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Thread: A question for Karl Friday about swordsmanship.

  1. #1
    ben johanson Guest

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    I have a question I would like to pose to Karl Friday if he would be so kind as to answer it, but, of course, I would welcome input from anyone who wishes to give it.

    I am very interested in swordsmanship, and based on what I've read, the sword was used rather sparingly on the battlefields of the Sengoku period in Japan, while the primary arms of the day (after 1543) were the spear, bow and gun. It appears that the sword assumed an entirely secondary role to the above weapons, like a back-up or a side-arm. My question is, if this is true (correct me if it's not), then why did so many samurai, such as Tsukahara Bokuden, Kamiizumi Hidetsuna, Yagyu Muneyoshi, etc and their followers, dedicate their lives to the study of the sword? If the main goal of a samurai's martial training during this period was to be able to succeed on the battlefield, then why would they spend so much of their time learning and developing techniques for a secondary battlefield weapon insead of focusing their attention on, say, the spear, since it seems to have been the principle arm in battle?

    Any information on this would be greatly appreciated.

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    That's a very good question, and I don't have a completely satisfactory answer for it--at least not yet.

    You're right that the sword seems to have been a backup weapon for warriors through the medieval period, and became a key weapon and symbol of samurai identity only in the Tokugawa period, when samurai almost never saw battlefields, but DID carry swords around as part of their everyday dress. Researchers on the topic have been agreed for a couple of decades or more that the early samurai were bowmen, and the thrust of work being done on the Nanbokucho and Sengoku periods during the past few years points VERY strongly to the conclusion that missle weapons (first bows, and later guns) were the primary weapon of 14th-16th century battlefields as well, that bladed weapons came into play only in special situations or after one side had broken ranks and begun to run, and that even then samurai preferred (and feared) spears over swords.

    The fascination of men like Bokuden or Muneyoshi with swordsmanship probably had to do with a combination of factors.

    First and foremost is probably the overlap between sword and other military skills. The idea that fighting is basically fighting, regardless what weapon you're using seems to have been a fundamental part of samurai military thinking from very early on. Hence warriors could use sword practice as a kind of microcosm of martial art--a vehicle to generalized expertise--including expertise in generalship. In this context we need to remember that men like Bokuden were the equivalent of officers, who usually directed squads of foot soldiers from horseback. By the 15th century there seems to have been quite a bit of specialization of function in Japanese armies. The archers and gunners who appear to have been the main offensive weapons of late medieval armies were all low-ranked soldiers, as were the pikemen who protected them.

    A second factor is the effect of four centuries of post-medieval memory. We tend to forget that Bokuden, Muneyoshi, Hidetsuna, Matsumoto Bizen-no-kami and other famous late 15th and 16th century warriors were all famous in their time as spearmen, as well as as swordsmen. And most medieval bugei ryuha involved the use of numerous weapons; sword-only schools were really a product of the Tokugawa period. I suspect that much of our received image of these guys as sword specialists is the result of selective memory born from early modern and modern obsession with the sword.

    A third factor is the symbolic value of the sword, and its value as a personal and dueling weapon. Swords are a central part of Japanese myth and warrior ethos, appearing in the very earliest written records, and were a standard side arm of the samurai from beginning of their history. They were the weapon a warrior was most likely to be carrying, even in civilian dress. And they were both the sexiest and the most practical weapon for one-on-one duels and other off-battlefield tests of skills. Most of the great swordsmen from the sengoku era in fact made their reputations primarily through duels and matches, not wartime, battlefield exploits.

    In other words, we remember Bokuden, Hidetsuna, Muneyoshi and the rest as swordsmen because they were most famous for their sword fights. But that doesn't mean that they were just swordsmen--or even that they were *primarily* swordsmen. It just means that they were especially good at or especially fond of swordplay, for a variety of reasons that are only indirectly related to what they actually did on the battlefield. The situation here reminds me a little of the final scene in "Quiggly Down Under," when Tom Selleck (whose character was famous for his expert marksmanship with a rifle) shoots down the bad guy using a handgun, and remarks "I never said I couldn't use one, I said I don't LIKE 'em."


    Karl Friday
    Dept. of History
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602

  3. #3
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    Karl,

    Excellently put.

    I have had this discussion several times before with various individuals but never put it so well. Thanks for the concise and well thought out presentation of your thoughts .

