Black Belt Magazine Article Review -“Deadly Weapons”

I have been a subscriber to Black Belt Magazine for over 20 years. Through those years I’ve seen the magazine evolve, and change along with the various “flavors of the month.”

For the most part, I approach Black Belt Magazine as if it were a Hollywood gossip magazine. There are lots of articles and photos, but little or nothing of substance. It’s basically throne room reading, if you get my gist.

More often than not, articles are poorly written, show bias, and really offer nothing new content-wise. In fact, if you look at many of the authors or who they are writing about, they are often the same people who purchase major ad space in the magazine. But I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

What really irritates me, even often perplexes the hell out of me, is how often Black Belt Magazine asserts something new and revolutionary has been discovered or created by so-and-so-bigwig. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these articles turn out to be nothing new or innovative at all. For a publication specializing in martial arts, they should just know better.

However for all the magazine’s faults, every now and then they do produce something of value and worth reading.

In this instance it’s a two-part article titled, “Deadly Weapons,” by Scott Marrs and Andy McGill, which appears in the August and September 2007 issues.

Basically, the articles are written to inform people how the law really views the martial arts, the liability of combatants, self-defense issues, and how hands and feet are viewed as deadly weapons.

While I feel the articles are too short to do full justice to the topic, the authors did a good job answering a lot of questions martial artists may have about the law. Certainly, this is one of the few occasions where I’ve seen these questions–man of which I’m asked in class–covered to any extent. It’s also nice to see someone actually addressing known fallacies, and setting the record straight.

I, for one, feel it is extremely important to teach my students the law as it relates to using martial art skills, even in a life and death situation. This is especially important given the fact that any civil suit filed regarding possible excessive force has the potential to include me, as the teacher of those skills.

Unfortunately, very few schools discuss martial arts and the law. As a result there is a lot of misinformation out there. I can’t start to tell you how many times I’ve been asked if my hands are really registered as deadly weapons.

I know I will encourage my students to read this article. Not because we haven’t covered most of this material in class already, but just so they can get another perspective on the material.

I also recommend anyone involved in the martial arts should also read it. However, like the authors state, “Don’t’ rely on this article as legal advice. The jurisdiction in which you live may have different laws and standards than discussed here.”

View the article in PDF format: Part 1, Part 2.


Injury Rates from Street Fights in the UK

Research from hospital patients in Britain show that in fights “people who had been kicked were most likely to suffer serious injury – even more so than those who had been attacked with a blunt or sharp weapon.”

BBC News Report
Journal Article

At first glance, this would seem to validate the tried and true martial arts strategy of training in kicking techniques over the currently popular emphasis on ground-fighting based on the dogma “that all fights go to the ground.” Kicking was 44% more likely to cause a serious injury than punching.

But as you read the news story, it turned out that people were often kicked after they had “gone to the ground” the wrong way.

[A]lcohol was a large contributing factor in the use of kicking in fights as drunk people were more likely to fall over.

So indeed, fights do go to the ground rather than being stand up kickboxing fights (no surprise). But on the other hand, this is a good reminder that the ground is a very bad place to be if your opponent’s friends are still standing.

Once you are on the floor, you’re at great risk.

Just because the fight is going to the ground doesn’t mean that you want to go there with it.

There are also lessons to point out from the other side. This does succinctly and brutally reinforce the Yachigusa-Ryu philosophy of kicking:

  1. Never kick above your waist.
  2. Always kick to the head.

Some other points from the study worth mentioning:

  • There was a significant increase in severe injuries when there were three or more assailants.
  • The greater rate of injuries from feet over blunt objects does not look to be statistically significant.
  • Blunt objects (and of course feet) caused more significant injuries than sharp objects. This could be because attackers pull back sooner after cutting somebody or it could be due to the fact that may of the cuts were only due to broken glass.
  • Patterns of violence are likely to be different in other countries, both due to cultural reasons and the differing availability of firearms.
  • Kicking was the mechanism of assault in only 7% of injuries surveyed in the hospital. Blunt and sharp objects each represented 11% while punching represented 55% of cases. In other words, kicking might be dangerous but it is rarer than other attacks.
  • Victims were more likely to sustain serious injuries in middle age, with 47 being the peak age.
  • More than a quarter of treated victims were women, which is a higher percentage than in previous studies. Women were less likely to be severely injured than men, unless they were the victims of multiple attackers.


