Episode 87: Katanas and Koryu with Jaredd Wilson

Episode 87: Katanas and Koryu with Jaredd Wilson

You can also support the show at Patreon.com/TheSwordGuy Patrons get access to the episode transcriptions as they are produced, the opportunity to suggest questions for upcoming guests, and even some outtakes from the interviews. Join us!

This week’s episode is with Jaredd Wilson. Jaredd is the host of the Martial Thoughts podcast, which I appeared on back in January. You can find a link to our “The Pen is Mightier than the Podcast” episode here, or on Stitcher or iTunes. In today’s conversation we talk about what prompted Jaredd to start up the podcast, and the joy of getting to interview interesting people.

Jaredd is also a presenter at CombatCon and a long time practitioner of Japanese swordsmanship and other martial arts. We talk about how Japanese martial arts have evolved over the years and how training works. The conversation also take a slightly unlikely turn when we end up talking about a potential foray into the manufacture of high fashion silk ties.

You can find The Martial Thoughts Podcast on Twitter and The Martial Thoughts blog.


GW:  Hello sword people, welcome to The Sword Guy podcast, this is your host, Dr Guy Windsor, Consulting Swordsman, teacher and writer. Join me for interviews with historical fencing instructors and experts from a wide range of related disciplines as we discuss swords, history, training and bringing the joy of historical martial arts into our modern lives. I'm here today with Jaredd Wilson, host of the Martial Thoughts podcast, presenter at CombatCon and a long time practitioner of Japanese swordsmanship and other martial arts. So without further ado, Jaredd, welcome to the show.


JW:  Thank you for having me here. I've been desperately waiting to be back on your show here, back to talk with you, I guess.


GW:  Well, yeah, I should maybe let the listeners know that we first met when you contacted me about coming on to your show. I think that went live in January 2021. Something like that. So yes, we should definitely put a link to that in the show notes so that people can hear how this works the other way around. But OK, whereabouts in the world are you?


JW:  I am currently living in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.


GW:  OK, so you say “currently”. What brings you to Nashville?


JW:  It's as far north as I could drag my wife.


GW:  Oh, really? Most of us think of Nashville as somewhat quite far south.


JW:  I'm originally from Wisconsin, which is pretty far north. You know, I'm almost like honorary Canadian type of thing. And at the time I was living in Florida, that's when I met my wife and we didn't want to live in Florida anymore. We had just had our son. Her family lives in Memphis, which is in Tennessee, and my family is kind of half split between Florida and Wisconsin. And Tennessee is like right in the middle. So this is about perfect for where we would choose to live.


GW:  excellent. Of course, I lived in Finland for like 15 years, which is way, way, north. Way north of Wisconsin, even. So to my mind, pretty much anything south of New York is south. So we're both massive martial arts geeks, so I should probably ask you how you got started in martial arts. How did that happen?


JW:  Well, it's one of those things, it's kind of a weird story in that I've always had swords around my house growing up.


GW:  OK, how come?


JW:  This is the weird part. My mom for her hobby was a belly dancer, so she would have swords that she would dance with on and bounce on her head and do a sword dance with. So they weren’t true swords, they weren’t meant for fighting. What they were meant for being balanced, sitting on your head type of thing. But we always had a couple of swords lying around. And from that point, the nerd started taking over, so somewhere in middle school or high school, I started doing DnD, which of course always has nice, good swords in it. And then again, my wife introduced me to a TV show called Highlander.


GW:  Oh my god, yeah.


JW:  Which obviously is like a sword duel of the week type of show, which is awesome. And at that point, I decided I really wanted to start to learn how to use swords I always kind of played around with as a kid. And that's kind of where it started from.


GW:  OK, so you grew up in a house full of swords because your mom's a belly dancer. That’s fantastic, I don't think I've heard that one before. How did you get into swords? Well, my mum was a belly dancer, so swords were everywhere.


JW:  Yeah, that's a little bit of an unusual flavour on that one.


GW:  Yeah, absolutely. But you must have spent some of your childhood grabbing those swords and waving them about as if you were Conan?


JW:  Of course. Again, you know, in hindsight, when I picked them up, I'm going, holy crap, this sword sucks. But you know, at the time, it's like, this is a cool thing in the world, you know?


GW:  And to be fair, a sword-like object designed for balancing on a belly dancer’s head is not going to… I mean, what counts as good for that kind of sword is different to what counts if you want to chop the head completely off.


JW:  I mean, the balance point is like right in the middle of the blade so it stands on their head nicely. But you know, if you pick it up, you're like, well, this is a brick and a half now.


GW:  OK. And so Highlander. So you must have been fairly adult when you came across Highlander?


JW:  It was the TV show. So it was ninety five, ninety six, somewhere right around there. And I was about 18 or 19 at the time.


GW:  OK, it must be said that the original movie is one of the best films ever made, and anyone who hasn't seen it and is listening to this show needs to stop listening to this episode right away and go and watch Highlander instead because it's an essential part of anyone's sword education. I don't think anyone who's seen it and is a sword nerd will dispute me on that. I was less enamoured of the TV show. It didn't quite have the same... Like I thought the sequel to Highlander, Highlander 2, I waited for that thing to come out. I went to see it when it opened in the cinema with my friend James, and we came out of it going, what the fuck was that?


JW:  We have a running joke that that movie doesn't exist, that they should make a sequel to Highlander.


GW:  They really should, because they haven't yet. How did you go from watching Highlander, a TV series, and going fencing is cool, to doing Japanese martial arts?


JW:  Well, I went to the University of Florida and at the time they actually had a one credit P.E. class in sport fencing. So I took that class and in my immature mind at the time, I decided that, well, if I'm going to learn how to use swords, I'm going to use the best swords ever created by man. So I decided to learn Japanese swordsmanship.


GW:  OK.


