There are many benefits in studying martial arts. While each individual has their own reasons for pursuing martial arts, everyone can gain in different ways if done long enough. In kobudō (Classical Japanese martial arts), which my group studies, we take part in many sessions of repeated drills, going through kata geiko, and engaging conditioning. The reason for this is to develop a mentality of “nisshin geppo”, an idiom of old in Japan that is still used with the advancement of society¹, which hints to how we can utilize what we are learning to benefit in the long run.
The phrase nisshin geppo is written with the characters as “日進月歩”, which translates as “steady progress, rapid advance”. In simpler terms, this phrase also stands for “self-improvement”, and how it’s written describes how we can do so. Self-improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but is something that we have to work towards on a daily basis. Each day we can get better at the tasks at hand or the activities we are involved in as long as we put time & effort in it. Consistency is the key here, for if we develop a regular routine, in time we can see growth in ourselves. Even if it’s not every day, a few times a week is also fine, just so long as there aren’t too many breaks in between.
As an example, having long practice sessions in a curriculum is standard for kobudō. This, along with reviewing & challenging what we are learning, keeps us from becoming complacent and thinking that we are already “good”. We have to consider that there will always be plenty of areas for growth, and prepare to adapt to the unexpected. Such as when we are sick or tired, when walking on wet surfaces due to rain or snow, after eating, growing older, and so on. A martial artist being in a constant state of 100% is not possible, which is why one should be ready to accept that training can be a lifetime activity of continuous work. This is an interpretation of nisshin geppo. On a positive side, possessing such an outlook will keep an individual in top shape and help develop a high level of skill.
Outside of combat, martial arts can be used for self-improvement as a human being. From a least noticeable perspective, some skill sets are multi-purpose, which make them beneficial even in our normal daily lives. For example, in our Chikushin group we have a special exercise called “Ukimi no Ho”, which entails training in different methods of stepping. While it’s prime purpose is to develop better footwork when performing techniques both empty-handed and while utilizing a weapon, its overall benefits extend to improving our natural habits for walking as it can be applied at any time during our daily routines. Another example is “ukemigata”, the method of performing breakfalls. Greatly seen by does who practice grappling systems such as jūdō and aikidō, ukemigata is necessary for avoiding damage from otherwise dangerous throws. Outside of the dojo, ukemigata can help to develop a natural ability to avoid serious injuries in unexpected scenarios, such as slipping while walking on an icy sidewalk, or catching oneself if tripping over computer wires while at work.
By understanding the meaning behind the idiom nisshin geppo, it is easy to understand that the notion of self-improvement exists in many fields of activities. Those dedicated in kobudō also have the means to strive for constant betterment in themselves through training. For the martial artist who has patience and desire for this, then walking this path is not at all difficult.
1) While my wife (who is a native of Japan) and I discussed the word nisshin geppo and its roots being that of personal growth for people and the activities they engage in, she also pointed out that nowadays this word can be seen used widely in relations to the advancement of technology in Japan.
In today’s society, martial arts is considered a good way for developing a strong, healthy body. This is true, especially those that can be participated in by elders. Outside of the combat elements, however, there are several routines related to martial arts that are essential for taking care of the body. On their own, these routines can support and promote a long, healthy life. Coined as “body maintenance”, below is an explanation of several components of this, as well as tips from my own experience.
A form of body maintenance is stretching, which is a basic routine essential for almost all types of martial arts. Called jūnan taisō¹ in Japanese, oftentimes this is reserved for the begnning of a traning session, where one stretches the arms, legs, waist, and so on in order to increase the flexibility in one’s muscles, and tendons. Stretching is vital as it not only allows a person to perform punches, kicks, and body movements required in given martial system, but can prevent serious injuries from certain joint and body strains or sudden falls one may get if their body isn’t supple enough.
Picture on the left, reaching both hands behind our backs, while in the picture on the right, front leg lifts.
In order to maximize one’s ability to stretch, there are other important segments to remember. One of these is loosening the joints up before doing deep, long stretches. This can be done by rotating one’s arms, swinging one’s legs, rotating the hips, and so on. Loosening one’s joints should be done with control and care, especially for beginners; excessive and/or overpowered limb and joint manipulation could lead to strains, tears, or severe joint injuries.
Another routine for body maintenace is body massages. In some martial systems great emphasis is placed on this, as massages can loosen and relax muscles, and promote good blood flow. Massages can warm up the muscles to prevent injuries during active times while training, such as muscle pulls. This is also true in sports. In my group, several basic massaging routines used include those that can be self-applied. This includes simply rubbing and pressing the muscles on the calves, forearms, sides, feet, and back.
Various ways to increase flexibility in the wrists
A unique way to actively massage the body is through light body strikes. Just like a regular massage, a practicioner can self-apply this all over the body using different parts of the hand, such as the palm or sides. While this gives you similar results to regular massages, light body strikes also works as conditioning for the body, for the impact toughens the skin and gets one’s body used to the striking sensation. One must also be careful to do this moderately and to one’s capacity, for striking too intensely can cause unforeseen damage.
Body maintenance should not only be performed in class, but outside during one’s daily routines as well. Actually, it cannot be stressed enough about the necessity of doing this on a daily basis. For example, I personally did stretching up to 3 times a day while growing up, and this was outside of training. I would stretch once in the morning, once in the early afternoon, and once at night, preferably before going to bed. This routine has benefited me greatly over the years health-wise, as well as avoiding long term injuries. Of course, there are some guidelines to keep in mind:
Examples of ground stretches for the legs and body.
① Never stretch immediately upon waking up. Walk around abit and warm up the muscles & joints before beginning stretching.
② Do not stretch immediately after eating. For the afternoon, stretch before eating lunch, or save it for early evening after eating lunch.
③ If going to bed immediately after stretching, then stretch lightly and less vigorously. Stretching stimulates the blood and can wake up the body.
While stretching is a must before training, stretching after a training session is also important. After training sessions is good for loosening tight, fatique muscles, and improving blood flow. It should not be as vigorous as the before-training stretch, nor as long.
