How Training With the Japanese Sword Can Fortify Your Skills With Other Weapons
by Floyd Burk
Photography by Brandon Snider
Let's get right to the point: Your ability to use traditional kobudo weapons will benefit greatly if you apply the movements and principles taught in Japanese sword arts like kendo and kenjutsu. That message was delivered to me by Dana Abbott, Black Belt's 2004 Weapons Instructor of the Year, and I found it intriguing, to say the least. I bet you do, as well.
What makes me say that? Most martial artists train with kobudo weapons, including traditionalists, eclectic practitioners and even those who claim to have no style. In my lineage, for example, we did all the weapons, and we got very good at manipulating them. We could perform awesome demonstrations and do well in tournaments. And if we ever had to use one of these tools in self-defense, we were confident that we could get the jump on an attacker. Yet no matter how good we got, our instructors reminded us that there's always room for improvement. Your sensei probably reminds you, too.
Just in case you don't think traditional weapons have any self-defense value in the 21st century, know this: My wife and I recently celebrated our 40th year of dojo operation. For 25 of those years, one of our schools was located 100 yards from an interstate offramp in Southern California. Knife-carrying undesirables would walk back and forth in front of our business. There were occasions when we had to remove a kobudo weapon from the rack to aid in persuading troublemakers — some of whom had knives — to leave our establishment.
Why did I select Dana Abbott to be your virtual sensei for this kobudo journey? Because he's the kind of martial artist who makes his own luck. When he dreamed of training in Japan, he packed his bags and went there — and practiced at the best dojo he could find for 14 years. His aim was to learn the warrior ways of the katana and the kobudo weapons from the best instructors in the country.
Abbott now has more than 40 years of practice under his belt. That means the advice he's about to share is well worth heeding.
PRINCIPLE NO. 1:
Treat every weapon like a sword.
Imagine grasping the handle of a katana and extending the blade out in front of your body. Now envision yourself thrusting it toward your opponent's chest, neck or face, then raising it and swinging downward. Abbott says this is how a swordsman thinks whenever he picks up a weapon — any weapon.
“If you learn the sword, you learn the simplicity of all the weapons; therefore, you can pick up any other weapon and use it," Abbott explains. In the case of the bo or sai, you need to remember that it can be used to thrust or cut, not just block, he adds.
“When you're a swordsman and you use the tip of your sword as a spear, you can take that thought process and put it into the bo, sai and kama," Abbott says. “Likewise, when you use your sword to chop or cut, you can take that thought process and put it into [chopping with] the bo, kama and nunchaku."
PRINCIPLE NO. 2:
Seize the offensive.
Abbott says his kobudo strategies, like his sword methods, heavily favor attacking. The closest thing to defense he might do is use the length of the bo to keep people at bay.
“Weaponry is for war and keeping people alive," he says. “With that in mind, why should you limit yourself to thinking about only defense? It's like defending yourself with a gun — [would] you hold up your gun and block the bullets with it? It makes no sense.
“Don't pick up a bo in the middle and just block. Hold it like a spear and drive it into the opponent's center mass, striking the throat or chest. Then raise it up and come down on their head. Make it offensive!"
PRINCIPLE NO. 3:
Hold every weapon like a katana.
Many people grasp their weapons with excess tension — like they're clutching a baseball bat before trying to hit a home run. Others allow theirs to move around, with their fingers exerting very little control. “With those ways of holding weapons, you're not ready to strike, but with the swordsman's grip, you're always ready," Abbott says.
“When you hold any of the kobudo weapons, hold them like you would a sword. Your thumb and index finger are relaxed, and your other fingers are firm."
Think of the way you grip a hammer, he says. “For a framer's hammer, you use a one-handed grip, and for a sledgehammer, you use two hands. The kama, sai and nunchaku are mostly done with one hand. The bo is usually two hands."
It's About Timing
“It doesn't matter how big you are," Dana Abbott says. “It matters who crosses the line first and puts the weapon into the target first." Translation: It's all about timing.
“Start practicing [how to] close the gap at different distances. You can do this with an imaginary opponent any time you want. Or you can create targets to strike."
