Posts Tagged ‘Swordsmanship’

Alphabet - Ellis Amdur has pursued the study of East Asian martial traditions since the late 1960s. He is a licensed instructor in two koryū (classical Japanese martial traditions), the Araki-ryu Torite-Kogusoku and the Toda-ha Buko-ryu. The Araki-ryu is a rugged system that specializes in close combat. It could be termed, “grappling with weapons.” The Toda-ha Buko-ryu specializes in the use of the naginata, a long pole-arm with a curved blade against a variety of weapons. Details about this school, including dojo locations and entry requirements can be found at the Toda-ha Buko-ryu website. Over the years, he has trained in a number of other martial systems, most notably Aikido, Judo, Brazilian jiujitsu.and xingyi chu’an (studying varying lengths of time with Su Dong Chen, Chris Bates and Zhang Yun).  Aside from his ongoing koryū training, Amdur has most recently been training in two new areas: the basics of Arrestling, under the instruction of Don Gulla and many other seniors in the system, and a focus on principle-based training regarding integration of the body so that it is used most efficiently, something he discusses in detail in his book, Hidden in Plain Sight.

However it is in regards to the koryū that he is best known, and he included considerable detail about these two schools, as well as a number of others, in his ground-breaking book, Old School: Essays on Japanese Martial Traditions (2002). Now, over a decade later, he returns to the subject with a new, expanded edition, nearly half again the size of the original. Ellis took some time to discuss common misunderstandings about  koryū, challenges in maintaining and transmitting archaic martial traditions in the modern world, and even a few thoughts about the growing movement in redeveloping Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) from the perspective of an inheritor of two, living martial traditions.

Ellis Amdur practicing Toda-ha Buko Ryu, a centuries-old school of Japanese martial arts focusing on the use of the naginata, or glaive.

Q:  Over the last two decades, far more westerners have discovered Japanese koryū, and in many cases have begun studying some of these traditions, but for those who are not “initiates” into such a tradition, what really makes the “old schools” different from modern budō such as aikidō, judō or kendō besides antiquity?

In a way, the difference  between koryū  and modern budō  is a complete inversion. Arts like judō are vast, world-wide endeavors that are, at least in broad terms, the same whether you are in Japan, the United States or South America. By contrast, koryū  are small, group endeavors, passed down in  a lineal fashion of master-apprentice. They exist as small islands in a larger sea of martial endeavor. Furthermore, each ryū is far more technically distinct than the variations between different factions of aikidō or karate.

But the  differences go beyond the mechanics of the art to an ideological mindset, that exists in a totality that simply isn’t found in modern budō . Koryū  are a kind of surrogate family — a student knows all of the instructors of the art, and the headmaster of the entire school often knows every student within the school. By contrast, people in modern  budō  may be passionate about their art, they may love their local dojo or teacher, but they usually don’t feel a fierce, family loyalty to judō  itself. Belonging to a koryū  is a hermetic activity in the sense that members are expected to keep some aspects of the school, even most, private and secret. There remains an us-against-them mentality that existed once upon a time when these arts were used in real life and death struggle, played out on the Japanese socio-political stage. This former rivalry persists in a set of rules and traditions that at their core are not about self-growth, personal development or well-being, but in the idea of the initiate being loyal to their school above all else. This is congruent with Japanese culture, which was a culture of martial service, where its greatest heroes were those who did their duty, at great personal cost. This difference of refinement of self versus service to one’s art, underlies everything that distinguishes, for example, Kano’s judō  from the classical jujutsu schools it grew from.

Q: If an outsider reads various budō forums there is so much discussion about certain recurring questions about koryū these days, one gets the impression of a vigorous, vast community of traditional martial artists in Japan. What is the reality — do you consider Japan’s traditional arts “endangered”, “stable” or “growing”? 

All of them! As flippant as that sounds, it is really true, because in a certain sense, what makes a traditional school “successful” or “endangered” has to be evaluated school by school. The idea of a monolithic category of traditional arts is an illusion. Arts from different periods have different characters, just as much as they do different techniques. Some of the oldest arts were threatened centuries ago, when Japan entered the long peace of the Edo period. Despite the idea of koryū  as “warfare” arts, there are maybe 20 arts today that have any relevance to archaic, battlefield combat; the rest were either born in the generations after Tokugawa reunited the country, or went through so much evolution and adaptation during that era that their curriculum reflects the concerns of civilian combat and dueling, not warfare.

Compared to modern martial arts, there are few in Japan that train in the koryū , fewer that teach, and even fewer that can understand the mindset tied to these arts, even among the fully licensed instructors. So in this sense the koryū  are endangered. On the other hand, one of Japan’s strongest  values is it’s treasuring of tradition, so there are always those who will be interested in something old. That gives a certain stability to archaic arts that we don’t have in the West.

What really endangers koryū  is the need for personal transmission. When I said that koryū  as a category can be said to be growing and endangered at the same time, I could say this of individual koryū  as well! When the numbers get big, paradoxically, that does not mean that the art is doing well, because — although the students may  be learning the techniques they are not receiving the tradition, only a simulacrum of it. When you are a member of a martial organization, with a teacher whom you see once a year, who may or may not even speak your language, nor you his, then you are in a sense studying about a koryū  but are not really studying a koryū  itself — the method of transmission and the intimacy of the school is lost. How different ryu have responded to this challenge is a part of what I touch on in this new edition of the book.


Kata, or set forms, are the central practice of training with weapons in Japanese koryu.

Q: There are also certain recurring replies by those within one of these schools: “it is impossible to understand the difference if you are not a member of a tradition”, “ask your sensei”, “koryū can’t really be transmitted outside of Japan” and so forth. As something of a notorious martial iconoclast, if there was any one thing you would say that insiders don’t “get” about what makes the koryū what they are, what is it?

Let’s answer that by elaborating what they are NOT;  you don’t  join a school and learn the choreography of a sword fight. The kata are pattern drills, and those forms sometimes have more to do with how to organize the  body, how to develop a specific physical or mental attribute, rather than a simple technique detailing “if he does this, then you do that”.  Sometimes a given element is so important that the kata may not look very martial, even sloppy or stupid to an outsider, but what it is developing has nothing to do with a replica of “combat”, but to train a specific attribute.

Honestly, I don’t see why this is so controversial today. No one would suggest that the ideal way to train with firearms is to load live rounds, put on vests and shoot at each other! Instead we use a combination of range work, obstacle course-style training and mock-guns that allow the experience of shooting at each other, but are not the same as using real guns in a gunfight. The reality of training with weapons is to make either the weapons or the environment as realistic as you can make it, while keeping the psychological component intact. And different training highlights different aspects of the totality of the skill that you are trying to achieve.  Combative training must rely on some form of pattern drill, or the mock weapons are supplemented with so much safety gear that the students no longer behave like people in a real fight.

This is even more necessary and true today, when we not only lack the experience of teachers who have used these archaic weapons in mortal combat, because our bodies simply lack the physicality of strength and flexibility of a pre-industrial society. A man who walks and rides horses as his only means of transportation; who chops his own wood and works in a barefoot crouch for hours at a time, simply has a different musculature, a different plasticity to his tendons then a modern man who works at a desk. The kata were designed for the former man, where literally every waking moment was preparation of the body in a way that we can only mimic with supplemental exercise today.

So some of the kata of koryū  can be a disappointment as one realizes that rather than engaging in samurai live-action role-play, you may spend years learning patterns that are not only teaching archaic weapons and methods, but also archaic ways of coordinating one’s body.

