Japanese and German late Medieval Swordsmanship: Worlds Apart, Ages Removed, Alive Today

“For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot have a single style in combat,
 yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis.”

 -Joachim Meyer, Kunst des Fechten, 1570

The sword and the very special place it holds as part of the human experience fascinates me. As a child I was raised on tales of King Arthur and the glorious sword Excalibur. Later, I found other tales and was enthralled with the adventures of Beowulf and his venomous sword Hrunting and the magical swords of the Spanish hero El Cid Tizona and Colada. As I grew older I came to knowsome of the tales of Japan and the three sacred treasures of Japan one of which was the great sword Kusanagi. As an adult, I have spent the majority of my free time seeking out and training with teachers who could give me even the smallest bit of instruction. From Chinese Dao and Jian, to the European saber and long sword to my favorite, the Japanese Katana I have been fortunate not to have cut anything off. As martial artists, we are lucky enough to be living during a time when the arts of swordsmanship are experiencing a kind of rebirth. The living arts of the east have found new homes in the west and ancient sword arts of the west are being rediscovered and reinterpreted for the modern practitioner. Unfortunately, many who practice these art forms do not understand how the martial traditions of the east and west share similar foundations. Here we will briefly examine the morphology and basic techniques of the medieval long sword and the katana highlighting the common features that can make the living arts of Japan a valuable tool to assist in understanding historical sword arts of medieval Europe.

Before we can begin to compare the styles and technique of the two sword arts, an understanding of the morphology of the two swords is necessary.

There are obvious differences between the Katana and the Long Sword. The most notable being the shape, length, guard, and edge placement. The long straight blade of the long sword contrasts greatly with the gentle curve of the Katana which is often 45 inches or less overall. The guard of the long sword serves a tactical function during binding (tai-attari) and half-swording while the guard of the Katana served to balance the sword and to keep the hands from sliding up onto the blade. It was mainly defensive in nature as the shorter arc of the curved blade makes binding more dangerous than with a longer straight blade. A common misconception among those who are not familiar with the katana is that it is a single edged sword. While this is true of some iterations of the design, the most commonly seen blades used in Japanese sword arts have two cutting edges the Ha and the short edge of the Kissaki as defined by the presence of a yokote. Many ryu ha draw a distinct difference between the use of the Kissaki and the Ha and their application. This is analogous to the idea of the long and short edge in the European tradition and the difference in the application of the two edges. Both swords were primarily used in two hands but could easily be used in one hand and have specific techniques associated with single hand use.

The steel that was used in both blades was of the highest possible quality. It is commonly believed that the steel used in Japan was of a much higher quality than was available in Europe. The reality is that by this period in history the knowledge gap that had given the east a comfortable lead in the technologies of metallurgy and steel craft had been closed for some time. Good steel was hard to come by in large quantities in japan and this shortage was instrumental in the creation of what would come to be one of the most famous styles of sword ever. A recent polishing and examination of German sword and spear blades, Katana No Kantei, by a renowned Japanese sword polisher and appraiser seemed to show that while heavily damaged by improper storage and attempts at restoration, the steel was of remarkably high quality as reported by Stefan Maeder of Kokugakuin University.

It is important to understand that while Japanese swordsmanship has been maintained as a living tradition the art of Long Sword fencing was abandoned at the dawning of the renaissance in Europe. The usefulness of the two handed sword in battle was eclipsed by the advent of the firearm and its use as a civilian self-defense weapon was rejected in favor of the shorter, single handed sword. The rebirth of the art of Long Sword fencing today is the result of many intelligent and dedicated scholars and martial artists who have undertaken the task of translating and interpreting the surviving historical fencing manuals. The various schools of historical European martial arts (HEMA) have slowly begun to reemerge from the ashes of history and it has been revealed that throughout the documented history of Europe, effective and sophisticated martial traditions were evolving in parallel with those of Asia. Unfortunately, resurrecting these long abandoned arts it is a daunting task and has produced nearly as much bad information as good.

One of the principal issues I see with this kind of interpretive study is the practice of using only primary source material and drawings to form the foundation of a martial practice. This can lead to a wildly misguided understanding of proper posture and body mechanics. As we will see in the following images, if we were to assume that the images of Japanese kamae, taken from historical documents, are representations of proper posture and stance, we would not look anything like what is commonly accepted as proper today. In many cases, the exaggerated poses in the historical images may serve a purpose other than trying to depict proper kamae. The artist may be trying to give subtle clues to the initiated as to the proper direction of attack and defense or the application of physical and mental pressure. The images presented here should not be taken as representative of proper Long Sword or Katana form but as examples of historical texts that may or may not have been produced with the intention of teaching proper technique.

