Collage of Nitō-ryū from a 1661 Denshō document




Musashi commented, "To move from one place to another, you slightly raise your toes and push off your foot from the heel, forcefully," and stressed "In my strategy the way of moving is no different from normal walking on a road."(1)

So let's consider the second above-mentioned statement first.

A universal feature of a human bipedal gait is an autonomic process consisting of coordinated movements of the upper extremities, lower extremities, trunk and pelvis.

The key feature is the contralateral swing of the arm and leg, along with a twisting of the waist, that results in reduced energy consumption while walking. It has also been shown that the contralateral arm swing has an essential role in increasing the stability of walking by preventing rotational trunk movements.

However, within the use of weapons, especially Japanese swordsmanship, we seek to use and allow rotational trunk and aligned whole body movements to initiate and generate power, after which it's typically converted into forward momentum.

This is why Bushi, centuries ago, learned to change their method of walking to an ipsilateral way, called namba-aruki, where the arm and leg from the same side of the body move together, rather than opposing sides using a natural contralateral way.

Additionally, the contralateral movement includes a heel-to-toe walking motion, where kinetic energy transfers or rolls into the ball of the foot as the heel strikes, and then allows for pushing off the ball and toes of that foot, rather than the heel.

The ipsilateral or namba-aruki movement has a profound impact on the human gait, and the way in which parts of the feet are used to maintain stability and generate power, that are uniquely suited to Japanese swordsmanship.

This is important when considering Musashi’s statement that "the way of moving is no different from normal walking on a road."

Now let's consider Musashi's comment "you slightly raise your toes and push off your foot from the heel".

When I spoke with various senior practitioners and teachers in my early years of koryū kenjutsu training, about why Musashi instructs us to raise our toes, various theories were suggested to me. Such as, it may be easier to step on and trap an opponent's foot or to avoid stubbing your big toe on a rock when fighting outdoors.

While these ideas may be true, they do little to explain how raising the toes affects the biomechanics of your body and movement, and its impact on important things like stability and weight distribution, and possible power generation through the heels.

Truthfully, until I met Ishida sensei I had never seen any shihan or practitioner, especially within Musashi's school of Niten Ichi-ryū, use this characteristic that Musashi admonishes, let alone any serious reasoning behind it that, in my view, had any merit.

In fact when I asked Ishida sensei why raising the toes doesn't seem to be widely used in Japanese swordsmanship, he said it was not very common in koryū nowadays because of the influence of Kendō, Gendaibudō and other modern sports, and that particular way of moving was rarely taught anymore.

He went on to instruct that while keeping the toes down, raising the heels and bouncing on the balls of the feet to push off from or rotate from might seem natural, traditional Japanese swordsmanship stemmed from a battlefield art that required wearing of Yoroi (armour) that weighed from 20kgs (44lbs) up to 30kgs (66lbs).

Therefore, Ishida sensei would always teach that the toes should be raised, especially the big toe, and the heels be attached to the ground. He said Musashi’s teachings were not alone in describing such footwork; Ishida sensei was taught similar principles in both Owari Yagyū Shinkage-ryū and Enmei-ryū (2).

In terms of the riai, or underlying rationale of this essential fundamental that I was taught, the raising of the toes does several important things.

Firstly, it creates a proper foot tripod for ideal stability. It raises the arch of the foot and engages the use of the outside of the foot which inhibits inward ankle roll. This then allows the outside muscles and tendons of the legs to carry the body’s weight and ensures that when the knees bend they do so in the direction towards and directly over the feet.

It also allows for optimal hip position and this combined alignment from the feet through the knees and legs to the hips provides the proper koshi stability for swordsmanship.

Often, even with advanced practitioners, by not raising the toes there's a tendency for the arch of the foot to collapse, which can create an inward roll of the ankle so that the weight ends up being carried on the inside of the legs. This commonly results in a visible inward collapse of the line through the lower extremity when the knee bends or flexes in applying techniques, and ultimately results in centre and koshi instability.

Secondly, and most importantly, by raising the toes, weight is placed in the heels rather than the balls of the feet. This allows our centre of gravity to shift backwards. This is important, as using weapons to strike and thrust results in our body weight and centre of gravity, which usually sits in the tanden inside the body, shifting forward. While this may not be immediately noticeable when using a weapon the regular length and weight of an authentic Japanese sword wielded in two hands, it is certainly apparent when using longer or heavier weapons, or using a real Daitō in one hand, as would've been the case with Nitō-ryū in the past.

So, by lifting the toes and placing our weight into the heels, we shift our centre of gravity backward and regain optimal stability, movement and power generation while cutting, striking or thrusting with a weapon.

