Learning from Coded Instructions

When studying kobudō (Japanese traditional martial arts), you tend to run into many terminology that are coded. This use of wording is a form of encryption to hide the true nature of said lessons or techniques from falling into the hands of a rivaling martial system in the past. In modern times, it is much easier to decipher such jargon due to the openness of martial knowledge by many teachers and avid students. On one hand, these coded words express a lot about the mentality of past Japanese masters based on the environment they lived in, as well as the culture they grew up with, which in itself can be lessons to enrich one’s training.

An example of coded description can be seen in this one line from a document I am currently translating called “Tsuki no Shō” (月之抄), which is a study guide for those who are training in the kenjutsu of Shinkage ryū Hyōhō (新陰流兵法). The line goes as the following:

水月にて 座ト太体之手字ニ身ヲひねり掛ケ 一尺ヲカカへて打へし」

To summarize the line, it outlines how to go about trapping an opponent’s sword. While everything is straightforward, what is not is the part that is in red, which is read as “suigetsu¹”. This is a very common, poetic word that is used within many different fields of interest throughout Japan’s history. A general translation for this would be “water & moon”. In Japanese martial arts it tends to represent the area near one’s solar plexus. However, in the line stated above this would be incorrect. Not to be translated literally, it’s actually interpreted as “when the moon is visible on the surface water”. When read during a description of a sword dueling technique, one would be perplexed as to why this rather flowery, out-of-place visualization is there in the 1st place. Fortunately, after conversing with those who study Shinkage ryū Hyōhō, as well as doing some research on my end, I’ve come to learn that this simple word is actually a coded word for taking proper distance.

Much of what is learned from coded instructions require proper guidance from an instructor, as well as a great amount of training which entails going through trial & error. Just because it is understood that suigetsu refers to distance, distinguishing the point when “the moon is clearly visible on the water” still requires experience. This can be applied to even to the basics of kenjutsu. Let’s take Jōdan no kamae² (上段の構え) as an example. Jōdan no kamae is a universal posture in many martial systems where a sword is held above one’s head. It is considered to be a very strong posture due to being able to deliver a lethal blow to one’s opponent’s head. On the other hand, it is also deemed the most vulnerable, as there is little defense offered for most of the body. Even with these points explained, there are still factors that play a part in how one can take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of Jōdan no kamae. At what range would you get cut if you assume this posture? When can you successfully strike down the opposition through this posture? Actively training and going through trial & error as you put these points to the test will usually provide an answer.

Within the kenjutsu of Kukishin ryū (九鬼神流) which my group studies, are also coded instructions. One of the 1st students learn is the concept of issoku itto (一足一刀), which helps to learn the range where two people’s swords meet. Of course, it goes further than this, as students learn the proper footwork to advance or withdraw in regards to the reach of their swords. Another one can be seen in the kata called kasugai (鎹止). The name for this kata comes from a small interlocking staple-like bolt used to join two pieces of wood together when constructing buildings centuries ago in Japan. For this kata, the idea of “bolting down” one’s opponent is taken from this carpenter’s tool. Of course, the type of footwork, distance and angles required to make this happen requires proper explanation and demonstration in order to grasp this idea.

In conclusion, learning from coded terminology in Japanese martial arts can be a perplexing experience, even when guided by proper instructions. Yet, if one takes the time to understand the reasoning behind it, as well as make use of the visual representation that is part of the Japanese culture, coded instructions can help boost one’s training experience. Of course, this is a case-by-case matter, and depends on whether a practitioner is able to embrace such a manner of instructions.

1) Depending on the martial system, can also be referred to as mizoochi (鳩尾).

2) Depending on the martial system, this kamae is also referred to by different names.

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