The Myth of Chiburi?

In many iaido ryuha, chiburi is a fundamental part of kata. Chiburi, usually written 血振 in Japanese, literally means “shaking off blood,” and the image presented is that of flinging the blood of a defeated enemy off the blade with a deft movement before resheathing. Perhaps mainly due to the prevalence of Muso Shinden-ryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, some people believe that chiburi is a universal aspect of iai. However, many ryuha do not practice chiburi, and there is the opinion – which has become more widespread recently, thanks to the sharing of knowledge via the internet – that shaking off blood in this way is in fact impossible. If this is the case, then what purpose does chiburi serve? Is it pointless? Why do some ryuha practice it? And was it really ever intended to remove blood from a blade?

Chiburi is a modern reading of a word that appears in the densho of Eishin-ryu as either 血振 or 血震. The original pronunciation is most likely chiburui, which is the reading you find if you look the word up in a Japanese dictionary such as Iwanami Shoten’s Kojien. In his book Koryu Iai no Hondo, the late Iwata Norikazu quotes another Eishin-ryu teacher, Morita Tadahiko, as being correct in his assertion that “chiburui” is the accurate term and that “chiburi” is in fact a mistaken reading (the word “chiburi” that appears in the dictionary actually refers a method of preparing fish). Iwata sensei also notes that both Oe Masamichi and his own teacher, Mori Shigeki, referred to the motion as “chiburui.” However, for the purposes of this article I will use the term “chiburi” as that is what most people are familiar with, and for better or worse it has become common parlance in most iai circles.

Most beginners learning iaido will be taught that the motion of chiburi is intended to fling the blood from the tip of the sword after cutting. In most books on iaido too, chiburi is described as serving this purpose. Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu also contain chinugui (wiping the blood from the blade with a cloth, paper or the fingers) in a small number of techniques in the first teaching level of Omori-ryu (Shoden/Seiza no bu). In Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu at least, this is technically done by putting one hand inside one’s hakama and using that to wipe the blade. In practice however, the shape is performed but the blade is not really wiped on the hakama. According to Mori Shigeki, this is because this because the oil used on swords in Oe sensei’s day would soil the clothes.

Despite more people becoming aware of it recently, the idea that chiburi isn’t really a practical method of removing blood from the blade is not recent – it has been expressed by teachers in Japan for a long time. Kono Hyakuren, 20th soke of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, wrote in his book Iaido Shintei:

“Chiburui: this takes the form of shaking blood off your sword and onto the ground. However in my experience, when cutting with a sword very little blood actually gets stuck to the blade. Nevertheless, placing emphasis on zanshin and spirit through the form of chiburui makes it a useful tool for development.”

Kono sensei was not alone in his understanding of chiburi primarily as a method of developing zanshin. Nakayama Hakudo wrote:

“In batto, chiburi is always performed in each kata before sheathing the sword. This motion cannot clean blood from the blade completely, but it should be thought of as a purifying action. The period between chiburi and noto is very important in battojutsu, as it is a manifestation of zanshin in the kata. Every school of iaido has a different set method of performing this action. A few peculiar methods are as follows:

“In Kanshin-ryu, a piece of paper kept inside the kimono (kaishi, 懐紙) is used to wipe the blade clean.

“In [Shindo] Munen-ryu, the sword is pointed downwards so the blood drips off the tip. The sword is then brought around in an arc to the left side of the body, thus flicking the blood off the blade.

“In Hazama-ryu, the sword is rested on the left shoulder, and the blood wiped off onto the shoulder.

“In Fuchishin-ryu, the sword is pinched between thumb and forefinger, which are drawn from the base of the blade to the tip to wipe off the blood.

“In Hayashizaki Hon-ryu, the sword is held in the right hand and first brought in a small motion to the left, then in a large motion to the right before sheathing.

“Other schools such as Omori-ryu, Kikusui-ryu, Kaishi-ryu, Tamiya-ryu, Shingan-ryu, Tetchu-ryu, Hasegawa-ryu and so on also all perform chiburi differently. In addition, there are schools that do not perform chiburi at all. Some schools will discard the saya behind them after drawing the sword, showing the determination of the swordsman as he instills his entire being into the sword. Discarding the saya expresses the swordsman’s preparedness to die in combat (sutemi, 捨身) – once the sword is drawn, it will not be returned to the sheath. In Kyoto, I saw a man perform this kind of chiburi under the title of ‘Takayama-ryu.’ However, I look upon this as an exception to the general rule.”

