MUSA the Kendo Robot

I’m sure this may be old news for a lot of our readers, but who can pass up making a few comments about a robot that does Kendo? I for one can’t wait to put one of these on my Christmas list.

MUSA, a 163cm tall, 70kg robot, was developed by the Manufacturing and Mechatronics Lab of Seoul National University. It was designed to help Kendokas become more proficient with their techniques.

According to Prof.Young-Bong Bang, who led this project, Musa uses sensors to defend and attack his opponents using traditional Kendo techniques. It is the goal of MUSA’s developers to one-day program MUSA to a third Dan level.

As I watched the below video I have to say this project is pretty interesting, though Musa seems to lack a little spontaneity. However, I can clearly see how such a robot could help one with their forms, and who knows what such a robot will be able to do in the future.

After watching MUSA wield what appears to be a katana, I couldn’t help think about Yul Brynner’s deranged robot gunslinger in the movie “Westworld.” I certainly wouldn’t want the liability of a sword-wielding robot in my dojo, even if the developers guarantee MUSA is programmed not to actually strike/injure his opponents.

Okay, a Kendo fighting robot may not be my first choice since I don’t practice Kendo, but until there is a robot that does Kenjutsu or Aiki and has great ukemei (falling) abilities, this robot will have to suffice. Of course ,I’m still hoping that some type of holodeck, as seen in Star Trek, is developed in my lifetime, but that might be just too much wishful thinking.

Until technology catches up with my desire, I guess I’ll just have to do things the old fashion way and use white belts. After all, many of them do move robotically.


Dojo Injuries

Every now and then, conversations at the school arise regarding injuries people have witnessed while training in the martial arts. Sometimes these conversation revolve around the various injuries we personally have suffered while training, but more often than not we talk about injuries that have happened to friends and training partners.

Of course, like many conversations, these discussions often slowly but surely turn into a game of “one-upmanship” as each person wants to top the last person’s story or personal suffering.

Sometimes the stories are so bizarre that it’s hard to believe them, and people stare at each other in disbelief. Other times they are so funny that we forget someone really suffered.

In either case, these stories and the injuries they describe are a reminder that really bad things can happen, and that they can happen in an instant. One second of inattention or dropping one’s guard can lead to permanent scars, loss of limbs, or a reduction in one’s overall quality of life.

No matter whether the injuries are short term or permanent, these stories are clearly “Cautionary Tales.” Tales people should not take so lightly, and should learn from.

* * *

Case in point: Several weeks ago I told a story, which I have to admit is very hard to believe. To be honest, if I hadn’t seen it myself I would have to question whether it was true or not. However, I was there, and witnessed every second of it.

To this day, I’m still not sure how it happened, but I will never forget it, nor will I forget my emotions at the moment when it occurred. Shocked, sickened, and definitely in a state of panic worrying about the ramifications. I wish it had all been just a dream. However, bad things do happen, and to this day this event is always in the back of mind reminding me to be careful.

Many years ago, I had several friends I would practice with. We were a group of martial artists that worked together to figure out why our teachers made us do certain things in class, and how we could use what we knew more efficiently and effectively. It was sort of a study group where we analyzed movements within forms, and tried to make sense of all the various aspects of the martial arts we studied.

Each one of us had a different martial art background, as well our individual reasons why we trained. The one thing that united us was our desire to learn techniques that had real world effectiveness, and a desire to seek out knowledge we felt we were not getting form our respective teachers. Actually, we were pretty progressive for the early 80’s, and what we were doing was something we definitely had to keep hidden from our personal instructors.

Well one day while working on some iai-jutsu (sword draws) and drills, a friend of one of my friends decided to show us some new forms he had learned while visiting Japan. Of course, we were all excited to see them.

The first forms were executed with grace and precision. The guy actually looked like he knew what he was doing.

Then all of a sudden, disaster!

Sure, that last draw was excellent as was the cut to his imaginary opponent. Then came the chiburi (flipping blood off the sword after cutting an opponent), which at first appeared to be as good as the draw. In fact we were all ready to congratulate the guy on a job well done, and to ask him to teach us what he just done.

That, of course, was the calm before the storm.

