You have probably heard this one before. There is a legend about an old martial arts master being accosted while hobbling home on his cane through the dismal streets of post-WWII Tokyo. Crime was running rampant and his attackers were three young men, looking for an easy mark. The old man pleaded with them, more than once, “Please don’t hurt me, I’m just an old man with a stick.” But the criminals attacked him anyway and he beat them soundly. Afterwards, he told them that they should have known better. After all, he said, “I did tell you I was an old man with a stick.”
Today, many, if not most, martial arts systems include traditional weapons training. By traditional I mean weapons that predate the gun and include sticks, swords, knives and more esoteric weapons like the sai or the nunchaku. With each tradition there are ceremonies, stances, katas, and whole arrays of exercises to help the martial artist develop proficiency with the weapon. Today’s question is why? None of us carry these weapons around with us. In fact, I look forward to getting old enough to be able to carry a cane without looking funny. So, from a practical, self-defense perspective, why are we spending time away from what appears to be the more useful “empty hand” traning?
This question has been on my mind in part because I love training with weapons and they have been a large part of my solo practice. Here are ten possible reasons why you should train with weapons, along with some videos that I have found interesting and entertaining.
1. Culture and history. These traditions must be maintained or an entire part of human history will be lost. For many, that is reason alone to practice with weapons.
2. Physical improvement. Weapons function similarly to weights at the gym. Swinging them around builds strength.
3. Mental improvement. Training with weapons can be purely a pursuit of perfection. The mental focus needed to make any movement perfect is a trainable skill that translates into all other aspects of life. One sees this most clearly in the practice of iaido.
4. Competition. Every kind of weapons competition exists and they offer different ways to challenge yourself. From solo and team weapons katas, to live blade cutting competitions, to kendo, to the full contact stick fighting of the dog brothers (below), there are lots of ways to compete.
5. Many styles have two-person drills and routines where they practice hitting the weapons against each other. These exercises develop coordination, timing, focus, and a modicum of fighting skills. It is hard, however, to imagine a reality based situation where two people might pick up six-foot staffs and fight each other.
6. On the other hand, skills with simple weapons like the bo or jo, might translate into well into the use of everyday objects such as brooms or shovels. A beer bottle or magazine might be used in the same manner as a short stick. A pen could replace a knife.
7. Law enforcement. This doesn’t apply to most of us but police, in particular, carry and use weapons other than their sidearms. In some cases, such as prison guards, a baton is the only weapon allowed. The more confident and skilled they are with these, the less reliant they will be on the gun.
8. Understanding the weapon. By training with a weapon, you will develop the ability to fight against it, whether you have a weapon or not. After all is said and done, if faced with an armed attacker, you are really fighting the person holding the weapon and not the weapon itself.
9. Improving your empty-hand techniques. This idea was introduced to me by the late Tasshi Jim Logue. He taught that all techniques with the weapon should mirror the movements we make without it. In training correctly with a weapon, we improve the way we move and the weapon is nothing more than an extension of our other techniques.
10. The “solo keiko” perspective. weapons training is a great way to break up the perceived monotony of practicing that “damn kata one more time…” It is nice to clear the air and do something related, but different enough to offer new challenges.
You may not agree with all these reasons but, if you train with traditional weapons, my guess is that some of them figure into that training. Reasons 8, 9 and 10 are quite prominent in my own thinking which is why I listed them last. You may have other reasons why traditional weapons training is important to the contemporary martial artist and I would love to hear them. The goal, as always, is to keep training and improving until, with or without canes, we too are old masters.