Revisiting Measurements for Training Weapons

In a previous post from a few years back, I spoke about the importance of measurements for one’s weapons according to the martial system being studied. There, it was mentioned how necessary it is to wield weapons that have proper dimensions according to our body type when we are beginners. For this post, we will take this same subject and look at it from another perspective, where I discuss about the strong points of training with weapons of irregular dimensions in kobudō (古武道, Classical Japanese martial arts) as an advanced student.


When first starting out, a student is required to acquire training weapons that fit their body type in order to study the lessons correctly. After some time has passed where the student has become familiar with a particular weapon of a standard length, they should next come out of their comfort zone and handle one of a different length. Sometimes this can be impromptu during class, or other times the focus of the lesson can be placed on this point. There are many reasons behind this. For starters, to further understand the principles for said weapon, whether it be a sword or staff, one has to be exposed to conditions that teach us lessons that go beyond just the physical. Distance, timing, and positioning are just some of the principles that require being explored under not-so-usual conditions.

An example of bokutō (wooden swords) of different lengths

For starters, against an adversary with a sanjaku dachi (三尺太刀, a Japanese sword that measures about three feet), a rokushaku bō (六尺棒, six-foot stick) provides a great reach that allows the wielder to perform ashibarai (足払, leg sweep) from a safe distance. Yet, when given a sanjaku bō (三尺棒, three-foot stick), you won’t have the same advantage as before. Still, with further training and having a deep understanding of the principles of one’s art, you can still perform an ashibarai to defeat an opponent without getting cut down.


Sometimes the same set of kata for one particular weapon is used to teach how to use another weapon even if it’s a different size. This is another challenging point that can further support an martial system’s ideology across a different span of weapons. For example, some traditional schools in Japan have used the kata for the naginata as a means to learn how to wield the yari. Others have used the kata for the katana to understand how to utilize the kusarigama. each of these weapons have unique traits that provide interesting results, especially in the case of the kusarigama; a sickle with a flexible chain & weight takes a great amount of understanding and control if pitted in the same scenario where a katana would be used.

Next, there are those kata where one performs with a katana, but then later does it with a much longer sword like an ōdachi, or with a much smaller one like a kodachi. All three are categorized as swords, but with varying lengths. For an advanced student, one of the greatest challenges here is understanding the strengths & weaknesses of the weapon in hand, and how it affects not only the control (or lack of) they may gain, but also how their opponent will react based on how each weapon is manipulated.


When an adequate amount of training has been put in, an advanced student should begin to develop the ability  to use anything that comes into hand. Looking the development of different martial systems in Japan’s history from the 1500s onward, many incorporated the study of multiple weapons in the form of sōgō bujutsu (総合武術, martial system featuring numerous disciplines). This not only encouraged bushi (武士, warriors) to be familiar in many different skills, but to be resourceful enough to use anything that they could get their hands on, including their opponent’s own weapon. The same mentality remains in various martial arts schools even today.

Many countries have very strict laws against carrying weapons, even those for self defense purposes. While it may seem impractical to study classical systems that specialize in the use of the yari, kusarigama, and so forth, this isn’t truth. Much of what is learned can be applied to common tools and items we find around ourselves everyday. An umbrella substituted for a sanjaku bō, a shovel used in place of a yari, or even a belt wielded like a kusarifundō are but examples of adapting one’s training for self-defense in today’s contemporary world. With a thorough understanding of the principles necessary for this through consistent training, it is possible to naturally use any common item in your environment as a weapon without getting caught up in small details such as being the “correct” length with the iaitō used in training, and so on.


In conclusion, working with weapons of different dimensions during training has its merits for advanced students. This can range from handling same-type weapons of varying lengths to using a specific to learn another different weapon type. In the end, a student should be able to go past form & structure of a particular weapon and grasp a deep understanding of the principles behind what make it work. Achieving this, that student will be able to reach the outcome they so desire despite the length of said weapon being slightly off of what would normally fit their body type.

Attire and the Evolution of Martial Arts

Many organizations, groups, and clubs that study Japanese martial arts usually have specific training attires. Some, that are treated as uniforms, help to identify what is being studied, or the style/school everyone belongs to. Other attires may represent following a tradition  of strict rules, or modern schools that are more loose in structure. Training attire is more than just looks, but actually have an effect in the evolution of martial arts. For today’s post, I will focus on this point through the changes that took place in the martial style called jūjutsu (柔術)¹, which is the predecessor to today’s jūdō (柔道)².


The history of training attire is not as long as one would think. Before Japan’s peaceful times, there was no standard clothing one needed to wear. However, after the unification of Japan in the 1600s, there were several pushes for standardization. This is especially true once martial arts schools increased and, for the sake of business, having a modest sized student base was a desire.

A pic of Maeda Mitsuyo. Although he is renown as a jūdōka (practitioner of jūdō), his training attire is reminiscent of the shorter sleeves and pants those who trained in jūjutsu would wear. Screenshot from International Suigetsujuku Bujutsu Association.

Jūjutsu became a well-established martial system from the Edo period onward due to the peaceful, yet regulated society everyone was living in. Despite the shift from battlefield confrontations, martial artists at the time still needed to rely on skills to defend against attacks in town, or to use for work. Jūjutsu of old is recognized for throwing and restraining techniques, but also utilized strikes and weapons. As a system that taught bearing a mindset for effectiveness in a fight, the training attire also reflected this.

Around the late 1800s, as a more competitive approach was taken in martial arts, a man by the name of Kanō Jigoro³ took a chance to transform jūjutsu in a way where it could be more accessible to many without the risk of serious injuries from the more combat-focus techniques, such as atemiwaza (当身技). Taking the nagewaza (投げ技), gatamewaza (固め技), and ashiwaza (足技) from various koryū jūjutsu he either studied or researched, Mr. Kanō developed a new approach for engaging in grappling in a more health-conscious & sports-centric fashion, which he called jūdō. Training attire also changed to cater to this new system, where the sleeves of the jacket was made longer, the pant legs reached lower, and the clothing was made baggy overall. As a sport, the larger uniforms encouraged more frequent attempts to grapple and apply techniques. Thus, jūdō is a martial art that is actively trained in by both men & women, and young & old.