Body maintenance is an important, non-combative element in martial arts. It should be performed as much as the combative elements. Body maintenance can be achieved almost anywhere and anytime. For a martial artist, body maintenance not only can keep us healthy, but allow us to keep training in our techniques even when we get old, if done correctly.
1) 柔軟体操. Along with stretching, jūnan taisō also refers to movements and motor skills found in calisthenics.
In classical Japanese martial arts, just about everyone runs into techniques, routines, or concepts that are difficult to handle. Like a very high wall, these may seem near impossible to overcome, whether it means adapting this particular thing into one’s repertoire or working on it for long periods until it becomes something natural to do. In some cases the difficulty is due to a lack of physical strength or coordination, while in others it’s a mental block. Then there are those cases where our lack of interest causes us not to proceed forward with that particular area of training. However, with a bit of drive, we can overcome such difficult things, as well as gain an overall benefit in our journey of learning the martial arts.
Examples of flexible weapons. Top left is a kusari fundō, bottom left is a kyoketsu shoge, while on the right are a kusarigama and ōgama. All are handmade training weapons which are light, fairly soft materials with no sharp parts.
A case that sticks out particularly in my own experience is the difficulty of using flexible weapons. In my younger days, I made a point to be as proficient as I could with all that was taught to me at my previous dojo. Yet, I was more inclined to not further my studies on such martial tools like the kusari fundō (鎖分銅, chain with weights on opposite ends), hayanawa (早縄, fast-tie ropes for restraining), and kusarigama (鎖鎌, chain with a sickle and weight on either ends). These types of weapons are much more difficult to use than non-flexible ones, and require more personal training time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn how to use them, it’s just that I saw no real value in doing so; other than twirling them, I couldn’t grasp any practical applications with them. Exaggerated images of using flexible weapons for lassoing was one of the dominant reasons for my personal mental block. Despite getting training in them, my notes and experience on flexible weapons were often pushed to the side to collect dust.
Many years later, I began doing research on the style of kusari fundō used in the martial system I was studying at the time. I also explored similar weapons studied in different martial arts schools and observed how these flexible tools were being used. Little by little I began to realize that my understanding of flexible weapons were flawed and misinformed. To correct this I continued with my research, sought out advice, and began retraining outside of my normal training regiment for several years. Focus on structured handling, and practical applications of flexible weapons based on classical teachings has given me a new outlook.
Pics from a past training session with a fellow buyu (武友, martial arts buddy). Working with a kyoketsu shoge (距跋渉毛), a unique tool that consists of a knife with a hook on the side connected to a rope with a metal ring on the other end. For training purposes, a handmade “safe version” is used. Also, instead of a rope, a plastic chain is used for strength building purposes.
For example, the use of kamae (構え, one’s posture based on the given moment) is critical in understanding where each part of a flexible weapon is at all times, which is an important fundamental that extends to every weapon one studies in classical Japanese martial arts. The image of mindlessly swinging them has also been eliminated from my mind, for I’ve learned that doing so is actually not the core principle for using flexible weapon, but something that serves several purposes, such as improving one’s control through furigata (振り型, practice of swinging flexible weapons in specific directions and under specific conditions) . While it was a difficult endeavor to make these adjustments, my motivation was reinvigorated, and I was driven to put great amounts of energy into the training of flexible weapons and learning them correctly.
Although my journey is far from over, I have grown as a person and am in a better place with handling flexible weapons I originally could not understand. Everyone encounters difficult things in activities they engage in, especially classical Japanese martial arts. My advice is to hang in there, seek help, and work even harder to overcome them. In time, you will notice results, one step at a time, and be more inclined to tackle any obstacles that may come your way.
Recently, I had a discussion with a good training buddy of mine about how training can be conducted during one’s class. While we hit on many topics, one interesting point that came up was being productive in one’s training while studying techniques. For traditional Japanese martial arts, there are stories about students (usually those that are new) working on only one technique for the duration of a class. While there is much practicality in this in terms of building one’s foundation in a certain area, this is not a practice to embrace all the time, especially in today’s fast-paced society where martial arts classes only meet but a few times a week for around 2 hours. When working on technique, contextual training is necessary along with foundational conditioning. Both can be incorporated together to ensure a balanced learning experience, while adjusting according which one to focus on more based on a student’s level.
As an example, let’s look at a technique called “Jōdan Uke¹”, which is a basic blocking method in Taijutsu². Jōdan Uke is something new students will learn early in their martial arts career, as it is pretty basic and simple to mimic. However, what appears simple in appearance can be difficult in application without proper training. In the beginning, physical structure is an important point and one that needs to be focused on for a long time. Simply going through the motion of transitioning from shizentai³ into Jōdan Uke, then back into shizentai is effective, and can be a good way to train mental and spiritual endurance (during and outside of class). However, this may not prove to be the best way to understand Jōdan Uke if this is all that is done, especially in a 2-hour session. In a class setting where Jōdan Uke is the focus, let’s look at a method where both foundational conditioning and contextual training are combined for a balanced training session.
Demonstration of Jōdan Uke against a strike.
After class begins, with stretching, warm ups, and other formalities completed, students spread out to work on drilling Jōdan Uke. Working both left side and right side, they spend around 15 minutes going through the motion as a group under the teacher’s guidance. Next, they pair up with one another and again drill Jōdan Uke against a straight punch. This gives them a stimulus where they can learn how to not only execute it correctly with proper body form, but see their errors as well as understand where this technique fails if not done properly. This can be worked on with a similar time duration. The following exercise can then be worked on in the form of uke–tori⁴ practice, where one person (uke) executes a series of pre-set punch attacks (starting off, 2-3), while the other person (tori) works on defending against these with preset movements, with Jōdan Uke being one of those movements. The purpose of this exercise is to have the one using Jōdan Uke continue to learn how it works in order to overcome their opponent. If kept short (5-10 minutes) and time permits, several uke-tori practice drills can be used for the remainder of the training session, with the next using a different scenario that teaches how to apply Jōdan Uke (i.e. against a shirt grab, against a kick-punch sequence, etc.). To note, since the premise of this training is for beginners or newer students, it’s best that only defensive applications of Jōdan Uke are worked on, to ensure proper foundation building.
