Limits of technique

The time comes when, for one reason or another, even the finest technique fails. In Japan there used to be (and for all I know, there still is) a certain distance, almost an antipathy, between some of the more fanatical judo men and the more fanatical kendo (fencing) men. The kendo men are supposed to say under their breath, or just think: ‘Oh yes, a kendo man against a judo man. Well, just pick up a stick (even an umbrella would do) and then one thrust in the throat, and he’s finished.’ That is what they thought, or what we thought they thought. And on the judo side, we used to look at them and think: ‘Yes, and when you haven’t got your little stick, what then, eh?’

Each side had stories about the other side. We used to circulate a story about a Japanese policeman who was a fourth Dan at kendo.  He went with another policeman, a first Dan judo man, to arrest a man who had run amok with a sword. When they came to the house, this man stood in the doorway waving his bloodstained sword. The kendo man (so the judo account runs) fainted, and it was left to the judo man to pick up a garden rake and rush the madman, who tripped and was then disarmed.

I don’t know what the kendo version of this story was, if they had one. But they did have a story about a very famous jujitsu expert named Hoshino at the end of the last century. Jujitsu is not the same as judo, but for the purpose of the story, the story tellers used to equate them. Well, Hoshino had a dispute with a foreign sailor near the docks at Yokohama. The sailor was drunk, and imagined he could dispose of his small antagonist with one big blow to the jaw. Hoshino easily evaded this, and at once trapped the arm in a lock. He was an expert, and knew how to apply a lock so as to cause slight pain but without injuring the arm seriously. If the man struggles violently, then he causes great pain to himself, the arm is damaged, and in extreme cases broken.

So Hoshino was quite at ease. He knew he was complete master in this familiar situation. There was however a difference. The foreign sailor was fighting drunk, so drunk that he did not feel the pain. He smashed his other fist into Hoshino’s jaw, knocking him out. Then he ran off, holding his broken arm to his chest.

I may add that I believe this story to be true, as I heard it from an old jujitsu man who had trained in a Yokohama do jo (martial arts hall) at that time. I have heard it queried on grounds that a drunken man would still feel pain. However, I have some reason to believe he wouldn’t.

My uncle was in the Royal Navy about a century ago and he got a wound in the toe, which had to be amputated. In those days chloroform and ether were coming into use, but he refused to have an anaesthetic. He was my mother’s elder brother, and she told me about it. He said that it was cowardly to use such things. So (she told me) he got very drunk on rum, and then four medical students held him firmly. The surgeon cut off the toe very quickly. She was told that he did not struggle, but she was not sure whether that was because of self-control or because of the rum. When I was a child I saw that uncle sometimes. I always wanted to say to him: ‘After all, taking a lot of rum is the same thing as having an anaesthetic, isn’t it?’ But I never dared.

The Hoshino story, and the kendo story, illustrate the limits of technique. Sooner or later the time will come when we cannot depend on our trained skills, even if they are very good. Even the monkeys fall off trees, and even Kobo makes a mistake with the brush.

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