Japanese Sword Arts. JSA. How cool. That was pretty much what I thought when I first came across JSA in the early-80s, when I saw some pics in a book of martial arts. It was entitled ‘iaido’. It turns out that the pics were of Jim Wilson, a chap who has been much maligned online for being a jack-of-all-budo-and-master-of-nothing-except-youtube. Go Google for him. Still, my fires were lit, and some years later, I started training in iai and other JSA. It turns out that there is JSA and there is JSA. Some practiced as handed down throughout the ages and some manufactured by people in angry white pajamas as an extension of their hand-to-hand stuff. The former looked all formal and too serious and the latter looked like they would kill you as look at you. Turns out I was a bit wrong. Not the first time, and probably not the last this week. JSA can be split into two different groups - koryu (old traditions) and gendai (modern). The definition of koryu is an art that has a history that stems back to before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the time of much change in Japan - but a lot of koryu stem back to the 16th & 17th centuries (and even earlier!), pretty amazing when you consider arts like Japanese karate have less than 100 years of formal history. Gendai is pretty much anything that has been created in the last 150 years or so. Judo, Aikido, Billy-Bob’s School of Aiki-Karate-Ninjer-Do etc etc. Does koryu trump gendai? Is modern flexibility more effective than traditional stalwartness? That depends on a million factors - the people practicing, the art, the environment and so on. As I started martial study in 1984 with Wadoryu karate, I have a soft spot in my heart for such arts - but these days I only practice koryu arts and the genbudo that has developed from them. What’s that? Gendai version of koryu arts? Yep, there is indeed such a thing - and those who practice derivatives of koryu iai, modern version of aikijutsu etc are all aware of this, and that they practice something modern with a solid heritage in koryu. “Which do I choose?” You need to ask yourself what you want out of it. Koryu (and koryu-derived) JSA What’s the point of studying a koryu JSA and its modern derivatives? There are a number of points you can focus on. Enjoyment, historical interest, to preserve the ryu’s teachings and promulgate them to other like minds. Is it combat? Does it work? It is as close as we can get to learning the methodology and mindset of practicing such weapons systems. We learn from teachers who follow a lineage back to the time when those techniques we study were actually used in combat, and the reason we can still train in these arts is that (in the main), they were good enough to survive the years of upheaval and war to remain with us today. Sure, some were lost through modern events such as WWII where the skill of the swordsman who carried on tradition was not relevant, but as a whole, Darwinism in martial arts plays a major factor. Go try and learn Gan-ryu or any other art that was snuffed out due to it not being good enough to survive. Yeah, I am generalising but you get the meaning. Some kenjutsu ryuha are extremely combative, some a bare shell of what they used to be, and the rest fall somewhere in between. In the past couple of years I have seen a few people hospitalised through kenjutsu keiko, accidents in practice that could’ve been avoided had reactions/timing been better. Sadly, once you get to a certain level, this is the only way to practice and maintain realism. Once you get to 10, you should be moving towards 11 but the very least you can do is maintain level 10 as this is the level at which uchidachi will attack you. Take iai, maybe the least aggressive of all the JSA. Iai at its’ most basic teaches sword handling, the ability to cut, hasuji, basic body mechanics etc etc. With a greater depth of study, you learn a hell of a lot more about yourself and your strengths/limitations, and a lot of concepts that are relevant across the budo board make sense. If you can’t see the benefits of iai study, then you’re better off sticking to your current choice of system and not having a fit on the internet about those who get a lot out of it - ‘cos you’re missing a lot of relevance. So, koryu JSA are still considered real today as they have a solid heritage of ‘working in combat’. If the modern practitioner continues to practice how his teacher has taught him (assuming his teacher did the same), he can consider himself to be learning an effective martial art in the right manner. Modern JSA How about the modern systems? Other than the modern arts that come directly from koryu, in my opinion, the worth of recently-created JSA is almost nothing. In the whole, they have been created from scratch by martial artists, often karate or jujutsu guys who might well be decent in their arts, but have never actually studied JSA properly so cannot possibly understand much of the nuances of such practice. Sure, but they still work! Do they? How do you know? Sadly, no-one does. People who have made an art up themselves have done so based upon their opinion and experience in other arts and assume the techniques work. They don’t have the heritage of ‘surviving techniques’ as mentioned above, they have never used them in combat and therefore, at best, are making educated guesses. If I can say anything positive about modern JSA, I would say that even though they don’t have the established heritage and lineage of koryu, they are still relevant to practice as a personal development because, let’s be honest, applying yourself to anything is better than sitting on your rear watching TV until death takes you. Makes no difference whether that is playing the piano, hiking or becoming a Lego sculptor. The important thing is you apply yourself to something. BUT If self improvement and such is your interest, why not simply take up an established modern JSA such as seitei iai, kendo etc? There you will have access to high-level instruction from Japan, facility to travel and meet new people - if that is your thing - and an opportunity to really get your teeth into something that still maintains an element of realism. There’s plenty out there, and if you are willing to travel an hour or so, you will find something real. If you are still not sold on the negatives of these new JSA, go and practice whatever weapons-art your local dojo offers as an extra class tacked on to it’s empty-hand lessons. Just don’t think that you are learning something real - you are doing a martial-based practice at best. You have never fought with a sword, neither has anyone in your instructor’s lineage - how can it possibly be sold to you as realistic? You will still enjoy it, it will be beneficial - but don’t kid yourself as to what it is. But you ‘want to be a swordsman’? Good luck with that. We no longer do such a thing, and while the manliness and honourable intent of duelling over a woman’s virtue are long gone, there are still plenty out there who think they are Zorro, Errol Flynn or Zatoichi. You want to fight with a sword? Go take up kendo or fencing. The rules make be a bit constrictive for a street-swordsman such as yourself, but your options are sport swordsmanship as above, illegal activity or praying you are immortal and hoping The Kurgen doesn’t lop your head off in an underground car park. The best you can do other than this is study an established art. Go seek out one of the many ryuha that have survived to this day. Study it, and study it hard. It won’t make you a 21st century warrior, but it will make life richer and more enjoyable. You will meet some great people on your travels, and given the right practice, you will get to give back to others and improve their lives. The single best feeling in martial arts is to see the noobs you have nurtured turn into people of serious skill. You want to get good at fighting? Go upset someone outside a pub. After a handful of punchups, you will improve significantly. Your understanding of actual combat will be a short, sharp journey of pain and harsh lessons - but if you ride the curve, you will become very good very quickly. This method is not the best way to learn JSA. Stick to the dojo, stick to learning swordsmanship the old fashioned way - and for the right reasons. Scott Halls Heijoshin Dojo Notes: All of the above is me rambling and pouring out onto paper. I would like to have spent more time tidying it up, but it is what it is. Much is my opinion only, and I am open to discussion on much of it. Please consider this as gender-neutral. I am an avid fan of females in martial arts but epically lazy in my writing, and ‘he’ or ‘swordsman’ should be considered to encompass both sexes.