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Kenjutsu is often credited with being the premier martial art of Japan, an art preserving the finest qualities of the samurai, facilitating the deepest strategic and tactical insights, and providing inexhaustible challenge and satisfaction in training. One of the most fascinating aspects of study is the science of body movement (tai-sabaki) in relationship to the sword.
Historically, the sword
was a secondary weapon for the samurai during the Sengoku Jidai, the period
from 1482 to 1573 during which
The sword achieved preeminence during the Tokugawa Bakufu (1603–1868), the military government which codified and regulated virtually every aspect of Japanese life and which decreed that only the samurai could wear two swords as a badge of office (Bottomley & Hopson, 1988). During this extended period of peace, swordsmen were afforded ample opportunity to explore every possible physical and spiritual application of the weapon in personal—as opposed to massed—combat, and by the end of the Tokugawa Period there were at least 700 kenjutsu ryu (styles) in existence (Turnbull, 1990).
Some of these ryu have survived to this day, many others have disappeared, while still others of more modern formulation profess to preserve or reclaim the spirit of the older traditions.
Whether embodied in the teachings of the koryu (old traditions) or newer, “classical styled” systems, one principle which remains consistent for individual participants in the massed, set-piece battles of the Sengoku Jidai, in Tokugawa Period sword duels, or even in modern military or law enforcement confrontations is the idea that movement equals survival: a stationary target in the open is more readily engaged and eliminated. Another principle applicable at multiple scales of combat is the notion that some distinction can be made between the relative merits of force and strategy—while it’s probably best to enjoy an advantage in both, an abundance of one can offset a deficiency in the other, and strategy employed against force is often a matter of maneuver.
Movement can be a critical consideration at the tactical level, as well, in the execution of particular techniques. For example, different kenjutsu ryu have differing opinions on the desirability of blocking opposing sword cuts, although Japanese swords are strong enough by design to withstand being used in such a manner. (In fact, a number of the antique blades in use at our dojo show the marks of past engagements.) Some ryu advocate “not being there” when the opponent cuts and utilize movement as the means to achieve that goal, with blocking being viewed as a last resort in the face of inadequate or ill-timed sabaki. Other ryu lure and exploit the energy derived from contact. In the Itto-ryu:
Uke-nagashi is a flowing block that parries the force of an opponent’s attack and uses it to generate momentum for a counterstrike. To perform it, a swordsman responds to a straight vertical attack to his forehead by rolling his hands upward to his left, raising his blade with the cutting edge up and the tip angled slightly downward to his right so that it protects his forehead. In the instant in which the attacking sword collides with his, he steps forward and slightly to the left with his right foot, allowing the power of his opponent’s strike to push the tip of his blade downward as he slips out from under it. In this way, the attack slides harmlessly off his sword, much like water off a roof, while at the same time imparting momentum to the defending weapon, which the swordsman uses to spin his blade around and deliver a counterblow of his own. (Friday, 1997)
Uke-nagashi (to block and let flow away) can also be employed in a mechanically similar but tactically different manner — not primarily as a block, but rather an alternative means to achieve jodan-gamae (the upper level posture from which to cut) from a disadvantageous position. The swordsman rotates his sword in his hands as he steps off line, such that if contact inadvertently occurs it will be to the shinogi-ji (upper side surface) of his blade rather than to the edge, but moves with sufficient alacrity as to preclude contact and achieve jodan-gamae while the opponent is just completing his cut.
By eschewing reliance on the momentum obtained from contact of the blades to achieve jodan-game, the swordsman eliminates an extra “count” from his counter, and aims to regain the advantage before his opponent can recover.
The number of “counts” inherent in different styles of movement provided a major impetus to the evolution of sabaki in kenjutsu. Human locomotion, it seems, is often a matter of “ready, set, go.” Stand and try this yourself: as you start to take a step, you will feel yourself lean forward, then stick a foot out to catch yourself, and finally drag the rear foot along. This works for the average civilian, when there is no other concern than getting somewhere, but is completely inadequate for the warrior who has to get there now (usually while applying a technique en route).