From what can be learned from antique koryū scrolls, jūjutsuka (柔術家, meaning those who train in jūjutsu) wore a short-sleeve jacket. An advantage of this was to avoid having your sleeves used against you, where it can be grabbed for control or get you thrown. Also, their hakama (袴, wide-leg pants) was at times shorter, where it reached slightly above the knees, or just generally slimmer. This allowed for less restriction in footwork. In other scrolls, robe-like attire with no pants may have also been worn during jūjutsu training. This has a look of what would’ve been worn indoors or during hot days.

2 pages from a book called “Jujutsu Kenbo Zukai Hiken” (柔術剣棒図解秘訣), where jūjutsu techniques are demonstrated by those wearing a much older style of training attire.

From these old pictures, you’ll notice that while these martial artists shared the same style of clothing, these were not quite fitting to the word “uniform”. Each jūjutsuka’s training attire was very much the same as common wear, boosting different designs and patterns. This does illustrate a sense of practicality, where one learns how to utilize their skills in the very type of clothing they’d be wearing in case a confrontation does arise.

Later in the years, this style of training attire standardized around the Meiji period. The jacket was similar as before, but was more of what is called a dōgi (道着, training uniform), where it was generally white and used primarily for martial arts training. As before, the jacket is “han-sode” (半袖, short-sleeve) style. Instead of a short hakama, a simple short pants called “han-zubon” (半ズボン), which is similar to what was worn under hakama, became part of this new uniform. Still the same mindset for jūjutsu was retained.


While it’s safe to say that jūjutsu was the forefather of jūdō, make no mistake that they’re not the same. Jūdō takes a different approach, from how techniques are performed to rules. To say it simply, the difference is generally stated as the following:

  • Jūjutsu = kata geiko (形稽古)
  • Jūdō = randori (乱取り)

Although this is a direct statement, it’s not so cut & dry. First, let’s look into the specifics between the two. when studying older martial systems that specialize in jūjutsu, kata geiko is used to learn the techniques, timing, and under what types of situations can a person perform what through kata (形, forms). Movements are generally specific, while grappling techniques applied (with strikes acceptable to assist) in a way to prevent an opponent from escaping or even taking ukemi (受身, breakfall). On the other hand, jūdō uses a great deal of randori to practice and learn techniques in a more active setting between 2 jūdōka (柔道家, a person who practices jūdō) who are frequently going for a clinch. This type of training is great for the adrenaline-fueled matches found in jūdō competition. In short, the training that takes place in randori is much more free form, while kata geiko puts emphasis on precision under structured scenarios.

A visual comparison between jūjutsu and jūdō. Notice the shorter sleeves and pant legs for the 2 jūjutsuka (left) compared to the longer versions for the 2 jūdōka (right). Left pic is a screenshot from International Suigetsujuku Bujutsu Association, while the left pic is from Wikipedia.

While it is true that jūjutsu does have a great dependency on kata geiko, this doesn’t mean that randori, or some form of free play, isn’t used as a training tool. This can also be said for jūdō, for there are kata used to teach, as well as to publicly demonstrate, how techniques are executed. The approach for both systems are different, but not so one-sided.

Another difference lies in the clothing. When engaging with a training partner in jūjutsu, areas to actually grapple are limit. Students are often limited to grabbing the collar and jacket of their partner, as there are no long sleeves. While the bare arms can be seized, it won’t be firm grip. In jūdō, not only are the long sleeves of their jackets available, but one can get a firm grip and stay latched on. Also, with wearing long pants, a student can attempt many types of throws that go to he ground due to the legs being completely covered. For those who practiced jūjutsu in the past, this is not the case, for greater care in execution had to be considered in order to avoid bruising one’s knees and exposed legs while wearing short pants.


Here ends a short look at training attire and how it may help influence the changes that take place in martial arts. While the connection between jūjutsu and judo was used to illustrate this point, many other Japanese martial systems have a similar history where evolving with the times was impacted from the need to conform with the change in clothing.

1) Jūjutsu is generally labeled a a “grappling system”, but it’s a little more than that. In essence, it’s a hand-to-hand martial system that utilizes grapples, strikes, and (small) weapons. Due to Japan’s history of engaging in activities where one displays their strength through a wrestling-like fashion, grapples do play a larger role in jūjutsu.

2) Jūdō is a modern adaption of jūjutsu, which takes a more philosophical approach, and focuses on the development of a healthy body and refining the spirit. Note that the word “jūdō” is not a modern term itself, as its use can be found in a much older document called “Nihon Shinbu no Den” (日本神武の伝).

3) The creation of jūdō is a credited to Kanō Jigoro (嘉納治五郎). After studying the jūjutsu of Tenshin Shinyō ryū (天神真楊流) and Kitō ryū (起倒流) during his youth, Jigoro researched various jūjutsu systems to understand how to devise a new system that could be beneficial to all. In 1882, he opened up his own training hall called “Kōdōkan” (講道館), and introduced his unique style called jūdō.

Densho: The Importance of Note-Taking

The word “densho” is a common one which many who are involved in older Japanese martial systems are familiar with. It has a special place in many people’s minds to be a treasure of secret knowledge of how to do amazing techniques and invoke mystic powers. Did you know that you too can have your own special densho? It’s possible, as long as you bring a pen and notebook to class.


The word densho (伝書) means “a document of transmission” in Japanese. As the name implies, these are documentations that contain information pertaining to a martial system. These were written on different mediums, like orihon (折り本, folding book), makimono (巻物, scroll), tojihon (綴じ本, binding book), etc., depending on the time period. Densho is not only limited to martial arts, other fields used this form of transmission as well.

There are different grades of densho. They can come in the form of listing (目録, mokuroku), varying levels of grading such as shoden (初伝) and chūden (中伝), licensing (免状, menjō), mastery (皆伝, kaiden), and inheritance (継承, keishō). Those that represent inheritance are generally designated to one or few people, as it contains more important yet private information, which generally wasn’t shown to anyone else. Those that inherit a martial system as a new successor have to maintain their particular tradition, and not only have the right to add content to it that they see fit, but can also edit and change original content. This is expected by successors to take the time and update the knowledge every generation if they want the system to stay relevant in each generation.


