Kendo

Master the 4 Inner Principles of Japanese Samurai Swordsmanship

When it comes to the Japanese way of the sword, it’s fair to say there’s more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, external movements play a major role in drawing a blade and effecting a cut, but the internal skeletal and muscular mechanisms are every bit as important.

Often called the “inner principles” of movement, they have four main components.

1     Breathe

The primary element of action is breathing. The flow of air into and out of your body is directly connected to how smoothly you flow from movement to movement and how polished you look.

Your inhalations and exhalations should be calm, smooth and full. It’s essential to observe the transition from moving air in to moving air out. If you lack proper muscle control, it will be noticeable to an opponent who’s looking for an opening to attack or to a judge who’s grading you as you cut. Beginners tend to gasp for or gulp in air because of nervousness or overextended action.

It takes time and effort to cultivate the ability to stay well oxygenated. Try repetition drills that raise your aerobic levels and stationary meditation that calms and centers you.

2     Footwork Places Stance

Don’t stand flatfooted with your feet relaxed. The bones of your feet can move a considerable distance within the skin that encases them. Their musculature must exert firmness to take up that slack. Use your muscles to anchor yourself to the surface you’re standing on. Grip it with your toes and brace yourself as if you’re resisting a strong wind.

You should allow your heels to settle onto the surface so they provide a direct connection from the bones in your legs and hips to the ground. Then, when you drive from your heels, you can move with minimal delay.

Imagine a wild animal, coiled and ready to spring into action. It’s poised, with its breath flowing in and out, muscles ready to strike. Use your breathing to relax and energize your muscles and to keep them fresh. Release the tension in your body to avoid stiffness and cramps.

3     Stance Supports Posture

Your posture should provide balance for your intended direction. Feed it too much, and you telegraph your intentions. Give it too much angle, and you lose your balance point. Give it too little, and you stress your structure and fatigue your muscles more quickly.

Samurai Swordsmanship: The Batto, Kenjutsu and Tameshigiri of Eishin-Ryu is written by Masayuki Shimabukuro and Carl E. Long. Order your copy today!

Don’t let contracting muscles shrink you. Strive for height in your posture. Use the length of your arms and legs to enhance your stature. Your hips and core are the connection and energy-transfer point for generating power and moving it through your swing.

Carry firmness in your hips, the small of your back, your buttocks and your tailbone area, but it doesn’t stop there. That firmness must wrap all the way around and up through your pelvic girdle, where it contains your energy. With practice, you can create energy and hold it in place before spreading it throughout your body.

4     Posture Supports Swing

Strive to ground your structure from the waist down and elongate it from your torso to the base of your skull. This may sound contradictory, but the balance of power and unified articulation of these areas depends on your inner awareness. That connection and the energy of your grounded structure are transferred to your shoulders during the downward swing. Your shoulders and the rest of your being must “cut down” through the target.

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You should strive for technical clarity in sword action. Effective cutting technique doesn’t require a big demonstration. Time and practice will refine the inner principles until they’re invisible. In ancient times, they had to be, for when two samurai dueled, a stiff or cumbersome action was all that was needed to telegraph a man’s intention and allow his foe to end his life.

Russell McCartney is a seventh-degree black belt and the founder of ishi yama ryu battojutsu.

(Photos by Rick Hustead)

Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Swords: What You Need to Know to Get Started

This article provides a brief overview of the categories of Japanese swords and the ways they’re used in arts like kendo, kenjutsu, iaido and so on. That knowledge is important because before you can wield a weapon — whether it’s made of foam, hardwood, bamboo or steel — you need to understand what it was designed for.

Wooden Sword

The bokken, or bokutou, is the ultimate learning tool in the sword arts. Its lack of sharp edges and a point allows you to practice techniques and execute moves.

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate student or advanced practitioner, a bokken can teach you a great deal, including one- and two-handed gripping and cutting patterns. Many bokken have a tsuba, or hand guard, which makes partner practice even safer.

Bamboo Sword

The shinai is a piece of bamboo about 40 to 45 inches long that’s been split into four strips. Held together by leather, the strips form a weapon that’s less rigid than wood because it has a built-in shock absorber.

Being lighter and less likely to injure, a shinai can be manipulated at full speed during sparring sessions. It’s used to teach students how to efficiently incorporate energy into their movements.

All those qualities make the shinai the weapon of choice in kendo. Competitors focus on developing their timing, rhythm, speed and breath control, which are essential to success in the sport and help build a solid foundation for other forms of sword practice. Endorsed by Japan’s Department of Education, the shinai makes frequent appearances in the nation’s middle and high schools.


