How to Master the Samurai Sword

Written by michael o. smathers
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How to Master the Samurai Sword
The katana is the weapon used by the samurai to practice kenjutsu, or swordplay. (gold katana sword image by Paul Moore from Fotolia.com)

The samurai of medieval Japan valued their swords more highly than any other possession and even more highly than they valued their lives. The katana, or samurai sword, was more than just a status symbol. It was a deadly weapon in trained hands. The samurai began training in kenjutsu, the collective of all Japanese sword arts, at a very young age. The agility and precision required for the katana's use can only develop through years of intense study. Kenjutsu carries a living tradition, with millions of practitioners today. If you study kenjutsu, you must practice diligently outside the dojo.

Skill level:
Challenging

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Things you need

  • Bokken (wooden sword)
  • Iaito (aluminium practice sword)
  • Katana
  • Washrag

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Instructions

    Grip

  1. 1

    Train with a bokken at the beginner level; avoid handling a live sword until your sensei believes you have advanced enough. Grip the end of the bokken's hilt with your left hand. Squeeze tightly with your little and ring fingers.

  2. 2

    Allow your middle finger to touch the hilt, and allow your index finger and thumb to float loosely.

  3. 3

    Grip the bokken with your right hand in the same fashion near the guard or near the top of the hilt if no handguard exists. Leave a finger's space between your fist and the guard. Maintain your grip and extend your index fingers to check the orientation of your wrists. Orient your wrists to make your index fingers parallel. Allow anywhere from two fingers' to a fist's width between your hands.

  4. 4

    Hold the bokken for 15 to 20 minutes without altering your grip to get a feel for proper gripping technique and to strengthen your fingers.

  5. 5

    Twist both wrists inward simultaneously as though wringing out a wet washrag, then return to standard grip. The palms of your hands should both be on top of the bokken at the end of this motion. Do this with the bokken or a washrag 100 times per day to increase forearm strength and to accustom yourself to motion that completes a katana's cut.

    Five Basic Stances

  1. 1

    Place your feet together and turn your left foot 30 degrees outward. Slide your right foot forward until your right heel and your left toes are even. Bend your knees slightly and place your weight on the balls of your feet. Grip the floor with your toes. Pull your hips forward and straighten your back and neck. In the book "Bokken: The Art of the Japanese Sword," this foot orientation is described as sankakudai. It lends itself more to kenjutsu's angular motion and hip rotation than does the parallel stance described in sport kendo.

    Hold the bokken or katana so your left hand is a fist's width in front of your navel. Raise your sword until the point is just below your throat level. Hold this stance --- chudan-gamae --- for 5 minutes.

  2. 2

    Stand in chudan-gamae. Rotate your right hip backward, carrying your right leg along with it. Position your right foot so the toe is pointing outward and even with your left heel. Turn your left foot to point forward and simultaneously lift your sword so it points at a 45-degree angle backward over your head, with the handguard just above the back of your head. Move your elbows outward enough to avoid obscuring your vision. This is hidari-jodan-gamae --- left-side high stance. Some schools of kenjutsu employ migi-jodan-gamae, or right-side high stance, in which you simply raise the sword into jodan without changing the position of your feet. Shift from chudan to jodan as slowly as possible at first to get the form right. Hold jodan for 5 minutes.

  3. 3

    Bring the sword to your right shoulder, pointing up and backward at a 60-degree angle. Drop your elbows to point downward at 45-degree angles. The handguard of the sword should be even with your cheek. This is hasso-gamae. It was originally developed to compensate for low ceilings and the existence of ornate samurai helmets which made samurai unable to assume jodan. Remain in hasso-gamae to get a feel for it.

  4. 4

    Lower the sword to your waist and allow the tip to point at the ground behind you, reversing the blade so the edge faces downward. This is waki-gamae, the hidden stance. Retain this stance.

  5. 5

    Rotate your right hip forward, bringing your right leg back to its starting position as in chudan-gamae. Move your sword in front of you to point at the ground; the sword point should be level with your knees. This stance is called gedan-gamae. When you feel you know this stance, move the sword back into chudan-gamae.

