"Throwing away gold...

and picking up broken rooftiles"




I finally picked up a paperback copy of Richard Cohen's By the Sword; I had been reluctant to buy this book originally, as it seemed as though this guy had some rather antiquated views on certain aspects of Historical European swordplay (I remember the material on Silver being pretty lame, when I first checked it out).  Well, I took a look at the text again, and decided to buy it after seeing all the wierd (and extremely interesting) little tidbits of fencing history in it (things like Agesilao Greco's 4-hour duel with a man who had insulted a lady's honor at a cafe).

On thing which struck me as potentially noteworthy was the section on Japanese sword arts (Ch 7--"Where the Sword is the Soul").  In particular, the quote below:

The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 also played a part, for it convinced many policemen that they should train in the martial arts, especially in fencing:  too many skirmishes during the rebellion had been won by sword-wielding soldiers--on both sides.  The head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, the former samurai Kawaji Toshiyoshi, urged that kendo be added to the men's basic training.  "Fencing is practiced assiduously in the various Western nations," he wrote.  "If Japan abolished fencing, then some day we will have to learn it from them.  Now, the saber is nowhere as sharp as the Japanese sword; so if we abolish Japanese swordsmanship and learn to use the Western saber that would be equivalent to throwing away gold and picking up broken rooftiles... Although this may be the age of the gun, the success [of police use of swords against the rebellion] is more proof of the worth of fencing than all other arguments.

I was admittedly surprised by this commentary by a former samurai of the late 19th century.  We know that Western sabers could take a keen edge--witness the exploits of the King's German Legion using the 1796 LCS, or that old photo that appears in Amberger's Secret History and elsewhere, that shows the aftermath of a heavy saber duel that ended in decapitation for one of the opponents. 

So basically, I'm trying to place Toshiyoshi's statements in some sort of perspective--his comments appear to be critical principally of contemporary Western swords, though they are arguably critical of Western swordsmanship as well. 

Now, I realize that Western swordfighting traditions in the 19th century were generally not as comprehensive as they had been during the Middle Ages or Renaissance, but they still appear to have been effective nonetheless.  One even finds things like a rooftop-style parry accompanied by a safety check with the free hand, in D. Jose Cucala y Bruno's 1854 material on saber usage--whether this was a holdover from the old German messer days, or something that was incorporated from contemporary Filipino fighting systems, is difficult to say--but the technique was known nonetheless.

And yet, Toshiyoshi's words speak out to us.  Were Western swords and swordsmanship  already that lacking in effectiveness by that point, or should we not place so much credence in the thoughts of one man?


David Black Mastro

Or are we dealing with ethnocentrism?


Interesting comment by Toshisyoshi. I would be curious to learn more, even if it does turn out to be just ethnocentrism.

George Silver often comes across as being xenophobic; it would be a mistake to brush off everything else he says just because of that.

Hm. Some more research on Toshiyoshi would be in order because I wonder if 1) that comment is taken out of context and 2) he knew what he was talking about.

The whole passage is setting off a few red flags for me, in particular the notion that the rebellion incited police to practice swordsmanship. Didn't firearms play more of a role?

Well, online research of Toshiyoshi is going to be complicated by the fact that a character based on him is in the Rurouni Kenshin anime series, and there are only 8 zillion Kenshin fan pages. Here's a pretty good one, though.


Toshiyoshi is considered "the father of the Japanese police" and made a tour of Europe in 1872 in which he brought back French and Prussian models for the organization of Japan's military and police force. So, if he made the tour in 1872 and Satsuma happenes in 1877 maybe he did have some knowledge of European fencing methods when he made this remark.

Next, a bit more research on Satsuma.

Cool MF--let us know what you find out.

FWIW, there are some examples of European police hangers (short sabers), that were deliberately left dull, so as to function in more of a non-lethal role (ie., like a metal trucheon or nightstick).


1871: Japan's first modern civil police force is formed in Tokyo. The organizer and first chief was a former Satsuma samurai named Kawaji Toshiyoshi. (About two-thirds of early Japanese police were former Satsuma samurai.) A trained swordsman of the Chiba school, Kawaji believed that martial arts training developed superior policemen. Many Japanese agreed with him, and to this day training in kendo, judo, and jodo (singlestick) continues to play an important role in Japanese police training.

References for it:

Readers interested in more about Kawaji Toshiyoshi might be interested in James B. Leavell, "The Policing of Society," in Hilary Conroy,  Sandra T.W. Davis, and Wayne Patterson, editors. Japan in Transition: Thought and Action in the Meiji Era, 1868-1912 (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984), pp. 29-45. See also http://www.uni-hamburg.de/Wiss/FB/10/JapanS/Artikel/meijipol.html (in German).