This is an interpretation of how one can apply a balance between foundational conditioning and contextual training. There is no official way to go about this, but one must achieve a correct approach that is productive in the long run, as well as effective.
1) 上段受け. Simple translation would be “high-block”.
2) 体術. Taijutsu is an older term for hand-to-hand combat, and is still used today by some traditional martial arts groups in Japan.
3) 自然体. Means to stand in a normal posture where you are neither on the offense or defense. Usually, one’s hands are to are sides.
4) 受捕. This is a joint word referring to training where one person take the role as the attacker and lose (uke), while the other takes the role as the defender and win (tori).
Within the traditional martial arts of Japan are customary practices called reihō¹ and sahō². They both have strong cultural ties, and play an essential role both in and out of martial training. When traditional martial arts were introduced to western countries, such as the United States, some individuals made efforts to retain both reihō and sahō. However, not everyone sees the significance in them, and may even feel that these 2 practices can be excluded. For this post, I will discuss about the importance of reihō and sahō, from their roles on a cultural aspect to the lessons that lay hidden in them.
Let’s first look at the practice of reihō, which has the dictionary meaning of “etiquette” or “manners”. It’s function is a bit deeper than these definitions, though. An integral part of Japan’s history, the idea of reihō is practiced daily within the culture of Japan as showing respect to people, objects, customs, and so on. It is like a code of conduct, an unwritten behavior of sorts that has evolved over time. For martial arts, reihō is simply showing respect to one’s teacher, training partners, the weapons & equipment one uses, as well as to the art itself. While a customary practice, for those who aren’t native to Japan generally have to be taught reihō³.
A misconception of reihō is that it is ritualistic, or religious by nature. Actually this is not the case. Reihō is very simple in presentation and has reason behind its existence. There are few exceptions where certain groups and schools (i.e. Ogasawara ryu, Imagawa ryu, and Ise ryu) have “ritualized” their reihō, especially during the peaceful times of Edo period. Focusing on a visually appealing presentation, very structured rules and procedures are used within their formalized reihō, which can be seen in practices such as rope tying for both armor and packaging, flower arrangement, and style of clothing worn for martial events. While they may have been influential in certain aspects, what these groups do is not considered the norm.
As a standard reihō when 2 people are practicing kata, they stand face to face while holding their bokuto (wooden sword) in the left hand.
Switching their weapons from left hand to right hand, they bow their heads down. Their weapon passed to their right hand is a sign of respect, that they will not attack one another unexpectedly.
Finishing their bow, they step back with the left foot, and draw their weapon out, ready to train.
The 3 pics above show the reiho used during kenjutsu training in Chikushin Martial and Cultural Training Group. Click on each pic for further descriptions.
Bowing one’s head is the obvious indication of reihō. For martial arts there are a few that can be considered standard, or commonly see. Some of these are the following:
Shizen rei (自然礼) = Standing bow, to peers, teacher, etc.
Shinzen rei (神前礼) = Bow to the kamidana (small shrine in a dojo), in respect to the art and forefathers
Shi rei (師礼) = Bow to teacher before, and after, training
Keep in mind that the types of reihō practiced depends on a martial school’s history, customs, what type of martial system it specializes in, and so forth.
Other than showing respect, reihō can serve some unique purposes not often considered. One is it helps to develop habits of “staying human” during training. What does “staying human” mean? In an activity where one learns techniques that can potentially hurt another, reihō acts like a reminder to be gentle with training partners during practice, and be thankful that they entrust his/her safety in your hands. This can be seen when two individuals bow before engaging in kata geiko, as well as the bow afterwards. It is here where reihō can help us to stay human, and put aside our ego. Without it, training could resemble that of a fight club, where participants engage just to be only strong and unbeatable, while disregarding the safety of those who they train with.
Another aspect of reihō is it contains some tactical applications both for physical purposes, as well as psychological. It varies between martial schools, and is applied accordingly based on the school’s philosophy. For example, reihō can teach the concept to gesture respect to others, which in turn you can gain trust, friendship, and possibly gain access to much needed information. On the other hand, reihō can encourage to develop awareness about people around you, especially in unfamiliar places, and read people’s temperament.
Sahō is a practice that, much like reihō, has deep roots in Japanese culture. Dictionary terms tend to be the same as reihō (manners and etiquette), but actually goes beyond stated definitions. Sahō deals with preparation and customary actions, which can be as grand as ceremonial event to something as small as one’s everyday routine. The sahō of Chadō⁴ (tea ceremony), for example, is a great representation of the effort & attention to detail that is incorporated into presenting an elegant and engaging experience for those who appreciate tea.
Historically, sahō plays an important role in the nation of Japan rich with an intricate tradition. Its influence can be found in how rooms were prepared with specific decor for special events, how particular outfits were worn daily to work, and so on. As one would expect, sahō not only helps keep order and consistency in certain engagements & routines, but makes record keeping of what is required easy.
The sahō for many traditions have been recorded during peaceful times in Japan. For example, this dated manual called “Tokokazari Un’ō no Maki” (床飾蘊奥の巻) depicts detailed instructions for servants/employees on how to set up a room for specific celebrations and events.
In Japanese martial arts, there are different aspects of sahō. On the lowest level, sahō is simply wearing one’s keikogi for training. On a more visually profound level, we see sahō during the start of certain training exercises, as well as while working on specific kata. This can vary numerous ways, from the specific way one walks to initiate a training exercise, 2 practitioners bow to each other, to even how a particular weapon is prepped for use.
Here is an example of sahō that is used in my martial arts group, Chikushin Martial & Cultural Training Group. During kenjutsu training we utilize what is called “Issoku Ittō no Maai⁵”. This entails 2 people standing a few feet away from each other while holding their bokutō (wooden sword) on their right side as if a real sheathed sword. Passing it to their left hand, both draw their bokutō out (as like a katana from its sheath), stand in a posture called Seigan, and walk forward. They meet the tips of their bokutō together before stepping back and assuming the designated posture. While it can appear ceremonial at times, one of the purposes of Issoku Ittō no Maai is to help learn proper cutting range with a katana.