Online presentation of sections from a densho of Muhen Mukyoku ryū (無邊無極流). From Bujutsushi Ryōshūi.


Contents of a densho can range from philosophy of said system, to technique names (plus descriptions, if required), lineage list, poems, deeper instructions, invocations, and so on. Reviewing public densho shows that this is a tradition many martial schools practiced for many generations. The same can be said for this generation as well. The difference is that while in the past generations secrecy was of utmost importance for many martial schools, much of the contents are shared between just about anyone nowadays, especially with the openness and ease of access the internet provides.


A student should take notes of what they are learning each day they go to train in their respective martial arts style. There are several points that are important for this. For starters, taking notes help promote active learning, since it will engage you to analyze what you have physically learned. Note-taking also helps to prevent forgetting the lessons you are learning. Along with this, one should review and ensure their notes are correct, especially through clarification with their teacher.

If you stick with a particular school or style for several years and train diligently, you’ll eventually learn much of the necessary contents. Through note-taking, you’ll be able to maintain your own “densho” of that particular style, as you jot down the basics necessary for structural development, forms, techniques, philosophy, and so on. If a person puts confidence into their training, and are serious about the martial system they are learning, this will be illustrated in the notes they take. Thus, their “densho” can compare to that which is a few hundred years old…at least in terms of practical use.


While it’s possible to make your personal notes just as valuable as many have done generations ago, it still will not outweigh the ones that are in the possession of a headmaster who oversees a martial system. The reason is because theirs represent the tradition that is in their hands to maintain. Along with that, there are contents of said martial system that are not, and should not be, made knowledgeable to just anyone, even to their own students. The exception to this are those who will be selected as the next successor, or possibly to those who will inherit the system themselves. This is nothing new, and has been common practice for hundreds of years. Not knowing these contents are fine, as there is a lot of weight to bear for those individuals given such responsibility.

Two piles of notepads and other random pieces of papers I used for note-taking for most of my martial arts career (2 left pics). They’ve accumulated over the years. To reduce paper waste I’ve resorted to using a digital notepad on my smartphone, which helps in keeping neater and organized notes (right pic). Someday I’ll find time to sit down and compile them into actual books personal to me that I can treasure.


Another thing worth mentioning is it is not necessary to write every single aspect of the art we study down. Other than information that represents the identity of the martial style one is studying, such as poems and stories of the originator of said style, it is seen as near impossible. One reason is that if one is active in their training, then notes are supposed to literally be just notes; your notes are to be an outline and a reminder of key elements of the art we study, but the full art should be ingrained in our bodies. For example, a quick look at our notes should be to remember the specific sequence of a form, or the name of a technique, which after briefly looked upon, we should be able to perform or explain near flawlessly. Notes cannot capture the entire feeling of a movement, or the intention for making slight adjustments in our techniques. If anything, it is important to understand the philosophy and principles behind the techniques of what we are learning, and retain those in our notes. This is how a densho can be made and retained. That way, a student won’t be taught to move in a mechanical fashion, or demonstrate techniques only in limited context.


Densho is a means to pass down a martial system, which has been used for hundreds of years. It is an ageless method, and is used by martial arts schools in Japan today. By understanding its meaning, this is something that many students all over the world also do when they take down notes. Treasure your notes as something valuable, and in turn it’ll be a true densho with contents that can be passed down to future generations.

Nisshin Geppo in Martial Arts

There are many benefits in studying martial arts. While each individual has their own reasons for pursuing martial arts, everyone can gain in different ways if done long enough. In kobudō (Classical Japanese martial arts), which my group studies, we take part in many sessions of repeated drills, going through kata geiko, and engaging conditioning. The reason for this is to develop a mentality of “nisshin geppo”, an idiom of old in Japan that is still used with the advancement of society¹, which hints to how we can utilize what we are learning to benefit in the long run.

The phrase nisshin geppo is written with the characters as “日進月歩”, which translates as “steady progress, rapid advance”. In simpler terms, this phrase also stands for “self-improvement”, and how it’s written describes how we can do so. Self-improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but is something that we have to work towards on a daily basis. Each day we can get better at the tasks at hand or the activities we are involved in as long as we put time & effort in it. Consistency is the key here, for if we develop a regular routine, in time we can see growth in ourselves. Even if it’s not every day, a few times a week is also fine, just so long as there aren’t too many breaks in between.



Writing of the word “nisshin geppo”

As an example, having long practice sessions in a curriculum is standard for kobudō. This, along with reviewing & challenging what we are learning, keeps us from becoming complacent and thinking that we are already “good”. We have to consider that there will always be plenty of areas for growth, and prepare to adapt to the unexpected. Such as when we are sick or tired, when walking on wet surfaces due to rain or snow, after eating, growing older, and so on. A martial artist being in a constant state of 100% is not possible, which is why one should be ready to accept that training can be a lifetime activity of continuous work. This is an interpretation of nisshin geppo. On a positive side, possessing such an outlook will keep an individual in top shape and help develop a high level of skill.

Outside of combat, martial arts can be used for self-improvement as a human being. From a least noticeable perspective, some skill sets are multi-purpose, which make them beneficial even in our normal daily lives. For example, in our Chikushin group we have a special exercise called “Ukimi no Ho”, which entails training in different methods of stepping. While it’s prime purpose is to develop better footwork when performing techniques both empty-handed and while utilizing a weapon, its overall benefits extend to improving our natural habits for walking as it can be applied at any time during our daily routines. Another example is “ukemigata”, the method of performing breakfalls. Greatly seen by does who practice grappling systems such as jūdō and aikidō, ukemigata is necessary for avoiding damage from otherwise dangerous throws. Outside of the dojo, ukemigata can help to develop a natural ability to avoid serious injuries in unexpected scenarios, such as slipping while walking on an icy sidewalk, or catching oneself if tripping over computer wires while at work.

