Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Choosing the Katana

Among the archaic weapons that laced the epic duels of feudal Japan none epitomized the greatest contest more than the katana versus the jo or the short wooden stick. The story of the meeting between the sword wielding Miyamoto Musashi and the jo handler Mus Gonnosuke still etch vivid scenes that remain in my mind. Musashi lost that duel. The elegant, hard-edged, and sharp katana was defeated by the simplicity and balance of the jo.

Wielding bokken to practice movement based on the sword 

I once questioned the outcome of that duel. How can a weapon made of steel with razor sharp edge be defeated by a blunt wooden stick? What are the strong points of each weapon and what disadvantage can one have against the other? Which one would I actually choose if I were to be in a duel set in feudal Japan?

It is hard to choose between the katana and the jo. Both weapons possess elegance and versatility. The manner by which they are wielded are different yet in my study of Aikido, a martial art grounded in the movement of both these weapons, I’ve come to learn certain similarities. Still, they do posses certain advantages and disadvantages over the other.

The katana is made of steel, forged and formed by master blacksmiths. It’s made of a material most definitely stronger than wood and Japanese masterful craftsmanship makes it no ordinary sword. It is made to perfection. It is light and can be made to deflect and cut at the same time. Its razor sharp edge can cut through wood and human bone and its point is just as lethal if not more. A learned swordsman wielding a katana is a deadly force. Still, it is a one-sided weapon; it has one sharp edge, one sharp point, and usually rests on the left hip so that the right hand will be the one to control it with the left hand used for delivering power from the very end of the hilt.

The jo on the other hand is a considerably longer weapon thus having advantage over reach. Its well-balanced construction allows both ends to be made to thrust and deliver powerful blunt edge strikes that can quite easily crush or break bones. The power of the jo also lies on its versatility to be used symmetrically.  That is, it has no preference from which side of the body it’s going to come from, which hand to use for control, and which hand to use for power. A master of the jo can hold the entire length of the weapon at any point giving him a flexibility of attacks and defense that becomes harder to anticipate. 

A martial art based on the use of sword and jo techniques; Aikido emphasizes deflection or redirection rather than blocking or stopping movement. Needless to say there is a way to deflect the cutting edge of a sword. A jo is useless to block a katana but it can deflect it. With the greatest advantage of the katana, that is its edge, nullified by skillful deflection, the jo gains the upper advantage. It’s not hard now to imagine why Musashi lost to Gonnosuke.

Every technique is based on sword movement 

That said, would I choose the jo? No. I would still choose the katana. It would be for the reason that it’s not an ordinary weapon. The amount of craftsmanship that goes into its making and the mere fact that it remains sheathed until there is no other option but to draw it out makes it elegant and a civilized weapon. The question about winning the duel still looms. There is a bigger chance of losing if I choose the katana over the jo but I’m not saying I’m ok with defeat. Perhaps I’m saying I’m willing enough to struggle against the odds. I’m saying, yes give me that beating but I won’t give up. I choose the katana, win or lose.       

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