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Je pro Japonce seiza skutečně tradičním způsobem sedu?

Je pro Japonce seiza skutečně tradičním způsobem sedu?

Does Japanese tea ceremony fascinate you? Everyone sit in a small tatami room and taste bitter matcha tea. Entire ceremony follows the very elegant ritual. Tea ceremony, as well as other Japanese traditional arts such as calligraphy, kado (flower arrangement) or Aikido, carries a zen philosophy. During the ceremony, people sit in seize (正座). You haven´t seen sieza? It looks like this, sitting on your heels.

The word seiza is written 正座 in Japanese. 正 (sei) means correct and 座 (za) means a seat. Actually the kanji for to sit is 坐 but because of the regulation of toyokanji (当用漢字/ list of kanji for daily use), it has been decided to use 座 instead of 坐. Anyway, seiza has a meaning of “sit correctly”.
This is why, everyone, including Japanese people, thinks this is the right way to sit in Japan.
Is seiza really the traditional way to sit for Japanese people?
Not really. I mean yes, it´s one of the traditional ways of sitting but not the only one, moreover this way of sitting is relatively new. It was introduced after the Meiji Restoration.

According to a specialist in mind-body interventions of ancient Japanese, Hidemasa Yatabe, the concept of seiza and even the name was created by the government structured in the Meiji period. In other word, seiza was formed in the late 19th century by learning at schools and became the formal way of sitting for Japanese people. Surprisingly, seiza is a quite new custom for Japanese people.

Then, what was the traditional way of sitting for Japanese people? Nothing fixed. If you look at the painting on fusuma doors, ukiyoe or statues of the shoguns and monks, they sit in variety of ways. You will find some in sieza but they are not the majority.

You may be surprise but the master of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu (千利休) made tea in Tatehiza (立て膝) way like the portrait of a noble woman below. Can you imagine, the grave tea master makes tea with one knee up in front of the important shoguns?

Other ways of sitting are Anza (安座). You cross the toes in front of you. If you practice yoga, this may be familiar to you.

Agura (あぐら). You cross your legs a little deeper than anza. This is a quite common way to sit on the floor for us now too. Some say Agura causes bowlegs that many Japanese girls suffer.

Rakuza (楽座). You put the back of the feet together. I see many babies sit this way but for adults this may not be the most comfortable one. I´ve seen people having trouble with this in yoga classes.

Rakuza seems to be a common way of sitting for the ancient Shoguns or the Emperors. This statue shows how he would sit.

Wariza (割座) also called onesan zuwari (お姉さん座り). First you sit seiza then slide the legs on one side. Your bottom is on the floor. This samurai is even leaning onto his sword.

Sonkyo (蹲踞) is what Japanese call, unching style (うんちんぐスタイル) because this is how people crouch in the toilet. Samurai were sitting this way even in the Edo period. In the samurai TV programs, all of them sit in seiza but in the reality, sonkyo seemed to be more common.

Sonkyo is also called, “Yankii zuwari (ヤンキー座り)”. Bad youngsters in the 80s would sit like this and the name was established.

Kikyo (跪居). It looks like sonkyo but you lift the heels and sit on the toes. If you have seen sumo, this is kikyo.

The image of samurai sitting seiza style seems to be the influence of TV programs and films. Have you ever sit seiza? Maybe you are better than me but I can´t do it even for five minutes. After 10 minutes, my legs are already numb. Samurai were warriors and had to be always attentive to a sudden attack. It wouldn´t have much sense if they had numb feet and could´t fight. You could say that samurai must´ve been used to it. Perhaps, but it´s not practical. Sitting seiza could impede a quick reaction to the enemies. Until the mid Edo, the correct way of sitting (seiza) was agura (cross legs) or Tatehiza (one knee up). What we call now seiza was called Kiza (危坐/跪座).

Tatehiza is more appropriate for Samurai. This is from Iaido.

So when people sit in seiza?
Samurai were obliged to sit seiza to see the shogun in Edo period. It was the way to sit to show the obedience and loyalty.

In the middle of Edo period, seiza was becoming more common. The book “正座と日本人 (Seiza to Nihonjin / Seiza and Japanese)” explains that seiza was a symbol of the control of Shogunate. Shogun and Daimyo (feudal lord) forced the lower class samurai to show the obedience. Or perhaps it was introduced as a courtesy in the hierarchy society.

When I was at school, seiza was used for a punishment. If we forgot homework, seiza. If we forgot any class material, seiza at the back of the room. If we don´t listen to the teacher, seiza. In the sense of obedience, it´s still functioning. But this could make more Japanese people dislike seiza.
There is Japan Seiza Association in Japan. Their aim is to give better image about seiza and talk about anything related to seiza; history, furniture or event. If you can read Japanese, maybe it´s interesting to have a look.


Kimono to seiza
Seiza to Nihonjin
Japan Seiza Association

Juju Kurihara

Juju Kurihara

May 27, 2015 on the

Since 2001 she´s been wondering around the world. She crossed the pond to London as a Japanese teacher at a local primary school then found an opportunity to follow her passion, photography. She worked as a freelance portrait studio photographer in London, Sydney and Florida. She had a solo photo exhibition in London. In 2007 moved to Madrid and was discovered her calligraphy talent, which she started learning when she was 13. She had opportunities to have three exhibitions in Madrid, an collaboration with a book "El Libro de Té" and many performances for the events in different cities in Spain. In 2011, started iromegane with the programmer, Jose Antonio Pio and has been working as the editor/writer.
Kagami Biraki: Obnova Ducha

Kagami Biraki: Obnova Ducha

Kagami Biraki, which literally means “Mirror Opening” (also known as the “Rice Cutting Ceremony”), is a traditional Japanese celebration that is held in many traditional martial arts schools (dojos) usually on the second Saturday or Sunday of January so all students will be able to attend. (1) It was an old samurai tradition dating back to the 15th century that was adopted into modern martial arts starting in 1884 when Jigora Kano (the founder of judo) instituted the custom at the Kodokan, his organization’s headquarters. (2)

Since then other Japanese arts, such as aikido, karate, and jujutsu, have adopted the celebration that officially kicks off the new year — a tradition of renewal, rededication and spirit.

In Japan Kagami Biraki is still practiced by many families. It marks the end of the New Year’s holiday season which is by far the biggest celebration of the year — something which combines the celebration of Christmas, the family orientation of Thanksgiving, mixed with the excitement of vacation and travel.

It is a time when the whole nation (except for the service industries) goes on holiday. It is also a time for family and a return to traditional roots — prayers and offerings at the Shinto shrine and Buddhist Temples, dress in kimonos, traditional food and games. It is also a time when fathers are free to relax and share with the family, to talk, play games, eat and in more modern times, watch TV. It is also a time for courtesy calls to business superiors and associates as well as good customers. Work begins about a week into the month, but parties with friends and co-workers continue. (3)

In most traditional dojos preparation for the new year’s season begins as in most households. Toward the end of the year dojos are cleaned, repairs made, mirrors shined and everything made tidy. In Japan many dojos retain the tradition of a purification ceremony. Salt is thrown throughout the dojo, as salt is a traditional symbol of purity (goodness and virtue), (4) and then brushed away with pine boughs.

Decorations are then frequently placed around the dojo. In old Japan they had great symbolism, but today most people just think of them as traditional holiday decorations.

Stacked rice cakes, often with an orange on top (representing orchards) and other decorations, are placed on the ceremonial center of the dojo, the shinzen. Called Kagami Mochi, these rice cakes are rounded in the shape of old fashioned metal mirrors and formed from a hard dough of pounded rice. They symbolize full and abundant good fortune. Their breaking apart (or opening up) is the “Mirror Opening,” after which Kagami Biraki is named. Bits are then traditionally consumed, often in a red bean soup. In modern days, however, these rice cakes are often vinyl coated, since homes and dojos are heated and food can easily spoil. The coating stops the rice from getting moldy and cracking due to heat and dryness. Thus in many dojos these rice cakes are no longer consumed. (5)

The dojo’s spiritual center with holiday decorations. At top the miniature shrine is flanked with pine boughs set in vases. Below, on the left, is a display of holiday rice-cakes (Kagami Mochi). At middle is a replica of a samurai armored helmet and at right a ceremonial sake keg, another holiday symbol.