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Steel Sword

Shinken and iaito are the Japanese terms for steel and metal-alloy swords. They’re functional and practical, often chosen to develop finesse in techniques that aren’t practiced with the bokken or shinai.

Unlike the previously mentioned weapons, the shinken and iaito require a sheath, which enables the student to rehearse ceremonial sword movements. That also permits students to engage in iaido, the art of drawing the sword, executing a pattern of cuts and returning the blade to its sheath.

Because it isn’t sharp, the iaito is used solely for drawing practice, cutting through the air and resheathing. The shinken is sharp, which means it’s reserved for more advanced students.

Special Sword

The next variation is called, for lack of a better name, a “special sword.” It carries as much value to its owner as a prized firearm does to a gun collector. Such cherished possessions are often displayed in cases and may never be used in practice.

They’re periodically taken out, polished and admired, but that and the occasional “show and tell” are the extent of it. In other words, they’re seldom used.

Padded Sword

The most recent development in the evolution of bladed weaponry is the padded sword. They’re perfect for beginners because they’re quite forgiving when contact is made. That characteristic makes them perfect for sword sparring because students are free to make contact without having to endure pain or injury.

Some traditionalists have reacted negatively to the popularity of padded-sword practice, but historians have noted that the same reaction greeted the shinai two centuries ago when it was introduced into the martial arts.

About the author:
Dana Abbott is a kenjutsu practitioner and Black Belt’s 2004 Weapons Instructor of the Year. For more information, visit the Samurai Sports website.

Resources
Black Belt Hall of Fame member Masayuki Shimabukuro, along with senior disciple Carl E. Long, are responsible for three modern-day classics in the Japanese sword arts: Samurai Swordsmanship (3-DVD set), Advanced Samurai Swordsmanship (3-DVD set) and Samurai Swordsmanship: The Batto, Kenjutsu and Tameshigiri of Eishin-Ryu (book).

Katana Tricks and Stupid Japanese Sword Injuries

Do not allow anyone to swing a sharp sword at you.

You’d think that would be common sense—like “Don’t walk in front of a speeding bus.” Apparently, though, while people walking directly and deliberately in front of oncoming traffic is blessedly rare, it’s fairly easy to see videos of people in a dojo or a demo standing or sitting while some “master” swings a sharp sword at them. Sometimes, they’re prostrate, with a watermelon or some other fruit on their exposed belly, allowing Master Bozo to hack it to pieces. Other times, they’re in various poses, looking like department-store mannequins, holding fresh produce in different ways while the master wanders around, whacking away as if he’s creating a salad.

This is almost insanely stupid.

Let’s get some initial observations out of the way. First, cutting fruits and veggies laid on bare skin or held in the hand without cutting into the flesh below is easy to do, even with a dull blade. Japanese swords cut not from the touch but from the horizontal sawing action. Teachers in classical swords schools in Japan sometimes explain the mechanics of good cutting by tapping a blade against their palm. As long as they just hit straight on, the blade, although razor sharp, doesn’t cut. Further, just as it’s possible to slice into the rind of a melon and split it using a butter knife, a dull sword can work the same way. So these masters aren’t proving anything about their supposedly incredible control.


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Second, no classical school of Japanese swordsmanship has any training that’s even remotely like this. Chopping stuff balanced on a student’s body has never been an aspect of traditional martial arts. No matter what ridiculous tale has been told to you by the master in question, aside from solo iai training designed to teach students how to get the sword out of the scabbard and cut with it, live blades almost never appear in a classical dojo.

Certainly they’re never used to slice and dice. For one thing, it’s too dangerous. Even among experts, accidents happen. Exponents of these old schools regularly get bruises and dings from dull wooden bokken. What would happen with just a tiny slip or error in distancing when using a live blade? Contrary to a lot of romantic goofiness, the traditional martial arts weren’t about courting death; they were about building a strong, cohesive unit that could protect the group. You don’t do that by killing or maiming your own guys in training.

For another, swords are too expensive to be put to such abuse regularly.

What exactly is the point of such demonstrations then? Are they intended to impress an audience? To show how great the master is? If so, somebody’s got an ego problem.

If they’re to bring in students who are supposed to want to learn from this guy, it’s not particularly effective. Were I to witness one of these displays, I’d be tempted to ask the master if he’d switch places with his student. Isn’t the proof of a good teacher in his student? Shouldn’t he be willing to risk his safety to demonstrate the quality of his students? After all, he’s asking those students to do that for him.

