Reverse grip, or “Zatoichi style”

September 19, 2009

Apologies for the long gap in posts – I’ve been moving to a new house, and that’s been consuming every spare moment of my time. Hopefully, my posting schedule will get back to normal soon.


Reverse grip is the practice of holding a katana or wakizashi with the blade pointing down, along the wielder’s arm. The most famous exponent of this style is, of course, Zatoichi, the “blind swordsman”. Of course, on TV it’s done for effect, but there are good, practical reasons for using this grip.

It’s not immediately obvious why anyone would hold a katana in this way. Clearly, it reduces your reach, and it’s a mechanically inferior position – it’s much harder to hold the blade stable when you have to push outwards with the pinky side of your hand. However, imagine for a moment that you’re fighting in an enclosed space, like a doorway. Holding the sword in a standard grip, if you try to cut downwards it projects over your head and most likely strikes the door frame. In a reverse grip, on the other hand, the arm is naturally lower and the angle of blade to arm is more acute, and this brings the cuts into a smaller space. This is difficult to describe, but very easy to demonstrate – you can prove it to yourself with a bokken or even a yardstick.

Another advantage of reverse grip is that the blade reverses direction more quickly. This again is a consequence of the body mechanics involved – when you reverse the direction of a forward-grip cut, the blade pivots around your hand, but in reverse grip the pivot point tends to be higher up the blade, closer to the center of mass.

Reverse grip, therefore, is good for fighting in tight spaces and close distances, where rapid timing is more critical. In other words, it’s an infighting style. Most koryu styles are derived from the battlefield, where infighting wasn’t as common (for one thing, you were most likely using a yari or naginata rather than a katana as your primary weapon; if you did get close, you’d either use jujutsu or pull your tanto), so they have no interest in this type of technique. Later-period styles, however, were concerned primarily with dueling, where close-in unarmored combat is more likely. Especially in wakizashi styles, infighting is very likely, so the ability to shorten your range is a big advantage.

All that said, is reverse-grip something that you’d want to do in a fight? Not normally, no. Its disadvantages are fairly major, and as you’re trying to get inside so as to take advantage of your shorter range you’re likely to get killed. Is it something you want to be able to do? Absolutely. In the rare cases where it’s valuable, there’s really no substitute for being able to use your sword close-in.

Update: It just occurred to me that there’s one other situation where reverse-grip is important. When you perform what the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu calls “muto”, or disarming, techniques, you’re frequently left holding the sword in a reversed position, because you’ve rotated it in order to get it out of the original wielder’s hand. At that point, you really need to be able to strike with it immediately rather than having to reverse the sword first.



  1. Some more advantages to the inversion, Zatoichi-style…it undercuts the conventional techniques employed against you. And if you become master of drawing your blade quickly in such a manner, as I have, you have a distinct advantage and even the element of surprise, which allows you to strike that “killing” blow even before your opponent can bring his own blade down. Yes, reach is a disadvantage, but for the skilled swordsman, even that can be turned into an advantage.

    • Agreed, surprise is an advantage. I’m curious – what art do you practice that concentrates on the reverse draw? It’s definitely included in my style, but we view it as something that you’d do if you’re already in close, such as in the case of a surprise attack where your first reaction is a step in before you can complete your draw.

    • “and if you become a master… as I have” LOL

  2. Thanks for enlightening me. I was always curious about the practical application of this grip. Now I know it is not for show. I believe it also develops manual dexterity with the weapon. Great article.

  3. I have sparred quite a bit using the reverse grip and the largest advantage that i have seen is defensive. blocks become very quick and some are easier to perform with the reverse grip, the disadvantage is that you lose reach and power. if you practice a style that uses two swords at the same time you can take advantage of this fact by using the reverse grip on your off hand. this allows you too have a stronger and faster defense without sacrificing reach or power.

    • True, but then using a Bo Staff would be technically the same in that case.

      • I’m confused – what case are you referring to?

  4. i believe he was referring to using two swords with one in ‘normal’ grip and the other in reverse grip. this does give a guard similar to holding a staff vertical in front of you but is very different when you want to block or strike. a staff cannot be in two places at once: two swords can.

    • That’s a valid use of the reverse grip, though usually one would use the wakizashi reversed so as to give you a stronger block and a wider set of ranges (the wak then becomes an infighting weapon, while you still have the katana for longer work).

      One doesn’t usually use the two swords together the way you described, though, because the point of using two swords is to deal with multiple opponents. The rule is to try to keep the two swords 180 degrees apart as much as possible (though that’s a lot harder than it sounds) so as to try to cover the full circle around yourself.

      • It is also an easier style for shorter and agile individuals as well.

      • I understand the argument, but I’m not sure I agree. If you’re saying weaker individuals who want to use a shorter blade, I could buy it – reverse grip allows you to get closer, which would be an advantage. Closing on someone who knows what they’re doing is pretty difficult and dangerous, though, and using a reverse grip actually makes that harder since you can’t “reach out” for their blade with yours.

