Kata – Two Meanings – Model or Shape

Kyudo as Kata

Kata are a Distillation

Kata are traditional keystones of all martial arts study. Passed from generation to generation, these movements teach the rich history and concepts behind the martial art you study. Kata are the skeleton upon which we hang everything else. They are a distillation of successful combat concepts and techniques.

Too often today, the priority of martial artists is the number of Kata they can do. This superficial skimming of sequence is truly sad. Studying Kata in depth opens you to a world of exciting and inexhaustible study. The number you know is not important; understanding the depth of each is.

Also observed in martial arts today is the separation of Kata from combat. Some feel Kata is unimportant and, therefore, practice only a few fighting techniques almost exclusively, not even bothering to look at what they can learn from them. And yes, they may become good fighters, but they will only attain the skill level that coincides with their physical ability. I will still put money on the person who studies Kata in relation to combat. His progression in skill may be a little slower than the other, but when his knowledge matures, he will be a strong fighter. His ability will coincide not with just his physical skill, but with his knowledge as well. Being a Budoka is impossible without intelligence.

You can look at Kata in several ways including their history and geographical influence, as well as their symbolic, cultural, and practical meanings. Kata evolved over periods measured in centuries. People who succeeded in the realm of combat added their understanding to each generation. Martial art traditions would not have survived to the present day if there were not some important lessons to be passed on.

The Model and the Shape

Kata - two different KanjiThere are two ways to write the word Kata in Japanese and each one is important in its study.

The first implies a model or Mold (see figure). Part of the character uses the radical for “earth”— something that is fixed. If we consider a drinking cup, using a mold when making a cup allows us to consistently form each cup the same way, the same size, weight, shape, thickness, and contours. This Mold is given to you as a beginner. Kata are standardized movement series exposing you to its movements while teaching basic concepts of your martial art. The beginner in the Doing (Gyo) stage of training learns this standard model of movement and techniques. He copies and practices with little thought as to the reasons behind the movements, because he is striving to learn the sequence and perform them correctly.

As you mature in your understanding of Kata, they start to take on a different form. The standard mold is transformed into a flexible shape.  Like our example of the drinking cup, we can appreciate that there are many different kinds of cups. Large, small, delicate tea cups, plastic cups, ceramic cups, glass cups, wooden cups, stainless steel cups, green cups, red cups—the variety is seemingly endless, but they all have the basic principles of a cup. They all hold liquid and usually stand stable on a flat surface. The second way of writing Kata uses the water radical and emphasizes something more flexible and fluid. Cups come in all shapes and sizes, but there is something “cuppiness” about all cups. The Shape still adheres to principles of being a cup.

Graduating from the Mold concept, you now explore the Shape concept or pattern of the cup. This is the Disciplined Training (Shugyo) stage of training. You now see how movements are related, and why they are performed the way they are. Exploring the depth of the Kata, you see new insights into the stances, movements, transitions, and engagement postures (Kamae). You study the applications of techniques (Bunkai), reverse techniques (Gyaku Waza), Variation (Henka), throws (Nage), and even the hidden techniques (Kakushi Waza). You see Duality (Kyo-Jitsu) in each movement and develop  coordination of Energy (Ki) within the body (Kiai) and how to express it to the Opponent (Aiki). The Kata becomes an integral part of you. Now you are studying Kata in the sense of the second character shown.

Returning to Simple

Finally, you return to the simple movement of the original Kata as it was given to you, but now that simple movement has forever been transformed. Although it looks like a simple movement there is now depth and freedom to your Kata like a wide river. There are many kinds of rivers, some are deep, some shallow, some flow fast, some flow slow, some are cold, some warm, some straight, some meandering. They all have something in common, however: they are all rivers and yet they are all different. Kata using the second character is like this.

Both ways of looking at Kata are important. The first gives the solid foundation of transmitting information to new generations of beginners. The second adds depth to the concepts found buried with. A good teacher knows this and teaches Kata using either way based on the student’s understanding and experience.

