Saturday, August 26, 2017


by Phillip Starr

In traditional Japanese swordsmanship there is a poem that tells us,

"To strike the opponent you must have your own skin cut;
To break the opponent's bones you must be cut to the flesh;
To take the opponent's life you must have your own bones broken."

The famous Japanese swordsman, Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi (first son of Yagyu Tajima No Kami Munenori, who was head swordmaster for the Tokugawa shogunate) said, "The different between victory and defeat lies within the distance of one 'sun'." A "sun" is known an Chinese as a "tsun" (or "cun", in Pinyin). It is the measurement of the body inch used by acupuncturists and is generally found by bending the middle finger and measuring the distance between the fold of the first and second knuckles.

It's pretty darned small.

A story is told of a duel in which Jubei participated. The challenger was a samurai of a daimyo whom Jubei was visiting and he asked for a lesson with bokken (wooden swords). Although such "lessons" could easily result in serious injuries, Jubei agreed. Once the swordsmen squared off, the action was quick and the two fighters seemed to strike at each other simultaneously. It was impossible for anyone to really tell who won. The challenger asked for another chance and it was provided, but with the same outcome. Members of the audience swore that the duel had ended in a "hikiwake" (a tie) but Jubei told them that they were unable to discern the true timing of his stroke.

His opponent then demanded that they have another go at it but with shinken (live swords). Jubei tried to talk him out of it but the young man would have none of it. Thereupon, they had at it one more time but this time the challenger's kimono was soaked with blood as he backed away. He collapsed, dead on the spot. Jubei's sleeve had been cut and he suffered a slight wound from his opponent's sword. It was then that he uttered his famous saying about the distance between life and death being no wider than one "sun."

Author Dave Lowry refers to this as "yuyo", which is, I think, called "yaoyan" in Chinese. It means roughly, "critical distance"...the distance between life and death, the very essence of timing and distance (which are actually the same thing). It is mastery of real technique.

If you want to see yaoyan in action, don't go to the next karate, kung-fu, or taekwondo tournament. You won't find it there. In those fiascos, one never sees truly refined, masterful technique. In fact, you'll not see it very often in today's martial arts schools (an unfortunate fact, but true).

However, if you chance upon a traditional school and observe well-trained students practicing three-step or one-step fight, you may get a chance to witness it. The attacker will fire his technique with absolute precision, aiming to just touch the receiver. However, the receiver will shift and execute a defensive maneuver or technique at the last possible moment and fire out his own counter-technique, which, although it is delivered with maximum destructive power, will stop just short of contact. It is directed at a specific target and its timing will be flawless. The attacker, putting complete trust in his training partner, will make no attempt to block or evade the counter-attack. He might blink, but he won't move because to do so might cause him to step into the blow and, even worse, it would show his partner that he doesn't trust him or have much faith in his skill.

Those who have refined this technique even further are capable of applying it during freestyle one-step and freestyle sparring practice.

This is becoming a real rarity nowadays, especially since the advent of the padded mittens and footies that are worn by many, if not most, contemporary martial arts practitioners. Wearing pads and other such protective devices not only inhibits the development of this fine skill, it encourages participants to use brute, uncontrolled technique. Since they're wearing armor they're not overly concerned with running into their partner's attack (and remember - he's wearing pads, too...). Real martial skill goes right down the stool in the name of safety.

I say, "get a grip." It should be understood from the outset that engaging in a vigorous martial arts program is likely to result in many minor injuries (split lips, black eyes, bruises, strawberries, and the like) and the very real possibility of serious ones. It's simply the nature of the beast. I have never used protective gear in my schools and I've been teaching martial arts for almost 40 years. To this day, I've never had a student seriously injured. Not once. It's simply a matter of proper training with the right attitude.