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Tradition in Motion:

Aesthetic Movement in Japanese Dance and Swordsmanship – Part 1

By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Some years ago, I came across a photo published in Dragon Times (a martial arts publication specializing in traditional karate): a teacher from Japan visited a US karate dojo. The guest was seated center front, surrounded by his American hosts. He sat in seiza, the traditional, formal kneeling posture. His hosts attempted to do likewise, but unlike the Japanese sensei, they sat with knees far apart, arms akimbo (elbows sticking out), keikogi (uniform top) askew. The photo was about more than size differences; it was about differences in movement and deportment.

As the photo illustrated, Americans and Japanese have different approaches to movement, especially apparent when it comes to traditional Japanese art forms. This paper will briefly explore some of the use of the body in traditional Japanese arts. I will draw examples from iaido and iaijutsu - the sword-drawing arts - and Nihon Buyo - the Japanese classical dance, also called Nichibu.

To begin with, we should dispel any notion that differences in the use of the body can be attributed to some vague idea of "culture" that "cannot be learned or understood by outsiders." This was a familiar trope when I was in grad school and I am happy to say I did my best at the time to help dispel it. One of my professors also used to turn this notion on its head: we would never say a Japanese woman could not be a ballerina because she was not capable of learning a highly Western-enculturated set of movements. All the same I still encounter people who insist that "only women can sit in tatehiza" (a half seated, half-kneeling position) or that it is somehow unnecessary to learn proper deportment as part of traditional training. On the other extreme, we can also find teachers who offer "traditional training" courses in some dance or martial art form that only lasts six weeks (or less). Like the traditional art form itself, the accompanying ways of moving take years to learn, and even longer to really understand, but, like the Japanese ballerina, it can be done.

The fact is, in spite of size and age and culture, humans perform certain rudimentary movements in pretty similar ways. For example, we all learn to walk upright even though old, young, tall, short, fat, thin all produce an endless variety of ways of walking. How we walk depends on physical characteristics, but also on culture. Culture is learned, and changes over time. However, we do have a tendency to view our own ways of moving as somehow eternal and unchanging. Moreover, we consider the traditional ways that other people move as, well, different, and somehow unknowable - which is not true, of course. Let's look at an example from the European and American Colonial past.

An engraving of a French woman in a dress with very wide paniers, c. 1777 (note she has to enter the room sideways.)
(in Laver, n.d.: 144)

Women in 18th century America and Europe wore skirts with great wide side panels called paniers. When I was a kid and visited Colonial Williamsburg, I was fascinated by these outfits. Unlike hoop skirts, which were from a later era and somehow more familiar (from watching the movie Gone with the Wind, or maybe just seeing older girls' prom dresses?), paniers were wide from side to side and dropped straight down in front and back. A corset ensured that no unseemly bending at the waist would ruin the effect.

What I didn't realize until years later was that walking in a panier was not like how we walk today. If one walked with one's knees moving forward, they would protrude and ruin the line of the dress. Likewise for sitting down. The solution was to walk with one's knees out to the sides and to sit with knees splayed in a way that would have shocked anyone wearing a late 19th century tubular bustle-gown, let alone someone in a '60's A-line skirt. But to an 18th century woman there was nothing strange about it. Likewise a man in breeches and a frock coat and court-heeled shoes would not walk like a modern office worker, let alone a sneaker-wearing, baggy-panted teenager (in fact, men's turned-out stances where at least somewhat like the women's). Would-be hip-hop artists walk differently than secretaries. Ballet dancers turn out their feet (like women in paniers, on whom their style of movement is partially based). Get it?

Okay, so what does this have to do with our topic, except to say that we can work our own version of enculturation when it comes to learning martial arts. Understanding traditional movement can help deepen our understanding of what it is we are trying to do, how the movement works and why.

For all of its ubiquity (martial arts is all about movement, obviously), there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding traditional movement for martial arts. One of the arguments I have heard has to do with performing sword kata from seiza. Numerous people have pointed out that seiza is an indoor posture, samurai were required to leave their long swords outside, so doing long sword forms from seiza is not logical. However, according to Tsumaki Kazuo, Fuku Soke (Assistant Headmaster) of Tamiya Ryu Iaijutsu, practicing forms from seiza was simply a derivation from practicing in sonkyo or similar crouching positions assumed when wearing armor (Alexanian 2006, n.p.).

The outdoor/indoor argument is therefore not relevant. In my opinion (shared by several others), seiza is also a pedagogical device. Moving from seiza strengthens the quadriceps and lower back. More importantly it is a relatively safe way to learn beginning technique with what is a potentially dangerous weapon. Lastly, seiza shows respect: to the teacher, the dojo and the art form itself.

