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I have read that according to Japanese thinking, once the fighters reach a certain level of skill, it is impossible to absolutely defeat them, therefore mutual death (ai uchi) is the certain outcome.

Because of this, the samurai were taught to fight without reserve, knowing that they would die, the only consolation being that they would take their opponent with them. If you fought defensively, you will die and your opponent might live, so you may as well go all out and accept death as inevitable.

Do modern saber fencers have this same understanding? I notice that in saber fighting a mutual light is a common outcome, such that a referee must decide who was "attacking" and therefore gets the point. This would seem to be bear out the essential truth that the "loser" can always strike a mortal blow as long as he is willing to give up his life. True or no?

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Myth.

First, the easy bit: the "mutual death" in modern fencing happens because the fencers have no fear of getting hurt much less killed. It is an example of using the rules of the game to one's advantage.

Second, the whole bushido warrior thing... The Bushido was formalised during the Tokugawa period where there was no fighting. The country was at peace, there were no war, no (major) rebellions, and quiet frankly all those samurai were bored. So, they came up with some code to follow to make themselves feel better. A lot like the western code of chivalry. The two share a lot in common. This is where the myth of "always be prepared for death" comes from. A fantasy of warriors that have never seen war.

Thirdly, you are right in thinking that cornered men fight harder! Sun Tsu in the Art Of War, describe it as always leaving the enemy a way out of battle or better surrender. If you know you will die, taking as many of the enemy with you is common thinking. However, if you can surrender and live... Well, now you have a choice to not die: most people will take that.

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Blades can kill. But the problem is that there's numerous historical accounts of people being cut, stabbed all the way through the body, and still fighting. It's not 100% predictable how things will go. You try to hit people in ways and places where it's most likely to incapacitate them, but it's playing the odds just the same.

It is not true that the Japanese thought that mutual death was the highest likely outcome - it was recognized as one possible outcome. Western weapons experts recreating their fighting methods from historical manuals also note the same problem was known in European fighting styles. They will often train competitions with a rule of "afterblow" which is that if someone is hit, if they hit back at the same time or immediately after, the point is void. This of course, is different than modern sports fencing, which has moved further from combative roots, so naturally it's point system is different.

Generally combative styles have a lot to deal with in terms of training. You want to train for the worst case scenario, so you often train with the idea a single blow might take you out, while several hits to the opponent might not be enough. In terms of competition, part of it is that you're hitting someone and not trying to really hurt them but you want to develop the skills necessary to really hurt them. All of this creates a lot of tension between finding "scoring systems" or directions of training that will allow you to make sure everyone is developing real skills, safely, and not optimizing for points in ways that doesn't help fighting.

The first person to take a hit might not be too troubled, they might pass out instantly, or they might fold up in pain, or they might have the muscles/tendons/nerves necessary to fight back, get cut and be unable to use their weapon or stand. Likewise, if they CAN fight back, the return blow they give might also have any range of effects. So, no, the loser can't always take the hit and return reliably for a response.

The mentality of "accepting you are already dead" is one of mental training. If you accept the worst has/will already happen, you have nothing to lose, nothing to defend. And that means you can move through fear and hesitation, which is a big problem in combat. This is a very different issue and not actually related to the fact of how often mutual hits happen or can happen.

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It seems that the mutual death was much more probable result of the combat with small swords or rapier, than with saber... The thrust usually did not have an immediate effect, so often the mortally wounded fencer had enough time and force to stab his opponent in turn, before falling on the ground due to loss of blood. The simultaneous, or almost simultaneous, mortal thrusts with piercing arms also took place quite often.

Let's see: http://www.trovaredispada.com/blog/2015/3/29/dubious-quick-kill-part-one

Mutual death could be often caused by the spontaneous furry of the fatally wounded fencer, who has a natural desire to deliver after-blow. Many fencers, however, when already mortally hit, more counciously aimed at mutual kill or made it a point of honor to achieve such outcome of the combat (and sometimes deliberately took another thrust, to stab their opponent in turn, what was more possible with piercing swords).

The natural strive for after-blow, however, is something different from accepting in advance the mutual-death tactic (analogical to ai-uchi concept). Nevertheless, also Europeans – especially when were fighting with small sword or rapier, and unarmored – sometimes entered to the duel considering the mutual death as the best possible result if were involved in affair with incomparably better fencers. The same could take place in the battle if one noticed the unmatched superiority of the foe.

