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.

​Irimi Shiai & Its Application To Training

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.


COMPETITION RULES 

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. 


DIFFERENT STYLES

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.

 

COMBATIVE PRINCIPLES

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.

 

CLOSING

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.

 


1) 入身試合

2) 競技武道

3) 他流試合口並問對

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.