There are other concepts to be gleaned from Kata to help you become not only stronger in technique, but stronger in many aspects of our lives.


Excerpted from:  Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell

Kogeki Bobi – The Unity of Offense and Defense

Kogeki  is a term meaning to attack or cut down and refers to offense and Bobi means defense. The term “Ko Bo Ichi” or “Kogeki Bobi” refers to the principle that offense and defense are one. Hundreds of examples exist that can be used to illustrate this concept.

Upper body shifting to defend and attack simultaneouslyOne example that collapses the distinction between Offense (Ko) and Defense (Bo) is Upper Body Shifting (Jo Taisabaki – shown right). Here, the body rotates in defense, and the same rotation drives the attacking punch.  Using this type of technique takes a thorough understanding of timing (Hyoshi) , distance (Ma-ai),  Initiative (Sen No Sen or Tai No Sen) and most obviously, confidence.

Blocks used to deflect an attack are used to break an arm at the same time , seriously degrade the opponent’s offensive capability, and collapse his structure (Kuzushi). In Kendo a number of terms describe the concept of attack and defense being equal by taking the center line where a downward cut is used to both block or deflect the opponent’s sword while striking at the same time. Examples include:

  • Kiri Otoshi – ‘Dropping Cut’ from Itto Ryu 
  • Gasshi Uchi – from Yagyu Shinkage Ryu
  • Hitotsu Tachi – ‘One sword’ from Kashima Shinto Ryu

Offense and defense can be considered as two separate entities, part of a spectrum, or something inseparable.

Short Time Slices Blur Distinctions

At the tactical and technical levels of strategy, smaller and smaller time slices between offense and defense transitions can merge the two. To fight this way requires strong ability, mental fortitude and flexibility, which shows a high degree of understanding. I remember when I was first introduced to fighting using Sanchin Dachi, a very short upright stance. A visiting senior instructor from another Dojo in Kumamoto was training with us. I learned very quickly that close in-fighting is incredibly fast and combined offense and defense at the same time. Punches were sticky and curved around my blocks like a snake only strike and at the same time prevent me from retaking the initiative. I came away with a very important lesson. Never underestimate small movements, and offense and defense really are the same.

There are many other examples of this concept. These short paragraphs do ill justice to the depth of this area of study. Look into your Kata and find it.


Excerpted and adapted from: Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell

Understanding Initiative – The Principle of Sen

retaking the initiative - naginata

We live in a cause and effect world, and combat is no different. Combat is a chain of causality. Cause and effect follow each other in another endless dualistic cycle. The concept of Initiative (Sen) as it relates to combat is something worth considering. Sen can mean to precede, precedence, prior, future, or ahead. It has variously been described as Initiative in Budo terminology. To Initiate – to cause or facilitate the beginning of.

What is Initiative?

Several questions immediately come to mind about Initiative:

  • What is the purpose of initiative?
  • Is there advantage or disadvantage to taking the initiative?
  • Do you have to move or attack first to have the initiative?
  • How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?

I am going to suggest that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage over your opponent. Conventional thinking suggests that by taking the first step\move (initiative), your opponent is forced to react to you and abandon his own plans at least temporarily. Initiative seems to indicate that by pre-empting your opponent’s actions, you have a higher probability of winning.

Like Boyd’s OODA loop, if you can get inside the opponent’s decision cycle, you Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act faster than your opponent. Which puts him on the defensive, gives him less time/fewer options to react while giving you more freedom. In other words, you spend more time shaping the engagement in your favor and your opponent spends more time detecting and reacting to your initiatives.

Several cycles of this type of engagement, with each one giving you greater and greater freedom of action while reducing that of your opponent, would make it appear that taking the initiative has significant advantages.

Of course, your opponent is trying to do the same to you; like trying to force each other into a corner. If you are in the corner, you have fewer and fewer directions to move. You want freedom in both space (to be able to move) and time (to decide when to move). In the corner, your opponent dictates your movement options and he has a wider grasp of time (he can choose to keep you in the corner, wait for reinforcements, or force you to fight until you are destroyed, break out, or surrender).

