Grip is one of the most important components of Japanese swordsmanship. Black Belt Hall of Famer Dana Abbott, who trained in Japan for 14 years, explains why it matters in kendo, kenjutsu and iaido.
Grip is an important facet of Japanese sword arts like kendo, kenjutsu and iaido. Simply said, if you don't hold the kodachi (short sword) or choken (long sword) correctly, everything else leading up to the execution and follow-through of your cut will be substandard and ultimately cause you to perform below your potential. Furthermore, poor hand placement when using a sword promotes inadequate hand-eye coordination and telegraphs your technique. The latter is very important if you're engaging in kendo. Conversely, holding the sword correctly allows for smooth execution and seamless transitions between stances and movements. You'll be able to perform offensive and defensive techniques in such a fluid manner that the sword will become part of you. Before beginning a discussion of sword-gripping methods, it's important to note that the handle (tsuka) of some practice weapons, including padded swords and the shinai (bamboo sword), is round, whereas wooded and steel sword handles have an oval cross section. The oval pattern is better for gripping and is a more efficient design. Round handles are associated mostly with training in the Japanese sport of kendo and its Korean counterpart, kumdo, because exact cutting isn't required.
When gripping the kodachi or choken with one hand, you'll probably find that your right hand feels more natural. Many people make the mistake of applying too much pressure with it, resulting in stiff and rigid movements. Avoid the problem by reducing the pressure you exert with your right hand by 30 percent and consciously trying to relax.
Pay extra attention to your little, ring and middle fingers while applying pressure to the sword's handle. That will promote good hand, wrist and forearm positioning. Your thumb and forefinger should touch each other slightly at their tips without applying as much pressure. Make sure you leave your arm bent to act as a shock absorber when striking. Keep your body supple.
Holding the kodachi or choken in your left hand will seem awkward at first, and it may feel lifeless and unresponsive. Nevertheless, it's imperative that you train your left side in the proper sword-gripping methods.
When learning the sword, your left hand plays an important role in the overall picture. Through combative practice, your left arm will gain a stronger sense of perception and see an increase in motor skills and rhythm within a short time. It will develop its own strength through repetitive strikes and thrusts.
Almost immediately, you'll be executing left-hand techniques at double your speed, timing and rhythm. What was originally your weak side will become a secret weapon your opponent can't defend against.
Because of its length, the choken is best wielded with two hands. Of course, you can manipulate it with only one hand, but that's not optimal for balance. When gripping the long sword with both hands, it's imperative that the hands work in unison.
Your back hand produces the strength and power, while your front hand controls the subtleties of your movements. That's not to say that your front hand imparts no power to your techniques. It's just that in most Japanese sword arts, the rear hand is considered the source of power and the right the navigational tool.
This method introduces less telegraphing and reduces the margin for error. It also enables you to generate maximum speed, torque and leverage. It's a time-tested way to improve your technique with the Japanese sword.
About the author: Dana Abbott is a kendo and kenjutsu practitioner and Black Belt's 2004 Weapons Instructor of the Year. He's the subject of the cover story of the April/May 2018 issue of Black Belt, on sale now. Go here to subscribe.