  6. 6

    Practice stance transitions daily. Although these stances assume right-handedness, you can switch sides as needed; i.e. your left foot instead of your right can lead in chudan-gamae. Learn the stances one side first, then practice them on the opposite side. Hasso-gamae and waki-gamae also have left-side variations. In Japanese swordplay, "hidari" denotes techniques on the left side, and "migi" denotes techniques on the right side. For example, "migi chudan-gamae" means "right-side chudan-gamae."

    Footwork

  1. 1

    Stand in migi-sankakudai --- sankakudai with the right foot forward. To move forward, push with your left foot and slide your right foot forward approximately its own length. Allow your foot to glide above the floor, touching barely with the balls of your feet. When your right foot reaches its destination, slide your left foot forward to its original position relative to your body. To move backward, reverse the process: push backward with your right foot, allowing your left foot to slide and bringing your right foot back to its original position. This footwork is known as okuri-ashi --- sliding footwork.

  2. 2

    Move the right foot first, to move diagonally forward and to the right, pivoting on the ball of the right foot to continue facing an imaginary opponent. To move back and to the left, push back with your right foot, turn your left foot inward, push it away from you and move your right foot back into sankakudai. Remain oriented on your opponent.

    Pivot your hips clockwise and move your rear foot forward, or move your lead foot backward, to adopt hidari-sankakudai --- sankakudai with the left foot forward --- and use okuri-ashi to move along the opposite diagonal line.

  3. 3

    Move your trailing foot even with your leading foot to pivot. Pivot toward your rear foot by simultaneously turning on its toe and the lead foot's heel. Reverse these midway through the pivot to end in a reversed sankakudai. Footwork that involves moving the trailing foot to catch up with the leading foot first is called tsugi-ashi. You can pivot through any angle, but the most common you'll encounter in practice is a full 180-degree pivot.

  4. 4

    Stand in migi-sankakudai. Pull your left hip forward, allowing your left leg to travel in an outward crescent. As your left leg passes your right leg, rotate your right foot outward to prepare for hidari-sankakudai. Repeat the process for the right hip to take another step. Allow your feet to skim the floor. This type of footwork is ayumi-ashi --- walking footwork in which one foot moves in front of the other.

  5. 5

    Practice all forms of footwork for 20 minutes during each training session. Vary your angles and distances.

    Cutting

  1. 1

    Start practice with the direct downward cut, shomen-uchi. From chudan-gamae, transition into jodan-gamae. Extend the sword up and out as though casting a fishing rod. When your arms are at full extension, pull the sword in toward you. The path the tip of the sword makes should resemble an ellipse. This applies to all cuts. As you conclude the cut entering chudan-gamae or gedan-gamae, twist your wrists inward on the hilt of the sword. Maintain zanshin, or alertness, after the cut. Return to chudan-gamae to prepare for your next cut.

  2. 2

    Transition to hasso-gamae to perform kesa-giri, a diagonal cut. You can pick either side. As with shomen-uchi, reach outward with your arms to full extension. At this point, the sword should point diagonally out in front of you and the end of the hilt should line up with your right shoulder. The angle of your cut should range between 45 and 60 degrees from the horizontal. Pull your arms in, twisting your hips to provide the power for the cut. Stop the cut when the sword is parallel to the ground. If you wish, you can transition to hasso-gamae and perform kesa-giri from the opposite side.

  3. 3

    Assume hidari waki-gamae. Lift the sword to waist level and cut horizontally from left to right, powering the cut by stepping forward in ayumi-ashi and twisting your hips. Carry the cut until you stand in migi waki-gamae and repeat the cut to the left side. This is yoko-giri, a side cut.

  4. 4

    Assume waki-gamae on either side. Twist your hips and upper body, pulling the sword on an upward diagonal cut from hip to opposite shoulder. Allow the sword to continue in a figure eight path for a second cut from the opposite side. This cut is known as kiri-age, or rising cut.

  5. 5

    Perform each cut 50 times during training.

Tips and warnings

  • When using an iaito or katana, listen for a high-pitched swishing sound during a cut; this signifies an aligned blade path and angle.
  • Prioritise torso and hip rotation over arm or leg movements.
  • Provide the cutting power with your left hand. Use your right hand only to guide the sword along the proper cutting angle.
  • Avoid crossing your feet when doing kenjutsu footwork. It puts you off-balance.
  • Avoid using a live blade until your sensei feels you're ready. Use an iaito or bokken. Use these instructions for outside reference only; do not use them as a substitute for formal instruction.

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