern sportive boxing can. But my point still stands: It has become a sport, and its most dangerous techniques are not permitted in randori. You say that kansetsu-waza are legal in randori, and you’re right, but if I recall correctly, only as ne-waza; the standing versions so common in goshin-jutsu are not. Likewise, atemi-waza, so essential to all self defense, is completely forbidden in randori. Even some throws are forbidden because they’re too dangerous, such as the kani basami. So it’s clear that much of the combat techniques of the art are forbidden in randori. I’m not knocking judo, or kendo, for that matter—I think they’re both superb martial ways that can be very useful in personal development--but they’re *not* focused on the original combat applications of their root arts.

You’re right that many modern schools of jujutsu have no combat roots, but schools such as Katori Shinto-ryu and Maniwa-nen still practice the original forms of jujutsu. And those schools don’t engage in randori, just as I said. Why? Because the most dangerous techniques can’t be practiced safely.

As for BJJ, I scorn it because it’s a made-up sport masquerading as a serious martial art. I loathe the advertising logos all over their “costumes”; I loathe their rock-start attitudes; I loathe their obstreperous, undisciplined behavior. They have given up the dignity and serenity of their root arts. But most of all, I loathe them for taking a sport application and pretending it to be a combat art while loudly decrying real martial arts.

Finally, the Theory of Relativity works well; it was through understanding it that we discovered that there had to be dark matter and energy. It may have flaws, but it is certainly more accurate than Newton’s theories, as test after test has shown to be true.


Pansophistisms said...

Hi once again - my tone came off as more aggressive than I intended so many thanks for your civil response.

I chose the word stupid for...poetic reasons if you will (to mirror your initial comment about the founders of your system) - I hoped to avoid confusion by explaining that I did in fact mean ignorant.

The suggestion that no Koryu ever practiced randori of any kind in its historical setting is impossible to confirm. The line of Araki ryu to which I refer does not practice freeplay exclusively for development of spirit. (Even if they did - spirit may be a useful combat asset, no?)

The fact that you stole your system of drills from a koryu is no guarantee of its effectiveness - you do not have communication with those who were able to confirm its usefulness in battle. It is something like trying to learn a physical skill from a youtube video - you may get a general idea, especially if you are already experienced in the field, but you won't know if what you're doing actually works.

This is often the point behind Koryu (such as the aforementioned line of Araki ryu) experimenting - they recognize that what they're doing cannot possibly be perfectly correct, so they attempt to locate errors through understanding the original intent.

Kansetsu waza are legal in both tachi waza and newaza, as are shime waza. IJF rules (which are, incidentally, increasingly removed from the original rules) prohibit a situation where you force an opponent to choose between saving a limb or correctly breaking his fall. Standing armlocks and chokes are generally legal and used in competition. I should further like to note that if I did not have a fair bit of experience in randori, I would have no confidence in my ability to handle myself in combat. The fact that my opponent is aggressively attempting to throw my to the ground gives me experience in dynamically absorbing and redirecting force, which I'm not sure I would learn to do to the same degree without it. If I complete a throw (or am thrown) I need to be able to aggressively and dynamically control my opponent on the ground (while he is doing his best to relieve me either of my limbs or oxygen to the brain) To be fair, this is not directly analogous to any weapon combat where a single strike may mean death or serious injury (or serious blood loss over time).

Judo's most dangerous techniques by far are its throws - they are quite legal. Serious injury is usually prevented by avoiding a serious skill discrepancy, and by active training of breakfalls. Kansetsu waza attacking the neck/spine, wrists, or ankles/legs are prohibited, but I would much rather break a wrist then my cranium. The techniques which make Judo potentially valuable in combat are predominantly those that are already legal in shiai. Incidentally the danger of Kani Basami is debatable, and there is speculation that it was banned for political reasons.

BJJ has engaged in despicable marketing campaigns, with that I agree, but I assure you they can produce some fantastic newaza exponents. I would not judge them all to be terrible people until you have experienced them firsthand. All sports are made up at some point, as are all martial arts.