Therefore, it would seem that the answer to the first question above is that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage in the physical dimensions of time and space, mentally, and spiritually while reducing that of your opponent.

Do We Always Need the Initiative?

However, what about the second question? We can see some advantages to taking the initiative, but what about the disadvantages? If we equate initiative with attacking, we are in for a surprise. If we move against a prepared opponent, he will be ready to exploit the Gaps (Suki) inherent in our movement (Ugoki no Suki) or technique (Waza no Suki) that he can anticipate.

For example, if the attack is weak (slow, uncoordinated or at the wrong time), or anticipated (the defender plans for it, or actually depends on it for his reaction), then moving first is not necessarily an advantage.

Attacking is only one of several options to gain freedom of action, but if you are in a corner, it may be the only one left. Winning not only involves attacking, but setting up other opportunities. With an opponent trying to do the same to you, the goal must always be to react or initiate in such a way as to recapture Opportunity and/or Advantage by exploiting Gaps (Suki). A good pool player not only makes his shot, but also sets up his next shot to increase his opportunities and maintain the initiative. If he cannot make the next shot, he tries to place the cue ball in a position that makes it very difficult for the opponent to sink the next ball.

Western military science has always asserted that defense is a stronger form of combat because the attacker is required to move and strike—activities which trade off against each other and expose inherent Kyo-Jitsu cycles that can be exploited. There are many examples in Eastern martial traditions that espouse “Waiting” (Tai). “Be struck to win.”

Some martial styles have predominately advocated one or the other, but in reality there has to be a balance between offence and defence. There is a time and place for each. Higher-level Budo concepts such as the idea that offence and defence are the same thing will be discussed later (Chapter 13 – Kogeki Bobi).

Does Initiative Mean Moving First?

Initiation (Sen) and Attacking (Kogeki) are not the same thing. Like a chess player, you can strategically shape the chess board before the final engagement. In modern parlance, it is called preparation of the battle space, and starts long before the first bullet is fired. To put this into an example of a one-on-one engagement, imagine walking down the street heading to your car after seeing a movie and ahead of you are two unsavory characters.

  • You have already been proactive (taking the initiative) by studying your style of martial art and learning how to fight.
  • You have situational awareness (Kan) to determine that things are potentially shaping toward a bad situation.
  • By moving across the street to a well lit area with several other people, you are less likely to be isolated, position yourself in an advantageous position before any potential combat, and more importantly, dislocate the preferred environment of the opponents.
  • You can elicit support from allies, other people, or get the phone out of your pocket and dial 911 without hitting the send button yet.
  • You can determine which of the two opponents is the highest threat, and target any significant weaknesses of the opponent.

With the above scenario, you have been taking initiative without ever attacking and increased your probability of a better outcome than if you did nothing. You are already applying one of the three main methods of retaking the initiative from your opponent. You are mentally moving faster than your opponent and that leads to tactical speed. So, in answer to our third question, you do not have to attack first to have Initiative.

Because combat is dynamic and fluid, you are not always going to be in a position of maintaining the initiative. Your opponent may be faster, stronger, or have a particular technique that is very strong. You need to dislocate his strengths and apply yours to his weaknesses (Kyo) at the right time. There are several fundamental ways in which the Initiative (Sen) is recaptured during actual combat, and they all involve time. So now we can move on to the fourth question we have postulated about Initiative (Sen). How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?


Excerpted from Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell.

Terminal Ballistics or What Sundome Doesn’t Teach Us

Tameshigiri (test cutting), not Sundome

Training with your partner in the Dojo and maintaining participant safety uses an important concept critical to your martial arts study, but also has some drawbacks.

Stopping Just in Time

(Sundome) means stopping your punch, kick or strike just before impact. You need partners. Failure to control your technique results in injury and then people do not want to train with you. Simply put, proper control and trust in your partner extends your ability to train with them.