In fact, Musashi warned against the use of certain types of footwork within Japanese swordsmanship, namely floating foot (uki-ashi), leaping/jumping foot (tobi-ashi), hopping foot (hanuru-ashi) and stamping/stomping foot (fumisuyuru-ashi), suggesting they have deficiencies.

In the case of Gorin-no-Sho, there's no specific mention of what type of footwork Musashi suggests should be used, other than the alternate movement of the feet in the manner of walking and "moving is no different from normal walking on a road". As mentioned earlier, the context of this statement, and the era in which it was made, needs to be considered.

It is interesting to note that in Hyōdōkyō "The mirror of the way of strategy", an earlier work from Enmei-ryū, Musashi does reference the particular use of sliding or shuffling foot (suri-ashi).

While my late mentor and teacher, Ishida Hiroaki sensei, taught me to use suri-ashi, he instructed me in a particular way of sliding or shuffling the foot that differs from the concept as used widely in Kendō and other martial arts. That is, where many practitioners interpret suri-ashi as a sliding of the foot along the ground or floor, keeping the ball of the foot in contact with the surface while lifting the heel, Ishida sensei urged me to keep the heel in contact with the ground through the forward movement while lifting the toes. This takes continuous training and awareness to avoid sliding on the ball of the foot and letting the heel float.

Suri-ashi through the heel with the toes raised might appear as normal walking, but it’s not quite the same as the contralateral motion of walking where we use muscles and twisting of the waist to fight gravity to raise our weight up and push forward from the ball of the foot.

Rather, by keeping the heel area of both feet in contact with the ground during the suri-ashi movement, this type of footwork creates a drop in the centre of gravity and weight, and this dropping (otoshi) is also an important fundamental of proper cutting with a Japanese sword and other weapons.

Another key factor to consider is weight distribution over the legs, and how it's placed in relation to stance. Of course, this will differ from art to art, and ryūha to ryūha, but weight distribution is a fundamental physical consideration of the use of footwork and the issue of stance.

Other masters of prominent koryū kenjutsu schools have also admonished against the use of certain types of footwork and stances, concurring with Musashi's views.

For example, in Kashima Shin-ryū there's what is called the three aversions (mittsu no kirai) in which both floating foot and leaping/jumping foot, and fixed foot (sue-ashi), where bodyweight is distributed equally over both legs, are to be avoided at all costs.(3)

Weight distribution over the legs and the location of one's centre of gravity affect the efficacy and direction by which generated power can be transmitted.

In the same way, raising the toes and placing weight in the heels allows the swordsman to shift their centre of gravity, it can also be further manipulated through collection to dynamically shift the body weight backwards toward the rear leg to suit various weapons and techniques. Within collection, the rear knee is bent, the rear hip lowers, the pelvis tilts backward and the curve in the lower back straightens, all while maintaining our balance in the heels, with toes raised. This can also be described, in terms of stance and distribution, to sit the weight towards the rear leg, allowing that leg to contain energy, and generate genuine, compact power for flexible and fluid body movement with a weapon when moving from the centre, and making sudden changes of direction when needed.

In Japanese swordsmanship, this collection during motion also allows the execution of techniques like sujiokaeru and hei-dachi (hōhei-ken) that rely on being able to change direction within a movement, while continuing to generate power and forward motion while striking, cutting or thrusting, and maintaining proper stability and equilibrium throughout that process.

Furthermore, in connection to power generation and movement within traditional Japanese swordsmanship or koryū kenjutsu, what I have come to understand from the teachings of Ishida sensei, is that we initiate motion and power generation from body rotation, that subsequently transfers into forward movement and momentum.

And this resultant forward body motion involves an ipsilateral movement that employs the principles of moving contained within namba-aruki (i.e. the old Bushi way of walking).

Of course, raised toes and pushing off from the heel, combined with the gokui of Emasu, is a fundamental teaching of koryū swordsmanship that was personally transmitted to me by Ishida sensei.

Finally, the above commentary in relation to Musashi's statements on footwork and movement from Gorin-no-Sho are contextual to the riai and teachings transmitted within our school.

And although the underlying principles outlined above might be intellectually interesting and insightful to some, in truth they need to be demonstrated with techniques and examples, and explored through movement and practice of kata, in a body-to-body transmission, continuously to really understand. And, of course, such understanding differs from person-to-person.

The above is just my understanding, and your mileage may vary.



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(1) Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings: Kenji Tokitsu, 2006.
(2) Ishida Hiroaki sensei was inka/menkyo kaiden in Owari Yagyū Shinkage-ryū, menkyo in Enmei-ryū, and menkyo-kaiden in Niten Ichi-ryū and other ryūha.
(3) Legacies of the Sword: The Kashima-Shinryū and Samurai Martial Culture: Karl Friday, Seki Humitake, 1997.




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