Now, as he tells the story, everything was going fine, he had just completed the chiburi, and was getting ready for noto (putting the sword back in the scabbard). For some unknown reason he looked down at the ground and saw some red liquid spots on the floor.

Puzzled by what he saw, and sure these spots hadn’t been on the floor a few seconds earlier, he started to look around for their source.

As he looked more closely at the floor, he saw several flesh colored objects lying on the ground in front of him. Objects he definitely knew hadn’t been there moments before.

On closer inspection he discovered to his horror that they were severed toes.

Then it hit him they just weren’t just toes, they were his severed toes.

Yes, during his chiburi he had sliced off three of his toes.

It was a clean cut, and so fast and smooth he didn’t even feel it.

Of course, once he processed what had happened, and now that he was now minus a few toes, he fell to the floor in agonizing pain.

Now, you can imagine the shock and disbelief that overwhelmed the rest of us. I mean, you see things happen like this in the movies, but not in real life. I felt like this really couldn’t have happened.

Of course, as dumbfounded as we were, we had to quickly gain our composure. Our friend’s life was now in jeopardy.

It took a combined effort to clam him down enough to wrap his foot, gather and ice his toes, and rush him to the emergency room, but we did it. I’m not sure how. I’m also sure we broke every traffic law in the process, but within minutes he was at the hospital.

Now I’m sure you can imagine the looks we got, when we told the staff at the hospital what had happened. Sword injuries are not very common in the 20th century, and once again anyone who wasn’t there would have his or her doubts as to what actually occurred. In this case, because of our ages and the nature of the injury, the police were even called and his injury was investigated just to make sure we were not lying.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, and his toes were reattached. It took him months to recover, and he lost a lot of sensation. But except for some major scarring, one would never know what had happened.

Now, I share this tale with no intention of grossing people out. I, for one, actually think it illustrates how quickly things can go wrong. I tell this tale to show people how important it is to always focus on what they are doing, especially when it comes to working with lethal weaponry.

Sure, people kind of laugh when they hear this story, but we’re normally not laughing at the guy. We’re laughing about the morbidity of what happened, realizing that if we make a stupid mistake the same thing or worse can happen to us. It’s an uneasy type of laughter we share to hide our repulsion to the fact that these things happen.

* * *

By now you may be wondering what prompted me to share such a tale with the world. Well if you will remember I said these stories should act as cautionary tales. They should teach us to be careful and always pay attention to what we are doing.

When I told this story less than a week ago I never imagined I would have to relive it. However, on Friday Nov. 17th 2006 I did. Well, sort of.

On Friday the 17th we were having a tameshigiri class (cutting rolled reed mats). It had been months since our last one, and everyone was eager to try it, especially those who had never done it before.

Of course it also had to be one of those nights where I had a guest and also one where we had an uncommon amount of onlookers from the street. Both of these are fairly unusual events for my school.

The night started off normal enough, with each person taking their turn with mixed results.

The goal of the tameshigiri class was to have fun, while gaining some insight into the proper way to cut with the katana. It’s a chance to witness the lethality of the swords we use, which normally builds a healthy respect between practitioners and their blades.

Sometimes I think people doubt just how dangerous these swords are. As one person mentioned, he didn’t think his new sword really looked like it was sharp. Of course it was and it cut through the tatami mats with ease.

Like I said the class started off like normal. However, that was about to change. In an instant the whole mood and tone changed.

Now I could describe what went wrong step-by-step, and just how many mistakes my poor student made. How he didn’t follow instructions, or the lackadaisical way he approached his task.

I could air my frustration about what happened, but I won’t since I feel genuinely sorry for the guy. I have no intention to admonish him publicly. Let’s just say that he has done martial arts long enough to know the risks; he knows what he did wrong, and he is ultimately the one who will suffer until things heal.

The good news is my student didn’t sever any toes completely off. In fact, only one toe was injured, though I have to say that toe was sliced right to the bone from tip to base.

Now, expressions can be worth a thousand words, and his face at the moment when this happened was priceless. It was clearly a combination of bewilderment, and anger towards himself for doing what ultimately can only be categorized as stupidity.