Other decorations are called kadomatsu, which include bamboo (a symbol of uprightness and growth), plum twigs (a symbol of spirit) and pine boughs (from the mountains that are symbols of longevity). Pine boughs are placed around the dojo, principally on doors and in small vases to both sides of the kamidana which is a miniature wooden Shinto shrine (usually set on a shelf high on the ceremonial center). Pine boughs are the only ornamentation not removed after Kagami Biraki.

Another decoration is Shimenawa which is made of twisted strands of rice straw. It is often found on the dojo’s front door or over the entrance to the dojo’s practice floor. This is a symbol of good luck and traditionally it was believed it would help keep evil out.

For martial arts students today, however, the New Year’s celebration of Kigami Biraki has no religious significance. It does, however, continue the old samurai tradition of kicking off the new year. It is also a time when participants engage in a common endeavor and rededicate their spirit, effort and discipline toward goals, such as training.

At our World Seido Karate Headquarters hundreds of students congregate early in the morning to train together, although it gets so crowded that real training is difficult. Practice thus become more a sharing of spirit, as New Years is expressed amongst the push-ups, kiais (shouts) and many repetitions of technique. As effort and sweat builds, a steamy mist rises among the participants. There is also a message from our founder, Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura, followed by short speeches by senior dojo members. The celebration ends with refreshments (which can be viewed as a symbolic representation of the traditional rice cake breaking and consumption) and a meeting of all teachers and Branch Chiefs.

In other schools the celebration is very different. Ernie Estrada, Chief Instructor of Okinawan Shorin-ryu Karate-do, reports that their Kagami Biraki is highlighted by a special “Two Year Training.” This includes ten to twelve hours of intense training, the length and severity symbolically representing the two year time span.

George Donahue, a student of the late Kishaba Chokei and Shinzato Katsuhiko, and former director of Matsubayashi Ryu’s Kishaba Juku of New York City, notes that in Japan Kagami Baraki started with a long morning session of zazen (kneeling meditation), and includes visits to the dojo throughout the day by well-wishers, ex-students, and local politicians. The day is ended with an especially intense workout followed by a long party attended by dojo members and honored guests from the community. After three or four hours of speeches, toasts, eating, and drinking, people demonstrate their kata. For non-local students this is usually the only opportunity in the year to receive a promotion.

For old style teachers who don’t officially charge for instruction, Kagami Biraki has special significance. It is a day for students to anonymously honor their teachers with cash gifts. Contributions are placed within identical envelopes with no contributor identification, and discreetly left in a pile for the teacher. (6)

The Ancient New Year’s Observance

The Japanese New Year’s tradition has its roots in the ancient folk beliefs of agrarian China. If a bountiful harvest was desired, it was thought necessary to first create a warm, human atmosphere into which the harvest would grow. Critical to this process were the bonds of family and community based on blood, obligation and work that were further strengthened during this holiday from common celebration and sharing.

In Japan this tradition further evolved into a Shinto celebration based primarily around the worship of a deity Toshigama, (7) (thought to visit every household in the new year) in order to insure the production of the five gra`ins: rice, wheat barley, bean and mullet.

In preparation for the deity’s visit, people cleaned and then decorated their homes to beautify them for the diety. There were also prayers and ringing of temple bells to ward off evil spirits. New Years was initiated with visits to Shrines and family and ritual ceremonies — all revolving around Toshigama. While today the meaning of most of these Shinto observances has been forgotten, many of rituals remain in the form of holiday traditions.

The symbolism of the mirror, which is central to Kagami Biraki, dates back to the original trilogy myth (along with the sword and the jewel) of the creation of Japan. By the 15th century Shinto had interpreted the mirror and sword to be important symbols of the virtues that the nation should venerate. (8) They also symbolized creation, legitimacy and authority of the Emperor and by extension the samurai class itself as part of the feudal system.

The mirror enabled people to see things as they are (good or bad) and thus represented fairness or justice. The mirror was also a symbol of the Sun Goddess — a fierce spirit (the light face of god).

Swords had long been given spiritual qualities among the samurai. And their possession contributed to a sense of purpose and destiny inherent within the samurai culture. So legendary were some swords that they were thought to posses their own spirit (kami). (9)

Considered as one of the samurai’s most important possessions, the sword (and other weapons) symbolized their status and position. Firm, sharp and decisive, the sword was seen as a source of wisdom and venerated for its power and lightning-like swiftness, but it was also seen as a mild spirit (the dark face of god).

Taken together, the mirror and sword represent the Chinese yin and yang, or two forms of energy permeating everything — the primeval forces of the universe from which everything springs — the source of spirit empowering the Emperor by extension samurai class who was in his service.

The Beginning of Kagami Biraki

It was from this time (15th century), it is said, that the tradition of Kagami Biraki began. It developed as a folk Shinto observation with a particular class (samurai) bent. (10)

Before the New Year Kagami Mochi, or rice cakes, were placed in front of the armory (11) to honor and purify their weapons and armor. On the day of Kagami Biraki the men of Samurai households would gather to clean, shine and polish their weapons and armor (12).

So powerful was the symbol of armor and weapons that even today links to these feudal images remain. Japanese households and martial arts dojos often display family amor (family kami), helmets or swords, or modern replica, displayed in places of honor. In front of these relics, sticks of incense are burned to show honor and acknowledge their heritage.

Women in samurai households also placed Kagami Mochi, or rice cakes, in front of the family Shinto shrine. A central element (set in front of the Shrine) was a small round mirror made of polished silver, iron, bronze or nickel. It was a symbol of the Sun Goddess, but was also thought to embody the spirits of departed ancestors. So strong was this belief that when a beloved family member was near death, a small metal mirror was often pressed close to the person’s nostrils to capture their spirit. (13)

The round rice cakes were thus used as an offering — in gratitude to the deities in the hope of receiving divine blessing and also as an offering to family spirits (and deceased family heroes). It was thought that this offering would renew the souls of the departed to which the family shrine was dedicated. (14)

To members of Japanese feudal society mirrors thus represented the soul or conscience. Therefore it was considered important to keep mirrors clean since it was thought that mirrors reflected back on the viewer his own thoughts. Thus the polishing of weapons and amor on Kagami Biraki was symbolically (from mirror polishing) seen as a method to clarify thought and strengthen dedication to samurai’s obligations and duty in the coming year. Thus Kagami Biraki is also known to some as “Armor Day.”

This concept continues even today. When your karate, judo or aikido teacher talks of self-polishing, of working on and perfecting the self and to reduce ego, the concept harkens back to the ancient concept of mirror polishing to keep the mind and resolve clear.

On Kagami Baraki, the round rice cakes (often specially colored to represent regions or clans) would be broken, their round shape symbolizing a mirror and their breaking apart symbolizing the mirror’s opening. The cakes were then consumed in a variety of ways.

The breaking of rice-cakes (Kagami Mochi) on Kagami Biraki symbolizes the coming out (of a cave) of the Sun Goddess in Japanese mythology, an act that renewed light and spirit to the ancient world. (15). Thus breaking apart the rice cakes each year on this date represents a symbolic calling out again of this life force and reenactment of the beginning (mythological) of the world. (16)

The Kagami Mochi are consumed. This is seen as an act of spiritual communion. It was believed that partaking of these cakes not only symbolized the renewal of the souls of their ancestors, but also the absorption of the spirit (or aura) Toshigama (also probably the Sun Goddess) to which the New Years season was dedicated. For this reason eating Kagami Mochi has always represented renewal, the start of the new year and the first breaking of the earth or the preparation for coming agriculture. Thus consumption was a physical act of prayer, happiness and peace in the new year in the spirit of optimism, renewal and good luck. The new year was thus seen with hope, and full of fresh possibility, a clean beginning and opportunity for dedication.

