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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Cutting from the ground up

Cutting from the ground up

photo by Rob Ireton

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Performing test-cutting starting from a low ground position, such as one-knee-up or a kneeling posture. This is a somewhat usual form of test cutting practiced by some within the arts of iaido and iaijutsu, which may have applications for the modern Western practitioner.

How does the idea of performing tameshigiri from a kneeling position apply?   The application of test cutting for the Japanese arts is obvious.  As sitting in a kneeling posture (seiza) was common in official and ceremonial situations, the ability to defend oneself from unexpected attack while in this posture was an essential skill.  For practitioners of iaido or iaijutsu and similar systems, performing test-cutting while in these ground postures aids in understanding their technique, how kata are meant to work, and can well allow them to refine their kata practice to be more realistic.

For practitioners of both Eastern and Western blade arts  there is also an application, if somewhat removed from their daily fencing practice.  This is the concept that a warrior could, through accident, misfortune, or impact from a blow, be knocked to their knees — or even prone — by a blow from an enemy.  Our warrior would be at a distinct disadvantage while down, and would rise as quickly as they could,  but may well have to deflect blows while rising.  Logic would suggest they should also be capable of delivering an effective blow themselves while in a low position;  thus test-cutting from a low position can reveal to a student what kinds of cuts would be effective, and how they would have been made

Note I am not advocating the practice of extended fencing/fighting from a ground position.  Even within the study of Iai, most kneeling kata consist of a quick initial cut or deflection, followed either by a killing response (usually a single return cut, normally not more than three), or moving immediately to a standing position for an effective response.  Certainly the concept of extended Western ground fencing has been dismissed by a through examination of European fight-master’s manuals (Legs, Wounds, and Standing Fights in Historical Fencing)

First, let’s look at the arts of iaido and iaijutsu, which study the concept of a quick defense and action while kneeling.

Defining Iaido and Iaijutsu and the their basic postures

Iaido is, of course, the modern “Way of Iai” a path for self development rather than combat.  On the other hand iaijutsu, translating roughly as “The martial science of Iai”, is the study of its use in combat.   The study of iaijutsu harkens back to the roots of  iai, where it was a serious study of practical techniques which would enable the practitioner to survive an sudden, unexpected attack.

In most branches of iaido, kata are stately and controlled solo exercises, the practice of which helps the student develop balance, focus and concentration.  The old forms of iaijutsu, however, focus on their original purpose;  keeping the practitioner alive while destroying their opponent.

In both styles, students studied kata intended be used from one of the traditional Japanese kneeling postures:

Seiza: Kneeling on both knees with feel laid out flat behind (figure 3)

Kiza:  Kneeling on both knees, but sitting heels up,  with toes down and braced against the floor; a position taken preparatory to moving to a one-knee-up position.  It can include both low (figure 2) and high kiza, with hips raised (figure 1).

HizaHiza:  Sometimes known as iai-hiza or tate-hiza.  Kneeling on one knee and sitting back on that foot, with the other leg folded out towards the front, as seen at right.  Originally developed to allow a warrior in bulky leg armour to sit comfortably, it later was commonly adopted by samurai for defensive sitting, as it was easy to move from this position to a one-knee-up, one-down attack posture.

A demonstration of historic kneeling battojutsu (a variant name for iaijutsu) techniques can be seen in the following video, which were recorded for anthropological and historical record:



The history and biomechanics of sitting and rising

In the paper Historical Study of Sitting in Japan: with “seiza” as main topic, (Yusei Tazaki) the author examines the history of sitting in Japan, to see how the seiza posture became so integral to Japanese society.  In part, her research showed that historically there were many sitting positions used over centuries, with seiza eventually becoming adopted as a required position for formal and ceremonial situations, or when meeting with people of higher rank.  Higher ranked personages could sit “anza” (agura is the modern word), known in the West as sitting “crosslegged”;  those attending on the higher ranked person would sit seiza, showing their deference by their very position.  Interestingly, dining was often considered a “ceremony”.  Thus samurai would spend an inordinately large percentage of their time in this position.

As Yusei mentions in her paper, researchers in the biomechanics of sitting determined that the various positions shown in Figure A) above are also part of the process one goes through in moving from standing to seiza, or vice-versa.  To move into seiza, a person would kneel down first on one knee, then on both (high kiza);  balance requires the person be on their toes during this process.  Then they would start to sink the hips (low kiza), followed by “flipping” the feet so that their toes are out, and finally settling back into full seiza.  In this series of movements there is no forward momentum, rather a settling back.

The reverse of the process, however:  raising the hips and placing the toes under the heels (low kiza), then raising the hips further (high kiza), followed by moving to a one-knee-up position actually causes a person to forcibly raise their center of gravity up-and-forward, creating momentum;  from here both legs push up to raise a person to standing.  It should by no means be a shock to Westerners that this is the same general process we all use when rising from a ground position.  The Japanese have simply formalized the stages in the process.

As a side note, some people may comment that samurai would not be wearing their katana while in the presence of their lord,  while eating dinner, etc.  While true to a certain extent — there being many formal situations where samurai were required to wear their katana as a sign of rank —  it is equally true that samurai were almost never totally unarmed.  While polite manners often required a samurai to leave their katana at the door or with a keeper, they almost always carried a wakizashi (the more modern name for a kodaichi, the small or companion sword), or a tanto, a long-bladed knife.  The majority of Iai kata are as effective with the small blades as with the large.


Application in tameshigiri

How then does the concept of kneeling cutting apply within the practice of tameshigiri or modern test-cutting?  An examination of Iai kata  will show that there is almost no case where a practitioner makes either a defensive or aggressive movement from the very static seiza position.  In this position  a warrior would be an extreme disadvantage, with little ability to absorb blows without being over-balanced, or the ability to make effective return cuts.  Instead, the kata have the practitioner quickly move up through the kiza postures and advance to the one-knee-up position, their movement creating forward momentum which can used to add to the force of a cut.  It is only from this position that attacks are launched.

Thus we can say that the effective practice of test-cutting should be made from an one-knee position (or where the student moves rapidly into the one-knee-up position), where the practitioner has the capability to effectively cut, to “knee-shuffle” forward to add their body mass to the blow, to maneuver  on the ground if required, or to quickly push up to a standing offensive position.  While Eastern martial artists can explore the “real-life” used of their kata, Western practitioners can experiment with which of their techniques would be effective from this position.  Examples of kneeling tameshigiri include:




A cautionary note

While this comprises an interesting side exercise and experiment, there are several dangers to be considered:

Physical:  Kneeling with one-knee-up  potentially places that limb within the range of your sword swing.  Extreme care must be taken when cutting not to cut into the elevated leg, particularly when cutting down.  When making a diagonal cut, it is highly recommended a practitioner cut down only from the raised knee side, down towards the down-knee, which reduces the chance of cutting into the raised limb.

Psychological: As with all test-cutting, this is an exciting and intriguing exercise, and a good learning opportunity.  One must keep in mind that the goal here is to learn more about your technique, and the different situations a warrior might have had to deal with on the battlefield.  Approaching this exercise as a bloody form of theater or pretense is a poor and potentially self-damaging way of viewing this activity.




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