On Saturday, Keith Nelson of Southside Dojo will give an interactive demonstration of ancient weapons and fighting styles at the Kalamazoo Public Library. He’ll show off weapons like the katana, the kind of sword you might see in a Japanese samurai movie.
“Generally it was single edged because Japan had really poor steel," says Nelson. "And as a result of having really poor steel, it’s easier to make a single edged blade that is resistant to bending, breaking, etc. And it’s a little cheaper to make it and so forth. It also…you end up with differential tempering. So the edge would be much harder than the back. The back would be softer so you could get a little bit of a spring to it.”
Here's a video of an Iaido sword master. Can you believe he's more than 90 years old?:
But Nelson says how a weapon was made didn’t only depend on the quality of materials used. It also depended on what the weapon is supposed to do and who it was made for. For example, medieval Japanese soldiers did use two edged swords at one time, but later carried single-edged blades in times of peace.
“As Japan left the warring states era of the 1500s and kind of entered into the Shogunate era, then you ended up with a society that was not at war," Nelson says. "People were not putting on armor and going out and fighting. What they were doing, however, was satisfying duels of honor, was dealing with bandits, was still carrying around the accoutrements of their station as a warrior class.”
Nelson says European swords had a more fine point at the end. One of the most interesting weapons Nelson has is called a pole axe—something medieval Italian swordsman Fiore de Liberi called “ponderous, mortal and cruel.”
“Generally an axe head on one side. Hammer head or spike on the other," Nelson explains. "And it can have a spear point on the end.”
Medieval soldiers fought each other with this. Nelson says the idea was to puncture the other soldier’s armor.
“And it may not go through your armor, but that doesn’t really matter if I dent it up enough because you’re still soft and squishy underneath it," he says. "So it’s kind of like denting a can really hard, whatever’s in that can isn’t going to look the same.”
Nelson says he’ll never have to use many of the skills he’s learned from medieval sword fighting or even Jujitsu. But they’re historic arts that he can carry with him for the rest of his life.
“There’s video out there of 95 year old Japanese Iaido instructors. And they walk up towards the mat and they’re bent over, and they’re hunched, and they’re shuffling, and they’re moving really slowly. And they step up on the mat and they bow to their sword and they put their sword in their belt. And they straighten up and they do their kata [moves] beautifully. And they bow and everything’s fine. And they step back off the mat and they bow off the mat, and suddenly they’re hunched over again. And maybe they can’t keep it going forever. But for that brief shining moment in there, they’re better than any 30, 40, 20, 50-year-old—because they’ve got so much experience behind them. And that to me is really compelling.”