There were also very human benefits. The sharing of rice cakes with family and clan members helped strengthen common ties and bonds of allegiance and friendship among warriors. Rice cakes also prepared the body for the new year.

The new year holiday was most often filled with drinking, celebration and eating ceremonial foods. On January 7, the body was first fortified with a special rice herbal concoction that was thought to cure the body of many diseases. Thus, by Kagami Biraki people’s bodies were ready for regulation and cleansing. Mocha was often eaten with different edible grasses for this purpose. It prepared people to resume a regular schedule.

The very rice consumed itself had symbolic meaning for the Samurai. Farmers once thought that rice having breath (actually breathing in the ground), thus giving rise to the concept of rice being “alive,” (breathing in the field), and thus divine imbued with a living deity (kami). On another level rice represented the very economic backbone of the samurai society. It was given to the samurai as a stipend in return for service and allegiance to his lord (or alternatively given control over land and peasants who produced rice) — in a society where wealth and power were not based on currency, but on control of land which produced agriculture.

In recent years some people have reinterpreted the “Mirror Opening Ceremony” from a different viewpoint, Zen. In the book, Angry White Pajamas – An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Police, the author Robert Twigger recounts as an interpretation of Kagami Biraki an esoteric explanation given to him by someone who had lived in a Zen monastery. The mirror, it was explained, contains an old image, for what one sees in the mirror is seen with old eyes. You see what you expect to see, something that conforms with your own self-image based on what you remember of yourself. In this way the eyes connect people with their past through the way they see their own image. This creates a false continual. Instead every moment holds potential for newness, another possibility for breaking with the old pattern, the pattern being just a mental restraint, something that binds us to the false self people call “me.” By breaking the mirror one breaks the self-image that binds people to the past, so as to experience the now, the present. “This is Kagami Biraki,” recounts Twigger, “a chance to glimpse the reality we veil with mundaneness of day-to-day living.”

Notes & Footnotes:

(1) Kagami Biraki officially falls on January 11 but dojos usually pay less attention to the specific date preferring instead a date most convenient for all dojo participants. Kagami Biraki also refers to a traditional custom of breaking a sake (rice wine) cask that is often done at ceremonies, receptions and weddings.

(2) It is also known that Daito Ryu’s Sokaku Takeda also participated in Kagami Biraki in 1936, but the tradition may have begun in his art much earlier.

(3) Originally, Kagami Biraki occurred on January 20th, but with the death of the third Shogun, Iemitsu, in the Tokugawa shogunate, on January 20, 1651, it was changed to the 11th, although some areas still practice it on the 20th.

(4) In sumo matches the participants pick up salt and scatter it over the wrestling circle. This is also a purification ritual designed symbolically to drive out evil spirits so the match will be fair and honorable.

(5) In the home, in similar fashion to the dojo, kagami-mochi (a pair of decorated rice cakes) are placed on the family altar. While Kagami Mochi is not traditionally eaten until the end of the holiday season (Kagami Biraki), a variety of them are eaten all through the new year’s period. It was also once customary (on Jan. 1) to drop bits of mocha down wells as an offering to the water deity. On the 11th it was also offered to the farmyard and crows. Outside the home New Years decorations are also often hung, and simple decorations (made of bamboo, or pine boughs tied together with straw called kadomatsu) are displayed.

(6) This way the teacher has no way of knowing who left what, thus making it impossible to curry favor with a big donor. Many teachers still teach their art for free.

(7) Toshigama, the New Years Gods, are believed to be either, or both, the wife of Godu-Tennon or a chubby old man who comes down from the mountains to bless children.

(8) From the book, Mirror, Sword and Jewel – The Geometry of Japanese Life, by Kurt Singer.

(9) Secrets Of The Samurai, Oscar Ratti, p. 255.

(10) Kagami Biraki is not a Shrine Shinto or Imperial Shinto ceremony or tradition. It might be best classified as “nenchu gyoji” which the Dictionary of Japanese Ethnography defines as “traditional observances repeated as a matter of custom in the same manner and style at the same point in the annual calendar.” It notes that these observances are usually undertaken by families, hamlets, ethnic bodies or social groups, which give them the force of obligation, and often appear at intersections of the agricultural calendar.

To attempt to understand the ancient traditions, we must try to put ourselves in the frame of mind of the Japanese at that time. Their distance in time from us is far outmeasured by the distance of worldly perception. It was a time before science or understanding. For most, life was a grueling existence fought out in the vagaries of agricultural subsistence. Even conscienceness had not risen to a sense of self-concept, man’s sense of self instead inextricable intertwined in the web of land, family and society of feudal life. All the forces of nature buffeted this island grouping and great natural mysteries confronted their existence. What was one to make of storms, rain, snow, wind and lightening? What was the sun, moon, stars, and why did seasons change? How could you understand sickness, even death that was as surly a companion in life as one’s shadow. Caught in this vortex of uncertainty, life seemed imbued with unseen forces and energies, as gods and spirits seemed to direct forces and nature — man’s influence limited to ritual, magic and attempts to influence these greater forces.

(11) Information provided by John Nelson, author of A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine, and Professor in the Religious Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.

(12) Information given to the author by Bryan McCarthy, a martial artist, Japanese translator, and Ph.D. student in humanistic studies with a research specialty in Japan, at the State University of New York at Albany.

(13) The mirror was then wrapped in silk and placed in a box inscribed with the name of the ancestor. They were held in such high respect and honor that they were never allowed on the floor, and it was considered a serious crime (in feudal times) to step over them.

(14) Since animals and even farming tools were thought to receive the new year, often special colored rice cakes were prepared and placed in the middle of the family living room.

Rice cakes or mocha are Japan’s oldest food that hearken back to pre-medieval times and represent Shinto’s spirit food, as it is said that round rice cakes were once used as an archery target, and once when an arrow pierced a cake a white bird flew out. It was often eaten as a restorative. During new years Kigali Mocha are all purpose offerings. In January first bits of rice cakes were once dropped down wells as an offering to water gods. On the eleventh, samurai farmers also offered cakes to farm yard animals. On the fifteenth, known as “Little New Years,” was when families partake them alone in hearty stews. When consuming mochi it was thought to be good luck to stretch mochi with chopsticks as you bit into it — the longer the stretch, it was thought, the longer the life.

(15) From Dr. Ryuichi Abe, a professor of Religion at Colombia University.

(16) When the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-omikami hid in a cave and the world became dark, a mirror was taken out and everyone prayed to the mirror (which symbolized the Sun Goddess) that she would reveal herself again. The prayers were successful and the world became bright and happy again by her reappearance. Kagami Mochi are made in the shape of a mirror to represent the mirror used in the time of the Sun Goddesses hiding in the cave. Thus the offering of these rice cakes symbolize a prayer for a brighter, happier and renewed life.

Christopher Caile

Christopher Caile

Christopher Caile, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of, is a historian, writer and researcher on the martial arts and Japanese culture. A martial artist for over 40 years he holds a 6th degree black belt in karate and is experienced in judo, aikido, daito-ryu, itto-ryu, boxing, and several Chinese arts. He is also a teacher of qi gong.

From webpages

Kagami Biraki v Dojo

Kagami Biraki v Dojo

To my dear students, I just realized that a lot of you don’t “get” the tradition of kagami biraki, even though we did something last year in the dojo to celebrate this first-practice-of-the-year event. Okay, so here’s a semi-serious explanation. Bear with me as I ramble because there’s a lot of peripheral stuff you have to understand too. It’s more than just cleaning up the dojo for fun, and then doing a mini-demo for the other guys in the club. Here’s what kagami biraki means.

