Q. Has anyone been using the Chinese katanas from Dalian Forge for mat cutting? Any comments on performance?

A. Yes. I have bought four, broke one (the handle, not the blade) and sold two.

They cut O.K. The handles suck, but the blades are O.K. Each sword is different. Duh, they're hand made. You have to look through a few to find one that has a decent blade geometry and cross section to cut with. I have one that is almost straight. It only has a 1/4 inch sori. I have another one that has a 2 inch sori. Some kissaki are broader then others, but are all chu-kissaki. They all have a strong fumabari- taper from motohaba to sakaba. The polish is good for cutting, but could be better to show the hada. The ha is fairly sharp but not as sharp as it should be. The fittings are better quality then your Taiwanese toys, but still look too repro-ish. I would suggest changing out the tsuba right off the bat with a plain flat steel tsuba for iai. The balance is O.K., but could be improved with steel fittings. (difference between an iaito balance and shinsakuto balance)

The big problem is the handle. If you do not use a strong tenuch and only cut cardboard tubes and two inch tatami, the sword will work fine. If you have strong hands (like I do) and cut thicker things, you will need to change out the tsuka. The wood that the handle is made out of is softer then pine, but harder the balsa wood. The same are two strips on the side for decoration, not wrapped all the way around. The ito is cotton, not silk, and fairly tight. On the sword that I broke, I was cutting three inch tatami. The blade zinged right through but when I did an overzealeous tenuch, the handle snapped in two. The nakago could be two inches longer too. It is only four inches long. It needs to be at least six inches long for the length of the blade.

Overall, it is not a bad little sword. The blade is forged, laminated and differentially tempered (it has a real hamon). All of the fittings match and the balance is not bad. It is better then a retro-fitted gunto in my humble opinion.

If you have any specific questions, please feel free to ask. I have another one for sale and can get more at a better price then swords-n-stuff and definitely cheaper the Bugei.

John Stewart, Texas, USA


Q. A friend of mine told me he had been told that kata is an Okinawan invention and that Japanese tradition was based on kumitachi. Which I think it is an interesting path to study. He is a student of Wado Ryu Karate.

A. Kata is the fundamental training method for ALL traditional Japanese arts: the bugei, flower arranging, tea ceremony--even Zen koan practice is a form of kata. Traditional academic study was also centered on kata-like activity. SOME koryu (both past and present) augment kata training with various forms of free-sparring (known as kumiuchi, kumite, mazumori-keiko, shiai-keiko, etc.) but NO koryu subordinates kata to free-sparring.

The origins of kata, as an educational tool, are most likely Chinese--that is, Confucian. Confucianism centers on the concept of ritual and imitation of past masters (of gov't, of art, of learning, of what-have-you) as the path to bettering oneself and society.

Kata is a Japanese, not an Okinawan, word. In Japanese koryu bugei, kata practice usually involves two people, which may be the source of your friend's confusion. The solo forms practiced in karate are unusual in Japanese martial art, but not unheard of--iaido uses some. Even to the extent, however, that you can distinguish the meaning of kata as used by karate-ists from kata as used in Japanese arts, it's VERY unlikely that even the former is an Okinawan invention, since Chinese martial art training also involves solo form practice. It's FAR more likely that the Okinawans learned it from the Chinese and Japanese than the other way around.

Karl Friday, University of Georgia


Q. Some styles of iai seem to have an overhead cut that comes over the head very far behind you before you cut, while styles like Katori Shinto Ryu, among others, bring the sword back to one side of the head (i.e. over the shoulder) instead, or raise vertical but not very far back over the head. Now, I'm told one reason one does the latter two "chambers" is a helmet-wearing issue. That makes sense to me,

A. Like much of what contemporary experts in koryu bugei will tell you, this is a *rationalization* of a behavior, not the original reason for the style of cutting. Different schools execute various sword cuts in different ways because the founder, or some other important figure in the history of the school's development found that this method worked better for him than any other--much the same way different pro golfers today have little (or major) ideosyncracies to their swings.