Most forms of sabaki in kenjutsu are designed to facilitate entering to an advantageous position on the count of “one!” How they achieve this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of different kenjutsu ryu.
Fundamental Posture: Sankakudai and Chudan-gamae
Most martial arts have a signature posture, a way of standing that embodies characteristic principles of the art. Japanese karate has its zenkutsu-dachi and modern kendo makes extensive use of moroashi-dachi (from the Itto-ryu), while the hachiji-dachi of kyudo (archery) is perhaps the epitome of elegance and composure. Tachi is often translated as “stance”, but properly refers only to the placement of the body from the waist down. Kamae is a more complete term, encompassing tachi, the positioning of the rest of the body, alignment of the weapon, and spiritual attitude as well.
The primary stance employed in our practice is sankakudai. Although we may in English casually refer to sankakudai as the “triangular stance”, the Japanese term actually means “triangular foundation,” and the distinction is significant. Tachi comes from the verb ta(tsu), to stand, and implies a fixed position. The character for -dai, on the other hand, has the meaning of “platform,” giving the sense that sankakudai is a platform from which we do something (in much the same way a modern aircraft or warship might be referred to as a weapons platform). Sankakudai is a position we move to, from, or through, rather than stand in. We also utilize a variety of other stances, but regard them as variations on sankakudai so as to reinforce the ideal of motion.
Forming sankakudai requires placement of the feet along two sides of an imaginary triangle. Note that it is the inside edges of the feet which are aligned with the imaginary reference, rather than the centerlines. By aligning on the inside edges, neither foot blocks the other, and fluidity and a speedy advance are facilitated.
Body weight is distributed evenly across the feet, both in terms of how much weight is placed on each foot (50%), and with regard to how the weight is distributed over the bottom of each foot (equally, side-to-side and fore-and-aft).
One of the most difficult aspects of sankakudai for the beginner to master is the concept of “active feet”. While by no means unique to sankakudai, active feet are introduced once a student has achieved a reasonable sense of balance in the triangular foundation. Active feet are sometimes described as a matter of gripping the mat with the toes, but actually the process is more complex. Think of a person with hands large enough to palm a basketball with a grip that is applied from fingertips to heel of hand, and you’ll have a good analogy for the toes-to-heel grip used in active feet.
Another exceptionally challenging drill for beginners is the pivot in sankakudai, the purpose of which is to allow the student to reverse directions without taking a step.
A student pivoting in sankakudai, regardless of whether he pivots on the balls or heels of his feet, will always end up with one leg crossed in front of the other and off-balance. Instead, the proper method is to start the pivot on the ball of the rear foot and the heel of the lead foot. Then, at the half-way point of the turn, shift the pivot points from heel to toe and toe to heel. The result is a correct sankakudai, facing the opposite direction. Rather than considering this pivot to be a combat technique, we tend to view the drill as an exercise for developing greater dexterity.
Building on the tachi of sankakudai, the next aspect of a proper foundation is chudan-gamae, the middle-level posture. Chudan-gamae is a neutral position, both physically and spiritually. The hips and shoulders are placed on a 45-degree angle, relative to the direction the swordsman is facing (moving the left shoulder forward to more squarely face an opponent reflects an aggressive spirit; dropping the left shoulder back reflects a defensive attitude).
The hips and shoulders must remain aligned on all three axes—a state of kuzushi (imbalance) exists when the lines of the hips and shoulders diverge, and imbalance will destroy posture. Picture lines drawn through the points of the shoulders and the points of the hips and recognize that the lines must remain simultaneously parallel in vertical, horizontal, and transverse axes.
by Robert Wolfe
Koshi-mawari (hip rotation) is the driving force behind many forms of sabaki. By basing locomotion on hip rotation, the swordsman sacrifices some measure of forward pressure to achieve a greater degree of flow and the ability to change direction — and thereby engage multiple opponents — at will.