I recently came across this essay by David Lowry on bowing in the Japanese martial arts.

In our small dojo, we are not very formal on a day to day basis and tend to let the finer points of etiquette slide. I suppose we have the poor manners of a bunch of barbarians in a garage, which is what we are. Nevertheless, it is important for us to know etiquette both to put our art in its proper context and to know how to behave in public.

This article is of note for both the historical context it gives, which I did not know to that level of detail, and as a reminder of the proper forms.

For example, the formal bow from seiza in our school is exactly what he describes as the “Ogasawara style seated bow that was used in certain situations where the person to whom one is bowing might have hostile intentions”:

[Kneeling in seiza with] hands on the thighs, the left hand moves down to the floor first, then the right, then comes a bow with one’s forehead placed approximately over a triangle formed by the thumbs and forefingers of both hands spread out. Coming up from the bow the order is reversed; the right hand moves back to the thigh, then the left.

This essay is an excerpt from his new book about the history of martial arts traditions, “In the Dojo”. While the arrogance Mr. Lowry often displays in his writing can rub me the wrong way, he certainly knows his stuff and is a good writer. Assuming this essay is indicative of the new book, it looks to be worth a read.

Lovret’s Budo

I’ve been thinking about the article My Budô by Fredrick Lovret (alternate link)

I do not directly know much about Lovret. My understanding is that he is licensed in Daito-Ryu as well two other arts with occluded history. I used to train with a former student of his style who spoke extremely highly of him. However, since then I’ve mainly heard his name as it gets dragged through the mud by purists who doubt his martial lineage.

I really enjoy this article’s breakdown of the three reasons people study the classical Japanese martial arts: for culture, for combat and for self. There is really a lot to think about in that as far as what and why we practice. And how we are all “slightly insane.”

The real reason I’ve felt like posting this article is that his breakdown is helping me to think about the schism that seems to exist between most of the classical bujutsu I’ve seen (especially “iai” arts) and the few traditional arts I’ve seen that feel like what we do (mostly “aiki” arts). I think that he is on to something as far as what the fundamental difference is in his description of “bujutsu as culture” versus “bujutsu as budo” practicioners.

However, I do not think that “bujutsu as budo” quite captures what “our side” is about, since the budo aspect is very strong for a lot of the “bujutsu as history” folks as well. Lovret is defining budo in such a way as to exclude them, while I’ve seen “culturalists” define budo in such away as to exclude folks like him. Nonetheless, whatever you feel about his choice of words, there is indeed a palpable duality: those who love the style and its lineage versus those that love the art and its techniques; those who preserve versus those who grow; those who want to be part of something versus those who want something to be part of them.

It’s not clear to me why this duality is so clear–and there are teachers who straddle both camps and blur the lines–but the “as culture” crowd often seem to push hard to exclude us apostates while the “as budo” camp turn up their noses in return (as Lovret is doing here).

Beyond all that, I have to mention how amusing I find his insistence on a proper haircut and polished shoes. I see his point, that classical bujutsu is a military discipline for the elite. But it is very far from the attitude of our dojo. Of course, our art is descended from about as low-ranking of samurai as you could get. They had their hands dirty with keeping the peace rather than drilling for war. Our attitude would be closer to “do what you’ve got to do to get by.”

This article makes me want to meet Lovret Sensei and see what makes him tick.

Thoughts on Iaido by Nakamura Taizaburo

Go read the article “Thoughts on Iaido”by Nakamura Taizaburo with Guy H. Power & Takako Funaya

Nakamura Taizaburo founded Nakamura-ryu, an iai/batto sword style, in reaction to what he saw as weaknesses in classical iaido. This article is a meditation on those weaknesses and the experiences that caused Nakamura to think differently about iai.

In general, I agree with most of his observations. I very strongly agree with him on points #4, #5, #9, and especially #19; however, we do #12 and #14 in our style and I would argue for them. But really, the reason I want to comment on this article is the insight it gives into how and why styles changed during and following the WWII period. It is useful for understanding both those styles that changed to accommodate new ideas gained in war, and those that moved backwards in a reactionary way out of disgust.

I am most struck by his talk of swordsmen who “experienced actual battlefield sword techniques” during the wars of the 20th Century (paragraphs 5-7).

Now, Koryu Iaido dogma claims that Koryu arts are pure because they were created and tested by warring samurai. Thus, current practitioners are unfit to alter swords arts because they have not been in real sword fights. However, this article makes it clear that for certain men, Japanese militarization gave them a combat opportunity to re-test and then alter their arts.

