The Strategy Of The Sword: Part 1


Wouldn’t it be really useful if the game of tennis taught us how to succeed in business? What if cricket could teach us something about how to anticipate the next move in our personal lives? In both of these sports, if only we could know in advance where the ball was going to be, we could get there first, and be assured of success!

It may seem ridiculous to even suggest that there is a physical activity that could help in these, and many other areas of life. Well, ridiculous or not, the study of Japanese swordsmanship can reveal these things to us all. This is but one reason why it is referred to as “The Way of Strategy”.

– Let me be clear right from the outset. I am not suggesting that learning comes merely from the study of sword techniques on their own. It also comes from a lifetime’s study of other people, their reactions, behavior, and attitudes. The swordsman must gain the ability to apply the lessons learned from these areas, into their use of the sword. If those lessons have been learned well, then they are applicable to many other aspects of life, simply because they are born of the study of the human being.

The many and varied methods of this form of combat were first penned in the 17th century by one Miyamoto Musashi. After a lifetime of combat and study, he distilled his learnings about the “Way of Strategy” in his book “Go rin no sho”, or “The Book of Five Rings. This came to be regarded as a proverbial pot of gold by subsequent swordsmen, and later in Japan, businessmen. They found that by the study of his methods, there was a highly successful means of conducting business, as well as combat.

Today, the sword methods described by Musashi and his school of Ni to ichi ryu (Two swords, one school) have been continued in a style of swordsmanship by the same name, which endeavors to utilize his principles. It should be said that Musashi was certainly not the fountain of all knowledge on the subject, but merely one man who was fortunate enough to have a natural ability with the sword, and lived in a place and time in history to be able to make the best use of his talents.

It may seem hard to believe that martial study of this type could have such far-reaching and consequential applications. To attempt to try and contextualize the art let us compare it to other strategic activities that we may be familiar with. Take a game of chess for example. Surely this is all about strategy? Of course, it is. But how much of the strategic concepts are of any use away from the chessboard? Looking more carefully, I’m sure you would agree that there are very few. Of course, you will find anticipation, feinting, attacking, and defending as well as confusing. These are all strategic concepts. But they are all limited in their use to the abilities of the pieces on the board. Each piece has a stringent set of rules relating to their movements and abilities. The chess player will have learned something of their opponent’s method of play, and so there is a relatively small psychological aspect. But what he will learn of his opponent is limited, simply because the entire focus of learning is to do with a board game. This game can only have very limited applications outside of the game itself. For example, a general of an army could use some principles of chess strategy, but the game limits its application, simply because of the confining rules of the game itself.

OK then, so what about something a little closer to home to the martial artist, say Karate or some other such fighting art? Surely strategic principles are at work in these activities? Once again there are such principles involved in Karate, which will vary somewhat depending upon whether self-defense or sport is the basis for the training. In self-defense Karate, there is a minimal strategy at work beyond that which places the defender in a position of advantage. This is usually done by the recognition of the type of attack, either as the attacker prepares to execute the move, or during the move itself. Once the confrontation is ended, then there is no further requirement for any strategy, except possibly how to explain it all to the Police!

If sport is the main focus for Karate training, then there is a need for more strategy than for self-defense, but not much more. Here the primary aim is to be the victor in a fight that has a specific length, has specific rules for engagement, and for scoring points. Any strategy used in a fight will invariably be geared to work only within the confines of those parameters. Of course, there are similar types of strategies found in the game of chess mentioned earlier, but they also are very limited.

To be fair, Oriental fighting systems do have some common features which cannot be ignored. They all tend to develop the practitioner in the area of pre-empting the type of attack, with similar emphasis on ingrained responses. I would also hazard a guess that perhaps Chinese swordsmanship would also offer similar benefits to those of the Japanese variety. I see the possibility, but my study has been in the Japanese sword, not the Chinese.

Is it possible then, to use any of the aforementioned strategies of Karate, sport, or otherwise, and apply them to large-scale battle tactics or individual life events? It’s very unlikely. Although I am reminded of one strategy highly recommended by the founder of Shotokan Karate, Gichin Funakoshi. He said that the best form of self-defense was never to find yourself in a situation where you might find the need to defend yourself. I could not agree more, but as a strategy to be applied on the battlefield, or in single combat it would mean never turning up for the fight. Hardly an appropriate way to win a war!

