Before Kihon

Before you can have kihon happō you need kihon, before kihon you need … ?

Kihon happō refers to eight basic or fundamental techniques, in Bujinkan taijutsu these are the 3 kosshi and 5 torite forms. There are also happō for various skills, weapons and schools.

Before this there is kihon – the basis or basics, the fundamentals. In the Bujinkan dōjō much of the kihon can be found in the Ten and Chi levels of the Tenchijin Ryaku no Maki. Kihon covers essential skills such as stretching, rolling, posture, striking, escaping, locking, throwing and strangling – ryūtaiundō taihenjutsu, ukemi, kamae, sanshin, hōken juroppō, hajutsu, gyaku waza, nage waza, shime waza. All these (and more) are part of the kata of individual schools and develop taijutsu. Correctly practicing the kata of individual schools is essential, learning these in conjunction with taijutsu you are aiming to achieve spontaneity of action and reaction (following the path of Shu-Ha-Ri 守破離).

But one vital element is missing – what is kihon built upon?

Kihon needs a platform to work from or to put it another way you need good ground to build strong foundations. Something that may be seen as lacking or only partially existent in many martial practitioners these days. This platform is an understanding of the culture and environment that gave rise to martial skills in the first place.

Ask yourself this – how many times have you seen a film or TV show and noticed a ‘samurai sword’ in the belt the wrong way? How do we know which side of the gi goes over the other? These are things we learn along the way, but which are not written down in a convenient instruction manual of everything you need to know. One way to pick up some of these skills is to live in Japan, to learn from experience and observation, but that is not an option for everyone.

Imagine an individual a few hundred years ago, growing up in a samurai family. As part of his upbringing he learns to walk and run in a Japanese way, he learns to punch and throw, he wears a blade in his obi from an early age, and may have fought in a battle and be considered an adult from the age of 11-17. Learning how to wear a sword, how to tie the obi, how to wear a hakama, how to tie back the sleeves, these are all things learnt whilst growing up and the style of doing so will vary with the time period. For example the act of drawing the sword is something learnt as he grows, skill in fighting with a sword is developed alongside his peers and under the tuition of more senior retainers or family, through tutelage as well as observation.

Bearing this in mind the modern martial artist has to acknowledge this lack of cultural experience and seek to remedy the gap through observation, practice, research and direct experience.

With the above imaginary individual, we should understand that they have the background that leads to development of kihon, the next step above this can be to add the special skills or peculiarities of a martial tradition (ryū) – the specific (and secret) methods they use in taijutsu, battōjutsu, iaijutsu, kenjutsu, sōjutsu and so on. These skills will vary depending on location and time period. Eventually some of these traditions have survived to the modern age, undoubtedly evolved or adapted, to their modern forms as schools of bujutsu or budō.

For example look at the art of drawing the sword from from around the 11th Century to the present in a simplified form of three phases (I’m using iai here as a gross simplification, battō is an older term for iai).

• 1st – Iai (or pre-iai) – The Kamakura period onwards to the Sengoku-jidai plays host to large scale battles. The tachi is worn hanging from the waist, blade downwards, whilst armoured in yoroi. The sword is drawn out to enter battle or as a substitute to a broken naginata or yari. If the tachi is very long then it may be carried by a retainer to be drawn as necessary. Sword drawing is not defined as a specific martial skill, but exists as an action nuku 抜く.
• 2nd – Iaijutsu – The Edo period brings ‘peace’ and large battles become much less frequent. Samurai wear kimono and the practice of wearing the katana in the obi blade upwards is the norm. Numerous schools are formed and students can travel to learn. Iaijutsu as a skill is practised and developed to quickly draw the sword and cut when ambushed. Various special styles and methods are developed depending on location and type of sword. The techniques can then be named. Sword masters such as Miyamoto Musashi, Tsukuhara Bokuden, Yagyū Jūbei emerge and mushashugyō is undertaken. First battō 抜刀 is used to refer to drawing the sword, later iai 居合.
• 3rd – Iaidō – The Meiji era sees sword use waning, relegated to a quaint skill from the past. Some traditions keep it alive. New ways, the dō, are developed from old techniques to popularise the practice of martial skills as sports and meditative exercises, such as – Judō, Aikidō, Kendō, Kyudō, Naginatadō, Jodō, Iaidō. Schools now have a set syllabus or curriculum, this requires the classification and codification of specific form and technique. In the example of iai, iaidō, becomes an exercise in form, posture, spirit with a set number of techniques and levels.

My point being that we need to acknowledge that in our present age that to study old martial arts we are starting from below zero, we need to continually develop our background understanding and skills to enable us to form a solid base for the fundamental skills (kihon) to be built upon. This knowledge won’t be found in handy written form, in the denshō of xyz-ryū, but it is essential in the practice of budō.

There are three elements here in the development of martial skills: first learn background, second develop kihon, third practice form (kihon happō, waza, kata). A certain skill or movement may be found in any of these areas, for example a punch as a basic human skill, can be turned into a practice exercise in kihon, and implemented as a specific part of a series of movements within a kata. It’s not as simple as assigning it to just one area. With iai, in the beginning there is simply the act of taking the sword out of the scabbard, then there are methods of drawing in different directions or styles as the kihon, followed by the inclusion of iai as a part of a form or kata.

Putting these together leads to spontaneity of action and adaptability in a violent situation. 豹変して必ず勝つhyohen shite kanarazu katsu – sudden change will always prevail. Budō isn’t found in kihon, in waza or in kata, it is a synthesis and expression of their practice.


~ by bujinshugyo on June 21, 2011.

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