This pic shows a small part of a unique sahō used for a bo versus katana sequence where both practitioners place their weapons on the ground in a specific formation, followed by a za rei (kneeling bow). Such is done for public demonstrations and events.
Possibly the most common place to see a martial school’s sahō is during public demonstrations. For these demonstrations, generally called an enbu⁶, sahō that is presented may seem very ritualistic. For example, a practitioner is preparing for a solo kata which includes a sheathed katana, he/she may appear mentally focused and serious as the katana is gestured during bowing or the like, as if in a zen-like state, before inserted into the obi. Or when 2 practitioners that have finished a sequence in a paired kata may do movements that appear slow and exaggerated, with pauses that make their presentation seem not-so-combative. There are reasons behind all this.
For the most part, sahō during a public demonstration is all for the sake of presentation, to convey to spectators the type of spirit one must develop. Studying traditional martial arts isn’t only about developing a strong, physical body; refining one’s spirit and fortifying one’s mental endurance are just as important, and sahō helps to support this. Another reason can be to indicate where certain techniques are strong and are an actual strike. Take note that while having spectators being able to understand and follow demonstrations is important, this does not mean that sahō should reveal specific details about a particular martial style and its techniques, for certain information, such as strategic timing, are held back and made accessible for those training in that style.
In essence, there are many positive aspects of doing both reihō and sahō. Other than preserving this Japanese tradition, there are lessons that can be useful both in and out of one’s dojo. Those that pursue studying traditional martial arts generally get a chance to learn about these practices at schools that choose to follow this custom. Both reihō and sahō are also preserved in my martial arts group, and incorporated in each training sessions.
3) Surprisingly, reihō is not a big part within many families’ household in Japan’s current society compared to a few hundred years ago. Although the idea of respect and manners are expressed in many service-related, business-related, and educational-related mediums, one would be surprised how it doesn’t rub off on every individual as a whole. Spending time living amongst the locales, as well as reading current topics on news sites and blogs, gives one the chance to see and understand these changes.
Great care is necessary when studying weapons in martial arts. In the beginning, there are specific forms or drills one must go through in order to understand the characteristics of the weapon that is connected to the ryuha¹, or style of martial system, one is training in. One of the challenging points to ensure correct study is obtaining a training weapon proportional to your body type. For this post, we will look at how the characteristics of weapons (i.e. measurements, material, etc.) are preserved by traditional schools and the hurdles that come with this, the ups & downs of dealing with manufactures that follow the “one size fits all” model, and how one should go about to training with weapons that match us properly.
IMPORTANCE IN DETAILS VS MARTIAL SYSTEMS
A good martial arts school will ensure that new students obtain a training weapon suitable for them, whether they are buying it or not. For Japanese traditional martial systems this is commonplace. For example, there are numerous types of systems for kenjutsu² (sword techniques), each with their own unique philosophies. Some may specialize a slightly shorter blade length that requires ashisabaki³ (evasive movements with the feet), or a much longer blade where maai⁴ (distance) and chōshi⁵ (timing) are key components. Others may utilize a nitōryū⁶ (2-sword style) system, where two swords that are wielded in each hand are a different size from each other. At any rate, when wielding a sword that does not fit your school’s criteria, unforeseen adjustments will be made, which will prevent a new student from grasping the principles of the particular kenjutsu being studied.
Example of training kusari fundo I’ve made over the years. Each can have a variation in length, weight, size of the weighted ends, etc.
During my years as an assistant instructor at my previous dojo, I was adamant regarding using training weapons that were proportional with those who attended my class. In one case, the monthly theme was a weighted chain called kusari fundo⁷. We used rope versions for safe training. Since I was already making these rope versions for my own training, I did so for those who attended my class to ensure they learned correctly. I had to measure each student’s arm length so to have their rope kusari fundo tailor-made to them.
There is an interesting story⁸ that deals with the weighted chain. A man by the name of Charles Gruzanski, a military officer stationed in Japan during the 1950s, was accepted as a student in Masaki ryu Manrikigusari jutsu⁹ under the 10th successor at the time, Nawa Fumio. One of the challenges that his teacher had to deal with was finding an appropriate chain size for Charles, as he was a tall man with large hands. The weighted chains that Fumio had just were too short, which would’ve made studying the techniques difficult to comprehend. Through some searching, he finally tracked down a chain from a different style that was large enough for Charles to use. This story is an important reminder that appropriateness in weapon size is necessary in the beginning of one’s training.
DETAILS IN ANCIENT DOCUMENTATION
There can be a fascination regarding information in ancient documentations, such as scrolls and manuals. Those that have descriptions of weapon dimensions, for example, are important details critical to the identity of a martial system. However, one must take caution in following these details too literally. When a training weapon is being prepared based on specific dimensions, it still needs to be adjusted based on the student’s body proportion.
This is a sanshaku bō (3-shaku staff). Half the size of a rokushaku bō, which is too short in reach and light in balance.
This is a yonshaku bō (4-shaku staff). While its length and balance is good, much adjustments would be needed to imitate the techniques used with the rokushaku bō.
This is a rokushaku bō (6-shaku staff). It is the appropriate size and weight for studying bōjutsu.
3 pics that illustrate different lengths in staves used in Japanese martial arts. When first studying bōjutsu that requires the rokushaku bō, choosing the right length is critical. Click on each pic for descriptions.
Let’s look at a very common weapon used in Japanese martial arts, which is the rokushaku bo¹⁰, or 6-shaku staff in English. A shaku¹¹ is an old measurement unit used in Japan. This “6-shaku” is a length that serves as a standard, a rough measurement for a staff that should be around or slightly taller than your height. In the past, this length would be appropriate for most Japanese martial artists that were above 5 feet, but it was not unusual for the staff to be made shorter for accommodation purposes. Likewise, those who are much taller than 6 feet (especially in western countries) would need a staff slightly longer. In cases like these, access to having weapons custom made according to a practitioner’s needs is a must.
SHOPPING TIPS FOR THE RIGHT SIZES
Shopping for one’s training weapons can be at times difficult. Going to a common martial arts store in your neighborhood that sells everything at only one size is limiting unless you are at that perfect height where everything fits your body type (around 5″6 & up). When shopping around, especially online, what you should look for from retailers is those that A) provide multiple sizes, B) provide customization services, or C) custom make their weapons.