JW:  Obviously, my mind has been changed and moulded since then, but I was part of that club of the katana is the greatest sword ever made. So I had to go, try and find that.


GW:  I as a Highlander fan, that's an understandable sort of misconception. I do think katanas do have the best PR of any sword.


JW:  That might be it.


GW:  They have the entire Japanese government and the nation of Japan treating them as sacred objects. You can't compete with that kind of PR. So, OK, so you decide to start training in Japanese swordsmanship. How did that go?


JW:  Well, I really lucked out in that in the university town that I was in was, without the university it’s probably about 10,000 people. There was a school that was teaching traditional Japanese martial arts in which Ken Jitsu was part of that mix. The more traditional the Japanese martial art there is, the more it's swordsmanship and then the empty-handed stuff is kind of all somewhat done at the same time. So the weapons stuff comes first, and then there's also the jujitsu or the empty handed stuff as part of it. As time has gone by, most Asian martial arts have concentrated more on the empty handed stuff. But the original Japanese martial arts were weapons-based because if you are on a battlefield and you're trying to punch somebody, something went really, really wrong at that point.


GW:  Very true. So you showed up to this club that just happened to be in the town where you were studying? What was it like that it? Did it meet your sword hungry expectations?


JW:  Yeah. Honestly. I grew up on 80s movies and there's a bit of a Karate Kid feel to it. The building we were in was a converted bowling alley, so it had like the original bowling lanes in the wooden floor and they just kind of built around it. So you could still see like the bowling lane markers on the wooden floor, which was always kind of funny. And for the first month or two, we just kind of did overhand strikes with a sword, up and down the bowling alley. There was that idea of the prove your worthiness to the Sensei idea of it where you just do the same thing over and over again just to show that you really want to be there type of thing.


GW:  You know, there is a certain kind of school or instructor that runs beginner's courses as basically filtering mechanisms, to filter out the unworthy. And there are others that treat them as funnels to gather as many people in as possible and train all those who want it to filter through into the main art. So then you have an expectation with many students coming along that they're going to be judged. I remember many moons ago, and that's only about 2002, 2003, I had this student called Ilkka Hartikainen, and he's quite well known in the historical fencing world, and he came and it was his first sword lesson and after class one day we were doing free training and I introduced him to the pell, and I had like 25 people in the room just doing their own training, and I was kind of going around helping everyone in turn. And so there was Ilkka cutting at the pell. And I expected him to cut at the pell for five minutes or something and then go off and do something else. And I forgot about him because I had loads of other students there, and he was a very inexperienced junior student and I'd give him something interesting to do. And then I forgot about him while I was dealing with a bunch of other people. And about 45 minutes later, he was still cutting at the pell. I went over to him and said, why didn’t you go and do something else? It turned out, years later we were sat on a train somewhere, I think, going off to a seminar, I suppose. And I said, you know, I just forgot about you. He said, “I thought I was being tested!”


JW:  There's this weird aspect in martial arts and you're right. I think we do want to prove that we're worthy to be there in the first place. I think it's an all martial arts in general. We want to show that we have the determination to be there, that it's not just this burst of inspiration that kind of brought us there.


GW:  Yeah, well, swords are aspirational. Martial arts are aspirational, It's funny, I get this quite a lot when people contact me about coming to a seminar or something or even booking a private lesson. And they're apologising for the fact that they haven't done much training yet, that they've only just started and they are just at the beginning. Everyone's a beginner when they start. And if people don't start, then I'm out of a job. So really it's perfectly all right not to know anything. And the fact that you want to learn swords is sufficient qualifications as long as you're able to behave like a reasonable adult and have a reasonable moral sense that it's unethical to deliberately injure somebody. So long as you've got those basic qualifications, then fine, come and train. And if you've got two left feet, no problem.


JW:  That we can work on. Yeah, it’s one of those things I think martial arts movies have kind of spoiled us on. You have to wait outside the door for three days in the rain.


GW:  Yeah, there is quite a bit of that. Am I right in thinking you run classes and you teach now?


JW:  Now, I don't. I have in the past. I lived in Florida and I taught swordsmanship down there for 12, 13 years or something, I guess, after I graduated. So I was teaching down there. Once I moved up to Nashville. I kind of had the opportunity to go one of three ways. I could either kind of find another school that was doing the same thing I was doing. I could start my own school or I could find a school that was doing something completely different and try something completely new. So I kind of did all three and kind of saw which one stuck.


GW:  How did that work?


JW:  Well, I started trying to offer up classes, had a couple of people coming over for a little bit. That kind of petered out. I was taking some classes in an Indonesian martial art for about a year and then the instructor, he was about 40 minutes away, and then he moved another 20 minutes away. And it's like, that's just far enough. So I ended up joining a Japanese sword school up here that was one that I'd known about for a long time. It was one of my kind of inspirations for buying my first sword in the first place was the instructor. So it's kind of been a dream to finally join into this school, into the system.


GW:  Oh, wow, that's really serendipitous. Or did you choose Nashville because that school was there?


JW:  No. When I first started doing Japanese swordsmanship, I was in Gainesville, which is about three or four hours south of Atlanta, and they have the Atlanta Blade Show. And I went up there one year and there was an instructor who was doing Tameshigiri, which is the mat cutting, and his name's James Williams. And I saw him maybe the second or third year I started martial arts. But about six years ago now, I went over back to The Blade Show because now I'm living in Nashville, so it's only about two or three hours away from Atlanta. And he was there again and I'm like, oh, cool, so I'll go and watch his demonstration again. And I started talking to one of the instructors and he goes, well, you know, if you ever come up to Philadelphia, this is where our school is. And I went up to vacation up in Wisconsin. On the way up there, I saw a Facebook post going, hey, James Williams is doing a seminar in Nashville, and I'm like, oh, I'm out of town. And then I looked closer at the post. I'm like, wait a minute, that's his school in Nashville. So I'm like, oh crap, I've lived here for three years, and I didn't realise he had a school there, so I very quickly joined up with that one.