At first what he did didn’t hit me. And even when he verbally validated what I thought had happened, I was hoping, should I say praying, he was kidding. Unfortunately he wasn’t. He had in fact cut himself. In many ways it was almost like my story coming back to haunt me.

To say that everyone was shocked would be an understatement. It took a while after he left for the hospital for everyone to regain their composure and start cutting again. Needless to say, everyone was a lot more careful for the rest of the night, and it will be something no one present will ever forget.

Now I know one day this story will be shared with others. Those that hear it will wonder if it’s really true or not. There will uneasy laughter, as the realization that these things are possible registers within each individual psyche.

All I can hope is that by sharing such stories I stop at least a few people from injuring themselves. If that means I make people stop and think about what they are doing, or the manner in which they do things, than all the suffering I have witnessed, the injuries I have suffered personally have some meaning.

I’ve always been told to “learn from the mistakes of others.” And to be honest, that phrase has a tremendous amount of validity to it.

[C.f. earlier postings on accidents and live swords:
Respecting Live Swords by Spencer on 2006-04-19
Live Blades by Gary on 2006-05-05
Live Blades A Follow Up by Gary on 2006-05-10
References for Live Blades – A Follow Up by Spencer on 2006-05-10]

Yari Vs Sword #1

I hope between the photos and this description I can do this technique justice.

1. A spearman and swordsman meet

2. The swordsman prepares to draw and the spearman counters by striking the forward hand and pushing the swordsman to the rear and off balance. (Why the spearman doesn’t just kill him outright is for speculation, but this was taught as an arresting technique, so I imagine the attacker had to be taken alive.)

Once contact is made with the forward arm, this pressure cannot be released. This is how the swordsman will be controlled. From this point onward the spearman must dictate all directional movements of the swordsman. Of course the swordsman cannot be aware that the spearman is dictating the action, and must “feel” that the movements he is making are being unchallenged. This requires subtlety and refinement, and there is a fine line between too much force and too little.

3. Because of the position of the spear, the swordsman must drop his hip back in order to complete his draw. As the sword leaves the scabbard, the spearman applies more downward pressure on the front hand, while at the same time starting to extend the front hand in a forward arch. This is done by pulling the forward elbow back towards the hip, while pushing the forward knee towards the swordsman. These are small movements.

Note the swordsman’s poor posture, and how he is leaning at a forward angle to the right side of the spearman. Most of the swordsman’s weight is on his rear leg, and his hip is still to the rear. His forward elbow is facing the ground and the arm is not allowed to fully extend forward.

4. The spearman steps around the swordsman, using the force of his rotation to “push” the attacker downward and forward. We call this “back-pressure.”

At this point in the technique, the position of the swordsman’s elbow comes into effect. The push should drive the elbow straight to the ground at the specific point that off-balances the swordsman. We refer to this point as his “triangulation point;” simply put, it is a place where the attacker can’t regain his balance and must fall down.

I cannot overstress the importance of proper extension, or the importance of remaining in contact with your opponent’s wrist at all times. The wrist must be controlled from the very beginning so the swordsman cannot properly grip or use the sword. Note how awkward the swordsman’s hand position is on the draw.

Keep in mind that there is nothing between the swordsman’s sword and the spearman’s body. This is on purpose! You want to make the swordsman believe he can swing and cut, because any forward motion on his part can and will be used against him. In fact, any forward momentum generated by the swordsman will make doing this technique easier.

Of course if you mess up, you are going to get cut. That is one reason the spearman rotates his body. If the spearman rotates properly he should place himself in a safer position. However, I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

I should also mention that if one use to much force the technique will not work. You will lose your connection and the swordsman will regain his stability. The spearman’s motion has to be smooth and light, so that the swordsman doesn’t feel he is being controlled. Any use of force (strength) will be felt and the swordsman can react to it, nullifying the technique.

5. The swordsman is taken all the way to the ground and the spearman’s grip is released. The spear is flipped over, and the swordsman neutralized.

This technique is not easy to accomplish, but it’s worth the effort to learn. A lot of scientific principles can be found within this technique, principles that can be applied to numerous other forms.

Naginata Vs Sword #1

Clearly, my teacher preferred the yari to the naginata or sword. However, the curriculum of the school covered all of these weapons, and proficiency using them was required in order to progress within the system.