    Toby Threadgill

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    Default Swords and Spears

    Wonderful response Toby, I have one comment to make from a more practical aspect though:

    Spears and bows were the primary instruments of battle, however spears broke, or bowmen might be engaged in close combat where a bow was about as usefull as a flyswatter. Swords can be easily carried in a manner that leaves both hands free for use of the primary weapon and can be quickly drawn at need. I think the principle value of the sword is not as king of the battlefield, but as a highly effective secondary weapon which doesn't intefere with the use of the warriors weapon of choice, and still offers a good balance of offensive and defensive capabilities.

    It was rather uncommon in all cultures to have a military unit that was armed with swords as the primary weapon, with the exception of late European cavalry, which mostly used (or at least encouraged) the sword as a sort of short lance.
    Dan Beaird

    The best time to be a hero is when all the other chaps are dead, God rest 'em, and you can take the credit.

    H. Flashman V.C., K.C.B., K.C.I.E.

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    Default Just going on with that thought

    Just going on with what dbeaird was saying I was wanting too say that this was and is not a completally Japanese practice. Though many units all over the world in the past used many differant weapons, they all had something too back up on, usually the sword. Also, this happens in the modern military as well. Though they use knife fighting instead of sword fighting. Though the guns bows spears, and whatever the main weapon of the time is, may be very well the most devestating weapon in the world, it just doesn't fit into every situation. That whole round peg for round hole thing.
    Chris Baker.
    Chris Baker.
    From Germany where it has this nasty habit of snowing in April.

  6. #6
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    I agree with both you gentlemen.

    Interesting aside. several years ago a friend of mine owned a katana that was a bit too short for a normal katana but was a bit too long to be a wakazashi. The nakago was also angled in an unusual fashion. He had this sword sent to Japan for a polish. It seems the sword was an unusual katana made specifically as a secondary weapon for a spearman to draw and wield quickly if an attacked got either inside the effective range of his spear or if his spear was damaged. Kinda supports the points you guys make... no pun intended.

    Toby Threadgill

  7. #7
    Jerry Johnson Guest

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    Hello, and pardon the interruption. If I may, I would also like to ask a question of Karl Friday. After reading such a wonderful and informative post, by Karl Friday, which now makes absolute sense that in warfare/battlefield the sword may not have been as primary of weapon as many of us thought. My question is then why all the folklore, glamorization, and romance surrounding the Japanese sword in the west? Any thoughts?

    Before sounding like a complete numb skull allow me to elaborate. Clearly there is the obvious reasons. As you mentioned, symbolic value and philosophy. Sword is the soul of the samurai type of thing. What I am digging at is the why the sword and not the spear like in other cultures. What sets the Japanese apart and what is the appeal or hold does the Japanese sword (learning it) have with Western world. The middle east has great sword cultures with the same type of symbol and dueling elements. The person I think of to demonstrate this off-hand is Sir Lawrence of Arabia, and Ali Baba and the forty thieves-folklore. Whom are all great romantic figures. Figures devoid in the West of samurai culture.

    If you decide to entertain this question it would be greatly appreciated, and I look forward to your response.

    In gratitude,


    [Edited by Jerry Johnson on 01-10-2001 at 08:04 PM]

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    Is this the same Jerry Johnson that used to do the Chicago sword show and collected polearms? Just curious. Bob Elder
    Rich and Stress Free

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    Originally posted by Jerry Johnson
    Hello, and pardon the interruption. If I may, I would also like to ask a question of Karl Friday. After reading such a wonderful and informative post, by Karl Friday, which now makes absolute sense that in warfare/battlefield the sword may not have been as primary of weapon as many of us thought. My question is then why all the folklore, glamorization, and romance surrounding the Japanese sword in the west? Any thoughts?

    [Edited by Jerry Johnson on 01-10-2001 at 08:04 PM]
    Well, I'm not Karl Friday and I've never played him on TV, but...

    Most of the recent delusions about Japanese swords comes to us from WWII. At first GI's were warned about dealing with sword carrying IJA soldiers and the stories started to grow about the swords cutting through machine gun barrels and so on. (Why any swordsman would try to cut a machine gun barrel when he could cut the machine gunner is beyond me.) Japanese swords became highly prized trophies, even though most of the swords in service were machine stamped guntos, and of course, casualties from sword wounds were next to non-existant.

    The other point to remember is that the Japanese feudal culture was only dissolved fairly recently, and the artificial ban on firearms prior to the Meiji Restoration helped preserve the culture of the Bushi and the Japanese sword (as it was intended to do). Following that, the Japanese government relied heavily on the legends and lore of the Samurai in their propoganda. This has lead to a sort of high availability of lore compared to most Western Cultures. And of course we shouldn't forget the fact that Westerners are often drawn to the Mysterious Orient, just because it is different.

