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.

Nisshin Geppo in Martial Arts

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.



Writing of the word “nisshin geppo”

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.