Many ryuha bring the sword back directly over the head for *men* cuts; others (like Katori Shinto-ryu) bring it over the shoulder; still others (like Kashima-Shinryu and Nen-ryu) use spirals. The reasons for the variations, however, are in the way this cut fits into the totality of the ryuha's system, not in whether the cut is meant to be used in armor or not (the Katori-style "sidecut" is just as awkward--and arguably less effective--when wearing a Japanese helmet as the "overhead" cut; the same can be said for the spiral cuts--at least as they're executed today).

Which leads me to a more basic--and more important--point:

Q. but is it true that all pre-edo styles do the latter chambers? Of edo-period styles, do all of them do the over the head wind up version, or is that inherited from a particularly widely known ryuha?

A. Insofar as the tactical behavior of their modern incarnations are concerned, it makes little more sense to distinguish pre- from post-Edo period ryuha than it does to distinguish North Americans whose ancestors immigrated here in the 18th century from those whose ancestors came in mid-19th. In all cases, their subsequent (many generations of) common history has had a greater effect in shaping their contemporary descendents than has their differing remote pasts. In a phrase: history moves on and things change.

The differences--in terms of technique--between ryuha that originated before and after the early 17th century are to be found in things like specialization, not methodology per se. Pre-Tokugawa swordsmanship was quite different from late Tokugawa swordsmanship, but all swordsmanship in the late Tokugawa period was more like other late Tokugawa swordsmanship than ANY was like pre-Tokugawa swordsmanship. NO ryuha survived the transition from medieval to early modern Japan unchanged; those that tried were antiquarian museum pieces within decades, and none have survived into the present day.

After the advent of the Pax Tokugawa, the most important practical combative challenges facing Japanese swordsmen concerned how to fight effectively in street clothing--for duels and streetfights--rather than fighting in battles while wearing armor. *Suhada-kenpo* ("bare-skin swordplay") presents very different problems from *kaisha kenpo* ("armored-man swordplay"): more targets, increased efficacy for faster (but relatively weaker) cuts, increased mobility and balance, etc. 17th century swordsmen responded by adjusting their postures, forms of attack, and defensive maneuvers. Some ryuha continued to teach tactics for armored combat alongside those for unarmored combat, but as the period progressed, a swordsman's --or a ryuha's--reputation and livelihood came to depend far more on the effectiveness of his/its techniques for fighting in duels and brawls than on those designed for battlegear, and training came to focus more and more on the former. By the end of the period the *suhada-kenpo* tail was wagging the *kaisha kenpo* dog: even most tactics originally designed for use in armor were being executed in close conformity to the stances and cutting methods discovered and developed for unarmored fighting.

If you think about this a bit, it's really a fairly mundane --and obvious-- point. It gets overlooked most of the time, simply because the Japanese bugei world (both in Japan and abroad) tends to foster a very ahistorical outlook on its past. Most Japanese bugei exponents are deeply enamored with tradition and heritage, but most (including my own mentors--for whom I have only the most profound respect and affection) are TERRIBLE historians, who dramatically underplay the extent and nature of change in history. The oft-recurring debates over which among several branches of a tradition performs a particular kata or waza in its original form is a good illustration of this mindset. The reality is that this debate is pretty much like a beagle, a German shepard, and a bulldog arguing over which is the "original" dog: ALL of them have evolved and changed from their ancestral form, to one degree or another.

Karl Friday, University of Georgia

Q. Karl Friday wrote:

" but all swordsmanship in the late Tokugawa period was more like other late Tokugawa swordsmanship than ANY was like pre-Tokugawa swordsmanship. NO ryuha survived the transition from medieval to early modern Japan unchanged; those that tried were antiquarian museum pieces within decades, and none have survived into the present day. " Just out of curiosity, what is the evidence to support that claim? What I mean is, are there documents from 1500 or so describing the great pace of change in martial arts at the time?

A. You can do some reconstruction of pre-Tokugawa swordsmanship from scroll paintings and the like, but for the most part all we have is the (mostly oral) traditions of the various ryuha--which, as I pointed out, tend to take a timeless and changeless view of their own techniques. Of course, the same problem applies to trying to reconstruct the specifics of swordsmanship for *any* period prior to the invention of cameras. You can get some clues by comparing branched styles, but no completely reliable information, unless you accept the claims of the various ryuha that nothing has changed (except the other branches, in the case of branched traditions). But anyone who's ever played telephone should be suspicious of that claim!

