Posts Tagged ‘kenjutsu’


Wielding the daishō – two-sword style in kenjutsu

August 21, 2016



The Suisha Ryu, like most styles of kenjutsu other than the famous Niten Ichi-ryu, generally deals with wielding only a single sword at a time. That said, there is a case to be made for using both at once – in particular, when you have multiple attackers to deal with.

Fighting multiple opponents with a single sword is problematic. Any time you commit your blade to a motion, whether defensive or offensive, you necessarily leave yourself open to the other attackers. There are things that can be done with positioning and timing to mitigate this (which may be a topic for another post in itself), but the fundamental problem remains.

Using two swords against multiple attackers has the obvious benefit that you can attack with one sword while covering yourself with the other. However, especially when dealing with relatively heavy weapons like a katana, it’s important to be careful not to tangle yourself up; it’s easy to accidentally cross your blades or your arms and lose the use of one of them.

The solution to this is to keep your weapons as far apart as possible. This is a bit counter-intuitive – we’re used to thinking about using two weapons in conjunction against  a single opponent, but that’s not the goal here. The point of having two weapons at all is to keep at least one of them free at all times, which means that if you’re attacking someone with the long sword, the short sword should be held as far away from that opponent as possible so as to be ready to counter another attack.

Unfortunately, the human body is not well-suited to keeping its arms 180 degrees apart while applying force; if you try it, you’ll discover that neither hand can exert significant power in this position. Also, keeping this position means that one or both blades are in your peripheral vision, limiting their usefulness. So instead, we hold them about 120 degrees apart and move them left and right as a pair: when one moves right to left, the other one does too, so that the distance between them is maintained. This normally results in rotating your entire body with each movement, which is generally what you want in any case when you have multiple opponents so as to maintain situational awareness.

A future post will look at the differences between the katana and wakizashi when used by themselves. In this case, though, you’re not using the two swords in the same way – it doesn’t make sense when you have two swords with different physical characteristics to try to use them equivalently. Instead, the katana is almost exclusively offensive, and the wakizashi is defensive unless the target is very close.

Given that as a plan, what suggests itself? What can we do to make the wakizashi better defensively, better as an in-fighting weapon, and less 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 downsides of the reverse grip (decreased range and power) are mostly avoided for a defensive weapon, and the upsides (increased structure for blocks, able to work at shorter ranges, and faster transitions) are accentuated with the shorter weapon.

So, to summarize – when wielding the daishō in Suisha Ryu, we generally use the katana in one hand and the wakizashi in the other, reversed. The two hands are about 120 degrees apart, and the body rotates to maintain that arrangement as the blades move. This means that we have effective offense, with one blade or the other, from extreme tsuki range all the way in to body-contact range. We have strong defense when needed with either blade, since the lack of mass in the wakizashi is compensated for by the ability to brace it with your forearm. We have optimal coverage on all sides, and we’re free to spin to address any attacker while continuing to maintain a defense against any other.

Is this the One True Way to wield the daishō? Of course not. The Niten Ichi-ryu style of wielding both blades against a single attacker is very effective, and even in the Suisha Ryu there are cases where using the wakizashi in a forward grip is preferred (in particular, if the attackers have longer weapons and a lot of space to work with, so you need every bit of reach you can manage). Still, it’s an excellent balance that maximizes the advantages of both blades, and if your footwork is up to keeping you mobile through multiple opponents, it can be amazingly effective.


A range of ranges

September 28, 2012
European medieval print showing disarming techniques

European disarming techniques

Recently, I’ve been working on grappling techniques with the sword. This might seem like an odd thing to do – after all, you’re holding a three-foot knife, why are you grabbing your opponent? There might be quite a few answers (you’d rather not kill them, for example), but the simplest is that they’re just too close to do anything else.

There are four basic ranges in kenjutsu: thrusting range, cutting range, striking range, and grappling range.

In the first, you’re too far away to hit with anything other than a step and a tsuki, or extended thrust with the sword. While it’s certainly possible to hit with this, it only works if your opponent is disabled or seriously distracted – crossing that much distance gives him a lot of time to parry or evade.

The second range is what most people normally think of as “swordfighting range”. This is surprisingly close with a katana – if I can cut you effectively, I can just about punch you as well. In a “typical swordfight”, if such a thing existed, the combatants are darting in and out of this range. They try to just “ride the edge” so as to be close enough to move in and cut if the opportunity presents itself, while not being close enough to be cut themselves.