Application: Basic Sideways Movement — Cutting the wrist
Shidachi and uchidachi commence the kata in chudan-gamae, kissaki-ma. Shidachi, as uchidachi advances and raises his sword, swings his right side back as if he were starting ayumi-ashi to the rear. However, although his shoulder motion is the same, his right foot stops at the half-way point.
Then, as uchidachi takes his second step, shidachi, with a powerful snap of his hips, swings his left foot around — the result should be another sankakudai, but offset to the right and at an angle to the center line. As shidachi rotates from beneath the descending sword, he cuts downward to uchidachi’s left wrist.Immediately after the kote-giri, shidachi snaps his sword up to threaten uchidachi’s throat. Uchidachi leans back (to avoid the point) and leaves his sword in gedan.
Shidachi, firmly, drives uchidachi back two large steps. Retaining intense spirit, shidachi and uchidachi assume any other kamae and pause for a moment, then shift to gedan-gamae and return to their starting positions.
This technique is not an evasion. From uchidachi’s viewpoint, shidachi is just retreating but, at the very last moment, pivots out from under the attacking sword.
The pivot must not occur until after uchidachi’s cut starts down and, if the action is executed properly, uchidachi’s sword will clip shidachi’s left sleeve.
by Robert Wolfe
Fundamental Forms and Applications of Movement — Tsugi-ashi
The simplest form of movement is tsugi-ashi, the “sliding step”. Tsugi-ashi can be used to cover a surprising distance, without changing the lead foot, and can be used to move either forwards or backwards.
There are two forms of moving forward with tsugi-ashi, the first using hip rotation. From a right-foot-forward sankakudai, the swordsman digs the outside edge of his left foot into the mat, such that his ankle and knee are essentially locked. He then punches forward with his right hip, which has the effect of adding a rotation (to the left) to his advance. This form of tsugi-ashi is not often seen in techniques.
More commonly the form without hip rotation is used, often from moroashi-dachi. The swordsman lowers his hips an inch or two (to break his stationary posture) and pushes strongly with his rear leg. As his hips drop, the swordsman’s lead foot slides forward, then his rear foot is pulled along as well. To go backwards, the hips are lowered as before, but the footwork is reversed.
In all forms of tsugi-ashi, it is important to note that it is the rear leg, relative to the direction of motion, that is the prime mover.
Beginning students learn tsugi-ashi through a number of basic drills, including Happo-sabaki, which is a set of simple counters to an overhead cut, each with an entry to one of eight directions. Several of the eight drills utilize tsugi-ashi.
In a kumitachi (a paired sword form) to practice entering to the right-front corner, shidachi (the responding swordsman), “opens the gate” to lure the attack by stepping back to a left-foot lead, lower-level guard. Uchidachi (the striking swordsman) attacks with a two-step, overhead cut.
Shidachi lowers his hips and drives forward with tsugi-ashi to a left-foot zenkutsu-dachi (forward stance) and cutting with a reverse, oblique cut.
To practice moving to the rear with tsugi-ashi, shidachi “opens the gate” by lowering his bokken (wooden sword) to a right-foot lead, lower-level guard. Uchidachi attacks with the attack described above.
Shidachi evades with a backwards tsugi-ashi, raises his bokken and counters with a cut to uchidachi’s forehead.
by Robert Wolfe
Fundamental Forms and Applications of Movement — Ayumi-ashi #1: Forward
Uchidachi’s two-step, overhead attack employs the form of movement known as ayumi-ashi (normal steps), which is actually anything but normal for a Westerner. Ayumi-ashi is a poised and gliding manner of walking. Rather than utilizing the legs as the primary source of motion, ayumi-ashi is heavily dependent on koshi-mawari (hip rotation) and treats the legs as secondary instruments of movement.
From a right-foot-lead sankakudai, the swordsman initiates a powerful rotation of his hips to the right, from their 45-degree resting angle to the opposite 45-degree line. The rotation of the hips will drive the left foot forward. As the hips are snapped back to the original 45-degree line, the right foot is sucked straight, forward, to resume sankakudai.