Tatsumi ryu does not perform chiburi, but brings the sword to chudan, expressing zanshin before noto.
Here Nakayama sensei asserts that while not all schools practice what we would today term chiburi, all seem to have an emphasis on zanshin before resheathing, which in many schools is manifested in the simulated or actual cleaning of the blade. Schools of iai that perform chiburi largely seem to be from the Hayashizaki family of ryuha, such as Tamiya-ryu, Mugai-ryu, Suio-ryu and Shinmuso Hayashizaki-ryu. In schools that are not descended from Hayashizaki we often find other forms of cleaning the blade. A form that does not seem to appear in Hayashizaki-derived schools is kaiten chiburi, where the sword is spun in the hand and the tsuka struck. This can be seen in venerable ryuha such as Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Kashima Shinto-ryu and some lines of Takenouchi-ryu. Other non-Hayashizaki schools, such as Seigo-ryu/Shinkage-ryu, Hoki-ryu, Sosuishi-ryu, Tatsumi-ryu and so on may completely omit chiburi, opting instead for chinugui or, to an outside observer such as myself, apparently nothing at all. Of course third-party observation can only take us so far – for example, discussions with an experienced practitioner of Hoki-ryu revealed that while the school may seem not to have any blade-cleaning portions of its kata, chinugui motions are actually concealed in the noto itself. Despite the numerous differences between ryuha, however, I have yet to encounter a school that does not display clear zanshin – whether expressed during the act of cleaning the sword or otherwise – before sheathing the weapon.

It should also be noted that in the quotation above, Nakayama Hakudo uses the word chiburi to refer to methods of cleaning that technically fall under chinugui, and even terms the act of discarding the saya in Takayama-ryu a kind of chiburi (albeit a rare and unusual one). This suggests that perhaps chiburi has in the past been used as something of a blanket term covering all kinds of sword cleaning, ritual purification or other acts expressing zanshin prior to resheathing. If so, this may have contributed to the myth of chiburi being ubiquitous.

To return to the ryuha with which I am a little more familiar, I would like to examine chiburi in Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu. In these very closely-related schools, chiburi takes two basic forms (with some variations). The first type that students will encounter is the signature chiburi of Omori-ryu. This is commonly referred to as o-chiburi (大血振), meaning ‘large chiburi,’ and is performed by bringing the sword’s tsuka to the right temple and swinging the tip in an arc as if cutting down the migi kesa line. Depending on the teacher, the exact path of the blade and the point where it finishes its swing varies, but fundamentally the motion is the same. The other form of chiburi is commonly called yoko-chiburi (横血振) or kochiburi (小血振), and is done by moving the sword to one’s right with the blade parallel to the floor, edge pointing to the right. This motion is usually done sharply, although again it does depend on teacher and lineage. Despite a sharpness of motion however, it should be apparent that yoko-chiburi is not practical for removing blood. O-chiburi, according to the quotations above, is also impractical; but it is less of a stretch to imagine it working to some extent. Yoko-chiburi on the other hand is quite clearly never going to remove blood from the blade.

Masaoka sensei
So why is this motion called chiburi? The truth is that the large swing done in Omori-ryu has been called chiburi for a considerable length of time. Consulting the Omori-ryu sections of Edo-period densho from both Shimomura-ha and Tanimura-ha Eishin-ryu proves this. However when we move on to Hasegawa Eishin-ryu (Chuden and Okuiai) itself, the word suddenly vanishes from the densho. In descriptions of both Omori-ryu (where it appears twice) and Hasegawa Eishin-ryu (where it appears in every waza), what is commonly referred to today as yoko-chiburi is called “opening” (開き) or “opening to the right” (右に開き). It is not once referred to as chiburi. The idea of this motion as “shaking blood off the blade” may have originated later, perhaps as a conflation of the two. Masaoka Katsutane, 18th generation Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu Kongen no Maki (Menkyo Kaiden), wrote about this in his book Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu Iaiheiho Chi no Maki:

“In Omori-ryu, before noto chiburi is performed in the form of a large sweep of the sword from over the head. In Eishin-ryu however, before noto you ‘open to the right,’ as in the Omori-ryu waza Yaegaki.

