Budo World

The Origins of Kendō Technique


Professor Nagao Susumu (Meiji University, School of Global Japanese Studies)

The Formative Process of “Fumikomi-ashi

In the final analysis it is yūkō-datotsu (or ippon), a valid strike, that forms the core of the movement culture of kendō. The current Regulations of Kendo Shiai and Shinpan states that a yūkō-datotsu (valid strike) is defined as “the accurate striking or thrusting made to appropriate target area with the datotsu-bu of the shinai on its correct cutting edge, with full and complete kisei (spirit and positive voice), the right posture, and zanshin (mental and physical alertness; positive follow through of attack and strike).” Also, within the setting of kendō instruction, there are many who teach the idea that a strike with “ki-ken-tai-itchi” or the unison of ki(spirit), ken (sword), and tai (body)constitutes a valid strike. This concept explains “ki, as referent to vitality, ken as the movement of the shinai, and tai as the movements of the body and correct posture. When these elements are completed with appropriate timing in one motion, they meet the requirements of yūkō-datotsu” (The Official Guide for Kendo Instruction; Japanese-English Dictionary of Kendo).

Saitama University’s Ōboki Teruo has conducted much research into the philosophy of “ki” in kendō, and as such, in this article I would like to place more focus on the elements of ken (the movements/management of the shinai), and tai (posture as it relates to footwork and body movements).

In the text Yōshōnen Kendō Shidō Yōryo (“Kendo Guidebook for Instructing Children”), precursor to The Official Guide for Kendo Instruction, the explanation of ki-ken-tai-itchi describes the element of tai as “a posture that incorporates the stamping of the foot with a stable lower back.” This action of ‘stamping the foot’ or ‘fumikomu’ may indeed be considered a movement unique to kendō. Certainly, in the kata of classical sword schools, partial and momentarily movements of stamping the feet can be seen, however, generally these kata consist of sliding footwork such as ayumi-ashi, okuri-ashi, and hiraki-ashi. Therefore, beginning with an emphasis on this stamping action, I will analyse how this method of footwork developed throughout the history of kendō, to become a recognised part of its modus operandi.     

With thought to the way in which a beginner is taught how to strike shōmen-uchi to the head, it is common in the early stages for one to be directed to perform okuri-ashi whilst practising suburi and kihon-uchi. It is only after reaching a higher level of proficiency in this exercise, that a beginner is instructed to strike with fumikomi-ashi. Nevertheless, different to the okuri-ashi step, fumikomi-ashi is ordinarily accompanied by “yosei” (surplus power/momentum/ continuing forward after making the strike). Although I can think of some instructorswho teach fumikomi-ashi in a way that does not harness yosei, the reality is that in shiai (matches) attacks that are accompanied by thissubsequent momentum are recognised as having zanshin and are considered to be yūkō-datotsu. Moreover, it is also seen in promotion examinations for higher grades. This suggests that among the many people who participate in kendō, yosei is deemed as “inertia that results from fumikomi-ashi”, and as such,is accepted as a somewhat inevitable part of kendō technique.

However, acknowledgement of yosei as a part of kendō technique is comparatively recent. It was around the beginning of the Showa period (1926‒1989) that discussion took place regarding yosei that accompanied fumikomi-ashi. Nakayama Hakudō hanshi (1872‒1958) commented that “even if one were to make an attack with a tachi (sword) in the method of today’s popularised style of kendō, he would simply strike with his hands and his body would not be stable during the ensuing two or three steps. What would happen if one tried this on a boat? Even if one toppled his opponent, he himself would also fall into the water. One must only move the necessary amount and strike from issoku-ittō (one step, one strike distance)” (Keio University Magazine, Tsurugi, Volume 6, 1934). Thus, according to the opinion of an expert in the techniques of the nihon-tō such as Nakayama hanshi, there was a clear rejection of the yosei.

Nevertheless, the yosei that comes with fumikomi-ashi (in, as Nakayama hanshi puts it, “the way of popularised kendō”) had become common place in shiai and keiko settings from this time. Among the graduates of the Tokyo Higher Normal School (precursor to the University of Tsukuba) where Takanō Sasaburō hanshi taught, yosei was encouraged, and there were even those who attempted to apply a theoretical understanding to it. In the book Kendō-gaku (1924) authored by Kaneko Kinji, fumikomi-ashi was termed “fumikiri”and diagrams and pictures were used to describe the idea in detail. Also, in Tominaga Kengo’s work titled Mottomo jissaiteki na gakusei kendō no iki (1925), it states that in the process of norikomi-men: “one should throw concern for one’s body aside, and from the position of a one sword distance, execute attacks that dominate the opponent… at the same time as swinging the sword up, one should leap forward a step to enter into a close interval… and by doing this, utilise yosei with the feeling of pushing the opponent over.” This is a text that clearly affirms the idea of fumikomi-ashi and the resulting yosei.