There’s always been a romance, a mystique, about the Japanese sword. Tales of its incredible sharpness and power are legendary. A lot of tripe has been written about how it was the “soul of the samurai.” (In reality, it was a tool. Tools in Japan, whether a warrior’s sword or a carpenter’s saw, have always been thought to have an indwelling spirit, and they’re typically treated with a respect we don’t have for tools in the West.) So a lot of martial artists take up the sword in their dojo, even if the dojo is devoted to karate or some other art that doesn’t involve such weapons. That’s a sure sign of trouble.

Japanese budo teachers are not immune to this. I’ve seen Japanese karate teachers suddenly appear at tournaments, outfitted in hakama and wearing a sword, doing some sort of kata they’ve created, clearly imagining they’re embodying the spirit of their ancient samurai ancestors.

It’s all laughable. Until there’s an accident. And the master is standing there, watching the paramedics wade through a pool of blood to work on the student. At best, these displays pervert the real nature of the martial arts. At worst, they can cost someone his life.

There’s no reason, rationale or legitimate explanation for putting yourself in the path of a sword during a demonstration. Trust your teacher, yes, but do not throw away your common sense. Do not, if such a demo is being planned …

Ikken Hissatsu: the Kendo-Karate Connection

If you practice any form of Japanese karate, you need to understand that one of the most significant influences on your martial arts training has been kendo. Virtually all senior Japanese karate instructors in the West have been influenced by it since the 1960s. Sometimes the influences are conscious, other times they’re not. Over the years, I’ve rarely met a Western karateka who’s practiced kendo or even knows much about it. This lack of technical skill is not important. What is important is that you understand how much kendo flavor there is apt to be in your karate.

Ikken hissatsu, or “killing with a single blow,” is a fundamental concept in many karate dojo. Even if it’s recognized as an ideal rather than a practical end, students strive to make the perfect punch, the one that will end the conflict. Many of them may consider this a distinguishing feature of karate, but it’s not. It’s appeared in the lore of karate only recently—not because of anything Okinawan but because of kendo.

Ikken hissatsu is a very real possibility when you have a sword in your hands. For the samurai, a single kendo technique could finish things. The shape of the sword caused it not just to cut but also to split flesh open, creating gaping wounds. It didn’t take much of a strike to kill an opponent. Swordsmen went into fights fully aware of this, and it bred a certain mentality.

When the Okinawans introduced karate to Japan, a number of cultural factors were in play. A samurai with a sword regarded a karateka the way a Green Beret with an M4 rifle might regard an opponent with a stick. Japanese society was an armed one. The people looked on unarmed combat as a practice for country bumpkins. To overcome that perception, early karate leaders tried to connect their art to arts that were familiar to the Japanese. Additionally, kendo was extremely popular in the early 20th century. Most schoolboys trained in it, and the police practiced it avidly. The Japanese were accustomed to “thinking” in kendo. So it’s natural that young men taking up the new karate would bring that mentality to the dojo. Of course, in the case of “killing with a single blow,” it helped karate’s image to be pictured as so lethal that a single punch could cause death.

While the motivations and perceptions of senior karate teachers and enthusiastic students are understandable, karate isn’t kendo. The culture in which it developed is different from the culture that spawned kendo in several critical ways. There’s little evidence that a fight was meant to be settled with a single blow when karate was practiced in Okinawa. If you’re training to accomplish such a feat and enter into contests with that in mind, it’s going to have an effect on your karate.

It’s difficult, probably futile, to point to a “typical Okinawan karate.” Methods and techniques were varied, of course. We can surmise, looking at many of the forms that still exist there, however, that the aim of much of Okinawan karate has always been to close in and combine grappling with striking techniques that render the opponent helpless, then further incapacitate him with strikes. There are stories of single-blow knockouts in the lore of Okinawan karate, but very little in the training at most Okinawan dojo reflects this as a primary goal.

In Okinawa, the combat influences of other striking arts on karate have been overwhelmingly southern Chinese kung fu, where a series of rapid strikes is typically employed. Practitioners unleash blow after blow in a strategy aimed at getting at least one through any person’s defenses. The concept of killing with a single hit wasn’t introduced until long after karate had matured.

So what? Arts change. Karate’s exposure to Western boxing led to changes, and scientific weight training has been introduced in many dojo. While it’s true that the kendo-influenced notion of killing with a single strike is just one of many influences exerted on karate, in each of these cases, it has meant change. In particular, ikken hissatsu brought a whole new dimension to karate competition in 1930s Japan. Where karateka once exchanged karate techniques, giving and receiving in a flowing rhythm, this rhythm was broken with contests. Opponents tended to space themselves farther apart, move around each other, look for an opening and then try to make a decisive strike that would win the bout. In other words, they began to look and think like kendoka.