“This ‘opening the right’ has today come to be referred to as a ‘small chiburi.’ One day after the war I was teaching iai to children in Kochi when one child asked, in the direct way children do: ‘sensei, would that really shake the blood off the blade?’ I thought about it a great deal, and re-read all the densho I had in my possession, and found that nowhere in any densho is this motion referred to as chiburi. Instead it is called ‘opening to the right.’ Therefore I came to the conclusion that Omori-ryu chiburi is a combination of shaking blood from the blade, expressing zanshin and preparing for noto, and from Eishin-ryu onwards the motion is for zanshin and noto preparation only.”

Further examination of the surviving pre-modern densho of Tosa Eishin ryu reveals that while there is a distinct lack of references to chiburi, there are some parts in high level documents that describe special methods for quickly cleaning a sword when it needs to be resheathed swiftly. Significantly, these methods are variants of chinugui. This stands out in contrast against the form taken in kata, where in almost all cases the sword is immediately returned to the saya following chiburi or “opening to the right.” Chinugui, as mentioned above, is seen by many as a practical way of cleaning the sword, and it seems that practitioners of Eishin-ryu in the Edo period were under no illusions otherwise. It is quite plausible that in Eishin-ryu chinugui was advocated for blade cleaning in real situations, but was simply omitted from the majority of kata. The major cultural shift away from carrying swords in everyday life, and the subsequent change to the modern structure and teaching approaches of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu could easily have led to this knowledge becoming lost to most practitioners.

Looking at this evidence, we can conclude that what we today term chiburi was probably not originally intended to be a practical cleaning method. As the sensei I have quoted from above all seem to agree, it is far more likely that the form of chiburi that appears in most iai waza was developed in order to cultivate zanshin. This is also supported by available historical evidence. In some cases perhaps chiburi is also a kind of ceremonial purification, or perhaps it also acts as a placeholder for chinugui in the context of formal waza. This is of course not a surprising conclusion – I am sure most people realise this already. However I hope that by providing some historical context, we can come a little closer to understanding the true purpose behind the actions we are learning.

Sources:
『古流居合の本道』 岩田憲一著 スキージャーナル株式会社発行 2002年
『居合道真諦』 河野百錬著 1962年
『中山博道剣道口述集』 中山博道著 堂本昭彦編 スキージャーナル株式会社発行 2007年
『無雙直傳英信流居合兵法地之巻』 政岡壹實著 無双直伝英信流居合兵法大江派湖刀会本部発行 1974年

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Richard Stonell

Richard practises kendo, iaido, and koryu in Osaka and Kobe, Japan.

37 thoughts on “The Myth of Chiburi?”

  1. Hi Richard, thanks for the article.

    Not my area of expertise (if I do have any) but although it may not remove the blood, is it possible that it may fling off any sinue and other materials at the very least? Making it possible to perform noto, albeit dirty with blood?

    It seems more about the zanshin and ritual as you say but there may be some token of reality there also. I understand that any “cleaning” of the sword to be more of a personal thing and hence I’m not surprized that it is omitted from the kata.

  2. Very interesting article and would agree that the purpose of chiburi is not a practical removal of gore from the blade as a mixture of blood, fat and other bodily fluids will become accreted to the blade no matter how well oiled and in the case of the fat are quite difficult to remove. Therefore it must serve another purpose within the dojo and the practice of Iai. For example at the seminar at Leeds this year Yabe sensei was very explicit about the thought behind where the blood was deposited by the chiburi and the respect one has for your now dead opponent and his blood.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I just want to clarify that I’m definitely not a “sensei” – I’m a rank beginner who happens to have a strong interest in Japanese language and budo history and culture. I write articles not to try and teach, but simply to pass on information to people who don’t have access to the same sources as I do, in the hope that it will be appreciated.

  4. Thanks, Richard, wonderful work, as always.
    May I just point out one thing: what “is commonly called yoko-chiburi (横血振) or kochiburi (小血振)” is in fact called “migi-ni hiraite-no chiburi (右に開いての血振り) in the ZNKR iai manual, thus still retaining a trace of the old name.

  5. Thank you very much !
    I practise ono ha ito ryu ,and we have no chiburi practise,when i ask my sensei ,he laugh and cleaned his bokken with my gi ! “that is chiburi in battle!”

  6. Hi Richard,
    great article, in the school that I teach at we have looked at chiburi as having another potential purpose in the use of kata (we came to this concluson through the combined study of Shitoryu karate and Toyama-ryu battojutsu), the chiburi technique could potentially hold bunkai in it, e.g a form of blocking a further attack (even though it is at the end of an attack), in my mind zanshin is a ready state of awareness, therefore the zanshin and chiburi at the end of the kata when put into reality could be a starting point for a new attack, I hope this makes sense and apologies if it comes across confusing. The karate aspect is that in kata the start and finish ceremonies (which are different depending on the area the kata was developed, etc) have hidden bunkai in them aswell, unfortunately in sport karate these have been lost , but they are still part of the traditional karate scene.
    Best regards
    Ben Gray

  7. Richard

    Excellent summary of Chiburi.Chiburui.

