All About Distance Kim Taylor, Jan 9, 2017

Added with permission from Kim Taylor Nanadan (CKF) Iaido, Rokudan (CKF) Jodo and Niten Ichi Ryu Shidoin, January 2023

The first day back in the new year was a return to the roots. We practiced Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, which I consider the root art of Sei Do Kai. We discussed the problem with iaido, there’s nobody in front of you, you are just waving your sword around in the air.

How did the ryu deal with this? I suspect the way we did last evening, and the way some dojo deal with it usually. By following Omori ryu (the first level of the iai practice) with Tachi Uchi no Kurai (the first partner level).

We never did that, we went through the whole iai syllabus before doing any of the partner practices. Why? Well “why not” comes to mind but in reality, we’re in the Kendo federation. It’s just assumed that you know about maai and that you can deal with it when dealing with an invisible opponent.

To be honest, it wasn’t a problem, most of our students, while not practicing kendo, still practiced some sort of partner art along with the iaido. They did Aikido, or Tae Kwon Do, or Karate, or Ninja. Those who didn’t practice one of those before joining the iaido class very quickly ended up practicing Niten Ichiryu. So the need to work out maai by their imagination alone never came up. Of course, we also practiced Tachi Uchi no Kurai regularly from an early stage.

That set, or any of the other partner sets of MJER do tend to be left for last in the Kendo federation, because they’re not needed is my guess, and because Seitei Gata gets you up off your knees as well. That’s important, spend too much time on your knees and you’re risking your mobility in your old age. Nobody grows up on their knees any more, Westerners certainly, but I doubt many Japanese live in the tatami room these days. So up, up, mix the seiza with tate hiza or standing and give yourself a break. Don’t get me wrong, I love seiza and wish my left knee hadn’t got torqued last evening or I might have got right down onto my heels.

The knees aren’t the point, though, it’s the distance. How do you learn maai by doing iai? Memorize the movements? Perhaps. You can in fact, work it out theoretically by,.. well OK by getting bokuto and a partner and working it out physically. But if you have no partner you can also do it by assuming that your opponent is where the kata say he is. Draw the sword out, swing it in such and such a way as sensei tells you and there he is, you drew at him, then you cut him across the shoulders. Good. Does he move? No, so do the second cut accordingly. Is he scrambling back? Again, move accordingly so you can catch him.

It’s not all that hard, but it doesn’t get into your bones, your imagination is behind your eyes so your eyes don’t connect to the distance like they do when there’s an actual person there in front of you.

Going back to the partner practice, one of the suggestions that came up at the bar after class was that the Kendo federation might want to require a year of kendo before allowing anyone to start iai. I’m actually not completely opposed to that. I keep thinking I might do a bit of kendo with the rest of the guys once a week, just to see where my reflexes are these days. Probably hurt myself if I did. Before the iai grading system started in the CKF, the president suggested that we iai people also learn the kendo no kata. Again, not a bad idea for those who only do iai, and at least one club does just this.

What brought all this discussion on was me realizing that one of my senior students was rising from seiza and then drawing the sword. I sat down in front and demonstrated, from the good old jujutsu stuff, that if you rise and then draw you are giving me your sword. Not good. You really do need to be in position to attack before you move into range. This is Kendo 101, but for iai it can be a rather obscure concept. Nobody in front of you.

So we did what seems to be a set-piece class for us these days. The first 5 kata of Omori (Mae to the front, the left, the right, the rear, and when someone is scrambling back away from you) and then the first four Tachi Uchi no Kurai plus number six. Ten kata over three hours, works out fine if sensei can keep his mouth shut long enough.

We started from the idea of personal space and you can see a good explanation of that here: We basically decided that our personal space is body-related and not weapon-related, even now, after many years practice for most of the students. Fair enough, we don’t walk around with weapons in our daily lives so we don’t feel (see) the maai of a weapon. We need to work on that if we want to do the kata the way they were intended to be done. Still, now we’re aware of the problem we can work on it. If we don’t know there’s a problem we can’t fix it.

And so, after a couple of hours on a single kata (Mae) done in several directions, with an examination of how the draw and the rise timings might change depending on the direction of the attack, and an introduction to Mae chasing down a fleeing opponent (Yae Gaki) and some fun switching from seiza to tate hiza “on the fly”, the floor got too slippery to continue with that stuff. So we stood up.

The Tachi Uchi no Kurai (I don’t speak Japanese but how about “sword striking from the correct position” Google Translate gives me “terrible position” Hmm) are an explanation of maai for the Omori Ryu. At least that’s what we assumed as we began the practice, so we worked on this. People often assume the first kata, De Ai, is a practice for Mae. It is and it isn’t, I suppose one could say. If you draw horizontally at a partner it’s really hard to figure out a block that doesn’t introduce all sorts of inconvenient movements for uchidachi (the attacker, who would have to block the cut) so we do the cut low. Some folks do two cuts to meet far apart, but we tend to have the attacker cut for the knee and the defender (shidachi) block as in Yae Gaki. Whatever makes sense. The key to the kata though, is the “beginner move” of going to awase at this point. That puts us clearly and plainly at issoku itto, the one-step distance. Uchidachi then raises the bokuto above his forehead and shidachi cuts to the correct distance. Uchidachi has had to move back to get to awase, so now we know the spacing. The “working” version of the kata is to skip the awase step and just have uchidachi pull back to the issoku itto position while shidachi comes in. Done, a good introduction to basic maai.

The second Tachi Uchi kata (Tsuke komi “put it close”?) starts exactly the same way except the block is not done out in front of shidachi’s knee, but at the cutting distance. Further away and you can’t do the next bit, deeper and the block can’t be done (mechanical disadvantage). What you can do from this distance is grab uchidachi’s sword hand with your own left hand. Shows what you can do when you get “inside the sword”.

So cutting distance and inside that.

The next two kata are the same pair of distances, Uke Nagashi works from issoku itto, uchidachi maintains this distance and shidachi provokes a reaction by attacking with a thrust, uchidachi tries to slap the attack away and shidachi flows into a cut around this. In the second of this pair (Uke Komi) shidachi is allowed to “climb up” uchidachi’s sword so that as uchidachi raises his sword, shidachi can attack the armpit from this inside position.

Skipping number five, (even closer, body to body) number six, (Suigetsu to) reinforces this awareness of Issoku Itto by having shidachi simply move his blade through the maai in an attack on the solar plexus. It’s at this point that we have to start recognizing that our personal space is different with and without weapons. If we miss the critical distance (where toma, outside distance, becomes kirima, cutting distance, ie maai, mutual distance) we miss this technique. It’s kendo no kata number 2, “pretty simple” the beginners say.


It’s not about waving swords around, it’s all about distance.

Keiko and Zoom Keiko

U. Guelph Japanese Swordsmanship Club (Sei Do Kai):

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