Modern karateka need to consider this influence. Is it a good one? A bad one? Somewhere in between? Maybe the way you answer those questions isn’t as important as whether you understand how the change occurred in the first place and what it means to your training today.…

Samurai Myths and Legends: Are Katanas Illegal?

In part three of our Samurai Facts vs. Samurai Myths and Legends series, Samurai Swordsmanship authors Masayuki Shimabukuro and Carl E. Long answer the age-old question: Who would win during a samurai staring contest?

Samurai Myth No. 1: On the battlefield, two samurai would often face each other for hours before the first attack was executed.
Samurai Fact: Hours? Perhaps a few minutes felt like hours when lives were hanging in the balance. However, it’s doubtful that warriors spent hours posturing and assessing each other’s abilities—at least not in a dueling situation. Armies may have spent hours facing each other in preparation, but duels were generally fought quickly.


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Samurai Myth No. 2: Samurai would occasionally test the quality of their blades by cutting down peasants who happened to be walking by.
Samurai Fact: Throughout history, civilized societies have been plagued with individuals who engaged in aberrant behavior. It certainly has happened, but it wasn’t done by the majority of samurai. The samurai’s position was to protect the people and see to their welfare.

Samurai Myth No. 3: A cut executed with poor technique will bend a sword’s blade.
Samurai Fact: Absolutely. If the hasuji is off by even a slight angle, a sword can bend. If the left hand is improperly aligned during a nukitsuke (drawing cut), it can cause the blade to twist, as well. All techniques must be learned under the guidance of a qualified instructor who corrects the swordsman’s technique.

Samurai Myth No. 4: It’s impossible to break a sword’s blade during normal cutting practice.
Samurai Fact: Every sword is different. A well-made carbon-steel blade is certainly less likely to break because of poor technique or target resistance than a stainless-steel sword is. But every sword has the potential to bend or break if the technique isn’t exact.

Samurai Myth No. 5: Owning a katana is illegal for the ordinary Japanese citizen.
Samurai Fact: Ordinary citizens in Japan have the right to own Japanese-made blades that are registered with the Nihon Token Kai (Japanese Sword Association). These swords must exhibit historical or cultural significance. A certificate of authenticity and ownership permit are necessary. In Japan, sword smiths are allowed to produce only two swords a month as cultural artifacts. Each sword smith’s work is evaluated and rated by the token kai, and the prices are then adjusted. Unlicensed swords or those made by unlicensed smiths are confiscated, and the owner may be charged with possession of an illegal weapon.

Samurai Myth No. 6: Jujutsu techniques were designed to battle the samurai’s sword.
Samurai Fact: Actually, jujutsu techniques were employed as a complement a samurai’s arsenal. As any soldier knows, combat takes place at many ranges—first at long range, then at close quarters when all else has failed. It’s at this close range that jujutsu techniques were used to arrest or control one’s opponent or to defend against an opponent if a long sword couldn’t be used. Most jujutsu techniques can be better understood if examined as a complement to short-bladed weapons techniques. Jujutsu techniques were designed to overcome an opponent at close range, not necessarily his sword at close range.

Samurai Myth No. 9: The karate concept of “one strike, one kill” originally came from the Japanese sword arts.
Samurai Fact: The aim of any martial arts technique is to achieve maximum effectiveness. This wasn’t a foreign concept to the Okinawan people, who had their own weapon arts. This misconception came from the adaptation of kendo rules to karate competition during the introduction of karate to Japan. The Ministry of Education insisted that karate authorities develop a set of competition rules before the art could be recognized as an official “Japanese budo” or form of physical education on the mainland. The karate authorities adopted the ippon shobu rules that had been established for kendo. They were based on the presumption that to be considered a full point, a strike had to be technically sufficient to kill an opponent.

Samurai Myth No. 10: The hakama (baggy trousers) is designed to hide the footwork of the swordsman.
Samurai Fact: This is a fallacy. The hakama comes in many forms: field hakama, riding hakama, undivided hakama, hakama with leggings and so on. Each style was worn by the samurai on different occasions. Some formal hakama were designed to prevent any fast movement of the feet at all. Most samurai would tie up the bottom of their hakama so as not to restrict their leg movements during battle. This misconception probably comes from modern budo teachers who allow only the senior members of their dojo to wear a hakama, thus supposedly “hiding” their advanced footwork.

Part One: Samurai Facts vs. Samurai Myths and Legends