Let me put it this way: You want to join a koryū ? Prepare to not only work hard, but to be bored while you are doing it. It comes with the territory.

Q: It has been over a decade since you published the first edition of OLD SCHOOL, and at various point and times you have said that you felt you’d written all you had to say on Japanese koryū. So what made you change your mind, and why return to the subject now?

Well, I’ve been training! I still consider my own training on the upward slope — even as parts of my body have broken down with age, I’ve been able to do a great deal of pressure testing my own tradition’s kata, and I simply have learned more. The other thing is that I have continued to research on an academic level — and there is a lot of  wonderful new research coming out in the Japanese martial arts. Most people’s understanding of koryū  and modern budō  in context comes from the pioneering work of Donn Draeger, that marvelous giant of a man. Don was truly a ground-breaker, but he was not terribly fluent in Japan and was too reliant on the work of others, and on looking at the arts through the specific lens of traditions he studied. He made a specific perspective general. Others now are reassessing his conclusions. Michael Wert, Karl Friday, William Bodiford — these are trained scholars who can read primary documents and are high level practitioners. What they, among others, have revealed has really transformed my own understanding and a made a reevaluation worthwhile.

"The Battle of Uji Bridge" -- A brilliant example of the dynamic illustration of combat in feudal Japanese artwork.

“The Battle of Uji Bridge” — A brilliant example of the dynamic illustration of combat in feudal Japanese artwork.

Q: The obvious question: what’s new and different about this expanded edition?

It really is a virtually new work, with five new chapters, a lot of new illustrations, and I’ve re-written several chapters not just in additional content, but changed viewpoints as well. For example, by the mid-Edo period, the bulk of the membership in martial ryu were not from the warrior class. For many, the ryu could be viewed much like parvenus today joining a golf or tennis club to acquire social capital. I write about the rise of competitive martial sports in the 17th century and rather than merely supporting the claim that this represented degeneration, take the position that this was a response to, what was, in many cases, a stagnation of older combative practices that were now “as-if” rather than practical utility.

I’m not sure on word count, but I think we concluded that somewhere over a third of the book is absolutely new.   Other chapters are radically revised—some folks who have used my work to buttress their own opinions may find that my current work puts them in opposition to me.  I think the “expanded” part is well-justified!

Q: A great deal of the OLD SCHOOL EXPANDED EDITION deals with the challenge of transmission — of maintaining  both tradition, form and martial vigor to something that now lives outside its original cultural context. Obviously a great deal of this is reliant upon the power of living tradition — direct transmission from master to student. But are their pitfalls inherent to a reliance on direct transmission as well?

Although many of my peers would disagree with me, I see studying with a teacher koryū  to be a kind of struggle, not submission. Intimacy is the revelation of self — for better or worse you will be revealed to your teacher, and your teacher to yourself. Part of the learning is the struggle of learning not what you want, but what the teacher desires, and further, what the tradition itself demands. This entails learning to differentiate between your teacher’s human flaws vs. the value of the school itself. There is a dynamic, creative struggle that is a parallel to the nature of conflict itself. If you are loyal to the teacher, it is hard to go outside of their aegis to learn, and if they have any flaws, be they technical or personal, the product you inherit is flawed as well. Once upon a time, the solution was that young bloods would break off and form new schools, revamping what they thought wrong, missing or incomplete in their former instruction — this is how we have so many branches of Ittō Ryu or Yoshin Ryu. With many schools, the kata will seem almost identical, technically, but there may be a difference in the tactics, in ways of generating power or subtleties of movement. These reveal how that off-shoot differed from what its parent taught. Obviously, when these arts were contemporary, the proof could be in the testing: something new that wasn’t very good wasn’t prone to survival.

But today, these arts are archaic, and have been for generations. There was a time that some students would master multiple schools over a life time; now individuals study 30, 40, 50 years without every receiving a menkyo kaiden in one! Instead of young masters fighting and old masters teaching refinement and subtlety, now old masters are revered as some sort of supermen — this is ludicrous. Their knowledge may be great, but age is age, and youth and  vigor cannot be ignored in combat. We mystify older teachers and all too-often they mystify themselves. There can manifest as a grasping greed of the elderly, where they simply cannot, and will not let go. It is a new phenomenon, that leads to a real risk of calcification. Honestly, all too often in Japan, I’ve encountered something analogous to an old bull who colludes with the farmer (Japanese culture and tradition) to keep the young bulls away from the cows. But there’s a real potential that his seed gets weaker and his offspring mere shadows of what their ancestors were.

Furthermore, there is a real cultural tension created because you can’t really go outside the art to refine, recreate or reinvigorate it without already possessing a full license. If you do so, you will be viewed as disloyal, even betraying the tradition. You may be fully qualified, but kept from a license which would give you the freedom to revivify the tradition.

A pair of tengu (winged, mountain spirits) collide in mid-air. As tengu were often credited with teaching martial arts to mortals, the colliding messengers makes a nice metaphor for the challenge in balancing tradition with stultification that challenges proper transmission within the koryu.

A pair of tengu (winged, mountain spirits) collide in mid-air. As tengu were often credited with teaching martial arts to mortals, the colliding messengers makes a nice metaphor for the challenge in balancing tradition with stultification that challenges proper transmission within the koryu.

Q: So is innovation really even still possible within a “traditional art”?

There is a creative tension within koryū , within the nature of encoding a form and grasping them within our body — the idea of gokui — that then allows you to change and alter the form itself. Until quite recently, koryū  were quite willing to innovate. In some schools, that goes up to the present: innovating or even going into their own records to revise portions of the school were lost.

If a person truly has the essence of the school, it is possible, even today, to add or refine not only the inherited kata but the training methodology.  Improving archaic weapon morphology is obviously questionable; but what if a portion of the art is relevant today? That opens interesting questions. Some would say koryū  are a kind of living history — it would be wrong to change the essence of the school; while others might say that we are studying a living entity with historical roots.

Here is an example from my own experience. In my line of Araki ryu, training in sojutsu — spearmanship — is extremely challenging, because the spears are struck with a great deal of force. As a result, if you really do the kata as they are mandated, you break spears constantly. In pre-industrial Japan, so what? Give a woodworker a few coins and let him carve you a bundle of new ones. But today a good, tapered training spear can be $300….so there is a real problem with breaking one every time you train. As a result, what you see are students — and teachers — modifying the technique to go easy on the training weapons. Now, instead of the tool being in service to the form, the kata is in service to the tool! A solution I have been investigating is to have spears made of extruded nylon. These are virtually indestructible, no matter how hard I hit it with a bokken, but nylon is hardly “traditional”. Is this really a problem, or is it using a modern solution to allow students to fight as the technique is meant to be done without obsessing over protecting the weapon?

I understand why this solution might really trouble some people, but it depends, in my opinion, on the ryu and what its character mandates. For Araki-ryū, where the transmission suffers without constant challenge—where we are expected to be iconoclastic—I think it is a viable answer to a serious problem. In my other art, Toda-ha Bukō-ryū, where we do not use spears like this, and the kata are not suffering, it would  be a modern innovation that serves no good purpose. Remember what I said earlier — the idea of monolithic  traditional arts is an illusion.

Q: Is that possible? After all, if you change a kata, add one or drop one, aren’t you altering the tradition? Likewise, if a part of an art — say its short-sword curriculum — is no longer practiced, is it possible for a determined teacher to “restore” it?

My colleague Liam Keeley wrote about this some time ago in the journal Hoplos, and he came up with different levels of restoration. I am not quite sure that the terminology I am about to use is a perfect match, but I think it is close enough to convey the idea.

