A Layman’s Observation: Fencing and Japanese Martial Arts Principles

This is a second installment in an ongoing series of “A Layman’s Observations” where I discuss my observations on martial arts and combat sports. Read the prior installment here.

At the start of this year, I began learning how to fence the Olympic way and the beginning of May that I had the opportunity to face fencers from outside of the club I belong to. These fencers came from a college club that practiced regularly – about three days a week, compared to our club’s one day a week. As much as I would like to say that I crushed them all with my super magic ninja powers, gained from twenty-some years of martial arts training, I did not. I had my fair share of losses as well as some wins, but winning and losing is not the central theme to this editorial. Rather, it is a reflection of a handful on these bouts and how I experienced, firsthand, the application of the principles found in my traditional Japanese martial arts training.

Mushin: No Mind

In my studies of martial arts manuals, especially those that are a few hundred years old, they stress the importance of mushin, or having nothing in one’s mind that would hinder you achieving what you want, i.e., the perfect strike. Or to be more cliché, mushin is emptying one’s mind before applying oneself to the task at hand. There is some truth to this while I experienced the speediness of the fencing bouts. Before every match, I paid no attention to the prior bouts I participated in, nor did I pay attention to the other matches and people talking around me. Nothing mattered except for the fencer in front of me and the judge on the sideline. But I did not wipe my mind of any sort of plan of attack of action. Just letting things happen is the highest form of mushin and I am nowhere near such spontaneous actions nor complete mastery of fencing and its three weapons to fall into this practice. Realizing this as I continued to watch the more seasoned fencers from both my club and the visiting club, their plan of attack was more subtle than a beginner’s – the seasoned veteran already knows how to make their opponent respond to their advantage.

Throughout the training for this goodwill tournament, many of the coaches and seasoned students advised heavily on having a plan before swinging and stabbing wildly at the other fencer. And such plans changed as I began to know my opponent better. I knew where I wanted to hit, and I had some idea how to encourage or lead my opponent into a response that I needed for my plan of attack. Achieving mushin in this context is seeing the opening you are working for and quickly, and without thinking, move to strike that opening.

Perhaps another form of mushin is the constant adaptation of my plan for or towards my opponent. To be focused fully on the bout rather than worrying about the time or scorecard, one would need to take that focus and use it productively. Mushin is not blind focus on wanting to stab the other fencer, but how one modifies and changes themselves to suit the need of the situation. Sometimes this constant adapting did not always work on my part, as my opponent would switch their plans from touch to touch, just as I was, yet I cannot deny the benefits of adapting to one’s opponent and achieving touches and points throughout the goodwill tournament as a solid approach.

Zanshin: Remaining Mind

Another one of the principal minds found in Zen Buddhism, is that mushin plays into zanshin. There is focus on the task at hand, but then there is focus on the task when it is done – taking a step back and reviewing what was accomplished or completed. Similar to kendo, a fencer should quickly recover and assume a defensive posture after issuing an attack, because that is when the opposing fencer commits to a quick and almost unknowing counterattack. Unlike kendo, fencers face each other on a linear strip and the opportunity for such actions increase exponentially. For this reason, utilizing zanshin, especially after a failed attack, is crucial. It is from here that one can parry the opponent’s counterattack and make the previous attack work – how zanshin links with mushin and vice versa. However, zanshin is a mental state, and while the mind reverts to defensive measures after an attack, it is useless without the physical body to forming itself into a defensive posture. Therefore, correct posture, and movement, is needed to fully achieve zanshin.

Kamae: Posture

Posture is crucial in fencing. Without it, nothing productive, effective, or efficient can come from a fencer trying to best the opponent before them. Posture stems from the en garde (on guard) stance, similarly to the beginning stances of many martial arts. Every art has a different stance, posture, or en garde which best utilizes the body for that particular system. For fencing en garde, the knees must be bent, bringing the fencer lower; the back must be as straight as possible; and the sword arm needs to be bent with a fist’s space between the elbow and the body. The posture is a stance for one to work from with ease and limiting any unfavorable or cumbersome movements.

Similarly, kamae is important to executing any aspect of the martial arts. Without proper kamae, the resulting technique, movement, or attack will be rendered sloppy and harmful to the executioner if done for a long period of time. It was also important for me to keep constant and correct posture throughout the bouts. By learning through repeated failure and losses, once my posture began to become laxed and sloppy, my opponent began to score more points. I now realized how important it is for a fencer to remain low and centered during each bout.