On the other hand, there *are* scattered comments in the written record pertaining to the overall shift from swordplay for use in armor to swordplay for use in street clothes. You can enhance this sort of clue by extrapolation and analogy from other historical developments and processes. (Not an exact science, by any means, but then what is, except maybe math--and you guys get to define your starting postulates for yourselves.) In other words, we can't reconstruct much in detail about earlier sword technique per se, but we *can* make some decent educated surmises about overall patterns of change and development.

Karl Friday, University of Georgia


Q. A friend of mine joined a dojo where for all practical intents and purposes, he has more experience/rank than the others in the dojo. No surprisingly, he's met some resistance.

A. As a matter of fact, a friend of mine is dealing with that particular problem right now. I think that the way to proceed depends on what your friend wants his position in the dojo to be: if he just wants to practice, he should just practice his best and hope that some good stuff will rub off. If he is ambitious and wants to actively turn the dojo around, then he is going to have to be patient, win the trust of the majority of people there and gradually take on a teaching role. One way to do this is to organize a trip to a major tournament or seminar. The dojo members can then evaluate for themselves whether your friend is closer to correct in his practice than their current instructor. There's also the good old-fashioned way: make sure to dominate the instructor each time he keikos, and to keiko with him each class. Again, the dojo members can draw their own conclusions.

Although I haven't had the problem above, I've certainly dealt with the etiquette of visiting dojo and I've come up with the following ideas:

1. Don't give instruction at a dojo unless you're invited. This is one I still have trouble following, as I am used to correcting people, but it often will get you into trouble. For one thing, the dojo may have a policy wherein only the sensei gives instruction, as compared to our dojo where it is commonplace for the seniors to correct the juniors during practice. For another, nobody there has any way of knowing whether you are qualified to comment or not: if a junior has been told X and you tell him Y you have confused the junior and likely insulted his instructor. And lastly, you may well be wrong: look at a visit as an opportunity to learn, not pontificate. Shut up, catalog differences between the way you do things and the way your home dojo does things, and ask questions of your sensei when you get home.

For me, this is very tough: if I see someone doing something wrong, I really have to grit my teeth to avoid correcting them. See #2 below.

2. If you are asked to instruct, be polite. Don't say "you are wrong, this is right", say "this is how my sensei does X, try it this way".

3. Be aware that etiquette varies, and be alert to how things are proceeding around you.

4. Contact the dojo before you visit, don't just show up. Make sure to arrive early so you can introduce yourself to the sensei. Make sure to keiko with the sensei first.

5. As far as the individual keiko goes, well do it case by case. If you are practicing with the instructors, give your best kendo. If you are practicing with the juniors, give them what they can handle.

Neil Gendzwill, Saskatoon Canada


Q. I'm originally an aikidoka and we use the bokken there very often. I learned that bok means wood and ken means sword. But in iaido we use the bokken as well as the iaito (well, actually not me) and I learned that "To" means sword, too. So what's the difference between a "Ken" and a "To"?

A. Good question! The words "ken" and "to" can both be translated in English as sword, they just mean slightly different things in Japanese. The reading of the Chinese character for "ken" in Japanese pronunciation is "tsurugi," meaning a straight, double-(cutting) edged weapon. "To" would be "katana" in the Japanese pronunciation and means the typical curved sword with a single cutting edge. "Bok(u)," the part of the word meaning wood, is really a completely different word: moku. The m changes to b for euphonic reasons (don't ask me why, cuz' I have *no* idea in this instance). Someone has stated that the word "shinai" is written with the characters for bamboo and sword (chikuto). That's one way of writing it. An older way of writing the word was with the character "shinau," meaning bend, be pliant/flexible/supple. (Nelson character number 1994.) The usage changed/became simplified over time, as happens in all languages. So, if a Japanese document from before the middle part of Edo comes your way, you are likely to see this older reading. I don't know when chikuto came into standard usage. Karl?