RECOVERY — In this case, a teacher may still fully know an aspect of the school, but for some reason, has chosen not to teach it. For example, perhaps a weapon school decides that they already teach the longsword and the tanto (knife), and  the few short sword kata they possess are redundant or unnecessary. Sometimes, dedicated students will approach other master-level teachers of the previous generation, or perhaps the soke himself, and request they be taught those kata, and the teacher decides “well, if they are interested, why not?” If those students move on to become teachers and the material passes on, then something that could have been lost has been recovered. So in a sense this is like “rescuing” a portion of an art from death.

RECONSTITUTION forms the next level. In this case a portion of the curriculum was abandoned and did not live into the next generation. However, there are living teachers who have the ability and skill to take surviving documentation and rework and redevelop these kata. Using my previous example, in this case the short sword kata would have not been transmitted, but would still exist in detailed written explanation. So perhaps the headmaster, or a teacher or teachers that he appoints, looks at that documentation and based on their knowledge of the longsword and the tanto begin to reconstruct and teach those kata again. Will the reconstituted kata be precisely the same as what was taught before? That is unknowable, but they should still be martially valid and fit the essential principles of the school. I have written about this in detail in a chapter in one of Meik and Diane Skoss’ books, entitled, “Renovation and Innovation in Koryū.”

RECREATION means that there is a lost section of the school or there is an attempt to create something new that the school is said to have possessed before, but for which there is no clear documentation. The result can be anything from horrid to sublime. Let’s say that a koryū has lost all of its edged weapon syllabus, and is now  a jujutsu school (Sanshin Araki-ryū is an example of this). They simply may not know enough about swordsmanship to recreate the kata, even if they have detailed records. Sometimes, schools will “import” methods or whole kata from another ryu. If the schools are a good stylistic match, maybe this can work, but often you are grafting a bird’s wings to a lion’s back and getting some sort of chimera that may undermine the entire thing.

REINVENTION also takes place in Japan. There are many schools that have died out, but their documentation survives. Reinvention is taking something dead and using written records alone to recreate it. The results vary on the quality and prior knowledge of the reinventor.  Martially, the results may be viable or effective. But is it really the same school, or something new? Do the reinventors really “have it” from the inside out? They can’t — it’s dead, and a fossil is not a dinosaur. They do not have the essential teachings that were the life-blood of the school, things that are usually transmitted not only orally, but through crossed weapons or body-to-body.  And honestly, what’s the point? Why revive an extinct naginata school, for example, when there are perfectly viable extant schools that one could join, and pay one’s dues, earning a level of true expertise. It’s like going to the museum and climbing onto a stuffed horse to ride, when next door, there are stables full of quarterhorses and Appaloosas.

THE COLLECTOR is a fifth level that I add to Liam’s categorization, and is somewhat aside from the others. There are many dying schools in Japan, now held by one or two elderly teachers who find themselves without  students. Such lonely old men and women will be “befriended” by someone whose principle goal is to then be granted a teaching license to pad their martial resumes. Such men often have multiple schools that they “lead” or hold a high teaching rank, and they have photos with these elderly teachers and antique scrolls to prove their legitimacy. But the truth is that they have often learned virtually nothing, and whatever they may have  been shown was from a teacher doing his or her best with a failing body, mind or both, to convey a little of what he had inherited. The Collector, therefore isn’t really a part of the tradition, nor are they seeking to restore or reinvent for the art’s sake, but for their own egos.

The challenge of  transmission within any archaic martial art can be frought with peril, not least when it is cross-generational and  cross-cultural. Above: a small cadre of Australian students keep alive the dynamic Noda-ha Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

The challenge of transmission within any archaic martial art can be frought with peril, not least when it is cross-generational and cross-cultural. Above: a small cadre of students keep alive the dynamic Noda-ha Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

Q: So how does someone like yourself, an inheritor of two of these transmissions with an obligation to pass on their legacy, make sure that the art’s essence, and not just its form, is passed forward?

If I am not absolutely clear that the essence will be passed on, then it dies with me. And I am perfectly content with that. You can’t turn a dog into a wolf, and if I cannot find any wolves, I won’t replace them with carrion eaters.  And btw, passing it on does not mean that student does everything the way I do. One of my Toda-ha Bukō-ryū students, Steve Bowman, has indeed become a shihan — teacher — in his own right (this, by the way, makes him a former student, because one “graduates” when one becomes a shihan). Were you to observe him, however, you might be a little puzzled, because he does not move like me. Yet one of his own students, who had met with me maybe four times, was immediately spotted by another Toda-ha Bukō-ryū as a student as “in my lineage.” Steve doesn’t move like me, but he passed on the essence of what I taught him in such a way that one of his students, who is built similar to me, does essentially do what I’ve taught.  I don’t require that my students think like me, or are a mirror of me technically, but they perceive and  embody  the essence of the tradition..

Q: These question are interesting not only to other students of budō, but to our many readers who are devoted student-scholars of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) — the fighting arts of Europe from the Middle Ages to the early Modern era. These are not living traditions, but have had to be painstakingly reconstructed from highly-detailed  books and manuscripts of the period. Some students and instructors of traditional martial arts roll their eyes at this effort and say “this is a fool’s errand; you can’t resurrect the dead”, while a number of HEMA people argue, “this may be true, but these are the direct teachings of the men who fought and died with these arts, so there is no garbling of the lesson through generations of oral transmission.” As someone who has clearly devoted a large part of his life to living tradition martial arts, but who also argues for the need to reevaluate and reassess what you’ve inherited, what are your thoughts?

First of all, high dudgeon about this is sort of silly. In a Japanese context, I often share bemusement when someone says that they want to recreate, say, a lost kusarigama or grappling school. Why would you do that when you can go to a teacher of a living school of those arts and help ensure they are passed on? But in a case like, say, the European longsword, it’s different. No such teacher exists. So if one’s passion is towards the ethos of the longsword, then what I called reinvention is their only choice. We only have so many years to live, and so many hours we are given to find happiness. If trying to study and restore a lost martial lineage fills your hours with joy, great.

However, the idea that having original sources uncontaminated by “later generations” is somehow more pure is silly. I am a third generation, American Jewish guy from Pittsburgh who has 600 years of Euro-American tradition separating me from anything that happened in Europe in the 14th century. The same social, political and cultural changes that made the longsword extinct are what shaped the ethos that produced me. So without a surviving tradition, I am even further cut off from that earlier world. Beyond this —  you don’t know what you don’t know. So much in any culture is oral, so how do we know what is missing.

We can’t help but be contaminated by what we learn from other martial arts or our own external experiences. You have to accept that you cannot achieve the same things that can be drawn from a living transmission.  These are the subtle things that make a particular tradition unique, and they can only be learned body-to-body. Living tradition is not just a series of documents passed hand-to-hand. It’s body-to-body knowledge, most of which is not documented. That is not meant in arrogant or hubristic way, vis-à-vis European martial arts revival, but this sort of internal gearing is what generational transmission can maintain but print cannot record. I am not questioning that people can’t come up with some fascinating information. Absolutely. But I believe that if I wanted to learn fencing and I found someone who studied with a student of Aldo Naldi, the information I can receive will very likely be richer, more nuanced and deeper than what I could learn mining texts of people who are not linked to me in a hand-to-hand, body-to-body way.

Q. If there was a single objective, or a single lesson you wished to impart with OLD SCHOOL, what is it? 

That this subject is far more complex, far more exciting and far more challenging than people imagine. The lovely thing about koryū  is that it is no one thing but many things, with as many appearances, practices and objectives as there are schools. Once we get past the idea that we are all swinging archaic weapons, and are therefore all doing roughly the same activities,  things can change radically from tradition to tradition. When we embody the movements of someone 300 years lost who used these movements in the struggle of life and death, this is the closest we can get to shamanic “skin walking” in another body. For a few moments we can taste a different world, that can be completely alien to all our own.