By understanding the meaning behind the idiom nisshin geppo, it is easy to understand that the notion of self-improvement exists in many fields of activities. Those dedicated in kobudō also have the means to strive for constant betterment in themselves through training. For the martial artist who has patience and desire for this, then walking this path is not at all difficult.

1) While my wife (who is a native of Japan) and I discussed the word nisshin geppo and its roots being that of personal growth for people and the activities they engage in, she also pointed out that nowadays this word can be seen used widely in relations to the advancement of technology in Japan.

Training A Healthy Life: Body Maintenance

In today’s society, martial arts is considered a good way for developing a strong, healthy body. This is true, especially those that can be participated in by elders. Outside of the combat elements, however, there are several routines related to martial arts that are essential for taking care of the body. On their own, these routines can support and promote a long, healthy life. Coined as “body maintenance”, below is an explanation of several components of this, as well as tips from my own experience.


A form of body maintenance is stretching, which is a basic routine essential for almost all types of martial arts. Called jūnan taisō¹ in Japanese, oftentimes this is reserved for the begnning of a traning session, where one stretches the arms, legs, waist, and so on in order to increase the flexibility in one’s muscles, and tendons. Stretching is vital as it not only allows a person to perform punches, kicks, and body movements required in given martial system, but can prevent serious injuries from certain joint and body strains or sudden falls one may get if their body isn’t supple enough.

Picture on the left, reaching both hands behind our backs, while in the picture on the right, front leg lifts.

In order to maximize one’s ability to stretch, there are other important segments to remember. One of these is loosening the joints up before doing deep, long stretches. This can be done by rotating one’s arms, swinging one’s legs, rotating the hips, and so on. Loosening one’s joints should be done with control and care, especially for beginners; excessive and/or overpowered limb and joint manipulation could lead to strains, tears, or severe joint injuries.


Another routine for body maintenace is body massages. In some martial systems great emphasis is placed on this, as massages can loosen and relax muscles, and promote good blood flow. Massages can warm up the muscles to prevent injuries during active times while training, such as muscle pulls. This is also true in sports. In my group, several basic massaging routines used include those that can be self-applied. This includes simply rubbing and pressing the muscles on the calves, forearms, sides, feet, and back.

Various ways to increase flexibility in the wrists

A unique way to actively massage the body is through light body strikes. Just like a regular massage, a practicioner can self-apply this all over the body using different parts of the hand, such as the palm or sides. While this gives you similar results to regular massages, light body strikes also works as conditioning for the body, for the impact toughens the skin and gets one’s body used to the striking sensation. One must also be careful to do this moderately and to one’s capacity, for striking too intensely can cause unforeseen damage.


Body maintenance should not only be performed in class, but outside during one’s daily routines as well. Actually, it cannot be stressed enough about the necessity of doing this on a daily basis. For example, I personally did stretching up to 3 times a day while growing up, and this was outside of training. I would stretch once in the morning, once in the early afternoon, and once at night, preferably before going to bed. This routine has benefited me greatly over the years health-wise, as well as avoiding long term injuries. Of course, there are some guidelines to keep in mind:

Examples of ground stretches for the legs and body.

① Never stretch immediately upon waking up. Walk around abit and warm up the muscles & joints before beginning stretching.

② Do not stretch immediately after eating. For the afternoon, stretch before eating lunch, or save it for early evening after eating lunch.

③ If going to bed immediately after stretching, then stretch lightly and less vigorously. Stretching stimulates the blood and can wake up the body.

While stretching is a must before training, stretching after a training session is also important. After training sessions is good for loosening tight, fatique muscles, and improving blood flow. It should not be as vigorous as the before-training stretch, nor as long.


Body maintenance is an important, non-combative element in martial arts. It should be performed as much as the combative elements. Body maintenance can be achieved almost anywhere and anytime. For a martial artist, body maintenance not only can keep us healthy, but allow us to keep training in our techniques even when we get old, if done correctly.

1) 柔軟体操. Along with stretching, jūnan taisō also refers to movements and motor skills found in calisthenics.

Benefits of Overcoming Difficult Things

In classical Japanese martial arts, just about everyone runs into techniques, routines, or concepts that are difficult to handle. Like a very high wall, these may seem near impossible to overcome, whether it means adapting this particular thing into one’s repertoire or working on it for long periods until it becomes something natural to do. In some cases the difficulty is due to a lack of physical strength or coordination, while in others it’s a mental block. Then there are those cases where our lack of interest causes us not to proceed forward with that particular area of training. However, with a bit of drive, we can overcome such difficult things, as well as gain an overall benefit in our journey of learning the martial arts.

Examples of flexible weapons. Top left is a kusari fundō, bottom left is a kyoketsu shoge, while on the right are a kusarigama and ōgama. All are handmade training weapons which are light, fairly soft materials with no sharp parts.

A case that sticks out particularly in my own experience is the difficulty of using flexible weapons. In my younger days, I made a point to be as proficient as I could with all that was taught to me at my previous dojo. Yet, I was more inclined to not further my studies on such martial tools like the kusari fundō (鎖分銅, chain with weights on opposite ends), hayanawa (早縄, fast-tie ropes for restraining), and kusarigama (鎖鎌, chain with a sickle and weight on either ends). These types of weapons are much more difficult to use than non-flexible ones, and require more personal training time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn how to use them, it’s just that I saw no real value in doing so; other than twirling them, I couldn’t grasp any practical applications with them. Exaggerated images of using flexible weapons for lassoing was one of the dominant reasons for my personal mental block. Despite getting training in them, my notes and experience on flexible weapons were often pushed to the side to collect dust.

Many years later, I began doing research on the style of kusari fundō used in the martial system I was studying at the time. I also explored similar weapons studied in different martial arts schools and observed how these flexible tools were being used. Little by little I began to realize that my understanding of flexible weapons were flawed and misinformed. To correct this I continued with my research, sought out advice, and began retraining outside of my normal training regiment for several years. Focus on structured handling, and practical applications of flexible weapons based on classical teachings has given me a new outlook.

