Bujinkan Sword: 6 Strategies for 峰打ち Mineuchi

Yoyogi kōen Sword Fighting, Tokyo. photo by Colin McMillen
We had been training with tachi all day. Then I shifted the focus of the class to katana. One of the newer students had not really done much Bujinkan sword prior to that day. So he continued to draw the katana with the same method as I had shown him earlier with tachi.

When I noticed him doing this I gave him another quick sword drawing lesson. I didn't want to slow the whole class down to teach him all of the necessary basics. But as I looked over at him, he would have his sword upside down in his belt.

It was amusing because he would try to emulate the kata I had shown the class, and every time he cut with his sword he was hitting with the back of the blade. He would then glare at his sword as if it was broken.

I told him he was unlucky to have a "backwards" sword.

But he isn't the first student to have his sword wrong way around. Many of us have done this at some point in our training careers. So if you get stuck with one of these "backwards" swords in a real battle, what do you do?

You can make use of the strategy of 峰打ち mineuchi. This is a method of striking with the back of the blade (normally on purpose). So why do this? What are some strategic reasons to strike with the back of your blade?

  • Well, in the heat of the battle, or, if you are a beginner, it could happen by accident. Then just getting your weapon into play is a start and you correct as you go.
  •  When the strategy of mineuchi is done on purpose, it opens up some wonderful options. For one, it can be a speed thing. It may give a slight advantage to strike whatever is nearest without having to turn your blade or adjust your kamae.
  •  Another option is surprise. Using the back of the blade allows you to attack from angles and directions that are unexpected. Then through principles of 引力 inryoku or 押切 oshikiri, you can transition it into a cut.
  •  A third really great reason to use mineuchi, is to open up the space. Striking with the backside of the blade up under kote before do giri is common. Or flipping down onto kote, and after slamming into his hands bouncing off this strike to cut something vital. Also, clearing the enemy's weapon while keeping the edge directed at him.
  •  The curve of the sword itself allows for the tip to wrap around obstacles and build up tremendous speed when hitting with the back of the blade.  The uke may block your strike and still be surprised when the tip makes contact with his temple. Also, this curve creates wonderful effects when redirecting an enemy's strike.
  •  But you may also do this so as not to seriously injure or kill. Hatsumi Sensei shows this all time. There are many important methods of using a sword without cutting or killing.

In 時代劇 (old Japanese plays),  the actors would prepare the sword in advance so the audience could see it was backwards to show they did not have murderous intent.

This principle is even more important with modern firearms. There is a saying in English, if you are holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Meaning you will choose the "hammer" solution just because you have that tool. So with a gun, every threat looks like a target to be shot. Even though it may the wrong choice for that particular threat.

With your sword, give yourself options besides cutting by learning more about your weapon.

How You Avoid Being 餓鬼 Gaki in the Bujinkan

Ouch! photo by Harry Sherman
There is a certain type of student in the martial arts and the Bujinkan who is like 餓鬼 gaki. A gaki in Japanese is the spirit of a jealous or greedy person who, as punishment for mortal vices, has been cursed with an insatiable hunger or thirst. No matter how much it consumes, it cannot be sated. Gaki is also a slang word for bratty kids.

Could you be a gaki? Would you even know if you were this type of student? And if you are, how can you leave behind this cycle?

Sometimes we focus on the wrong things in training. It's easy to get lost in the details. Where did Sensei put his feet? Which hand did he strike with? What are the steps of this kata?

After asking these questions we are still no closer to understanding what was taught. Then we try to mimic the teacher and cannot. Or we do mimic but don't get the results. This becomes frustrating for many. Some give up and quit.

Some even adopt a strange strategy of trying to mimic the teacher when he was younger. (how they think they can accomplish this I have no idea… old video? stories from the so called "old days?") Many people sink deeper into details, training on form to the extreme.

We should have compassion and understanding for these gaki. In Japan they even have a special day in August (or sometimes around Halloween) called segaki 施餓鬼 which is for feeding these hungry ghosts. In training, many so called teachers cater to these unfortunate students and sell them anything they wish to consume.

