Henka in Sumo

Benjamin Morris has written a fascinating article about sumo history on FiveThirtyEight. There’s lots of interesting things in there, including the dominance of foreign sumotori and perhaps the cautionary tale for any nation: if you set the immigration bar too high, then the only people you let in are going to be good enough to beat you. No Japanese tournaments won by a Japanese wrestler for a decade? Oof, that’s gotta hurt.


Action-packed sumo illustration from the Fudebakudo book.
Now read the article instead.

But what especially caught my eye is the discussion at the end about henka. In sumo this is basically abruptly getting out of the way so that the other guy (and for now, yes, it will be the other guy not the other girl) throws himself out of the ring for you. This movement is very much in line with teachings of aikido (it’s effectively what the basic step called tenkan seeks to accomplish, albeit sumo somehow gets it to work without a compliant uke) and as we know aikido presents itself as a moral and spiritual art. Getting out of the way is a good, noble thing. Got it.

But in sumo, getting out of the way is dishonourable. It’s what you do if you’re not good enough to deal with that other guy by staying in the way, see? Unfortunately for sumo, because you’re not supposed to do it, it works far better than would be the case if your honourable opponent trusts you not to try it on. So it really works (and Morris’s excellent article makes a case for a success rate approaching 92%), and will continue to work while it’s considered naughty. Fudebakudo-approved behaviour!

Lovely analysis and data visualisations over there too. Bravo Mr Morris!

Musashi looks at the peony

A couple of friends (Myf and Jed) have been sharing their illustration chops with me recently, so I thought it was about time I dug this painting out.

It’s a rendition of Miyamoto Musashi scowling at a flower, and it was done as a token of support for the opening of the new Heijoshin dojo in Brownhills, UK, in 2011. If all went to plan, the painting should be hanging up in the toilet there now. My admiration for Heijoshin (who practice the esoteric art of iaido, as well as kenjutsu and jodo) goes back to the maelstrom of cultural absurdity that was Seni 2003, where the Fudebakudo book launched, and where I first met Scott and some of his students.

Musashi looks at the peony

Musashi and the cut peony stem (informed, to some extent, by Musashi’s self-portrait). The man was accomplished with brushes as well as swords, which the Heijoshin logo recalls by referencing his famous Shrike on a dead branch.

Of course, the painting is a deliberately ludicrous representation of a clearly fictitious event, but nonetheless one that many people who have been hit on the head by a few too many wooden swords think is true. It’s true to the spirit of Fudebakudo, because Miyamoto Musashi was indisputably a real person — arguably Japan’s most famous swordsman if not, perhaps, the best — and the lineage of the sword arts in Japan is traceable, so his influence is genuine.

Naturally, there’s a lot of bullshit too. The Fudebakudo book childishly contains — without explanation — two entirely different accounts of how Musashi founded the nito-ryu school of sword fighting, to slyly point out how easy it is to make this silly and contradictory stuff up.

Anyway, the fictitious story of Musashi and the peony is originally from the novel Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa (yes, I had to put the word “fictitious” in italics there, because lots of martial artists get confused about that point). I’ve actually not read the book: I remember being told a version of the story over twenty-five years ago by the bombastic, unique and ultimately (in my opinion) wrong martial artist Gerd Kroell who was, at the time, studying sword from a credible source. Gerd died in 2001, but he told the tale so well, here’s his version, from memory; this is the Musashi I illustrated, above.

So, as you know, Musashi was travelling all over Japan, looking for teachers who were good enough to learn sword-fighting from. Any he found he would challenge to a duel. As his fearsome reputation spread, it got harder to find any who would accept the challenge. Either they hid, or else they didn’t and he killed them. Either way, it meant there was nothing he could learn from them, so he would move on, increasingly frustrated at the woeful state of expertise of the so-called masters.

At some point he made his way to yet another castle where he’d heard the lord had a reputation as a skilled swordsman. He strode up to the castle gates, and as he did so they slowly, but firmly, shut. He banged on them with his fist demanding to be let in.

