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Kissaki and grip — perception and actuality

We learn numerous aspects of cutting in class. We want to reach out with our kissaki (sword’s tip). We want a good edge angle. We want to keep the cut straight as it enters, moves through, and exits the target. We want good tip speed and weight. All these factors are important.

However, there are numerous other details not directly associated with the sword that play key roles in the success of a cut. A proper grip on the sword. A straight back. Chin up. