Why Women Should Wield Weapons

For many women, self-defense is at least one reason for taking up a martial art, and so most, at least in my experience, choose an unarmed art such as aikido, karate, or judo (I’m confining myself to Japanese arts because that is where my experience lies; I’ll leave it to exponents of the arts of other countries to see if any of these observations hold true for them). Weapons arts that include kata practiced in pairs such as kendo, naginata, or jodo are not usually seen as vehicles for learning self-defense–after all, what good is knowing how to defend yourself with a seven-foot-long naginata if you are unlikely to be carrying it with you all the time?

Good teachers in any of the modern unarmed Japanese martial ways know better than to promise female students instant, fool-proof defense techniques; I used to explain that the real value of aikido was less in teaching skills that enable you to fight back than in inculcating a posture and way of moving that discourages attack, since studies have shown that victims are often carefully selected for their apparent vulnerability. Technical proficiency, on the other hand, takes years and a serious commitment to training to develop.

You’d imagine then that a fourth dan with over ten years in aikido and a year or so of judo, would feel reasonably secure in her skills. Well, I sure didn’t! Faced with the realization that the longer I trained the greater my responsibility to share some of what I had learned with other women, I had to ruthlessly assess my own abilities. What I discovered was doubt; not the little niggling variety, but the sort so large as to be almost certainty–if push came to shove, I simply did not know what I would do or how I would fare (despite my experiences in actual match training). How, I wondered, had I failed in my training?

Five years later, and after seven years in weapons arts (jukendo, tankendo, jojutsu, and naginatajutsu), I think I’ve found an answer, at least for myself. It was not I who had failed in my training, but my training that had failed me. For a number of reasons, unarmed training hasn’t been nearly as useful as weapons training in teaching me the skills I’d need to actually defend myself. Today, I am utterly confident that if I were attacked I could and would act, with a reasonable measure of success, to defend myself.1

So why did weapons arts work so much better for me? Well, one thing that I learned in my aikido training was that despite the claims of the instructors (“See, the weak can overcome the strong”), when training with men of a similar or higher level, power does count. A lot. Of course, our ultimate goal is to “release” general physical power and to rely instead on the relaxed, precise application of the right amount of force from the right direction in the right place at the right time. The trick is to learn how. Women often find this initially easier to achieve than men, since our self-images are less likely to be bound up with our actual physical strength, but even though we are doing it “right” we often find that we still can’t truly succeed in applying unarmed techniques on larger, equally skilled men.

This discrepancy in power, especially when we know we are doing it “better” than the guys, can be extremely frustrating. All we learn is that when push comes to shove, you’ve got to be very, very good indeed to overcome a stronger opponent. This doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in one’s self-defense skills.

The constant struggle against power and frustration can also sidetrack one from the study of the subtle details that are the real key to useful defense skills, and we get wrapped up in the notion of “making” techniques work. Looking back on my years in aikido, I find that what I learned were some magnificent and often beautiful patterns of movement that I could easily apply to someone less skilled or smaller than myself. But I lacked a thoroughly internalized vocabulary of principles that could be instantly shuffled and recast to respond to any situation and any opponent. I believe this is one of the most significant advantages to be gained from training in weapons arts.

So how does this work? First of all, any weapon is a great equalizer, a “force multiplier.” All of a sudden, differences in reach, weight, and height, don’t matter as much, given the constant of the weapon. Women with weapons can easily be as strong as men. It doesn’t take much muscle power to make a lethal strike with a jo; it does take an understanding of what I call “patterns of principle.”

Although these principles of relaxation, observation, distancing, initiative, line and trajectory, timing, balance, targeting, and volition were talked about to varying degrees in the aikido dojos I have trained in, what we actually practiced most of the time were patterns of movement. I have found patterns of principle much easier to actually see, feel, and analyze in weapons training. The clarity of the trajectory of a rapidly moving weapon seems especially suited to demonstrate principle.

For example, when facing an opponent who is wielding a jo, it is easy to see who controls the center line. The location of the leading end of my opponent’s jo in relation to my body is clear; if it is even a fraction of a centimeter off, I may well be able to slip past the weapon and drive my own attack home. This is, of course, also entirely true when facing an unarmed opponent, but accurate perception of that line, which is far less obvious, requires a significant amount of training experience.

Distancing and timing, or maai, is also easier to see and internalize when working with weapons, especially those of sword length and longer. One is physically farther from the opponent at the critical combative engagement distance, which is a clearly defined, visible, and relatively consistent relationship between the ends of the opposed weapons. In unarmed arts maai is defined by the relative reach (and speed) of the opponent and varies dramatically from encounter to encounter; it can take years to learn to assess in the very short amount of time it takes to close the distance. While there are still variations in reach based on individual body size and proportions when using weapons, they are generally offset by the constant of the length of the weapon itself and the fact that it simply takes more time to cover the greater distance. Learning to make accurate judgments can then be refined by working with weapons in various combinations, sometimes with radically different inherent maai, such as when using a kusarigama against a naginata, or a tanken against a juken. Once your understanding of the relationship between a specific weapon and maai becomes intuitive, it is not particularly difficult to adapt to unfamiliar situations. In my experience, however, the constant variation of distance in unarmed arts makes it much more difficult to achieve a “feel” for maai. It can also result in inappropriate standardization “for teaching purposes” that often leads to a rigid belief that “this technique can only be done this one correct way”–a position entirely antithetical to learning principles and how to apply them.

Observation skills are also more quickly and keenly sharpened in weapons training, in my experience. There’s nothing like the prospect of a sword connecting with your forehead or a nine-foot-long spear punching you in the ribs to encourage you to pay close attention to every nuance of an opponent’s moves. The danger of striking and injuring bystanders (or being hit while waiting for one’s turn to train) also increases when using weapons. Sensible practitioners quickly develop three-hundred-sixty-degree antennae. Although awareness is an essential part of all the unarmed training I’ve ever seen, the consequences of failure have always struck me as being more much dramatic in weapons arts.

I’m not foolhardy enough to argue that ALL useful self-defense principles are more easily learned in weapons training–obviously, off-balancing (kuzushi) is studied in much greater depth in judo or aikido. Nor do I advocate relying only on weapons training–we all need to know how to fight on the ground and should have at least rudimentary grappling skills. What I do propose is that a few years of good weapons training before taking up an unarmed art might well shorten the time it takes for women (or men, for that matter) to reach a level where they can confidently rely on their skills for self-defense.

Copyright ©1997 Diane Skoss. All rights reserved.

  1. Since I first wrote this article, I’ve actually had a chance to verify one important aspect of this. At the 1997 Meiji Shrine Demonstration in November, I demonstrated Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginatajutsu. On the first technique, my foot slipped on the grass and I sat down. My only thought was, “Gotta get out of here quick, `cause this is a bad place to be.” I scrambled up and out from under the descending cut and countered with a cut of my own. While the situation was not one of life or death, my reaction did demonstrate an ability to act appropriately and without delay, both important elements of dealing with a real attack. ↩︎

This article first appeared in Bugeisha #4, Winter 1997.