I don’t currently train in any sword arts like Iaido or Kendo, but that hasn’t stopped me from wanting my own katana (Samurai sword) for a long time. The thing is, traditional katanas forged by a master swordsmith in Japan (nihontō) are not easy to come by, in part because they are incredibly expensive. In the past when I have looked, it seemed that the only alternative was a cheap knock-off that is useful only for display purposes (what are sometimes called “wall hangers”). But what I wanted was something in between — a well-forged sword that can actually be used to cut things (tameshigiri), but which doesn’t cost thousands of dollars.
I recently got another itch to buy a katana, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that a market has developed for functional but affordable swords. These tend to be manufactured in China, but the better ones use traditional Japanese techniques and can generate very high quality blades. In fact, there are now so many options that I found myself doing quite a bit of homework before I actually chose which sword(s) to buy. As such, I thought it would be useful for others if I shared some of what I learned. There are some excellent resources out there, including www.sword-buyers-guide.com and www.sword-manufacturers-guide.com. You can also Google any particular model you are interested in to find reviews.
1) Types of swords.
Katanas are the long, curved swords used by Samurai. There are also medium-length swords called wakizashi and much shorter swords (basically the length of a long knife) known as tantō. These all tend to be manufactured and styled in a similar way, and can often be found in a set.
From top to bottom: tanto, wakizashi, katana. Image from www.ryansword.com.
These swords should not be confused with swords that have a similar blade but a simple wooden handle and scabbard called shirasaya. And definitely don’t confuse them with “ninja swords” (ninjatō), which may never have actually been used by real ninjas.
A shirasaya. Image from www.swordsoftheeast.com.
2) Forging and materials.
Traditional katanas are made from a kind of steel called tamahagane. In order to remove impurities, the swordsmith would heat the metal, hammer it, fold it, and repeat this process many times. This creates a very large number of layers of steel: 8 foldings gives 256 (28) layers whereas 16 foldings results in 65,536 (216) layers. It also leads to an attractive rippling pattern on the blade.
This process of folding isn’t strictly necessary anymore because modern steel is of much higher quality than what was available in feudal Japan. However, folded steel (sometimes called “Damascus steel”) katanas are still available and are actually somewhat less expensive than other options.
In general, the price of a sword is determined by the type of forging and the kind of steel used in the manufacturing:
i) The blade may be machine-made or hand-forged. Obviously, the latter is more expensive since it is much more labour-intensive.
ii) The blade may be through hardened or differentially tempered. Through hardened blades have a consistent hardness all the way through. Differentially tempered blades have an edge that is harder than the rest of the blade. One of the common ways to achieve this is to clay temper it (more on this later).
iii) The blade may be made of different kinds of steel which differ in physical properties and cost. Cost aside, there is also a trade-off between hardness (ability to hold an edge) and durability (ability to flex without breaking).
Below is a summary of the major types of steel that are used in modern katanas. You can also consult this very helpful guide.
i) Carbon steel. The most common types of steel used in modern katanas are 1045, 1060, or 1095 carbon steel. The number refers to the carbon content: 1045 has 0.45% carbon content, 1060 has 0.60%, and 1095 has 0.95%. Generally speaking, the more carbon, the harder the steel. 1045 carbon steel is the cheapest because it is softer and easier to work with, but it is often considered by collectors to be the absolute minimum grade for a functional katana (and many swordsmiths will insist on 1060 or better). 1095 carbon steel is more expensive but is much harder — possibly too hard (i.e., brittle) if it isn’t tempered properly. 1060 carbon steel is somewhere in between.
ii) Spring steel. As the name implies, spring steel is extremely flexible, allowing the sword to bend a great deal without breaking and return to its original shape without damage. The more common katanas that use this sort of metal are made of an alloy called 9260 spring steel, which contains 2% silicon. This is also used in fencing foils, which are subject to a lot of bending during use.
iii) T10 tool steel. Tool steel is a tungsten alloy steel which also has a high carbon content. It is extremely hard, and therefore holds an edge well and resists scratches. Note that some Chinese manufacturers refer to 1095 carbon steel as T10 steel, because obviously this wasn’t all confusing enough.
iv) Combined materials. Some swords use more than one type of steel, namely a harder type for the centre and edge and a softer kind for the rest of the blade.
