Sinister Swordsmanship

Tensetsu-ransetsuIt’s a not uncommon sight on sword-related forums these days. An aspiring student of the Japanese sword arts, left-handed, joins the forum and asks about studying ken (be it kendo, iaido, or aiki-ken) with a left-handed grip. He is quickly informed that no, Japanese swordsmanship is a right-handed affair, that all Japanese swordsman were right-handed, saya were worn on the right and saya-ate avoided at all costs, and trying to learn it left-handed would be weird at best, uncouth and disrespectful at worst. Veteran lefties give him “Ganbare! I’ve been there, too!” encouragement. Righties tell him about all the things he’ll find easier because he’s lefty. Sometimes the lefty responds with resignation, and sometimes he rages against the system. The left-handed grip is natural for them! This adherence to right-handed grip only is outmoded, discriminatory, and stupid! This, predictably, turns just about everyone against him, lefty and righty alike.

Much of the advice given to the lefty by well-meaning righties is actually not so helpful. It’s small comfort knowing you have the best, most natural saya-biki in the dojo when the sword in your right hand is going every which way but the one you want it to. Maybe the lefty’s hidari-katate suburi will be great, but it gives him little solace when his two-handed suburi look bad and feel stranger. Righties have trouble using the left-hand for power. The lefty has trouble using the left-hand for power and problems with the fine control with his right hand. The standard grip, foot placement, and saya position are all designed for a right-hander. The default makes everything as simple and natural as possible…for a right-hander. If you’re a right-hander, think about how awkward it felt when you first started swinging a sword. Then recall that that’s with everything designed with the right-hander in mind! Needless to say, the lefty will start out feeling even more out of place, unnatural, and awkward. At least until he gets used to it, just like a switch hitter in baseball.

Well, we lefties do that all the time in our daily lives. It chafes, to be sure, but we’re used to it.

The larger issue, though, is that everyone is wrong in the first place. Japanese swordsmanship is not a strictly right-handed affair. Yagyū Shinkage-ryū Heihō includes both strikes with the left-hand only as well as hidari-tachi — a left-handed grip. Nitō technique includes the standard dai-right, shō-left configuration as well as the reverse: daitō in the left and shōtō in the right. To the best of my knowledge, all of the above is present in Hyōhō Niten-ichi-ryū except for hidari-tachi and it wouldn’t surprise me to find that in there as well. Even in modern kendo, there is no rule prohibiting a left-handed grip and stance, and one can see both hidari-jōdan with its standard grip and left-hand only attacks (actually more common than the “orthodox” migi-jōdan) and even gyaku-jodan, with a left-handed grip. Both orthodox and gyaku nitō can be seen as well.

This raises the question: if traditional Japan was rigidly anti-lefty, why all the left-handed sword slinging? One reason is tactics. With the left-hand on the bottom of the tsuka, you can get an extra bit of reach if you can successfully strike one-handed, which is probably the main reason that hidari-jōdan is more popular than migi-jōdan. Another tactic would have been that if your opponent doesn’t realize you’ve changed hands, you can show them all sorts of new, weird angles quite unlike what they’re expecting. One example of this is the first form of Shinkage-ryū’s Kuka. Shidachi takes a hassō stance with hidari-tachi. Normally from such a position an opponent would expect a cut to come left-to-right (from the opponent’s viewpoint), but instead shidachi cuts right-to-left.

Another reason is the ultimate pragmatism of the sword arts. A swordsman should be able to be effective in any situation, with any weapon, in either hand. If you should suffer injury to your right hand or arm, you don’t want to be without options. I’m speaking here largely from a Yagyū Shinkage-ryū perspective, but from what I’ve read of the Gorin-no-sho, I suspect it also applies in Hyōhō Niten-ichi-ryū as well. As one should not rely on one particular technique, or one particular weapon, so one should not rely on one particular hand.

The last reason somewhat encompasses the second one. Beyond mere tactics and technique, a primary goal of Japanese sword arts, one that keeps it relevant even today, is to impart to the practitioner universal body skills. This is one reason why the term “heihō (or “hyōhō“) came to largely refer to kenjutsu. Through training with the sword, one learns how to move the body (and mind) as one, and this unity allows one to utilize whatever is at hand. In Yagyū Shinkage-ryū this is called “heihō no hoka” – beyond the study of weapons, and is the essence of mutō. When the chips are down, any and everything can and will be utilized to survive an engagement. Long sword, short sword, an iron fan, a jacket, handy chopsticks, anything. I imagine almost everyone in a Japanese sword art has heard about “cutting with the hara” or “with the whole body”. With a dominant hand or handgrip, one can fool oneself. But with an off-hand or off-hand grip, it’s all too obvious when you’re relying on your hands. Speaking from personal experience as a lefty learning the sword righty, I struggled for the longest time just in making a simple straight cut – my shinai would make a pathetic “C” or “S” as I tried to control it with my right hand. But when I made that first cut with my whole body, I hardly felt my hands or my arms. And the sword simply went straight.

So in a sense, lefties do have an advantage. Not because they can do a great saya-biki, or a smashing hidari-katate-uchi, but because right off the bat they get to try their hand at this gokui of Japanese swordsmanship: free and natural ambidextrous use of the sword. If nothing else, it sure helps come mochi pounding time, or when the lefty cages are all filled at the batting center!

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Josh Reyer

Josh Reyer is a 32 year old English teacher studying Yagyu Shinkage Ryu Heiho in Nagoya. (Studying in this case means “trying to suck a little less every day”.) He’s studied the Japanese language, literature and culture for the last 14 years, six (and counting) of which have been in Japan.

4 thoughts on “Sinister Swordsmanship”

  1. One of my sensei recommends doing suburi with your hands in both positions – right hand in front and vice versa…. and this is what I do at home now. For me its more about balance and control than being able to use a weapon (any weapon) equally in either hand.

    I remember learning Kuka years ago and wondering why on earth I was being told to switch my grip…. your post has made me feel nostalgic!!!

  2. When you say switch grips, I assume you mean switch feet as well? I see so many beginners put the “wrong” foot forwards until it is programmed out of them. Boxing has orthodox and south-paw – why not Kendo – then you need to learn how to deal with both varieties. I am going to try south-paw and see what they notice more – my grip or my ippon.

  3. am a lefty. It’s rare for lefties to be exclusively left as much as majority of righties are. so switching back and forth is possible and is done.

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