Q. So what next? With this new edition do you feel you’ve said your fill on traditional Japanese martial arts, or is there more to come?

Well, right now I have just had a graphic novel released, via Amazon Kindle and on ComiXology, that I co-authored with Neal Stephenson, Mark Teppo and Charles Man. It is called Cimarronin: A Samurai in New Spain.  This is from the blurb: Kitazume, a disgraced outcast samurai living in early seventeenth-century Manila, is contemplating ritual suicide when a rogue Jesuit priest and Kitazume’s longtime friend persuades him to help smuggle a Manchu princess to Mexico. But little does he know that he’s really been dragged into an epic struggle for power. Several forces have their malicious sights set on the New World’s rich silver mines: an insurgent Spanish duke, Chinese political interests, and the escaped African slaves known as the cimarrónes.

Among other things, I am responsible for overseeing the fight scenes, along with some consultants specific to one or another character, and have tried to make them realistic to 1650, and to the various cultures. There is a great chance of fleshing out the hero’s backstory, if the original two story arcs sell well, as well as further sequels, so everyone buy it, please!. I also have a novel called the Girl With the Face of the Moon that was just released on December 30th, via Amazon Kindle.  And this from that blurb: A young woman of samurai lineage is raised in an impoverished mountain village by bitter parents, identical to the peasants among whom they live, but for their ancestry. Unloved and mistreated, she runs off with a Matagi, a man of a caste of hunters, who were outcast but nearly free from the rules that governed the rest of Japanese society. After a few years of happiness, their child is stolen by a being perhaps human, perhaps not. Bereft, the young woman will challenge death itself to recover her child. 

The Girl with the Face of the Moon is set in Bakumatsu and Meiji Japan, a transitional period in the mid-1800’s, when Japan went from Medieval to Modern in only a few years. This, however, is not a book about the privileged few; rather, this is a story of those on the fringes: a blind wandering masseuse, the abalone divers, the aboriginal mountain folk, a wild yojimbo (body guard and bar thug both), the hunters who worship bears, seeing them as the true power of the mountains, and a woman with no place in any of Japan’s societies.

The Girl with the Face of the Moon is a combination of two of the oldest stories of humanity, the hero’s journey and the tale of revenge:  a mother seeking to save her child from hell.  The description of the hero’s training and that of her allies are based on historical figures and the actual training methods and techniques of archaic Japanese martial arts, something the author learned, first hand, for thirteen years in Japan.  Threaded throughout is the terrible question how one can retain one’s humanity, and even further, what happens to love, in a world of pervasive terror. 

So, I’ve been busy! But I have also thought of creating a new work on koryu. What I am imagining doing is taking people’s questions and challenges, and providing thoroughly researched answers in a series of essays like Old School itself. So it occurs to me that there might be one last work in me yet in regards to this amazing, odd world, but its exact form is yet to be known.


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Alphabet - Publisher blogs are often used to spotlight books and media projects, and ours is no exception. However, today we’re not talking about a Freelance Academy project, but rather something too beautiful not to draw your attention to: Dimicator – Medieval Swordplay, the new, lavishly illustrated e-journal by respected swordsman and artist, Roland Warzecha.

There has been nothing like Dimicator for practitioners of historical European martial arts – a recurring, visual instructional guide that makes use of both old-school and cutting edge technology to immerse the reader in the world of medieval swordsmanship. We spoke to Roland to ask him about this project, how it compares to his work in creating a training DVD, and where he sees the ejournal going over the next couple of years.

1. For months now, you’ve been teasing audiences on Facebook with sneak peeks at “Dimicator”. Tell us what the Dimicator project is, and how you came to conceive of it.

For quite some time I had been looking for the right format to present the results of my years of research into medieval fighting arts and the associated weapons to a wider audience. I had considered a book or a website, but both would have required a lot of material to prepare before I could go public. A series of elaborate articles, in contrast, has the advantage that I could start publishing much sooner.

When I had decided to leave my old club to found my own school, it provided me with the chance to put all my ideas and concepts regarding teaching and training into practice. Because I had to find a new name and create a new corporate design, it also felt like the right moment to finally start publishing. So you are quite right to speak of Dimicator (which is medieval Latin for combatant) as a project. One brand which comprises my school, the website, the popular Facebook page, the Vimeo video site and now the e-book series.

2. You’ve become known in the larger HEMA community for your work with Manuscript I.33, our oldest-known, European fencing treatise, and Dimicator is also the name of the school you’ve created to study this work in depth. Is it fair to say that the electronic Dimicator then is a digital record of your I.33 curriculum?

Yes, I guess you could look at it this way. The content of the first as well as the up-coming second issue definitely reflects an important part of what we have been working on the past year. I have the luxury of exclusively training with experienced senior students who have up to 5 years of regular sword and buckler practice under their belts. They are all devoted students of the art and skilled fighters, who have what it takes to pressure-test any new idea that I may come up with. After all, we will never know for sure if our reconstruction of an extinct fighting system does indeed reflect historical reality. So constant peer review is a necessity and reconstructing sword and buckler combat will remain a work in progress. This is also why I feel that a series is an appropriate format for publishing my views.

3. The first issue is called: “Striking from Shield Shoulder”, and starts with understanding the handling characteristics of the sword. If a reader has never handled sword and buckler before, will following the issues of the magazine let them learn “from the ground up”?

Well, the foreword asks exactly the same question: Can you learn swordfighting from books? The historical sources say that, while you can very well explain combat by practically showing and demonstrating it, you can nowhere near as profoundly write about it – and then they proceed to do exactly that. Frankly, I would be astonished if anyone who has never undergone tuition in martial arts would master the manouvers described in Dimicator magazine, particularly when I consider how much time and effort it takes to teach a particular action to my students in the salle.

However, I know that I would have greatly benefitted from a publication like that if it had been available when I picked up sword and buckler after years of practice in traditional martial arts. So I am confident that my publications will be useful to students of buckler combat and spare them some of the dead ends and wrong turns that I took in past years. It is also my hope that lovers of swords and history as well as authors and even scholars, who are not actually considering to pick up martial arts, may get a better understanding of the complexity and refinement of medieval European swordsmanship.

4. You used a different form of media – DVD – to also teach students fundamentals of sword and buckler play in the instructional program “Sword and Shield” by Agilitas. How do you compare working on the two projects? How do you see them integrating – if at all – for bringing your ideas and methods of swordplay to a broader audience?

I am very grateful that Agilitas offered me the chance to create a DVD that provides basic instruction comprising universal body mechanics, fencing theory and tactics as well as a number of solo drills that I hope are useful for both beginners and advanced practitioners alike. Video has the undeniable advantage that it conveys speed and flow of a particular physical action in a way that written text and illustration cannot. It instantly reveals if a researcher also is a competent practitioner. I have always used video to present my work to the public and, in fact, it were those video clips, edited and up-loaded by Tobias “Toke” Wenzel, which helped us to put our name onto the international HEMA map and ultimately lead to being invited to do the DVD.

I would say that a video sequence transports a lot more information than an illustrated one. But in a sense, this is also its drawback. If you look at a static image in a book, then the author has specificly chosen it because it best visualizes a particular detail. So pictures are more focused than a video sequence, in my opinion. I find it much easier to direct a reader’s attention to essential detail in a book. Also, he can take his own time to digest, other than with video. So both media have their strengths and definitely supplement each other. Contentwise, the e-book offers new insights that we have gained ever since the DVD was made, which is exactly why I chose to start with “Striking from Shield Shoulder”.