In Japan, the biggest holiday tradition still revolves around the New Year, or Oshogatsu.

First digression: Christmas lately has become somewhat popular too, from what I understand, although it seems to be rolled up in the whole big ball of wax that is Japan’s year-end and year-beginning festivities. (In an odd twist to the mercantile-oriented modern Christmas season, for the modern Japanese, Christmas “tradition” means getting the family together to eat a whole bucket of fried chicken. Apparently, a couple of years ago the KFC franchise chain carried out a national campaign in Japan convincing the populace that eating fried chicken was some kind of instant tradition for Christmas, and it actually stuck. Now a lot of Japanese equate Christmas with fried chicken. Go figure. You think they’re crazy? We’ve got some fat guy going “Ho Ho Ho!” who breaks into hour house to deliver strange packages, who’s more popular than the Baby Jesus come Christmastime.

Okay, back to the main subject. Many of the traditional Japanese holidays revolved around what were called sekku, or nodes, little bumps along the calendar year that needed to have some kind of rite or ceremony to appease the gods and Buddhas and sundry deities that regulated a largely agrarian, rural society. Tied as the common folk were to the rhythms of agriculture (like ancient traditions the world over), there were harvest celebrations, mid-summer events, spring festivals and, for a superstitious community, the strange turning of a new year.

These junctures, when the seasons changed, were considered important dates, and the observant agrarians would have done well to help his and her fortunes by paying heed and offering supplication so that these ancient speed bumps in the flow of time would go smoothly, sans flooding, drought, famine and plague.

For example, the famous summertime Gion Matsuri festival in Kyoto originally started as a raucous supplication to the gods for aid in stopping a rampaging pestilence.

New Year’s is the big cheese of sekku. As the most important sekku of the Ye Olde Japanese, New Year’s carries a host of many, many traditions, including kagami biraki, kadomatsu, hatsumode (first visit to a Shinto shrine), osechi ryori (New Year’s food), ozoni (mochi soup) mochitsuki (pounding mochi), TV specials galore, etc., etc., yada yada yada.

Kagami biraki in a budo dojo is tied to “hatsugeiko,” the first practice session of the New Year’s. That’s important, because supposedly how you start practice puts a stamp on the rest of your year. Literally, kagami biraki means “opening the mirror.” It is usually celebrated on January 11, or the first practice day on your martial arts calendar for the new year closest to that traditional date.

In martial arts dojo, a round of sake (Japanese alcohol) is offered to the dojo shrine, and then shared with everybody. And/or set of large round mochi rice cakes (kagami mochi), stacked on top of each other, are placed on the shrine or in the tokonoma (alcove).

Drinking sake or doing the mochi thing for kagami biraki probably comes from their shape. The top of the wooden sake cask and the mochi are big and round, like the traditional Japanese mirrors (kagami), so busting open the sake cask with a wooden mallet, or tearing apart the mochi (you never cut it with a knife) is “opening” (hiraku, which becomes –biraki when following the term kagami) the mirror-shaped object. While imbibing alcohol is fun and can get frivolous, it originally was tied to more somber symbolisms.

When I did an online search, some sites claim that the first martial kagami biraki started with a Tokugawa shogun who was about to set off to a battle early in the New Year. He broke open the round top of a sake cask and served drinks to his retainers before they set out on their campaign. His battle was successful, so some kind of kagami biraki ceremony has been attached to martial endeavors ever since. Supposedly. I say supposedly, because somewhere, some place, I read or heard of an even older tradition that preceded this tradition. I may be wrong, of course, so take this with a grain of salt, like you should take all of my wise-ass know-it-all comments in the dojo.

From what I recall what one of my sensei told me (and/or he wrote it down in one of his books), Kunio Ekiguchi (a crafts teacher; you can get his books from Amazon at: researched the first religious/spiritual meaning of the concept of kagami biraki. He thinks that because the New Year’s was an important nexus between the old year and the new, it was a sekku fraught not only with joy and hope, but also with potential spiritual danger. One had to be vigilant and watchful so that the humbug demons and evil spirits wouldn’t jinx the New Year as it initially begins to replace the fraying, withered elder year. Ye Olde Japanese would stop their year-round business, close up shop, hang around the hearth and eat mochi and osechi ryori (the “cold” osechi ryori food tradition was because the wife/mother/woman of the house would have a few days off from cooking hot meals every day. The hearth fires would be doused, the ashes cleaned and sifted, and you would wait, sans fire, fearful of the oni (demons) who might cause ruin on the New Year’s. Out of the whole year, this was the one time Momma didn’t have to cook! That’s why, to this day, celebrants smash up together cheek to jowl at Yasaka Jinja, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto, to get a length of rope lit at one end from the fires of Yasaka Shrine. They would take that holy fire home to relight the kitchen hearthfire for the rest of the year. Nowadays, most shrine-goers just go through the burning rope thing for the fun of it, and it’s a wonder nobody’s been badly burned by a wayward piece of rope, or at least I haven’t yet heard of an incident yet.

The household mirrors would be covered up for good luck, and you wouldn’t do a lot of your usual household chores and personal hygiene, such as combing your hair, after you had cleaned up the whole house and prepped for New Year’s Eve. Why? Ekiguchi said that the mirror, besides its utilitarian purpose, had a mystical quality for ancient Japanese. Indeed, a mirror was one of the three sacred regalia of the Japanese imperial lineage, along with the curved magatama jewels and the sacred sword. Covering it up meant you were entering a period of shugyo, or spiritual training. No prettifying yourself. You needed to hide that mirror away and pay special attention to the changing of the years.

Even now, if you look into some aikido dojo, you will see that the practitioners may have in their alcove or kamidana a round mirror, which refers back to the sacred mirror of Amateresu, the Sun Goddess enshrined in Ise. Mirrors were powerful mediums to reach the spiritual world, and it could be used wisely or badly as such.

THAT, according to Ekiguchi sensei, was the actual origins of the term kagami biraki. You hid away your mirror, and finally, on January 11, you’d take off the cloth that covered your mirror. Things went back to normal. The world was safe and sound from the troublesome demons who could have messed up the sekku passage. But boy, eleven days without combing your hair? Not brushing your teeth or shaving? I’d go crazy. But there you have it. That’s at least what Ekiguchi sensei told me.

So imagine that finally, you got to clean up your stubby beard and have a hot meal. Boy, that must have felt good. So too, with the modern version of kagami biraki, it should feel good. Yay! We go back to our normal routine. We start our first practice.

For the kagami biraki celebration in a dojo, it can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. There’s no “set” ‘rigid rules, since such observances varies from district to district in Japan, and from family to family.

The dojo altar/shrine or alcove could be decked out with special New Year’s decorations. Maybe if you’re lucky and live near a Japanese store that sells fresh mochi, you can put a kagami mochi on display as offering to the gods (or God, singular, if you prefer monotheism). Or a bottle of sake. And/or perhaps the New Year’s display of special symbolic objects, like the sho-chiku-bai flower arrangement (pine, bamboo and plum). Shinto gods, buddhas, Christian or Jewish god of Old or New Testament or Allah, whatever you imagine (or not) as your savior and spiritual guide, that’s who you should consider you are paying homage to.

In one arrangement in the tokonoma of a tea ceremony training hut, a mound of uncooked white rice sits on a special stand. Three cylindrical ceremonial charcoal are tied with white paper, standing up from the top of the mound. Stuck in the center of the standing charcoals is a lone pine branch. For that tea school, the rice symbolized the fecundity and prosperity one is thankful for in the past year, with hopes of more for the coming year. The charcoal represents the hearthfires, i.e., the happy home, and the pine is the perennial symbol of survival and green-ness in the midst of desolation (like the green pine in a cold winter landscape). So, basically, you can start off with a traditional arrangement of a Shinto shrine, but then add whatever symbolism you want to it to celebrate the New Year. Tradition, in a way, is therefore a moving target, even in Japan.

