Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
I’ve been a martial artist for some thirty years now, practicing or dabbling in several different styles. My reason for doing so is that I like to learn: about different peoples, cultures, and ways of thinking. I find that fighting styles is one of the ways where this can be best communicated.
I have recently relocated, and one of the first places I looked for were martial arts dojos. My previous location had little in diversity beyond the typical Taekwondo, Karate, and MMA gyms. I wanted something more cultural that would both improve my physicality and challenge me as well. I found one such place that did HEMA a.k.a Historical European Martial Arts.
I had always regarded the term ‘martial arts’ as the native combat styles of a particular group, region, or people, regardless if it was Eastern or Western. And I had already done some Kendo and was familiar with some of those basics. So I signed up to do a Italian longsword style created by a 15th century sword-dualist named Fiore dei Liberi
I had dabbled somewhat in some Euro sword fighting by myself in the past, but this was my first official immersion into one. I have been doing it for about eight months now, and I’ve already developed some insights into the different cultures of the Italian (and some other European styles by extension as some of the practitioners there had done German as well) and Japanese styles.
No Mind vs. The Will to Survive
The first contrast I noticed was in the mentality. My sword master indirectly expressed this when initially critiquing me. I told him of my background and he replied that he saw the samurai influence with my power strikes, rigid stances, and total aggression despite getting hit myself. He was a historical expert on most European styles that had surviving texts, and what he had read on samurai swordsmanship was, and I quote, “suicidal”.
The point to Fiore style of the sword was to win and survive duals and assassination attempts because that was the era he lived in. Murder was common place in Italian city-states where rival families constantly vied for power and prestige.
As such, Fiore had developed his style as a kind of counter-striking system, using finesse and set-ups of the duels. It was more of a mental chess match. One quote my master had was, “Fighting nobly but dying stupidly.”
This contrasted from what I learned from kendo. Not to say that samurai didn’t use intelligence and guile in their battles, nor that all samurai even thought this way. The difference lies in their ideological perception of death.
It’s been said that much of samurai thought is derived from the Buddhist tradition. A vast world on its own, parts of the religion believed that death should not be feared or run from, since it was inevitable anyway.
Rather it was better to be fully committed to the moment, living and putting every bit of self into that moment. And a lot of this can be seen in how samurai duels and battles were fought. Their commitment was supposed to be to following what their lord said and the killing of their enemies.
Anything else, including death, was secondary and not considered at the time. Or as the film The Last Samurai put it, “No mind.”
So to them, supposedly, if they died while trying to kill their enemies, then other than victory, it was a better way to go and they saw no disgrace in that.
Substance-Focus vs Technique-Focus
Another difference I noted between the two styles was how they conducted themselves in their techniques. Fiore swordsmanship feels much more intellectual than anything else to me. There’s a separation of emotion and spirit in the execution of the technique.
I certainly appreciated the clear mind aspect, and its common in many other styles, including kendo. The feints and thinking-focus of it was definitely applicable. However, it also felt somewhat empty to me personally.
When I first started, they told me that newbies were always the most dangerous because they were unpredictable and lacked control. True, but I thought of it from a battle/street fighting standpoint that you were not expecting to see that person again later anyway. Because one of you was going to be dead. And some of the early matches that I won or got a mutual "death" in was because my better and more experienced opponents weren’t mentally prepared.
Of course, this was not a life/death situation, so they eventually got used to my techniques and adapted, as well anyone should. However, even when I lost or got a draw, it took away the feeling I had of emotional and personal satisfaction that I had put my all into it. It was almost robotic, lacking...something. If I won or took the other person down with me, so much the better.
So it's a difference of goals. Theirs’ is winning and survival. Mine was total commitment in attempting to win: period. While I am trying to adapt to this because it's their school and again, I like learning about different perspectives, this has also been the most difficult aspect for me to adapt to as well.
"Native Americans say, "It's a good day to die", and samurai live their lives to die honorably, so that kind of energy creates a certain mindset of reflectiveness with control to a point. After that, it's gone."
— - Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa
Beyond the Sword
Lastly was real world applications. When I do kendo, I always feel that I come away with something that I could apply to myself in other areas of my life, which I often did. This is because of the overlap with commitment vs intellectual. The satisfaction I took away from my lessons and sparring in kendo bled into other parts of my being, even if not used.
With Euro styles, however, I don’t get that same feeling. And maybe it's just me, you know?
I can get better at a snipe or a feint or standing upright at all times and not leaning into the attack. But I didn't feel like a changed person or that I had grown any as a person. The sole exception being more intellectual and potentially manipulative in my approach to suspicious people. I always appreciate intelligence.
Many kendo moves I learned involved using my entire body. So it wasn't only the cardio benefit of that, but also the rush. Some would call this a more spiritual aspect of many Asian martial arts. Its direct/indirect element of expression of the person’s mind and soul. Personally, I think that depends on your beliefs about the spirit, but I could definitely see a more personal exposure into the people I fought.
While Fiore style has been helping me become a more intellectual martial artist, that only carries over outside of the gym after engaging with people. I have no real sense of them beforehand otherwise. Whereas the carry over from kendo has taught me to ‘feel’ the other person’s vibes before I interact with them. It sounds like Eastern mysticism, but that isn’t what I mean.
"Without books, no one can be a good teacher or even a good student of his art"
— - Fiore dei Liberi
Final Thoughts For Now
These were some of the contrasts that I discovered while doing Italian style swordsmanship. Let me be clear that I am not shitting on the Italian or any other European style of HEMA. There are definitely benefits and lessons to be learned from them.
It is interesting though living through how the two contrasting styles interact and perceive each other. I have never corrected my sword master on his take of samurai swordsmanship as suicidal. I get it and there’s a reason why some historians and experts have referred to the class of warriors as a "death cult." There is definitely something more visceral about cutting off someone's head than there is scoring a decisive kill-shot to the throat or eye. Or deliberately tearing your belly open because of an embarrassment, disgrace, or loss in battle compared to running and living to fight another day. It’s frightening if you think about it.
Yet I believe that there is a middle ground where the two styles can meet. And I would like to develop my personal martial arts along that line. Because the biggest thing that both styles have in common is that they can be stuck in tradition. Not that this has happened at my current school, but I have met practitioners who refused to see any value in other systems. Therefore it becomes vulnerable to stagnation. And if the practitioners are fine in that setting then I’m not going to stop them.
For me however, I hate stagnation. I hate standing still. I want to grow and expand in as many ways as possible. I don’t see myself sticking with this gym forever, but while I am there I will learn what I can and fight as much as I can.
© 2021 Jamal Smith
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on April 25, 2021:
"running and living to fight another day" - So this would be Ninjutsu for the Japanese I suppose. For a Samurai it would be much to shameful to run away. A Samurai had to defend the Lord and the people in the surrounding area. It's more like a soldier, the way I see it. A soldier doesn't run away.
On the other hand, if one is a mercenary, or just a single assassin then, running away to live another day is the way to go about it. No shame in running away in my opinion but if one is looking for titles, medals, name recognition, etc. then, running away is not the thing to do.
Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.