Tōkenjutsu & Universal Lessons Concerning Element of Surprise

Recently I had a discussion with a good friend of mine regarding techniques for throwing bladed weapons. The premise was based off of a text from a book I am currently translating, “Tsuki no Sho”, which discusses principles around the use of Jūji shuriken (十字手裏剣, a cross-shape throwing blade). My friend, who has spent many years training in Shinkage ryu kenjutsu, also mentioned a similar kata, but which instead uses a shotō (小刀, short sword). While size of both are different, using them in an unperceived fashion is important in both scenarios. For this article, I want to discuss a bit about throwing bladed weapons, and how the element of surprise is an imperative tactic no matter the size of the weapon being used. In my training group, the universal term used is tōkenjutsu (投剣術, techniques for throwing bladed weapons).

When learning how to incorporate throwing weapons, whether they are designed for that purpose or not, much of the instructions tend to lean towards psychological warfare. This is especially true when practicing the timing for surprise attacks through kata geiko. Of course, psychological tactics exist for other usages of throwing weapons, such as offensive purposes. Yet, this tends to get limited to specific weapons, whereas tactics for surprise attacks tend to incorporate a broader range of weapons. Due to the nature of attacking with a thrown bladed weapon in an unexpected manner, a level of mental and physical skill is necessary to pull this off.

One of the 1st steps utilizing psychological tactics is through one’s kamae (構え, posture). In Classical Japanese martial arts, this is one of the basics, so a great amount of time is spent understanding how kamae dictates what we do. This is not just a physical matter but one that pertains to attitude. Some kamae are naturally suited for certain scenarios, making it easier to incorporate movements to launch a throwing weapon without being perceived. For example, in a case were one must flee from an opponent who has a katana, one turns around and begins to run. In that movement, we can use a taijutsu kamae called tonsō no kamae (遁走の構え, Escaping posture) to pull out a hiragata shuriken (平型手裏剣, a flat wheel-like throwing blade) from one’s inner pocket. When the opponent is at a certain distance and preps to strike, we turn and throw the hiragata shuriken. Such a tactic like this can help in aiding one’s escape if done correctly, or to attempt to subdue the injured assailant if necessary.

In another scenario, where both combatants are wielding a katana, you may be perplexed with a very strong and skilled opponent. It’s here where you use an unperceived tactic from tōkenjutsu that can grant victory. As your opponent assumes jōdan no kamae (上段の構え, high posture), you follow in suit. As the opponent comes in with a shōmen giri (正面斬り, downward cut to the face), we crouch down and hurl our katana to impale them. Of course, we have a failsafe in case this doesn’t work, which involves pulling out one’s shotō and quickly closing the distance whether our katana hits the mark or not, for the notion of a person suddenly throwing their main weapon (katana) is enough to create a shinriteki na kuzushi (心理的な崩し, mental break). This can cause one’s opponent to hesitate even just for a brief moment, which may be enough to win.

Or, taking a different approach in the previously mentioned situation, you attempt to go toe-to-toe through kumitachi (組太刀, battling out with swords). At some point, you back away, then assume seigan no kamae (正眼の構え, straight-to-the-eyes posture). As your opponent approaches and attempts to swat away your katana, you pull out a small blade hidden on the side of your sword handle. Hurling it as your opponent is distracted, you then finish with an uncontested downward stroke with your katana. Some katana have one or two holes in the tsuba (鍔, sword guard), where small knife-like blades can be placed through. Such a design allows a warrior to have an additional trick up his sleeve, but it’s one which works only if the adversary doesn’t perceive exists ahead of time.

In conclusion, psychological tactics are very effective when throwing bladed weapons. Learning this through kata geiko is common practice. No matter the situation, using the element of surprise is indeed a universal tool handling a bladed weapon that will be thrown no matter the size.