A budo dojo can do special hatsugeiko (first practice of the year) as part of the kagami biraki, perhaps doing 100 front kicks or 100 punches, or 1,000 something or others. Or you could do an embu (demonstration) for each other, not tested, ranked or rated. It would be just a demo so that everyone can give each other and the gods an offering of their techniques in thanks for what they have learned in the past, and with hope that they will keep on being healthy and happy in the future. Again, what makes the training special isn’t particularly WHAT you do, it is just that it is the first practice of the year, and it’s symbolically an offering to the dojo’s spirit and one’s own religious/spiritual deities as thanks for having helped you to survive the old year, and hopes that the new year will bring good luck, health and happiness.

Wayne Muromoto

Wayne Muromoto

January 3, 2011

From webpages

Donn Draeger: výňatek z Bojových úvah

Donn Draeger: výňatek z Bojových úvah

In Japan, Donn lived in a rambling house in the Ichigaya section of Tokyo. Big and well made, it nevertheless shivered its timbers when Wang Shujin, the neijia master, would visit and punch anything anchored. By the time of my six-week stay in 1961, Wang had taken the best that several high-ranking Japanese karate, kenpo, and other martial art experts could offer, and hurt the indestructible Jon Bluming with a no-inch punch that the film actor Bruce Lee would have envied. Bluming tried to get even by taking a free hit at Wang’s paunch and only hurt his own wrist. In Wang’s taiji classes (he would not teach his forte, xingyi, to the Japanese then, but did later), he had many highly placed Japanese executives and a handful of yakuza (Mafia-style low-lifers). When other warriors of the night stalked him for a short time (Wang himself probably never knew this), one of his yakuza godfathers got wind of it, Donn told me, and the stalkers disappeared into the night mists.

While studying for my 3rd-dan in judo, I spent six weeks living in that storied house. Besides Donn, other residents included the aforementioned Jon Bluming, young Jim Bregman (the 1964 Tokyo Olympics 3-rd place winner), Doug Rogers (the Canadian heavyweight champion and a 2nd-place winner in the same Olympics), Bill Fuller, and a dyspeptic Japanese housekeeper with an expression stronger than Wang’s punch. Her stony aspect was probably the result of the practical jokes this crew played. On anyone. I awoke my first morning there to find Donn holding a shinai one inch from my nose. Five minutes later I was killed again. As I was returning down the hall from the toilet to my room, Bluming and Fuller fell on me from opposite rooms with bo and kiai. Alertness was all–no one could afford to completely relax in that house. The occasional prank involving girlfriends and water-filled condoms often breached taste and brought a guarded tension to the occupants. As far as I know, it never went beyond that. Nor could it afford to. With those heavy hitters, a punch-out would have severely tested the house, which had survived earthquakes, the massive firestorms created by U.S. bombing in 1945, and Wang’s occasional beatings since then.

Jimmy Bregman was the youngest in that house. I had known him in the Washington, D.C. area since he was fifteen, when he tossed me with a shoulder throw to the merriment of Donn and others. He more than fulfilled his early promise by going off to Tokyo and placing third in the 1964 Olympics. Later, he returned to America and a lot of the contest promise died when a freakish accident on the mat injured his leg. At lunch in Washington one day, he recalled what I’d told him about his training at the Kodokan in 1961. I had called it, he said, the judo gray life: “Every day you came to practice in drab surroundings, the air almost astringent with sweat. You doffed your street clothes and winced as you tried to get into your limpid heavy judogi, which never completely dried out from the exertions of the day before. You walked toward the mat and there first up for some rousing randori was the monster you were happy not to see the day before.”

I knew Donn well before that time in his house in Tokyo, but there I got to see him more closely. I came to admire not only his high skills, but also how gladly and patiently he assisted foreigners with their problems. It was said that he had more than a hundred black belts in the various martial arts. While that may have been true, it seems excessive. But perhaps not. Douglas Chadwick said in his seminal The Fate of the Elephant (1992), “I wouldn’t claim that all elephant stories are true–but with elephants, you don’t need to make up all that much.”

What I do know is this. In judo when his knees gave out, Donn pursued groundwork. I learned from a good source that he was in the top echelon in Japan in that area. I also learned that Donn taught a few top Japanese swordsmen in a mountain retreat for several weeks each year. As for details, I was never able to corroborate these claims because of the bureaucracy surrounding such things in Japan. But the fact that Isao Inokuma, who won the 1964 heavyweight judo title, told Japanese television journalists that Donn’s coaching was the key to his success–an unprecedented acknowledgment by a Japanese judoka–gives one pause.

Donn and the Ichigaya gang were on call for film producers in Tokyo who needed foreign extras. Big Doug Rogers told me he had played every type of foreign soldier in battle scenes. Donn’s most lucrative film work was for the James Bond series. In You Only Live Twice (1967), Donn was a stunt double for an out-of-shape, obviously bored Sean Connery. Of the movie, Paul Nurse commented, “Hollywood trashes budo again!”

Out on the bustling Tokyo streets, we would walk, talk, and watch. There were the pipe dreams never come to fruition. Donn was forever urging me to join his weapons safari in Malaysia. Later we were to edit a real martial arts journal. Still later I was to join him on the faculty at the University of Hawaii. These things never happened because our paths diverged. But we did do a book together–this was Asian Fighting Arts (1969), later retitled Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts (1980).

He wrote a lot, too, even more than me. In all, Donn wrote over twenty books. He pecked away at his small typewriter hours a day, instructing, clarifying, leading. His books were authentic, blending tradition and innovation. Though his prose was centered and vital, his inherent humor was absent.

Outside his books, which had all the wit and humor of Marine Corps administrative memoranda, Donn was always full of fun. I jumped him once for eating on the run. C.W. Nicol, in his excellent Moving Zen: Karate as a Way to Gentleness (1982), hits the same subject. Fourth-dan karate sensei Keinnosuke Enoeda grabbed a foreigner eating a banana in the dojo by the neck and set him down at a table. “You sit!” Enoeda was learning English. “Eat. No stand. Stand and eat no good. Understand?” Donn acknowledged that the Japanese had broached the matter to him before.

“What did you tell them?” I asked. “I told them I’d make a deal with them: we’d stop eating in the street if the Japanese would quit urinating there!”

Donn accepted the ribald as a valid part of life. His limericks and raunchy jokes livened up every party. Here is one he would have liked because it fools listeners into thinking they are ahead of the game when, in reality as in the martial arts, the words are only feints:

There was a young lady named Tuck,

Who had the most terrible luck;

She went out in a punt, and fell over the front,

And was bit in the leg by a duck.

Back during the early Fifties, after returning from Korea, Donn was second-in-command at the Inter-American Defense Fund housed in the pink Marshall Field mansion on 16th Street in Washington. He complained to me about the excessive social role he had to play helping his colonel host parties for the Washington elite. “How do you stand it?” I asked. “Easy,” he said. He padded his role and cheated by funning. In the reception line glad-handing the upper crust, when the mighty introduced themselves Donn said he would smile hugely and double-talk amongst the din, “Oh, Mrs. Whitney (or some such), you miserable wretch, still whoring I see.” And get away with it.

While Donn played the diplomat role with panache, he could be brusque on occasion. Years ago, the chief editor for Tuttle told me that he once was delicately talking to a famed writer, a Jesuit priest, about publishing his book. They were in a sumptuous office with the door open while half-way down the large outer room Donn was arguing at the desk of an editor about some textual overhaul the editor wanted to make on Donn’s book. Donn never took kindly to editing and he was cussing like a Marine as he demonstrated some fighting technique that he didn’t want expunged by the editor’s blue pencil. The din rose to a crescendo and at its zenith, Donn came down on the corner of the desk with the technique in question, breaking it off while expostulating, “That is how the [obscenity] thing is done!”

