Sensei and I were close. Less than a finger’s length separated the tips of our bokken. Without altering the distance, my teacher switched his stance. He lowered his weapon, dipping it swiftly and then flipping it up again, his arms crossed at the elbows so the bokken was poised close to his body. I moved my bokken, cocked at my shoulder, and struck. I aimed for the left side of his body, where he appeared to have left it exposed and vulnerable when changing his stance. Yet no sooner was I fully committed to my attack than Sensei twitched. Catching my timing perfectly, his weapon flicked mine aside. He sliced a cut right down the center of me. I stepped back in a hurry, lifting my wooden blade above my head, threatening another strike, but he followed, his step thumping into the bare earth. He drove his bokken forward, a thrust that would have killed me even if his initial riposte had not.

Chotan ichimi–“Long and short the same”–was the name of the movement, a difficult one to translate (as are virtually all kata, the language and the concepts they express being so intimately bound). According to the Heiho Kadensho, the family scrolls of instruction written by the early masters of the Shinkage-ryu, one meaning of chotan ichimi is to be able to respond to an opponent whether his attack is up close or from a distance. But the scrolls are notoriously and deliberately vague. These records of methods, called makimono (“wrapped things”), usually copied from originals by one’s sensei and presented in sections as he progresses in the ryu, are not intended to be step-by-step textbooks. References are often oblique, information fragmented and couched in cabalistic aphorisms within the scrolls. To someone without an introduction into the strategies and tactics of the ryu, these makimono would be nearly meaningless. They are more a shorthand series of notes, decipherable only to the initiated.

Makimono serve as a written record of the kata and principles of the ryu. But instruction must come as well, from the teacher himself. This personal aspect of the bugeisha’s learning is the kuden, literally the “oral teachings” that cannot be found in any scroll or text. The kata chotan ichimi is a good example of the importance of the kuden as they apply to kenjutsu, the art of the sword. Nothing in the written makimono mentions the significance of the shift in stance at the onset of the kata. The switch, changing from a right leg forward posture to one with the left leg leading and lowering the sword at the same time, seems to be a weakening of the defense that might have been afforded by the kamae, the physical carriage of readiness taken by the swordsman. In a way, I had learned through through Sensei’s kuden, there is a weakness of sorts, in the position. The kamae, often misunderstood as postures meant to display strength, to make the body impregnable, are often quite often just the opposite. Many kamae are a ruse, a combative invitation, a deliberate attempt to “sucker” an opponent, making him go for an obvious opening offered in your posture.

When I was first under his tutelage, Sensei had instructed me in the basics of the kamae. Now, in a fallow field under a warm autumn sky streaked with carded wool clouds, he explained further. (Actually, the term “kamae” is not used in the Shinkage-ryu. Combative postures are referred to as kurai, a term with several layers of meaning but which, in ordinary practice, serves in the same sense as other martial arts schools might use the word kamae. Likewise, the word “kata” is not used in the ryu; instead, the forms of movement involving attack and defense are called seiho. I use the more common terms here since they are far better known in Western martial arts circles.)

“You’re in this position,” he demonstrated, taking the same posture as before, arms crossed, sword in front of him as if it were a shield for his body. “Okay,” he said, “where’s the opening?”

What he meant was, where was the suki, the gap, the weakness in his kamae where an enemy would be drawn to attack. There were several points against which I could have struck, but in selecting his target the bugeisha must consider first of all, all the possibilities of multiple opponents. In a fight, he could not have wasted his time hoping to inflict a series of wounds that might eventually do the job, a strategy that was often employed in European-style sabre fencing. There was too great a chance that, squared off against one enemy and concentrating entirely on engaging him, another might slip up from an unexpected angle. The fight, in most instances, had to be quick. The bugeisha had to concentrate on those vital spots where death or a nearly immediate incapacitation would be the result. And just as importantly, he had to consider the matter of his opponent’s armor.