In some ways this sounds good for the martial arts, in other ways it is deeply, deeply disturbing. Nakamura discusses exchanging ideas with Takayama Masayoshi, a war criminal who was sentenced to twenty five years “[b]ecause of his sword testing in China.” As footnote #4 explains, the euphemism “sword testing” translates to “killing 10 Chinese prisoners of war with his sword.”

That image–a dedicated martial artist killing prisoners to perfect his technique–is a haunting one. It is perfectly understandable that many teachers refused to keep the lessons from the War and “reverted to old-school sword techniques.” In fact, I think I now understand why many lineages of iaido discourage tameshigiri (test-cutting).

But yet…as horrible as the Japanese war crimes were, were the samurai of old any better? Or do they just seem safe and pure because of the distance of history? Swords are designed for killing. We may play at creative-anachronism, but the real truth is messy and tinged with evil.

The artistic flourishes that Nakamura complains about do still need to be addressed; pretending that nobody learned to kill with swords in China does not change that. Thus we end up and a morally confusing place. I think this is why most students of the Japanese sword ignore the effects of WWII on their arts and say they are learning the “life giving sword” rather than practicing ways to kill people.

Jigen Ryu and Cadences

I came across this video of Jigen Ryu a while ago. It looks (and sounds) strikingly different from most sword arts. They seem to go as fast and hard as is possible to strike terror into the hearts of men. This style is from Kagoshima: the south edge of Japan where the samurai remained most untamed by the government in the Edo Period and where the “Last Samurai” made their final stand in 1877. In other words, these guys have a history of ferocity.


* * *

I’ve been trying to feel the rhythyms in sword work a lot more recently. It seems to be most natural to fall into a steady beat of give and take with your opponent. Of coruse, you really don’t want to find yourself ‘taking’. I often find that we fall into this in partner drills; the defender will move simultaneously with the attacker as if they are dancing. This only works because the defender knows which block to use in advance. By following along with the attacker’s rhythym, the defender loses initiative and is playing the attackers game.

In our style, the cadence should be more syncopated…it seems best to wait a fraction of a beat for the opponent to commit to a movement and then move off rhythm to interrupt the opponents timing. There is, to my limited understanding at least, a certain aiki nature in what our timing should be; when done right it jams up the other guy and keeps him off balance.

Anyway, the reason I’m thinking about this now is that it occurs to me that the Jigen-Ryu stylists seem to take an opposite approach to timing. They are controlling the rhythym of the fight by dominating the timing. It looks to me like they are trying to go so fast and hard that the opponent will die like a deer in the headlights. It’s not very subtle, but I can imagine a few hundred guys running into battle like this would be quite a sight.

To summarize what I’m musing on, it seems to me that where we would break timing by by going a half-beat behind the opponent, they would do it by going a half-beat before the opponent. I am, of course, totally unqualified to comment on Jigen Ryu. It’s not what I study (nor wish to), but the contrast is useful for thinking about my own practice (and let’s keep in mind that I’m writing for my own benefit rather than your education anyway).


News of the Day

USA Today on a “Fight Club” in Silicon Valley

The New York Times on Kendo in NYC

Apart from the standard “Look at funny people doing funny things” approach of the press, a similar line in each article caught my attention:

“You get to be a superhero for a night,” Klimanis said. “We have to go to work every day. We’re constantly told to buy things we don’t need, and just for a couple hours we have the freedom to do what we want to do.”

“From the moment you set foot in this dojo, you are a New York samurai,” said Jose Pena, 51, who has been studying with Mr. Kataoka three days a week for the past 27 years. “It may be 2006, but we still follow the way of the warrior.”

I’ve always been bothered by this common attitude that doing martial arts makes one special, as if whacking somebody on the head a few times makes you superior to mere mortal office workers. I suppose that this hits a nerve somewhere for me because when push comes to shove, I too engage in martial arts in part to avoid feeling dull and empty. Yet, it just seems that one should have a bit more perspective. One should realize that even if playing samurai (or street-fighter) makes you feel special, that doesn’t mean that you are.

I know that that these quotes are taken out of context and edited to sound over-the-top, but a 27 year veteran of the martial arts should know better than to call himself a “New York samurai” and talk about following bushido. It makes him sound like an extra from “Ghost Dog”.