Not too many yards away in the chief editor’s office, the kindly little priest looked at my friend with some alarm and asked, “Shouldn’t we have some police?”

Red as a beet, my friend apologetically said, “Never mind, I’m afraid this is one of our own writers. You can understand, he is an artist and he feels more deeply than most people.”

Another example of Donn’s humor: one night at the 1955 Nationals in Los Angeles, during a hot-sake-in-a-saucer drinking contest with Kotani and other luminaries, he saved my life by showing me how to drink the stuff without letting too much go down. As in fighting, the trick was to fake with a lot of elbow and then shunt the liquor down your arm, sopping your sleeve and the floor. (But who noticed or cared?) Poor George Wilson, an old buddy from Seattle, never got in on the skinny. He held up magnificently all evening. Then he blinked once, widened his eyes, and fell over as though poleaxed. It took four of us to carry him off to bed that night and onto his plane the next morning.

Thanks to Donn, I escaped that fate. However, remaining sober and feigning tipsy presented another dilemma. The Japanese have the damnable custom of forcing everyone at a party to sing a song or declaim a poem solo. (I think I did James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie,” on a previous occasion). Sloshing around on the floor feeling like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, I told Donn I didn’t dig that singing and was going to take a walk until it got over. Donn’s brow furrowed. “You can’t. If you don’t show your ass, they’ll lose face.” I laughed at his attempt to impersonate anthropologist Ruth Benedict and turned to depart. He grabbed my arm. “Listen, I don’t like it either. How about we do a duet?” So I sez how about “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes”? “OK by me.” So we did, to tumultuous soused applause.

Donn loved to laugh. There was a time at the Meiji Club in Tokyo when we all told such stories that the waiters and other diners came over to our table, not to complain but to listen. At a corner table, the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Embassy in Taipei was host to a dozen party goers, out of earshot I thought. But a week later we lunched in Taipei and he mentioned that his group had enjoyed our party, even the dirty jokes told by the great big guy (Bluming). I told him that this was the expatriate judo crew and that, actually, they had been relatively well behaved that night.

There was another aspect of the man–his hyperbole. While his research was rigorous and abided no exaggeration, he would sometimes stretch a tale to make a point. His safaris into Malaysia and elsewhere were done partly to collect data on archaeological weapon finds. He was trying to correlate these with human migrations. From the jungles he would often write of defeating local champions in free fighting. Some of this may indeed have happened, but the embellishments gave me pause. His tiger stories he never told me (he knew he couldn’t con an old storyteller), but did tell friends of mine. There are two versions. In one, he was treed by a tiger, while in the other, he was treed by one tiger in the morning and a different tiger in the afternoon. How could he know they were different tigers? Even this, of course, may be attributed to his ready humor.

Donn and Sir Richard Burton, the legendary English explorer and scholar (1821-1890), shared an expertise in weaponry and neither was a stranger to hyperbole. Burton carried an iron walking stick as heavy as an elephant gun to keep fit. They shared hoplology. Though Burton gave weapons research its name and was its first great articulator, he viewed weapons as an artifact, whereas Donn was the first to study man’s use of weapons in a wider cross-cultural context.

Donn treasured Burton’s The Book of the Sword, and during his last years he asked me to send him a reprint. (The 1987 Dover reprint is still available.) Like its author, The Book of the Sword was idiosyncratic, strange, and sound. I’m sure Donn was also familiar with Burton’s The Sentiment of the Sword (1911), an equally fascinating book. Burton here quotes Arab sources to show the primacy of green work over gray words: “The lecture is one, the practice is a thousand.” Here he tells that in teaching a new student, for the first month half an hour a day is ample, provided there’s not too much to unteach. After that, three half-hour sessions a week are sufficient. This light schedule seems to contradict his own experience for he writes in the same book that he began sword practice at twelve and sometimes had three practices a day. But the apparent contradiction may simply mean that over the years he found that, with a proper focus, long hours daily weren’t required. Germanely, Burton said that he never let the pupil continue once he saw that he was fatigued, but also never let him sit down until he required rest. Burton was cognizant of iaido: “The sensible Japanese, who, holding the scabbard in the left hand, draws his sword with so little loss of time that he opens his man from belt to shoulder.”

Burton decried form or ritual when carried beyond reality. “Nothing is bad if it succeeds,” said Burton in regard to proper form in fencing. He noted that an overly structured opponent often shouted loftily, “You touched my mask, my back, my arm!” without understanding that the mask touch could have gone through his brain, or six inches into his back. Therefore, he replied just as loftily, “I touch what is before me and I’m amply satisfied with the result!”

There was also a mystery to Donn Draeger. He almost never said anything about his personal affairs. Since I subscribed to Chesterton’s philosophy that “the most sacred thing is to be able to close your own door,” I never even thought of asking him. His past, his family–he never divulged anything of this, even when we’d sit around and talk about the halcyon past. And we did a lot of that. Almost everyone who’d gone through the Depression played the “Poor Game,” for instance. In it, you let the other guy try to top your low-ball. I’d say that when I was a kid we were so poor we used water instead of milk on our corn flakes. To which Donn would say, “What’s corn flakes?” So I’d counter that when he was a babe his mom used baby powder on him, but that my mom was so poor she used Old Dutch Cleanser instead. Then he would top it all by telling how one Christmas Eve, his pa hadn’t a quarter for presents, so went outside in the dark alley with a gun. (Like Billy Conn, the great light-heavyweight of the 1930’s, Donn was twelve before he found out there were streets.) Those inside heard a single shot. A few minutes later, pa returned to tell the family that Santa Claus had just committed suicide.

Donn’s fighting priorities changed over time. Early on, judo and kendo were the objects of his effort. After 1965, however, weaponry supplanted the judo. His mentor at the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Otake Risuke, said in an interview (Honolulu, November 2, 1981) that when Donn entered his school fifteen years before, he was already 5th-dan judo, 7th-dan kendo, 7th-dan iaido, and a 7th-dan in jodo with kyoshi, or instructor’s rank. Once he started doing Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, he stopped judo and kendo, his old sportive favorites.

Around 1966, Donn relocated to Narita, an hour outside Tokyo, where he remained for the rest of his life. The main reason for the change was to be nearer his new training. I have heard that Kodokan politics and specifically the new director of its foreign section, I. Abe, with whom Donn and some other foreign judoka had problems, may have contributed to his move. Donn still collected his mail and touched base at the Kodokan twice a week, but gone was the historic Ichigaya house and its nexus with the fascinating judoka who lived there.

Illustrative of Donn’s giving is this incident told me by one of his students, Canadian Howard Alexander.

In 1968, I went with Donn as a junior member . . . to Indonesia for the summer to study Pentjak Silat. It was a wonderful learning experience for me. Donn and I started out earlier [from the rest of the group] and went by freighter through Hong Kong and Singapore and Jakarta. During the twelve days on that ship, Donn decided to teach me the uke for kusari-gama, jutte, tanjojutsu, and various goshin techniques. We also did many hours of jodo. We practiced about fifteen hours a day, only stopping for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and for a couple of hours at midday when the steel decks were too hot to stand on. Even now remembering those twelve days, my arms ache and pain shoots through my wrists and elbows. One dark night with no moon, he took me on deck to practice jodo. I thought it was far too dark since I could hardly see anything but a shadow. But in true Donn fashion, he said, “It will train your sixth sense and reaction if you can’t see your opponent.” Needless to say, I couldn’t hit him, but got smacked a number of times myself.

Donn had women friends, but they didn’t linger when they learned that his entire being was absorbed in the martial arts. I have it on good authority that he was married to a woman Marine once and that there was a son born before the union dissolved, but he never mentioned it.