    Iwas taught Chiburi and I find it difficult to change it too Chiburui. My wife claims she told me the correct word was Chiburui 10 years ago but that did not change my pattern.

    I told her that whatever it was called, it did not shake the blood off the sword. I had a student who worked in the Emergency Room of King’s County Hospital. This is the biggest hospital in Brooklyn NY. Using a scapel it was not possible to get the scapel blood free. Also, any pieces of flesh would not come off at all.

    My feeling is that Ueno Sensei at the AUSKF had the nicest explanation of what Chiburi (there I go again) is for. Ueno Sensei said a few tears ago, we were not shaking the blood off the sword, instead we were shaking our sins off of us.

    John ‘who has a whole lot of shaking to do’ Prough

  8. As well as practicing Iaido (with Doshikai Dojo) I have a small farm where we raise some poultry and other ccritters that we occasionally eat. As a result of this I can (despite my Kyu rank) say I have done more decapitations than anybody else in my Dojo. I can testify that chiburi does not at all flick sticky blood from a blade, nor feathers or other materials. You can flick water from the blade however easily.
    I can also testify that a shinken wakisashi decapitates chickens nicely!

  9. @Peter: Richard saw your comment a few days ago and so should – if he hasnt already – reply to you directly.

    @Bella: you get the prize for “best comment to date” on this website!!!

  10. Very insightful! Thank you very much. I have sent the link to this article to some people who usually not hunt the internet for iai news… They just train! Unbelievable, heh!? 😉
    Best regards from Switzerland.

  11. a few points:
    – my teacher back in oz always called it ‘chiburui’ because as he explained it, 振る was still written as 振るう when iai was invented.

    – i was always told that it wouldn’t clean ALL of the blood off, just excess chunks of meat etc. that would get caught in the koiguchi when resheathing. next time it rains close your wet umbrella up and do the motion, you will be surprised how much liquid you can actually flick off in one motion.

    – the old style that i used to do was also a 術 and not a 道 hence they had no qualms about actually wiping their katana on their hakamas.i am sure that on a battlefield getting your hakama dirty would be the least of your worries 😛

    – i like the idea of it being talked about as a “purifying” action or a motion to increase zanshin. imagine resheathing immediately after the final cut, physically you are not really in the best position to do so this so “opening to the right also makes sense” (and allows you to be prepared to give a final stab if your opponent hasn’t already passed).

    – one point you didn’t touch on is the fact that you have to get the sword out of your opponent’s carcass after the kirioroshi.the o-chiburi would definitely work here and i imagine the small one would too if you pulled the sword out and then flicked it to the side. actually “opening up” makes even more sense if you actually think about that way; if the carcass fell towards you, would it not be better to have your sword positioned out to the side as opposed keeping it at your centre and letting the carcass obstruct it?

    – kaiten chiburi is BAD ASS!

    [/iaido nerd]

  12. Thank you Richard for your contribution. From my understanding of the kata
    I like the emphasis of zanshin.
    And I think that this make a lot of sense:
    I imagine that the cutting is usually not deep into the opponent body
    but enough to cut the rips and so let the person die because he
    cannot bread anymore .. and this take sometime. At the same time we need to make sure that no other possible opponent will attack us.
    Thus we need some time between kirioroshi and noto.
    Best regards
    Ray, Switzerland

  13. Thank you very much, Richard! Very detailed and useful article. Especially for beginners. Is it possible to translate your article into Russian for use online with obligatory reference to your copyright?
    Best regards,
    Andrey Nekipelov, Russia

  14. The discusson seems to be focusing on the use of chiburi in iaido/iaijutsu/batto. So the scenario here is draw, cut one person, sheath, and go home. Here the chiburi is symbolic, in reality you would wipe the blade down properly before putting it away, however I can see how chiburi is useful if for whatever reason you need to quickly noto.

    If you think about the kenjutsu scenario from earlier times (warring states) then the scenario is more like draw, cut one person, cut another etc etc. In this scerario there is a LOT of blood. I have been taught that chiburi is almost a reflex action that happens after a successful cut, and prevents an excessive build up of gore that would eventually run down onto the tsuka and make the grip slippy. I also find that when performin multiple cuts over a prolonged time releasing the left hand to perform o-chiburi relaxes the shoulder and arm muscles.