Both feet should stay just barely in contact with the ground throughout the two steps, as though rolling a grain of sand. Add a sword and you have the basic cutting exercise, nissoku-suburi.
With equal emphasis on the two hip rotations, the swordsman’s attack will track straight forward, while changing the point of emphasis yields some rather interesting variations which in themselves are excellent training drills.
A preparatory drill is used to set the stage. Shidachi steps back to jodan-gamae, to “open the gate” and lure the attack. Uchidachi attempts to attack with a two-step, overhead cut, but shidachi steps forward to cut uchidachi’s wrist, as uchidachi reaches jodan-gamae.
In the first application of extra hip rotation, the drill opens as described above, but when shidachi steps forward to cut uchidachi’s wrist, uchidachi pops his hips very powerfully on his second step, throwing himself off the center line (to evade shidachi’s descending cut) and counters by cutting shidachi at his forehead.
The second application places greatest emphasis on the initial hip rotation. As shidachi steps forward to cut uchidachi’s wrist, uchidachi turns very strongly to his right with extra hip rotation, completing a full pivot and cutting shidachi at his abdomen.
by Robert Wolfe
Fundamental Forms and Applications of Movement — Ayumi-ashi #2: Backwards
Backward motion in ayumi-ashi is completely different than forward motion, and should really be thought of as a separate technique. Stepping back is initiated with a turn of the hips to the right, but movement of the feet is accomplished, for the most part, in two, slightly “C”-shaped steps, powered entirely by the hips. After being snapped rearward on the initial step, the right foot pivots on the ball to point forward as the left foot is driven to sankakudai position by the second turn of the hip. At this point, the feet are too widely spaced for a proper sankakudai, so the right foot is allowed to slide back, closing the distance between the left and right feet and forming sankakudai. It’s critical to note that while forward motion entails two steps, backward motion demands three distinct steps.
Beginning students apply ayumi-ashi to the rear in a fundamental kumitachi called Ki-musubi (Spirits tied). Uchidachi attacks with a two-step, overhead cut, which shidachi forestalls by stepping backwards with ayumi-ashi, floating his bokken to catch uchidachi’s timing.
As uchidachi steps forward again for a second attack, shidachi steps forward with his left foot and cuts uchidachi’s wrist.
by Robert Wolfe
The forward and backward components of ayumi-ashi are combined in a drill of overwhelming importance called kiri-gaeshi (returning the cut). In the most basic form of the drill, two swordsmen commence in chudan-gamae, with the tips of their bokken touching (kissaki-ma). As one attacks with a two-step, overhead cut, the other retreats, attempting to mirror exactly his partner’s attack.
Then the lead reverses, and the swordsman who made the initial attack attempts to match his partner. Throughout the exercise, both swordsmen must start at the same time, stop at the same instant, and finish each cut with kissaki touching.
One of the purposes of kiri-gaeshi is to teach exact control of the distance between swordsmen. The greater the degree and power of the hip rotation, the greater the speed and depth of the resulting step. By paying greater attention to uchidachi’s hips than to his bokken, shidachi should be able to maintain the prescribed distance.
This isn’t easy to do, even at a soft and slow level of practice, and becomes exceptionally challenging at more advanced stages of training when kiri-gaeshi becomes something of a contest. Since uchidachi sets the pace and shidachi must match him, the advanced form of the drill permits uchidachi to do anything he wants to try to befuddle his partner. While limited still to the two-step, overhead attack, uchidachi can vary the speed and depth of his steps: he can take a small first step and a large, fast second step, he can do the opposite, or he can pause at any point. Regardless, shidachi must mirror the technique.
In this style of practice, it quickly becomes apparent that uchidachi can cover more ground with a dynamic advance, and do it faster, than shidachi can retreat with conventional, ayumi-ashi footwork.
To maintain the proper distance, shidachi can counter uchidachi’s attack with a specialized form of sabaki utilizing a skipping step to the rear. (There is no Japanese name for this technique—at least none that I’ve been able to find to date.)