The third range is striking range. This happens when both people step forward at once, or when the swords engage and someone moves in. One doesn’t normally punch and kick (at least, not the extended tae kwon do-style kicks that people think of martial artists as doing) with a sword, because it puts the striking limbs in too much danger. Instead, low kicks (like a soccer kick to the shin or ankle), elbows and knees, shoulder strikes, and strikes with the tsuba, tsuka, and ha. Note that striking with the ha is different from cutting – normally, you do it with your off hand on the spine of the blade, and it’s a sharp pushing motion rather than a slash.

In the closest range, there’s nothing you can do but grapple. If, for example, my sword ends up behind your back (while the rest of me is in front of you!), I really can’t cut you effectively, and my striking options are severely limited. This might happen because you moved inside my cut, but then failed to counter effectively, leaving us body-to-body. At this point, if I simply step away, I’m likely to get cut. I need to use my body structure, my root, and my weight to disrupt you, before you do the same to me.

Obviously, one needs to learn to fight in all the ranges in order to be an effective combatant. The critical thing, though, is being able to transition from one to the next without having to “throw a switch” and change tactics. Your parried tsuki can circle directly into a kiriage (rising cut) as you step in (or your target does); when that fails to penetrate his armor, it can reverse course and become a tsuba strike while you draw his intent down with a low kick. One step through and behind him with the inside leg turns into a reaping step, using your tsuka (with your off hand reinforcing it) for leverage on his neck. All of this can be done as a single continuous movement (Musashi’s “one cut“), starting from outside combat range and ending with your opponent on the ground, your foot on his chest, and your blade at his throat.


Stepping out and cutting in

May 16, 2009

Here’s a hard concept – when using a katana, there’s no distinction between a cut and a step.

At this point, about 98% of the readers (can you have 98% when probably only three people are reading this?) are saying, what the hell? Obviously, a cut is a sword motion, and a step is a body motion. How can there be no distinction? That’s pretty much the reaction I get from my students when I say that sort of thing, and even when I demonstrate it, I get the impression that they’re mostly just humoring me. The other day, I did a bunch of cuts with one of my students as a warm-up exercise – at the end, he was sweating and panting, and I wasn’t even slightly winded. Am I in much better shape than he is? Doubt it. I’m just doing less work.

So, here’s the story: a cut is powered by the core of the body. While it’s possible to do a cut without moving (which is a different story, though the basic principles are the same), normally one makes a step, and the line of the cut follows the line of the step. So, a step back at 45 degrees results in a cut that pulls down at a 45-degree angle; a step straight to the side results in a horizontal cut. So, you’re saying, OK, the cut and the step have to be in the same direction in order for the power of the step to be expressed in the cut, but they’re still two different motions, right?

In order to really get this, you have to understand what constitutes a step. Every step involves three turns of the upper body – when you extend your foot, the body turns away from that foot; when you shift your weight, the body turns towards the formerly-unweighted foot; finally, when you stabilize your center on the new base, the body turns to the inside, away from the foot. For example, if you’re stepping with the right foot, the body turns left-right-left. For a small step, the turns are very small, but they’re still there.

Those turns are the source of the power for your cuts. Take a horizontal step as an example, since it’s the easiest to picture. Obviously, if you hold the sword out in front of you and just slide your body to the side, the sword will follow a path that could cut, but it won’t have any power. However, when the body makes its second turn, the one that goes towards the destination foot, your body movement and the turn will combine to move the sword. At this point, the sword is moving several times as fast as your body, because it’s out on the end of a several-foot-long lever (your arm), which is turning through maybe 45 to 60 degrees for a flat horizontal step (remember, you start and finish by turning back, so that middle turn has to be actually the sum of the other two if you’re going to end up facing the same direction).

Now, we have the sword moving quite fast through the air, along a nice straight line. But there’s more – given good structure through your arm, you’ve got your whole body mass behind that sword. Since you’re not changing the angle of your shoulder during this process, in order to stop the sword, the target would have to stop your step completely. Force = mass * acceleration, and you’ve got a lot of both. This motion yields an extremely powerful cut, and here’s the best part – there’s no arm motion at all! The only muscles you’re using are the ones involved in the step, specifically the core muscles that drive the turns. That means that you can do this all day, and the only effort you’re expending beyond simply stepping back and forth is literally just holding the sword up against the force of gravity.

Of course, like everything you can put into words, this is all a simplification – some arm motion is unavoidable unless you’re ridiculously tense (see my earlier posts :-)), the motion of the step isn’t really linear either in direction or speed, and so forth. Also, if you’re doing a cut that’s not yokogiri (the horizontal cut), you’ll need some vertical arm movement to get the sword to follow the correct line. That said, the basic concept is correct – all the actual power comes from that turn, and the shift of weight, both of which are driven by the core muscles. This is one of the hardest (physical) concepts to get when using a heavy weapon, and it’s why the students always seem to be working so much harder than the teacher.