GW:  And so what characterises it? I mean, if somebody had said, what is Fiore’s Art of Arms like? I can sort of explain it's like this and comes from this period and it comes and has these sorts of weapons and we hit people like this. What is what is your swordsmanship art actually like?


JW:  OK, so first of all, caveat, I'm not an instructor, so I can only explain where I understand it right now. So Nami ryu Aikiheiho is the name of the system, and it's a principle-based system, which I know is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around. But really, what it is, is we have about five or six different principles that we can apply to whatever it is that we're doing, whether it's with a sword, whether it's with empty handed, whether it's with a firearm, those six principles will be in everything we do. So it doesn't mean they're easy. It just means that you have to apply these six ideas to every single thing that you do.


GW:  What are these ideas?


JW:  One of the easy ones you can think of it is don't contest for space. So if someone is advancing on, you, let them have that space. Don't fight vectors of force with vectors of force.


GW:  How does that work?


JW:  So if someone is pushing on you, they're trying to push your blade, right? Let them. Roll around the blade. So again, everything we do is coming into these six principles. I don't know how to describe this, I could show you physically, but over a podcast is always going to be difficult, right? It seems magical in that if you don't know what it's doing, it just seems to work and it's extremely difficult to get it to work. It's one of those things that when I get it to work, I'm still amazed it works, you know, type of thing.


GW:  When you say, when you get it to work, you're amazed it works, so you got it to work. Can you describe the context in which you're actually getting it to work? What does that even mean?


JW:  In Japanese swordsmanship, it's a lot more cutting than thrusting, for example. So a lot of downward cuts, because that's what the origin of the system is it's based on. But as a backup, a really good way to think of a katana in European terms is it's a heavy, two handed cavalry sabre. So that's the best way to think of katanas. It's a lot of downward cuts with this. So as someone is cutting down with you, you raise your blade intercepting it. Again, I'm physically demonstrating it, people can't see. As the interaction of the blade occurs, I'm directing their cut off line without using force. So it's not sliding off. I'm not pushing their blade off, it's as my whole body turns, I'm getting an inch off line and their cut is moving an inch off target, so that means now my blade is in the correct position to do a cut.


GW:  OK, and you train this steel on steel, wood on wood in set drills, pair drill? Most of my listeners will probably never actually train in a Japanese martial art. What most people probably assume about it is that there's lots and lots of kata and not a lot of sparring, but assumptions are there to be tested and checked on. So what is the training actually like?


JW:  Well, the assumptions are also there for a reason too. So there is a lot of kata, but the kata isn't necessarily the what people think it is. It isn't I'm going to do this specific attack, this is your specific defence and you win. That's the way it's taught, because that's the way you have to learn the aspect of it. But once you've done it enough, either side can win. If you do a bad defence, then the first person is supposed to go around it and “win”. So there is the kata, and there's a lot of that, and the learning process is done at very, very slow speeds. The body mechanics are learned first. In Japanese martial arts, we have what's called the omote and the ura, so the omote is the outward, the physical aspect of it, the kind of the body mechanics aspect of it. And then this is where a lot of the Asian martial arts lose a lot in translation is they have the inner aspect of it. And it's all the little subtleties that are really hard to explain and really hard to learn.


GW:  Good martial arts done right should look and feel like magic.


JW:  It should look like the other person didn't do anything and they just fell down.


GW:  That's right. That's true of every martial art, right? Ideally, you don't do anything and your opponent just falls over. That's what we're aiming for anyway.


JW:  When you have done to you, that's the aspect that’s hard to explain. It just feels like you fell over and the other person didn't do anything. The person that's “winning” the technique, they're not putting any force in, but with the exact right body mechanics, your whole body moving at once, the exact right angles. The other person just falls over. They lose their centre of balance.


GW:  OK. I assume we're talking about sort of grappling stuff here rather than sword strikes?


JW:  Sword strikes too. So as the sword strike comes in, not only is it tactically, not only is it actually performing a cut, but it is also unbalancing them and knocking them over. So it has both aspects. That's why, again, it's a principle base, so you can apply those same principles if you're doing it empty hand, if you're doing it sword, if you're doing it with a staff or a spear or some other aspect. We use the sword to learn the principles. And then once you get to a certain aspect of proficiency, you should be able to apply those principles no matter what it is that you're doing. Whether it's dealing with a punch, whether it's dealing with a grab, whether it's dealing with a sword strike, those same principles should be able to be employed.


GW:  Well, here's the thing. I have been doing swordsmanship for a pretty long time. It's a fairly major part of my life. And it's just the fact that for a really long time now, I view all problems in swordsmanship terms. Let's say a friend is going through a sticky divorce and wants some sort of negotiation help on sorting it out. So that's a swordsmanship problem because you have two people with opposed goals. How do you make sure the person you are advising gets what they want within the constraints of the situation they’re in. How is that not a swordsmanship problem? And the first time I say that they tend to go, what? It is true and even, you know, putting up a shelf. It's all a question of where are the forces going? You need to make sure that the forces acting on the shelf are grounded properly in the same way that if you're punching somebody in the face or stabbing them with a sword, you want the forces acting on the weapon to be grounded properly through your body so that you strike properly. It's the same putting up a shelf. You want to make sure that the forces have a place to go where they're all basically neutralised into the ground.


JW:  OK, so the way that you phrased right there, that's exactly what our swordsmanship does, is it realigns the angles of force so that they're not going through their feet into the ground. It's going into what we call a triangulation point. It's about a half step behind you, a half step in front of you. Different arts call it different things. So as you do a cut, you're going to unbalance them so that their balance goes over that triangulation point and they fall.


GW:  OK, hang on. Sorry, we're talking at cross-purposes. But when you are striking, the forces coming back down the weapon into your body are going into the ground through your feet, you're just not letting your opponent do the same thing.