Stores that offer multiple sizes of a particular training weapon is very convenient. Not only does it make finding one that fits you quickly, but this is also convenient for practitioners of all ages. For example, some stores may offer a wooden daito¹² (a standard sized sword) in 3 sizes: large, medium, and small. This ensures that no matter which size you select, it is proportionally designed, from the blade down to the handle. Those needing a smaller size daitō will not need to substitute with a wooden kodachi, which is naturally designed as a one-handed short sword¹³.
Some retailers may offer a customization service, whether they do it on-site or can have it done by another party. This is good when small adjustments are needed, but don’t necessary need to be redesigned from the ground up. Looking at the rokushaku bō as an example, it may be possible to have one adjusted in length in the case where a shorter one is needed.
Here is a comparison of 2 bokken, or wooden swords. The bottom one is a custom made version of the sword that is used in one of the ryuha I study, Togakure ryu. I was given the dimensions as it is said to be written in that system’s scroll, but had to make slight adjustments when getting it designed in order to match my body type.
Possibly the best option is to shop from a retailer who has training weapons custom made. Not only is it possible to have the dimensions tailored to your liking from the smallest detail, but can go as far as craft it and make it unique just for you. While this can be a great option, it can also be more pricier, as time, cost of materials, and labor goes into custom making training weapons. Quality control for custom made weapons tends to be very high, so if money and time is not an issue, then this is a great route to go.
As a rule, it is important to train with weapons that proportionally match. Finding what matches the practitioner is a task that can be handled by the teacher, as it will ensure little to no errors when purchases are made. However, when this has to be in the hands of a student, the best choice are from retailers that give many options that can fit one’s needs.
2) 剣術. An older name related to fighting techniques with a sword. The modernized system of kendo (剣道) derives from this.
9) 正木流万力鎖術. Manrikigusari is another name for a weighted chain.
10) 六尺棒. Usually translated as 6-foot staff in English, thus most are sold as so. However, in reality 6 shaku does not equal to 6 feet.
11) 1 shaku = 11.93 inches.
11) 小太刀. A big difference between a daitō and a kodachi is that the handle of a daitō is long enough for 2 hands to grip, while a kodachi’s handle is long enough for only one hand. Size difference in handle makes it difficult, if not impossible, to practice kenjutsu that requires a normal sword, such as a daitō.
This past weekend during training, I engaged in a session of Irimi Shiai1. For Irimi Shiai, this involved one person using a bokken (wooden sword), while the other uses a training yari (Japanese spear). As this was a rather free form practice, it gave us a chance to work on techniques we learn from Kukishinden ryu Bikenjutsu, and see how to apply it against the techniques from Kukishinden ryu Sōjutsu. However, as this training was focused on the concept of Irimi Shiai, there were some rules we had to abide to, in order to make it a challenging, and informative, learning experience. This also included moments of referring to wearing armor and what role it would play in our kamae, along with spots to attack if the situation was on the battlefield.
ROOTS OF IRIMI SHIAI
What is “Irimi Shiai”, exactly? Well, it is well known as a competitive engagement between a longer weapon and a shorter weapon, but in reality goes beyond this as tactical practice. After Japan moved away from the constant wars of Sengoku period and was followed by several eras that promoted a more peaceful society, many martial schools utilized different training and competitive methods to keep their styles active. One method involved closing the distance between longer weapons, such as the yari. This became more prominent in the 1800s, when most martial schools moved in the direction of Kyōgi Budo² (sports-centric martial arts), competitive engagements that featured a sword style versus a spear style became commonplace.
An artwork (low-quality version) called “Sakakibara Gekikenkai Ezu” by Kaisai Yoshitoshi (aka Tsukioka Yoshitoshi). It features many martial artists in competitive matches while wearing protective gear. In the middle-right, there are 2 individuals squaring off using training yari, while below that are two fighters, one with a shinai, and the other with a naginata. From Wikipedia.
In some older cases of Irimi Shiai, the kenjutsuka (swordsman) dons on padded training armor and uses either a bokken or shinai, while the sōjutsuka (spearman) uses a padded-tip training yari, and no body armor. The goal of this match was the kenjutsuka had to close the distance and get in range to strike, whereas the sōjutsuka had to keep the kenjutsuka with only the tip of the yari. The rules were usually in the favor of the kenjutsuka, whereas they have more range of techniques to use in this match, the sōjutsuka was restricted to only using thrusting techniques, and only to the armored areas on the kenjutsuka.
Having no body armor for the sōjutsuka is an interesting rule; while it insures the safety of the kenjutsuka (they will get hit a lot by the yari due to its reach), it is a nod the favor of the sōjutsuka, indicating the superiority of the yari. On the flipside, this puts more pressure on the sōjutsuka, for allowing the kenjutsuka to get pass the tip of the yari and in range to attack will put the skills of that sōjutsuka in shame…as well as in the receiving end of the shinai.
There are records of competitions with Irimi Shiai involved, most speaking in favor of those using a longer weapon such as the spear coming out as the victor. There is a documention of such competition called “Taryu Shiaiguchi Narabi ni Montai³”, written by Kasama Yasunao. In it is analyzation of a large martial arts event that consisted of 17 kenjutsu schools competing against 9 sōjutsu schools. Some well-established and renowned schools were involved, such as Shinkage ryu, Takeda Hōzōin ryu, Sekiguchi ryu, and Niten ryu. Very detailed writeup included a description of each school and their specialties, the methods some schools use to train, and the techniques used during the matches. In the end, the sōjutsu schools prevailed by having the most wins.
The settings used for Irimi Shiai isn’t just limited to kenjutsu versus sōjutsu. Depending on the participating martial schools, numerous conditions can be set featuring different weapon systems. Over the years, some of the matchups included tachi vs naginata, naginata vs yari, mokujū⁴ vs tachi, and kodachi vs tachi. Despite the weapon styles used, the idea remains the same when concerning Irimi Shiai: one side is trying to get within range to attack, while the other side is trying to maintain range and keep the other out.