None of this offers a solution. You have to go back to the original problem. What do you focus on in training?

True experts make it look easy and effortless. What does that mean to appear effortless? It means to not show effort. Masters in any art are really masters of what to leave out. What not to do. Mistakes not to make.

They narrow their focus to the absolute essence of the movement. It looks so simple. And in truth, it is!

Soke Hatsumi writes,
"... with the Zen style of painting where anything unnecessary is omitted, and the place where it has been omitted is where the genuine illustration of Zen can be seen."
We should be focusing on what is not shown. What is not attempted. What steps are not taken.

If you can discard what the master left out, you will be left with the essence. Start from this basic, ground state when learning. The teacher shows what he shows for a reason. Don't think you know better than him to go do something else.

In training we only require the ground beneath our feet. Just like Soke. That is where he begins every technique. Connecting to this realization clears away the heaps of junk that are injected into our minds by people with a variety of agendas. Know also that many teachers cater to Gaki students and have an agenda for saying what they say. Their intentions are not to help you learn, but rather "sell" themselves and promote their ability. Your training with them will be full, but you will always be empty.

You have an innate wisdom that expresses an intuitive understanding and clarity that cuts through ego, anxiety, and aggression. Every student I meet has this ability to know what is good when they allow themselves this freedom.

Good training is going into that place in yourself where this exists naturally. You do this over and over until you no longer have to search in yourself for it. You embody it and all you require is the ground. It becomes the body you live in.

When you get to this place and find your spot on the ground, you have a responsibility to reflect it in your life. Bring it forward through personal example and responsible action. This is how to teach without ego, from your own truth.

Look for that teacher or be that teacher. Anything less is like being a gaki.

魅剣 Miken: Bewitching Blade of Bisentō Jutsu

Ghostly photo by didbygraham
When I was studying the Bisento kata 魅剣 Miken, or bewitching blade, I wanted to understand what would make the blade bewitching. I know the movement is meant to confuse the opponent with kyojitsu, but what I found in my study takes this "bewitching" to another level.

Often in our Bujinkan training we encounter supernatural ideas. They are woven in the fabric of our art and in Japanese legend. This is an aspect to training that makes the art so mysterious and fascinating. Mystery brings another level of power to the art and to stories of the Ninja.

The challenging thing for pragmatic martial artists is to connect the myth to something that can be used in battle. I personally am not a pragmatist in these things. I am an artist by profession and it is natural for me to accept mysterious ideas and inspiration in my training. What really stops my mind cold is when I glimpse the supernatural at work in the pragmatic.

With Miken, Hatsumi Soke says that it is the same as 魑魅魍魎 chimimōryō in 幻実 genjitsu which is a phantom reality, or possibly 幻術 genjutsu magic/witchcraft.

He justs drops this statement on us like it is a normal way to use the Bisento.

So what is 魑魅魍魎 chimimōryō? It is translated as evil spirits of mountains and rivers; monsters, goblins, and ghosts; all sorts of weird creatures.

But to understand 魑魅魍魎 chimimōryō (chimei-wangliang in mandarin) we must know that the beginnings of Bisento in our art stemmed from Yoshiteru either learning it in China, or directly from a Chinese monk. Then for chimei-wangliang we have to go back to the very beginnings of Chinese myth. Back as far as the 26th century BC.

In the beginning… (I always wanted to say that)

There was the battle of Zhuolu. This was a battle fought between the Yellow Emperor, who is considered the founder of Chinese civilization, and Chi You. Wikipedia describes Chi You:
According to legend, Chi You had a bronze head with metal foreheads. He had 4 eyes and 6 arms, wielding terrible sharp weapons in every hand. His head was that of a bull with two horns, but the body was that of a human. He is said to have been unbelievably fierce, and to have had 81 brothers.
So you see we had quite a battle brewing.

Chi You used 魑魅魍魎 chimei-wangliang as a battle tactic. He summoned forth the demons of the swamps, forests and mountains to fight in his army, and employed 幻術 genjutsu producing a poisonous mist against the forces of the Yellow Emperor.