While it would be impossible to fully explore the similarities between the various ryuha and European schools of medieval swordsmanship given the scope of this article we can draw some conclusions by exploring the major guards found in historical texts from both traditions. The Following images will depict some of the guards taught by the German fencing master Joachim Meyer and are taken from his 1570 training manual.With the exception of Jodan No Kamae, the images of Japanese origin are taken from the historical text Shinkage-Ryu Heiho Mokuroku and drawn by Yagyu Sekishusai to accompany the descriptions of techniques given previously in The Life Giving Sword by Yagyu Munenori. Both the Japanese and European guards can be assumed with either the right or left foot in the advance position and are not static postures to be fought from but rather transitory stances to be assumed as part of a greater strategy.

The Basic Guards:

This is Ochs (Ox) in the Meyer School of The Long Sword and corresponds to a Kamae called Gasumi in various ryuha. In both the Japanese and European schools of swordsmanship this guard is very versatile allowing the swordsman to strike to all the major cutting arcs and to thrust from a high guard. One peculiarity that shows up in long sword fencing that is not present in Japanese schools is the existence of the “Thumb Grip” wherein the fencer places the thumb of his leading hand on the flat of the blade to assist in point control during the thrust and to add leverage and speed during molinelli.

Pflug (plow) is easily recognizable as similar to Chudan No Kamae and is used in an almost identical manner. Both cuts and thrust are possible from this guard and the opponent must always be wary of the point. This guard tends to keep the opponent at the greatest distance allowing more freedom of movement. One interesting note that needs to be emphasized is that because of the placement of the two cutting edges on the Long Sword, reverse cuts can be easily made from Pflug and all of the major guards. With the katana, the sword must be rotated to complete a reverse cut as in the Seitei kata Kesa Giri.

Vom Tag (from the roof) is the major high guard and shares many of the same benefits that Jodan No Kamae grants. Powerful blows that enter over the top of an opponent’s defense are possible. German variations on this guard move the blade to a position over either the right or left shoulder. This seems to correspond to Migi or Hidari Jodan. The tighter arc of the curved sword makes cuts with the Katana faster, but the added length of the Long Sword tends to compensate for the slower cut as the opponent can be engaged at longer range. In Italian traditions, this advantage in length could be magnified by executing a one handed cut from this guard. This can be witnessed today among practitioners of Kendo and one could easily imagine a Japanese swordsman surprising an opponent who may have assumed he was out of range with a left handed, cut from the high guard.

Alber (fool) is a deceptive guard much like Gedan No Kamae. Despite its name in German (fool), it can be inferred from its Italian name (half-iron door) that it can be a powerful defensive posture specifically when one considers the ease with which a short edge cut could be made to the wrists, legs, or groin of an unwary opponent.Meyer states that the guard is used primarily to entice a foolish or naïve opponent to strike and create an opening for the counter. In the text, Meyer seems to be describing something akin to Go no Sen.

The Side Guard or Nebenhut shares many applications with Waki No Kamae. One of the main differences being that in the German school this guard is often associated with the end of a cut from the high guard. As can be seen in the image from the Japanese source, the guard may also be used to draw the opponent into attacking a perceived opening. In the above image the swordsman appears to be presenting his shoulder as a target. From any of the major guards discussed here a swordsman should be able to strike to all of the major cutting arcs as discussed below.

Meyer’s Cross (left) depicts the eight cutting arcs that can be made with any cutting implement. The point in the middle is of course for the thrust. It is commonly assumed that because of the curvature of the Katana that is was not a thrusting weapon. This could not be more untrue. The length of the blade and the fantastic cutting edge made it a devastating cutter, but its thrusting ability is attested to in the many Kata that employ the trust. The second image depicts divisions of the human body as taught by Meyer in his 1570 manual.