As uchidachi commences his attack, shidachi takes a right-foot step to the rear as normal. As this is happening, it becomes apparent to shidachi that uchidachi is attacking vigorously and shidachi is likely to be overrun, so shidachi raises his left knee as high as he can and swings the knee to the rear, while keeping his left foot relatively close to his right knee. The result will be shidachi sliding several extra feet to the rear, maintaining the maai.
We practice this form of movement by standing in left-foot-forward sankakudai, with the left arm extended horizontally to the side. Kicking high enough with the left knee to brush the sleeve of our jacket, we slide to the rear. Pivoting (according to the method described earlier) we extend the right arm and repeat the exercise to the opposite side.
It can be very illuminating to test this method of moving by placing the left toes on a mark and noting how much distance can be covered with a conventional retreating step, compared to the distance covered with a skip-step.
Applications: Basic Forward and Backward Movement
Sample Kumitachi #1
From chudan-gamae, shidachi lowers his sword to gedan-gamae to lure the attack.
As uchidachi steps forward to initiate a two-step, overhead cut, shidachi advances with a very quick tsugi-ashi, such that his feet land at the same time.
Shidachi lowers his hips as he enters, and he rotates the edge of his sword to the left (with fingers alone), so that the point of the weapon is brought to uchidachi’s throat. The idea is that, by keeping his sword on the centerline and rotating the weapon with his fingers, shidachi will be able to brace the butt of the handle against the palm of his left hand. The point of the sword will enter through uchidachi’s throat and cut the brain stem as his momentum carries him forward (shutting him down immediately).
Sample Kumitachi #2
From chûdan-gamae, shidachi lowers his sword to gedan-gamae (making certain that his hands are to the left of the center line and that his sword crosses the embusen, the central line of the engagement, at a substantial angle.
As uchidachi attacks with a two-step, overhead cut, shidachi slides to the rear with a tsugi-ashi and sweeps upward with his sword, deflecting uchidachi’s cut.
Shidachi immediately follows with a cut to uchidachi’s head. This pattern of footwork is known as nami-gaeshi, “returning wave”.
The secret to rebounding quickly into the cut is to be certain not to allow the weight to settle onto the left heel. If shidachi’s left heel is kept floating throughout, his body will not be anchored in place.
Applications: Advanced Forward and Backward Movement
Sample Kumitachi #3
Uchidachi and shidachi start in chudan-gamae at kissaki-ma. Shidachi, to lure the attack, allows the tip of his sword to fall off slightly to the right.
Uchidachi attacks with a two-step, overhead cut. As uchidachi takes his first step and raises his sword, shidachi steps back with his right foot and raises the tip of his sword an inch or so to catch the rhythm of the attack.
As uchidachi takes his second step and cuts, shidachi snaps his hips to the left as he raises his left knee and swings it strongly to the rear.
He slides several feet to the rear, where he lands with the tip of his sword pointing toward uchidachi’s left eye.
Uchidachi prepares to attack again by stepping forward with his left foot and raising his sword.
With a snap of his hips, shidachi shifts forward with his left foot, rotating the edge of his sword to the right, and briskly thrusts toward uchidachi’s throat to stop the attack.
by Robert Wolfe
Fundamental Forms and Applications of Movement — Gyaku-tai
The most complex of the fundamental forms of movement is gyaku-tai (reverse body), a method for reversing direction without first having to stop the initial motion. If a swordsman engages more than one opponent, he will almost certainly have to change directions or reverse the direction of a turn at some point. If he tries to do this with a “one-two” rhythm, he will likely be too late and be struck.
By lowering his hips slightly during the reversal, the swordsman converts a one-two movement to a single, blended motion (essentially a horizontal “U” track), redirecting energy rather than stopping it and having to initiate a second, separate rotation.
The principle involved here can be readily illustrated with a simple drill: hold your right hand in front of yourself, in line with the right edge of your body, and move it as quickly as you can to the left edge of your body and back to the right, in a straight line. You’ll note that there is a very short, but distinct, moment at which your hand stops before returning to the right.