“I challenge the so-called master here to a duel!” he shouted.

A long pause. Then a quiet voice from the other side of the gate. “No. Go away.”

“I demand a duel,” yelled Musashi, pounding on the gate. “Don’t you know who I am? I am Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman in Japan! I demand your master meets me in combat!”

Silence. Then, “The master knows who you are. Go away.”

“Why won’t he face me? Is he yet another coward and charlatan?”

Again, an infuriating pause. [I remember Gerd pulling faces as Musashi here, clenching his fists in frustration; he loved to tell this tale] “No, he just doesn’t think you are ready to learn from him yet.”

Of course Musashi exploded in rage on hearing this, and pounded and shouted and stomped some more.

Then, when he was running out of steam, the gate opened a tiny bit. A hand extended out, and gave the bewildered Musashi a single, cut flower: a peony. As soon as he took it, the hand retracted and the gates quickly shut.

Musashi yelled and spluttered some more. “What!? What is this? I am a warrior, not a florist! What the hell is the meaning of this? You try to insult me by giving me a flower? Preposterous! I demand a duel! Not petals!” And off he went again, stomping up and down in front of the castle gate, ranting and cursing.

Eventually he had to calm down of course, and that’s when he looked properly at the flower. He looked at where the stem had been cut. Then he saw what he had, in his anger, missed, and he suddenly understood. That cut was impeccable, clean, exquisitely precise.

So he knelt down before the castle gates and bowed:

“I humbly ask that I might become a student of this castle’s masterful lord.”

Well, that’s the story as I recall it was told to me, anyway.

Video of French MMA Paraisy, and Cuban trapeze

There’s an unusually artistic view of MMA, without any fighting, in this short film portrait of French fighter Norman Paraisy:

I wrote about the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts about five years ago; I still maintain there’s a big difference in the reasons most people watch it and the reasons the serious people really do it.

For another implicit study of athletic dedication, see the music video below. OK, so these are Cuban trapeze artists, not martial artists. I include it here because, credit to director Tom Haines, I promise this is the most beautifully shot piece about a niggling leg injury you will ever see.

Fudebakudo’s gingerbread shuriken

shuriken cutter

The Fudebakudo shuriken cutter.
Now with a page of its own.

Way back in 2005, we took three hundred gingerbread shuriken (with chocolate tips) to Seni, the big martial arts expo in the UK. There’s now a page on the Fudebakudo website documenting how these remarkable weapons came about (OK, the ones we made were just replica weapons).

As we are responsible vendors, at Seni we refused to sell these to unaccompanied children (in fact, we put a notice up to such effect). How prescient this was. One can only imagine the chaos that would ensue were they to get into the wrong hands, as shown by this BBC news story about the school ban on triangular flapjacks.

Elephants at war


Elephant: if you do beat an elephant in a fight, it will never forget. But then the chances are neither will you.

There’s a new illustration in the gallery: this one considers the benefits of bringing an elephant to a fight. It’s not a new tactic — in fact the first documented use of elephantry suggests it’s been going on for over 2,400 years.

Elephants bring a number of unique advantages to combat, including, but not limited to, breaking through lines of infantry; discomforting enemy cavalry (if the horses are unfamiliar with the animals, especially their scent); providing an elevated platform for missile weapons such as archers or even artillery (see: jingal); and spitting especially hardened armour-piercing peanuts from their trunks with lethal accuracy.

From a tactical point of view, elephants (like chariots) are vulnerable to being outflanked — because they can’t turn very quickly and can only effectively engage an enemy directly to the front. More importantly, if they can be made to rout, elephants become a dangerous hazard to all the friendly troops lined up behind them. For this reason, tactics that could panic or scare elephants, rather than simply kill them, were developed by armies that anticipated facing enemy elephants. The illustration mentions “tent-pegging” as one, which exploited elephants’ particular dislike of having their feet stabbed with lances. As the Fudebakudo book reports, another anti-elephantry measure was the use of incendiary pigs, daubed with tar, pointed at the offending elephant, and set alight.