Cuts in the European tradition are used primarily against un-armored opponents. The heavy armor commonly associated with medieval warfare made the cut an almost useless attack and so alternate methods of attack were developed. Half-swording, gripping the sword blade at mid length and using the sword as a short spear as well as attacking with the cross guard were common methods of dealing with armored opponents in Medieval Europe. Within the framework of this article we are focusing primarily on unarmored combat with the sword and not making a comparison between the Knight and the Samurai. While both warriors were employed as cavalry, the tactical differences dictated that they be used in different ways strategically. European heavy cavalry (Knights) were primarily intended to deal with opposing cavalry and to support infantry as part of the charge. Japanese mounted knights (Samurai) were primarily mounted archers before the end of the Warring States period and would not be employed in the same manner as European knights. It should also be noted that in Europe, the bow was not considered to be a Knightly weapon while in Japan it was readily embraced.

The diagram above was presented at the 2004 AUSKF National Iaido Camp by Ueno Sensei for illustrating the cutting angles involved in the ZNKR kata. (I did not attend)

If we take Meyer’s cross and overlay it onto the image of the swordsman above then compare it to the diagram presented by Ueno Sensei, we can see that:

A: there are only so many way to cut up your opponent

B: the cutting arcs from ancient European Long Sword schools correspond closely to those taught in a “living” sword art practiced today.

Tactical Movement:

Ki Ken Tai Ichi: Spirit, Sword, Body, One. Essentially the unification of the sword and the swordsman into a single unified weapon system is a foundational concept in Japanese swordsmanship. The realization of this concept is still sought on today’s modern battlefield. Defense research organizations in the employ of almost every nation with a standing army are constantly looking for ways to make the soldier and his weapons function in a unified way as it is an accepted fact that this is the state in which a warrior is most efficient and effective. As part of Japanese swordsmanship this concept has taken on a more esoteric flavor but still retains the most fundamental truth in that the sword must act in accordance with the will, and body of the swordsman to be effective.

If we look back at Meyer’s text, we can see that while the concept was never given a name, it certainly appears to have been understood to a degree. The following is taken from chapter 7 of Meyer’s long sword book and is presented as part of his twelfth rule:

“He who steps after striking deserves less joy in his art.”

“That is that every strike must have its own step which shall occur at the same time as the strike, if you would do otherwise with the elements which you resort to, then step too early or too late, thus it happens around your play, and you thus bring yourself around your strike, thus learn to make the steps right so that your opponent cannot work as he really wants, bringing on a stop, particularly so that you upset his grounding or place as it were. In attacking now let yourself mark this, and position yourself as if you would make large and far steps, but actually stay closer with your feet correct, and attack him. So much is then built on from here. Since all of this must be learned and used in fencing, this must be known.”

The most prominent difference between the two traditions of swordsmanship seems to be the more esoteric feel of the Japanese styles. This is the direct result of the influences of Shinto and Buddhism on the martial philosophies of Japan. Without this influence and the redirection of martial culture in Japan from one focused on war to one focused on the “Way” it can be argued that these living arts may not have been passed down through the ages to be available today. The animistic influence of Shinto was also instrumental in instilling a respect for the sword as an object that could embody Spirit. This led to a respect for the sword that until recently was believed to be unparalleled in the west.

In Europe, religious and mythological significance and the notion that the sword could possess a soul of its own were not uncommon in the pre-Christian era. It was only after the widespread growth of Christianity and it’s acceptance by post Roman Europe that the physical world and the old animistic faiths were cast aside in favor of looking to the afterlife and the human soul as being of primary significance.The respect for the sword as an object of reverence went into decline laying the stage for the eventual loss of the ancient arts of fencing in favor of more modern systems of combat. The once treasured blades could then be disregarded. Forgotten by those they served so faithfullyand left to rust without regard for the spirit of the thing itself.

In conclusion, the arts of swordsmanship when stripped of their cultural flavor look surprisingly similar. A Teutonic Knight and a Samurai of the Sengoku period had essentially the same view from behind the blade and an identical perspective when looking down the blade of an enemy determined to kill them. As a martial artist, I strive to always keep an “empty cup” in the way Bruce Lee advocated in “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” but also fully embrace his doctrine of taking what works and discarding what doesn’t when I attempt to understand and put into practice the teachings of masters whose lineage ended hundreds of years ago. In this age of instant global information exchange and the diminishing of cultural barriers, it is only prudent that the living arts of Asia be embraced as a valuable resource for the interpretation and evaluation of the re-awakening martial arts of medieval Europe.