Sundome is also important as a method of self-control. By practicing to stop your technique before full expression you learn to focus your level of effect on the opponent. The focus spectrum  ranges from not touching your opponent (as in pulling a punch) to striking with all the force you can generate. From a budo aspect this type of training has value.  Controlling technique gives you confidence in your ability and it is safe to practice with partners in a learning atmosphere. And there lies the trap—if you are serious about the Bujutsu application of technique in actual combat.

For me, the Sundome concept has some serious implications in my Budo study. To recap:

  • I recognize the value of Sundome training in the dojo. It allows me to train and learn technique with others in a relatively safe environment where I can concentrate on learning.
  • I recognize the value of Sundome for a sport competition venue which provides safety for all competitors.
  • I value Sundome training for developing control in my technique. To be able to apply it from stopping just before application to complete application.

The last point above gives me the tool I need to explore and understand Sundome is not complete application of technique—it is only the start.

What Sundome Doesn’t Teach

From an application perspective (I’m talking a bujutsu perspective here), Sundome can’t answer some important questions.

To use an analogy, in shooting a rifle, there are three important phases of ballistics:

Internal Ballistics – everything that happens up to the point where the bullet leaves the barrel. This includes everything you do while holding the rifle, pulling the trigger, the firing mechanism resulting in the firing pin hitting the cartridge, the primer exploding and igniting the gunpowder and the expansion of gases that push the bullet down the barrel of the rifle, and even includes the rifling that spins the bullet and stabilizes its flight.

We can think of this as how we generate force and movement in our technique.

External Ballistics – This is what happens between the rifle and the target. How the bullet travels through the air, effects of moisture, wind, distance to target, and even the corriolis effect of the earth’s rotation.

We can liken this to timing and distance concepts used in the martial arts.

Terminal Ballistics – the effect of the bullet when it hits the target, penetration, energy transfer, fragmentation etc., and most importantly, the effects it has on the target’s ability to continue to function. In other words, how our technique imparts force to the opponent and the results of that force on the ability of the opponent to continue fighting. Does the bullet impart all its force on the surface of the target, in the target or through the target?

Sundome training doesn’t allow you to study or explore the effects of impact on your opponent. Sundome doesn’t teach you about terminal ballistics. In addition, because you are physically linked to your fist or kick (unlike a bullet), those impacts can also have effects on you (Newton’ s third law – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).

Let’s look at a few simple examples:

Recoil – If I hit with 100 pounds of force, the same amount of force travels back through my body.  Just like shooting a rifle, if I have a poor stance, wrong position of the butt stock on my shoulder, etc., my technique is likely to suffer in both penetration and effectiveness. You may be first in with a technique, but if you can’t penetrate because of a lack of understanding how impact affects your body—you better be prepared for the counter.

In fact, many times you can effectively weather an attack (blocking or not) because your opponent has no clue about how his body transmits force from the ground. If you understand this, you can overwhelm an opponent quickly by continuing your attack.

Range – If your technique is too extended or not extended enough, the effect of your technique is diminished when you hit the target, and also has effects on your body and the ability to move subsequently to the impact.

Target – If you hit effectively, but hit the wrong target, the effect on your opponent may be different than you expect. While Sundome training can teach precision and accuracy in technique, it does not help if your technique is not precise or accurate in its effects.  An example might be how much pressure is needed to exert control of a joint versus breaking it, or hitting the deltoid muscle on the upper arm versus the acromion process of the shoulder blade.

Impact as a way to create tactical control – Hitting an opponent can stop or change their forward movement during an attack and can lead to Collapsing Structure (Kuzushi) and further Gaps (Suki) that can then be exploited.

There are a number of other examples of how impact application effects further technical application. An example might be slapping the face (Kaze Uchi) or using a pressure point (Kyusho Uchi) to cause a reaction in the opponent that creates a bigger Gap (Suki) or Collapse in Structure (Kuzushi).

