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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.

zatoichi

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.

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13 comments

  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.


  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.


  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.



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