Added with permission from Kim Taylor Nanadan (CKF) Iaido, Rokudan (CKF) Jodo and Niten Ichi Ryu Shidoin, January 2023
The thread and yardstick
You should always have a thread and a yardstick in your spirit. When you join the thread to your opponent at any time and measure him with the yardstick of your own straight spirit, you can perceive the points where he is strong, weak, straight, crooked, tense or relaxed and what intentions your opponent has in his spirit. With the flexible thread and the straight yardstick you should measure round, angular, long, short crooked or straight things in your opponent and know your opponent well.
This should be tested.
I don’t know how much more we need to say about this article than you need to get the measure of your opponent. Why the thread and yardstick? You need to know when he’s pulling away from you (a thread will do here) and when he is pushing in toward you (a yardstick). A thread is no good when he’s coming toward you and a yardstick is no good if he’s moving away.
Just what is it you’re measuring? His spirit mostly, you need to know his intentions more than you need to know his physical movements, once he starts to move it may be too late to counter him. You want to “read him like a book”.
There is a concept of hara to hara communication, a direct “gut feeling” as we would put it, about what’s happening. This we often call intuition but what is that? Certainly not some sort of psychic tapping into the future, it’s reading the situation and projecting what will happen from that reading.
Is he crooked? Is his weight back but his sword flapping around in front of him? It’s probably a fake.
While we may call this idea of the thread and the stick simple, it’s very important for Musashi’s later writings. He will talk about letting go of the string and of getting tangled. Consider what would happen if we do some sort of cowboy duel, you know, you tie your wrists together with your kerchiefs and you both get a knife and go at it. One of the best strategies would be to pull your opponent off balance and stab him while he stumbles. This takes you out of his range momentarily and drags him into yours. Think about that happening because you’ve tied your spirit to your opponent by a thread. If he suddenly pulls back or opens up his defence you will tend to fall (move) toward him without realizing you’re doing it. You should cut the string before that happens. Niten Ichiryu uses this idea to advantage in the fifth Nito Seiho kata, Migi Waki Gamae. The fifth kata of the Sessa set, Ryusui Uchidome, also uses this, after challenging uchidachi with a chudan thrust to frustrate his men strike, you open up to his (now much slower) swing and step back as he cuts. He can’t help but cut and at the end of his cut you simply move his sword aside with the shoto and cut his head with the tachi.
There is a similar technique in Tsumi ai no Kurai of the Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu called Tsubame Gaeshi where we deliberately use the yardstick to force uchidachi to open up, we strike quickly toward uchidachi but he jumps back to make us cut slightly short of the target, uchidachi is almost forced to take advantage of this opening with a men cut of his own which we avoid with uke nagashi and finish the kata with a men of our own. By pulling away or pushing in we disrupt the opponent and force predictable attacks.
In a more familiar use of the yardstick, your opponent might simply push you back on your heels without you realizing he’s doing it, that’s what we call seme. With both the thread and the yardstick it’s important to use them to measure and not allow them to be used as a control of your body.