When I compare working on both DVD and Dimicator, my preference is clearly with the e-book series. It brings all my talents together to not only produce my very own fechtbuch but also create something beautiful. Plus, I am in complete control of every detail and have all technical means for its production at my disposal. I enjoy this independence.

5. The artwork in this first issue is breath-taking, and builds on the sort of art you used for the posters you designed for Freelance. But why traditional illustration over photography or 3-D illustration? Was the choice artistic or informational?

The decision to go for illustration was an easy one, after all, this is what I can do best. I am very pleased that my art work is well received and appreciated by readers. I think that in a world where everybody constantly sees and takes, manipulates and distributes photographs or video, the respect for these media is decreasing, regardless of quality. I would even go as far as to say that, because of CGI, they have generally lost credibility. It has become impossible to tell if something is fake or real and so we have developed an underlying sense of general scepticism when we are presented photo or film. In contrast, it is almost a relief to look at illustration. It never pretends to be something that it is not and is stimulating in a way that is hard to achieve with photography. This is also an advantage of traditional over 3-D illustration: I often find 3-D stunning at first, but quickly lose interest. Even tiniest detail is rendered and accurately finished which makes it sterile, in a sense, and ultimately boring to look at. At second sight, there is nothing left to discover.

As an author and instructor, illustration is better suited to direct my readers’ attention and make them focus on a particular detail. I find photos too distracting in this regard: Instead of paying attention to the actual issue, the reader may be occupied with irrelevant thoughts: What is this location? Where did she get that sword? Why didn’t he take off his glasses? Are these turn shoes hand-stitched? Looks like his bad hair day etc. – well, you know what I mean. Illustration, in contrast, makes it easy to invite the reader to take a fresh perspective and leave irrelevant real life oddities behind.

6. You’ve told me before that a part of your love for illustration was originally to be a comic book artist. In that industry there are often amazing artists, but their challenge is always production deadlines. How do you keep yourself “on track” with such an elaborate project, especially now that the “word is out”?

Hahaha, it remains to be seen if I will manage to stay on track. But I have made the plan to pursue this objective for at least two years (that would be 6 to 8 issues, I guess) before I evaluate its success and reception and decide, whether it pays to continue or not. I am usually quite good at realizing my plans, after all, I have worked freelance all my life, which definitely taught me work-discipline. But I honestly cannot wait to go back to work on the magazine, whenever there is a slot in between jobs and obligations. If I could afford it, I would be working on it constantly, it is just so much fun.

7. What advantages do you see to this e-journal format over a more traditional, bound edition?

I am not restricted by the constraints of print production, so I can publish any number of pages, be it 7 or 31. Costs are minimal so I can sell at a low price. I can publish instantly when I choose to and distribution is worldwide. I also get a lot of direct feedback from readers via email or Facebook which enables me to improve from issue to issue at a much quicker pace compared to traditional print publication.

8. As beautiful as issue one is, people are going to ask: “will I ever be able to get a print edition?”, so let me ask it for them. Will people see a print edition, eventually, or will they have to content themselves with their home laser printers?

I am an old school book lover and I believe in paper. It is sensual and it lasts. So yes, absolutely, there will be a printed edition as soon as I have collected enough material for a book. Currently I am thinking of a first volume to collect issues 1 – 4. I definitely want to see this book on my shelf – and everybody else’s!

9. Finally, the next most asked question: So what should we expect in the issues to come?

Issue #2 is already in the works and the instructional section will show how to enter a fight from Left Shoulder and which plays may eventually ensue from there. I decided to first cover general tactics, so I can put the more sophisticated I.33 approach into context. Future issues will also cover shield-striking, as well as facing a left-handed opponent. I guess I have enough material for years.

The second issue will also include a brief history of sword evolution from the Viking Age to the medieval period and point out combat requirements that brought about the respective changes in weapon design and swordsmanship. So Dimicator magazine is not only designed to provide instruction to practitioners of sword & buckler, but also to impart the results of my years of research into the early medieval period and its arms and martial arts which precede the fechtbücher and the weapons covered therein. After all, for millenia swordsmanship meant combat with sword and a shield, and I hope to be able to show up interesting links and developments that ultimately lead to the fighting arts we see in the fencing treatises, which only appeared at the close of the age of the sword.

I would be delighted if many readers would join me on this exciting journey into our past.

Dimicator: Medieval Swordplay is available via Amazon and will work on Kindle and various other e-reader platforms.

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Alphabet - A martial artist, linguist, historian and tireless arms and armour researcher, Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani (Germany) is an award-winning author who won the prestigious awards of the Book Prize of the Islamic Republic of Iran (2012) for his book Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran: A Study of Symbols and Terminology and Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period(2009), which also won the World Book Prize in the field of Iranian Studies in 2009. The latter book is based on over 800 primary and secondary sources and features a detailed analysis of over 520 artifacts from ten Iranian museums for the first time. Some selected items from private collections are also featured in this book.

Dr. Khorasani is also the author of the book Antique Oriental and Arab Weapons and Armour: The Streshinskiy Collection (published 2010) and has written well over 100 print articles, lexicon entries and book contributions related to arms and armor from Iran in 30 print journals and magazines, an encyclopedia and one in a book in English, German, Spanish, French and Persian for American, Argentinian, Austrian, British, Canadian, French, German, Indian, Iranian, South Korean and Spanish magazines.

We have known Dr. Khorasani for many years in his role as a moderator and consultant at Swordforum International, and were particularly excited when we learned that he had been combining all of his passions and backgrounds in a new project: Razmafzar – Persian Martial Arts. His latest book, Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: The Martial Arts of Iran, is the first publication of his results, another massive, meticulously documented analysis of artifacts, artwork, and literature, this time cross-analyzed with surviving Persian fencing, archery and riding manuscripts and the many living-traditions of Iranian wrestling. We are pleased to offer this interview, where Dr. Khorasani gives us some insights into the (re)development of Razmafzar, living martial traditions in Iran, and what is forthcoming from his prolific pen.


Shamshir and Separ (Buckler) vs Mace and Buckler. In Razmafzar the small shield (separ) is used with a variety of weapons, including the sword, mace, axe and dagger.

Shamshir and Separ (Buckler) vs Mace and Buckler. In Razmafzar the small shield (separ) is used with a variety of weapons, including the sword, mace, axe and dagger.

FAP: In the simplest terms, what is “Razmafzar”? Where does the name originate? What fighting disciplines does it entail?

Khorasani: This is a combined Persian term, a New Persian lexeme which consists of razm (battle/fight) and afzar (tools/weapons). It means “Battle Weapons”. Actually, this word is related to zinabzar or zinafzar which means the weapons for a mounted warrior. The term zinafzar can already be found in the Poems of Onsori Balkhi (1990, p.22). This word is an old word which derives from the Middle Persian word zēn afzār (war implements/weapons) that can be found in Karnameye Ardeshir Babakan (see Farahvashi, 2007, p. 30). The reason for choosing razmafzar and not zinafzar for this historical martial art is that it deals not only with cavalry techniques and tactics but also with infantry techniques and tactics. So it is a more general term encomassing both fields. Although the fomer has received some cursory look, the latter has been completely ignored in the studies of martial hertitage of Iran/Persia. It entails all techniques which are documented in manuscripts, poems, battlefield accounts, miniatures, arts, stone reliefs from Ancient Iran and also Islamic period of Iran.