An example of a combined material blade, in this case 1095 carbon steel in the centre and for the edge and softer folded steel for the outside. Image from www.ryansword.com.
BEWARE! Display swords are often made of stainless steel, which is fine for kitchen knives but is far too brittle for use in a long blade. These wall-hangers may also have the part of the blade inside the handle (the “tang”) spot-welded on rather that being made of a single, solid piece of steel. (You also want two holes for pegs that secure the blade to the handle, not just one).
The top image shows a spot-welded tang which can easily break and allow the blade to fly off. The bottom shows a proper “full tang” in which a single piece of metal extends into the handle of the sword.
Here’s what happens when you try to hit something with a stainless steel display sword:
3) Parts and options.
Here is a diagram showing the parts of a katana and their Japanese names:
Click for larger image.
I have found that the most relevant parts — that is, the ones that present options to consider when buying a sword — are the following:
i) Blade. In addition to the options based on different types of steel (see above), you will also see blades with and without a bo-hi (blood groove) and with or without a hamon (the visible pattern on the edge of the sword). Also, you will find both authentic hamons produced by clay-tempering and faux hamons which are purely aesthetic and are made either by acid etching or polishing. Only differentially hardened blades can have an authentic hamon. There are also options in terms of the type of edge, which affects the kinds of things that it can cut best, but I haven’t seen this as a common option within the lower price range.
An example of a blade with an authentic hamon and a bo-hi (blood groove). Image from www.ryansword.com.
ii) Tsuba (guard). There are tons of designs for tsubas, and different materials as well (iron, brass, other alloys). This really gives the sword a big part of its look, so get something you like.
Just a few options for tsuba designs. Image from www.ryansword.com.
iii) Other “fittings”. As with the tsuba, you can customize the other fittings including the little figures under the handle wrap (menuki), the ring below the guard (fuchi), and the cap at the end of the handle (kashira).
Some examples of options for fuchi, kashira, and menuki. Image from www.ryansowrd.com.
iv) Same (ray skin). Under the wrap on the handle, there is a strip of ray skin. This can be authentic (i.e., from an actual ray) or simulated and it can be a single piece or smaller panels. Authentic ray skin in a full piece is more expensive. The ray skin can also come in several colours.
v) Ito (wrap). The wrap on the handle is usually made of cotton, silk (or simulated silk), or sometimes leather. Purists will expect that the twists in the ito alternate in direction for historical accuracy, but personally I don’t care about this. For me, a more important issue is the colour, which along with the ray skin can really alter the look of the sword.
An example of a wrap in progress, showing the underlying ray skin (white) and ito (brown), with alternating twists. Image from www.sword-buyers-guide.com/Battle-Wrap.html.
vi) Saya (scabbard). The scabbards are typically made of wood and should fit tightly on the sword. These are most often black, but lots of options are available in terms of colours and patterns, as well as for the colour of the rope around the scabbard (sageo).
4. What I bought.
After reading about all of the above and checking out many different manufacturers, materials, and other options, I settled on the following swords to start my collection. I based my decisions on wanting to see swords from slightly different price ranges, different manufacturers, different types of steel, and different overall designs.
i) Musashi Wind Dragon katana.
This was the cheapest sword I bought, though it did get good reviews and is fully capable of real use. It’s 1045 carbon steel (I think) and hand-forged, though the hamon is cosmetic (I think). It has a bo-hi as well. The one thing I don’t like is that it has “CHINA” stamped on the seppa (spacer), but that’s a cheap part that can be replaced. I ordered this one from www.samuraisupply.com. You can find many other Musashi sword designs at www.musashiswords.com.
ii) Cheness Nagasa 9260 Spring Steel katana.
This is a larger than average sword, with a blade length of 30″ (versus a more typical 28″ or so). The handle is also longer than on my other katanas. It is made of through hardened 9260 spring steel, and is considered very durable. It comes with white ray skin and blue ito, and has a bo-hi. The tsuba is black in the shape of a crane. I ordered this one directly from www.chenessinc.com.