Donn was a warrior on pain. He had to be. Pat Lineberger, one of his deshi, tells me that Donn had severe allergic reactions to any type of pain-killer. Which meant if he had surgery he could have no anesthetics. In 1978, while he was in Honolulu for a lecture series, he had to have a root canal done. And did it sans pain-killer. Another time, he was on the operating table for surgery on a big toe that had plagued him for years. He insisted on no anesthetic and told them to proceed. The doctors were stupefied, but when Donn stuck to his guns they canceled surgery! That toe was later caught in a door at Tripler Army Hospital that another fellow accidentally slammed. Donn felt intense pain at first, but then it disappeared. He laughed in recalling that the door had corrected what the aborted surgery was supposed to do.

Back to the mystery. Death, of course, is the biggest one. We all know that we must die but deny it will happen to ourselves, despite Saint Theresa’s “We are all going to die in a couple hours.” In August, 1985, a Chinese-American Army doctor in Hawaii, a student of Donn’s, phoned me. His examination of Donn had revealed swollen legs and a carcinoma that, as I recall, had metastasized from his intestines to his liver. The doctor said that Donn thought he had been poisoned during his trip to Malaysia. If true–Donn may have guessed wrong–we will never know whether it was intentionally done or a misadventure of diet.

There can be no mystery, however, in how he benefited America and the world by his contributions. He opened Asian combatives to the full view of the West. He was an authentic warrior able to blend the tough with the tender. He could fight the match, referee it, and then explain the mechanics of it later in his books. He was an unusual American–he never made a dollar with his incomparable skill. All of it went into the more than twenty books we have inherited. Hear his name. Donn Draeger: Don’t nod in recognition; Donn Draeger: Bow with admiration and respect.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©1999 Robert W. Smith.

This excerpt is from Martial Musings: A Portrayal of

Martial Arts in the 20th Century, published by Via Media Publishing. —

DIGITAL eBOOK is available from and Apple

AMAZON link:

Bojutsu: Umění boje s tyčí a holí Hontai Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu

Bojutsu: Umění boje s tyčí a holí Hontai Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu

Stephen M. Fabian

The author in the standard roku shaku bo ready position.

Although many practicioners of modern jujutsu associate the Hontai Yoshin Ryu jujutsu exclusively with weaponless joint locks and throwing maneuvers, an important part of the repertoire of the art, as is commonn among many actual kobudo (older, classical budo), involves the mastery of various traditional weapons.

Most prominent among the weapons trained in the Hontai Yoshin Ryu are the roku shaku bo or cho bo (the six shaku or almost-exactly-six-foot staff, always round and straight-sided) and the three-foot “stick” or han bo (the “half” staff, precisely three shaku in length, which is round, may be straight-sided or slightly tapered at one end, and is thinner than the cho bo). During three regular training sessions a week at the Hombu dojo in Imazu, Nishinomiya, Japan, one is devoted exclusively to training in bojutsu.

According to traditional lore of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu, the bojutsu style it incorporates was originally characteristic of the Kukishin ryu bojutsu. Relatively early in each style’s history, a strong bond was forged between their contemporary soke or headmasters. For the Hontai Yoshin Ryu this was the third soke, Takagi Gennoshin Hideshige, and for the Kukishin Ryu this was the fourth soke, Ohkuni Kihei Shigenobu. These masters taught each other their respective arts; Ohkuni then subsequently became the fourth soke of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu. This probably occurred around the end of the 17th century, or in the early years of the 18th century. (Despite this overlap in soke and exchange of techniques, both Hontai Yoshin Ryu and Kukishin Ryu have continued to develop exclusive of each other. The modern hanbo techniques of the Kukishin Ryu are covered in the book Stick Fighting: Techniques of Self-Defense, by Quintin Chambers and Masaaki Hatsumi, published by Kodansha International. The co-author and current soke of Kukishin Ryu, Hatsumi Masaaki, who is featured actually applying the techniques, is better known as a ninjutsu instructor.)

Training With the Roku Shaku Bo

What is impressive in East Asian martial arts is the variety of styles that have developed for the effective use of the simple six foot staff. Although similarities certainly exist, specific stylistic differences in traditional schools are quite diagnostic. This point was emphasized to me on several occasions by sensei of Hontai Yoshin Ryu-Kukishin Ryu bojutsu, especially in comparison with their perception of Okinawan cho bo style. The latter, they claimed, tends to emphasize a hands positioning near the center of the staff, whereas Kukishin Ryu cho bo emphasizes a more ample te sabaki, or active handwork along the entire length of the staff. These differences were even demonstrated to me by using hashi (“chopsticks”) at the dinner table, where a sensei’s scissors fingers (the index and middle finger holding the wood between them) of both hands would manipulate the chopsticks from their middle for their rendition of the Okinawan style, which created a sort of fluttering of the ends of the hashi. In contrast, they would slide their fingers up and down the length of the hashi for the Kukishin bo, creating more of an end-over-end action, that also varied much more dramatically the effective length of the staff.

This sliding of the hands along the entire length of the cho bo is characteristic of the Kukishin Ryu, and is emphasized in the style’s kihon or basics. The first three formal basics, uchi komi, harai, and tsukue, all emphasize this action in movements that are respectively strikes directed from up-down, side-to-side, and from down-up. In addition, a straight-forward thrust (tsuki), and movements that show influences of the halberd-like naginata also tend to emphasize the entire length of the cho bo, and alternate its ends-with the hands located nearer the opposite or “back” end-for striking.

Kihon are generally practiced in a walking format. The student assumes the ready stance, left foot forward and both legs bent with the body slightly crouched, staff held near its front end about waist-high with both hands palm-down (see photo 1). As the right or rear leg slides forward, one of the first three kihon strikes is made, bringing the longer part of the back end of the cho bo forward (again, this can be downwards onto the head, sideways to the temple, or upwards under the chin). In order to return to the (now reversed) ready stance, one needs to slide the cho bo backwards through the hands in an easy, smooth motion. This same stance is used for thrusting, although hands may either be both palm-down, or the front hand can be palm-up.

Stephen M. Fabian

Nakai (left) and Suhara (right), demonstrate the tsukeiri technique of bo awase.

An alternative ready stance is used for the last two formal kihon, a strike to the knee (hiza uchi) and an upward diagonal slice (simply called nagi). These basics are applied from fudo-no-kamae, a stance which takes its form from the powerful image of the Buddhist deity figure Fudo Myoo, who is the fierce protector of law and chastiser of wickedness. Although this figure is most commonly shown with a sword in his right hand and a rope in his left, Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s famed swordsman and artist has left a carving of Fudo Myoo which resembles the Kukishin fudo kamae. (This carving is pictured in the Overlook Press [1974] edition of Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings, on page 32.) In this stance, feet are angled at about 90 degrees to each other (front foot pointing forwards), the legs are bent, and the cho bo is held vertically at the rear shoulder. The longer upper end of the staff is swept diagonally downwards towards an exposed knee in hiza uchi, or swept upwards in nagi in a motion that with the naginata would slice open a body from below the rib cage up through the opposite collar bone. Both strikes are performed while stepping (all kihon strikes can be practiced while moving forward or backward).

Kihon training also includes varieties of flourishing the cho bo, called furi-bo. These include circular motions made to either side, to the front, and overhead, and besides being visually impressive-in competent hands the staff becomes a blur-such flourishes are intended to forestall and confuse an enemy.

To help in acquiring proficiency in the kihon, and to prepare for the formal set of kata or forms which pit the cho bo against the sword, one trains in the intermediary practice of bo awase, the “meeting” of two cho bo. In bo awase exercises, students are paired, with one designated as having an offensive role, the other as defensive (see Photo 2). All of the kihon mentioned above are trained in this manner against appropriate defensive motions. In addition there are several more complicated exchanges between the cho bo that train improved control of the weapon, accuracy, and timing. One of these, called funabari, results in non-stop repartee between partners where defensive and offensive roles shift quickly and smoothly, interspersing head strikes and body thrusts with deft blocking actions. Done at full speed-once proficiency allows-this is not only great training, it is great fun!