FAP: You had already established your reputation as a researcher into Persian arms and armour? How did you come to turn your attention to Persian fighting arts?

Khorasani: I have been an active martial artist almost all my life and surely after years of research, measurement and recording hundreds of Iranian arms and armor in 14 museums in Iran and many private collections in Europe, Russia and USA, the intriguing question has always been how these weapons were used. That is why I turned my attention to a detailed study of these weapons.

FAP: One of the unique things in Persian Archery and Swordsmanship is your detail to language – in tracking a lexicon of martial terminology or technical vocabulary, that can be found in non technical literature and then comparing that to iconographic depictions of the same actions. This is an area that is still awaiting more serious attention in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Can you discuss the process you used in going about this?

Khorasani: Thanks for asking this question. I started my research first by writing a book on classification of Iranian weapons from Ancient Iran up to the end of the Qajar period in 1925. The result was the publication of my book “Arms and Armor from Iran: The Bronze Age to the End of the Qajar Period” in 2006. After that I turned my attention to translating and annotating many Persian manuscripts, which have been scanned for me by Iranian museums and libraries. These included manuscripts on making Persian crucible steel (up to that time all unknown in the western world), archery manuscripts (5 of them published in my last book), manuscripts on lance, spear, swordfighting and manuscripts on war wrestling. As an English major, as I have a PhD in English language, languages and their academic study have always been a central area of concentration for my research and analysis. I have lived and studied in different countries and hence learned different languages (English, German and Spanish) as my academic fields. Therefore, I felt that I had to extend my area of research and study battlefield accounts, poems, stories and also popular tales. To my surprise, I found terms and expressions for techniques such as “shamshir bar farq zadan: To strike the top of the head”. I saw this expression in many manuscripts in many centuries. Then I analyzed miniatures and was extremely surprised to see how often this technique was used. Quite often I must say. Then other combinations followed. I went back and saw that even in Ancient Iran, this technique was used. I mean in iconogrphy of Sasanid period. Then I found how manuscripts and even poems describe this technique and how it should be applied. I made a comparative analysis. I did it for all techniques I could find in hundred manuscripts. Many of them handwritten manuscripts which were scanned. A meticulous and painstaking process. It took very long. At the end I found 5700 lexemes and then tried to find the relationship to iconographic items. First I published my lexicon “Lexicon of Arms and Armor from Iran: A Study of Symbols and Terminology” in 2010 and then my last book this year “Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran”.

FAP: HEMA practitioners are fortunate in having a a larger number of technical works, “fight books”, on which to base their reconstruction. Is there a similar body of Persian martial texts to draw from?

Khorasani: Yes, there are. I have presented many complete manuals in my last book. Five complete ones on Persian archery. One on mounted lance fighting. One on spearfighting on foot. Three on war wrestling. One on swords. As we are talking, I have received some new ones. This area has been neglected for years. I have received new manuscripts on archery, swordsmanship, mounted combat, etc.

FAP: In the West, many traditional martial arts, particularly “aristocratic” or “chivalric” ones became extinct in the 18th and 19th centuries, and have had to be reconstructed. How does this compare to the situation in Iran? Have you been able to find living sword or weapon arts, and if so, have they played a role in creating modern Razmafzar?

Khorasani: Chivalric code of Iran is best expressed in the Javanmardi code which is similar to European chivalric code or Japanese bushido. We have a living tradition of Zurkhane (House of Strength). Wrestling in Iran is considered as a sacred sport, where the mat is still considered a place to respect and to be respected and one needs to show humbleness and also help people in need. My project of Razmafzar is based on academic reconstruction of techniques in manuscripts, miniatures and reliefs. But it does not stop there. As I have shown in my last book, the tenets and training methods of the House of Strength will be integrated in it. Additionally, we have over 24 styles of traditional wrestling in Iran, we have sword dancing, we have different stick fighting methods in Iran. They are in the process of being researched. We will make comparative analysis and then set up a big data bank and integrate them in Razmafzar as well.

Wrestling remains an important sport, fighting tradition and cultural treasure in Iranian culture even today, and was considered the basis of Persian warrior training.

Wrestling remains an important sport, fighting tradition and cultural treasure in Iranian culture even today, and was considered the basis of Persian warrior training.

FAP: At the same time, there are many European folk traditions, particularly for wrestling and stick or knife fighting, that have survived. In Persian Archery and Swordsmanship you touch on this with traditional Iranian wrestling or Varzesh Pahlavani. Can you tell us a little about Pahlavani – both as it exists now and as it might have related to earlier Persian fighting arts?

Khorasani: The House of Strength symbolizes a sacred place where practitioners not only develop strength, but they need to learn javanmardi rules. They need to be role models for the young generation. Wrestling is one of the most effective combat systems as proven again and again. This plays a major role in Iran.

FAP: Have you yourself trained in Varzesh Pahlavani yourself? Have any modern Pahlavans been interested in your work with Razmafzar?

Khorasani: Yes I am fortunate enough to be in contact with leading pahlavans in Iran and I trained and even documented their training in the House of Strength. They are greatly interested in Razmafzar.

FAP: Before you began reconstructing Razmafzar, did you already have a previous martial arts background? If so, in what? How has it helped with your redevelopment of Razmafzar?

Khorasani: Yes, without name dropping, my students and friends know that. I hold three black belts, a 4th dan in one of them, the others 2nd dan. I have trained and competed in many full-contact sports such as boxing, Muay Thai and of course wrestling. I experimented with BJJ and trained in a team. Besides I also trained in a Japanese Koryu sword art extensively. But I have always wrestled and love this sport. Wrestling has helped me the most, as this is the tenet of Persian armored and unarmored fight. But I have to say that all martial arts and fighting I have done have played a part, by helping me universal principles of combat, like distance and lines of attack and defence. I have to say I love realistic and full-contact sparring and think that is important in all martial arts, including swordfighting.

A Persian warrior should be able to grab and throw in close range at anytime. And then of course to deliver fast and powerful blows with his weapons.

A Persian warrior should be able to grab and throw in close range at anytime. And then of course to deliver fast and powerful blows with his weapons.

FAP: Persia has long been a cross-roads between the Mid and Far east. Have you found commonalities between Persian arts with those of the Arabs to the West or Indians, such as the Sikh Gatka or Shastar Vidiya to the East?

Khorasani: Well possibly, but as I have not trained in Indian or Arab arts, I cannot pass judgments. What I can say is that there always commonalities with certain arts, especially when the arms and armour are similar, but I would say that what I know defines Persian arts is an emphasis on developing strength, stamina, power and only then techniques. This is why wrestling plays a crucial role – it trains the body that is at the core of the entire art. A Persian warrior should be able to grab and throw in close range at anytime. And then of course to deliver fast and powerful blows with his weapons.

FAP: You have chosen to create an international research and development team to develop Razmafzar. Can you tell us a bit about who comprises the team and how your team works together?

Khorasani: I have a very dedicated team and I am in constant contact with them. My team comprises of three different groups. Researchers who write and do research on historical arms and armor from Iran, the other section comprises experienced martial artists and another who work and help in the realm of public relations and also editorial process. To enter my group and be marked as a member one needs to fulfill certain criteria. I am really proud of the members of Razmafzar team and many thanks for asking me questions about them. These are:

1) Mr. Bede Dwyer from Australia is a leading researcher on Asian composite bow. Bede has published many articles in many leading academic journals. He plays a very important role in Razmafzar team. He has been my editor from 2004 and has made useful comments on archery sections on my books. We have written many important articles on Persian archery based on Persian archery manuscripts which have been translated by me. At the moment, I am planning to write a book on Persian archery together with Mr. Bede Dwyer on Persian archery. This book will not only comprise archery techniques and annotated archery texts but we will show techniques and how to execute them with a replica Persian composite bow.