“My target is behind the peak of your shoulder,” I replied. I motioned to where the broad protective plates that fit over the biceps would have been fastened to the rest of the armor that covered the upper trunk.

Sensei grunted in agreement. “But look,” he said. “Notice how this part of my leg is also exposed. Maybe the opponent knows I’m trying to trick him to go after my shoulder, so instead this part of my leg is what he chooses to go after instead. Go ahead; try to cut there.”

The theatrical swiping slashes of the samurai hero’s film duels are choreographed with an eye towards entertainment, not historical accuracy. Anyone trying the form of swordsmanship seen in Japanese “samurai” movies against a well-trained swordsman from a classical ryu would be dead in short order. The wide, windmill strikes and baseball swing follow-throughs would present a smorgasbord of suki, gaps galore. The blows exercised by kendo practitioners are likewise unrelated to the kenjutsu of the koryu. The center of the forehead, wrists, flanks, and throat–all the prescribed points where kendoka can hit to win a match in the modern sport, were well sheathed by the bushi’s armor. Targets for the exponent of kenjutsu are aimed at weaknesses that are more assailable, places where, because the armor must articulate to allow movement, are unprotected and vulnerable.

I hitched my bokken up to my shoulder and directed another strike, this time at the back of Sensei’s leg. The front of the thighs are protected in armor with what are called haidate, an apron-like covering of mail or lacquered leather with plates that fit over each leg. The fleshy hamstrings behind, however, are exposed. A quick cut there, even a shallow one, will sever tendons and cripple the most determined opponent. Under my teacher’s direction, I was altering my role as the teki, the “enemy” in the movements of chotan ichimi. But he used the same technique of the kata to show me how it could cope with this variation as well. His bokken wheeled over and slapped through my offense, settling in an eyeblink, with its tip focused again right at my hands.

We ran through the kamae to be found in the formal movements of the Shinkage-ryu. Sensei explained the suki that each revealed, the methods inherent in them to riposte the attacks they would elicit. There are some kamae shared by nearly all ryu that involve the use of the sword (although their names may differ from school to school). Chudan kamae, with the sword held pointed out at the opponent’s throat, seems almost to curve up like a steel extension of the hara, the body center that is located physically a few inches below the navel. When the gripping fists push the sword out a little further, the tip’s aim moves from throat to eyes, into seigan kamae. With the weapon held vertically in front of the shoulder, the swordsman is in the stance called hasso kamae, significant in duels or in battle because it draws the lower, left hand across the body so the arm protects the chest and heart. A kamae with fists lowered and the sword stretching out beside the body, tip extended to the rear, is more dangerous for the swordsman who adopts it. The sword seems to be casually dangling, yet it is once again an enticement to an attack. This posture is referred to as sha, or “wheel” in the Shinkage-ryu; some other schools refer to it as a “dragon’s tail kamae,” because the length of the weapon trails out behind the swordsman like an appendage–and it can lash too, like the coiled tail of that mythical beast.

Other kamae are exclusive to a ryu, almost a signature that is recognizable immediately when they are assumed, if one has a knowledge of their ryu. Instead of the typical middle level posture, or chudan kamae, in the Shinkage-ryu the sword is characteristically canted slightly to the swordsman’s right, his shoulders twisted marginally as well. The combative advantages this modification offers are not to be found, for the most part, within the teachings of the makimono. They are passed along from teacher to student, a careful transmission through the kuden, the oral traditions of the art.

Copyright ©1997 Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.

Excerpted from Persimmon Wind, 2005.

You might also be interested in the series of letters from the Zen priest Takuan to Yagyu Munenori. W.S. Wilson has done a wonderful translation of these in his The Unfettered Mind. Finally, learn more about Yagyu family heiho in The Life-Giving Sword (translated by William Scott Wilson) and the Sword & the Mind, another translation of the Heiho Kadensho, by Hiroaki Sato.