“Peeling the Shinogi” – or – How the Sword Ridge Can Teach us to Block

Blocking - taking a deeper look

What is Blocking?

Have you ever considered what blocking is?  I mean really considered what you are trying to accomplish. Is there something beyond the obvious of not getting hit? Are there some common principles or logic that can help us appreciate all those blocks that we see in martial arts such as Karate, Aikido, Kendo, and Iaido.

I’m going start by using three analogies to look at the spectrum of blocking.

Blocking - static defenceWe’ll start with an asymmetrical engagement between a man with a bow and you being a strong castle with thick walls and high ramparts. Your walls can block the opponent’s attacks through sheer mass. An arrow hitting your stone walls will be lucky to make a small chip. In this case, your ability to take punishment is greater than the opponent’s ability to strike. This is one kind of block. This is attrition in military terms – the ability to take more punishment than the opponent. It is combat paid in full. In other words, you block with mass and then counterattack with your weapon. Mobility is not important.

Let’s move down the spectrum and place two opponents with equal offensive and defensive ability against each other. If each is capable of injuring the other with a punch or sword strike, then avoiding the opponent’s attack becomes more critical. Mobility and the approach to blocking become important.

But let’s change the scenario once more. Let’s give the opponent a very strong weapon, in this case, a high powered rifle. And let’s give you a shield made of thin plate steel that if hit squarely by your opponent’s bullet will penetrate and kill you. How do you block now? Mobility and approach to blocking become critical.

In the first scenario, we absorb the punishment and then counter with our own strike.
With the other two scenarios, we can take several approaches to blocking our opponent’s attack.

Understanding Dislocation

One approach is to make the opponent’s attack be in the wrong place or wrong direction. This is called in military science Positional Dislocation. By Shifting (Sabaki) out of the line of the attack, you dislocate the opponent’s attack.

A second approach is called Temporal Dislocation. This approach uses timing to pre-empt or change the tempo of the engagement and manipulates the time dimension to make the opponent’s strength irrelevant. In the martial arts, there are several timing types we use to create temporal dislocation including Initiative After the Intitiative (Go no Sen), Against the Initiative (Tai no Sen) and Initiative before the Initiative (Sen no Sen).

Typically we use both approaches in combination (body shifting and timing techniques). Nothing I have said so far is anything new. In fact, this is a classic example of how our understanding of Hard and Soft Methods (Juho and Goho) change as we increase our experience. In unarmed combat, blocking with a Hard approach tends to give us bruises on the arms and legs, the opponent’s technique bounces off our block only to be free to attack again. Using the Softer approaches of Shifting (Sabaki) and Timing (Hyoshi) we can dislocate the opponent’s attack and position ourselves in both space and time for a strong counterattack. This is the essence of Combining Hard and Soft (Ju Go Awase).

There is a third type of dislocation we can look at and that is Functional Dislocation – rendering the opponent’s strength dysfunctional by blocking or guiding the opponent’s attack. In the third scenario above, you could change the angle of your shield to deflect the bullet. Even though the shield would not take a direct hit, a glancing blow may deflect the bullet and allow you to survive and counter.

Blocking – Putting it All Together

So, what are we really trying to do when we block?  My answer:  we want to avoid getting hit, but equally important, gain tactical superiority by using all three dislocation methods were possible. I remember Sensei explaining that moving out of the line of the attack is blocking (positional dislocation), attacking can be blocking (in this case hastening contact with the opponent before he is ready e.g. Sen no Sen or Tai no Sen = temporal dislocation), and finally physical blocks that guide or trap the opponent and put him at disadvantage is also blocking (functional dislocation).

And this brings me to the concept of Shinogi.


Blocking - ShinogiThe word Shinogi has two Japanese homonyms (words sounding the same but with different meanings) that can give us an avenue to further explore the concept of blocking.

  • Shinogi can mean the ridgeline of a sword or blade.
  • Shinogi can also mean to endure, stave off, or pull thru—even to survive bad times.

So how do these two words allow us to explore the concept of blocking?