2) Mr. Ali Ghourchani from Iran is an accomplished horse archer who has gained many places in international horse archery competitions. I will test many horseback wrestling and horseback lance and swordfighting in cooperation with Ali. He is an accomplished horse archer.

3) Mr. Heiko Grosse from Germany is an accomplished swordsman who has been training and learning razmafzar under my direct supervision. He is a black belt in kendo with ten years experience in Kendo competitions and a Cateran and an expert in Scottish swordsmanship with five-year experience. He plays a pivotal role in learning and teaching Razmafzar.

4) Ms. Mitra Haji is a Museum Curator of Bonyad Museums from Tehran, Iran. I have been working with Ms. Haji over 7 years. I have analyzed over 500 historical arms and armor from Iran which are kept in Bonyad Museum. She has translated and edited many of my articles in Persian. We organized two historical arms and armor exhibitions “The Power of Iranian Steel” and “Weapons and Combat in the Shahname” in Tehran.

5) Mr. Mark McMorrow from the USA is the executive editor and director of Swordforum International, the biggest online community dedicated to the study of historical arms and armor. Mark plays a very important role in making Razmafzar public and we have an excellent working relationship together,

6) Mr. Richard Nable is a police Lieutenant for a metropolitan police department in the Southeastern United States. He is a SWAT sniper and team leader, department rangemaster, and instructor primarily in police weapons, tactics and survival. Richard is our advisor on the mechanisms of historical firearms and has edited a number of articles on historical firearms which I have written and also has been editing parts of my books.
7) Mr. Greg Thomas Obach has been on my team for over 12 years. Greg is a leading and very experienced smith who makes wonderful crucible steel. He has edited the chapters on crucible steel in my books and also articles. His insights into making crucible steel and above all his down-to-earth approach and willingness to learn and experiment make him truly a unique smith.

8) Ms. Venous Pirmomen from Iran is an archaeologist with a Master and a Bachelor degree in archaeology from Islamic Azad University. Her areas of interest and concentration are bio-archaeology, biological anthropology and forensic anthropology. She has played an important role in accessing data for research of Razmafzar team and public relations in Iranian universities. She has found many new manuscripts from Iranian libraries and museums for primary research materials on Persian arms and armor.

9) Mr. Hessamoddin Shafeianis a PhD Candidate at University of California, Riverside in the field of Electrical Engineering Department. He obtained his MSc degree from the prestigeous Sharif University of Technology. He has been a very important team member with unflagging determination to find and access data which are extremely important for the research of Razmafzar team. Together with Venous, Hessam has found and gained access to many important Persian manuscripts.

10) Dr. Denis Toichkin from Ukraine is a leading arms and armor historian and researcher and the author of a book on the history of Cossack cold steel. He is recognized as a specialist in the late medieval and modern history of Eastern European arms and armor. He has published on Persian arms with me in leading Ukranian journals and we are going to publish further articles on Persian arms and armor in future. He plays a pivotal role in arms and armor research in our team.

FAP: Razmafzar is a large, complex art. When a new student wishes to begin training, where do they start? What are the root disciplines of the system?

Khorasani: They will learn sword and shield combinations and spear combinations on foot first. Accompanied by wrestling techniques of course. War wrestling based on Persian manuscripts play an important role in Razmafzar. Persian manuscripts stress that a good warrior is a good wrestler. Then we move to dagger and knife fighting in combination with a shield. Then axe and mace techniques are taught. More complex techniques of sword and shield and wrestling always accompany the curriculum. Then short sword techniques qame and qaddare as civilian weapons follow as the former are battlefield weapons. The whole would take 4-5 years to master. Then they learn archery on foot and then horse archery. The last step will be fighting with weapons and wrestling on horseback. The whole techniques comprise all techniques from ancient Iran into Islamic period. Of course as far as they are evidenced. We do not make up techniques. But Razmafzar deals with all periods of Iran. Participants should also learn about some aspects of historical arms and armor from Iran as well.

FAP: You’ve created the largest single source on Persian Arms and Armour, a companion lexicon, and now a giant overview of Persian martial arts and martial culture. All in your spare time! So what is next for Manouchehr Khorasani and Razmafzar?

Khorasani: Thanks for asking! My next project is finishing my book on historical firearms from Iran. This book contains translated and annotated Persian texts on cannon making, rockets, etc. I have also measured and pictured over 100 unique examples of Persian firearms from Iranian museums. A treasure. I have been classifying and researching all techniques of traditional wrestling arts of Iran. These will be published in different books by me. I am also planning a book on armored combat and horse combat in Persian tradition. And of course together with Mr. Dwyer we are writing a book on Persian archery. Thanks for the interview.

Freelance Academy Press is proud to be distributing Dr. Khorasani’s books here in the United States, and look forward to working with him in the future on other projects.

Here are few video clips of Razmafzar in action:

War Wrestling

Shamshir and Separ (Sword and Buckler)

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Alphabet - E

arlier, we brought your attention to a number of unique, European arms and armour titles that have been largely unknown in the USA and are now being distributed by our friends and Peregrinus Publishing.

Here is another interesting development in the sword arts community that Freelance Academy Press readers should find of interest: Katsujinken Magazine, A Sword Arts Journal. It has been a hard two decades for magazines, as consolidation, reduction in newstand space and an increasing emphasis on digital newsources – from online editions to blogs – have led to a dramatic reduction in the number of titles, and building enough circulation to survive. In an era where the venerable Newsweek could no longer find enough readers to maintain a print edition and even fanzines have been forced to become all but entirely digital, the Katsujinken team has had a bold ambition: a glossy, full-color, lavishly illustrated journal dedicated to the sword arts. Now entering its second volume, Katsujinken has been both visually and conceptually exquisite, covering Japanese, Chinese, European and Persian martial traditions.

Rather than tell you more about it ourselves, we thought we’d let the magazine’s editor and owner, Jason Lee Hatcher explain where this idea came from, and what he hopes to achieve.

Q: Can you tell us a little about Katsujinken? How did the idea come about? What is the scope of the magazine?

Our official title is, Katsujinken Magazine, a Sword Arts Journal. The word Katsujinken is Japanese for ‘life giving’ or ‘life sustaining’ sword. Much of this ideal was explained in Volume One, the premiere launch issue of our publication. You can understand Katsujinken in this sample scenario: an individual has to draw his sword in defense of an innocent person under attack. He or she isn’t be using the weapon with ill intent, rather to protect and sustain the life of the innocent. This is one thought and it can delve much deeper. Personally, for me, the reason for choosing this name for this magazine has to do with the entire concept of training with edged weaponry and all related facets it brings forth in the lives of each of us individually. As practitioners, we are all sustained in some way by the sword and edged weaponry arts. This is where we bond with friends and build life long connections, test the limits of of our training, and attempt to create a goodness with-in our communities. It is also where we find such great solace and return so very often, all the while we continue to replenish life in arts that date back hundreds of years. This is yin and yang.

Keep in mind, most people outside of our personal sword circles have no idea of what is going on in regards to sword arts. It’s the weirdest thing to tell someone, “I train in the sword arts.” It’s like there are no exact words to express practicing sword arts. Everyone responds with a puzzled look, unless they have an existing interest or former history with sword art training. Katsujinken Magazine is here to bridge these gaps. Not only these gaps, but those that exist between all of us as practitioners. We all have had things we’ve wanted to share with one another, whether it be poetry, stories, gatherings, tutorials, competition results, upcoming events, training halls, articles on lessons learned, the latest arms or newest products on the market etc. Katsujinken Magazine provides us with a reoccurring canvas, which transforms all of this information into a tangible masterpiece for reader entertainment every four months.