Such attitude was referred to in the relation about the duel with small swords which took place in the 1st half of the XIX century. See in the book The Art of Duelling by a Traveller (https://books.google.pl/books?id=Yd4wAQAAMAAJ), where the inferior fencer was "determined, as his mind was made up to die, to sell his life as dearly as possible" (p. 30)

P.S. I also asked the question concerning the issue of the mutual kill: After receiving the mortal thrust, a swordsman deliberately impales himself on hostile blade, to return a blow (historical duels, small sword)

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  • I would refer to the 1st answer, given by Sardathrion: Sometimes a fencer accepted in advance that he is going to die, and he could not escape. He had no choice, as it was matter of honor! If you entered in a duel with swords caused by very serious matter (so not just a duel to first blood!) and had a much superior opponent, you were convinced with 99% probability that you are going to lose your life. Therefore, the mutual kill was the best possible outcome. The 19th century relation from the primary source, I quoted, concerned exactly such situation. – Wit Mar 15 '19 at 22:48
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It's an interesting question, and derives from ideas like Musashi's "The warrior is already dead." In the context of an honor/shame society, death is not the issue, but the manner of one's death. Presumably, two peerless Samurai of equal skill would have no choice but to see the duel to its conclusion. But this does suggest an emphasis on death, compared to the Chinese tradition.

Both cultures featured suicide as a form of protest, but Chinese Taoist mythology involves physical immortality.

From the perspective Chinese fencing, and wuxia mythology, two swordsmen of superlative skill would be considered to be evenly matched, such that neither can overcome the other.

(Advanced Chinese fencing is based on the idea of "countering" to gain advantage, as opposed to blocking, but every counter has a counter. This results in a high art form of Chinese fight choreography, originally in Chinese Opera, but now chiefly seen in film. Chinese practice also involves what are typically called "two man sets" which display the range of available techniques.)

In the Chinese classics Romance of The Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Outlaws of the Marsh, there are a staggering number of peerless warriors, and fighting to a draw is a regular feature. (This can often lead to boon friendship per mutual respect, an idea that is as old as Gilgamesh and Enkidu.)

This may also be a reflection of Sun Tzu, where an outcome of mutual annihilation would be avoided unless there is no alternative—the very basis of military strategy, as opposed to rushing in headlong. If avoiding dying oneself by not overextending to strike the enemy is the price for not dying, that is the strategy, except in extreme circumstances. (Wuxia certainly would have examples of sacrificing oneself to kill one's nemesis.)

This idea of mutual annihilation can be found in the Iliad, in that Achilles understands that killing Hector will result in is own death, as prophesied. Thus, it requires an extraordinary circumstance, the death of Patroclus, for him to commit to that outcome. A matter of honor but also a matter of love—vengeance in the context of self-sacrifice.

Homeric Greece was also an honor/shame society, so this comments on the Japanese warrior ideal. Agamemnon annihilates Priam & Troy, but is himself destroyed by what he did to achieve it—his wife murders him for sacrificing their daughter to raise the wind to sail to Troy. Unlike Achilles, the peerless warrior, and Hector, who died for his people, Agamemnon's death is dishonorable.

The Spartan maxim of "Come home with your shield or on it" is a famous historical example of the principle. The Latin form, "morte prima di disonore", survives today in military culture: "Death before dishonor".


Regarding Japanese fencing specifically, the Seven Samurai may actually be instructive here. In the opening, the peerless Samurai fights a duel with wooden swords, and though both contenders display mortal strikes, the peerless Samurai declares that he wins. His opponent demands a rematch with real swords and is cut down.

Since it's been a few hundred years since people killed each other in duels, it's unclear how common was mutual death.

A film that comments directly on ai uchi is The Sword of Doom (aka 大菩薩峠, Dai-bosatsu Tōge, "Great Bodhisattva Pass"). Here, the villain uses an "evil sword style" style the cannot be overcome. The hero is instructed that cannot kill him, and attain vengeance, except with a thrust, with means leaving himself exposed and certain death.

Also consider that mutual death could be a function of both swordsmen being equally unskilled.

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  • Maybe I'm missing something, but where do you address saber fighting as per the question? – Macaco Branco Oct 10 at 20:02
  • @MacacoBranco I noticed that other posters mentioned ai uchi as mythology, and wanted to comment on that, with comparisons to other traditions. Chinese saber, like straight sword, involves every counter having a counter. (In the Chinese heroic literature, "halberds" are the dominant battlefield weapon--polearm with curved blade.) I do have experience in western saber, but can't comment on that b/c there isn't a tradition of mutual death, so far as I can discern. Other answers have commented on "taking a hit" to deliver a strike. Ui Ichi seems to be distinct to the Japanese tradition. – DukeZhou Oct 13 at 19:34
  • @MacacoBranco I think it's also relevant b/c, real in practice or no, ai uchi could definitely be said to represent a samurai ideal, unique to that tradition. (Interestingly, Musashi probably didn't subscribe to this idea in that he was willing to break traditions to achieve victory by any means, which I understand was considered controversial.) But it makes sense though that the ideal might have been influenced by him, especially the idea of the "no self" Zen warrior in that Five Rings predates the Hagakure. (Thanks for your comment btw—always useful to have to defend:) – DukeZhou Oct 14 at 0:06

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