This poison mist was used to confuse and cause the enemy to become lost in the thick fog. The Yellow Emperor suffered several defeats because of this and eventually had to ask for help from a dragon to win the battle.

I tell this story because in our (somewhat smaller) battle with the Bisento, we can employ Kasumi (mist) techniques and cause the enemy to become lost in confusion through kyojitsu. The kata itself demonstrates the physical foundation for creating this feeling, but as Soke reminds us, "Separate yourself from the waza so that you see the whole picture. If you think "this is how we do the waza," that is very dangerous." We have to go beyond what we think we know.

I wrote about one way to reflect this feeling here: 平常心 Heijōshin: a Heart Like Clear Water.

He tells us that breathing in this life force, or  生命 seimei is of great importance to martial artists.  This is the Bufu Ikkan that blows through our lives.

Kuuki wo Yomu 空気を読む: Situational Awareness For Dangerous Foreigners

Tokyo Love Hotel Menu Board, photo by fletchy182
One day I was in Japan being my normal  yabanna gaijin (dangerous, socially unaware, foreigner) self, when I stumbled into a funny but embarrassing situation. I had travelled to Japan with an old friend who was not into training and was here on his first trip. We were wandering all over exploring the city like bad tourists.

While walking we encountered one of the themed "love hotels" that are common in some areas. He had never seen one, so I thought I would show him the menu board. Inside the lobby of this style of hotel there is often a menu board of themed rooms. It shows pictures of the rooms with options like the Cleopatra Love Suite, UFO with a bed shaped like a saucer and stars painted on the ceiling, or just straight up Hello Kitty S&M Room with lots of hearts and pinkness. Next to the picture is a price and button that you press to book the room.

Suddenly we heard a yelp from the woman sitting behind a small square window with a curtain hiding her face. She jumped out of her chair and came bursting into the lobby through a side door. We were apparently being very KY.

KY? In the U.S. this is a brand of love lubricant. But in Japanese slang it refers to 空気を読めない人 Kuuki wo Yomenai hito, or, someone who can't read the air of a situation. The opposite and better way to be is 空気を読む Kuuki wo Yomu, which is to read the atmosphere, read the air. adapt to a subtle situation. In English we use similar expression like reading between the lines, sense the mood in the air, or feeling a good or bad atmosphere in a place. In combat scenarios we call it situational awareness or just keeping your head on a swivel.

This is something that our training prepares us for and something Hatsumi Sensei often reminds us to cultivate. I wrote about one class where Sensei speaks to this idea: Kankaku 感覚: Can You Smell It?

You will not be able to sniff out or spy (探り出す saguri dasu)  these clues if you don't practice raising your awareness or heightening your senses. Worse still are people who actively destroy what little sensitivity they have with abuse of substances or poor choices. For a Ninja, the deepest of sensitivity is cultivated: the ability to sense danger before it happens; to know when someone is watching you; or when the moment is right to make an escape.

Soke said that Takamatsu could discern tea leaves that were grown on opposite sides of a mountain through differences of moisture in the leaves. That kind of awareness takes heightened sensitivity but also a lot of experience.

Sadly, I don't have enough experience with love hotels. And a very panicked woman confronted my friend and I in the lobby and ushered us back out onto the street. Even though I didn't not understand her words at the time, we quickly realized it was one of two things: either they don't allow foreigners to occupy this particular love hotel; or, more likely, they don't allow two men to occupy a room together and she thought we were there to get a room.

We had a good laugh on the street. It was so funny because of her LARGE overreaction to the situation. You see, we were being "KY," but so was she. We had not the experience or the sensitivity to know that we shouldn't have entered that lobby. But she didn't read the situation very well to discern that we only wanted to look at the pictures of the themed rooms! Even if she hadn't confronted us so dramatically we would have finished looking at the photos and left on our own.

I tell this funny but embarrassing story, to give an everyday example of reading the air. But not having this ability can get you killed in combat. And it often embarrasses many visitors to the Hombu Dojo when they don't pay attention. You can read more about this on Doug Wilson's blog here: Read the Air . And here is a brief video tour of a love hotel:

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