Training is not limited to dōjō hours, homework is necessary. Once you have repeated many times the same moves, your Taijutsu gets better. To train your Kihon or your Waza has a name in Japanese: it is Tabi Tabi. (1)
Did you notice that drawings of Japanese fighters show them with the body bent forward? That is because when you fight outside, you have to get your body weight pushing down on the first half of your feet. This gives you a good Kinkō, a correct balance. (2) Today we mainly train in a dōjō, but when they created the techniques, every fight was on the battlefield.
Outside, the terrain is not flat, nor horizontal, and can be slippery. Thus balance should be your primary focus. You fall, you die! When you keep your body weight forward, you have a better chance to stay up on your feet. This is the Kuden (3) of Shizen no Kamae. (4) When you assume Shizen no Kamae, put your body pushing down on the toes and not on the heels. Sensei said, “You must always be on your toes (and) yet be relaxed.” It means that your weight is always forward, in Kamae, and during the whole fight.
Now, the difficulty is to relax every part of the legs. If you try to put your weight forward, you will feel muscular tensions at various levels. At your calves, your thighs, and your hips. You will have to train a lot to get rid of them. To get the good Kamae, you must practice over and over again. This is “Tabi Tabi”.
The reason why Hatsumi Sensei says that you have “…yet to be relaxed” is then logical. Shizen, to me, is the hardest Kamae of all. Anatomy is also a good teacher. Look, for example, at the back leg of a horse. The joint at mid-level is nothing more than the calcaneus, the heel. And it never touches the ground when the horse walks! (5) And if you are training with Shika Tabi, be aware there is no support for the arch of your feet. So, I urge you to use your body weight forward, because if you don’t, you will get tendonitis. It happened to me back in the 80s. All Bujinkan techniques are coming from the Yoroi and the battlefield. The Japanese developed this way to stand and walk to keep the body safe in battle.
The Waraji, (6) and then the Zōri, (7) are also designed to help this. The soles of both sandals are only protecting the foot, not the toes. When I bought my first pair of Waraji, I told the shopkeeper they were too short. After he explained it to me, the young Gaijin understood that it was not the case. I was wrong (again). As your toes often touch the ground, it means your Tabi would not survive very long if you use them outside of the house. (8)
The Waraji supports only your sole. Your toes being on the ground, the body leans forward. This is a natural process. You can experience it by adding some heel support inside them, and you will see how it benefits your Taijutsu. You have to find ways to improve your skills, having à better footwork is one of them. Actually, what makes Bujinkan so unique compared to other martial arts is footwork. Never forget that everything we do comes from actual battlefield experience. Our Waza survived many wars. They survived and transmitted them to the next generation until today. Nothing we do happen by chance. It is the result of a long period of trial and error. Between the 12th and the 17th century, in Japan, errors often meant death. If we train these techniques today, it is because they were efficient in a real fight.
Back to Sensei and his “You must always be on your toes, (and) yet be relaxed.” Understand that being Kutsurogu, relaxed (9), is a demand of the Yoroi. The armor is excellent protection if you stay relaxed inside. If you are tensed, the many blows you receive go through your flesh and bones. I want to repeat myself here, “everything we do comes from real battle experience.” So, please don’t try to “reinvent the wheel” in your dōjō. Please do not add things exotic to the Sensei’s Bujinkan. (10) Follow the guidelines transmitted for centuries by generations of instructors. After all, this is what transmission means.
As I often tell students in seminars, and in my dōjō, “there is a reason.” If you don’t know it, search for it. Ask your teachers or, when in Japan, ask Sensei.
1 度々, tabi tabi; often; again and again; over and over again; repeatedly; frequently
2 均衡, Kinkō; equilibrium; balance
3 口伝, Kuden; oral instruction, passing information by word-of-mouth, oral tradition
4 自然, Shizen; natural; spontaneous
5 Horse anatomy https://mobility-health.com/pages/horse-anatomy
6 草鞋, Waraji; straw sandals. https://zenike.com/products/waraji-straw-sandals-tabi-socks-set-zen-outfit-accessory-well-craft-all-sizes
7 草履, Zōri; traditional Japanese thronged sandals
8 足袋, Tabi; Japanese socks (with split toe)
9 寛ぐ, Kutsurogu; to relax; to feel at home
10 If you want to mix different bits and pieces of other martial arts, it is fine with me. If it makes you and your students happy, fine. But then, don’t call yourself a Bujinkan dōjō.
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