    Regards

    Jon

  15. Hi, in Kendo World magazine (issue 4.4 from year 2009) was published great work “Essentials for the study of Iai” from Katsuse Mitsuyasu Kagemasa (14th generation Soke of the Suio-ryu). The chapter 8 is about chiburi. There are very similar informations as you wrote in your arcticle.

    Here is quote of chapter 8:
    ————————–
    “Regarding Chiburi

    The movement of chiburi, performed after a thrust or cut, is to both remove any remaining blood from the blade as well as to aid in the release of tension from the arms, hands and other parts of the body and mind.

    Whilst preparing the practitioner for any other events that might occur, it acts as a movement that demonstrates how the spirit is still maintained fater actions have been completed.

    When a cut has been made at the great speed, blood will not accumulate on the blade. Indeed, it is said that the Mugai-ryu of old did not even perform chiburi. Similarly, practitioners of the Hoki-ryu do not perform any sweeping movements designed to shed blood from the blade.

    However, chiburi is more than simply to remove blood from the blade. The action encourages continual alertness, and is an important part of the spiritual development in iai.”
    ————————–
    Article: Essentials for the study of Iai – CHAPTER 8
    Author: Katsuse Mitsuyasu Kagemasa (14th generation Soke of the Suio-ryu) – year 1965
    Released in Kendo World 4.4 (year 2009)

  16. Thanks, well explained. Some teachers say that o-chiburui is really a sort of zanshin, menacing tha opponent would he be still moving

  17. Thought about it a while, and though furu (i.e. 振る) means ‘shake’ furuu (i.e. 振るう) would better be translated as ‘shrug’. You have to shrug off the blood to get back to living your life. Well, says me for what it’s worth. All versions as well as the SMR kazari and osame are perpendicular and make a cross shape. Being Christian I tend to notice such things. AFAIK in native Japanese religion it signified a crossroads, at least in the case of Sarutahiko Omikami . . .

  18. Congratulations on your very interesting article!
    Might I translate it into Dutch, giving you the correct credentials, please?

  19. This is well researched and written. Thank you very much! I will encourage many friends and fellow iai teachers here in the US to read and consider this article carefully!

  20. article was very good thank you. Hollywood has added a touch of flare. Some time I hope Iwata Senei’s book (“Koryu Iai no Hondo”) is translated as it would be very good reading.

  21. Actually Richard, the ‘title’ sensei is appropriated. You might not be a Iai Sensei yet, but what you are doing here is research and teaching. You teach westerners about jap. ways. Literally ‘sensei’ means: born before. It js a general term, without any ‘mystification’ used for school teachers and elderly who are very experienced in a certain area. Even an old school lawyer might be called ‘sensei’ by its younger colleagues.
    Well, written articel! I stumbled over it when I tried to figure how many forms of Chiburui might exist.
    Angelo

  22. I think that people worry too much blood would actually be removed. It there is enough blood to be mobile then raising the tip will cause a drop to move down the blade. Try it. (Not with blood obviously). This is entirely sufficient a reason to shake the tip before noto is real life. If a wipe with a cloth is needed then this would be obvious and situation specific.

    So yes, the function of the chiburi in the kata might be to develop zanshin. But that does not mean that it is not taken from a real practice.

  23. This story has been told me by a credible witness. One day, at the Katori Shinto ryu dojo in Narita, one member cuts himself on the hand during noto. The sword is dirty with blood. Whilst instructiong some instructor to take care of the wound of the member, Otake Risuke sensei grabs the bloody sword, and immediately starts trying to do the typical chiburi of the ryu ( you keep the tsuka with the left and open it slightly and have the sword turn counterclockwise with a movement of the right hand). He turns, and turns the sword, till, a little grudgingly, must admit that it is not possible to shake the blood in that way.

  24. I know nothing. I read everything here and enjoyed it. One thing I know (as a sensei in the legal profession and a sad beginner in Iai) is that nothing is ever for one reason. Usually three is more likely. So I found appealing especially here, that (1) opening to the right keeps one alert and ready; (2) since focus is on the imagined opponent, an element of finally that should not be disputed; and (3) it is a stroke that, in which ever form, can deflect another attack. Combining those three into one, I feel Chiburui keeps one within the sword and at a relaxed readiness. Just my naive, beginner, feeling.

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