Here’s a different model (the “Tenchi”), but same basic sword:
(The deer was roadkill, btw)
iii) Ryan Sword Model 208.
This sword is 1095 carbon steel, clay-tempered with an authentic hamon, and no bo-hi. I particularly like Ryan Sword because they allow almost complete customization of all parts of the sword. I decided to keep the natural wood saya and the default fittings, though there were many options for these. I did, however, change out the ray skin (for black) and the ito and sageo (for purple). It’s a gorgeous sword, very well polished (more so than the other two), and very sharp. I ordered this one directly from www.ryansword.com.
I hope this information is useful, and if you’re interested in getting a katana I do encourage you to check out what is available these days. It is possible to get a very nice, fully functional sword for a very reasonable price. You just have to know what you’re looking for.
It’s been very interesting to experience different martial arts this week, and I thought I would share some initial observations in this regard. Admittedly, these are just some thoughts I’ve had after only one class each of Judo and BJJ, and I freely concede that they are not particularly deep or original.
As I suspected, it is apparent that Karate, Judo, and Jiu-Jitsu exist along a continuum in a variety of ways. First, and perhaps most obviously, in terms of fighting tactics and applications.
Karate is a predominantly stand-up art where we fight at long to medium distances. Goju-ryu is known as a “close” fighting style as far as karate styles go, but we’re still talking about striking distance. Karate does have take-downs and throws, but these are a minor part of the training.
Judo is predominantly a stand-up art but it is a much closer-range system than karate and it focuses on throws rather than strikes. For some of the techniques I’ve already experienced, you literally want zero space in between you and your opponent. When sparring in my first Judo class (“randori”), everyone began standing up, got a grip on each other, and tried to execute a throw. Judo also has a significant ground work component, of course, but my sense is that where possible a judoka would prefer to throw an opponent rather than grapple with him on the ground.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is almost entirely focused on ground work. This means either starting on the ground or getting the fight there as quickly as possible with a take-down. Indeed, when sparring with a partner (“rolling”) in my first BJJ class, everyone just began on the ground. It is extremely close fighting, with limbs tangled up and body weight pressed onto the opponent. It’s also much more about subtle feel and strategy, taking one’s time and looking for an opportunity to execute a submission or choke. It has been described as “like chess”, and I would already agree with that characterization.
Which is best? That question does not make sense without further context. It’s like asking, which is the best tool: a hammer, a screwdriver, or a pair of pliers? It depends very much on what you’re trying to do.
Now, BJJ certainly did dominate the early UFC competitions, largely because strikers greatly underestimated the effectiveness of submission grappling and were unable to defend against it. However, look at what modern MMA has become: it’s probably half striking (or more, including on the ground) and half grappling for submissions or chokes. No MMA competitor would get very far if they could only strike or only grapple at this point.
All of the above has been said before, of course. But there is another interesting continuum that I have noticed, relating to formality and structure. This varies a lot from dojo to dojo, but I sense that it still applies in a broad sense across the different arts. Traditional Okinawan karate is very formal. We bow to each other all the time. We work on perfecting every little detail of kata. We work on very specific stances, strikes, blocks, and even breathing. We use pre-arranged sparring drills (ippon and nihon kumite, renzoku kumite, kakomi kumite). Japanese terms are used for everything (including phrases like “Please help me” and “Thank you”).
Judo, in my extremely limited experience, seems to be similar to karate in this respect, with a formal bow-in, Japanese terminology, and working on the details of specific throws. However, it has kata performed with a partner rather than solo kata in which, say, the position of one’s fist is corrected if it’s off by even an inch. There are drills, but these not as structured as, say, walking basics in karate. There is also a greater emphasis on free sparring and tournament competition (it’s an Olympic sport, after all — we’ll see if Karate goes this way as well in time).
BJJ is the least formal of all. In fact, I was told a few times that “we’re less formal here” (as compared to the Judo classes, and certainly as compared to karate classes where we bow before and after every drill with a partner). As far as I know, BJJ does not have formal gradings, but rather promotions are based on having acquired and demonstrated a sufficient level of skill. Sparring in BJJ involves a lot of individual experimentation to try different moves and develop more of a personal style based on one’s strengths. Individual techniques are shown and then drilled, but again this is not as formal as basics in karate. There are no kata and no bowing to a shrine. Rather than bow to each other, it’s a handshake and a fist bump.