JW:  So my goal is to take the force that I'm using with my blade and put it into their triangulation point.


GW:  The standard way of doing an arm bar or a takedown or anything else.


JW:  The key is not letting them be able to feel that. So it's a sensitivity aspect of it as well.


GW:  OK, but what about the forces coming back from them? Because what happens is when your weapon hits them, Newton's physics demands that there's an equal opposite reaction going back into you. What you do with that force?


JW:  We circle with it. So we rotate in place, which actually takes the incoming force and puts it back towards them. Does that make sense?


GW:  Yeah, totally. It makes sense to me because I've done it.


JW:  True. It's one of those things. If you can know what it is, then you already know what it is, you know?


GW:  But I'm guessing the average listener doesn't know what it is. So basically, once you learn to feel where the forces are going, you can play with that. You can direct it and play around with it and do cool stuff with it.


JW:  The way we practise it, we have an interesting phrase is we “exploit Darwinian gaps”. The classic example in Japanese martial arts, you know, “grab my wrist and I'll show you a technique” type of thing. So if you grab someone's wrist, their instinct is to push back against it. There's this instinctual grab. The person doing the grab is expecting resistance. So we don't give resistance. We move around the point of resistance so that there is nothing for them to resist.


GW:  Or they keep moving to the point where they overbalance because they're waiting for the resistance to tell them to stop.


JW:  Yeah, that's another aspect that we could do. That's the Aiki. It's a set of strategies that imply that employs these Aiki principles.


GW:  OK, so I guess the way you're describing these principles, obviously, you're doing it in English, which is helpful to everyone, I think.


JW:  I'm trying to.


GW:  The way it is framed, it doesn't sound terribly Japanese to my ear. So in your system, all these principles, is it “this is how it's taught in Japan, just in Japanese”, or is it has your instructor taken a Japanese martial art and sort of modified it for an American setting?


JW:  We're in a constant battle with language, both because it is originally Japanese and there's a lot of ideas that are just understood in the words that they use that we don't have equivalents for. And then there's also in order to better instruct which we've worked and paired it down to try to figure out exactly what it is that we're trying to say. We have our own set of language within our martial art that is in English, but it still doesn't mean anything unless you're in the martial art.


GW:  Yes, it’s jargon.


JW:  We have a phrase that we use called “re-align from behind”. It's like, I know what those words mean, but I have no idea what that means unless you know in the martial art of what we're doing. So, yeah, we have worked very hard on trying to anglophy the language of it.


GW:  Are we talking about a classical Japanese martial art, or is it or has it been modified by translocation to America?


JW:  Yes, to both. Our system's history is we originally come from Don Angier sensei, who was an inheritor of a Japanese system called Yanagi ryu. He was a traditional koryū. A koryū was a Japanese martial art that was founded before the Meiji restoration. So before Japan became modern, or modernised itself, however you want to phrase it. So that's kind of the dividing line between old martial arts, traditional martial arts, and the new stuff. So Yanagi ryu was a koryū. Traditionally when someone learns a martial art they weren't allowed to teach the martial art unless they were the direct inheritor of it, so once they got good enough, they said, I'm going to train a martial art, but I can't train Yanagi ryu. So I'm going to create my own branch and call it something else.


GW:  Yeah, sure. It's a huge franchising problem, basically.


JW:  Right. So James Williams learnt Yanagi ryu. He wasn't allowed to call what he was instructing Yanagi ryu because he's not the inheritor, so he created his own system. I've heard the term neo- koryū. So it's a koryū, it's an old system, but it's not built before 1868, so it's a neo koryū. So that also frees him up to change whatever pieces he needs to as well. He doesn't have to use all the old terms.


GW:  And this, incidentally, is why we sometimes have language disagreements with scholars in martial arts, where for example, I've come across some koryū practitioners who refer to the arts that they are practising as historical swordsmanship as it was done in, for example, the 17th century. OK, how do you know that? Well, we've had a direct line of teacher to student and we have a lineage going all the way back to that period. And so what we are teaching comes from that period and is therefore the same. Yes, but every teacher modifies what they teach. They can't help it.


JW:  Yes. How do you deal with the traditional aspect of it, right?


GW:  Yeah, so now to my mind, there are massive advantages to training in a lineage of martial arts, because you don't have to figure it all out from all the books in foreign languages. Do your teacher tells you and that's it, right? It's so much easier to get proficient quickly. But if you want to know how people actually fought in a particular period, having a document from that period describing how people fight is, I think, more likely to be an accurate depiction than something that's been filtered through five or six or 10 generations of teacher/student relationships. And so when I say historical martial art, I mean a martial art that is based on research from a historical source. And when some other people say historical martial art, they mean a martial art that has a lineage dating back into a historical period.


JW:  Right. And in Japanese, they do have some documentation of it. But it's usually just a list of techniques like this is the stuff that they know, and here's his licence. This is the stuff he knows.


GW:  Yeah. He knows the bead curtain technique.


JW: It’s is very poetic. Yeah.


GW: The swallowtail technique. And yeah, I've seen some of those lists. And yeah, if you know it, it's a really handy aide memoire for, oh yeah, there's all this stuff. But if you don't know what it means, there is no way to find out from the context.


JW:  So just as a side note to it, when you talk about it's like, well, you know, our Japanese martial art comes from the seventeen hundreds. Well, yeah, but there was no fighting after sixteen hundred. So, you know, at that point, before 1600 swordsmanship really wasn't that important. After 1600, it became a duelling art.


GW:  OK, what happened in 1600? Was that Sekigahara?


JW:  Yeah, that was that was the battle of Sekigahara. That was when the Tokugawa took over and basically created a military dictatorship for the next several hundred years. So they ruled all of Japan, so there was no battles to be fought, really. Swordsmanship was not that important before that. It was around, but it was part of an overall military system.


