View Full Version : Built for swordsmanship?

Andy Mayer
20th December 2000, 18:01
Hey all,

I train in and teach Shinkendo. I love Japanese swordsmanship and would never leave it.

My question is, are the bigger, heavier, non-Japanese builds, such as mine(72", 205lbs), an advantage or disadvantage with Japanese swordsmanship?

I know there are tons of factors that must be considered. The various schools all have different beliefs in regards to sword size, positioning during wear, kamaes etc. Some of these I know were formed with the 5'2" Samurai in mind. I'm sure not everything can be scaled up proportionately.

Is it possible for the big westerners to use the Japanese sword to it's fullest potential? Or are we more suited to train western sword arts?

20th December 2000, 22:04
I have always thought of weapons as being the great equalizer, where skill matters more then size. Stamina and strength are definitly advantages, but skill trumps them all.


It is always fun to see the effect that a 6'2" 350 pound kendoka has on the spirit (morale) of his antagonist:

:eek: :smash:

I have read a few commentaries in various publications(JAMA, JJSA, Secret History of the Sword, J. Amberger 1996)
that have suggested that many parelles exist between Western two-handed sword techniques and those found in the Japaneses Ryu's. Having attended seminars in both traditions I would generally agree. Of course that is not all that surprising given that we are all anatomically the same. So, in short, no I don't think it matters what you study.

Nathan Scott
20th December 2000, 23:28
Hello Mr. Mayer,

How's everything in the "midwestern US-theatre"?

I think this is a good question, but am confident that non-native ethnicity/body type does not necessarily negate the fighting style.

Having said that, there are definitely some styles that suit some bodies better than others. I'm also a bit on the large side, and had finally gave up my training in Gung Fu when I looked around and realized that the students that were really outstanding had small, tight, flexible bodies and I didn't. On the other hand, I had done well in Judo before that, since deep stances were not as much an issue as weight and leverage. However, it is important for the student to be realistic about any physical differences, and if they wish to continue study in an art that was not "designed" around their body type, to specialize in those methods that best suit them. In Gung Fu, I could not make the advanced forms look very nice, so I chose to focus on the fundamental forms and K/P methods. Those aspects I focused on have served me very well, even though I wasn't able to benefit from the entire system.

As a mass generalization, I would say that the Chinese systems are more complimentary to the leaner, tighter, more flexible build, where the Japanese systems are more geared towards a relatively larger build.

In regards to traditional Japanese arts, I am of the opinion that - in most cases - it is advantageous to be large as long as it does not hamper the ability to move quick and gracefully. Most Ukiyo-e show bushi as being fairly stout, with a bit of a gut. I've found that height and weight have a great advantage (especially in cases of tai-atari and Jujutsu/kumiuchi) when utilized. Also, the daito sits more comfortably on the hip if there is a little bit of meat there (although a gut will push a shoto/tanto tsuka out at an awkard angle, if worn). Many skinny people need to wedge a hachimaki between the saya and hip bone when wearing daito to fill in the space and add cushioning.

In Judo, many Japanese have a shorter base (and hara), and as a result are very effective at slipping hip throws (koshi nage) because of the lower center. However, Westerners usually being taller have the advantage of specializing in tewaza and haraiwaza (balance breaking using the arms, and foot sweeps - Hi Mark-san!).

In Aikido, taller people tend to specialize in waza that are more over the top (Ikkajo, Nikkajo, Iriminage, Kotegaeshi) and shorter people usually like "under the arm" stuff (Sankajo, Yonkajo, Shihonage, Kokyunage, Koshinage, Jujinage).

If your sword art involves any heavy cuts, size and weight are an advantage to the alignment and leverage of the cut. This is probably useful if fighting in armor as well, since the armor is heavy and speed is reduced. One school of thought also maintains that you should use as long and heavy of a sword as you can physically manipulate without impeding your relative speed. Do not swing a sword that is to heavy or long for you to use, but do push the heavy/long envelope rather than opt for shorter and lighter. Many agree that penetration and reach are huge advantages in combat.

Conversely, if your art specializes in small, superficial cuts, then lots of suburi and speed are probably ideal.

In Shinkendo we happen to use both, so I think your o.k.

FWIW, one of the things that attracted me to Obata Soke was that he is a large, stocky man who moves with surprising speed and grace. Being larger myself, I recognized this as an inherent weak area in my own development and wished to build it up. It is easy to build up your strong areas, but not as beneficial as building up your weak areas, IMHO. This gives you the best of both worlds, and most importantly, the element of surprise. Many opponents will underestimate your speed and efficiency.

In any event, I think any art can be learned as long as the student understands how to best utilize the principles taught in their art. I don't have the potential to be as fast as someone smaller and leaner (and as such try to develop more refined timing to compensate for reduced speed), and they will not be able to achieve the same degree of power and strong foundation as myself.

Differences in how the Western mind analyzes, teaches and learns as compared to the Eastern mind (combined with certain other cultural differences) are probably more of a problem than physical differences between ethnicities.

Knowing you personally, I'd actually consider you to be a pretty well proportioned build. You should have no problem going either direction a bit, and would still have a slight advantage in reach in many cases. I'd basically caution you to make sure that your weapons, accessories etc. are proportioned correctly to your body type.

