The following are two slightly revised and renewed essays from kenshi 24/7’s now unavailable mini-publication “Kenkyu and Kufu” originally published in 2014.
Mini essay 1: hasuji and shinogi
Ever since shinai kendo appeared in the mid-18th century there have been complaints from the more traditional swordsmen, those who practised armour-less and with only bokuto or perhaps habiki (blunt swords). Their concerns increased in urgency as the popularity of shinai kendo began to affect how shinai kendo was performed and why people took it up (not to mention it’s democratisation = the who). For those interested in the serious study of Japanese swordsmanship, many of the points raised back then still apply now. Two of these (interrelated) points in particular are of import to the modern kenshi, one commonly discussed, the other not.
Katana are traditionally only sharpened on a single side, and it’s with this side that we must “cut” in kendo. Shinai, being round, have no natural ha, but we make the differentiation between front and back by the addition of a tsuru. All cuts in kendo must be done with the “cutting edge” portion of the shinai, the bamboo slat on the opposite site of the tsuru. Hasuji describes the path travelled by the blade and, obviously for a sword cut to be a good one, the blade must travel directly at the target and land with the ha down and the mine/mune (i.e. tsuru) directly behind it.
One of the toughest areas of the katana is the ridge-line on either side of the blade – the shinogi. Due to its resilience it’s this part (both omote and ura) that you are meant to use when executing waza such as kaeshi, suriage, uchiotoshi, osae, makiosae, surikomi, harai, etc. Koryu kenjutsu is replete with teachings about using the shinogi and concomitant wrist actions thus employed.
Due of the cylindrical nature of the shinai, many modern practitioners don’t particularly pay a lot of attention to correct hasuji nor shinogi usage. Well, I take that back – I’m guessing that many are aware of and attempt to execute strikes with the cutting edge but, usage of the shinogi is, I’m sure, only a vague notion to most. I wonder if this is because competition rules mention one but not the other?
One way to do some personal research into these two areas is to experiment with different tsuka shapes. The usual alternative to round tsuka are koban (oval- shaped handles); but you can also get hexagonal, heptagonal, and triangular shaped handles.
At any rate, the upshot of all this is most people have developed shinai-centric hand and wrist usage when executing waza. You personally may not care, but if you are interested in the more traditional aspects of technique execution, then perhaps it’s worth exploring the issue.
Mini essay 2: harai and suriage
In an earlier essay (Hasuji and Shinogi) I discussed a couple of areas where the modern kenshi really ought to research more. This essay, in particular, will discuss investigating deeper understanding of shinogi use through the practise and execution of harai and suriage waza.
First of all – and this is an important point to make – as far as shinogi and wrist use goes, both of these techniques are basically identical. The difference in terminology lies solely on whether you are performing the action on a waiting blade (harai) or on one that is moving towards you (suriage).
Secondly, although there are wide varieties of possible harai/suriage techniques, only a subset of the waza are generally used. Waza preference of course is dictated by the individual, and certain people like to do particular techniques, but here are what I would say are the base techniques of this type to learn. Once shinogi/wrist usage proficiency in these are somewhat acquired it makes moving on to the other varieties easier:
TYPE — TECHNIQUE — SIDE — DIRECTION
A — harai-otoshi men — Omote — top-bottom, right-left
B — harai-age kote / kote suriage kote / kote suriage men — Ura — bottom-top, left-right
C — men suriage / men kote suriage men — Omote — bottom-top
Points to be aware of:
- Practise with a bokuto
Since our goal is to research shinogi use, it’s probably better to start practising these techniques with a bokuto first before moving on to shinai. It’s also worth going back to practising with bokuto now-and-then for revision purposes.
- Where to strike or catch the opponents blade
For harai techniques try aiming for a little bit beyond 1/2 way down the blade. Striking the tip of the sword – no matter how strong you do so – is risky as it may come right back to the centre line and stop you from following the harai with a successful strike.
For suriage techniques you have a little bit of leeway in regards to the where as your opponent is coming towards you. However, time-wise, it’s better to “catch” the opponents blade as late as possible (i.e. once their cut is fully committed).
What differentiates a good harai or suriage from a simple bash out of the way is the slide. There should be a shinogi to shinogi connection, and it’s the push from your shinogi on theirs that knocks it away (up or down). With harai, the push is generally shorter and sharper than with suriage.
- Right hand and wrist usage
The slide and push that occurs in 3 above is generated from the right hand and wrist. The middle finger, index finger, and thumb all play a part in the generation of this power (just like in kodachi use).
Let’s have a closer look at the 3 types of waza in more detail. Note that I will explain only the harai/suriage portion, not the body mechanics or any connecting strike.
Type A: harai-otoshi
From chudan, strike at your opponent’s blade diagonally from above-right to bottom-left. As your blade moves in this diagonal motion your right wrist should be twisting in a small semi-circle from right to left. Meeting the opponents shinogi with yours, you finish the semi-circle motion with a twist knocking (sliding) their blade down. Your blade will remain on the centre line with the back of your right hand facing up, and the ha facing diagonally down to the right. The instant the harai-otoshi is executed you should let your grip shift back to normal.
Type B: harai-age (ura-suriage)
Both harai-age and ura suriage have identical shinogi/wrist mechanics, the difference is only where you catch their blade and your body movement.
From chudan allow your blade tip to dip down slightly before moving your blade diagonally from the bottom-left to top-right. As the blade moves in this diagonal motion your right wrist should be twisting in a semi-circle from left to right. Meeting the opponents shinogi with yours, you finish the semi-circle motion with a twist knocking (sliding) their blade up. Your blade will remain on the centre line with the back of your right hand facing up, and the ha facing diagonally down to the right. The instant the technique is executed you should let your grip shift back to normal.
As you may have noticed, type B is the same as type A, just moving in a different diagonal direction.
Type C: omote suriage
This is by far one of the easiest and most economical kendo techniques there is. It helps a lot if the extension of your kamae is aimed at your opponents left eye, but even if not, all that requires is a slight change in your kamae before execution.
With the extension of your blade aimed at your opponents left eye your kamae will naturally be slightly diagonal. When your opponent attacks simply lift your hands up from this kamae. Catching the opponents shinogi with yours, slide up the blade knocking it off centre. The instant the technique is executed you should let your grip shift back to normal.
I personally don’t care for overly descriptive textual analysis of techniques but I thought I would include one chapter like this anyway – partly as an example of how important one-on-one contact with a teacher is (i.e. physical kendo development is something you copy from a teacher not read in a book or watch on a video), but also to hopefully stimulate people to think more about the mechanics of kendo, its techniques, and where it all came from.
It might be surprising to some people, I don’t know, but my personal research into the execution of harai and suriage, and my conclusion that they are in fact basically the same technique, stems from my kenjutsu training and not my kendo training. Many of my teachers here in Japan are generally not that interested in the workings of the shinogi and use the shinai as a round implement. They don’t study koryu, have little interest in swords or even in kendo’s history. Most have never even done iaido. In that respect, I’m sure there will be a few senior teachers who disagree with the content of this particular essay (and that’s fine by me).
I think if we are to attempt to retain some of the “sword” elements of kendo then personal research like this can be very rewarding.