GW:  Well, like in Fiore’s day, swordsmanship was, I guess, useful, but there were plenty of knights who were super famous, not for sportsmanship. Super famous maybe for their prowess with the poleaxe or their prowess on horseback. And yeah, swords were part of it. But swordsmanship wasn't a separate discipline. Like in Fiore’s art, for instance, the swordsmanship is not really separable from the rest of the art. I mean, of course, you'll have specialists, and so by later on in the 15th century, swordsmanship became more important. But yeah, if you're looking at a military art, the sword is a backup weapon, right?


JW:  Maybe a third step weapon. Like in Japan, the samurai started off as horseback archers. So if you go with that as the idea that that's what a samurai is, a horseback archer. Suddenly, a lot of their armour makes sense. Suddenly, the flexibility that they need makes a lot more sense. Suddenly, the lighter armour. And then their secondary weapon as spears. And then maybe their third weapon was a sword.


GW:  It makes sense.


JW:  I haven't had it seen. It's specifically written out, but I have a feeling that the reasoning that swords became the weapon in Japan is after 1700. That was the one they were carrying around every day. So that was the weapon they had on them.


GW:  But also in Shinto, there are three sacred objects, there’s the jewel, the mirror and the sword, and I think that's been the case for a really long time. And in the legend of the creation of Japan, I forget the name of the deity that supposedly did it. It was drops falling from the tip of her sword. So it was a sword, it is explicitly a sword that created Japan in Japan's own mythology, I think.


JW:  So there's again, my interpretation of this. Original Japanese swords came from Korea and China.


GW:  The Japanese will not thank you for saying that.


JW:  They will, they brought over the sword, or they took the swordsmiths and brought them over and had them make the Japanese and Korean swords in Japan. We're talking nine hundred, eight hundred eighty, so a long, long time ago. At some point they designed their own swords the way they wanted them to. So it became part of their cultural aspect to change them like that. Japan is not blessed with really good iron, so I think part of the extreme value of a sword is how much effort it takes to make one. So that's why they're viewed just as well as an art object as they are a military object. It's because there's so much effort that goes into the building of one. It makes you almost go, Oh God, I can never chip the edge of this because it'll take me another year and a half to make another one.


GW:  Yeah. You know, the famous process of layering the steel and bashing it and cutting it and heating it up, bashing it and folding it and getting these many thousands of layers. One smith explained to me that, yeah, but you only need to do that when the steel isn't very good to start with.


JW:  Right.


GW:  But isn’t it miraculous? There's the expression, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but that's exactly what they learned to do. They took pretty rubbish raw materials.


JW: They made a pretty silky purse.


GW: Yeah, exactly. A sword that is as good as the best we have to offer in Europe in terms of cutting ability and what have you. I think to be strictly fair, the steel swords from India are probably superior in terms of metallurgy.


JW:  The Japanese blade I like. Obviously, it's a curved blade, so it adds a little bit more aspect to it. But it also compared to most European blades, they're relatively thick. So again, they're heavy cavalry sabres, so think of them like that.


GW:  I've actually done I've done tameshigiri cutting with a 17th century Japanese sword. It cuts really well, particularly cuts really well for a 400 year old sword. But it's not better in a meaningful way, viewed purely as a kind of mechanical object. But holding it is really special because it's like, oh my God, that is this beautiful sword that's been looked after really well for a really long time. And I'm actually allowed to cut with it. Oh my god, thank you so much. And it was great. It was great. But, you know, 1796 pattern light cavalry sabre will do the same job.


JW:  I have a feeling because I haven’t used the 1796. I used a little bit of German longsword, but I have a feeling that katanas are more forgiving in their cuts. You can have the edge not quite as aligned or something like that, and I'll still do a very nice cut. So they are, I think, more forgiving in that aspect.


GW:  Yeah. And they have the micro serrations along the edge from all those layers. So you have a really good slicing action and there's a lot of mass behind the blade. And of course, they have that beautiful grind down to the edge.


JW:  They are. They're beautiful swords.


GW:  But yeah, they just have the best PR. OK, we've been blathering on about katanas and stuff for a while, and I do have to ask you, you have your podcast Martial Thoughts. Can you tell us a little bit about your show?


JW:  Well, it's kind of morphed over time. Originally it was us sitting around the dojo and having discussions and talking and having fun, and I'm like, “this is worthy of being on a show somewhere.” So I just started recording it basically. Then I moved up to Nashville. I moved away from all my friends that we were recording with, and it became more of an interview show. So it became an excuse for me to internet stalk people and actually get them to talk to me.


GW:  Yes, I do the same thing. It's like there are so many people who I have contacted because I just wanted to talk to them because I maybe I've read a book they've written. Ruth Goodman is a perfect example. She's written fantastic books about living history and particularly Tudor history. And you know, she's lived the life and cooked using authentic ovens and technology and wood fires. Just absolutely world class living history. And if I just contacted her and said, Ruth, I really like your book, can I ring you up one day and just chat for an hour about the stuff you do, she would be like, who are you? You fucking weirdo, go away. But when I contacted her through her agent, saying I've got this podcast. Would you like to come on my show? Another one, like Katie Bowman. I absolutely love Katie Bowman, and she's a biomechanist. Her work is absolutely stunning. I'd love to talk to Katy Perry, I've got a podcast. Oh my God. I can just email Katy Bowman's assistant or agent or somebody and say, “Would you like to come on my show?” And she did! Oh my god, are you kidding me? How come Katy Bowman wants to talk to me? It's fantastic. It's this fantastic excuse for talking to people you want to talk to, it is great.


JW:  Yeah. As far as I can tell, the podcast is really for me and other people just get to listen.