As with the variety in approaches to fighting, I actually quite enjoy experiencing this continuum of formality. I like the traditional nature of karate and Judo, and I also like the “chummy” feel of BJJ. What matters, I think, is having fellow students who work hard at improving their own skills and are happy to help others learn. Thus far, I have seen this very much in evidence in Karate, Judo, and BJJ. In this, I think the similarities far outweigh the differences between them.
I love karate. I really do. But I have always felt that to be a well-rounded martial artist, you need not only strong striking, kicking, and blocking ability, but also a solid set of throwing and grappling skills. I think it’s also important to have an arsenal of controlling techniques such as holds, locks, and chokes for when eye strikes, throat punches, elbows, and knees would be overkill.
Old-school karate includes plenty of take-downs, locks, and throws (it’s in the bunkai), but it is not emphasized very much in many karate dojos. As a striking art, most karate training emphasizes punches, open hand strikes, blocks, and kicks. These are typically trained using walking basics, kata, and various forms of drills and sparring.
Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are at the exact opposite end of the spectrum, with very little emphasis on kicks and punches and a focus on throws, take-downs, and ground grappling. So, perhaps the most efficient way to gain skills in striking as well as grappling is to study multiple arts, each of which specializes on a different aspect of combat. That is what I have decided to try, as of tonight.
That’s right — I had my first Judo class this evening. On the one hand, it was very different from karate classes. The warm up is rolls and breakfalls. There are no solo walking basics, but rather it’s right into working on specific throws with a partner. Then what you might call “walking practice throws” (uchikomi). In this case, you go across the floor performing the technique most of the way but without completing the throw until you reach the other side of the dojo. Then it was sparring (randori) for 3-minute rounds against different partners. Then some ground work before the end of class. Oh, and you don’t do a finishing technique after a throw in Judo. Bad (good?) habit from karate.
As different as the techniques and drills are, there are also many similarities. One of the techniques has very similar leg positions to one of the ippon kumite that we do in karate. The breakfalls are very similar to what I have learned in karate as well, such that I could be thrown no problem tonight. Some of the body positions, hip movements, and weight shifts are related as well. And, much to my delight, I found out that rooting in a sort of Sanchin stance is actually a pretty effective defense against throw and sweep attempts. The higher belts in the dojo were very helpful — it seems like another very good group, which I have also been very fortunate to have in my karate dojo.
It was a very interesting and stimulating experience, and I am very much looking forward to trying BJJ as well. I intend to continue my training in karate, and I see adding the grappling arts as a great complement to it. I could never give up strikes and kicks, but having an actual ground game as well will be excellent. Always so much to learn!
You may have seen the media reports about a study purporting to show evidence that the unique proportions of the human hand evolved in order to facilitate the making of a strong fist. As an evolutionary biologist as well as a karateka, I felt it was my responsibility to debunk this silly study, which I have attempted to do over at my science blog Genomicron.
One of the main differences between Meibukan Goju-ryu and the others schools within the style (Jundokan, Shorei-kan, and Japanese Goju-ryu) is the inclusion of five additional kata that were created by the school’s founder, the late Meitoku Yagi. These kata are different from the core Goju-ryu kata in several ways, including the opening, the position of the fist in chamber (vertical rather than horizontal) and of the chambered hand in kake uke (centre rather than at side chamber), and especially in distancing (e.g., there are a lot of body shifts in Meibuken kata). They’re very interesting and challenging kata.
The first one that Meibukan students learn is Tenchi, “Heaven and Earth”. It is a rather difficult kata for a beginner, with lots of low stances and steps along a 45-degree angle. It was originally two kata that were paired with each other, meaning that the attacks of one correspond to the defences of the other and vice-versa, but it was merged into a single kata. Here it is, being performed by Meitoku Yagi’s grandson, Akihiro Yagi:
The other four Meibuken kata are based on The Four Symbols of Chinese Constellations, each represented by mythological creature and a cardinal direction: Seiryu, the blue dragon (or azure dragon) representing the East; Byakko, the white tiger representing the West; Shujaku, the red sparrow (or vermilion bird) representing the South; Genbu, the black tortoise representing the North. These kata are also paired, Seiryu with Byakko and Shujaku with Genbu. (Note that there are a few different spellings of these names).
