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.
SHINDO MUSO RYU JODO
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.