Moreover, kamae, to me, is more than just one’s physical posture and stance; it is also a mindset. It is not satisfactory to only be physically ready if the mind is constantly wandering away from the bout at hand – that is being off guard or applying kuzushi to your own self. The mind must be focused on the task at hand. This added mental component to the physicality links with mushin.

Kuzushi: Off-Balancing

To off-balance an opponent could mean many different things. In a more physical and hand-to-hand sense, it is putting an opponent into a position where their balance is compromised for a few seconds with just enough time to execute a technique. When weapons are involved, that off-balancing takes a different form. Therefore, space between each fencer is particularly important to achieve kuzushi.

Maai: Spacing

Space is infinitely important, whether it is with empty hand or with a weapon. For the context of a fencing bout, space is crucial as each fencer has a three-foot blade that could either stab or slash just outside one fencer’s striking distance. Moreover, the space between the two fencers sets the overall tempo and strategy of the bout. If there is more space between each other, then it becomes a waiting game – striking when the opponent is just in range or parrying and launching a counterattack as the opponent charges in. If there is little space between each fencer, then it becomes “swashbuckling,” a constant parrying and riposting until one fencer disengages from the frenzy of steel or a point is scored. Speaking to disengages, these will sometimes lead an opponent to follow and, if played correctly and quickly, the disengage can score a point on the pursuing fencer. The quick addition of space right after the swashbuckling incident can also create time to breathe, reassess, and change strategy. This approach also gives the other fencer the same benefits too. Quickly closing the space between each other right after the disengage may catch the other fencer off guard and score you a point.

Likewise, striking distance to what exactly? Fencing in epee, the whole body is a target, from the sword hand and arm to the toes of the back foot; sabre, the upper body is the target. In both scenarios, the sword hand and arm are the two closest targets, therefore, it is important to understand one’s own striking distance to achieve proper hits on those targets. Knowing this, one does not have to move that much while parrying and riposting, making the best use of space for one’s own needs.

Space is also important when parrying – how far over should the parry be to make the incoming strike ineffective? Too far in either direction moves the blade out of the line of attack and off balanced in a few ways. Conversely, offering too little in parrying does nothing to hamper the incoming strike, leading to a point for the opposing fencer. Finding the correct middle ground is difficult in the heat of the bout, as I came to realize very quickly. The experience has made me focus on the parry and its correct usage of space between fencing and blade, practicing it at air and with a partner to implant the movement into my physical memory so I may better perform on the strip. This aspect is still a work in progress.

Kokyu: Breath Power

While in the Japanese martial arts, kokyu usually aligns with a throw or technique of sorts, during my time in my fencing bouts, I noticed a different kind of kokyu – a different kind of breath power: controlled breathing. During the bout, there are sudden explosions of energy, launching a committed attack that hopes to land on the opponent or quick retreats to get out of range to reassess the situation. With all that moving around, someone can get out of breath really fast. To not feel those effects, learning to control my breathing helped me conserve my energy for the big attack or large retreat while my opponent slowly became more and more fatigued. With that, I noticed that I was not sweating as much as my adversaries, demonstrating to me that I had a little more control over my breathing and how it ultimately cooled my body compared to them.

This controlled breathing also helped with my kiai when I attacked and landed my strike or lunge. However, I found myself being quieter while I sallied forth with my attacks for the better portion of my bouts. Perhaps this was my way of controlling my breathing, so I did not expel any unnecessary energy or breaths, as my counterattacks were sometimes too quick for me to time my kiai.

Conclusion

By the end of the goodwill tournament, I was exhausted, mentally and physically, but my spirits were the exact opposite. I felt great with what I accomplished, what I experienced, and what I ultimately learned. With everything totaled, I was split even in wins and losses. As I was walking to my car all sweaty and drained, a phrase popped into my head that I recall one of my instructors saying on the mat: “On any given Sunday.” The experiences that day made me realize that anything competitive, especially fighting, that even the most skilled practitioner, competitor, and fighter can fall short on any day just enough to lose or win one match. In that, every match or bout is a chance to learn something more about oneself and, for me, how these Japanese martial arts principles apply themselves to fencing and any other combat sport or martial art I participate.

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