The following is a liberal translation of the teachings of Shimatani Yasohachi sensei as told by one of his students. Probably you have never heard this particular sensei’s name before, I hadn’t until quite recently. I had, however, seen his picture very many times, often beside the creators/influencers of the modern kendo style. I was very happy then, when I was at a friends place and randomly picked up a not-for-sale, self published book, and found that it was all about him.
Shimatani Yasohachi: a very brief bio
1870: born in Kagoshima as the 4th son of a Satsuma-han samurai
1880: begins study of Jigen-ryu
1885 – 90: studies under the the Itto-ryu swordsman Sugi Jihachiro
1893: becomes a policeman in Nara prefecture
1887: joins the Butokukai
1899: becomes a police kenjutsu instructor in Nara
1905-6: enters the Butokukai’s Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo
1906: becomes the kenjutsu teacher at Nara Butokuden
1916: awarded kyoshi
1916-21: becomes teacher at Busen
1926: awarded hanshi
1929: takes part in the tenranjiai as both competitor (in selected professionals section) and shinpan (in non-professional section).
1933: part of the group set up to review kendo kata
1946: dies at 77.
In 1905 Shimatani is sent to the newly formed Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo (the precursor to Busen) to study kendo under the Hokushin Itto-ryu kenshi Naito Takaharu and Monna Tadashi. At 35 years old (depending on some sources he was 38) he was by far the oldest member of the group. The group consisted of such soon-to-be famed kenshi Saimura Goro (at 18 years old he was the youngest member), Nakano Sosuke and Oshima Jikida, and would be joined a little bit after with the likes of Mochida Seiji, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Miyazaki Mosaburo, Oasa Yuji, etc. The course lasted from 1 to 3 years depending on the ability of the student. Naito graduated Shimatani in only a year, awarding him a Butokukai teaching grade of 3rd dan.
Please note that the following translation is not literal nor full, rather it’s liberal and abridged. It is Shimatani’s teachings as described by one of his students and interpreted by me. Pictures are from the source.
“Hold the shinai loosely let correctly” – although it sounds easy it’s actually very difficult to master. For example, what in fact does “correct” mean?
When talking about “tenouchi” we often say “grip like squeezing a tenugui” however most people squeeze too powerfully resulting in their hands turning in too much causing tension in the arms and shoulders. Gripping with the pinky 1/2 off the handle might make thrusting easier, but it disrupts the central axis of the shinai making striking difficult. Some people say that whilst gripping your thumb and forefinger should be in such a shape that you can balance a sake cup on them, but this results in the shinai titling inwards. And if you concentrate on a pulling and pushing action when striking you will just end up using too much right hand/arm power. Learning to strike a powerful and strong men ippon is indeed very difficult.
All of Shimatani sensei’s students were taught about tenouchi. You have to remember that when he started to learn kenjutsu (he first studied Jigen-ryu, but later also learned Asayama ichiden-ryu, and Itto-ryu) it wasn’t even 3 years after the end of the Satsuma rebellion – the sensei of that period all placed heavy emphasis on use of a real sword. Subsequently, the teachers of Shimatani’s era also placed like emphasis on using the shinai as you would a real sword, focusing specifically on tenouchi.
Grip depends a lot on the handle that you are using.
We can break it down into 3 types : tenouchi when during kamae, tenouchi when striking, and tenouchi after the strike.
A. How to grip the handle
- Empty hands
Place your hands together. Keeping them there change your grip as it holding a sword/shinai. Your wrists should bend to form the same shape is the hiragana く shape and they should be twisted inwards. Move your right hand forward and left hand back as if you were going into chudan no kamae. Your thumb and forefingers should form a ring parallel with the floor and you should be able to balance a sake cup on them.
- Squeezing (chakin shibori)
Holding a wet cloth (tenugui) bend all your fingers and grip it. Using your pinky, ring finger, middle finger, and thumb as a base, twist the cloth inside and wring it.
(Confusingly, wringing water from a towel is done differently in Japan!!!)
- Finger placement
Rest the pinky of the left hand on the bottom knot of the tsukamaki (the leather, cotton, or silk binding on katana), the bit that sticks out. The sword should be held a little bit deeper than the base of the pinky. Your left hand should not be resting on top of your metal fixtures at the base of the handle. You should wring the handle with the pinky and ring finger, close your middle finger, and feel as if you are putting a little bit of pressure with the base of your thumb on the handle from above. Your thumb should be in a round shape and rest above the middle finger. The index finger is also round and rests lightly along side the thumb.
Your right hand should grip the sword as the left one and be about 1cm in distance from the tsuba. A little bit off the metal fixtures, but not fully.
Lightly put power into your pinky, ring, and middle fingers (of both hands).
- Hold the blade at a right angle
The blade should go down the centre line of the body. The left hand wrist should be in a く shape. The blade must be held in the manner described above so it’s at a right angle to the grip. The hands should be gripped softly when in kamae.
The left hand grip should be as if you were holding a paper umbrella, and the right as if you holding a baby bird. That is, neither grip too strongly nor too lightly, but do so softly.
- Gripping a shinai
When gripping a shinai do so with your wrists in the same く shape and make sure the shinai is held down the body’s centre line. The left hand should be placed at the very bottom of the handle with the pinky gripping a little bit from the bottom (a small part of the handle will jut out). The fingers should grip as described above, like you are holding a paper umbrella. The right hands wrist uses the く shape and should be placed directly on top of the handle. The palms of your hands should sit comfortably on the shinai and your grip soft.
I see a lot of people who place their fingers on top of the shinai, or pinch the handle with their thumb and forefinger. Strange tenouchi like this results in upper arm strength being employed.
B. The functions of tenouchi
- Tenouchi when during kamae
You should grip correctly yet softly. In chudan no kamae the knuckle at the bottom of your left thumb should be pushed out a little bit from your navel, and the kensen should be on the centre line.
- Tenouchi when striking (kiri-te)
Bending your left hand, move the sword up through the centre line of your body with the feeling of pushing back the kensen. The right hand follows the lefts action. When bringing the sword down to cut do so as if drawing a circle with the kensen. In that instant you should squeeze with the pinky, ring, and middle fingers, especially strongly with the pinkies of both hands. At this time the underarm muscles of both arms will be employed and, depending on the utilisation of the right hand’s pinky, the upper part of the right arm will be stretched straight. The left hand is the driving force, and the right gives direction and support.
Kiri-te (The instant of the cut): Squeezing both hands employ the push and pull action (right hand push, left hand pull). When you do this the wrists of both hands will extend straight. Immediately relax your hands to finish the cut. The quality of the “sae” (snap) of the cut is decided by the squeeze and release of the grip at this time.
- Tenouchi after the strike
At the instant of striking the grip must be immediately relaxed. That is to say, you should immediately return both your grip and spiritual bearing to what they were before the strike, then move slowly – without a hint of carelessness – back into kamae.
Shimatani sensei used to emphasise this during large men practice: after striking you should relax and immediately allow your tsuba to come down to the level of the motodachi’s throat then, slowly and without losing concentration, step back into kamae.