Striking with the body

October 3, 2009

Atemi with a swordThere was once a conversation on Sword Forum International about whether anybody would ever use a body strike in a sword fight. The general consensus was that no, nobody would ever get that close. This was one of the reasons why I stopped reading SFI. Why in the world would anyone not use body strikes in a sword fight?

First, a clarification – by “body strike”, I mean atemi – any strike not using the sword. This might be a shoulder strike, a kick, a punch, etc., but not a strike with the kashira or tsuba. In his Water Book, Miyomoto Musashi writes:

Also “the long sword in place of the body”. Usually we move the body and the sword at the same time to cut the enemy. However, according to the enemy’s cutting method, you can dash against him with your body first, and afterwards cut with the sword. If his body is immovable, you can cut first with the long sword, but generally you hit first with the body and then cut with the long sword. You must research this well and practice hitting.

This seems fairly unambiguous to me (though the SFI folks felt that it was a metaphorical statement). Imagine, if you will, that you beat your opponent’s sword to the side and step forward into the gap thus created. You could, if you chose, cut back across with your sword. However, this has a serious disadvantage – if your opponent is faster or more sensitive than you, he might get his sword back before you do. If you’re cutting, you must be at sword distance, which means that you are open to a cut as well. Instead, think about stepping all the way in, and striking with your shoulder. At this range, you are too close to be cut. While they are stumbling backwards and unable to express any power, then you cut him. In my opinion, this is the strategy that Musashi is espousing in the quote above.

Most swordsmen focus on the weapon in their hands, and forget that they have any other options; this means that they won’t think of doing anything other than trying to cut you until it’s too late. Because of this narrow focus on the weapon, opportunities for body strikes arise far more frequently in sword combat than most people are aware of. Any time you’re within sword length, you are also in distance for a kick (though naturally, you want to kick low, or you risk losing a foot!) Cutting distance is fairly close to punching distance, and one can cover that gap in a fraction of a second. If your sword is out of line, oftentimes you’re better off moving in with the body than trying to recover your guard, since this allows an offense rather than merely a frantic defense.


One comment

  1. As you may know, even in modern kendo there is a concet called taiatari, which is a crash or bump into your opponent. This is an extension of the concept of using your body to disrupt the timing, distancing, and balance of your opponent.

    Using body strikes is a definite yes in my book should the situation present itself!

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