The matter of fumikomi-ashi becoming a fixture of kendō technique and the resulting yosei inertia becoming an accepted component mentioned in the texts of the Taisho era was due to the fact that this footwork was common practice in the kendō of the day, necessitating the application of a theory to such a routine. So, when did techniques centred around attacks with stamping and the subsequent momentum of yosei actually began to appear? To answer this question, we must first look at the development of kenjutsu’s use of kendō-gu (bōgu).

Based on historical documents, it is clear that around the 1660s armour known as “kawagusoku” (armour made of hide) and “men’ago” was worn during training in some sword schools (Nakamura Tamio, “Kendō-gu to dōjō no hattatsu” in Kendō no rekishi). During the Shōtoku years (1711‒16) in the Kanto region, the Jikishin Kage-ryū made various improvements to the armour, and during the Hōreki era (1751‒64), the Ittō-ryū Nakanishi-ha adopted its usage. From here, the number of sword schools to utilise kendō-gu (particularly men and kote) in trainings and shiai continued to increase, and by the end of the 1700s, armour was seen nationwide.     

However, in the book Dai-Nippon kendō-shi (1934) by Hori Shōhei regarding kenjutsu up to this point, it states that; “one would hold the approximately 1 meter (3-shaku 3-zun) long fukuro-shinai, and move in a usual walking manner (similar to today’s kata). That is, it was normal to move forward and cut by walking from right to left to right, or from left to right.”

After this in the Tempō era, Ōishi Susumu, a kenjustu and sōjutsu (spear) master of the Chikugo Yanagawa domain, wielded a 5-shaku 3-zun (approx. 161cm) long shinai as he travelled around various dōjō during his two stints in Edo (1833 and 1839). As a result of his influence, usage of longer shinai spread rapidly. Furthermore “When the handle of the shinai was less than 8-sun (approx. 24cm) in length, it was suitable to move in the usual walking manner. However, with the change to the longer shinai, the handle was lengthened to about 1-shaku 3-zun (approx. 39cm). Thus, to move about by walking, the kamae (stance) was also likely to become unsettled. As this was difficult to control, the method of movement such as that used in kata was replaced with footwork moving the right and left feet in a shuffling or skipping manner. The footwork of today stems from this, and in comparison to the footwork of older times it is more suitable for faster movements on wooden floors – as it is harder to gain momentum and difficult to move a lot on dirt in this way”. With this, “okuri-ashi” in kenjutsu became prevalent, and as Hori hanshi adds, this brought about the formation of “kenjutsu on wooden floors” and the distinctive footwork of shinai-kenjutsu.

Unfortunately, the exact source from which Hori hanshi bases the grounds for his account is not clearly specified. However, within the anecdotes of Otani Seiichiryō (of the Jikishin Kage-ryū) who is said to have defeated Ōishi, as well as the Bujutsu zatsuwa, it suggested that: “It has become customary in keiko of recent years to utilise longer shinai, and there are more and more people wielding a shinai that are thinner than before, is 3-shaku 6-7-zun (approx. 109‒112cm) from tip to tsuba, and including the length of the handle making it 5-shaku (approx. 152cm) or over. In keiko, opportunities for victory with the longer sword are plenty… real swords are heavier, and it is exceedingly difficult to wield them as one does a shinai.” As this passage suggests, it is clear that the popularization of the longer shinai was one of the predominant causes in the development of the unique techniques in shinai kenjutsu that differed to those of traditional kenjutsu (Enomoto Shōji, “Bakumatsu kendō ni okeru nijūteki seikaku no keisei kateiin Nihon budō-gaku kenkyū).

In the Tempō era (1830‒44), Mizuno Tadakuni, a member of the shōgun’s council of elders, sought to loosen the ban on taryū-jiai (interschool matches) in order to promote the concept of bun-bu or balanced study of literary and military arts. From thereon, taryū-jiai were openly and formally conducted (Ōishi’s taryū-jiai also provided a setting for this), and various clans started holding formal contests within their residences in Edo. In the fourth year of Kaei (1851), Kurume warrior, Mutō Tamekichi, sent a letter to his teacher Katō Tahachirō about a particular shiai held at the Tōdō domain’s Edo residence. In it he relays that an appraisal of Chiba Shūsaku’s (Hokushin Ittō-ryū) second son, Eijirō. “Using jōdan, chūdan, gedan 上達、就中、and seigan, in the match he would strike and thrust with fumikomi. His attacks were made with godlike speed 中(あたり)と云、気前と申、実に一点の申分無御座…” He executed techniques with “fumikomi” and with incredible speed. (See Murayama Kinji, “Suzuka kazō, Katōdaden-sho ‘kendō hishiki’”). Furthermore, spanning the Kōka period until the Kaei period (1844‒54), Kōzaka Masataka (Himeji domain), a disciple of Chiba Shūsaku, made numerous references to “fumikomi” and “tobikomi” in his text Chiba Shūsaku-sensei chokuden kenjutsu meijin-hō. In the Hokushin Ittōryū of the bakumatsu (towards the end of the Tokugawa period), it was acknowledged that this ‘godlike speed’ could be achieved with “fumikomi” and “tobikomi” actions.             