GW:  I've always viewed my show, this show that people listen to as ideally, if it goes really well, it's like we've been training together during the day and we're out in the pub afterwards, and I'm chatting to the instructor who's taught the seminar or somebody like that and the listeners are the students sat at the same table having a drink with us, just listening to us chat because hopefully it's interesting enough - more interesting than what they were talking to each other about. If you've ever taught guest seminars, you do tend to end up with talking a lot in the pub afterwards and having a bit of an audience for it because someone will ask you a question about, Guy, this book you wrote, blah blah blah, how did this thing come about? So you just start telling the story of it and then follow up questions and basically you're getting interviewed. And so chuck a mike on the table, mind the beer stains, and it seems to work. You know, people like listening in and feeling like they're part of the conversation.


JW:  Yeah. Podcasting is a weird world in that I know there's lots of people that listen, but I have very little direct interaction with them. So I actually met someone who was like, you're the whole reason I came here. I'm like, Oh crap, what did I do? Turns out he was a listener to the show.


GW:  I try to be pretty good at interacting with the listeners. Some of my listeners choose to support the show on the patreon account for the show. That’s patreon.com/theswordguy. You’ve got to throw that in right? And so the people who are super interested in the show, tend to support it. And when I have a guest coming on, I'll let them know who I'm going to be interviewing and they will send in questions. And I will ask them if there's anybody they would like me to approach. And if they asked me to approach someone, I'll do it. I’ll have a look and make sure they are vaguely appropriate for the show. But if they are, then I'll at least ask. And so sometimes people do turn you down. Thanks very much, not my thing. Yeah, sorry. we were talking about your show. Not mine. So, OK, so you've interviewed quite a few people. For your Martial Thoughts Podcast, I'm curious, has anything your guests have said changed how you train?


JW:  You know, you sent me that one, and I think that was the most difficult question you sent me on that one. I don't think I’ve physically have done any training differently. But it's the Martial Thoughts podcast. It's kind of like, well, you know, it's a podcast. It's completely an audio media. So I'm not going to help you with training techniques, but I'll get you to think differently. And I think that's a lot of what I've done is thought about martial arts differently. Well, our very first episode was my friends and I sitting around trying to define what a martial arts was. And we failed miserably.


GW:  Yeah, easily done.


JW:  So it's one of those ideas that’s just been percolating in the back of my head now for almost seven years since I started. And I interviewed someone and he said, well, we don't need to define what martial arts is. He is the example of historical Europe's Celts. He says a Celt was anybody who called themselves Celtic because Celts were in Ireland. They were in Germany, they were in Spain, they were everywhere. So a martial artist is someone who does what they think is a martial art.


GW:  OK. Yes. That's not unreasonable.


JW:  Right, so the problem was always, if I try to make too strict a definition, there's a lot of things that colloquially will be considered a martial art, but wouldn't by the definition. If I made the definition too broad, then something like American football could almost be a martial art. It has a lot of the characteristics, but obviously it's not that same thing.


GW:  It also has a lot of characteristics of a religion.


JW:  Sure. Yeah.


GW:  People show up to specially built buildings to chant in time to stuff.


JW:  I think that's actually one of the benefits or one of the draws for martial arts in general is, I'm going to use the word “sacred”, not as in a religious aspect, but as a separate from mundane. Mundane is the normal world, sacred is someplace different. A salle, a dojo is a sacred place. It is a different place than the rest of the world. We strip our normal vestments. We put on our funny clothes and then we grab weapons and try to hit our friends in the head.


GW:  That sounds sacred to me. I actually have a thought for you, related to the what is the martial art thing? Now fighting is natural. People fight each other all the time. And so a martial art is those natural human actions ordered into a system so they can be studied, refined and taught. And that's pretty much the definition of how the word “art” or arte would be used in, for example, Fiore’s time in the 14th century. The “art of something” is not just the doing of it. It is how things are done naturally organised into a system and defined and what have you. So for the purposes of art we define a descending blow differently from a rising blow because it is useful to make those distinctions. And in certain arts, the precise angles of those blows are carefully defined for various specific purposes. Fiore, for example, says that the descending blow goes from the jaw to the knee. So across the body, so left jaw to right knee or the other way. And that cutting angle happens to be very, very natural and gives you the perfect transition from the guard positions that he shows. But when you're slamming your sword into somebody's head, the precise cutting angle is much less important than that you hit them in time and do enough damage so they can't hit you back. But if you let the definitions go completely, you end up with nothing. You end up with just chaos. So what we have is you have chaos and you impose order on the chaos. So the order is imposed from outside. So it basically is a rationalisation of what's going on, which you then tinker with to improve and you then pass that on and then you can go into the chaos and produce order. So in other words, you can make it so that you can predict what's going to happen because you're going to win because you are better trained than the other person. So this sort of rationalisation happens after the fact. So to my mind, the martial art is that. It is the rationalisation of fighting that occurs naturally.


JW:  Yeah, I can see that.


GW:  Just a thought. A martial thought, in fact.


JW:  Exactly, hence the name. The way I'm kind of working at it is in a similar idea and that art is. Again, it's a fuzzy definition, and I'm OK with grey areas on definitions, which is funny because I teach science and we have to have strict definitions, but I guess that's why it's not martial science, it’s a martial art because it can have grey areas. I'm defining an art as being a skill taken to a higher level, and it's that higher level part that's the fuzzy definition. If I put the aspect, the martial aspect, to saying something of combat, that's also where there's a fuzzy definition because something like a judo match isn't combat because there's so many rules in play.


GW:  But most people would agree judo is a martial art.


JW:  Most people agree it is a martial art.


GW:  I don't. I think it's a combat sport.


JW:  But yeah, that's different definitions, right? Yeah. So that's why I've come to the conclusion is for lack of a better term. It's like pornography. You know it, when you see it.


GW:  But also the definitions themselves are part of that rationalisation process. They are not therefore the truth. They are a convenient kind of drawing that we put around a fuzzy shaped thing to give it enough definition that we can then manipulate and play with it.


