Added with permission from Kim Taylor Nanadan (CKF) Iaido, Rokudan (CKF) Jodo and Niten Ichi Ryu Shidoin, January 2023
3) How the sword is held
To hold the sword correctly the forefinger and thumb should hold lightly, the middle fnger with medium strength, the ring finger and the little finger firmly.
As with the sword there is life and death with the hand. The hand is dead which, when holding, parrying or stopping, forgets the actual aim of cutting the opponent and becomes rigid. The living hand is always relaxed and calm, in harmonious balance with the sword in preparedness to cut.
When holding the sword the wrist should not be twisted, the elbow not stretched too much, but also not bent too much, the upper muscles of the arm should be relaxed and the lower muscles tensed. This should be carefully observed.
This article is almost shocking in it’s clarity and practicality. One is not prepared for such an easily understood bit of writing from the mysterious Musashi, but there is a very good reason for this clarity. Since the publication of Musashi’s works in the early part of this century I have seen very few writings on grip that do not quote this passage, or it’s equivalent in the Go Rin no Sho. It’s familiar because it’s almost universally accepted as the way to hold the Japanese sword.
We hold a sword with the little and ring fingers snug, the middle finger loosely and the thumb and forefinger almost not at all. This grip activates the underside of the arm and as any Aikidoka will tell you, you should “keep weight underside”. If you practice Shindo Muso Ryu you might have been told to grip tightly with the rear two fingers, which allows you to take a reverse grip on the jo with one hand (in this grip your thumbs face each other on the stick, rear hand grips as per above, front hand then grips with the index and middle finger tightly, and the little finger loosely. Both these grips let you keep your elbows close to your body.
Further to gripping the thin blades of Niten Ichiryu, you should start by holding the bokuto in your outstretched arm and open hand using only the little and ring fingers. This means your fingers pinch the edge side of the grip rather than wrap around it, and it’s somewhat like what your karate instructor told you to do as you begin to make a fist. Now you curl your hand closed and let the palm fall on top of the grip so that your thumb and middle fingers meet as if you are going to snap your fingers. The whole hand is held as if you are using a fine brush to stipple ink onto paper.
Stretch your hand out now, curl the little and ring fingers tightly and rest the little finger on the table in front of you lightly. Let your hand and wrist fall naturally so that your thumb almost but not quite touches the table. Touch your thumb to the middle finger. When you squeeze the little finger can you feel the muscles on the underside of your arm tighten? This is how you hold the sword. It’s also roughly how you hold your hands when you type if you were taught ten finger style.
To make this hand “live” pick up a butter knife from your table and hold it so that it lies naturally in this grip. You will find that the thumb and index fingers are on either side of the handle, you will also find that the blade runs naturally in line with your forearm. Put the tip of the knife on the table and press down with it. Did your thumb and index finger squeeze the sides of the handle? Did your little finger naturally pull the knife up into the base of your palm? Good. This is a live blade, with power and control in the tip. Now wrap your fingers around the grip so that all the fingers are gripping equally. Look at the direction of the blade, try to press the tip into the table. I suspect your elbow is flying outward or twisted awkwardly inward. Do you feel how insecure that handle is in your grip. One wouldn’t think so with all those fingers gripping at once, but there you are. As Musashi said, “work on it”. Experiment and see how Musashi’s grip works compared to other grips, work on it as if your life depended on it. Musashi’s did.
Elbows neither stretched nor bent too much? Sure, the power range of a punch is from about 110 degrees to, say, 170 degrees. A straight arm that punches comes right back through the shoulder, so no good. An arm that is bent to 90 or less is not aligned muscularly to take much load. A cut is not a punch you say? OK point taken, but think of an arm held straight out holding a shinai and striking men. Did you just hear your sensei’s voice in your head telling you to drop your shoulders? So try it, drop your shoulders. What happened to your arms, did the elbows just bend a little? The muscles on the underside of your arm, connect them to your armpits and now pull down the shoulders by tightening the armpits. Did you feel the power suddenly surge through to your little fingers? Were you tightening them? Did the index finger and thumb press forward so that the tip of your imaginary blade was driven forward? Musashi says you’re welcome.
Bend the elbow too much and you lose range, too straight and you lose power. Work on that for a while.
We come to the final point, the idea of cutting vs. blocking or deflecting or whatever else. Is this “the best defence is a good offence”? Perhaps, but Musashi actually says elsewhere that swordsmen sometimes throw themselves into an attack forgetting about defence and advises that we guard our bodies first, then attack. What’s up with that?
Think suriage men. As you raise your sword overhead you deflect the attacking sword, you then cut down in the same movement you just used to protect yourself. Now try the same thing while ignoring the cutting part, only thinking about the deflection. Did it work? Without keeping the tip “live”, by thinking about the cut, your deflection loses power, your awareness comes back into your hands on the deflection and thus your sword goes dead, it loses power. Think of the tip of the sword, the cut, and the whole sword has the energy to deflect the attack.
If you are blocking at the hilt this hardly matters, but if we’re blocking at the hilt we are probably not in a very good place. Think about that the next time you’re in class working on your kata.