Instead, at the transition from left to right, lower your hand an inch or so. The stop-point is eliminated and the return to the right is noticeably quicker.
Translating this principle to standing movement, however, is one of the most difficult processes a student of kenjutsu will undertake.
To demonstrate one of the most critical elements of gyaku-tai, we use a two-person drill. A student stands in sankakudai, while a partner takes an anchored stance and grasps the student with a bear-hug. The student attempts to move forward. If he does this by stepping, he will not be able to advance.
Rather, the student must first rotate his hips. Key point: in order to achieve strong hip rotation, the feet must remain in contact with the mat as long as possible.
This principle is critical to gyaku-tai because the requisite power and speed of the hip reversal are greatly enhanced by the swordsman keeping his feet in contact with the ground through as much of the turns as he can manage.
Solo drills are used to practice maintaining contact with the mat, proper hip rotation, and lowering the hips to reverse the turn.
In the first drill, the student stands in left foot forward sankakudai, with his bokken held at his hips and extending to the right side. The student should keep his eyes on the point of the bokken, to ensure a dip is evident at the point of gyaku-tai. Rotating his hips to the left, the student advances slightly and turns to the rear, then lowers his hips, and reverses direction. If the reversal is performed properly the student’s knee will lead his foot.
The swordsman should endeavor to snap his hips sharply enough to cause his uniform to pop, similar to the manner in which a karate student’s sleeve cracks during a punch.
The second drill is continuous, and is designed to facilitate practice of gyaku-tai from both right foot or left foot leads. The student places his bokken on his shoulders (to allow faster rotation), and executes gyaku-tai as described above. He then uses the sankakudai pivot-in-place to turn around, and repeats gyaku-tai from the opposite foot lead.
Finally, we use a series of drills to practice gyaku-tai in application. In the simplest kata, the student stands in right foot forward sankakudai, chudan-gamae.
Rotating his left hip forward, the student pivots to face the rear and allows his bokken to fold to his left shoulder and strikes with a diagonal cut.
The student lowers his hips and turns back to the front, then steps forward with his right foot and strikes with a reverse-diagonal cut.
The drills in this series become increasingly complex, playing with degrees of rotation and types of cuts, but the variations are mostly intended to keep a (Western) student entertained long enough to accumulate thousands of repetitions of gyaku-tai.
Application: Complex Movement in Reversing a Turn
In this kata, shidachi must engage two opponents, defeating the first opponent with a technique that places him in position to deal with the second.
Uchidachi A is to shidachi’s left, and he is the closest of the two. Uchidachi B is to shidachi’s right, and he is about six feet beyond uchidachi A.
Shidachi steps back with his right foot to lure the attack.
As uchidachi A attacks with a two-step, overhead cut, uchidachi B starts to advance.
Waiting until uchidachi A is committed to his attack, shidachi snaps his hips counterclockwise to enter with his right foot and allows his left foot to follow behind (to sankakudai), and cuts uchidachi A with a diagonal cut.
Meanwhile, as soon as he is in range, uchidachi B attempts to attack with a two-step, overhead cut.
Shidachi lowers his hips and executes gyaku-tai, cutting uchidachi B with a reverse-diagonal cut as shidachi steps forward with his right foot.
Of all the techniques that can be performed with a Japanese sword, relatively few depend exclusively on the physical manipulation of the sword with the arms. The number of practical ways to strike or cut an opponent with a sword can be condensed to a handful, each of which—in the absence of maneuver—can be more-or-less readily dealt with. It is the combination of a vast repertoire of methods of moving the body (to cover or control distance) with the fundamental cuts and strikes that yields myriad techniques and strategies.
In his letter to the master swordsman Yagyu Munenori, the Zen monk Takuan Soho advocates movement of the mind:
If ten men, each with a sword, come
at you with swords slashing, if you parry each sword without stopping the mind
at each action, and go from one to the next, you will not be lacking in proper
action for every one of the ten. (
Students of the sword must continually remind themselves that the spirit (mind) leads the body, leads the sword, and that with regard to all three aspects of kenjutsu, movement equals life.
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