by Robert Wolfe
Many classical and classically-styled systems of kenjutsu incorporate a variety of weapons and unarmed techniques. In older usages of the term, jujutsu was not just a category of unarmed techniques, but rather any supplemental technique or weapon employed to cover the gap in response between an attack and the moment the primary weapon could be brought into action, or to cover instances in which the primary weapon was lost. The jujutsu in schools of kenjutsu may encompass waza related to nuki-dome (stopping a draw), kiri-dome (stopping a cut), tachi-dori (sword disarming), and tedori-gaeshi (“returning a grab” — methods of releasing a grip on one’s wrist, so that a draw can be completed).
These sets of techniques tend to be somewhat generic, and may be less complex mechanically than analogous techniques in arts like aikijujutsu. This article focuses on a tachi-dori waza known as Kiri-age. While it could be considered a relatively simple technique, Kiri-age is by no means easy to execute properly. In fact, the technique is fully representative of the aggressive spirit and control of the engagement demanded by all the tachi-dori waza.
It seems likely to me that Kiri-age — at least as it is practiced is this version — originated in the dojo, rather than on the battlefield, as a training exercise far more so than a practical technique. I base this supposition on the consideration that while a sword might (with a great deal of luck and advantageous circumstances) be taken away from an armored opponent by means of Kiri-age, the kusazuri (the “skirt” of yoroi-style armor) would interfere with the finishing cut. Likewise, in a Tokugawa-era street fight, an enemy in kimono and hakama would have been vulnerable to the technique, but only if he was sufficiently clumsy or unskilled to be disarmed by a method that incorporates no atemi (striking).
In the context of a dojo, however, then or now, there are benefits to the practice of tachi-dori. The first thought to pop into our heads when hearing the term tachi-dori should be maai (distancing). Because of the critical disparity in reach and lethality between two opponents when one is armed with a katana and the other unarmed, all of the tachi-dori waza require absolutely correct perception of, and strict control of, the distance separating the combatants. Practicing tachi-dori against opponents of varying heights, armed with different styles and lengths of bokken will greatly enhance a student’s ability to judge and exploit maai.
The sense of timing and the ability to fill a suki (a gap in the opponent’s attention) with a technique are also developed by tachi-dori practice. Timing is cultivated by a process of “bracketing,” in which we experiment with slight variations in the moment of entering against the attack, in order to determine the instant the opponent commits to his cut and cannot readily react to our entry, while the ability to fill a gap is boosted by the student practicing his technique as an organic whole, in which each component action is seamlessly connected and unfolds with equal commitment.
If we imagine an attack from the perspective of the swordsman, I think many of us would admit we’d likely be surprised to find our intended victim stepping forward to evade and counter rather than attempting to escape the descending blade, and that surprise could conceivably yield a suki prior to our initiation of a follow-on cut. By consistent attention to moving through the momentary gap in the attacker’s ability to continue his assault, the student learns to recognize and capitalize on suki, and the process of blending the components of the waza also serves as an analogy to the physical blending with the attack that must occur for the waza to succeed.
Entering against a strong, focused attack, while maintaining balance and composure is difficult enough. It’s even harder to step to the exact spot from which to dominate the engagement, but with each success a student’s confidence and spirit grow, making success on the next repetition even more likely. There are also appreciable risks associated with the practice of tachi-dori: namely, the danger of being struck by a bokken. Without an element of real danger, however, the practice of tachi-dori would be pointless. Just as an infantryman is subjected to live-fire exercises to build confidence and help insure performance in combat, a student of the sword needs to clench his belly and step forward against a reasonably realistic attack to build credible skill in tachi-dori waza.
The photos in this article were shot many years ago, at the second location of our dojo, and feature Randy Manning as uchitachi and myself as shitachi.
Uchitachi (the attacking swordsman) approaches from an open maai, as shitachi (the swordsman responding to the attack, although in these techniques unarmed) waits in migi sankakudai.
Uchitachi attacks with nissoku, kiri-oroshi, aiming his cut for shitachi’s forehead.
Shitachi holds his position until the last possible moment, when uchitachi is absolutely committed to his cut, and then enters by turning his hips to the right and advancing with his left foot. The principle embodied in the entry is hito-e-mi (single-layer body) — making the body as thin as possible in profile, relative to the line of attack. Shitachi must enter as close to the blade as possible, while insuring all parts of his body remain clear of the cut (while entering, it’s all too easy to swing a hand into the path of the descending sword).
Before uchitachi can regain the initiative, shitachi takes control of the weapon. shitachi’s right hand grasps the sword from the top by the mune (back of the blade), while his left hand comes up from beneath to grasp the underside of the tsuka (hilt). It’s very important that shitachi avoid locking his grip, because too much tension will permit uchitachi to resist. Shitachi’s grasp should be firm but light.
Moving from his center and remaining relaxed, shitachi pivots a little to his left, which has the effect of unbalancing uchitachi’s stance and weakening his grip on the sword.
Without pulling against uchitachi’s hands, shitachi steps back with his left foot to kokutsu-dachi — this brings the blade into contact with uchitachi.
Zanshin occurs, shitachi having cut uchitachi from groin to sternum.