While Irimi Shiai is best suited for sports-related martial arts, it’s important to remember that the principles stem from actual combat. During the long warring periods in Japan, certain weapons were considered superior both in use and the strategies applied to them, such as the yari. On top of this, many types of weapons were carried and used by an armor-clad samurai varying in length, and not always was it possible to carry the “superior” weapon at all times. When a samurai armed with an uchigatana5 has to confront an enemy who so happens to have a yari, that samurai must do what it takes to win. This is true even off the battlefield, where warriors may engage in duels with each other, sometimes facing off against specialists in a specific weapon system. Some examples include Bokuden Tsukahara defeating a renown naginata master named Kashiwara Nagato by cutting of the naginata’s blade with his tachi, and Miyamoto Musashi outbesting the famous spear play the monks of Hozoin took pride in.
In Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, the different ryuha studied do not have a “sports” curriculum in it. This doesn’t mean that one cannot use “Irimi Shiai” as a tool to learn, but gives us an advantage of studying this with rules that are more suitable. For example, many forms and techniques found in Kukishinden ryu are designed for fighting in armor, so one can incorporate this in Irimi Shiai. Certain areas in one’s kamae and techniques are naturally protected by armor, so you can use this factor to guide your movements, as well as pick areas that are vulnerable to attacks on your opponent.
For Bikenjutsu, one can practice using their bokken as a shield to get by the blade of a yari. A practitioner can also seize the yari and hold on to both neutralize it and use their other hand to score a winning blow with their bokken. For sōjutsu, one is not limited to just thrusts with the blade of the yari, so all parts (including the ishizuka) can be utilized both offensively and defensively. Understanding the principles of one’s art, Irimi Shiai can be approached much realistically with less restrictions, yet must retain some structure in order to keep this as a method for learning.
This concludes my story on Irimi Shiai. It was a good experience on my end to engage in Irimi Shiai. I believe it would do wonders for others studying martial arts to challenge themselves in such a training method.
4) 木銃. The mokujū is a wooden replica bayonet for the purpose of training in Jūkendo. The techniques are heavily derived from sōjutsu.
5) 打刀. Uchigatana can be considered the predecessor of the modern katana due to similarities in blade length and shape. This was used as a close-range weapon on the battlefield.
Within Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, there are many different weapons and tools to study. One of them is the bo shuriken1. Part of the kakushi buki2 category, bo shuriken is often used as a secondary or supplementary weapon, when there is a chance to be deployed. While I’ve invested several years in this, recently I’ve been training more with this as to learn how to adapt this into my taijutsu better. In this post I will talk abit about what the shuriken3 is, what is unique about the bo shuriken, as well as some basic tips when learning how to throw this.
DEFINING THE SHURIKEN
Bo shuriken is a type of shuriken, small to average sized blade that can be deployed from close to medium range. These are especially renowned as a projectile weapon, although their usage is not limited to this. The shuriken is a Japanese weapon that, through the course of history, can be crafted in many different designs. Shuriken generally fall under 2 categories, one being “hiragata shuriken4“, and the other being “bo shuriken”. Looking first at hiragata shuriken, these are wide, flat, and have multiple points. These are iconic with being the prized tool of the ninja. There are many different types of this, of a multitude of unique designs. The hiragata shuriken tends to be the more popular out of the 2 categories, with such versions like the “shaken5” (otherwise known as “chinese stars” or “ninja stars” in pop culture”) usually come to most people’s mind when they hear the term shuriken.
A set of antique bo shuriken. The label on the upper right reads “根岸流” (Negishi ryu). From Wikipedia.
Next, the bo shuriken is a single or double pointed, relatively straight bar of metal. These are generally associated with bujutsu schools, and tend to have more formalized training methods. The bo shuriken is considered a much more difficult projectile to accurately throw due it’s design; whereas the hiragata shuriken has to be thrown with a spin and is almost guarantee to connect with at least one of its many points, the bo shuriken has to instead be thrown with as little rotation as possible and calculated from which distance its point will connect. This is especially critical when wielding one that only has one point.
It is not certain when the shuriken was first developed. However, there are documentations that mention it’s use around the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) a time when warriors were active for combat due to warlords struggling for power. On a general basis, the image of the shuriken is associated with the ninja and ninjutsu. This is due to exaggeration through the various ninja boom that took place over the years, first in Japan from the Edo period (1603 – 1868) onward, then followed by many other countries in the late 20th century. The truth is, the shuriken was never solely a ninja weapon, but a tool as a means to hurl a projectile from a distance out of reach of an opponent by warriors and martial artists. While some types of shuriken may have been more frequently used by ninja, the skills to wield this was learned even by samurai.
ABOUT THE BO SHURIKEN
The bo shuriken can be designed in a multitude of ways, although its base still resembles that of a long, spiked bar. It’s body can be rounded, flat, or squared. Bo shuriken are often thin, easy to stack in a bunch, and portable. Throughout Japan’s history, a good number of martial schools and systems trained in the shuriken, especially from Edo period onward. Nowadays, there are a good number of traditional schools that retain their knowledge and history with this projectile weapon and provide training with them, such as Negishi ryu, Meifu Shinkage ryu, and Kukishin ryu. Depending on the ryuha6, or martial school of a specific style, there are special labels for the type of bo shuriken used. For example, in Kukishin ryu these are called uchibari7.
A set of homemade bo shuriken. On the left is live (sharpened) version, while on the right is safe training version.
In the system I study, the bo shuriken techniques are primarily associated with Togakure ryu8 and Kukishinden ryu9. Using it is based on taijutsu, with our kamae a starting point for learning when to throw. One of the basic kamae we learn to launch a bo shuriken from is called Doko no Kamae10, where we stand with our left foot forward and right hand up next to our right ear, holding the point upwards. When training with “live” shuriken (that is, sharpened metal ones), a large target, such as a wooden board or a tatami mat, is used, while safe, non-metallic versions can be used during drills & kata keiko with your training partners.
When training with the bo shuriken, a key aspect to focus on is one’s form. This is considered basic, and is crucial for beginners to take to heart. Instead of trying to make the bo shuriken stick into the target when throwing it, one should instead focus on how to take proper posture (In this case we’ll use Doko no kamae) before, during, and after the throw. This process has to be repeated many times in this fashion, where your form dictates the bo shuriken striking the target correctly. The key point here is that the technique is within one’s form, and once a person ingrains this into their body, will it be possible to get consistent results.
