Article by Nagao Susumu (Professor, Meiji University)
(Kendo’s Not-so Common-sense, Kendo Nippon, Jan. 2011)
Translated by Kendo World (Bunkasha International)
Budo World thanks Kendo Nippon Magazine for allowing us to reproduce this article
When did kirikaeshi become part of kendo practice?
Why are there “four diagonal strikes going forward and five going backward”?
Kirikaeshi and kakari-geiko have their origins in a Hokushin Ittō-ryū practice method called “uchikomi”. In Chiba Shūsaku Sensei Jikiden Kenjutsu Meijin-hō (1884), there is the following passage:
“Uchikomi is not something that is popular at other schools. If you truly wish to improve your kenjutsu techniques, you cannot do so without doing uchikomi. Therefore, beginners at our school were not allowed to participate in actual matches. All they did was uchikomi for more than a year … When it comes to this practice method, you can improve greatly by striking your opponent’s men hard in rapid sequence from both the left and right, or striking the centre of your opponent’s men, or by striking your opponent’s dō from both the left and right sides.”
It continues, “The motodachi cannot just stand around receiving kirikaeshi. He has to seek an opportunity to strike back at either the opponent’s men or kote, so that the both training partners are determined to attack each other.” From this, it can be assumed that uchikomi was an integrated as well as a discipline-oriented training method, akin to a combination of kirikaeshi and kakari-geiko. If this was the case, it must have been extremely severe and excruciating.
The most common type of kirikaeshi today is to first strike centre men, then the left and right side of men (starting with the left side of the opponent’s men) four times moving forward, and then five times on the left and right side of men (in the same fashion) moving backwards. After the last strike, the attacker keeps moving back to open up the distance (maai), then lunges in again to strike centre men, continues with the same routine, and finally strikes centre men to finish. As explained in Kendō Shidō Yōryō and Kendō Kōshūkai Shiryō, however, this method is just a guideline for beginners. It is also mentioned that the practitioner should be creative when doing kirikaeshi, depending on the level, by increasing the number of strikes in hitting the left and right side of men until running out of breath, crashing into each other, etc.
In Kendō (1915), Takano Sasaburō writes, “You should always practice kirikaeshi,” and he offers the following explanation to describe what kind of effects can be gleaned from doing it:
“Kirikaeshi is an essential method of practice for learning kendo. You will become nimble when moving to the front, back, left and right, your body and limbs will become stronger, your movement uninhibited, and your respiratory capacity will improve. Your attacks will become more precise and spontaneous, mind and physical strength will become unified, superfluous strength will be expunged, and people with a deficiency of strength will become stronger. The power in your left and right side will equalize, striking from the ura and omote sides will become uniform, you will be able to execute techniques with lightning speed, and you will improve your endurance and fortitude.”
Also, in terms of how to do kirikaeshi, he writes;
“Rapidly strike men forwards and backwards alternately, vigorously exerting yourself with each strike until you run out of breath without stopping. Strikes should be big and fast, your arms and legs coordinated, and your mind and spirit synchronised while striking powerfully. When your arms get exhausted or when you are out of breath, raise your arms over your head and then stretch them out forward, move your feet forward and strike enough times while shouting ‘men!’ Then, you are allowed to take a rest.”
This means that originally kirikaeshi was not an exercise that had a limit to the number of times it was done. What mattered more than anything was to strike vigorously with mind and spirit synchronised until the arms become exhausted and you are out of breath. Only then is it possible to build fundamental skills which will help the practitioner deal with the harshness of training.
However, as budo (including kendo) was being introduced as a subject in military or school education in modern times, people started to set a limit to the number of strikes in kirikaeshi for training novices. In Budō Kyōhan (1895) by Kumamoto Jitsudō, kirikaeshi is mentioned in the section “Kiso Enshū Dai-ikkyō; Uchikomi”. There is an explanation that the opponent’s men should be struck in the order of left and right seven times moving forward until the seventh strike on the left men (not okuri-ashi but ayumi-ashi as if walking), then take a big step back recoiling off the last strike. It also has detailed instructions regarding how ukete should receive strikes. Perhaps today’s kirikaeshi with its set number of strikes was eventually established from this training method, which was developed with beginners in mind.
Incidentally, Takano Sasaburō introduced the rapid alternate strike method in his book Kendō. With regards to the kind of kirikaeshi that he practised in his youth, he writes:
“Kirikaeshi in our school (Ittō-ryū Nakanishi-ha) was not the kind in which left and right men are struck alternatively. Instead, we powerfully struck the same side a number of times consecutively, and then the other side. There was no set number for the strikes on either side. We used a wooden sword without donning a men. I could have done the current style of kirikaeshi even with my eyes closed. However, if you are aiming to make three strikes on one side and then four strikes on the other, you have to be very careful or it could end up in injury.” (Budō Hōkan, 1934)
This type of training method using a wooden sword might be a little difficult to perform today, but considering the significance of kirikaeshi, for “refining striking technique moving forwards and backwards”, or training practitioners (including motodachi) to be mentally prepared in matches as if fighting “with real swords”, maybe this type of training method deserves reconsideration.