There is something to say about being a specialist when it comes down to martial arts. Dedicating time & effort to be a master of a particular style or weapon is no small feat. Yet, we should avoid limiting ourselves as well, and explore different martial systems and disciplines as well.
It is good to be exposed to many different weapons, disciplines, and the like when studying martial arts. This way, we gain knowledge to different approaches towards combat, as well as being able to perceive what others have studied themselves. In the modern times we live in, there is a greater variety of martial arts styles to choose from, whether it be Japanese, Chinese, European, Southeast Asian, and the like. For me, I’ve had the opportunity to do the same; while I’ve dedicated most of my effort in kobudō, over the years I’ve taken the time to explore the basics of karate, taekwondo, boxing, and hung gar. On a technical level, studying other systems has not only helped to appreciate the philosophy behind these different styles, but pick up unique skills and methods of movements that have made essential contributions to my overall studies that I can take with me.
Let’s narrow this down to Japanese martial arts, and how this idea of learning different styles has been important in its growth. When studying how Japanese warriors stayed active during Japan’s Sengoku period, we learn how various weapons were used on the battlefield, from swords, spears, archery, and gunnery. Depending on the time period, warriors who had the resources not only trained with them to understand how they are used, but carried a plethora of weapons in war campaigns. So, it’s not unusual to read details about archers who spent most of their effort in arrow volleys having to switch to drawing out uchigatana slung at their left hip when the opposing army has closed the distance, or a general who’s fighting with a tachi on horseback may switch to a yari which his attendant would be carrying close by.
This idea of being resourceful with multiple weapons continued throughout Edo period, to even modern times. Those who specialize in hand-to-hand systems during the 18th century also made practice to be proficient using smaller weapons concealed on their person, such as suntetsu (寸鉄, a steel bar held in a fist), kakute (角手, a ring with a small spike), and manriki gusari (萬力鎖, weighted chain), which are often categorized as kakushi buki (隠し武器). This ideology has been retained in specific traditional forms practiced today, where practitioners work on being able to switch from one weapon to another.
Let’s take naginata systems as an example. There are forms where the defender, a naginata wielder, will be overwhelmed by an opponent using a katana that manages to close the distance. In response to the opponent preparing to deliver a finishing blow, the defender pulls out a tantō that is kept in the front of their obi and counters appropriately. Interestingly, there are accounts of this in documented records from Edo period where a shorter bladed weapon proved to be the equalizer in situations where their trusted longer weapon was ineffective, such as the skilled spearsman Katsuhisa Umataemon Saitō¹, and the war-hardened swordsman Tsukahara Bokuden².
In closing, martial artists should strive to be as skilled as can be, especially with disciplines we truly favor. However, we must not be closed-minded to other disciplines, for studying & adapting multiple skills can help keep us open-minded, and enhance us even further.
1) This experience changed Umataemon’s views on long weapons. This was covered on this blog, which can be read here.
2) Bokuden spoke about his, as well as other adventures during his time. This can be read in the following post on this blog here.