JW:  It's a convenient term for you and I to talk about something, say martial art, and we have a pretty good idea of what we're talking about.


GW:  We are getting into semantics. So do you guys use much in the way of protective equipment when you're training?


JW:  I don't think I ever really answered the one question you asked about. The equipment that we use well, we use a bokken, which are wooden swords. At some point we'll actually start with live blades, going really slowly at first and then slowly building up stuff with it.


GW:  You mean sharp steel?


JW:  Yes. There is a gentleman who I just interviewed a couple of episodes ago who is developing kind of like a feder styles for katana shapes.


GW:  I’m not sure I approve.


JW:  He's been playing with his local Hema group in I think it's Tulsa, Oklahoma, if I remember rightly. And he has a really interesting aspect of what he's doing with it, in that he's not trying to play Hema with a katana. What he's trying to do is say what's happening and how does my system answer the question that they're supplying me with? So he's still staying within the Japanese martial art that he's doing, but he's allowing the much more sparring aspect of it. And at some point, I'm going to get one of those and I'm going to start playing around with it and seeing how that works. How does my system answer the demands of more speed and timing?


GW:  Yeah. You know, I've done a lot of work sharp on sharp. I test all of my interpretations with sharps just as a matter of course. It's a really useful window, but it's still just one other window. Because the blades are sharp, are you aware of my bullshit theory of martial arts?


JW: Yes.


GW: OK. So yeah, every drill, every training method has a dollop of bullshit in it, which is why it's not actually a real fight. So, you know, if we're going full speed, we're really trying to hit each other. We're probably using weapons that have been made somewhat safer and we use some kind of protective equipment, so the bullshit is in the equipment. If we have the real equipment then we have to do something else to stop ourselves from killing each other. So yeah, it's a really useful concentration for the mind.


JW:  Yeah, and you said it's a window, if you look at enough windows, you probably get a pretty good idea of what's inside the house.


GW:  Exactly, exactly. But you know, I have come across people who are going to start doing the sharp stuff and they don't realise it's just another window. It's not it's not the real thing, right? It is still just another window because you're not actually trying to kill anyone and no one is trying to kill you. If they are, you're in the wrong school. You need to get the hell out quick.


JW:  Correct, yes. It's hard to learn if you're dead.


GW:  Yeah, I'll be really interested to see how that comes on. I know some of my colleagues who focus on Koryū style Japanese martial arts, they do sparring with, for example, padded swords. Apparently, there was a great big controversy in the 17th century in Japan over the use of these padded swords or not. Should you use them, or shouldn't you. This particular style, I've met these guys in Finland and I actually saw them training. And yeah, they'll beat the hell out at each other with these padded swords. But they weren't wearing any masks, so they modified the weapon, but fencing masks of some kind weren’t part of it. Then you've got kendo, which is kind of like the sport fencing version, but it's not really a sport fencing, but it's massively modified equipment so Shinai with the split bamboo swords and very, very effective masks, helmets.


JW:  But kendo in itself has become its own separate branch.


GW:  It's a separate thing. It's like sport fencing. Sport fencing developed from classical fencing, which developed from smallsword. It became its own separate thing already in the 19th century when people stopped carrying swords, they carried on fencing. Then fencing basically became something else.


JW:  And that's very similar to the way kendo did, too. Very, very rule-istic, very, very stylistic.


GW:  I have some kendo practitioner friends, and from the way they describe it, it's not fair to call it a sport in the way that we think of when we say “sport”, because that's not what they're doing, it’s just what it looks like. I guess it doesn't fit neatly into the categories that we have in English for describing activities. OK, now, I do have a couple of questions that I ask most of my guests. The first is what is the best idea you have never acted on?


JW:  I love this question, by the way. This is one of my favourite questions to hear how people answer it. So I'm going to go maybe not the best, but I'm going to go with I think one of the coolest ideas, and it's one that I've never acted on, so I'm putting it out to the internet and whoever wants to try this, I will be the first person to buy the product. I am a high school teacher So I dress probably a little bit nicer than normal, and I wear ties occasionally. I like patterned ties. So my idea that I thought it would be awesome would be to have Damascus pattern ties.


GW:  So ties that look like Damascus Steel.


JW: Yes.


GW: OK. Where do these be made actually from Damascus steel?


JW:  We would just have the different weld patterns on them. It would be a really subtle sort of thing so that I know I'm wearing it. And if someone recognises it and they show that they know they're wearing it, then I know they're also a sword guy too.


GW:  Now, that is a fascinating idea, and actually, that is surprisingly doable.


JW:  Yes. Actually I got to the point where I was actually looking like, how do you put patterns on ties? How do you actually go about making them? And you know, there's a lot involved.


GW:  OK, I have a friend here in Ipswich who runs a clothes shop. He gets his stuff made in Italy and then sells it through his shop. So he actually talks to factories in Italy, producing high end clothes, jackets and ties and shirts and stuff. I will have a word with him and see what he says.


JW:  If you can get it done, I will be the first person in line to buy one. There'll be like five of us buying it, but I'll be the first person.


GW:  That's a really good idea.


JW:  OK, because it's genuinely sword shaped anyway.


GW:  Kinda. We should probably have one with a Viking style pattern welding, with that quite bold pattern. But we should probably also for the Japanese afficionados have one with the hamon line. And we should definitely have a Wootz one as well.


JW:  Right. I mean, you could actually have a whole bunch of different series of them.


GW:  Yeah. So basically the tie looks like it's made out of that kind of steel?


JW:  I think that would be the manliest tie in history.


GW:  Well, I mean, you say manliest tie, but there are plenty of women who do swords. And they just generally don't wear the ties. So we would also need to have some kind of equivalent for people who dress in a traditionally female manner.


JW:  I mean, you could put a whole pattern on any type of clothing, I suppose.