Pics from a past training session with a fellow buyu (武友, martial arts buddy). Working with a kyoketsu shoge (距跋渉毛), a unique tool that consists of a knife with a hook on the side connected to a rope with a metal ring on the other end. For training purposes, a handmade “safe version” is used. Also, instead of a rope, a plastic chain is used for strength building purposes.

For example, the use of kamae (構え, one’s posture based on the given moment) is critical in understanding where each part of a flexible weapon is at all times, which is an important fundamental that extends to every weapon one studies in classical Japanese martial arts. The image of mindlessly swinging them has also been eliminated from my mind, for I’ve learned that doing so is actually not the core principle for using flexible weapon, but something that serves several purposes, such as improving one’s control through furigata (振り型, practice of swinging flexible weapons in specific directions and under specific conditions) . While it was a difficult endeavor to make these adjustments, my motivation was reinvigorated, and I was driven to put great amounts of energy into the training of flexible weapons and learning them correctly.

Although my journey is far from over, I have grown as a person and am in a better place with handling flexible weapons I originally could not understand. Everyone encounters difficult things in activities they engage in, especially classical Japanese martial arts. My advice is to hang in there, seek help, and work even harder to overcome them. In time, you will notice results, one step at a time, and be more inclined to tackle any obstacles that may come your way.

Foundation and Context

Recently, I had a discussion with a good training buddy of mine about how training can be conducted during one’s class. While we hit on many topics, one interesting point that came up was being productive in one’s training while studying techniques. For traditional Japanese martial arts, there are stories about students (usually those that are new) working on only one technique for the duration of a class. While there is much practicality in this in terms of building one’s foundation in a certain area, this is not a practice to embrace all the time, especially in today’s fast-paced society where martial arts classes only meet but a few times a week for around 2 hours. When working on technique, contextual training is necessary along with foundational conditioning. Both can be incorporated together to ensure a balanced learning experience, while adjusting according which one to focus on more based on a student’s level.

As an example, let’s look at a technique called “Jōdan Uke¹”, which is a basic blocking method in Taijutsu². Jōdan Uke is something new students will learn early in their martial arts career, as it is pretty basic and simple to mimic. However, what appears simple in appearance can be difficult in application without proper training. In the beginning, physical structure is an important point and one that needs to be focused on for a long time. Simply going through the motion of transitioning from shizentai³ into Jōdan Uke, then back into shizentai is effective, and can be a good way to train mental and spiritual endurance (during and outside of class). However, this may not prove to be the best way to understand Jōdan Uke if this is all that is done, especially in a 2-hour session. In a class setting where Jōdan Uke is the focus, let’s look at a method where both foundational conditioning and contextual training are combined for a balanced training session.

Demonstration of Jōdan Uke against a strike.

After class begins, with stretching, warm ups, and other formalities completed, students spread out to work on drilling Jōdan Uke. Working both left side and right side, they spend around 15 minutes going through the motion as a group under the teacher’s guidance. Next, they pair up with one another and again drill Jōdan Uke against a straight punch. This gives them a stimulus where they can learn how to not only execute it correctly with proper body form, but see their errors as well as understand where this technique fails if not done properly. This can be worked on with a similar time duration. The following exercise can then be worked on in the form of uke–tori⁴ practice, where one person (uke) executes a series of pre-set punch attacks (starting off, 2-3), while the other person (tori) works on defending against these with preset movements, with Jōdan Uke being one of those movements. The purpose of this exercise is to have the one using Jōdan Uke continue to learn how it works in order to overcome their opponent. If kept short (5-10 minutes) and time permits, several uke-tori practice drills can be used for the remainder of the training session, with the next using a different scenario that teaches how to apply Jōdan Uke (i.e. against a shirt grab, against a kick-punch sequence, etc.). To note, since the premise of this training is for beginners or newer students, it’s best that only defensive applications of Jōdan Uke are worked on, to ensure proper foundation building.

This is an interpretation of how one can apply a balance between foundational conditioning and contextual training. There is no official way to go about this, but one must achieve a correct approach that is productive in the long run, as well as effective.

1) 上段受け. Simple translation would be “high-block”.

2) 体術. Taijutsu is an older term for hand-to-hand combat, and is still used today by some traditional martial arts groups in Japan.

3) 自然体. Means to stand in a normal posture where you are neither on the offense or defense. Usually, one’s hands are to are sides.

4) 受捕. This is a joint word referring to training where one person take the role as the attacker and lose (uke), while the other takes the role as the defender and win (tori).

Reihō and Sahō in Traditional Martial Arts

Within the traditional martial arts of Japan are customary practices called reihō¹ and sahō². They both have strong cultural ties, and play an essential role both in and out of martial training. When traditional martial arts were introduced to western countries, such as the United States, some individuals made efforts to retain both reihō and sahō. However, not everyone sees the significance in them, and may even feel that these 2 practices can be excluded. For this post, I will discuss about the importance of reihō and sahō, from their roles on a cultural aspect to the lessons that lay hidden in them.


Let’s first look at the practice of reihō, which has the dictionary meaning of “etiquette” or “manners”. It’s function is a bit deeper than these definitions, though. An integral part of Japan’s history, the idea of reihō is practiced daily within the culture of Japan as showing respect to people, objects, customs, and so on. It is like a code of conduct, an unwritten behavior of sorts that has evolved over time. For martial arts, reihō is simply showing respect to one’s teacher, training partners, the weapons & equipment one uses, as well as to the art itself. While a customary practice, for those who aren’t native to Japan generally have to be taught reihō³.

A misconception of reihō is that it is ritualistic, or religious by nature. Actually this is not the case. Reihō is very simple in presentation and has reason behind its existence. There are few exceptions where certain groups and schools (i.e. Ogasawara ryu, Imagawa ryu, and Ise ryu) have “ritualized” their reihō, especially during the peaceful times of Edo period. Focusing on a visually appealing presentation, very structured rules and procedures are used within their formalized reihō, which can be seen in practices such as rope tying for both armor and packaging, flower arrangement, and style of clothing worn for martial events. While they may have been influential in certain aspects, what these groups do is not considered the norm.