Sundome Does Not Teach Decisiveness in Combat

Sakki - Dangerous intentThere is one more concept that is very much related to Sundome training that many do not consider. I discussed with my Sensei a number of years ago about a concept I’m going to translate as Dangerous Intent (Sakki). A person in a highly emotional state because of anger, rage or influence by drugs may continue to be dangerous even after being struck with a well executed disabling or even lethal technique.  When the adrenaline is pumping in a highly dangerous moment or a person is lost in rage, you can strike him with a blow that would normally disable him, but because of his excited state, he is still able to function and strike back.

As an example, imagine a charging African water buffalo intent on impaling or trampling you. Even a well-placed shot may not be enough to drop the animal immediately, and you may be still in a very dangerous situation.  I have personally witnessed a white-tailed deer struck lethally with a well-placed bullet run two hundred yards before dropping. In tournaments one competitor is struck in the face as he attacks, continues his attack, sweeps, throws, and finishes his opponent before he turns away and the effects of his injury become apparent.

Impact that takes the momentum away from such an opponent or disables his ability to continue is the only sure way to stop them decisively other than retreating and letting them wear themselves out.

So how do we train to study the effects of impact on the opponent and ourselves? For karate, I cannot stress the importance of using the Striking Post (Makiwara). The makiwara teaches how to strike solidly and how force is transmitted through your body as a result of impact.  For the sword, an old tire stuck over a fence post, allows you to strike without fear of hurting anyone and at the same time, learn how to cut.  Using the makiwara is not about blasting it with your kicks and punches or hitting with your bokken. Using a makiwara inefficiently is probably just as bad as not using one (But that’s maybe for another article).

Some styles of karate use armor (Bogu) similar to kendo. This is not license to full use of your technique, but allows study of hitting effects with a partner in relative safety. Kendo with the use of the shinai and Bogu gives you opportunity to feel and experience the difference between playing tag or cutting.

Test cutting (Tameshigiri) with a sword and Test Striking (Tameshiware) using your body are two other methods. My own experience with test cutting taught me how to hold the sword properly and to make sure the blade aligned with the arc of the cut. Test striking has been less instructive for me. My opinion is that it’s not about how many boards, bricks, etc., I can break in a static application, it is about consistent ability to strike and create the effects in my target I wish to create—which is not always destruction.  The makiwara , shinai and bogu were the tools that gave me confidence in terminal ballistics.

Sundome safely teaches confidence in accuracy and timing, but you still have to understand the effects of impact to both you and your opponent. There is a lot more here to see if you look deeper.


by Rick Rowell



“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

One Inch Distance


Life And Death in the Thickness of Paper.

by Rick Rowell

Distance - Life and death in the thickness of paper

In the duel between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro made famous in the novel Musashi by Eji Yoshikawa, Musashi’s headband (hachimaki) was cut by Kojiro’s sword the same instant he killed Kojiro.

Kojiro may have died smiling, thinking he had cut Musashi.

Musashi, however, fully understood the concept of distance or Interval (Ma-ai) and its relation to time. Kojiro’s sword was a fraction of an inch too far away, but Musashi’s was not. As Kojiro was famous for the use of a longer sword, Musashi used a wooden sword carved from a boat oar—just a little bit longer.

The ability to judge the distance between your opponent within one inch or less can mean the difference between life and death.

There are a number of distance concepts used in the martial arts, but I am going to focus on two that are essentially the same principle and related:

    • Issun no Ma-ai – literally “One Sun Interval”. A sun is an old Distance - definition of SunJapanese unit of measurment a little over an inch long (1 sun = 3.03 cm). For the sake of clarity let’s translate it as “One Inch Interval”


  • Kami Shitoe – can be variously translated as “The difference in the thickness of a piece of paper,” hair’s breath, razor’s edge, paper thin, or nick of time.

The two ideas are essentially the same principle. To illustrate the principle, the figure below is a stylized overhead view of an attacker and defender. The person attacking is the black circle.

