Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Otake-shihan on Freeplay

I just found a great quote I wanted to share with anyone reading this blog. You've all read things I've written about Otake Risuke, the current Shihan of Tenshin Sho-dan Katori Shinto-ryu. This ryu is the oldest extant Japanese martial arts school and is listed as an ‘intangible cultural asset’; it comes from the days when bushi fought for real. Otake-shihan is considered a living national treasure of Japan and is the only one who holds a full license (gokui kaiden) in the art. In my opinion he is the greatest swordsman of any system living today. This quote can be found in its entirety here: http://www.cateransociety.com/Joseki.htm:

"Kata is still the teaching method in the classical Japanese sword arts precisely because it preserves the essence of the art's history—the art as it was understood by those who created it. Some schools, such as the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu … pride themselves on the fact that they have never used any type of free sparring in their practice.

{Otake-shihan said:} “(I)t is said that a shiai, or competitive contest, is synonymous with shiniai, which means ‘to meet for the sake of death.’ That is another way of saying that any kind of combat is a serious matter of life and death. As a result, from then until now, competitive matches have been forbidden in Katori Shinto Ryu...”

Otake-shihan then went on to say that, in bouting, "the vital responsibility and danger of handling a real weapon is replaced by the mental approach of the game-player with a toy weapon."

Game players with toy weapons. Perfect. Real swordsmen don’t do freeplay.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Bind

What do we mean by hard or soft in the bind? This misunderstanding needs to be resolved because it's one of the biggest problems people have when it comes to learning to do a variety of techniques, especially the Winden (more on this below).

OK, so what is a bind? You and your opponent stand in the Zufechten and he attacks, so you displace his cut with your sword: now you’re in a bind. If you cut first and he displaces it doesn’t matter, you’re still in a bind.

There’s no inherent advantage in a bind—no one is in a better position. In general, the one who moves first wins, but not always (e.g., the Sprechfenster). But whomever moves first is in the Vor and whomever waits for his opponent to move is in the Nach.

The masters tell us to Fühlen—feel—the bind to determine if our opponent is hard or soft in the bind (which I advocate that you do with what I call “active Fühlen,” but that’s a discussion for another time) and then to act Indes (“instantly”) and appropriately; they give us a list of techniques to use in any kind of bind that can happen, with those techniques being built upon the concept of replying to strength with weakness and weakness with strength. To learn to do that, however, you have to understand what is meant by each kind of bind.

In general, there are only two kinds of bind: Hard and soft. But each of those can be broken into various subcategories. If someone is soft in the bind you can push your point straight forward in a thrust and his sword will be moved out of the way by yours. If he is hard in the bind and you try that thrust you will find that unless you are very strong and are willing to engage in a test of strength (which we know never to do) you will not be able to push his blade out of the way with your thrust.

There are three subcategories of a hard bind: In the first, your opponent pushes your sword out to the side and somewhat upward with strength. In the second your opponent pushes your blade out to the side and somewhat downward with strength. And in the third your opponent holds the center line with his point aimed at you using enough strength that you can’t easily push his sword away but without actually pushing at all—he just holds fast, controlling the center and threatening you with his point. This last version is what a skilled fighter will always do (although if you push on his sword with strength he should obey the injunction quoted above and react to your strength with weakness).

Finally, there’s one last thing someone can do in the bind: He can leave it.

So, to go back to our original scenario, your opponent cuts at you—let’s say he does so with a Zornhau—and you respond by cutting against his sword with your own Zornhau to displace his cut; you are now bound. And let’s further suggest that you immediately (Indes) try to thrust straight at him with your point from the bind while, of course, remaining am Schwert (on the sword; i.e., in the bind). If your opponent is a common swordsman one of five things is likely to happen: (1) he can be soft in the bind, in which case your point goes home and he dies; (2) he can push your thrust out and up; (3) he can push your point out and down; (4) he can stay hard in the bind, controlling the center, in which case your thrust slips off harmlessly to his left; or (5) he can leave the bind and try to void your attack while attacking on the other side of your sword (Abnehmen). Of course, a skilled swordsman can attempt to counter your thrust using one of the sophisticated single-time techniques from the Fechtbücher, but that’s a different discussion.

Now, if your opponent does any of those things the masters give us a whole list of things to do in response. Against a soft bind you just thrust and he dies—no problem. If he pushes your thrust out and up you Zucken over his blade. If he pushes out and down you Durchwechseln under his blade. If he holds the center line you Winden or Duplieren. And if he leaves the bind you snap your hands over to your right to hit his head and bind his blade in one motion. (These are all just examples, of course, you could do other things as well).

When you read a Fechtbuch and are told to do some given technique against someone who’s hard in the bind, however, this always refers to someone who holds the center firmly, not someone who pushes off to the side. If the technique being described is supposed to be used against someone who’s actually pushing his sword out to the side the technique will always tell you that.

This is important because quite a few techniques meant to be used against someone who’s hard in the bind will not work if he’s pushing his sword outward to move your point away from him. An example of this is the First Winden (“first winding”): Many of my new students have come to me, frustrated because when they try to do the First Winden it doesn’t seem to work. What they don’t realize is that their training partner is (inadvertently) cheating them by creating a situation the First Winden isn’t designed to deal with—he’s pushing outward. In fact, if you try to do the First Winden and your opponent moves his sword outward you should immediately (Indes) change to the Second Winden, but that’s a discussion for another time, too.

In conclusion, then, when you feel the bind you have to know what you’re feeling for and what to do whatever your opponent might do. As you’re practicing, however, be aware of what the text really means: Someone who’s “hard in the bind” is holding the center line firmly with his point aimed at you and he is not pushing his sword outward.