The 3 pics above show the reiho used during kenjutsu training in Chikushin Martial and Cultural Training Group. Click on each pic for further descriptions.

Bowing one’s head is the obvious indication of reihō. For martial arts there are a few that can be considered standard, or commonly see. Some of these are the following:

  • Shizen rei (自然礼) = Standing bow, to peers, teacher, etc.
  • Shinzen rei (神前礼) = Bow to the kamidana (small shrine in a dojo), in respect to the art and forefathers
  • Shi rei (師礼) = Bow to teacher before, and after, training

Keep in mind that the types of reihō practiced depends on a martial school’s history, customs, what type of martial system it specializes in, and so forth.

Other than showing respect, reihō can serve some unique purposes not often considered. One is it helps to develop habits of “staying human” during training. What does “staying human” mean? In an activity where one learns techniques that can potentially hurt another, reihō acts like a reminder to be gentle with training partners during practice, and be thankful that they entrust his/her safety in your hands. This can be seen when two individuals bow before engaging in kata geiko, as well as the bow afterwards. It is here where reihō can help us to stay human, and put aside our ego. Without it, training could resemble that of a fight club, where participants engage just to be only strong and unbeatable, while disregarding the safety of those who they train with.

Another aspect of reihō is it contains some tactical applications both for physical purposes, as well as psychological. It varies between martial schools, and is applied accordingly based on the school’s philosophy. For example, reihō can teach the concept to gesture respect to others, which in turn you can gain trust, friendship, and possibly gain access to much needed information. On the other hand, reihō can encourage to develop awareness about people around you, especially in unfamiliar places, and read people’s temperament.


Sahō is a practice that, much like reihō, has deep roots in Japanese culture. Dictionary terms tend to be the same as reihō (manners and etiquette), but actually goes beyond stated definitions. Sahō deals with preparation and customary actions, which can be as grand as ceremonial event to something as small as one’s everyday routine. The sahō of Chadō⁴ (tea ceremony), for example, is a great representation of the effort & attention to detail that is incorporated into presenting an elegant and engaging experience for those who appreciate tea.

Historically, sahō plays an important role in the nation of Japan rich with an intricate tradition. Its influence can be found in how rooms were prepared with specific decor for special events, how particular outfits were worn daily to work, and so on. As one would expect, sahō not only helps keep order and consistency in certain engagements & routines, but makes record keeping of what is required easy.


The sahō for many traditions have been recorded during peaceful times in Japan. For example, this dated manual called “Tokokazari Un’ō no Maki” (床飾蘊奥の巻) depicts detailed instructions for servants/employees on how to set up a room for specific celebrations and events.

In Japanese martial arts, there are different aspects of sahō. On the lowest level, sahō is simply wearing one’s keikogi for training. On a more visually profound level, we see sahō during the start of certain training exercises, as well as while working on specific kata. This can vary numerous ways, from the specific way one walks to initiate a training exercise, 2 practitioners bow to each other, to even how a particular weapon is prepped for use.

Here is an example of sahō that is used in my martial arts group, Chikushin Martial & Cultural Training Group. During kenjutsu training we utilize what is called “Issoku Ittō no Maai⁵”. This entails 2 people standing a few feet away from each other while holding their bokutō (wooden sword) on their right side as if a real sheathed sword. Passing it to their left hand, both draw their bokutō out (as like a katana from its sheath), stand in a posture called Seigan, and walk forward. They meet the tips of their bokutō together before stepping back and assuming the designated posture. While it can appear ceremonial at times, one of the purposes of Issoku Ittō no Maai is to help learn proper cutting range with a katana.


This pic shows a small part of a unique sahō used for a bo versus katana sequence where both practitioners place their weapons on the ground in a specific formation, followed by a za rei (kneeling bow). Such is done for public demonstrations and events.

Possibly the most common place to see a martial school’s sahō is during public demonstrations. For these demonstrations, generally called an enbu⁶, sahō that is presented may seem very ritualistic. For example, a practitioner is preparing for a solo kata which includes a sheathed katana, he/she may appear mentally focused and serious as the katana is gestured during bowing or the like, as if in a zen-like state, before inserted into the obi. Or when 2 practitioners that have finished a sequence in a paired kata may do movements that appear slow and exaggerated, with pauses that make their presentation seem not-so-combative. There are reasons behind all this.

For the most part, sahō during a public demonstration is all for the sake of presentation, to convey to spectators the type of spirit one must develop. Studying traditional martial arts isn’t only about developing a strong, physical body; refining one’s spirit and fortifying one’s mental endurance are just as important, and sahō helps to support this. Another reason can be to indicate where certain techniques are strong and are an actual strike. Take note that while having spectators being able to understand and follow demonstrations is important, this does not mean that sahō should reveal specific details about a particular martial style and its techniques, for certain information, such as strategic timing, are held back and made accessible for those training in that style.


In essence, there are many positive aspects of doing both reihō and sahō. Other than preserving this Japanese tradition, there are lessons that can be useful both in and out of one’s dojo. Those that pursue studying traditional martial arts generally get a chance to learn about these practices at schools that choose to follow this custom. Both reihō and sahō are also preserved in my martial arts group, and incorporated in each training sessions.

1) 礼法

2) 作法

3) Surprisingly, reihō is not a big part within many families’ household in Japan’s current society compared to a few hundred years ago. Although the idea of respect and manners are expressed in many service-related, business-related, and educational-related mediums, one would be surprised how it doesn’t rub off on every individual as a whole. Spending time living amongst the locales, as well as reading current topics on news sites and blogs, gives one the chance to see and understand these changes.

4) 茶道

5) 一足一刀の間合

6) 演舞

Discerning Measurements for Training Weapons

Great care is necessary when studying weapons in martial arts. In the beginning, there are specific forms or drills one must go through in order to understand the characteristics of the weapon that is connected to the ryuha¹, or style of martial system, one is training in. One of the challenging points to ensure correct study is obtaining a training weapon proportional to your body type. For this post, we will look at how the characteristics of weapons (i.e. measurements, material, etc.) are preserved by traditional schools and the hurdles that come with this, the ups & downs of dealing with manufactures that follow the “one size fits all” model, and how one should go about to training with weapons that match us properly.