A. Shows two opponents facing each other from a slightly Toma (Far Interval ) distance—the starting position of the engagement.

B. Shows the defender maintaining the same distance from the attacker by shifting back at the same rate the attacker moves forward. Tactically this gains no advantage because it maintains the distance the defender will have to cross in order to counterattack. Any counterattack takes longer—because you have to cross a larger gap, and that takes time. A large spatial gap also gives your opponent the opportunity to re-take the initiative (Go no Sen) from you, or at the very least to strike you at the same time you strike him (Aiuchi, mutual striking). This type of movement (maintaining distance) can be useful if you are not ready to engage and want to remain at a safe distance outside the opponent’s Hitting Distance (Uchi no Ma-ai).

C. Shows the principle of “One Inch Interval” or “Difference in the Thickness of Paper.” Reducing distance by controlling movement backward to just outside the attacker’s range, means you are still a hair’s breadth out of range—in other words, safe. Tactically, you gain advantage because your counterattack does not have as far to go to reach the opponent and is hence faster.

D. Shows the same concept only by Shifting to the side or Entering (Sabaki or Irimi) and actually moving toward the attacker and just evading the attack by the “thickness of a piece of paper.” Tactically this makes the counterattack faster yet again.

Distance Concepts

The Issun no Ma-ai/Kami Shitoe concept can be used with any timing concept (Go no Sen, Tai no Sen, Sen no Sen) whether you block or not. The important aspect of this principle is that it is used to tactically retake initiative and make it very hard for your opponent to deal with a counterattack that is both compressed in time and space.

One Inch Distance (Issun no Ma-ai) is a critical concept in combat. It is not wasteful of time or distance, can be used with all timing approaches, and—no matter how strongly an opponent attacks, a miss is a still a miss. A miss by only one inch leaves you alive just as much as a miss by two feet, but the smaller miss leaves you in position to immediately exploit the opponent’s weakness (Kyo) that inevitably follows his missed attack.

Kami Shitoe is sometimes referred to as life on one side of the paper and death on the other and hence the idea of a razor’s edge between life and death.

Miyamoto Musashi in his book the book of five rings (Go Rin no Sho), written in the seventeenth century uses a very similar concept when he discusses the Spark of Flint Hit (Sekka no Atari to iu Koto).

“The ‘Spark of Flint’ means to strike with a great deal of force when the opponent’s long sword and yours are close enough to be barely touching, but without raising your long sword in the slightest. This means cutting quickly with hands, body and legs—all three cutting strongly. If you train enough you will be able to strike strongly.”

Musashi’s example shows how by lifting the hands the sword moves away from the opponent and increases the distance away from the opponent. Cutting immediately reduces time and distance, but you have to practice to become sufficiently strong enough to cut with force.

In unarmed martial arts such as Karate, the principle is no different. Moving just out of range of a punch or kick, then immediately countering is a common tactic in more experienced Budoka than in beginners.

The principle of minimizing or closing distance is as old as warfare, but you can challenge yourself to use this concept in other ways. Can you find examples in negotiation, hockey, formula one racing, or baseball?

The principle of “One Inch Interval”  or “The Difference in the Thickness of a Piece of Paper” can produce tactical advantage by manipulating time and space to stay just out of range of your opponents attack, and hastening contact with a counterattack.

There are many other distance and timing principles used in the martial arts.

Consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles as a reference to learn more.

Judo Meijin

Judo Meijin

Fortunately for us there is historical film footage of both Jigoro Kano and Kyozu Mifune that are a joy to watch and learn from. These visual references offer the serious student a wealth of quality information if they are diligent, particularily if they explore Variation (Henka) related to their martial art. Look them up on Youtube

While following the footage there are many avenues of exploration in techniques that can be used in your own study. They have definitely expanded my understanding of Technique (Waza), Collapsing Structure (Kuzushi), Timing (Hyoshi), and helped me understand my own Kata.

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