Once your body has “learned” the form, can one then gradually focus on aiming for the target. One can attempt to control where you want the bo shuriken to strike, as well as progress to throwing multiply projectiles in relative quick successions. The throwing form is not abandoned, as you still need to be aware of how to prep yourself to launch the bo shuriken; instead you put faith in your body being trained enough where you don’t have to think about your throwing form from start to finish.
In the beginning, when learning the bo shuriken (or any projectile for that matter), we do it stationary. Usually this is from a frontal, standing position. As time progresses and our ability to consistently hit a target increases, we work on being able to throw under different conditions. Some of these conditions include facing different directions, crouching down, and having another weapon in hand. In one example, this can be integrated with kenjutsu as, while holding a katana in Seigan no kamae11, you take out a single bo shuriken with your right hand and skillfully hurl it at the target.
Throwing a bo shuriken can also be accomplished while moving, which includes walking, turning, and leaping. This is is especially difficult while performing Ukemigata Taihenjutsu12, for timing varies if thrown at the start of, during, or after tumbling to the ground. Conditions like these further challenge the practitioner to develop the ability to use the bo shuriken in any scenario.
Studying the bo shuriken is demanding, for developing a skill for precision is a must. In the end, it is very rewarding. That about wraps up this post. Hope this was informative, especially to those who have interest in shuriken training.
2) 隠し武器. This means “concealed weapon”.
3) 手裏剣. While this is generally read as “a hidden blade in the hand”, I’ve learned that the actual meaning is “a blade held in the hand is thrown outward”. To better represent this meaning, shuriken can be written as 手離剣, with the second character meaning “to gain distance” or “move away from”.
5) 車剣, which means a bladed projectile that is round like a wheel.
11) 正眼の構. A posture in kenjutsu where the tip of the katana is held towards your opponent’s eyes.
12) 受身型体変術. This is an area of training that focuses on breakfalls, rolling, and moving through the air with agility.
Within the traditional martial arts, particularly the ones found in Asia, a good deal of the lessons are taught through forms. The term forms mean sequences that include preset movements and techniques that end in a given outcome. This is true for the majority of martial art styles that have existed for many decades, such as in Chinese styles like Hung Ga and Xing Yi, the Korean style of Taekkyeon, and the Indian style of Kalaripayattu. Japanese traditional martial arts, often labeled as kobudo (古武道), are no different. One of the reasonings behind forms is that they help to ingrain the given style’s movements and techniques into the body. This is important, for it not only helps the student to learn the essence of the martial art being studied and preserve it for future generations, but it keeps training partners safe. It takes a good deal of time to see the fruits of one’s labor in training through this method, but in the end the results tend to be solid.
While a good number of traditional martial art styles have a considerably long history where they have had a chance see use in conflicts, their effectiveness are being questioned as the years go by and countries around the world are seeing more times of peace. This is heavily contributed by modern martial arts, as these have gotten more exposure and gaining popularity. This is true especially for those systems that are used competitively, such as Sanda, Brazilian Jiujitsu, and Mixed Martial Arts. Some of the strong points of these modern systems include the following: shorter time of intense training yielding effective results, relatively simpler training methods and techniques for quicker understanding, and an emphasis in a muscular physique. While their effectiveness for actual conflict will not be questioned, the point I want to focus on is how the form-driven traditional martial arts are approached to be effective. While I’ve had abit of exposure to a few Asian styles, I will speak based on my ongoing experience with Japanese martial arts.
Forms in Japanese martial arts are called kata (型 or 形), while the term commonly used when studying kata is kata geiko (形稽古). Kata can range from being short sequences of, at times, 5 movements, to long sequences of over 10 movements. Within these sequences are intricate movements, principles, and basics that are essential for developing one’s foundation. At first glance kata can seem simple, sometimes to the point where you accept what is presented at face value. However, this is not the case, for a kata hold many lessons that one can study from and formulate many applications over the course of time. A teacher who has studied their art correctly can lead students to understanding this point.
Here’s a few steps one takes when studying kata in a traditional Japanese martial art. To note, the following is based on my experience over the years under qualified teachers and the results that came with it. In no way am I claiming that these steps are the only means to training in kata, for each individual school and style may utilize other steps that can produce the same results.
1) REPETITION: When given a particular kata, you should go through the motions in the kata many times as shown. Doing it a few times isn’t enough; the kata should be repeated hundreds of times. This can be done with a partner (if it calls for it) as well as solo. Those engaging in kata should take their time as they go through the motions, even when working with a fellow partner. The reasoning behind this is not only do you want to ingrain the movements into your body, but as you repeat the movements in the kata, a certain understanding should start to develop.
Over time you should gain more insight and proficiency in little things such as control, timing in execution, the dynamics in the footwork, and so on. Repetition is more than just muscle memory for the sake of doing the kata, but learning to discover what the kata is trying to teach you to do.
2) BUNKAI: At some point during kata geiko, you will start to do bunkai of the kata you are learning. Bunkai (分解) means “analyzation” or “breaking down”. Through bunkai, you generally will be shown, in details, what’s going on in the kata. It is more than just a visual explanation, but on a much deeper scale in regards to your responses (i.e. the movements you are doing) against an opponent’s movements. Reasoning behind the movements and the techniques used will be explained, along with the type of energy and intention behind the movements you should possess, as well as different scenarios they may play out in.
Usually, principles and lessons key to the art will be revealed through bunkai. As a better understanding of the given kata is acquired, you should start increasing the amount of intent used (between 30%-50% depending on one’s skill level) when practicing with a partner, as well as working to develop a smoother, yet unrushed, flow.
3) VARIATIONS: Depending on the particular martial system and its lineage, you may be taught variations of a kata. Variations serve several purposes, with one being to approach the same concepts and principles of the kata in question in a different light. There are different labels for variations, such as henka (変化) and ura (裏). In any event, variations may be handle the same as the original kata, such as being required to drill them consistenly, or shown as a supplement to emphasis specific points. Some variations are near identical to the original, save for a few moves in its ending sequences. Others may diverge in terms of appearance very close to the beginning, but retain certain principles and movements from the original kata. Then there are those that do not resemble the original kata, for they may be designed to approach the same situation with a completely different solution.