I’ll be the first to admit that I only have basic skills when it comes to wielding a naginata, however the similarities to the yari are unquestionable. Fortunately, the insights my teacher instilled in me in the usage of the sword and spear, as well as those related to unarmed (aiki) techniques, has helped me develop a more comprehensive naginata curriculum for my students.

This does not mean I’ve made up new techniques, or changed what my teacher taught me. The techniques he taught are still the same, as are the core principles that make them work. All I’ve done over the years is discover variations, and when possible added to my arsenal of techniques by studying with others more skilled than myself.

In this sequence the spearmen is attacked with a horizontal attack to the throat. The attacked is neutralized with a side-augmented block.

In order to do this block correctly several factors must take place.
1. First of all, the naginata must be at a 45-degree angle.
2. Secondly, the rear bottom hand must be placed against the hip to maintain stability.
3. The forward hand must be kept tucked, elbow facing the ground.
4. In this sequence I have elected to step forward into the attacker’s midline, which helps to reduce the amount of impact from his weapon. This helps prevent the possibility that my blade will be broken due to the impact. In some situations a side step or a back step can also be used, though these motions are not as optimal.
5. When using this block NEVER meet the attacker’s force. NEVER! And don’t flinch either. Either trust the form or don’t do it. CORRECT POSTURE is essential in all forms!!

Use the tsuba push the sword straight up and towards the attacker.

This movement has to be done quickly and smoothly while there is still resistance against the block.

Note, how the swordsman’s body is leaning slightly backward, and that the sword is now above the head of the defender.

(To make this lift more effective, and harder to perceive, one can raise the rear foot, instead of using a lot of arm action.)

Right before the tension between the two weapons stops, do a dropping motion with the naginata. If done correctly the swordsman will slip off the naginata and fall to the side.

I tend to use a slight body-drop at this moment, but that isn’t really necessary. In fact, since it is imperative that the position of the arms remains unchanged, I advise against using a body-drop if one cannot maintain their hands while doing it.

It should also be noted that I lean slightly forward when doing the dropping motion and my lead elbow faces my opponent. By knowing where my elbow is positioned I know exactly where the midline of my opponent is, and any follow up motion I make will be a straight line—the quickest way between two points.

In addition, by keeping my elbow forward I reduce the likelihood of letting my arm extend away from my body which would reduce my stability and control. It also keeps me from placing my arm in a position where it could be attacked by my opponent or a possible accomplice.

Those who feel they need to drop in order not to be hit by the sword are wrong—or they are doing the form incorrectly. If the sword is raised properly prior to this movement, the sword will "float" over your head.

The main objective when doing this technique is fluidity. This technique is not effective if not done in one progressive motion. Any pause will give the attacker time to adjust, and possibly attack again. If nothing else you will lose your advantage, and have to start over.

At this point in the technique numerous counter attacks can be done. The obvious one is to make a circular action and cut the attacker down the midline, or across the shoulder. For this sequence I elected to use a strike with the pole/end-cap to the back of the head.

I find this counter attack to be quicker, and as my opponent stumbles, or recovers from the blunt trauma to his head, I have time to be more selective as to which technique to use to finish him off. Of course, for the more merciful, this attack also allows one the option to not use lethal force (Yes, I’m aware that a hard blow to the back of the head can kill also).

I find that this from is very versatile and I teach it using almost every weapon in our arsenal. The nice thing is that except for distancing, this form requires only slight changes in order to be effective with other weapons.

Basically, the main difference would be that weapons without a tsuba or catch-bar don’t utilize the push up and back, and a proper body drop is essential at the moment the attacking weapon is passed over and downward.


Tameshigiri, also know as ‘test cutting’ is not as large of a part of our art as it is for some others. But a few times a year we get some straw mats and slice them with swords. It’s a useful training tool to point out weaknesses in your form; when you fail to cut the mat it’s obvious that you did something wrong. It is also fun on a very visceral level.

Last night we cut for the first time since October. It was clear that I am badly out of practice, but never mind that. I also took some pictures, and while most of them look terrible, I really liked how this one turned out, artistically speaking:

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).