Even better, find a sparring partner, put on protective gear and go at it with padded weapons, he says. “Practice moving and striking in real time. This will give you the confidence you need when it comes to wielding your weapons."
PRINCIPLE NO. 4:
Cast and wring the handle.
When you swing a sword, the goal is to “cast" forward like you're casting with a fishing rod. You also should “wring" the handle by twisting your right hand counterclockwise and your left hand clockwise. Think of wringing water out of a wet towel.
“Casting and wringing the handle promote proper pressure, giving stability to the weapon," Abbott says. “That is what you need for a smooth cut. You also wring the handle when you stab because it enhances the stab and helps keep the tip from staying stuck in the target."
Casting and wringing conspire to create a better snap with any weapon, which helps ready you for a follow-up strike. Likewise, they can enable you to move away from your opponent's reach, he adds. “These principles are tied to the in-and-out principle, something I refer to as cut and go."
PRINCIPLE NO. 5:
Cut and go.
This simple directive is designed to get you out of harm's way. To fully understand it, look at the typical footwork of the sword wielder: a half step forward and one full step back, one step forward and two steps back, two steps forward and three steps back, and so on. You often find yourself moving back a little bit more than moving forward. When combined with casting and wringing, this helps you advance to do your business and retreat before your opponent can respond.
“The Japanese style is to get in and get out," Abbott says. “You advance, cut and go. It's like you've moved in to strike and you've walked away as your strike is being completed. Your opponent has no chance to hit you with his counterattack because you are beyond his circle of influence." The concept works with any weapon, Abbott adds.
PRINCIPLE NO. 6:
Remember the circle
Abbott defines “circle of influence" as how far away a martial artist can stand while still being able to reach the other person. If you're empty-handed, your circle of influence extends out as far as you can reach with your arm or leg, approximately 2 to 3 feet.
“If you have a 40-inch sword, you can add several feet to that," he says. “With a 6-foot bo, add 5 feet. If a soldier has an M16, his circle of influence is from the end of his bayonet out to around 200 yards."
It's crucial to develop an intuitive feel for the circle of influence that your weapon of choice gives you, as well as the circle of influence your opponent has because of what he may be holding. “All that affects your ability to optimize whatever kobudo weapon you are wielding," Abbott says.
PRINCIPLE NO. 7:
Don't be fancy.
“They call me a weapons master, but have you ever seen me do anything fancy?" Abbott asks rhetorically. “I never learned fancy. I can't do a release and catch with the bo, I can't do a backflip, I can't attach a cord to the handle of a kama and spin it around, [and] I can't do a helicopter spin with a nunchaku."
He can't do any of those fancy maneuvers because he wasn't trained that way with the sword when he lived in Japan. “When I did try something like that, the sensei took me to the ground and yelled, 'What are you doing? What's wrong with you?'"
Showmanship has its place — in demonstrations, for example — and it does boost hand-eye coordination and dexterity, he says. “However, you have to be mindful that when you're doing kobudo the traditional way, you need to keep it traditional. Tradition isn't fancy; tradition [is what] keeps you alive."
PRINCIPLE NO. 8:
Simplify your stances.
The sword artist's most common stance is the center stance, which is designed more for agility than stability. Your feet are no wider apart than they would be while standing normally, and one foot is slightly in front of the other. The front foot is turned inward, and the rear foot is straight with the heel raised slightly. You easily can move forward or backward or turn left or right. Your weapon is pointed toward your opponent's chest.
From this position, you can get the low stance (your weapon is at a downward angle) or the high stance (your weapon is pointed upward or is overhead). These are the three primary postures with the sword. They also work well for kobudo.
Whether you're using them for kobudo or kenjutsu, remember that your body doesn't move up or down. It's the weapon that moves. That way, it's always poised for action, Abbott says. “You are ready, your weapon is ready, and you are balanced and prepared to move in and strike when the opportunity presents itself."
PRINCIPLE NO. 9:
Keeping your next move concealed from your adversary is the key to being effective with a sword or a kobudo weapon. “With good stances, footwork and striking technique, your timing will be better, which allows you to disguise your intentions," Abbott says.
The best — and perhaps only — way for you to develop the skill of moving without telegraphing is to practice with a live opponent, he says. “One way is to use the padded kobudo weapons we created so you can spar with different people."