We do not know dark matter exists. We predict it is there because if it is not, general relativity is wrong. Then we are lost. The point was that even though we have more information and may be more correct from one point of view, it is impossible to know everything and draw the perfect conclusion. Newton's gravity is wrong (so says data), as is Einstein's (unless there is some invisible substance which interacts in no manner but through gravity - again so says the data), but as a practical matter NASA has never felt the need to use anything other than newtonian physics to plan its missions. So maybe that idea that seemed to make sense in the first place, while not perfect, is still quite useful.

Pansophistisms said...

Continuing..(sorry, ran out of room)

So once again, I don't believe kata(or similar concepts) are a bad idea (as you say, who are we to question the originators of these concepts, who did so under pressure to survive and conquer), but neither do I believe it is possible to say that freeplay is useless.

Thanks again for your response. (And I must say I very much enjoy your blog)
It is certainly harder to make it useful in a weapon related setting due to the sudden death nature of what you are doing, and it is certainly not the ultimate test of ability/usefulness. It is definitely not a simulation of the real thing (not in hand-to-hand and obviously much less so in weapon combat), but that does not mean it cannot impart some useful knowledge.

Hugh Knight said...


Spiritual development is useful in real combat, but I was referring to the two primary kinds of martial systems, martial arts, with a real combat focus, and martial ways, which focus more on spiritual discipline. Kenjutsu is about learning to kill people with a sword. Kendo is about using a sword simulator that doesn’t move, handle or function like a sword to drill in spiritual and personal development. They are two very different things.

As for the effectiveness of my drill schema, I may not have personal contact with those who developed the concept, but I did have contact with a man with direct line-of-succession contact with them—my bujutsu teacher. You may not realize it, but I studied koryu kenjutsu and jujutsu for many years.

As for judo, I’m sorry I misunderstood about using kansetsu-waza in randori; I’m a jujutsu-ka, and have relatively little judo experience, at least not in shiai. My other points hold true however, but I believe you misunderstand them. Of course your throws are deadly—I never said they weren’t. What I said was that they could be *practiced* more safely than, for example, atemi-waza, and that’s why atemi-waza are forbidden in shiai. So atemi-waza aren’t practiced in randori, thus changing your art from its combat roots, do you see?

This is one of the reasons there are weight classifications in the sport of judo: Without atemi-waza, strength counts a lot more than it does in a real fight. Master Ott says the exact same thing in the grappling material in Codex Wallerstein: That through the use of deadly strikes and joint breaks a weaker man could use art to defeat a stronger man (or set him up for throws that would defeat him), but that in sportive grappling without these kinds of attacks the stronger man usually wins. We see exactly this in Judo, so I was very gratified to see a German master saying the same thing.

And I have no doubt randori has made you a better fighter in street situations. Likewise, actually practicing longsword free play might make someone more likely to win a real sword fight than someone who merely practices formal drills. But your randori, with the way it has been changed to make it safe for shiai, is different from the jujutsu from which it was developed. Do you see that? It may be effective enough, but it’s different. That’s why koryu jujutsu is only practiced as kata: because they want to be sure not to change anything, and they’d have to give up parts of it to practice randori. Likewise, when you want to play at longsword bouting, you have to change things to make it safer, and when you do that you change the art. That mightn’t be a big deal if we need to win sword fights to save our lives, but it’s the wrong approach for people trying to resurrect a specific lost art. Do you see the difference now?

By the way, I’m not knocking judo—far from it. I may despise the reduction from budo to mere sport, but I think it’s a fantastic art at its core.

While I recognize the value of the ne-waza in BJJ, I utterly reject the way it’s handled. It’s mere sport—not even budo—being trumpeted as a combat art superior to all others (which it is *not*), and practiced without the dignity of a real martial art.

As for dark matter, you may not be aware of certain new discoveries. Two of the most relevant are that calculations of the speed at which galaxies spin show there must be more mass surrounding them—invisible mass, which is dark matter. Likewise, this mass has been indirectly viewed by looking for the effects of gravitational lensing.

Thank you for the compliments on my blog, and I appreciate the lack of rancor in your discussion.

If you would like to continue this conversation (which I would be glad to do), please feel free to contact me at my e-mail address, which is hughk1066 at junodotcom. That would be much less clumsy than using the blog comments.