The next argument is what I call the "weirdness factor." Traditional movement is generally so alien to anyone not involved in it that, failing to understand it at first blush, it is deemed irrelevant. Combine this with the amazing predisposition of some Americas who think that they can improve anything they come in contact with, and the result is people who refuse to buy in to the idea that the examples I am about to mention will improve their training. As my colleague Peter Boylan has stated, in modern budo, you can shape the practice to yourself (hence exhibitions that endlessly combine effective movement with show-biz flash). In koryu budo (classical martial arts of Japan before the modern era), you shape yourself to the art. The persistence of koryu practices over time is evidence that people can, and do, shape themselves to the art.

The use of the body in both classical Japanese dance and iaido is mostly descended from the Edo period, (1603-1868) and it is still preserved in current practice of these art forms. I am not considering more modern arts, such as kendo, which developed in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. At that point, Western style movement had already gained a foothold, thanks to the craze for things Western during the Meiji Period. Put an iaidoka and a kendoka together to do a similar form or exercise and the difference should be apparent right away.

In modern Japan, people move for the most part like people in Western societies. Clothing is basically the same, for example, as are most modern home furnishings, so styles of movement are similar. Still, there are some differences. Adults tend to slouch less. People are generally thinner. Japanese people swing their arms less when they walk, and there seems to be less emphasis on putting the heel down first when taking a step. Men sitting on the subway cross their legs at the knee, European-style, which American men virtually never do. A middle-aged woman stepping on to a bus in Tokyo will turn in her foot; a habit that has to do with wearing kimono (that her daughter may not have needed to pick up).

It should be noted that, unless he was raised in a traditional household (increasingly unlikely today) a Japanese person will have almost as much trouble with the traditional seated postures of seiza or tatehiza as an American, though he will probably understand them better. Moreover he will not see sitting in seiza as particularly strange, but maybe as old-fashioned (which it is).

The antiquated style of movement associated with Japanese swordsmanship is part of what a colleague of mine has referred to in his college lectures as "seiza bunka" - literally, "kneeling culture." Seiza bunka is broader than just traditional martial arts, of course, and includes any art form that developed during the Edo Period, including tea, calligraphy, classical dance and flower-arranging. This is why some very traditionally-oriented martial arts teachers will suggest an additional cultural pursuit besides iaido or iaijutsu - the cultural activities complement and inform each other, not just in aesthetics or broader concepts, but in deportment as well.

We can begin with looking at some basic kamae, or positions, for iai. The basic kamae is seigan no kamae, a sort of "en garde" posture. In seigan, the right hand is topmost on the tsuka (grip) and the right foot is advanced.

In jodan, the sword is held above the head, making the left hand foremost, and the left foot is advanced.

In migi hasso, the left hand is also foremost and the left foot is advanced.

In gedan, the right arm is foremost, and the right foot is advanced.

In migi wakigamae, the left hand is foremost and the left foot is advanced.

While there are exceptions, we can see an emphasis of the same hand and foot being advanced in kamae (position). It seems pretty obvious to any iaidoka - when the sword is swung for a cut, the body should move in harmony with, and not in opposition to, the sword. To do otherwise is to invite potential disaster as the sword would get closer to an opposite limb than it would if foot and sword move together on the same side of the body. Additionally, putting body weight behind the weapon will make it easier to use.

And yet this is very difficult for American beginners in iaido to grasp. I believe it is because we are trained in everyday life to move arms and legs in opposition. We take our opposition arms and heel-toe movement seriously. Walk down any crowded city street and see how many times you have to avoid (or end up getting hit by) a swinging arm, sometimes attached to a shopping bag or briefcase. Live a floor below an uncarpeted apartment and you can hear the heels hitting the floor as your upstairs neighbor walks about.


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About The Author:

Deborah Klens-Bigman is Manager and Associate Instructor of iaido at New York Budokai in New York City. She has also studied, to varying extents, kendo, jodo (short staff), kyudo (archery) and naginata (halberd). She received her Ph.D in 1995 from New York University's Department of Performance Studies where she wrote her dissertation on Japanese classical dance (Nihon Buyo). and she continues to study Nihon Buyo with Fujima Nishiki at the Ichifuji-kai Dance Association. Her article on the application of performance theory to Japanese martial arts appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in the summer of 1999. She is married to artist Vernon Bigman. For FightingArts.com she is Associate Editor for Japanese Culture/Sword Arts.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

martial arts movement, iaido, Japanese dance, movement in koryo arts


Read more articles by Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

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