These ideas were established for various reasons, and to enhance our understanding it is useful to take a closer look at the content of Chiba Shūsaku-sensei chokuden kenjutsu meijin-hō. In chapter 3 of the book, “the pursuit of knowledge in kenjutsu”, it states that “when striking at the opponent’s men from ai-gedan (mutual gedan) or ai-seigan”, it is suggested that as it is exceedingly difficult to ignore the rise and fall movements of the opponent’s sword, “one should strike as soon as the opponent’s sword-tip lowers.” Furthermore, as the opponent positions himself to thrust or cut, he will make an attack as soon as one makes a large swing. Therefore, it is advised that one should “be ready to attack at the midpoint of the upswing. Of course, it is ideal to attack with fumikomi deep into the distance of issoku-ittō (one-step, one-sword interval).”        

The reason it is suggested to move deep into the issoku-ittō distance with fumikomi is because “when frightened of the opponent’s sword one tends to execute attacks in a hesitant manner, and it is likely to be countered with a thrust such as in ‘number 3’ (men-nuki-tsuki). So, stepping right in close with fumikomi and attacking, will deprive the opponent of an opportunity to thrust. One should test this idea. As the poem articulates, ‘Below the crossed swords is hell; but stepping in with fumikomi one is able to see paradise.’ Thus, discarding one’s doubts and attacking from issokuittō is imperative.” In other words, “By leaving behind uncertainty, and leaping in with a men attack (with half of an upswing) from the issoku ittō distance, one can be subdue the opponent’s sword and thrusting techniques.” This is clearly linked to instructional theories of modern kendō.        

This line of thinking from the Hokushin Ittō-ryū continued on into the modern period. Naitō Takaharu hanshi (1862‒1929), a professor at the “Budō Senmon Gakkō” (a prestigious pre-war vocational school for martial art teachers), stated “Students just want to strike . This is not good. is the easiest target to strike. The most difficult target is the opponent’s men. To strike it successfully, one must sacrifice his body.” (“Kendō shugyō ni tsuite no kokoe”, Butoku kaishi 9, 1910). In other words, spanning from the bakumatsu era until modern times, the value of “not fearing the opponent’s kensen or thrusts, and attacking with absolute conviction, and using fumikomi to strike men” became the ideal.

Attacking men with conviction and fumikomi would result in ‘yosei’. There was some opposition from the standpoint of actual sword use. Nevertheless, fumikomi-ashi became established as a positive formula for kendō technique, and efforts to seek agreement concerning thoughts on yosei emerged from the Taishō period. Discussions regarding this matter continues to this day with a certain degree of disagreement.   

Even within the AJKF’s official seminar textbook Kendō kōshūkai shiryō, it states that ultimately the four basic footwork patterns in kendō are “ayumi-ashi, okuri-ashi, hiraki-ashi, and tsugi-ashi”. However, based on the fact usage of fumikomi-ashi in modern kendō is widespread, instruction of fumikomi footwork at beginner level is acknowledged as a product of okuri-ashi. Also, for the higher levels of junior ranks, excessively strong fumikomi-ashi is cautioned against, and mastery of okuri-ashi and/or hiraki-ashi is encouraged to facilitate a variety of ōji-waza. Underpinning this understanding and the footwork used when striking is the accepted ideal that one should “strike from the issoku-ittō interval.” 
With these considerations in mind, what is the best way to consider the issue of yosei? With regards to fumikomi-ashi and yosei, the late Komorizono Masao hanshi taught that “if one stamps with the right foot when striking, and quickly draws the left foot up behind it, body posture will become completely consolidated, and from there, yosei will allow one to move forward with okuri-ashi. Moving forward with the okuri-ashi footwork is done in a tapering ‘one-step, half-step, quarter-step’ manner” (Ōya Minoru, Reidan jichi). In this teaching, significance is placed on the “body posture becoming completely consolidated” by quickly drawing up the left foot – and from the resulting okuri-ashi steps performed in the controlled sequence, a minimum amount of yosei is necessary to face the next challenge from an opponent.

This method of instruction was imparted to Komorizono-sensei by instructors of the Kansai region (according to Ōya), and I believe that it is something that should be pondered when observing the unnecessary yosei movements and unnatural forms of zanshin found in some parts of shiai today.