The Four Symbols show up in various depictions, from ancient artefacts…
A tile from the Han Dynasty in China, 206 BC–220 AD.
… to cheesy toys.
Also made in China, but considerably more recently.
My favourite so far are these stunning paintings by Dutch artist Caroline Lahaise, who focuses mainly on depicting mythological creatures from a variety of cultures. You can see more of her work at DeviantArt.
Let’s face it. Like it or not, ranks are a significant part of modern martial arts training. We line up in order of rank, we may be split into different classes according to rank, and what we learn is often structured according to rank. And as much as the coloured belt system may provide individual students with a series of personal milestones on their karate journey, they also serve as an indicator of one’s status that others perceive at a glance.
I’ve been thinking about belts and ranks off and on since I started training again. As you know, I reached the level of brown belt in my previous dojo, but started again at white belt in my new one. This was cause for some reflection on whether karate ranks are permanent (like, say, graduating with a university degree) or are contingent on continued training (like holding temporary title at one’s job). I have seen both views expressed on martial arts blogs, and I probably would have argued at one point that if you’ve earned a particular rank, you always have it — although obviously you may not live up to it if you don’t keep up your training. However, I think I am now much more in the camp that says you shouldn’t wear the belt unless you are currently at the appropriate skill level. I can see moving up through the ranks more quickly, or even being allowed to wear your old rank once you’ve demonstrated the required level of proficiency, but just showing up on day one with the old rank would not make much sense.
A while back, we received a phone call to the dojo.
The call came from somebody who had been training Karate once (a long time ago), and now wanted to continue. Obviously, somewhere along the way his career, wife and kids had come along, leaving Karate pushed aside. But now he was ready to rock ‘n roll again!
“Sure, why not? No problem at all, just come by the dojo when we have class. You can just wear regular clothes if your old gi doesn’t fit.” I told him.
But… even though I didn’t have a problem with anything he said, it seems he had a problem with what I’d just said.
“Oh, but… can I have my blue belt on?”
At this point I’m wondering if I just heard right, or if I needed to dewax my ears. Apparently, this fella’ who hasn’t been training for 10+ years, feels like turning up for his first session wearing his blue belt. A real blast from the past.
Just like his real skills weren’t as important as his perceived skills.
“Umm… well… of course, you can wear whatever you feel like” I hesitantly replied. “But then we presume you remember everything for the blue belt, of course.”
I could hear his face turning red.
That was being kind. Really, I would have wanted to say: “Hey, you know what? I have an even better idea: Why not just wear myblack belt instead? Sure, it’s a little worn, but that just adds to the blackbeltness! And it has “Jesse” written on it, but you can just scratch that away. What the heck, you can probably special order a golden belt with red stripes and built in laser cannons on it from the internet and wear that instead!
So, that’s one question about belts and ranks to consider. Are they permanent, or dynamic? It’s a complex issue, no doubt — and feel free to weigh in on it in the comments section.
What about something simpler, like whether or not you can wash your belt? Well, this too is something about which people differ in opinion. My first time through, I never washed my belts. It would remove the chi! But wait — I don’t believe in chi as a physical substance, and if I did, I don’t think it would be stored in my belt. Now, I wash my belt whenever it gets especially sweaty — mostly as a courtesy to my fellow students and because who wants to wear a stinky, sweaty belt? Others seem to have reached the same conclusion, such as in this blog post in which the author was asked by his Sensei in Japan to please wash his nasty belt.
When I arrived in Nagoya, I learned that the other members of my club regularly washed their belts. I discovered this because some of them commented that mine looked particularly well-traveled, and my instructor asked me if I had plans for it and a washing machine to meet and get to know each other better. I took the hint and gave it its first bath that night.
After washing it and drying my previously sacred, but now crest-fallen karate belt, I sat down and wondered why in the world I had ever believed that I should not wash it. It survived the washing just fine. It certainly smelled better, and it was less likely to spawn an of outbreak of cholera. What had I been thinking? That the belt police were going to smell my belt periodically to check to see that it still reeked of cheddar cheese?
