There’s a lot of similarity between Western and Eastern sword arts. Anyone who trains with or spars against both will tell you that. But what about where they’re different? Is there anything fundamentally different about them, so different it can change the course of the fight? Let’s find out.
I’m talking here about using two-handed swords in the respective styles. Given the most common Eastern sword style is the Japanese Kendo (Kenjitsu, Iaido, etc.) and the Western is German Longsword, that’s what I’ll be comparing here.
Let’s start with what the swords in each system can do. Now, granted, the typical longsword is usually longer than the typical katana, but here we’re not going to be comparing the weapons in detail, more so much the options, mindsets and techniques. Basically, both swords can cut and thrust. The katana is single-edged so it can’t really cut with the back but the longsword is double-edged so it can. Nine times out of ten, not a big deal.
How do they cut though? Well, both have straight downwards cuts from over the head as well as diagonal ones from the shoulders. Bear in mind these are the types of cuts you’ll be doing 90% of the time in basically any sword system, because they’re so powerful and give you so many other options to still do. I don’t see many Unterhaue (upward cuts from below) in these Eastern styles but, I would argue, they’re not used as often in Western styles anyway. If we look at someone like George Silver or even Fiore dei Liberi with his alternative Longsword system, there is an obvious preference for downright cuts or simply thrusting to the face or body as the main ways to successfully injure your opponent.
Now I’m, not an expert on Kendo footwork but from my experience sparring with practitioners, they seem to use a form of stepping quite similar to Medieval Longsword. They seem more square on to their opponent and perhaps step forwards more with the front foot as they cut and therefore use less passing footwork, but overall, they’re not lunging like a rapier; both systems have the practitioners stepping forwards or backwards with smaller steps from either foot as they cut or parry. Overall, not too different.
They even have similar guards. Now I can’t name all the Kendo/Kenjitsu guards properly but from a HEMA perspective, they have their equivalents of Vom Tag and Long Point, low guards similar to Fool and the Iron Gates, even Ox/Posta de Fenestra and Long Tail. Breaking that down, both systems have guards which can strike powerfully from above down to either side, guards for thrusting and guards for both protecting your lower areas as well as giving you the option to rebat their blow if you’d prefer. Incredibly similar.
Let’s actually consider the use of high, point forward guards in either system, known as Ox/Fenestra in the West (ignoring the finer points of difference for the moment). I would argue that a guard like Ox can create a very similar effect to counter-cutting a downwards cut with an Unterhau (upwards cut from below), seen in German but not in Japanese swordsmanship. Whether you’re using an Ox-type guard or an Unterhau, either way you you’re effectively getting them to hit your blade on its back edge which lets you then be weak in the bind, let them run off your blade and give you a tempo to strike them from above. Yes, an Unterhau is possibly better for forcing this kind of bind, but not using Unterhaue doesn’t stop you from achieving the same result. Feinting thrusts from Ox until they try and swat your blade away will achieve the same result. You see this preference for enticing a blow from Fenestra in the Italian system too, rather than just counter-cutting with Unterhaue and going from there. So in effect, while on this issue the Italian and Japanese mindsets seem to be aligned in using a thrust-feinting guard, they effectively end up with the same result as the German cut-centric mindset.
So is there anything actually fundamentally different in the two systems that isn’t just preference and nuance? Yes. There is one thing in the German set of techniques which isn’t matched anywhere else and for those on whom it is used for the first time, they have no idea how to counter it. I’m referring to the principles underlying two of the Meisterhaue: the Krumphau and the Zwerchau.
Both of these cuts do something incredibly different to every other cut in a two-handed sword system. Rather than having your hands aligned in the same direction as the front edge of the sword, you raise your thumb up the inside flat which naturally turns the sword 90 degrees. This means that the pull-push motion of your hands, when you cut, doesn’t pull the sword forwards or backwards in line with your hands and arms but perpendicular to it. Now you can use this motion in the Krumphau to displace a guard or attack or in the Zwerchau to cut around their defence (and I’m not going to explain both of them in detail here) but my point is that because you’re using a technique which is completely alien to another system, they have no way of combating it. There is no effective counter in Kendo for the Krumphau because in that system it’s impossible to do.
Is this some kind of subtle Western jibe? No. I used Longsword vs Katana and thereby Western vs Eastern here as the dichotomy of two very different styles to explore how truly revolutionary this technique was. Those of us who study longsword in HEMA are so used to these Meisterhaue and their counters that they seem just another set of techniques to learn, seldom useful against people who use them as well. What practicing them against people whose tradition doesn’t have them demonstrates is how groundbreaking they were at the time. It also reminds us that in any martial art, if you have a technique which counters or gets around your opponent and they don’t know a counter to it, you’ve won the point, match or potentially even the duel. This is why, regardless of your tradition or background, you can always learn more as a fighter by practicing different systems—the more different to your own, the better.