Sunday, February 6, 2011

Lessons learned from the sword

At a recent class we were working on the relationship between taijutsu (empty hand) counter ambush techniques and kenjutsu (sword techniques) counter ambush techniques. I noticed that the yoko irimi (enter to the side)motion that works beautifully empty handed was causing troubles against a sword. Especially against yokomen uchi or a circular slashing type attack. The premise of counter ambush follows Hick's law in that when you observe an attack you immediately move in a motion that you have trained to instinctive speed. For my students that prefer the yoko irimi entering (salt over the shoulder for those of you who have trained with Marc) if they didn't notice the attack was yokomken uchi and duck as the entered they were decapitating themselves on their opponent's sword. Things that make you go Hmmmmmm? I worked on this and had an ephinany of sorts, so I thought I'd share them here.

First kenjutsu training is not as directly related to counter ambush as I thought. If you and your opponent both have your swords drawn that is more akin to dueling / streetfighting than surviving a sneak attack. Counter ambush is more relatable to Batto Jutsu or the art of drawing and cutting with a sword. I've included a video below.

In Toyama Ryu Batto Jutsu there are several basic cuts and kata. Enemy from the front, enemy from the side, enemy from the back ect. All of these sword draws (counter ambushes) can be broken down into two basic motions. Entering, and opening. In the video the first motion you see is entering what I call Yoko Irimi. At the perception of an attack Tori moves out of zero while drawing and cutting.
That works because:
  • You drew and cut before they could (quick and the dead)
  • You moved through / away from their sword arm (no left handed Samurai)
Not the same thing when both swords are drawn and shomen uchi (straight cut)can be turned to yokomen uchi (circular cut) and take your head. Imagine missing a jab but following with an elbow .
This lead me to this conclusion:
Sword to sword there too many variables, you need some sort of reverse Hick's laws to limit the attackers options. That's where shomen irimi or direct entering comes into play.
When Uke raises his sword to attack you are going to go hey diddle diddle right up the middle and put your sword on his wrists or in his throat. Now I can hear you saying "Egon, didn't you say crossing the streams is bad?" Yes I have railed against staying in zero several times on this blog. But hear me out. You can step and pivot in one motion. Sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven. You can step (up the middle) and pivot (open or enter) getting you out of zero in one motion. That fits with empty hand counter ambush fundamentals no matter what attack I perceive I'm going to do (what ever) trained to reflex speed. No matter what uke does with his sword I'm going to put my tip in his face ( that sounded way straighter in my head ) . That forces Uke into the observe and orient phase and allows me to get ahead and open or enter.

Ok great so now you have a neat trick next time you get into a sword fight. Unless you are an Immortal born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel that is not very useful.

This is the PRACTICAL Budo blog right?

Remember in order for a technique to be valid it must have four elements:

  1. It must have a tactical use.
  2. It must work moving or standing still. If you can't hit hard when both you and the threat are moving, you can't hit hard. If you can't put a bullet on target on a moving target while you, yourself are moving, for all tactical purposes you can't shoot.
  3. It must work whether you can see or not
  4. It must work when you are scared, under an adrenaline dump. If the technique needs a clear head and pinpoint precision to work, it doesn't work.
So how does direct entry to get out of zero have a tactical use?
Lets looks at some fundamental SWAT tactics (tactical enough for ya?)

I have to be careful because I want to keep my advice general principle based not prescriptive (if he does this you do that). And I need to keep operational security. I don't need to be giving SWAT tactics to away to any asshole with an internet connection. But to make my point entering (getting out of zero) a building or a room is the same as entering on a person. To get through that door an operator either crosses (Yoko Irimi) or hooks (Tenkan). Of those two options the second operator through the door will do the opposite of the first so the corners are cleared. What does that leave for the third operator? He will generally do the opposite of the second but he needs to fill the (hey diddle diddle straight up the ) middle.

So how does this information benefit the reader?

Getting out of zero.
So many "self defense" videos friends send to me can be summed up like this – How to get killed in, I mean self defense in 3 easy steps:
  1. Plant feet (under no circumstances move from this spot)
  2. Pray that your reflexes are faster than your opponent, and that somehow you will be able to predict his attack
  3. Some miracle happens

Guess what kids that's fantasy bullshit. You cannot stand toe to toe, nose to nose trading damage with a guy and hope to survive a close quarters violent assault. Trade fists for knives or guns. How many shots do you think you can take? How much damage can you survive?

Movement Defeats Strength
The success of tactical operations depends on:
Violence of action After entry is made stealth is gone. Speed + Violence of action = Movement.

The standard of effective technique
Every move you do needs to meet three fundamental standards.
These are:
1) It secures your perimeter (keeps you covered)
2) Disrupts his ability to attack you (stuns him, unbalances him, changes his orientation, undermines what he needs in order to attack you
3) Sets up your next move.

This happens with EVERY move you make, not every technique, but every move within that technique.
-Marc MacYoung

A much better self defense model, one that meets Marc's standard of effective technique would be:

Tai Sabaki / Counter ambush - MOVE get out of zero - secures your perimeter (keeps you covered)

Kuzushi (Off Balance) – Disrupts his ability to attack you (stuns him, unbalances him, changes his orientation, undermines what he needs in order to attack you.Kake (Finish IT) – End the confrontation – asses (look for other bad guys, make sure primary bad guy is controlled, follow up as needed)

Putting it all together
What is the lesson from the sword? If you can't get out of zero, you need to move where zero is. A couple ways to do this
  • Move 0 on the X axis. Pushing one shoulder while you pull the other shoulder making the opponent turn his back is an example of this. Like SWAT tactics this relies on surprise / stealth, speed, violence of action / commitment
  • Move 0 on the Y axis. This is where direct entry comes into play. Just like the sword a chin jab / palm heal strike forces the attacker into the observe –orient phase of the OODA loop at the same time bending his back (moving where 0 is)

That's a lot of words for something that really has to be felt / experienced to be of use.
So try this drill:
  • You partner stands in front of you arms straight hands on the outsides of your shoulders
  • Your partner's arms are stiff his/her job is to keep you inside their arms
  • Your job is to get out
  • Step between their legs as you chin jab / palm heal strike (go through hell to get to heaven)
  • Your palm should strike as your foot lands between their feet
  • When your foot lands, pivot on it to either enter or open – get out of zero dumb dumb
    • If you pivot to enter this should feel like a wrestling duck under. You will be out of 0 in the 21/2 position and have them in a nice head lock
    • If you pivot to open you will be in the 1 position and their resistive pressure should make them fly right by you and face plant or at least be off balanced and exposed
In summary get out of zero, if you can't get out of zero move where zero is, and lastly grown men playing with swords can lead to deeper understanding of close quarters combat.

Train hard, train smart, be safe


  1. You always give me lots to think about.

    And Lone Wolf and Cub. :-)


  2. It's a great drill. It really helps with the mind freeze of being stuck in zero. Especially when you get stuck in zero against a much larger opponent. Great post.. and awesome Wolverine Samurai