Blocking - ShinogiTo a beginner, a block is a reactive thing. Your opponent strikes and you react. We stick our sword out to meet his attack with little consideration of the blade—we just don’t want to get hit. If you use the cutting edge to block, your blade is going to become chipped and dull in very short order. As we gain experience, we learn to use the side of the blade (the Ridgeline or Shinogi) to deflect the opponent’s strike. Not only does it provide more surface area to catch an opponent’s strike, but it also preserves the offensive capability of your sword (the cutting edge).

Using the Shinogi

Leaving Positional and Temporal Dislocation to the side for now. Let’s examine aspects of Functional Dislocation using a block.

Catching the Attack

Blocking - different types

For a block to work we have to intercept the strike or attack somehow. So let’s look at an example that is the opposite of catching an attack. A modern fighter pilot does not want to “catch” an all aspect air-to-air missile. It will ruin his whole day. So what does he do?

When an enemy fighter fires a missile (think of this as the opponent punching or striking with a sword), the defending pilot immediately has to make it difficult for the attacker’s missile to hit him. The best way to do this is to make the tracking solution for the missile to be as complicated as possible. This means pulling as hard as you can into the missile so that you are at ninety degrees to the missile flight path (A). This makes it harder for the missile to hit. The pilot is using positional dislocation to defend against the missile. If you are familiar with Body Shifting (Tai Sabaki) this is a great example.

With blocking, you want to do the opposite. You want your arm or sword to intercept and make contact with the attack before it hits you. One way is to let it hit you or your blocking arm, surviving the hit, and then countering (B). Like our castle example above.

Another way is to cushion the attack (C). If you are a hockey player, one of the first things you learn in receiving a pass is that if you put your stick out stiffly, the puck hits your stick and bounces off, thereby making it more difficult to control the puck. You learn to give a little and cushion the pass in order to catch and control the puck. Another example would be tossing a water balloon up in the air and catching it. If you do not want the balloon to break, you catch the balloon more gently—giving in as you make contact.

A third approach would be to hit the attack as you sweep your block in front of you, making contact and deflecting it (D). Sweeping your arm across in front of you perpendicular to the attack is precisely the wrong approach because it maximizes the chance that you will miss contact (like our fighter pilot trying to avoid a missile A). Any miscalculation in timing results in you being hit. Most beginners try to hit the punch or strike out of the way in this manner, and may even be successful, but this approach does not ensure tactical control of our opponent. In unarmed forms of fighting such as Karate, this is no different. Our blocks meet the opponent’s punch with the aim of hitting the opponent’s arm out of the way, but as we learn rather quickly, if the opponent bounces off our block he is still free to continue his attack, sometimes with the same arm.

By angling the blocking surface as it sweeps across (or is stationed) in front of you maximizes the chance of you intercepting the attack and deflecting it (E) and gives longer control of the deflection.

Another approach is to use the width of the blocking object like the prow of a boat or wedge and force the water to either side allowing the boat to move forward with as little drag as possible (F). Using the Shinogi is like this.

There is a Japanese term “Shinogi o kezuru” to “peel the shinogi.” The phrase describes a closely fought contest between two opponents, but the idea is to use your sword so that the attacker’s sword glances alongside the Shinogi rather than meeting it straight on. The nice thing about using this type of thinking during blocking is that it can be done within the full spectrum between defense and offense. You can receive a strike completely defensively and let the strike angle off like rain hitting a roof and running down the eaves. It can also be used to deflect an attack as you attack. Like rowing your boat upstream—the water is deflected as you move forward.

Thinking about Shinogi gives you whole new ways to explore Kata and understanding of blocking beside avoiding being hit, such as:

  • Dislocating your opponent (positionally, temporally, or functionally),
  • How blocking can be used defensively and offensively,
  • Using blocks in combination with Shifting (Sabaki) and Timing (Hyoshi),
  • How Shinogi can be used to increase tactical control of the engagement, and finally,
  • How blocking be applied using both Hard and Soft Methods (Ju Go Awase).

Exploring the concept of Shinogi and learning to ‘Peel the Ridgeline” teaches us how to endure, pull through and tide over in many ways in and out of the Dojo.

by Rick Rowell

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