GW:  You could. Once you've got the pattern and you're printing it on silk. These ties, I only have a few ties and I only wear ties very occasionally. But they have to be silk or wool. And there's none of this rayon shit.


JW: I agree.


GW: So we're talking about basically a high end silk tie. That reminds me, Hermès, when the whole 50 Shades of grey thing went nuts. Some, however, long ago, in this shop, they organised their ties. They have seven grey ties and they have seven shades of grey. Which is a genius way to sell a grey tie. So I'm not suggesting we should necessarily pick up the Fifty Shades theme, because that was a crap book and that was a crap film.


JW:  But like you said, you only wear a couple of ties and if you're a sword person, you might as well have a sword tie.


GW:  I mean, you can already get sword ties. Historical Clothiers in Chicago. They have Fiore patents you can put on ties and stuff. I'm not sure whether it's silk, I think they are modern. So I wouldn't wear them because fabric. I mean, if you're going to put on a tie, it's got to be got to be silk or wool. Cotton, if it's handwoven, maybe, but not really. No, sorry. It’s got to be silk or wool, and generally silk.


JW:  So, like I say, it's an interesting idea, I don't know if it's the best idea, but it's cool.


GW:  And you certainly have not acted on it.


JW:  So again, if someone's out there.


GW:  Yeah. So then if anyone who happens to work in the high end clothing industry wants to take this idea and run with it, we're not asking for royalties, are we?


JW:  I'll take a sample.


GW:  Yeah, me too. And if you want to consult with either of us on patterns and where to find them, I mean, I have a pattern welded sword on the wall hanging by me right now. I'll be happy to take some photographs to put on a tie. As long as I get a copy of the tie that’s fine. That that is not our financial future secured, bit our place in the history of fashion. There you go. I never thought I'd have a place in the history of fashion, but it looks like we do now. Brilliant. OK. So my last question is somebody gives you a million pounds, dollars or something similar to be spent improving martial arts or martial arts education worldwide. How would you spend the money?


JW:  So my initial idea was to have a Shaolin Temple-esque thing to where whoever wanted to study martial arts, of whatever brand would have a place to come and study them, put them up, have an amazing library there. But the more I thought about that, the more that would limit the people that would be able to travel there. It'd be much better to almost have it as a travelling circus, flying around the world, going on tour type of thing.


GW:  Yeah…


JW:  I don't know how that would work, but if I'm given an infinite amount of money, I suppose I could make it work. You know, they do rock concerts, so it wouldn't be that different, I suppose.


GW:  OK, but what value is a martial arts student going to get from a martial arts school that appears for a week and then goes away again to reappear 20 years later?


JW:  So that's the thing is it would have to stay there for a while. It would almost have to have almost like a county fair type of thing where it sets up shop is there for a little while. Once the crowds die down, then they go now it's time to move on, so it wouldn't have a schedule. It would just move around wherever it wanted to. And I think the value honestly would be exposure of martial arts, not to the layperson, per se, though, that would be good too. But it would be more about, I have no idea what Indian martial arts would feel like, the subcontinent of India, I know they exist, I've seen them on YouTube, I've seen them on a couple of shows, but I want to experience them. I want to experience all the different martial arts of everywhere. At least to let me know what they feel like as a sensory experience.


GW:  Well, getting punched by a boxer feels very different to being punched by a Kung Fu person. I’ve experienced both, and they're very different. They both hurt an awful lot and you fall down. You fall down differently too.


JW:  Yes. Combining the two questions, for a while they had a couple of different competing TV shows that were travelling around the world and they were going to India doing Indian martial arts and then they were going to China and doing the Chinese martial arts.


GW:  My friend Arman al-Assad did one in Finland. It was called Kill Arman, and it was great. He went to various places and he would train for a while, and then he would fight either the senior student or the teacher, depending. And he would get the shit absolutely kicked out of him. And he is tough and brave and really, really put the effort in. And yeah, Kill Arman was a great name for the show. So, yeah, that was in Finnish. I don't think it made it into the wider martial arts world. So that’s the kind of show you’re talking about, right?


JW:  Yeah. But I do take one aspect differently. Again, small market but if we did it just for swords around the world, there's lots of different, again, getting that definition, things we call swords. And they're all technically made differently, shaped differently and used differently. I would love to explore how each of these cultural and technical differences affected the use of them and see how they're used and why they were used this way.


GW:  I have a thought for your idea just to kind of maybe tweak it a little bit. OK. If you had a central location somewhere where you had training in all of these various arts and you had this travelling thing that went round the world and a massive budget, it could offer scholarships to people who came and sort of test it out. Oh, I've really wanted to try this thing on, and they train there for a week, whatever, they go yeah, OK, you're the sort of person we want. We will send you to our head school in wherever it is for a year or whatever. And then you come back and open a school in your town and thus the art spreads.


JW: Yes, I like that.


GW: That would be good, wouldn’t it? Yeah, it would be partly display just to show people this stuff exists and partly it's looking for talent. “Talent” is a horrible word.


JW: Enthusiasm.


GW: Yeah, looking for the right people to train up in these arts.


JW:  The willingness to put up with it.


GW:  Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Oh, that's a great idea. If I had infinite funds, I would cut you a very large cheque.


JW:  At this rate, I think you're going infinitely bankrupt.


GW:  Yeah, it’s funny. I can't think of a guest who didn't want me to open up my imaginary pots of gold and start digging it out with a shovel. There are so many things that we could be doing to make the world of martial arts a better place. That's a really interesting idea. I like sort of the travelling circus idea of it. Well, Jaredd, thank you very much for joining me today. It's been a delight talking to you again. And we shall do this again sometime.


JW:  Please, any time you have anything you want to talk about, I'm willing and able.


Back to blog

More longsword goodness

Are you madly medieval? Learn medieval Italian martial arts here, blending historical accuracy with practical training.

Use the filters to refine your search to your preferred level of difficulty and product type.