A good martial arts school will ensure that new students obtain a training weapon suitable for them, whether they are buying it or not. For Japanese traditional martial systems this is commonplace. For example, there are numerous types of systems for kenjutsu² (sword techniques), each with their own unique philosophies. Some may specialize a slightly shorter blade length that requires ashisabaki³ (evasive movements with the feet), or a much longer blade where maai⁴ (distance) and chōshi⁵ (timing) are key components. Others may utilize a nitōryū⁶ (2-sword style) system, where two swords that are wielded in each hand are a different size from each other. At any rate, when wielding a sword that does not fit your school’s criteria, unforeseen adjustments will be made, which will prevent a new student from grasping the principles of the particular kenjutsu being studied.

Example of training kusari fundo I’ve made over the years. Each can have a variation in length, weight, size of the weighted ends, etc.

During my years as an assistant instructor at my previous dojo, I was adamant regarding using training weapons that were proportional with those who attended my class. In one case, the monthly theme was a weighted chain called kusari fundo⁷. We used rope versions for safe training. Since I was already making these rope versions for my own training, I did so for those who attended my class to ensure they learned correctly. I had to measure each student’s arm length so to have their rope kusari fundo tailor-made to them.

There is an interesting story⁸ that deals with the weighted chain. A man by the name of Charles Gruzanski, a military officer stationed in Japan during the 1950s, was accepted as a student in Masaki ryu Manrikigusari jutsu⁹ under the 10th successor at the time, Nawa Fumio. One of the challenges that his teacher had to deal with was finding an appropriate chain size for Charles, as he was a tall man with large hands. The weighted chains that Fumio had just were too short, which would’ve made studying the techniques difficult to comprehend. Through some searching, he finally tracked down a chain from a different style that was large enough for Charles to use. This story is an important reminder that appropriateness in weapon size is necessary in the beginning of one’s training.


There can be a fascination regarding information in ancient documentations, such as scrolls and manuals. Those that have descriptions of weapon dimensions, for example, are important details critical to the identity of a martial system. However, one must take caution in following these details too literally. When a training weapon is being prepared based on specific dimensions, it still needs to be adjusted based on the student’s body proportion.

3 pics that illustrate different lengths in staves used in Japanese martial arts. When first studying bōjutsu that requires the rokushaku bō, choosing the right length is critical. Click on each pic for descriptions.

Let’s look at a very common weapon used in Japanese martial arts, which is the rokushaku bo¹⁰, or 6-shaku staff in English. A shaku¹¹ is an old measurement unit used in Japan. This “6-shaku” is a length that serves as a standard, a rough measurement for a staff that should be around or slightly taller than your height. In the past, this length would be appropriate for most Japanese martial artists that were above 5 feet, but it was not unusual for the staff to be made shorter for accommodation purposes. Likewise, those who are much taller than 6 feet (especially in western countries) would need a staff slightly longer. In cases like these, access to having weapons custom made according to a practitioner’s needs is a must.


Shopping for one’s training weapons can be at times difficult. Going to a common martial arts store in your neighborhood that sells everything at only one size is limiting unless you are at that perfect height where everything fits your body type (around 5″6 & up). When shopping around, especially online, what you should look for from retailers is those that A) provide multiple sizes, B) provide customization services, or C) custom make their weapons.

Stores that offer multiple sizes of a particular training weapon is very convenient. Not only does it make finding one that fits you quickly, but this is also convenient for practitioners of all ages. For example, some stores may offer a wooden daito¹² (a standard sized sword) in 3 sizes: large, medium, and small. This ensures that no matter which size you select, it is proportionally designed, from the blade down to the handle. Those needing a smaller size daitō will not need to substitute with a wooden kodachi, which is naturally designed as a one-handed short sword¹³.

Some retailers may offer a customization service, whether they do it on-site or can have it done by another party. This is good when small adjustments are needed, but don’t necessary need to be redesigned from the ground up. Looking at the rokushaku bō as an example, it may be possible to have one adjusted in length in the case where a shorter one is needed.

Here is a comparison of 2 bokken, or wooden swords. The bottom one is a custom made version of the sword that is used in one of the ryuha I study, Togakure ryu. I was given the dimensions as it is said to be written in that system’s scroll, but had to make slight adjustments when getting it designed in order to match my body type.

Possibly the best option is to shop from a retailer who has training weapons custom made. Not only is it possible to have the dimensions tailored to your liking from the smallest detail, but can go as far as craft it and make it unique just for you. While this can be a great option, it can also be more pricier, as time, cost of materials, and labor goes into custom making training weapons. Quality control for custom made weapons tends to be very high, so if money and time is not an issue, then this is a great route to go.


As a rule, it is important to train with weapons that proportionally match. Finding what matches the practitioner is a task that can be handled by the teacher, as it will ensure little to no errors when purchases are made. However, when this has to be in the hands of a student, the best choice are from retailers that give many options that can fit one’s needs.

1) 流派

2) 剣術. An older name related to fighting techniques with a sword. The modernized system of kendo (剣道) derives from this.

3) 足捌き

4) 間合

5) 調子

6) 二刀流

7) 鎖分銅

8) You can read the full story, and more about Charles Gruzanski’s life story in Japanese martial arts at “Tru-Flyte Martial Arts Memorial Website“, which is maintained by Robert C. Gruzanski.

9) 正木流万力鎖術. Manrikigusari is another name for a weighted chain.

10) 六尺棒. Usually translated as 6-foot staff in English, thus most are sold as so. However, in reality 6 shaku does not equal to 6 feet.

11) 1 shaku = 11.93 inches.

12) 大刀

11) 小太刀. A big difference between a daitō and a kodachi is that the handle of a daitō is long enough for 2 hands to grip, while a kodachi’s handle is long enough for only one hand. Size difference in handle makes it difficult, if not impossible, to practice kenjutsu that requires a normal sword, such as a daitō.

