Engagement Posture – Kamae


I read a great little piece of translation at Kenshi247.net attributed to Nakayama Hakudo, founder of Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido, on the subject of Kakashi Jodan, and it got me thinking about Engagement Postures (Kamae) in general. Read this short article and then continue reading here.

“Kakashi’ means someone who takes the outward form of something for the sake of status or pride despite their lack of ability to do the thing they say or attempt to do. It can also refers to scarecrows – they look human, but they aren’t.” 1

Kamae (Engagement Posture) is a term with a broad meaning that includes physical posture, readiness, deception, and attitude. Engagement Postures are related to Timing (Hyoshi), Distance (Ma-ai), and Stillness (Tomari); can be used to produce confusion and to deceive; and can be related to the number of opponents you face. Kamae is definitely related to mental status and can even cause an opponent to hesitate or give up attacking.

There are hundreds of Engagement Postures used by various Budo disciplines. Understanding them is a study unto itself, but all are related to a position that is equally ready for attack, defend, or both. Many have specific applications and have wonderful names. Here are some examples from the Chito Ryu Karate Kata:

  • Earth Posture (Chi no Kamae)
  • Peaceful Bird Posture (Chinpi no Kamae)
  • Expanding/Tension Cloud Posture (Choun no Kamae)
  • Cannon Ball Posture (Hoken no Kamae)
  • Open Hands at Eye Level Posture (Kaishu Ganzen no Kamae)
  • Both Hands Invitation Posture (Kaishuho Sasoi no Kamae)
  • Cloud Fist Posture (Kenun No Kamae)
  • Bow Power Posture (Kyusei no Kamae)
  • Heron Wing Posture (Ranchu no Kamae)
  • Dragon Tongue Posture (Ryuzetsu no Kamae)
  • Heron Posture (Sagi Kamae)
  • Heaven and Earth Posture (Tenchi no Kamae)
  • Horned Posture (Tsuno Gamae)

Some names above are descriptive of an animal, bird, or the offensive and defensive strategies they resemble. Others imply deception or purposely show an opening that is really a trap for the unwary. Some Engagement Postures hide the length of a weapon whether it is a sword or staff.

Essentially, Engagement Postures are ways of minimizing exposure of weak (Kyo) positions to our opponent on all three levels (physical, mental and spiritual), and prepare us to exploit any weakness in the opponent—a balance between offence and defence.

At the same time, with deeper Insight (Kan) into Kamae, an Engagement Posture is a symbol of your opponent’s thinking—of what he will do. How you present yourself to your opponent tells a lot about you and your level of experience. In addition, by observing how your opponent approaches you, you are seeing his reaction to how he perceives you.

Rigid adherence to a particular Engagement Posture shows a lack of flexibility and indicates likely reactions to attack. Adopting a posture to mentally dominate an opponent (such as Jodan Kamae) but lacking in credibility might appear on the surface as a solid Kamae, but in fact be a weakness (Kyo) that can be exploited. This is really what the article on Kakashi Jodan referenced above is all about.

The most basic, and arguably the most important, Engagement Posture is the Middle Engagement Posture (Chudan Kamae). Regardless of which martial art you study, I would even include modern military combat shooting and western fencing, this engagement posture is used in every combative art.  There are differences based on whether or not you hold a weapon, and the type and nature of the opponent’s threat, but there are some basic principles you can see right away.

“To understand Engagement Posture you must thoroughly understand Chudan Kamae. Chudan Kamae is the heart of the attitudes. If we look at strategy on a broad scale, Chudan Kamae is the seat of the commander, with the other Kamae following the commander. This should be examined carefully.”
Miyamoto Musashi, Go Rin No Sho

Examining the Middle Engagement Posture (Chudan Kamae) we can see many things:

• Stance is oriented to provide maximum stability toward direction of force or opponent.

• Knees aligned and bent toward opponent to protect them, provide protection from a kick to the groin, and maintains a strong hip position.

• Body is upright paying attention to the Vertical Axis (Seichusen), and center of gravity is stable. 

• Both legs aligned for kicking.

• Upper body turned into a Half Front Facing (Hanmi) position to minimize profile to opponent. Although modern Kendo Kamae is less so, older Bujutsu favored this.

• Forward hand or sword protecting the centerline of the body.  Makes it difficult for a direct hit and forces a glancing blow (like the glacis on the front of a tank.)

• Forward hand or sword tip points toward the opponent’s face, locked on target.

• Forward hand or sword in a central position so blocking movements whether inside or outside only have to travel half the width of the body. Up and down movements to block low and high are minimized.

• Rear hand is targeted toward opponent and ready to be used as circumstances permit.

• Chin is slightly down in case the face is struck. Still maintains eye contact even if hit. If the head is turned away then you cannot see what is going on.

• Teeth slightly together to help protect jaw if hit.

• Body weight distributed evenly between forward and back foot. Allows for movement in any direction easily, either foot to kick or otherwise use (e.g. for sweeping).

Studying the Middle Engagement Posture can give you Insight (Kan) into other Kamae and helps identify their strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly not to fall into the deception that many carry.

