Sanjugokajo-7 Closing the distance – Jan 25, 2015, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

There are various teachings to the choice of distance to the opponent in other schools. Because people are inclined to be entangled by one strategic teaching or the other and thereby become immovable in their spirits, I prefer to say nothing in particular about this now.

Such things become easily understandable by themselves in various ways when we get used to them.

Simply put: you should take care that the distance in which you can hit the opponent with your sword, is at the same time the distance in which you can be hit by the sword of the opponent.

When attacking the opponent people tend to forget their own body.

This should be thoroughly tried out.


Distance, “Ma” is not a simple measurement that can be taped down onto the dojo floor as we do in a kendo match. It is not a simple crossing of the tips of the weapons by 4 cm. Ma is a variable that involves distance and time and other things like balance and the state of mind and injury and the length of your legs. It is the goldilocks distance where you are neither too far away nor too close to hit your opponent in one movement (one beat, one tempo). We use the term issoku itto, one step distance. Raise the sword, step in and cut.

What is that one step distance? Well for beginners we put their shinai tips together and tell them that this is it. They believe us of course and try hard to reach their target by leaping forward and stretching their arms. This is good for them because what we are really doing is showing them the edges of the envelope, the rough maximum range of their strikes. Eventually they ought to find their own ma or they will become “stuck” in this absolute, they will be, as Machida translates above, “entangled”. This is what Takuan Soho calls “fushin” the frozen mind that can’t get beyond the details.

Ma involves the distance that has to be traveled by the sword to the target, and the time it takes to get there. It is the interval, the warp in space that proves that Musashi knew all about space-time long before Einstein’s day. Change the distance and you change the time, change the time and you change the distance.

But even more relative than that, strain your left calf and you increase both the time and the distance, you can’t jump in as fast or as far. Get set back on your heels, have a disturbed mind, a weak spirit or get caught in a bad posture and your ma worsens.

So why do we get out the yardstick and measure the starting tape? Why do we insist beginners start at a specific crossing point of their weapons? Because they are beginners, they have no experience. Musashi is not kidding when he says things like “this should be thoroughly tried out”. Here he specifically states that these things become undestandable when we get used to them, or as Tokitsu translates “Whatever the discipline may be, it is by repeating exercises that you arrive at the point of being able to assess the ma.” The more experience with different circumstances, the better your understanding of ma.

So far so good, we know how far we have to jump in and what time it takes. In general we need to jump in as far and as fast as possible yes? In fact that’s a big part of Kendo, to “throw away our lives” in the attack so that we have no reservations, so that we move freely to the strike.

Musashi has a word of caution for those who may want to move from shinai geiko to dueling with bokuto or with shinken. When you can cut your opponent, he can cut you. Your distance is his distance, depending on the various factors we’ve discussed. The advantages of a couple of inches can be important in a competition, but these can be quickly negated in a real match by the slightest flicker of doubt across your mind. Hence the kendo teaching, hence Musashi’s warning that “When attacking the opponent people tend to forget their own body.” Elsewhere Musashi reminds us that we need to make sure that our body is defended before we attack.

We will return to this later in article 15 when we will discuss the modern idea of “ki ken tai ichi” and Musashi’s “body as representative of the sword”. For now, begin thinking seriously about the idea that cutting distance is mutual distance, and the wisdom (or not) of forgetting the body as you attack.

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