Stephen M. Fabian

Roku shaku bo vs. sword kata. Here, Inoue Kyoichi Sensei (sword) demonstrates the kata with his son Hirohide (bo) at a New Year’s demonstration.

Both the kihon and bo awase training, though excellent exercises in and of themselves, are used as preparations for the ten bo kata or forms, in which the cho bo is paired against a sword (bokken/bokuto, wooden swords, are always used in bo kata). The set of kata begin with kumi dachi, the formal meeting and bow. The swordsman holds the bokuto at his right side (as if it were a scabbarded katana [actual Japanese sword]), cutting edge down, and the bo wielder, with his right hand midway on the cho bo, holds the staff at his waist, front end angled down. From about two meters distance the two execute a formal standing bow, then both kneel on their right knee, sliding their weapons straight between them until their ends overlap by about 20 centimeters. The right hand is placed fingertips to the ground, and another bow is executed from this position. Then the weapons are retrieved and both stand.

The ten formal bo kata depict brief, rapid encounters between the cho bo and sword (see photo 3), and each is ended with the participants in the state of heightened awareness called zanshin, with the swordsman in the classic chudan no kamae (sword is held in a mid-level position, right leg forward), and the bo wielder in the basic ready position from which most kihon are performed. Most of the kata assume the swordsman as aggressor, striking from a jodan no kamae (sword held over the head) in a forward and downward cut (shomen giri). Bo techniques include a variety of blocks, strikes, and thrusts, which generally result in the bo user’s advantage.

In two forms the bo wielder, after a sharp thrust to the swordsman’s midsection, actually drops the bo and locks up the swordsman’s arms by encircling them at/above the elbows, resulting in an effective double arm/elbow lock, thereby showing some Hontai Yoshin Ryu influence on the bo kata. In the last kata known as tsukeiri, this elbow lock is followed by a near-simultaneous disarming and throwing of the swordsman (kuguri nage is used, which is the first throw in the Hontai Yoshin Ryu nage no kata series). Both of these defensive techniques are also applied by an unarmed defender against sword attacks in Hontai Yoshin Ryu tachi dori, or jujutsu forms against the tachi or katana.

Stephen M. Fabian

Han bo kata, in which Inoue Kyoichi Sensei (right, with han bo), having evaded Nakai’s sword, counters with a tsuki (thrust) to the midsection.

Like all formal kata, the ten bo kata require considerable skill to work smoothly, and emphasize a variety of abilities including control of ma-ai (distance-timing) and specific techniques. When performed well, the forms are characterized by non-stop flow, where space vacated by one weapon is seemingly magically filled by the other. The impression is strongly reminiscent of the same ju or suppleness that characterizes Hontai Yoshin Ryu weaponless kata.

Once the ten bo kata are completed, the participants bow by reversing the kumi dachi procedures described for the opening of the kata.

Hanbo Training

Although one can practice specific hanbo techniques as basics, the hanbo is most frequently trained directly in kata against a sword. There are ten more commonly practiced kata, although this does not exhaust the full set of hanbo techniques. One has the impression, perhaps because of the hanbo’s more practical length and size (it is commonly referred to as a suteki, or “walking stick”), that the hanbo is a more “living” weapon-with direct street-applicability-than the other traditional weapons, and its practice is more typified by innovations. This seems corroborated by the work mentioned earlier (see Stick Fighting) in the Kukishin Ryu itself, and the fact that at least one Hontai Yoshin Ryu sensei-Inoue Kyoichi-actively experiments with hanbo applications.

Hanbo kata are also begun with formal kumi dachi, although here the swordsman and hanbo wielder, after facing off about two meters from each other, draw their weapons and, holding them at a chudan or middle position, squat on the balls of the feet, knees splayed outwards, and bow from this posture, afterwards assuming a formal chudan no kamae. At this stage the hanbo is held exactly as if it were a katana. For the first five kata, this soon changes: once the swordsman reverts into a jodan no kamae with sword held overhead, the hanbo wielder slowly sinks both stick and body into a crouching gedan or low position. Apparently opening the bo wielder’s head and upper torso to the swordsman’s cutting edge, this lowered position is intended to lure the swordsman into an attack.

Responses to the swordsman’s forward-stepping down cut are quick, effective, and deceptively simple. In ipponme–the first form–for example, the down cut is narrowly evaded by a slight movement to the right by the hanbo wielder, who virtually simultaneously brings the hanbo up executing a sharp strike with its point directly to the swordsman’s left temple. Though apparently simple, this small movement requires superb timing and control of the hanbo, especially in kata, since the strike is to be made with full force and focus (and without residual motion), but stopped abruptly at about a hair’s breadth from the actual temple (in fact, the blow is so sharply focused by a hanbo expert that it will literally stir the hair at the swordsman’s temple, much like a well-focused punch by a skilled karateka can blow out a candle by being focused-and abruptly stopped-immediately in front of the flame).

Characteristic of the hanbo kata is evasion of the sword blow, and sharp strikes to head or sword, and thrusts to the attacker’s body (see photo 4). Not meeting the sword attack directly is quite characteristic of Hontai Yoshin Ryu response to attack, and perhaps further influence of this jujutsu style is seen in especially kata five and six. The former ends with the hanbo being used to lever the attacker’s right arm with an immobilizing elbow lock (see photo 5), and the latter, once the hanbo is used to trap the sword hand from actually drawing the blade, has the hanbo wielder close in behind the swordsman with a partial choke hwww. All the kata end in formalized zanshin, in which both participants draw back from each other, weapons held in more neutral positions in right hands to the side (for the swordsman, this is essentially a chiburi -“blood cleansing”-motion and posture).

Stephen M. Fabian

Han bo kata, in which Inoue Kyoichi Sensei applies an arm lock with the han bo to Nakai’s (with sword) right arm.

The first five hanbo kata are extremely similar to Hontai Yoshin Ryu kodachi (short sword) kata in both structure (stance and positioning) and actual movements. This is important to recognize in understanding Kukishin Ryu bojutsu as actively incorporated in the Hontai Yoshin Ryu. Nearly identical techniques can be traced from the weaponless jujutsu forms-the core of the system, at least as it is practiced today-to weaponless defenses against both long and short swords (tachi and kodachi), and to bo and hanbo kata. For nearly three hundred years the master instructors of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu have integrated techniques from both jujutsu and bojutsu styles in a harmonious system of coordinated effort, expressive of an underlying philosophy, theory, and aesthetic of appropriate action.

Although Hontai Yoshin Ryu training is most characterized by formal practice of kata, both the weaponless and armed systems are occasionally applied in randori or matches. For both staff and stick this involves the use of kendo-like safety equipment and special padded weapons (for example, bamboo poles with thickly-wrapped ends). Practitioners will pair up and bow, then spar, actively attempting to strike-or defend against incoming strikes from-the “opponent.” Occasionally such matches will take the form of actual competitions with scoring and winner-loser results, but more frequently such bouts are open and flowing without such point tallying. Such sessions are great refiners of applicable techniques, and excellent training for coordination, speed, timing, and cardio-vascular fitness. Soke Inoue, the current head of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu, is incredibly strong and effective in these bouts despite being in his sixties, reminiscent of his competitive form in twice winning gold medals in all-Japan jukendo (the bayonet art trained with a rubber-tipped wooden gun) tournaments.

As with other components of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu, there are various levels of proficiency and competence in the use of staff and stick that help in one’s understanding of the techniques and in their application from form or kata to actual encounters. There are also nuances based on individual practitioner, and even continuing evolution in the ways both weapons are used. What matters most in the use of both weapons is the development of a smooth naturalness, the spontaneity and accuracy of action that denotes mastery. Although some specific techniques may be easily acquired, the path to true mastery of staff and stick lies in years of dedicated and applied training, during the course of which the student should also be learning mastery over the self.

Stephen M. Fabian

By Stephen M. Fabian

This article first appeared in “Furyu,” Issue #2

(All photos in this article are printed courtesy of the author.)