These days, the cost of keeping an elephant, and the sad fact that the ivory from its tusks is worth considerably more than the cost of training it to fight, mean that the days of elephants on the battlefield are over. The last time elephants fought in battle was in Vietnam in 1885, during the Sino-French war, although some also operated in non-combative roles in World War II.

The elephant illustration was drawn for the current issue of Martial Arts Illustrated magazine, which rarely if ever features articles about elephants.

Bows and arrows

It’s been a while. Been busy. Work and stuff.

But Cecil (of the Straight Dope) just answered a question I have been wondering about for years (although, being English, I had wondered about it in the context of the English Civil War, a century or so earlier than Cecil is considering). That is:

Given that early firearms were so cumbersome and slow, and longbows so apparently devastating, why didn’t armies continue to employ archers against, say, enemy musket-men who stood, often unarmoured, close together?

Cecil, who happens to be the smartest person in the world, gives this answer.

Incidentally, it turns out that actually some archers were deployed in the English Civil War, but it was effectively their final appearance. Of course there were some later exceptions, most notably perhaps “Mad Jack” Churchill, who fought in WWII armed with longbow, sword, and bagpipes. Indeed.

Several years ago I recorded my visit to Pip Bickerstaffe, longbow maker, in the post The string’s the thing here on the Fudebakudo blog. Pip’s fascinating work and research challenges much of the popular opinion about the English use of the longbow.

Robert W. Smith: the Master

“The world’s most secretly guarded fighting techniques” — The Boston Globe

Secret Fighting Arts of the World (book)

Secret Fighting Arts of the World, by
John F. Gilbey ISBN 0804816085, pub. Tuttle. The book was first published in 1963. This is a 2001 edition.*

Although over the years I did a lot of research for the Fudebakudo book, there is one book that was, indirectly, hugely influential: Secret Fighting Arts of the World by John F. Gilbey. Actually it wasn’t really by a Mr Gilbey, but I didn’t find that out until much, much later. I read it when I was around 13 or 14, and it sowed a seed which undoubtedly resulted in my drawing the first Fudebakudo cartoons well over a decade later.

When we were young teenagers, a friend called Jon lent me the book and I distinctly remember being impressed by the wonders described within it. To my delight, I recently got hold of a second-hand copy, pictured here (although a previous owner has drawn loops around some of the chapter titles — gah! why would anyone do that?). If you like the left-hand pages of Fudebakudo, you will love this book and you should seek it out. It’s a parody so sly it makes Fudebakudo seem as coarse as a clown-car with square wheels.

I don’t think I was particularly credulous as a child, and today anyone who knows me will tell you I have a sceptical outlook so developed it’s probably wearisome, but back then I never realised how deliberately untrue the book was. Some of the things it reported were suspicious, certainly, and the incident described in its last chapter sort of flagged to me that silliness was afoot (which, I now appreciate, is a very neat thing to do with the final words). But if I’m honest, I didn’t understand how mischievous and how good the book was until much later. Two things in particular contributed to its credibility. Firstly, it was written as a convincing series of reports without hyperbole by someone who was quite clearly experienced in the martial arts. Secondly, it was published by Tuttle Publishing, a well-known and immensely credible source of books on martial arts (especially, back then, Japanese arts, since Tuttle had (still has, in fact) strong links with Tokyo).

An indication of how strong the book’s subliminal influence was upon me is shown by a double-spread illustration of anatomical “Zodiacal Times” (showing where the dim mak death-touch spot is at particular times of the day) on pp.17–18 of Secret Fighting Arts. I had no recollection of this at the time I did my drawing, but Fudebakudo readers will recognise nonsense so similar in Fudebakudo, purporting to be from a 15th century English book, Samuel Borogove’s Systematic Anatomie of Man, his Life, and Contrivance for Ending It, that I am shocked to realise how unoriginal and close to Gilbey’s that gag is.

