Five reasons to study Judo
This guest article has been provided by Tea Kew, of the Cambridge HEMA club.
It’s very common for historical fencers to cross-train in other martial arts. Sport fencing and various other forms of swordsmanship are perhaps the most common, because of their obvious application for the use of swords. The value of training in wrestling is often overlooked. However, most of our early longsword manuals are clear about the importance of wrestling for fencing, and so dedicating some time to studying a form of wrestling can be extremely valuable (see an argument for wrestling on this blog). Judo is one of the most widely accessible forms of wrestling, and therefore is a particularly good candidate for cross-training.
The first and most important skill gained from studying judo is break falling (ukemi). This is the fundamental safety equipment for wrestling, in much the same way as a mask is the fundamental safety equipment for using swords. Even if you intend to learn nothing else from the sport, taking an introductory judo course can be well worth it just for learning how to fall. Regardless of whether you intend to study ringen or abrazare, or if you never intend to wrestle in your life, knowing how to fall properly is a valuable skill. In many tournaments, wrestling is allowed, so your opponent might well close and throw you to the ground – so for your own safety, good falling skills are important. This is also useful in day to day life, outside any martial arts context.
Beyond falling, however, Judo still has other useful lessons for the longsword fencer. Wrestling provides an excellent way to develop one’s senses of feeling (fuhlen) and balance (waage), which are critically important to effective sword use. Time and time again throughout the Liechtenauer tradition glosses, we are instructed to feel what the opponent is doing and react to it in the moment of their action (indes). This is also critical to effective Judo, and so classes will spend plenty of time working on aspects of these skills – how to feel where the opponent is moving, and how to take action based on that. The larger movements and increased contact also make feeling your partner’s actions easier when wrestling, and this means that Judo is a particularly good tool for developing fuhlen.
An under-appreciated benefit of cross-training in other arts is simply having more training time. Unless you are fortunate enough to be attending a HEMA club (or clubs) that provide useful training for your available time, you can benefit from spending more time engaged in nearly any physical pursuit. Given its other benefits, Judo makes an excellent way to get another couple hours a week of physical combat training, and the improved fitness and proprioception this gives will help you progress faster in HEMA. Spending more time training also makes it easier to scale up your HEMA training later – if your club begins to offer another class, you can then discard Judo and go to that instead, without taking any more time out of your week to train.
One aspect of Judo which often gets less discussion is its emphasis on the roles of tori (thrower) and uke (receiver). The tori is the partner who completes a technique, and the uke is the partner who receives it. When training, the uke is tasked with providing an appropriate situation to tori, so that they can successfully practice the technique at their current level. We all know how frustrating it is to try and learn a technique when practicing with someone who insists on ‘winning’ the drill. Just as damaging can be trying to practice a technique when your partner is not providing the right cues, since it becomes nearly impossible to learn how to execute it correctly and in the right circumstances. By keeping your current role in a drill clearly in your mind, acting properly as uke or tori, you can become a much better training partner.
As noted above, many of these benefits can be gained by practicing any wrestling art, or indeed nearly any physical hobby. So is there any reason that Judo is particularly useful compared to the alternatives? One useful feature is ubiquity: Judo is very widespread and of fairly consistent quality. This makes it a good option pretty much regardless of location, while access to other arts depends strongly on specific location. The other useful feature about Judo is that it is primarily a standing jacketed wrestling style. This is much more representative of medieval wrestling than unjacketed systems or groundwork focused ones.* As a result, more of what you learn from Judo will be directly applicable in a HEMA context than might be true of freestyle wrestling or BJJ.
Of course, this article has been quite focused on longsword practitioners, where wrestling skills are very important. For those who study other systems, especially later weapons such as the smallsword, this may be much less relevant. Some of the benefits are still useful, of course – more physical fitness and mindful practice as uke are both useful for any art whatsoever – but it may nonetheless be more useful to cross-train with modern fencing instead. Regardless, an introductory Judo course can still be worthwhile for the falling skills alone!
* While there is limited groundwork, primarily in armour, in the ringen treatises, it is much less common than standing wrestling. This is not surprising, when we consider that medieval wrestling was largely practiced in a society where carrying a knife or dagger was standard.