As a whole, variations are necessary to learn more about the toolset and lessons received from the main kata, and how they can be applied further against new obstacles. These should be treated with the same importance as the original kata, and be used during one’s practice to push you to learn how to handle changes in an opponent’s attacks.
4) FREE PLAY: As the name applies, you approach your kata geiko with training methods that grant abit more freedom and a chance to test your abilities. Free play is a coin term for different training methods that allow you to interact with your skills against others in a challenging fashion. Keep in mind that there are still rules when approaching this, with the biggest one being that you must use the art you are training in. Methods that fall under free play may have different names and rules depending on the martial system. One of these methods I work with is called randori (乱捕). What takes place in randori is a semi-free exchange between one person taking the role as a defender, while the other person assumes the role of an attacker. As the attacker presses on with different attacks, the defender has to use the skills and principles learned from kata and apply particular techniques to outbest the attacker, as a way to understand how things would work under more realistic circumstances.
Randori can be structured to allow for more or less freedom in the techniques one can use, as well as have a different number of attackers. Generally, the intent level used in this can exceed over 50% of what you would normally use in training, but never reaching 100%; although both students should feel like they are in a struggle, randori is still done in a controlled manner to avoid injuries.
As one can see from above, there are steps to use kata as a means to learn a particular style properly, as well as understand how to deal with conflicts. It does require a lot of time, on the other hand, but with almost everything in life that requires proficiency this is normal. Studying martial arts require a lot of effort and commitment, for a person is working to develop proficiency on a physical, mental, and (depending on the style) spiritual level that takes years to achieve. Even then, one must continue to refine one’s skills and understanding, for our body and mental state changes as we get older. One of the strong points about kata is that they retain the lessons to be learned as they keep the same components, yet are ageless in how these lessons can be applied with each generation.
There is a sense of responsibility one should be prepared to bear when studying traditional martial arts. It is more than just fighting, but the upkeep of the martial style through perfecting our abilities through kata, for we in turn represent the effectiveness of the style we sign up to learn.
This is just my thoughts and advice concerning kata used in martial arts. Hope it helps to shed some light for those who may question the necessity and use of them, and why it is used mainly in traditional martial arts.
During the years of studying martial arts, I’ve reached a point where I value the long repetitive sessions of technique and form. So much that it’s an ideology I believe is suitable for anyone seeking to become proficient in their chosen art. The benefits are vastly rewarding, it just takes a lot of patience, trust, and enduring what many may consider a mundane and boring period.
Traditionally, for the many styles of martial arts around the world, practitioners are expected to spend years going through the same motion, within specified contexts. Of course there will be chances of variations to better understand the philosophy of the art being studied; most would even allow “free play” (such as sparring, randori, kumite, etc) to promote growth and development of the ability to use what they are learning on a personal level. What remains constant, however, is the need to “repeat” what you are learning on a regular basis, and to embrace this as a norm.
There is a phrase in Japanese that states “Sen Tan Man Ren¹”. What this means is to properly train techniques through repetition for a minimum of 1000 days, so to ingrain the movements into your body. Once this is accomplished can one then learn how to properly utilize the movements by drilling them for 10,000 days. The numbers shouldn’t be taken too literally², but serve to stress the point that the longer you practice in a correct format consistently, the chances of actually developing one’s skills increases. This is imperative to conditioning your body to remember the art you’re studying, as opposed to just cramming it into your mind. It’s like walking, for when we start as an infant we continue to walk until we die. This is a physical phenomenon, which our body gets better at the more we do it without putting too much thought to. Same for martial arts.
For example, the art I’ve spent the most time in is Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. For this art a great emphasis is placed on learning the kihon (basics), which consists of Kamae (postures), Taihenjutsu (rolls), Sanshin no Kata (3 Hearts Form), and Kihon Happo (8 Fundamental Methods on Striking and Grappling). These kihon are classified as the building blocks essential in understanding this art even during advanced lessons. Below are some points on the approach in studying these kihon.
① In the beginning we are required to drill these kihon dedicatedly during and outside of class for a long time. At first we stick to the form and applications with little deviation, which is to ensure the development of a “taijutsu body”, where we move dictated by these basics on a subconscious level.
② Later we incorporate these kihon under different conditions to learn further the numerous ways in which they can be utilized. This includes different angles, distance, and height.
③ As time goes on, we are instructed on applying these kihon during kata geiko (training in preset movements), and discovering where the kihon is in our movements and techniques.
This is a years-long process, where even as our skill set increases, the kihon are to still be applied through sessions of repetition. Even though the movements become familiar, we must continue to approach these sessions deliberately in a steady, unrushed pace for the sake of developing a good foundation. No amount of mentally trying to remember where at and how the kihon works will facilitate the results of proficiency through years long of dedicated training.
To reiterate on the concept of “Sen Tan Man Ren”, going through the motion of a technique or form for 1000 days will surely help your body remember it, but this is only possible through consistency. Having sessions where we pace ourselves in slow but steady movements, mixed with sessions that are strenuous so to learn how to endure stress, will bear fruitful results. It is recommended we study our art on a daily basis. For me, I do my best to go through the kihon and engage in kata geiko on a daily basis to better my taijutsu…of course time permitting. There are days I can dedicate 2+ hours, other days slightly shorter. Time duration is important, but keep in mind that everyday doesn’t have to be a full training session. As long as you are activily training your body frequently, you will improve.
In closing, martial arts is a physical engagement much like any activity. Just like anything else, a lot of time is required doing the same motions over and over again. There is room to embrace mental learning, but this should not take precedence over our body’s physical development. You will get better the more you repeat…it just takes time that’s worth it in the end.
1) 千鍛万錬. Can also be pronounced “Sen Tan Ban Ren”.
2) A rough estimate, 1000 days = 3 years, while 10,000 days = 30 years. Certain aspects like leap years may change the values.