So how is it possible that Japanese swordsmanship could have the ability to bestow the kind of gifts that once upon a time might have been regarded as witchcraft? To be able to predict the outcome of certain events? To know in advance which direction to move in a confrontation? These sound fantastic, yet believe it or not, the methods employed within this art have even wider uses and possibilities. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. In order to begin to appreciate the possibilities of Japanese swordsmanship, it is first necessary to have an appreciation of something of the lifestyle of the people and the culture in which this fascinating art was developed.

This is not a history dissertation, and so we can only gain some vague insights. For example, for many hundreds of years, the Japanese people of all class distinctions were ruled by the sword. There were either those that carried them or those that feared those that carried them. This was a society where all factions had an intimate appreciation of the deadly Katana or Japanese long-sword.

The ruling class carried their swords tucked into their belts everywhere they went. By everywhere, that means absolutely everywhere! Such was the level of training and skill, this sword could be drawn and kill within a very small fraction of a second, literally before the victim had even registered the danger. Of course, those that normally did not carry the sword were very well aware of such ability, and usually did nothing to encourage such an untimely death.

With such speed and skill, it should easily become apparent that fighting another swordsman with possibly equal, or even superior skills would mean that no time or energy was wasted. Indeed, the development of lightning-fast reflexes could only mean the development of lightning-fast thinking. In its turn, the participants must have incredible clarity of mind in order to be able to operate at such speed.

In order to try and put this into some kind of modern context, let us consider the Formula One racing driver. As drivers go, like him, envy or loathe him, Michael Schumacher is (at the moment) the world’s best driver. He’s proved it many times over. To be the best, he has to have certain qualities. He must have incredibly fast reaction times. In fact, he must be able to predict outcomes a split second before they occur and be ready to compensate for them in advance. He must be consistent in his driving overall. He must be able to alter his driving patterns to match the conditions. So he must be a good driver in the wet as well as in the dry. Most importantly, he must be one with his machine, feeling every twist and bump, every rev, and every gear change. As an aside, there is one facet of Michael Schumacher that bears mentioning. Over the years he has been regarded by some as being arrogant in his attitude. Many said the very same about the general attitude of the samurai warriors. I have learned that Schumacher is not an arrogant man, just very sure of his own abilities. There is a fine line between supreme self-confidence and arrogance. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

Having thought about the Formula One idea for a moment, now consider bringing the same core human skills (not the driving skills!) to bear in a sword fight between two experienced Japanese swordsmen. Schumacher was battling the elements. Hard enough, you might say. But the swordsman is directly battling another man. Just one tiny error, one-hundredth of a second too late in countering a blow, and it means instant death. These are the kinds of tolerances the Japanese swordsman faces. Exactly the same as in a frantic dash around Imola with nineteen other cars at 200 mph!

Let us pause here for a moment to attempt to consider the mindset of such people. Surely, each combatant must have absolute faith in himself to be able to face such an encounter? Surely he must have some means of placing his fear out of reach? Most of us drive a car nowadays, so most of us will be aware of the near “prang” and how for that short moment, we felt the rise of adrenaline and fear. The Michael Schumachers of this world would have an internal (psychological) strategy to deal with the situation. It would be based on the absolute surety of their skill and the abilities of the car. They would drive out of the situation, not feeling fear, because they have trained themselves (like the soldier) to ignore fear, and just do it. This is a small insight into the mindset of the Japanese swordsman of old.

One might argue that all these concepts are null and void, simply because today there are no samurai, and no one walks around with a sword. And the Japanese lifestyle is radically changed from those not so ancient of times. Of course, you would be correct, but even though the society in Japan may have changed, the methods employed to train in the ways of the sword have not. Many dedicated Japanese sword schools have continued to the old methods, preserving a part of their cultural heritage, as well as a fighting art. These schools are generically called “koryu” or “classical”. It is argued that koryu bujutsu can only be taught within Japan itself. The argument being that the student would need to be fully conversant with the whole of the Japanese culture, and that cannot be achieved outside of Japan.

So far, we have only had a chance to briefly look at those aspects of Japanese swordsmanship which shed light on the levels of skills required. In part 2 of this article, we will take a look at some of the detail of those skills so that we might begin to learn something about how wielding a sword might teach lessons for life.

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