The author of the above post suggests that not washing one’s belt is connected to the myth that people used to receive a white belt that would gradually darken to black after years of hard training. It’s just that, though: a myth. The coloured belt system is a relatively recent development in karate, having been borrowed (along with wearing a gi) from judo. The kyu belt system in judo was, itself, derived from the ranking system in the ancient game Go.
So, our belt ranking system traces its roots to a board game. Something to bear in mind, I guess.
Another reason to perhaps be less concerned about belt ranks is the obvious fact that they are not standardized. The requirements vary not just across styles and among organizations within a style, but across dojos within an organization. And, in fact, among students within a dojo. Misperceptions of one’s own ability aside, there can be pretty clear differences in actual level of advancement among students wearing the same rank. Not surprisingly, this can be a cause of frustration among students. As to that, I think this post at GKR Karate says it well:
One such belief that my old sensei used to espouse to me, was the need to free my mind from the pursuit of coloured belts (or grades), and concentrate purely on the quest for excellence in my karate. – “Aim to be the grade, not to get the grade” as he put it.
This would certainly tie in with the concept of belt ranks as dynamic rather than permanent. Likewise, it’s important not to focus too much on the ranks of other students. I quite like this quote, from another post at GKR Karate:
At times, a karateka gets outraged because he didn’t receive the promotion he thought he deserved, while someone he holds to be his inferior gets graded up. Suppose that the comparison is accurate in terms of kicks, punches, blocks, etc. If the discontented karateka, who I will call S., is truly superior in all technical respects, then what he got from karate-dō was genuine proficiency. What the other got was a belt.
Then who was robbed?
Bearing in mind that the coloured belt ranking system was brought in largely as a way of motivating students, a bit of a paradox arises. On the one hand, students who train often and hard may develop skills more quickly and therefore should be promoted sooner. On the other hand, these students obviously don’t need as much motivation as students who make it to class only once or twice per week. So, what is a Sensei to do in such a case? I am sure it can be difficult to balance the criterion of demonstrable proficiency with the need to use promotions as a motivator.
All I can conclude is that we shouldn’t get too wrapped up in belt rankings. They have their place, and they are indeed meaningful to students (me included), but in the end they are just pieces of fabric that represent a very rough indicator of a student’s abilities.
“It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
It’s fair to say that Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know yourself” still holds true 2,500 years after it was written. Learning to know ourselves, both physically and mentally, is a major objective in traditional martial arts training. We practice basic techniques, kata, kumite, and bunkai so that we can learn how our bodies and those of our opponents work, and how they don’t. In modern parlance, we would call this developing a good understanding of biomechanics. It’s what allows us to generate maximum power with minimum expenditure, to use an opponent’s momentum and position against him, and to make our movements fast, balanced, and smooth.
We also seek to know and better control our own minds: to become more confident as well as more humble, to overcome (but not eliminate) fear, to push our tolerances for pain, to develop focus and discipline, and to rise above our more aggressive and violent instincts.
It takes a great deal of training, practice, and correction to become proficient in the physical aspects of karate, in part the movements and stances are not intuitive. Of course, the same goes for riding a bicycle, skiing, skating, swimming, driving a car, dancing, and pretty any other physical activity that requires specialized motion. Most karateka become aware of the physical challenge of karate training in their very first class, as the movements that look so fluid when performed by advanced students seem confusing and awkward when the first try to emulate them. This same sensation occurs repeatedly in one’s training, for example when learning a new kata.
No, this isn’t me.
The mental challenges are more subtle, and as such are often less well appreciated. Even as practice allows us to commit to muscle memory the correct placement of the hands, or the proper form of a stance, or the way to execute a certain block, many of us maintain an inaccurate overall mental image of our own bodies. For example, it is common for individuals to underestimate the physical dimensions of their own bodies. (Or, in the case of some eating disorders, they greatly overestimate their own body size). Many of us think of ourselves as being the same as we were as youths. I know that I still perceive myself as the skinny teenager I was in high school and not as the larger than average man that I actually am. It still strikes me as odd when fellow karateka refer to me, as they often do, as “a bigger guy”. Others may have the opposite misperception (or at least behave as though they do), namely thinking that they are much bigger or stronger than they really are. Teenage boys and small dogs — both of whom may feel compelled to challenge nearby alpha males — seem to fit into this category fairly often.