Good question,

[Edited by Nathan Scott on 12-20-2000 at 06:40 PM]

carl mcclafferty
21st December 2000, 01:01
I'm 6', 200. I think it depends on what that weight is made of <grin>. I haven't found it to be a handicap, except when I ran the Detroit-Windsor marathon last year. Yeow the last 1/10 of a mile almost killed me (fell off the wall, didn't run into it)but than I'm no spring chicken anymore.

Carl McClafferty

21st December 2000, 13:01
I agree that size and weight may work to your advantage in certain cases, but do not agree that they are important factors in performing or learning more difficult or "heavy" cuts. Size and weight do make up for lesser technique. How else could many of the Japanese sensei's, none of whom are much more than 5'5 and 130 pounds soaking wet, perform multiple( up to 8 ) cuts on rolled tatami??? I have seen my Sensei perform many advanced mutilple wara cuts as if it were a walk in the park on a sunny day, while advanced students here in the US have struggled to do even a portion of the same cut with big cutting blades after years of training??? ( me being one of them )

Please let us not "westernize" the requirements for quality swordsmanship .

Stir , Stir the pot.


Nathan Scott
21st December 2000, 16:34
> Size and weight do make up for lesser technique. How else
> could many of the Japanese sensei's, none of whom are much
> more than 5'5 and 130 pounds soaking wet, perform multiple
> ( up to 8 ) cuts on rolled tatami???

Well, we'll safe that question for another thread.

As far as Budo goes, there is no "magic" (to my experience and belief at least). Everything can be explained through natural science, and as such a seasoned student can emphasize/adapt those prinicples that best match their build (in advanced stages of training).

Given two people of equal skill, the person with more weight and size will generate more power and penetration (unless the student only uses their arms to cut with). We're talking about real general theory here, not individuals.


Cady Goldfield
21st December 2000, 17:07
Speaking from a background in the P/K arts, acceleration and speed are what make up for lack of body mass. So, a smaller person will have to double his acceleration to make a punch/kick/cut that equals the force and power of someone twice his body mass.

However, height is a different matter altogether. Here we're talking about ma-ai and reach. A shorter person with less reach will have to be quick on his feet to cover ground as needed against someone who effortlessly spans half the dojo with one stride. And, he must adjust his arm position (depending on the weapon... or empty hands) to best take advantage of his taller, longer-reaching opponent.

There's a good article on the subject of ma-ai, written some years ago by Diane Skoss. I think you can find it on the Koryu Books Web site that she and Meik Skoss run.

Also, there are different strategies one takes to counter the differences in height. In my old P/K art, the best strategy for the shorter person was usually to in-fight; that is, to cause his taller opponent to make an opening in himself, then to move in to a ma-ai that tangled up the taller person's limbs while giving the shorter person the advantage of short-distance techniques to the vulnerable targets he has entered. This seems to me to be something quite adaptible to weapons -- tsuka ate, etc.

I do believe that weapons are the great equalizer, in that you are not necessarily locked in physical grappling with your opponent. As long as you can maintain ma-ai through whatever means your body size and agility permit, you can use superior skill to overcome the opponent no matter how much larger he is than you.

But, as soon as you lose ma-ai and come into grappling distance, if you cannot make close-in combat techniques work, the person with greater body mass has a clear advantage. You are in the grips of the gorilla.

Of course, there are so many other factors at play, such as one's degree of fitness, etc., but I'm speaking in general terms.

[Edited by Cady Goldfield on 12-21-2000 at 12:50 PM]

Tony Peters
21st December 2000, 21:27
All things being equal the taller person is going to be slower, it's just plain physics. For Swordsmanship I think one of the most important aspects is how your wrists are built (bonewise). Point of comparison...my brother and I are built roughly the same, weigh about the same, about the same height etc. The only major difference is the size of our wrists. His are very thick, about 12 inches around, where as mine are just a hair over 9 though my forearms are likely stronger (from years of flying stunt kites and rock climbing) his ability to handle a sword is remakably differant. The sword "seats" well with him where as on me it sorta becomes an add on if that makes any sense. This was even more apparent to me (and a few others) when he switched to a Shinken. I have spent a while working on Unka Kims Tanren exercises to increase my wrist endurence but I'll likely never have the thick "swordsman's wrists" Personally I thick we non japanese have the advantage in this regard but thats just my opinion.

22nd December 2000, 09:07
Definate advantages when it comes to Maai. With a longer interval between you and the smaller opponent you should be able to control the situation better as they are still outside. Let them get inside your distance and you have problems as you should "never ever" move backwards.

As to using a light weapon as a natural extension of the body I would say is a disadvantage. Then again I find this very challenging. Another problem is dropping the hips. Ideally your stature should be far lower than that of the opponent to complete a cutting action.

Another problem is small action done both a big person look terrible. As you are big everything should be done big using one strong large stature to its full potential.

With a reasonable amount of experience in Kendo and Koryu and using Japans heaviest and lightest swords I would have to disagree with any ideas about advantanges or disadvantages of speed and stamina. To a well practiced person none of these should be important. Admitedly one should move swiftly when the time is right. But timing is of the essence, not size or strength.

Hyakutake Colin

Kage Ryu

Hyoho Niten Ichiryu

Nathan Scott
22nd December 2000, 16:50
Hi Colin-san,

Yeah, I agree that good Budo uses timing to beat strength and speed.

My statement about strength vs. speed was more in regards (in my head at least!) to those times when contact is made. Speed helps for "sparring/opening" attacks, and power (& weight) helps for committed attacks. The heavy/light, big/lean, tall/short thing really only applies giving that "all other aspects are equal", including expertise at timing and other tactics.