Q: You’ve produced a really, visually beautiful magazine – did you already have a background in magazine production or design?

Thank you for saying so, we really appreciate your kind words. Katsujinken’s flavor comes from so many different aspects, first of which has got to be that we are not used to seeing such wonderful substance on sword arts in a printed medium. This is an awakening on its own. This magazine and the likes there of has been missing from the sword arts scene for a very long time. Secondly we have a wonderful arts director named Kent Jensen who does a phenomenal job on cover design, Kent has been there since I first announced Katsujinken’s creation and his work is captivating. After that, the articles, layout, and photography are responsible for bringing life to the magazine as a whole. I would go further in attributing the look of our publication to the work of our publisher Donna Quesinberry of DonnaInk.com, Donna has been phenomenal in assisting Katsujinken along its journey, were it not for her the magazine would not exist.

To answer your second inquiry, no I did not have a prior experience in magazine production. Everything you are presented with in Katsujinken a Sword Arts Journal has been on a learning curve. We are all getting better at producing this publication, but it is definitely a nurturing ambition. I personally have learned so much since day one and feel this is reward in itself, but the desire to push forward and learn more is always present.

Q: Katsujinken means “the Life-Giving Sword” and is a term that comes up often in Japanese martial arts. Obviously, that is your background as well, so most people would assume this is a magazine on Japanese sword arts, yet you’ve made a concerted effort to reach out to students of all traditional weapon arts. What prompted you to branch out into other Asian and Western sword arts?

We are attempting to bridge gaps between Eastern and Western Arts. Personally, I attribute some of this to my years spent at the Capital Area Budokai Dojo here in the Washington DC area. We held a yearly event called, “Swordfest.” At this event all types of arts converged and demonstrated their perspectives styles and lineages. Arriving at Swordfest from a Japanese mindset of the arts I always discovered and learned interesting takeaways from the Western styles. This ideal was surely applied in a vice-versa fashion for those practitioners of Western styles.

Q: As you’ve worked with students and teachers of these other disciplines, what has been the biggest revelation? The most unexpected?

First, let me say that it has been a huge privilege and honor to have gotten to know so many senior Sensei and Instructors of the arts. Not to forget all the other individuals that make training in swords possible for us. The practitioners out there are but only one side of a coin, we need to always remember those that work hard on forging blades and ornamentation, producing armor and period clothing, the wonderful members who run the forums in which much discussion and learning occurs, those that pull events together along with resources, and basically anyone that contributes. There are so many people in our communities that help give life to our training and it is exciting to meet all of them.

I think I touched on the “biggest revelation” in an earlier question, but definitely the relevance of techniques and teachings across the sword arts. Yes, some techniques are weapon related and sensitive, but a person can gain a lot of understanding from watching other arts. This is true also between the Japanese Arts alone. You can never gain a whole picture by only training in one art, you need to occasionally reach out and verify what you are doing compared to that of others. Example, I used to sit in the dojo early before my Meishiha Mugai Ryu class and watch the Kendo guys and gals run through exercises and varied training techniques. I would then find myself using those same techniques while training on my own. This is a mild example and the whole ideal about viewing and learning from all arts can be very enlightening as a whole.

Q: As you come to the end of your first year, what’s been the biggest lesson?

I would say that running a magazine is the job of a mad man. It was impossible to understand what was involved in creating a magazine until I was doing it. You have to be prepared to work tirelessly around the clock. There are deadlines to meet, sales charts to keep track of, (customers, advertisers, and article writers to keep happy and enthusiastic), emails to write and questions to answer, not to mention the countless nights where only 3 to 4 hours of sleep are awarded, plus so much more that goes on behind the scenes. It drains you, it can beat you down and make you pull your hair out, but just when you can’t take anymore the printed copies arrive and your heart beat slows a bit and everything becomes euphoric.

I love working on this publication and watching it grow. There are so many facets of growth we can pursue with Katsujinken, the sky is the limit for sure. I have no plans on giving up on this venture regardless of how hard things can become. There is a vision here and we all see it, so to reiterate on the biggest lesson learned, I’d say that we need to push through and move forward. We already have a readership of hundreds across the globe, but how cool would it be to grow that readership into the thousands and beyond. Imagine how many untrained practitioners out there are looking for what we do. They are looking for a window into the true arts that we all maintain and love. Lets spread the word.

Q: Year two is on the horizon – what can we expect in 2013?

Is year two here already? Man where has the time gone? Really though, year one was great, we have our forth volume arriving just in time for this Christmas and next we are working on a Western Arts dedicated edition for early Spring. After that, we’ll probably mix things up again and eventually we’d like to hold a Women of Edged Weaponry edition. There are some wonderful women out there holding there own within all the arts and its inspiring to have them train beside all the men. Not to mention they tend to brighten the scenery, if I can say that. The ladies deserve their due.

With 2013, we can expect bigger and better. Lets build our audience up and spread the news. There is a lot going on in the world with swords and edged weaponry, let’s bring it all together in the pages of Katsujinken a Sword Arts Journal.

Thank you for giving me a chance to answer some of these questions, it has been an honor. ~ Jason Lee A. Hatcher

Subscriptions and back issues of Katsujinken, A Sword Arts Journal are available at the magazine’s website: http://www.katsujinkenmagazine.com/

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by Christian H. Tobler

ast year, I penned an article for our website, “In Defense of Peter Von Danzig”, wherein I presented the case for retaining Master Peter’s name as the colloquial moniker for the Codex 44 A 8, a German fighting compendium preserved today in Rome. This manuscript is translated in my FAP title In Saint George’s Name. My reasoning was informed by the facts that a) this manuscript is the only one featuring that master’s work, b) that he was likely still living at the time of its creation, and c) that his is the final treatise in the compendium.

But perhaps there is one more reason to add in defense of this name…

I am often reminded of how repeated readings of a text that I “feeel I know well” can continue to reveal new insights. One such recent reading brought this home, and in a way I feel adds force – albeit with a bit of speculation – to the arguments I presented earlier.

Master Peter’s treatise is devoted exclusively to judicial combat in armour, and only on foot. But in a lesson on deflecting an enemy’s spear with your hand, he says:

Note: this refers to when you have a sword and he has a spear and he thrusts at you with the spear, intending to overreach you, and thrusts a long free thrust to your body. Take heed when he thrusts, and springing wisely and swiftly out from the spear thrust, grasp and throw him with the previously described wrestling, before he thrusts again. But if you have no weapon in your hands, then strike away with your empty hand as described in the mounted combat. […] (emphasis mine)

This is an interesting passage. The master refers to the mounted combat – doubtless a commentary on Liechtenauer’s Roßfechten (Combat on Horse). However, no such commentary treatise appears under Danzig’s name here, nor is any known from any other compendium. Given this, it seems likely that he is referring to the mounted combat commentary appearing earlier in Codex 44 A 8. If so, it might indicate a hand in the compiling of this manuscript – an awareness of its other contents as he was drafting his own final chapter of it.

On its own, such a notion might easily be waved away as overreaching speculation. When added to the other elements I have put forth, it is ‘more grist for the mill’, and perhaps even an indication of an active hand on the part of Peter von Danzig in the creation of Codex 44 A 8 – The Von Danzig Fechtbuch.

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