More information: Go to centurymartialarts.com and search for “ActionFlex."
“My teacher has always said to me, 'The bo is really a spear with the tip broken off,'" Abbott recalls. “Hold the bo in front of you down low, like it's a base guitar. Keep your arms straight so the end points toward your opponent's chest or throat. When you stab, don't bend your arms. Extend them outward [so the tip moves] into the opponent, then come down and hit him on the head."
One secret of using the bo is coming off the line quickly so you can overwhelm the other person with a clean thrust, Abbott says. “Of course, you can then strike the side of his head or the collarbone. Or if he goes high, you can go low and hit the leg and then stab anywhere that's open."
Hold the kama with the blade pointed at your opponent's chest and throat — just like with the sword. But, Abbott says, bend your arm at 45 degrees like you're holding a tennis racket and preparing to receive a serve.
The wielder couldn't just rush in and stab his enemy because the kama could get stuck, he explains. It certainly would hurt the enemy, but he wouldn't die immediately. To avoid the danger of a counterattack, martial artists would reach out with their kama and strike, then pull back to get out of the way.
“You want to reach out with good casting — a half-cast, basically — then pull back," he says. “You've stabbed and now you're gone. You cut and go."
What about double kama? “It may seem really great, but I say master the single kama and don't make it flashy," Abbott advises.
Kobudo Back in the Day
“When the samurai went into battle, no one screwed with them," Dana Abbott says. “But when there were stragglers coming back from battle, that's when farmers and others would take them on.
“You couldn't put a sai against a guy with a sword unless he was drunk or injured. So if a layman was forced to take on a swordsman, the best thing for the layman to use would be a ladder. The layman and two other guys with ladders could easily pin a swordsman down while another stuck him with the sai again and again until he bled out — kind of like the lions do to the wildebeest."
In reality, it was nearly impossible for a person without a sword to take on a person with a sword one-on-one — despite what's depicted in samurai movies, he says. The Okinawans would approach the task this way if forced to fight: One guy would acquire a sai, one a bo and maybe one a kama or a nunchaku.
“Then it would be a different story because they could get him from behind," Abbott says. “They could best him because [they outnumbered him]. That's how it was in real life."
Start with the right grip, Abbott says. “Those little 'fingers' that stick out on the sides could be used to maybe grab a weapon that was coming down on you or to grab someone's arm or hand. Just make sure you don't hold the sai by gripping it where the fingers and the spear meet. Hold it by the handle."
Of course, wrist strength is required to be proficient with the sai. “You need a strong wrist to block anything and then turn it away so you can use your other sai to strike your attacker," he says.
What was the preferred way to strike in the olden days? “Go in for the kill every time," Abbott says. “Use the sai [according to] what 'sai' means. Sai means 'horn' or 'tip' — you know, what a rhino has. You and your sai are the rhino. I say, be the rhino! Go in and stick your opponent in the throat before he realizes it, using the most nontelegraphic manner you can."
Nowadays, martial artists often hold the nunchaku near the middle of the shaft so they can do spins, body whips and other flashy maneuvers more easily. Or they hold it that way to make it shorter and thus reduce the chance of hitting themselves. This is not optimal, Abbott says.
“Hold it at the end so you get those extra couple of inches to reach your opponent and so you can get more centrifugal force in your strike," he says. “A farmer using it to beat rice from the stalk would get more food faster by holding it at the end. Use it the same way."
Because the nunchaku is a short- to medium-range weapon and likely the fastest weapon in the martial arts, the preferred way to wield it was to chamber and hit to do some damage, then re-chamber and repeat.
“One setup, one strike, then set up again and strike again," Abbott says. “If you had multiple opponents, you had to keep it centered, to make everything count. [You didn't] hit one person six times. [You played] the headhunter and went on to the next opponent. The nice thing about the nunchaku was when you performed a well-placed strike, it created enough force to shatter whatever it hit."
Floyd Burk is a San Diego–based 10th-degree black belt with half a century of experience in the arts. To contact him, visit the Independent Karate Schools of America website at iksa.com. For information about training with Dana Abbott, visit learnthesword.com.