Natural State – Shizentai

Shizentai to a vast majority of people in the martial arts means “natural stance” and that is the end of their search for understanding. Shizentai is one of the highest expressions of Budo. Shizentai does not just mean to stand in a natural position, but it also means being prepared to deal with any situation.

While in Japan many years ago, I was given a small cast metal wall hanging by my instructor.  The piece depicted Miyamoto Musashi standing in a relatively relaxed position holding two swords. I had read Musashi’s book, the Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho), and had visited the cave called Reigando near Kumamoto where Musashi lived for the last six years of his life and where he penned this work in the seventeenth century.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my wall hanging was based on a famous portrait of Miyamoto Musashi (picture at right). To the less experienced, he looks less than impressive, but the man survived over sixty encounters with other able swordsmen, and was quite clearly a very experienced swordsman.

There had to be more to this picture.

The Engagement Posture Musashi is depicted in is known as Happo Biraki or “open on all eight sides.”

This type of Engagement Posture is sometimes termed the Engagement Posture of No Engagement Posture (Mu Kamae no Kamae), meaning that the concept of Engagement Posture now becomes irrelevant to combat, but that does not mean Kamae is not used. It means the person has reached a state in which he can adjust to his opponent in a fluid manner according to the situation. His mind is not attached, his body is not attached, yet both are integrated and completely ready to engage the opponent. In the words of a friend, “if I was the attacker I would have to pause and consider if he was just nuts, or like a coiled rattlesnake.”

In this case Musashi is obviously an integrated individual. His Kamae shows no Gaps (Suki), even though he looks innocuous.

Kamae is a reflection of thinking. You understand this, you begin to see Gaps (Structural, Movement, Execution and Mental) and understand what you will do from this posture—and that creates Gaps that can be anticipated. Having no Kamae makes you unpredictable and very hard to read.

Shizentai is actually the epitome I strive to find in my Budo. It encompasses not only the relaxed body that embodies Eye Position (Metsuke), Breathing (Kokyo Ho), Abdominal Convergence (Tanden), Stance (Dachi), Timing (Hyoshi), Distance (Ma-ai), Changing Speed (Johakyu), Coordinating and Expressing Ki (Kiai and Aiki), and Voice (Kake Goe), but also a mental state that we describe as Immovable (Fudoshin).

Shizentai is found in any stance—every stance has a Naturalness (Shizen). Shizentai is not just standing naturally, and yet, it is.

Recognizing Shizentai for what it is, has expanded my understanding well beyond Budo. I can see this Natural State (Shizentai) in artists, painters, gardeners, poets, authors, craftsmen, orators and philosophers. My search for truth by studying Budo has led me to a much broader understanding.

I have a question for you at the end of all this. Is the long-eared owl shown at the top of this article, showing Kakashi Jodan? Is he a scarecrow, or a Musashi of the night sky? How was he thinking of me when I photographed him? What was he telling me? And finally, can you see how your postures and those of others during everyday situations reflect a person’s thinking?

Engagment Posture (Kamae) is a reflection of thinking.

by Rick Rowell

Interested in delving deeper into many martial arts principles? Consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles as a reference.


1. Kakashi Jodan. 2011. http://kenshi247.net/blog/2011/11/09/kakashi-jodan/ accessed 10-Nov-11

Comparative Kata – Swimming in Variation

and I Don’t Want to Get Out of the Water

Kata - variation

We rely on Variation for so many things. Variety in the way musical notes are put together to make music endlessly enjoyable. We rely on diversity and variation in biological systems from genetic diversity through species diversity.  We like to eat diverse foods given the choice. Can you imagine a world where there is only one song, one species, and one kind of food?

So why do we think there is only one way to do a Kata? Time to shake Newtonian (absolute time and space) views of Kata into a more Einsteinian (Spacetime and relativity) view.

With the explosion of video resources on the web these days there is great opportunity to do a meta-analysis of Kata. So I thought I would share my exploration of one Kata that is common to a number of styles of Karate—Seisan.

Below are three videos to show various forms of this Kata – there are plenty more – fill your boots. This kata has wide geographic distribution and illustrates many forms of Seisan. I am not interested in whether “one form is better than the other.” I am interested in what they can teach me about my understanding of the Kata. The three below are a good representative number without getting too big and messy.

These visual references offer the serious student a wealth of quality information if they are diligent, particularly if they explore Variation (Henka) related to their martial art.

My observations can be found after the  the vids.

1. Seisan – Shito Ryu

2. Seisan – Goju Ryu

3. Seisan – Uechi Ryu


Comparing Kata

Kata Evolves – So Get Over it


Use it to as a Tool

to Make You Stronger

First of all, there are no wrong kata. Kata evolves and changes, follows different pathways and personalities. Kata is Variable (over both time and geography). Picking apart a kata or the person doing it because you learned it different is a sign of immaturity. Comments of this nature can just be thrown in the dustbin and chalked up to inexperience.

Kata - Variation kanji HenkaTake the Variation (Henka) you see as a way to explore the meaning in your Kata—the facets of other types of thinking and emphasis.