        What does work nicely, though, is to use two swords – a longer blade in a forward grip and a shorter blade in a reverse grip. The longer blade is used to create an opening, and then you get close and use the shorter blade. Having the short blade in a reverse grip also means that you can use it for an extremely strong defense and simultaneously strike with the longer blade.

  5. I have always fought with the Zatoichi style and have yet to lose a duel. Your opponent has reach but it makes them cocky, they lower their guard and it always gives me the advantage. This style also gives me a great advantage in defense (as was stated above)

    • i’m practicing sword figts with my husband, and i got easier with the reverse grip, but he don’t know much of this style to teach me, so i have to lern on my own how to defend his attacks and i need some tips of defense. i’ll be pleased if someone post a video or photos of this style in defense or attack.

  6. Almost any fighting techniques that are far different than most tend to be more successful because your opponent most likely has never had to deal with it before.

    • Agreed. The reverse grip is not an advantage, per se – it lets you fight closer, in a more enclosed environment. If you’re out in the middle of a field and 10′ from your opponent, you’d be stupid to use the reverse grip unless your plan is to enter in past his guard before striking. That said, if you suddenly switch to a reverse grip, you can really mess up somebody’s head for a few seconds. 🙂

  7. I also practice the reverse grip style, I actually prefer it over the normal grip. My defensive capabilities seem to be far greater as the position of the blade tends to give you that feel of holding a shield. As a reflex, we usually raise our arms to defend ourselves, with this style, we have a blade there. With a little twist of the wrist it’s very easy to open up a gap in your opponents defenses and counter. It also allows for a quick jab with your fist to throw your opponent off guard. And my last point, not many swordsman have dueled a man that uses reverse grip, so they are unexperienced against a fighter such as myself, which gives me an edge. It’s really a style for the aggressive, going-for-a-quick-kill type of fighter.

    • Also it assist in defensive stances. When you want to protect more than yourself.
      Holding it reverse keeps them from diarming you easily and you cam withastand the shock of a strike a lot
      If you become talented you could add studs to the end, smacking their face with the hilt is another way to suprise your opponent.
      Finally if you are in a dual stance and you hold one facing down and another upwards you wont have to worry about your own blades interacting.
      Holding blades this way is the purple sheep in the black sheep herd.

      • Yes, reverse grip does give you a stronger block (not parry), so if you have to absorb a strike it makes it easier by distributing the force along your forearm. Striking with the kashira (pommel) is a good technique, though I don’t know of any historical example of a katana with “studs” for this purpose. Holding one blade (usually the wakizashi) in a reverse grip isn’t so much about keeping your blades from tangling as it is about range – that gives you effective ranges from the end of the extended katana all the way in almost to body-contact range, whereas with two blades in forward grip it’s hard to use either when you’re very close.

      • Another advantage of using this technique would be for fighting multiple opponents (so not for martial arts competitions) since it allows quick reach to anything standing behind you.
        By wielding one or both sword(s) backward, you might reduce the maneuverability right in front of you (compensated by the fact that you actually see there) but you give yourself pretty much 360° degree offense and defense capacity on a short range.

        You’d still have to be incredibly good to win against more than two people, but I suppose in a battlefield type of fight where you suddenly got swarmed, it would be a good defensive fall-back to help you stall until one of your allies can jump in to help.

      • That’s true to a certain extent, though this post is about using a single sword in reverse grip (check out my more recent post about using two swords!) What you really want in a situation like that is to be able to transition from forward grip to reverse grip and back smoothly. I still probably wouldn’t do it, because reversing your sword against multiple opponents creates openings, but it’s a possibility.

  8. […] likely to get tangled with the katana? Use it in reverse grip. My most popular post of all time, “Zatoichi style”, looked at using the katana in reverse grip, and this works even better with a wakizashi. The […]

  9. Did Miyamoto Musashi ever use this grip? If no, was there any particular way he was holding his main sword?

    • To my knowledge, there’s no evidence that Musashi ever used a reverse grip. As far as I know (mostly based on his Niten Ryu school), his grip was fairly standard. His big innovation, at least according to legend, was using two swords simultaneously against a single opponent. Despite what I wrote about the daishō (https://martialtraveler.wordpress.com/2016/08/21/wielding-the-daisho-two-sword-style-in-kenjutsu/), you generally don’t want a reverse grip on the wakizashi if you’re fighting a single opponent. The Suisha Ryu does that because the presumption is multiple opponents, so you want a strong defense with the short sword and the ability to strike at very close range if necessary. Against a single opponent, you’re better off with both swords closer to the same length so you have a better chance of striking with the short sword.

  10. In boot camp you would be punked for using the term “pinky” to describe your small or little finger.
    In all things military such as here it is you small finger.
    The term “pinky” is reserved for children and untrained civilians.

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