Why does this matter? One obvious reason is that there an inaccurate body image will result in less effective applications of biomechanical principles, which need to be
adapted to each person’s body in order to work. It can adversely impact the performance of basics and kata — for example, if you are supposed to aim a strike at your own neck height, you need to have a proper sense of where that is. Misperceptions of one’s own body can also be dangerous, for example if we underestimate our own size or strength when working with a partner or if we try to move in ways more suited to someone of a different body type.
So, knowing ourselves means developing an accurate view of our own bodies, which is something that takes work because of the various cognitive biases and optical illusions that can engender an inaccurate self-perception. We may hold on to an obsolete self-image despite extensive but gradual change over our lifetimes. Or we may have a distorted view simply because of how we actually see ourselves in a literal sense — for example, because we usually see ourselves from distorted or imperfect perspectives, as in the reflection of a mirror or in photographs, or because we view parts of our bodies from an odd angle that provides an inaccurate perception of relative size.
The same goes for assessing our own skill level, which can be either overestimated underestimated — again, with adverse effects on our martial arts training. In one well-known cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect, individuals possess an exaggerated perception of their own abilities relative to those of others. This is especially pronounced among non-experts, who often fail to recognize the limitations of their own competency. Those with significant skill, by contrast, are often better able to recognize areas in which they require improvement.
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”
– Charles Darwin, 1871
The pendulum of self-perception can swing from overconfidence to another extreme, commonly dubbed impostor syndrome. In this case, people may undervalue their abilities and attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than skill to the point that praise from others makes them feel like an imposter.
Whether one overestimates their abilities (most often beginners) or undervalues their skills (usually advanced students), this represents another example of failing to know oneself. Again, such distortions can be damaging to progression in martial arts training. An over-estimation of one’s skills may make one less receptive to constructive criticism, or less willing to look for and correct one’s own mistakes. (As an aside, I believe that videotaping oneself while training can provide a much-needed reality check). Insufficient acknowledgement of one’s own skill is also unhelpful, because it may prevent one from taking on new challenges that are within one’s reach. It may also cause one to avoid teaching or demonstrating techniques in front of others, both of which are excellent ways to improve one’s own skills.
Knowing ourselves is a crucial part of studying martial arts — the problem is that we often don’t know just how much we don’t know about ourselves.
I have been meaning to write up some thoughts on knife defence techniques of the sort that we learn in seminars or practice in class, and how these relate to real-world examples of violent knife attacks. The relevance of this topic was brought home by the recent death of Wyatt Lewis in Edmonton, Alberta. According to the report, Lewis was fatally stabbed during an altercation while trying to protect a friend. Lewis was a jiu jitsu expert and mixed martial arts coach, but sadly that appears not to have prevented him from becoming a victim of violent assault.
The truth is, I am torn on the subject of knife defence techniques. On the one hand, they’re enjoyable to practice, they provide some additional understanding of biomechanics, and they may help to keep the level of panic down if one is ever confronted with a knife-wielding assailant in a do-or-die situation. On the other hand, the attacks that we practice bear little resemblance to what real knife violence looks like, and the extreme danger of a knife assault is simply not reflected in most training environments. The latter issue is why shock knives were invented — to get the adrenaline pumping during training as it would be in a real encounter. (I can attest that the threat of even a minor shock dramatically changes the way people react to a training knife, based on the one I made).
Here’s a typical example of a knife defence technique, as demonstrated by members of the legendary Gracie jiu jitsu family:
That’s all well and good, especially when practising on a beautiful beach using a stick. For a dose of reality, here’s a look at what a real knife can do to flesh:
That’s one cut. Here’s what it looks like in the hands of a trained fighter:
If you’re brave, click on these links to see some photos of actual knife attack victims. These are gruesome and you have been warned.
So, that’s point number 1: knives do way more damage, much more easily, than many people assume.
