The Strategy Of The Sword: Part 2


Our opponent surges forward. He believes that he is fast and can perform a lightning cut before we have time to react. He is committed to the action now. His entire body weight behind the razor-sharp sword, which flashes over his head and towards its target. His mind is set and determined, yet he is aware of everything around him. As each microsecond passes, he is more sure he has the advantage and will be the victor. Then he sees the flash of steel and the cloud of his own blood. Then he dies.

– This may sound like something out of a novel, yet it attempts to describe something of the warrior attitude. The attacker believed he had the measure of his opponent and could successfully strike and win. But he was wrong. Despite being fully aware of the situation, he missed some vital clue, or more likely he was duped into a calculated move designed to trap him and end the confrontation. This is the use of strategy at its most basic.

Part 1 of this article attempted to portray the necessary levels of skill required of the Japanese swordsman. Now it is time to examine how that skill is put to use, and what extra attributes are required and why.

Firstly, let us address the question of why such high degrees of strategy is required in this type of fighting art. The answer to that question begins with the type of weapons used. The many clans of Japan had been feuding and battling from as early as recorded Japanese history began. The development of the sword came to its zenith around the 12th century and from that point onwards, there was little development, other than minor refinements and slight variations. The only notable exception being the development of the slightly shorter and less robust katana which came about at the beginning of the 17th century after the clan wars had ceased.

Many centuries of honing the skills of warfare within a culture that was to all intents and purposes rooted in the past, meant that fighting skills were highly developed. One might imagine a sword fight to be full of the clanging of metal on metal, and the film industry has done much to cement that image in our minds. Certainly in other countries that is true. In Scotland at about that time, the sword of choice was the highly unsophisticated Claymore. This sword was a huge, heavy double-edged beast of a sword, which required little more than brawn to swing it to its final conclusion. Not so the Katana.

Many hundreds of years previously, the Japanese used similar swords to the Claymore. But war has a tendency to focus the mind. Lots of constant war causes the mind to be highly concentrated on the efficiency of the weapons and strategies.

So in Japan, the use of the sword became highly effective and highly developed. So much so that everywhere you might have looked, there were sword schools and master swordsmen and sword makers. In such an atmosphere, there would need to be much more than mere brawn and agility. That something else had to be the use of the human brain. To defeat an accomplished adversary, the swordsman would now need to employ cunning schemes and tactics if he were to survive. These schemes, methods, ways, or strategies became the norm throughout Japan. Each school of swordsmanship had its own strategies and they did their best to keep them to themselves; a forlorn task at best, but they tried. Each swordsman gained his own personal strategies. Some would be highly effective. Some might be unique. Some would be well known to all. In a duel, as often happened, the weaknesses showed through, with fatal results.

We have seen something of why the strategies came into being and something of their purpose. But what of the strategies themselves? They are highly detailed and often subtle in their execution. Space here prevents detailed description, so we will just take a look at one in a little detail.

At the start of this second part of the article, there was a description of an attacker and his final seconds of life. Let us move backward and try to see what may have caused him to be so absolutely sure that his attack would be successful. Our attacker would only be so sure if he was full of the belief that his opponent was beaten, or at the very least so disadvantaged that the attacker seizes the initiative to end the fight. Certainly, the defender would never have allowed himself to be cut deliberately, as any cut usually means severe disability or death. What is more likely is to give the attacker the belief that he has maneuvered the situation to his advantage. The swordsman knows such a situation instinctively, and when it presents itself it is obvious. It is all about body positioning, where his body points, the direction of body momentum, his center of gravity, his sword position, and direction of travel. These are the obvious visual cues that are taken in, evaluated, and acted upon in each split second. If you know them, you can simulate them. If you are thinking ahead, you are setting him up for something that will occur in about two seconds or so (a lifetime in a sword fight). Here then is the strategy. Will he know you are setting him up? That will depend on so many things. Some of those things will have begun before the two combatants had ever met in combat.

The ancient samurai would be wise to learn about his adversary. Where he trained, who trained him, something about his school. These things illuminate certain facts about what might happen in a confrontation with someone from that particular school. These ideas also work on a much larger scale, say on the battlefield. A wise general learns everything he can about the army he faces. Numbers, deployment, entrenchment, and also their strengths and weaknesses are of paramount importance. This just scratches the surface. All this is done long before the battle.

Now perhaps we can begin to see how useful such tactics might be in say a business application? If a deal between companies must be struck, all the same principles need to be addressed if a successful take-over bid or deal is successful. Perhaps allowing your opponent to be lulled into a false sense of security might be useful. When he feels that he has the advantage, and has you running for the bank for more money, out pops security for another 20 million quid and the company is yours!

If we try to compare these ideas with training in this art today, there is much less emphasis on these particular ideas, as battles are few and far between. Yet to learn the art of Japanese swordsmanship means to strive to learn about the culture and anything of relevance to the art. As an example, you might train in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iai-Jutsu, but it would serve to have a working knowledge of other styles, even if only to compare and contrast against your own training.

Learning about Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu or Kashima Shinryu (Two of the oldest and existent samurai bujutsu systems) for example teaches not only that there are vast differences in style, but why they are there.

So back to our duellists. What else could have caused the ending to the fight in such a way? One such possibility is something which could be called “spiritual bearing”. One very important instruction from Musashi was to remain determined and calm. Simply put, one must not let the enemy see your feelings and intent. It was said that “When you cannot be deceived by men you will have realized the wisdom of strategy”. This takes the idea to even greater depth. Not only must the swordsman not show his demeanor, but he must be able to intuitively discern the intent of his enemy from the errors he might make when the “mask” slips.

These don’t immediately sound like swordsmanship skills, but they can most certainly be developed with good teaching and a great deal of training with the wooden sword in the dojo.

Hopefully from the description of our fictitious duel, we can see just a little further than the clashing of swords. There are so many possibilities, that it is impossible to expand on them here.

If we now turn to look at more specifically sword technique-oriented strategy, in his book “Go Rin No Sho”, Musashi describes 28 specific cutting techniques, which typically in koryu arts such as this, are specific movements for the typically encountered situations. These particular movements become the kata or forms of the various styles. They are assiduously practiced either as solo or partnered routines until their movements and concepts become second nature.

Each style of swordsmanship has its own kata for its own identified purposes. It might seem that a mere 28 set patterns would not be sufficient to deal with what seems like infinite possibilities, and this could be said to be true. However, the swordsman is reacting at such speed and often in an instinctive manner, there is no time for conscious thought processes. The swordsman needs to have just enough of an instinctive repertoire to draw from. Too much and he then has to resort to thinking too much.

The task of explaining the strategy of the sword is an onerous one, simply because it is such a huge subject. After all, as we have seen, it is far from mere sword-play, but delves into individual learning of human psychology, albeit in a quite rudimentary way. But the understanding of oneself and others has been a factor of certain martial arts practice over the centuries. The reasons for such understanding derive from the simple need to survive.

The study of Japanese swordsmanship is a lifetime project, and technique is only the beginning. The road to strategy is very long indeed.

Recent Posts