Variation is the Key to Being Flexible in Combat

Imagine reacting the same way to every attack. It better work the first time because your opponent is going to adapt, sometimes faster than you would believe. Variation allows you to adapt to circumstance. Combat is fluid and circumstances change. Quickly adapting to conditions and even moving into predictive approaches to identify and exploit Gaps (Suki) in combat, place you ahead of the opponent.

Variation Doesn’t Mean Bad Thinking

Even badly performed or conceived kata can be instructive. Analyzing poor biomechanics, technique and bunkai can help you improve yours. What is important is that you consider what each has to offer to make your kata more complete in both understanding and application.

If you want to find a great kernel of information, sometimes you have to go through a lot of chaff.  You need to filter the information based on your level of understanding. Learn to identify the gems, but be careful, the gems can look just like any other rock see my article on Exploring Kata Horizons. Just remember, your level of understanding changes over time—what you might think as chaff might be a hidden kernel of truth that you discover later.

Exploring History and Origins

As we can see, the Kata Seisan has a number of incarnations that can be attributed to different people and even different areas of Okinawa, and if we look further we can see Seisan’s roots in China as Okinawans went to China at different times and brought back their version of this kata.

Researching a Kata, history and origins gives you a much broader understanding of the Kata, but it’s easy to get lost in all the ambiguity, half truths and forgotten history. There are great sources of the history of these Kata available if you search for them. I’m not even going to attempt to go there in this article. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is value in this research, because it gives you confidence that the kata you study has roots and depth, and is based on considerable thinking. It can also show how your learning has deviated from others.

This is an unfortunate aspect of the martial arts journey. There are many branches of kata that have lost depth and understanding. Tracing your Kata to pivotal personalities gives you confidence that the depth is there, or that you can rediscover it. These things are dependent on your teachers and organizations.

Similarity and Differences

These different versions of Seisan are interpretations made by different groups or individuals.  Each version has emphasized particular aspects and de-emphasized or lost meaning in others. This is the essence of style (Ryu)—a way of thinking about how to solve the problems of combat. Evolution in action with selective pressures both good and bad.  Can we say that a moth is worse than a butterfly, a hawk less magnificent than an eagle?

Let’s look at a few similarities and differences in Seisan and what they can teach us. Don’t even think this is exhaustive. The following are broad brush strokes used to illustrate:

1. What I find striking in all of these examples is the use of the arms like the wings of a bird, regardless of whether the hand is open or closed. This tells me that there is possible history related to white crane styles of Chinese martial arts, and has shown me several new ways of looking at bunkai in my Kata. 

2. Both arms are used in unison—blocking and striking. This tells me that there is much consideration to Against the Initiative (Tai no Sen) timing, where one wing blocks and the other strikes (with both open and closed hands).

3. Shito and Goju Versions use a low Joint Kick (Kansetsu Geri) whereas the other two emphasize front kick or knee kick. The kicking shown in this kata is very instructive. It has shown me that I can use my knee against an opponent, a front kick and a low sidekick all as Variation (Henka). It has also shown me several different locations in my own kata where these techniques can be used that are not overtly shown, especially in the turning movements.

4. Some blocking movements can be used as strikes—Unity of Offense and Defence (Kogeki Bobi).

5. Some blocking movements are different in height (Jodan, Chudan, Gedan). For example one version uses a middle block, while another uses a low block in the same movement. So why should I be fixed with one type of block when the condition of combat dictate another?

6. Some movements in other Seisan lineages I am not as familiar with, gives me the idea that similar meanings are found in other Kata that I know like Niseishi and Sanchin—a new avenue to explore those kata.

What Can We Conclude?

Looking at the Variation in Seisan (that I have studied for more than 40 years) makes it immensely more interesting.

Variation is the key to understanding your kata more fully.

The Variation between lineages of this kata provide new avenues to explore and new perspectives to your Kata’s bunkai.

Kata, like an Engagement Posture (Kamae) is a distillation and indication of thinking. Certain individuals were pivotal in developing these kata into something more mature or evolved. My conclusion is that I want look at these individuals in more detail, because the variation in their thinking led to the differences we see in these Kata.

Is the Seisan I learned the same as that learned by Chokuto Kyan, who taught Tsuyoshi Chitose, who taught it my teachers—I doubt it.  The question should be – Is it better, richer, deeper? 

Our generation has spent more time delineating and codifying kata than evolving it. For some it’s good enough just learning the sequence of movements.  For me it’s about evolution to something richer—because Kata is fighting. Understanding the richness in Variation is why I keep studying, and training, and dropping sweat on the dojo floor.

Variation makes my Seisan richer. By inference, Variation makes all my kata richer, in fact, variation makes much of my life richer.

Thanks to the people who make these type of resources available for someone like me to swim in variation. My eyes open a little more each time I stop to look.

As a homework exercise, take any movement from your Seisan and come up with five variations. If you don’t come up with ten you aren’t looking hard enough.

“Ichi o kiite ju o shiru” – Hear one understand ten.

If you are interested in these kind of topics consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles.

by Rick Rowell