As the martial arts left the Oriental world and literally spread to nearly every country on the face of the earth, there has been a gap created that people have not been able to breech. That gap was first caused by the fact that Westerners did not understand certain fundamental aspects of Oriental thought. Where the Western mind was focused on facts, intellect, and reason, the Oriental mind turned to aesthetics, intuition, and freedom. Where Westerners fought for physical freedom, the Orientals developed personal freedom of mind and spirit. Westerners desired and sought open spaces creating in themselves an individuality unheard of in the East, while Orientals developed a highly integrated society where the individual only exist as a part of the group, from living in a country without the vast open spaces of a continent.
These differences seemed to make it impossible for Westerners to understand the mental processes of the martial arts and thus opened, what appeared to be a vast chasm, which would ever keep the Westerners from mastering the Oriental martial arts. But these differences were greatly exaggerated by people wanting to make it seem thus. In reality, there are fewer differences between Westerners and Orientals than most people believe.
The first dedicated Occidental practitioners of the martial arts were military men and police officers, who understood what it was to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the group. These were men who had dedicated themselves to a lifestyle very similar to the Samurai. They understood and appreciated the surrender of fear and personal safety for the sake of community and country. And thus there were many military men who were able to fully understand the idea of the Oriental martial arts.
A second group of martial arts practitioners developed coming from the women of the Western world. They were very in tune with the aesthetics and intuition of the martial arts and fully accepted the ‘feelings’ necessary for the progressive development towards mastery. In many ways the women were able to understand in a much faster way the depth of the martial arts due to their already deep beliefs in their own womanly intuition.
Finally, a third group has emerged. This group is made up of men and women who are very religious in nature, many being ministers of different faiths. These individuals see in the martial arts the ability to defend themselves while maintaining the peacefulness of their religious faiths. Realizing that service to God, in whatever way their individual faiths require, is paramount, these people seek the health, strength, and courage that training in the martial arts provide. These people look to the Sohei, warrior monks, of the past for inspiration in carrying their faith into a violent world, with compassion and strength.
But there has been another revelation about the Oriental martial arts that has opened the eyes of the Westerners to the fact that the martial arts are in truth an avenue where the Oriental sought the individuality already such a part of the Westerners personality. A story here can help to explain the situation.
Several years ago, an Occidental individual wrote a book dealing with Kenjutsu. In the book he basically said, do it my way or you are doing it wrong. In his writing he perpetuated the myth that a martial arts system is a method of movement which teaches everyone to move the same. This idea developed around the attitudes and concepts which came out of Tokugawa Japan, where due to the fact that there was no longer open and constant warfare, some schools of martial arts began to major on training through prearranged Kata. When Okinawan martial arts were first accepted by the Japanese, they too were encouraged, to the point of acclimation or rejection, to create and teach through the method of prearranged Kata.
A couple of years later, a Japanese master of the same art, also published a book on Kenjutsu. Nothing he did looked anything like what the Occidental showed in his book. To be honest, both the Occidental and Japanese masters were right in what they showed, but the Occidental had tried to make it seem that his way was the only way, and that was wrong.
In a land where individual freedom was always subject to the needs of the clan, lord, or country, the martial arts were one area of freedom the individual possessed. It is because there are now ancient systems being brought to the light of modern day, that we are just now truly beginning to understand the truth of martial arts training. In demonstrations of their ancient martial arts, practitioners of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu and Togakure Ryu have demonstrated freestyle Kata which are much older forms of training than the prearranged Kata. Now that certain practitioners of the ancient Okinawan Bujutsu have decided to open their training to the Occidentals, we are just now finding out that the original method of Karate training was the freestyle Kata and not the prearranged Kata which are not older than the twentieth century. Finally, we find out that if Westerners will allow their individuality to manifest itself in the practice of the martial arts, they will be doing exactly what the creators of the martial arts have always done since they began so long ago.
Using the sword as our basis we can see how certain principles and ideas developed and were practiced in the ancient past. We can also understand how true martial arts instruction was done during the time of war, and why it was so effective. First of all, the sword techniques demonstrated are those of Okinawan Bujutsu as preserved in Kiyojute Ryu Bukiho Kempo Kobujutsu. Bukiho means the weapon principle, which is different than learning to simply use a weapon. The Okinawan masters of the martial arts knew that they could be attacked at any time from the Wako, pirates that plied the waters of Japan, China, and Okinawa. The Okinawan royalty carried their swords, but the farmers and fishermen, as well as, the sailors, would only have whatever tools were at their hand. Thus the Okinawan Bujutsuka learned a set of weapon principles which could then be applied to anything, from a sword to a farm tool.
Basically speaking there were three rules of the Bukiho. First, move the weapon with Te. This does not mean with the hand but with skill. Te is the term used for the basic Okinawan method of fighting, and usually refers to the hand, but the deeper meaning is skill. The idea was simply, learn one effective method of fighting which could then be applied to all things. For the Okinawan, fighting with the empty hand was the same as fighting with a weapon. There was no difference.
The second rule of Bukiho, is learn the three levels of thrust and every possible configuration of the weapon with which to thrust. The three levels of thrust are considered, high to the head, middle to the torso, and low to the legs. The final rule is, know the eight angles of strikes and every possible configuration of the weapon with which to strike. The eight angles are, going clockwise; straight down, right diagonal down, straight right, right diagonal up, straight up, left diagonal up, straight left, and left diagonal down.