This leads to point number 2: real-life knife attacks are often sudden, fast, and aggressive.
All of this adds up to a major disconnect between what people expect a knife attack to be like and what it would actually be like. For this reason, good instructors will be very clear that trying to defend against a knife is a last resort. Short of protecting your life or that of a loved one when there is no means of de-escalation or escape, there is no reason to go up against a knife empty-handed.
It’s not just knife attacks, of course. Training for self-defence against unarmed attackers also requires special effort that goes beyond safe, pre-arranged drills performed with a partner in class. These drills, as well as kata, are useful for many aspects of training, including learning about biomechanics (your own and your opponent’s), timing, speed, and distance, and power generation, as well as for conditioning, training reflexes and overcoming a flinching instinct, and targeting. But they do not prepare us for a surprise attack.
The four truths: Assaults happen closer, faster, more suddenly, and with more power than most people believe.
Closer. One of the most common and artificial aspects of modern martial arts training is that self-defence drills are practiced at an optimum distance where the attacker must take at least a half step to contact. Real criminals rarely give this luxury of time. They strike when they are sure of hitting, positive that their victim is well within range before initiating the attack.
That half step of extra distance allows many things to work that are hard to pull off in real life. Blocks and evasions rarely work in real encounters. Even in the dojo, if you stand close enough that you can lay your forearm on your partner’s shoulder (nearly optimum striking range) and allow him to strike with either hand to targets of his choice, you will not block the strikes in time unless he telegraphs badly. Distance is time, and blocking takes time.
The attacker always chooses the time and place for the attack, and he chooses a range at which he can surely hit hard and his victim will have the least possible time to react. This means he will be close. Often, the ambush place will be an area that hampers the victim’s movements — a toilet stall, between two parked cars or slammed into a wall. Will your favorite move still work without room to turn or step?
Faster. Because the threat has chosen the time, the place, and the victim, he can attack all-out, with no thought given to defense. The speed of this flurry, the constant rain of blows, can be mind numbing.
When your martial arts students are sparring, use a stopwatch and time how many blows are thrown in a minute. Even in professional boxing, the number is not that impressive. There is a give and take to sparring and subtleties of timing in defense and offense that are integral to making it a game of skill.
Then time them on a heavy bag … Completely untrained people usually do four hits a second. Eight to ten times a second is reasonable for a decent martial artist. Thirteen to fourteen is the fastest I have done.
An assault is conducted like this flurry, not like sparring. A competent martial artist who is used to the more cautious timing of sparring is completely unprepared for this kind of speed. Even the people who strike ten times a second can’t block ten times a second.
More suddenly. An assault is based on the threat’s assessment of his chances. If he can’t get surprise, he often won’t attack. Some experts say that there is always some intuitive warning. Possibly, but if the warning was noted and heeded, the attack would be prevented. When the attack happens, it is always a surprise.
This is one of the hardest aspects of an ambush to train for. The very fact that you know you are training removes the element of surprise. The unexpectedness of an attack can negate nearly any skill. You psych up for training, for competition. You have time to use breathing techniques to adjust your adrenaline balance in class, but an assault happens while you are in your nine to five mind; when your brain is dealing with bills or shopping lists or lost car keys.
More power. There is a built-in problem with all training. You want to recycle your partners. If you or your students hit as hard as they can every time they hit, you will quickly run out of students.
Truthfully, the average criminal does not hit nearly as hard as a good boxer or karateka can hit. They do hit harder than the average boxer (because of gloves) or karateka has ever felt.
Being hit is part of the normal environment of an attack. More often than not, the first strike in an ambush lands. So do many others. It can be a sharp and stinging pain, not like the dull ocean roar of a boxing hit or a kind of wincing where part of your face wants to curl over the point of impact. Good martial artists, good ring fighters often freeze for a second because the attack doesn’t feel like training. If anything feels, sounds, or smells different than you have trained for, your body will be aware that it is a new experience and might freeze. Fighting with a concussion doesn’t feel like sparring.
There are many good reasons to train in the martial arts; self-defence is just one. But we should never assume that what we do in the dojo will translates into invincibility in the street. The best defence, as any good instructor will tell you, is avoidance and awareness.