Peo­ple like to crit­i­cize tra­di­tional mar­tial arts tech­niques, say­ing that they’re rub­bish or that they won’t work in a real fight. Of­ten, they ar­rive at that con­clu­sion be­cause it’s so easy to con­fuse mar­tial arts and self-de­fense.


A re­spected Bri­tish mar­tial artist who trained in -apan with the likes of 'onn F. 'raeger of­fers his take on the ef­fec­tive­ness of the tra­di­tional arts by hom­ing in on a self-de­fense se­quence in­volv­ing a sword, a staff and an eye.

W hen I served as a po­lice of­fi­cer in Lon­don, I wit­nessed a great deal of vi­o­lence, the kind that’s per­pe­trated by an­i­mals as op­posed to hu­man be­ings. That taught me that real- life con­flict is un­pre­dictable at best and that se­ri­ous in­jury and even death can be part of the pack­age. Even worse is that such at­tacks may well hap­pen while you’re un­der the weather. No mat­ter when they oc­cur, your ad­ver­sary won’t be re­strained by any rules.

In con­trast, when you train in the mar­tial arts, no mat­ter how hard you ex­ert your­self, you know you’ll go home at the end of the ses­sion. It’s es­sen­tial to un­der­stand both per­spec­tives while at the same time see­ing each for what it is and know­ing how the pe­riod in which a sys­tem de­vel­oped af­fects it.


mar­tial arts grew dur­ing a time when re­solv­ing real con­flict was some­thing one needed to do of­ten. Ef­fec­tive skills were re­quired to re­spond to the vi­o­lence of the era. The ryu, or eclec­tic schools of mar­tial stud­ies, pro­tected their com­bat essence by hid­ing se­crets within the train­ing cur­ricu­lum. At the deep­est level, those se­crets equated to re­solv­ing “un­pre­dictabil­ity fac­tors” in con­flict, which was the key to sur­vival.

The se­crets of com­bat can be com­pared to the ocean. Most peo­ple go to the beach and look only at the sur­face of the wa­ter. How­ever, most of the life of the ocean ex­ists be­neath the sur­face. It’s the dif­fer­ence between look­ing at some­thing and look­ing into it.

The clas­si­cal mar­tial arts in Ja­pan hid their se­crets sim­i­larly. They were buried within the tech­niques and hid­den within the scrolls of the style. When I stud­ied shindo

muso ryu jodo in Ja­pan un­der Takaji Shimizu in the 1960s, the small classes — usu­ally about six stu­dents — al­lowed for the di­rect trans­mis­sion of many of the hid­den as­pects of the art. The grand­mas­ter once ex­plained that to the ca­sual ob­server, it ap­peared that all the stu­dents were do­ing the same tech­nique, but in fact they were ex­press­ing many dif­fer­ent lev­els of the art. Each level brought more ex­per­tise and re­lied on more se­crets.

In Ja­pan’s feu­dal era, mar­tial artists would spy on other ryu in search of weak­nesses that could be ex­ploited. This, too, ex­plains why so much was hid­den. Some­times tech­niques would look vul­ner­a­ble be­cause the un­e­d­u­cated on­looker couldn’t dis­cern the ef­fec­tive­ness that was con­cealed in the move­ments. Of course, mod­ern science wasn’t avail­able to those mar­tial artists, but through trial and er­ror, they de­vel­oped an in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing of the hu­man body and hu­man be­hav­ior, which bol­stered the ef­fi­cacy of their ac­tions. Within the ryu, such in­for­ma­tion was then passed down from master to stu­dent.


of­fers a prime ex­am­ple of this. To il­lus­trate, I will dis­cuss the outer cir­cle of 12 forms called omote. The sixth form, known as ukan, is an at­tempted sword pen­e­tra­tion of the jo ex­po­nent’s right side. In the feu­dal era, neu­ro­science may have been un­known, but the prin­ci­ples on which it’s based were well-known by mar­tial arts mas­ters. As such, each clas­si­cal tech­nique was a labyrinth of traps, of­ten de­signed to seal the oppo- nent’s fate through his own cog­ni­tive weak­nesses. One por­tion of one ukan tech­nique, shown in the photo se­quence, il­lus­trates this:

A. The jo prac­ti­tioner stands with his feet to­gether, his weapon hor­i­zon­tal and over­head. The op­po­nent is ready to ad­vance.

