Secrets of the Japanese Sword

Shihan Dana Abbott

Over the last 30 years there has been a lot of hoopla about all the different styles and facets of martial arts and the weaponry surrounding it, especially, when it comes to discussing “the way of the sword” by today’s generation. After World War II, the secrets of the Orient could be easily found in everyday reading materials hence the generation of the baby boomers became mesmerized with folklore from countries with eons of history. These stories depicted average people as super heroes whose lives were shrouded in mystery. To add to their mystique they were endowed with special and unique powers being able to “slay the dragon” with a single blow. These stories of man and his weaponry especially the mighty sword brought adventure and awed the reader’s imagination. Many martial art styles can be found in rural and urban legends.

The sword has always been first and foremost a weapon of death and destruction. It is a formidable instrument used in battle, war and self-defense. First of all, there are really no mysteries or special secrets behind the sword or the person wielding it. These are merely stories and folklore used to keep youth entertained around a camp fire or on the edge of their seat while watching a theatrical show, movie or TV special. These larger than life stories and secrets were furthered with mystery by the movie industry and its imaginative directors and writers in order to sell more tickets about war, strife and death told in an adventurous and romantic way. Box office receipts proved that the audience was interested in adventure. They loved being able to see a swashbuckler wield his sword and the cowboy ride off into the sunset.

For many, in the Orient especially the country of Japan, have the same view of adventure surrounding the Western world’s use of firearms. Directors and writers alike have made the gunslinger wearing a cowboy hat or the homicide detective seen in many action packed movies into a god like persona. Name any TV or movie hero and you will find an actor looking tuff and strong while his behind the scenes stunt double is poised to perform the true action. In this day and age actors are not even allowed to do their own stunts since insurance companies dictate that the actor is a too valuable asset to get injured in a fall let alone being struck by a weapon. But wait, I remember attending the Saturday matinee where the hero who could catch a bullet in his teeth! I was impressed.

Let’s take a close look into the realm of swords, swordplay and sword fighters. Through the ages there have been countless people who have lived and died by the sword. Men of fantasy wrote verse upon verse of adventurous and romantic stories told in countless novels, songs and poems. These romantic writings showed gallant men on horseback galloping with swords drawn glistening in the sun. Remember the old saying, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. A writer can create any situation with the stroke of a pen. Moreover, with an added word or change of phrase he can easily alter the outcome of that story, either good or bad.

By the 19th century there were thousands of sword styles and schools of thought and that was just in Japan. When, in the late 1800’s, Japan became an industrialized society as dictated by the Western world even the Japanese had to stand back, reevaluate and even reconsider the sword. The Japanese put the sword back into prospective as a tool of war and death, not as a spiritual entity.

Many pieces of literature on man and the sword have been written by historians and novelists who have never experienced what they are writing about. Their main goal has been to entertain. Everyday sword wielding people who were either employed by the police or military were just too busy defending the country or society so that others could write about the acts of war in their safe domains. While safely tucked away from war or social strife they could write books about violence filled with romantic references. On the other hand, the busy police man or war veteran who spends most of their day helping society in real life situations knows all too well there is no real romance about death and dying. Its just death and final!

If you were to ask questions about war to any soldier who served in the rear lines away from the battles they will tell you the gore and the death at the drop of a hat, but war veterans who fought and served their countries on the front lines where death and dying was an every day occurrence will say, “I don’t want to talk about that” or just blank stare off into space as they recollect the horror they witnessed. You can immediately see the sadness as is washes over their faces. Just ask anyone who has truly been there they won’t have much to say.

With this understood one could assume it is not how spiritual or proper the sword wielding person is on the battle field, but how brutal and matter-of-factly one manipulates the sword to kill and then go onto the next target and kill again. No special movements, no secret hand positions, no superfluous techniques, no special stances just that special energy and determination to get the sword to the target without wasting time, rhythm, balance or speed to kill before they are killed by an opponent with the same determination.

When learning the sword or any aspect of life, the basics must be adhered to and proficient before one can perform fancy techniques and movements. Isn’t it true that many a youth will try to “show off” to their peers by driving a car recklessly? Unfortunately, this usually ends in disaster or at a minimum a ticket because even though they think they are proficient drivers they still have not mastered the basics to keep them out of harms way when an unexpected event arises and brought into the equation.

This is especially true when sword practitioners show off fancy but meaningless techniques as they manipulate the sword whistling and flashing it through the air. But, they are put into difficulty when a steadfast technique is used upon them and they are too slow or untrained to deal with it…In battle they call these people causalities.

That is why sword techniques as with fire arms taught to the military must be simple, practical, easily learned and deadly since there are no second chances and the military does not have years to train a solider. During the American Revolution if the minute man would have taken an hour, imagine how that would that have changed our history!

Save energy and ammo. If you waste ammo what happens when you run out while knee deep in enemy territory. With a sword you will not run out of ammo, but you certainly will run out of energy. Fatigue is your worst case scenario. That is why when learning the basics one of the most important factors is understanding the “economy of motion”. Economy of motion creates simplified movements either offensive or defensive that can easily be executed under pressure or duress when one off beat strike will change the whole playing field.

The Japanese call this offensive demeanor “the spirit of the thing”. A person who is not at their best will not win in battle and remember there were no coffee breaks in battle. You had to fight until either the enemy or you were dead. Additionally, many of today’s swordsmen practice sword styles developed and created for peace time. If a lot of these techniques were applied in battle they would prove to be less than effective.

Why is the American public enamored with Navy Seals, Special Forces and other military elite fighters? It’s because they have the aura of mystery surrounding them and also the secrecy of covert operations. It’s not their fancy techniques or uniforms; it’s their ability to destroy the enemy NOW. They have no need for gun waving, nor pounding of the chests with clenched fists – they just go in for the shot in a strong steadfast matter of fact way to take down the objective. This is accomplished through their intense specialized training.

Just ask the men and women who served in World War II, also known as the greatest generation. They will set you straight. How does this apply in today’s world since a sword is now viewed as an antiquated weapon. Today’s weaponry is dependent on batteries, micro chips and computers. In other words if the electricity is turned off you will be regressed back to hand to hand combat. Without that energy most weaponry becomes junk and the sword is again brought into the limelight thereby proving the timeless usage of that “antiquated sword” and those basic training methods that always will survive.

Note: Very unfortunately, most people were killed by machetes in the last decade than by all other weapons combined.

In ending, I want to again remind you that one of most precious gifts you possess is agility and focus. Learning the sword and its techniques that surround it enable you to incorporate those gifts into everyday living.

To find out more about Shihan Dana Abbott and the study of the Japanese sword on visit his listing on the Martial Arts Schools & Businesses Directory by clicking on the image on the left.