Well, the reason Gilbey’s book was written with such an informed voice was that the author was in fact Robert W. Smith, an astonishingly knowledgable martial arts historian with unprecedented experience, and who repeatedly took the trouble to seek out true experts in the Far East. Unfortunately, because I read the book so long ago and because I didn’t use it directly as a source when researching strangeness in the martial arts, I did not realise Gilbey was a pseudonym for Smith until after Fudebakudo was published. Certainly, had I known, I would have dedicated the Fudebakudo book to him, for both hoodwinking and inspiring me as a youngster, and for basically being the grandmaster of writers of martial arts parody books. It’s a limited field so there aren’t many of us, to be sure, but there is only one master. Thank you, Robert W. Smith.


* There’s a sequel to Secret Fighting Arts, also by John F. Gilbey, called The Way of a Warrior: A Journey into Secret Worlds of Martial Arts. Smith’s book Martial Musings, which, to my embarrassment, I have yet to read, also touches upon the project from Smith’s, rather than Gilbey’s, perspective.

Straight Dope On Street Effectiveness

I am a regular reader of Cecil’s Straight Dope. He’s just responded to the question:

“Has martial arts training ever helped anybody defeat a mugger?”

Answer: yes, with qualification. Read the Straight Dope on street effectiveness.

Of course, I have opinions about this because I have trained in martial arts continuously (injuries notwithstanding) for more than a couple of decades. So it’s not a casual remark to say that I believe that most martial artists are at best deluded and at worst fantasising when it comes to assessing their chances of applying learned techniques when faced with a criminal attack. There are a whole number of reasons for this, including the idealised nature of training, the lack of stress-training in traditional martial arts, the assumptions inherent in rules-based competitive martial arts, all sorts of misconceptions arising from the mass media, and, perhaps most significantly, a real failure to understand the pyschology of violent crime.

The fact is that the benefits that arise from training in most martial arts may well help you if you’re attacked — the fact that I have trained with serving police and military personnel who don’t think they are wasting their time supports that — but probably mostly incidentally. As it happens, I personally know someone who took a loaded gun off a bad guy using the aikido technique kote gaeshi without sustaining a bullet wound — but that was an experienced policeman arresting someone who wasn’t quite attacking (he even had the candour to tell me that he had been somewhat astonished that it had worked). But, professionals aside, I strongly suspect that, in terms of dealing with a mugging, reading a good book on Buddhism and playing a couple of proper games of rugby may well be exactly as beneficial as a year of mimsy martial arts training. But you have to be really careful about this: it’s because fighting is different from being mugged, and none of the competitive martial arts (using techniques whose efficacy, unlike more traditional systems, is not really in doubt) allow opponents to outnumber and use hidden weapons, or attack before the fight has begun or indeed before the attacker has been seen, or when the competitor is on the phone or walking down stairs. There’s a reason for that.

The Straight Dope’s answer is based on a slightly smarter understanding of the issue. It’s not a question about winning a fight with an attacker, which is how most martial artists interpret the question (seeing it as such is a trained response, after all). It’s a question about affecting the outcome of the attack, and that is crucially different. I think that the best resource on this topic is Marc MacYoung’s No Nonsense Self Defence (actually he spells it with an S because he’s American). For years I have considered this as recommended reading for anyone — especially anyone you care about — who wants to think about these issues. Most people don’t, but they should. In particular, I highlight the following topics as especially worth reading:

It’s a common but unavoidably naive question to ask, “have you ever used your martial art training for real?” So of course I can’t write about this without implicitly raising the question. In my case the answer is yes, kind of, but none of the situations were straightforward and — more to the point — in every one of the cases the “attacker” was moderately inept. Yes, it’s a good result, but personally I see these as false positives in the argument that martial arts are inherently good for self defence.

Here’s a proof of the limits of self-defence, if you train in a martial art. Do you think you could successfully attack yourself? If you do, there’s your answer. If you don’t think you could successfully attack yourself, then you don’t understand how to use surprise, hidden weapons, environment, intimidation, and criminal friends properly, which means you will lose if you’re ever unlucky enough to be attacked by someone who does.