Meik Skoss, Koryu Books, USA

Q. I have a question. Even in arts that use the words daito, shoto, tanto instead of tachi, kodachi, kaiken, etc, they often still call their sword arts kenjutsu instead of tojustu or toho (sword doctrine / method). Why is that? Toho was used at one point in time, yes? why is kenjutsu kenjutsu and not tojutsu? What's the historical or linguistic or cultural reason for that?

A. *Technically* a "ken" and a "to" are different things (the former, a twin-edged straight blade, the latter a single-edged curved or straight one), but in practical usage Japanese really doesn't distinguish the two. One reason it doesn't, probably has to do with the fact that the Japanese stopped making or using tsurugi (the native Japanese reading for the character "ken") more than a thousand years ago. Words referring literally or metaphorically to sword usage employ "ken" and "to" pretty much interchangably. So do names for sword styles and techniques; they also throw "tachi" and "ha" [blade] into this mix, even though these too are *technically* different things.

The main reason that "kenjutsu" rather than "tojutsu" or "toho" won out as the standard appellation for swordsmanship is probably mostly aesthetic. First, "ken" is a much more attractive character than "to". Second, a katana is essentially a utilitarian device--a weapon--whereas a tsurugi has deeper and more spiritual (and mystical) connotations. Tsurugi were used by the divinities to create and pacify Japan; katana were and are used by men to fight with. In other words, "kenjutsu" and "kendo" are more poetic--both visually and connotatively--than "tojutsu".

(The interesting exception to this characterization is the use of "ken" or "to" in reference to wooden swords: "bokken" is usually held to be a less classy word than "bokuto". The probable reason here, though, is phonetic and peculiar to these particular compounds: Japanese aesthetics usually holds double consonant sounds to be rougher and less refined than alternative words or pronouciations--cf. "Nippon" vs. "Nihon", or "yappari" vs. "yahari".)

Standardization, of course, is an interesting phenomenon. As I've noted repeatedly (here and elsewhere), there really WAS none prior to modern times. In Tokugawa period and earlier sources swordsmanship is referred to as "kenjutsu," "kendo," "kenpo," "hyoho" (also read as "heiho"), "tojutsu," "toho," "gekken," "gekishi no jutsu," and several other names, with no apparent distinction of form or content. (The prevailing term during the Tokugawa period seems to have been "hyoho" ["heiho"], BTW.) It's only in this century that "kenjutsu" and "kendo" have emerged as the more-or-less standard terms.

Standardization of *orthography* for terms is even more complicated, since the whole idea of "correct spelling" seems to have been a Western import. Certainly medieval and early Tokugawa period Japanese paid little attention to consistency in their choice of characters to write words. They seem to have conceptualized words--even borrowed Chinese compounds--primarily in terms of sounds, rather than written characters, and were fascinated by the implications of (what Western linguistics would call) homophones. Thus while to modern (Western-style) linguists, a sound written with different characters represents entirely different words, premodern Japanese saw them all as somehow related--intertwined. They saw, for example, a relationship between "kami" (meaning "divinity"), "kami" (meaning "up"), "kami" (meaning "paper"), and "kami" (meaning "governor"); in the traditional Japanese view, these are all variations of the same word, rather than different words that are pronounced similarly--as Western linguistic thinking would describe them. The same thinking was applied to Chinese-borrowed words and characters--the various characters used to write "shin" ("heart," "divine," "true," "center," "straight," "wick," etc.), for example. Even more interesting in this regard is the way Chinese-borrowed words could be conflated with native Japanese ones--the most interesting example in the context of this forum is the character "bu" (martial), which the premodern Japanese associated with the native Japanese word "musuBU" ("to give birth," "to bring forth," "to bring together").

As Meik noted, the word "shinai" derives from the verb "shinaeru" ("to droop," "to be flexible") and in Tokugawa period texts was often written with the character usually used to write "shinaeru." (Until the very end of the Tokugawa period, at least, the word was alternatively pronounced either "shinai" or "shinae.") Tominaga Kengo's classic *Kendo gohykaunen-shi* lists 15 different character compounds used to write it. Tominaga says that the "bamboo sword" orthography began to be more and more common in the very late Tokugawa period, but he doesn't say anything about when it became "standard." My guess is that this didn't happen until the advent of national kendo educational and competitive federations in the 20th century.

Karl Friday, University of Georgia, USA