With an understanding of these three rules, an Okinawan master could use anything as a weapon. There are stories of Okinawan martial artists who traveled to China to study, who amazed their Chinese martial arts friends with the ability to pick up weapons they had never trained with before, and handle them like masters, which of course they were. Masters of the principle of Bukiho.
Once other point needs to be dealt with before we deal with the actual techniques of Okinawan Kenjutsu, and that is the fact that sword practice was never prohibited on the island. We all know the history of Okinawa, how the king Sho Hashi united the country. How one of his successors, a member of the second Sho dynasty, banned the possession of weapons, which gave rise to the use of tools as weapons. And how in 1609, the Satsuma invaded and took over Okinawa and reinforced the ban on weapons.
What is not always understood, is that the ban on weapons applied only to the peasants. During the rule of the Okinawan royalty, they continued to carry, and practice with, their swords. When the Satsuma took over Okinawa, while the royalty were no longer allowed to carry their swords openly, they were allowed to keep them at home and train with them. So the weapon bans did not affect the preservation of the Okinawan Bujutsu at all, except it did create an emphasis on empty hand fighting that spurred the creation of the empty hand skills of today.
There are certain general principles which are constant whether in empty hand fighting or weapon combat. One of the most important aspects of fighting is Ma-ai, distancing. When first engaging a person a martial artist must set the proper distancing. In Oriental martial arts, Ma-ai has always been considered, one step away from touching. This distancing is affected by the length of any weapon carried. If you are fighting empty handed, the distancing is one step away from being touched by the hand or foot. The person would need to take one step towards, with either the front foot or rear foot, to actually touch you. If the person is carrying a sword, then they would need to take one step forward for the sword to touch you, which would be much farther away than when empty handed.
Some people might think that even then the distance might be a little close, but the idea was to be close enough to counter, once the attacker made a move, and yet far enough away not to be hit by a quick swing without a step. This is one reason why feinting was not as an important skill in Oriental martial arts, as in Western methods. If an attacker were to step in and feint, the swordsman would simply cut him/her, for the distance would have been closed. Bruce Lee used to love to exhibit this principle in his movies, in which he would have a person move in to attack, and as soon as the persons body was within distance, Lee would hit or kick, before the person could deliver an attack.
Once proper distancing is accomplished, then the next principle is Nin, patience. While this principle was the foundation of all forms of Ninjutsu, it is actually the foundation principle for all ancient, pre-Tokugawa, Japanese martial arts. What a master would do is wait to see if the other person would be precipitous, become nervous and attack. As the person attacked, s/he would create an opening which the defender would then use to strike him/her. In some cases, the other person would not attack, but instead develop a Suki, literally gap but sometimes referred to as dead time. What this means is that a person allows a thought to occupy their mind, so that they must get rid of the thought before they can turn to something else, in that moment they can be struck, and not move to defend themselves.
Another principle in swordsmanship, is move in as the person loads to strike. Some people will move the sword to a favorite attacking position, and then choose to close the distance. If at that moment, the defender will charge forward, before the forward momentum is unleashed, it is possible to use the inertia of the moment to strike the attacker.
In an example of striking after an attack, a defender may allow a cut to pass by, using Taisabaki, body movement, to avoid the cut and then deliver his/her own cut. The secret here is angular stepping. The defender must use just enough body movement to avoid being hit by an attackers sword and yet stay close enough so that after the strike passes by, s/he may deliver an effective response. It is possible to move at almost any angle and deliver a counterstrike to some potion of the attackers body, from the head, to the body, or even the wrist.
Okinawan Bujutsu was used to prepare the royalty to defend their homeland against pirates or against insurrection. Being a small island they had a very small group of defenders, which allowed the Satsuma to take the island in 1609, simply by superior number. Most important, the sword training was very personalized, even as it was in Japan prior to the Tokugawa era. Each person was taught the superior grips of the weapon, the manipulation of the configuration, and the three thrusts and eight angles upon which the manipulation was based. But then each person was taught to develop their own personal way of movement. Some modern Kenjutsu practitioners will try to tell you that unless you hold the sword a certain angle over your head you are doing it wrong. Or they will say that unless you move from point A to point B and then follow with point C, you will not be doing it like the masters.
The truth is the masters of the past moved with complete freedom. Form was knowing the best way to hold and manipulate the weapon, not a preset form of movement. The prearranged Kata of today, in regard to Kenjutsu, originated in the Tokugawa era, when war was no more, and the participants would not enter battle on the scale of the Sengoku Jidai, age of the country at war, ever again.
It is said that in the early 1600s, a Soke, headmaster, of one of the great systems of swordsmanship, began lamenting that his students were becoming too involved with the beauty and aesthetics of prearranged Kata, and how he wished that they would get back to good, realistic combat training by training in the Mukei, no form, of Kenjutsu. There is nothing wrong with training in the prearranged Kata, in order to learn how the sword should be moved. There is nothing wrong with stressing certain positions and angles of holding and moving the sword. But for those who want to learn how to use the weapon like the ancient masters, to be able to wield a sword realistically, as if for real combat, then the time must come when the student is taught by his/her master to move the sword freely, and to develop their own style of motion. At that point they become truly effective Kenjutsuka, they develop the personal way of the sword.

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