​Irimi Shiai & Its Application To Training

This past weekend during training, I engaged in a session of Irimi Shiai1. For Irimi Shiai, this involved one person using a bokken (wooden sword), while the other uses a training yari (Japanese spear). As this was a rather free form practice, it gave us a chance to work on techniques we learn from Kukishinden ryu Bikenjutsu, and see how to apply it against the techniques from Kukishinden ryu Sōjutsu. However, as this training was focused on the concept of Irimi Shiai, there were some rules we had to abide to, in order to make it a challenging, and informative, learning experience. This also included moments of referring to wearing armor and what role it would play in our kamae, along with spots to attack if the situation was on the battlefield.



What is “Irimi Shiai”, exactly? Well, it is well known as a competitive engagement between a longer weapon and a shorter weapon, but in reality goes beyond this as tactical practice. After Japan moved away from the constant wars of Sengoku period and was followed by several eras that promoted a more peaceful society, many martial schools utilized different training and competitive methods to keep their styles active. One method involved closing the distance between longer weapons, such as the yari. This became more prominent in the 1800s, when most martial schools moved in the direction of Kyōgi Budo² (sports-centric martial arts), competitive engagements that featured a sword style versus a spear style became commonplace.

An artwork (low-quality version) called “Sakakibara Gekikenkai Ezu” by Kaisai Yoshitoshi (aka Tsukioka Yoshitoshi). It features many martial artists in competitive matches while wearing protective gear. In the middle-right, there are 2 individuals squaring off using training yari, while below that are two fighters, one with a shinai, and the other with a naginata. From Wikipedia.


In some older cases of Irimi Shiai, the kenjutsuka (swordsman) dons on padded training armor and uses either a bokken or shinai, while the sōjutsuka (spearman) uses a padded-tip training yari, and no body armor. The goal of this match was the kenjutsuka had to close the distance and get in range to strike, whereas the sōjutsuka had to keep the kenjutsuka with only the tip of the yari. The rules were usually in the favor of the kenjutsuka, whereas they have more range of techniques to use in this match, the sōjutsuka was restricted to only using thrusting techniques, and only to the armored areas on the kenjutsuka. 

Having no body armor for the sōjutsuka is an interesting rule; while it insures the safety of the kenjutsuka (they will get hit a lot by the yari due to its reach), it is a nod the favor of the sōjutsuka, indicating the superiority of the yari. On the flipside, this puts more pressure on the sōjutsuka, for allowing the kenjutsuka to get pass the tip of the yari and in range to attack will put the skills of that sōjutsuka in shame…as well as in the receiving end of the shinai. 


There are records of competitions with Irimi Shiai involved, most speaking in favor of those using a longer weapon such as the spear coming out as the victor. There is a documention of such competition called “Taryu Shiaiguchi Narabi ni Montai³”, written by Kasama Yasunao. In it is analyzation of a large martial arts event that consisted of 17 kenjutsu schools competing against 9 sōjutsu schools. Some well-established and renowned schools were involved, such as Shinkage ryu, Takeda Hōzōin ryu, Sekiguchi ryu, and Niten ryu. Very detailed writeup included a description of each school and their  specialties, the methods some schools use to train, and the techniques used during the matches. In the end, the sōjutsu schools prevailed by having the most wins. 

The settings used for Irimi Shiai isn’t just limited to kenjutsu versus sōjutsu. Depending on the participating martial schools, numerous conditions can be set featuring different weapon systems. Over the years, some of the matchups included tachi vs naginata, naginata vs yari, mokujū⁴ vs tachi, and kodachi vs tachi. Despite the weapon styles used, the idea remains the same when concerning Irimi Shiai: one side is trying to get within range to attack, while the other side is trying to maintain range and keep the other out.



While Irimi Shiai is best suited for sports-related martial arts, it’s important to remember that the principles stem from actual combat. During the long warring periods in Japan, certain weapons were considered superior both in use and the strategies applied to them, such as the yari. On top of this, many types of weapons were carried and used by an armor-clad samurai varying in length, and not always was it possible to carry the “superior” weapon at all times. When a samurai armed with an uchigatana5 has to confront an enemy who so happens to have a yari, that samurai must do what it takes to win. This is true even off the battlefield, where warriors may engage in duels with each other, sometimes facing off against specialists in a specific weapon system. Some examples include Bokuden Tsukahara defeating a renown naginata master named Kashiwara Nagato by cutting of the naginata’s blade with his tachi, and Miyamoto Musashi outbesting the famous spear play the monks of Hozoin took pride in.

In Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, the different ryuha studied do not have a “sports” curriculum in it. This doesn’t mean that one cannot use “Irimi Shiai” as a tool to learn, but gives us an advantage of studying this with rules that are more suitable. For example, many forms and techniques found in Kukishinden ryu are designed for fighting in armor, so one can incorporate this in Irimi Shiai. Certain areas in one’s kamae and techniques are naturally protected by armor, so you can use this factor to guide your movements, as well as pick areas that are vulnerable to attacks on your opponent.

For Bikenjutsu, one can practice using their bokken as a shield to get by the blade of a yari. A practitioner can also seize the yari and hold on to both neutralize it and use their other hand to score a winning blow with their bokken. For sōjutsu, one is not limited to just thrusts with the blade of the yari, so all parts (including the ishizuka) can be utilized both offensively and defensively. Understanding the principles of one’s art, Irimi Shiai can be approached much realistically with less restrictions, yet must retain some structure in order to keep this as a method for learning.



This concludes my story on Irimi Shiai. It was a good experience on my end to engage in Irimi Shiai. I believe it would do wonders for others studying martial arts to challenge themselves in such a training method.


1) 入身試合

2) 競技武道

3) 他流試合口並問對

4) 木銃. The mokujū is a wooden replica bayonet for the purpose of training in Jūkendo. The techniques are heavily derived from sōjutsu.

5) 打刀. Uchigatana can be considered the predecessor of the modern katana due to similarities in blade length and shape. This was used as a close-range weapon on the battlefield.