    Swords in all cultures have been highly regarded and valuable weapons. It takes great skill to make one, and great skill to use one effectively. Pattern welding, laminate construction and just about all facets of Japanese sword construction can be found in Western and Middle Eastern swords. Western swords were made that in every respect compare favorably to the best that the Japanese could make. The early advent of firearms though brought an end to the nobility dominating the battlefields of Europe and methods of mass production began to be used to arm the citizenry rather than craftsmen supplying a small warrior class.

    To sum up: Westerners see the Japanese sword as first a sword which is a highly respected weapon and a symbol of nobility in practically all cultures. Second, they see a tradition of craftsmanship that is unmatched in the West. Third, the Japanese sword is part of an alien culture, and so perceived to be superior by those who cannot be bothered to see their own culture. And finally, there is an available body of literature and folklore surrounding these weapons that enhance all these aspects in building a legendary reputation for the weapon, the swordmakers and the men who wielded it in battle.

    On top of all that, Japanese swords are without a doubt the prettiest ever made. This is what happens when a battlefield tool becomes a piece of jewelry.
    Dan Beaird

    The best time to be a hero is when all the other chaps are dead, God rest 'em, and you can take the credit.

    H. Flashman V.C., K.C.B., K.C.I.E.

  10. #10
    Daniel Pokorny Guest

    Default The sword

    Just another thought here. If it were me on those battle fields and I was looking at my sword as a backup weapon, actually using it would then mean I was very close to running out of options.

    I don't know, but I think this fact alone would push me into becoming as proficient with the sword as I could possibly be..... or else get really good at throwing rocks!


    Regards to all,

    Dan P. - Mongo

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    Default one more point on the sword.

    Forgive me if I'm stepping on Dr. Friday's toes ( the last thing in the world that I would want to do) but I would like to say another point about the "glorifacation of the Japanese sword" as it were. I just wanted to say that this is hardly limited to the Japanese! Western culture has plenty of myths and legends about the sword as well, both Modern as well as archaic. Need I bring up King Authur or Zorro? How about the three Muskateers or the Scaramuce to say nothing of Beowolf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Star Wars, Robin Hood, the Princess Bride, Black Beard, ( need I go on?). Simply put, there is just somthing about this weapon that touches up and fasinates us. Just look at the fact that we are around our computers talking about a weapon that has effectively lost its military use and is considered more a thing of beauty than a thing of war. Yet, here we all are, many of us devoting our lifes to the study of a weapon that is in many ways obsolete. Heck, I would bet that the SWord forum on E-budo is the one that gets more posts than most others if not the most. I know I check this one before checking anything else.
    Chris Baker.
    Chris Baker.
    From Germany where it has this nasty habit of snowing in April.

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    I think Chris, Daniel and Dan have summed this up pretty nicely. The cult of the Japanese sword in the West is partly an extension of the cult of the Western sword in the West, and partly an extension of the cult of the Japanese sword in Japan (which was in turn the product of ancient myths reinforced by Tokugawa period myths, further reinforced and expanded by a mythos fostered by the Imperial Army). And let's not forget Mifune Toshiro movies . . .
    Karl Friday
    Dept. of History
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602

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    Thumbs up

    Dan,

    ...and so perceived to be superior by those who cannot be bothered to see their own culture....
    How true, how true! Only now, after my 48th year, am I becoming interested in European knights/miltes and their arms/armor.

    Regards,
    Guy
    Guy H. Power
    Kenshinkan Dojo

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    Talking Euro Swords

    Guy,

    It looks like we have approached things backwards... I have been an avid student on Anglican arms/armor for many years, and am only just now starting to learn the Japanese variants. In fact, over this weekend, I'm hoping to have my MA instructor do a goza cut with his katana and my basket-hilt broadsword to compare damage differences. (Of course, I suspect the broadsword won't fare well.... but why not?!?! :-) )

    Good luck in your pursuits. There is as much garbage and speculation in the Euro side of things as there is in Japanese. Keep clear of the SCA and you should do alright.

    Gary Beckstedt
    "He who dies with the most toys... is still dead."

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    Default Euro Swords.

    Now something that is really interesting about that point of people not being interested in their own Culture comes into viewwhen you live in Europe. I have a friend I train in swords with here (Mainz, Germany) and has a great interest in Europian Swordsmanship. His Problem, all the schools that teach that are in America or a small city in Spain. You got to love the Irony there huh. Talk about a head job.
    Chris Baker.
    From Germany where it has this nasty habit of snowing in April.

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