B. The op­po­nent draws her bokken to her left hip in prepa­ra­tion for a thrust.

C. The jo prac­ti­tioner moves to the left to avoid the thrust and places the tip of the jo against the op­po­nent’s left side, wedg­ing the at­tack.

D. The op­po­nent cross-steps back­ward and raises the bokken to head level, its tip point­ing in the di­rec­tion of the jo prac­ti­tioner’s head.

E. The jo prac­ti­tioner ad­vances and slides his weapon to­ward the op­po­nent’s right shoul­der.

F. The op­po­nent steps back­ward with her left foot, en­vi­sion­ing the com­ple­tion of this cut.

G. How­ever, the jo prac­ti­tioner in­ter­cepts her ac­tion by ma­neu­ver­ing his weapon into po­si­tion to stab her eye.

Although a lot of un­seen things have gone on in this ex­change, the next mo­ment best il­lus­trates the sub­tle science be­hind many clas­si­cal mar­tial arts. The op­po­nent can­not cir­cum­vent the jo be­cause it’s longer than her sword. At the same time, she can­not re­sist the temp­ta­tion to cut the man’s ap­par­ently ex­posed neck. In the lead-up to this mo­ment, she be­comes blind to the tip of the jo. When she moves to make the cut, she takes out her own eye at the same time.


be­hind this is in­ter­est­ing. Hu­man cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties have many weak­nesses, and clas­si­cal mar­tial artists loved to ex­ploit them. For those who aren’t fa­mil­iar with phys­i­ol­ogy or neu­ro­science, let me ex­plain. The rear cen­ter of the eye is called the fovea. Pho­tore­cep­tors and other reti­nal cells are nu­mer­ous here. How­ever, the pe­riph­eral re­gions of the retina have a lim­ited abil­ity to fo­cus. That’s why, when you want to fo­cus on an ob­ject, you align it with the cen­ter of your eye. In do­ing so, your pe­riph­eral vi­sion goes out of fo­cus. In this case, it means the jo can be­come in­vis­i­ble.

In­creas­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of this hid­den fight­ing tac­tic is the fact that hu­man be­ings can pay full at­ten­tion to just one event at a time. For ex­am­ple, you can drive a car safely and have a non-mean­ing­ful chat with the pas­sen­ger, but if you start con­sid­er­ing Ein­stein’s the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity and your at­ten­tion pri­or­i­ties change, your driv­ing will be­come more er­ratic and danger­ous.

It’s the same with the mar­tial arts: When the sword-wield­ing op­po­nent changes her fo­cus from the threat posed by the jo to the op­por­tu­nity to cut the neck of the man with the jo, her brain draws her at­ten­tion away from the jo.


just one small part of one tech­nique to show how strat­egy can con­ceal the ef­fec­tive­ness of a move. The un­for­tu­nate fact of life in the mod­ern era is that such sub­tleties of­ten elude mar­tial arts stu­dents who de­vote only min­i­mal ef­fort to their train­ing. Pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions had more time to master th­ese teach­ings, but 21st-cen­tury mar­tial artists have to make time.

Know, how­ever, that we are not the only ones who suf­fer from in­suf­fi­cient time to prop­erly study our art. Dur­ing my first stay in Ja­pan, master Shimizu spoke with me one day af­ter a les­son. With help from Donn F. Draeger, he ex­plained how in his opin­ion, mod­ern so­ci­ety — we’re talk­ing about the 1960s — was be­com­ing too fast paced, which left peo­ple with less and less free time. Shimizu lamented that his art had orig­i­nated in a more leisurely era when time was not in short sup­ply.

Yet shindo muso ryu has man­aged to con­tinue. This of­fers hope that all mar­tial arts can be pre­served as long as there are prac­ti­tion­ers who see the true value of what they’re learn­ing.

ABOUT THE AU­THOR: Mike Finn is a United King­dom–based mar­tial artist who spent years in Ja­pan learn­ing from a va­ri­ety of well-known mas­ters.

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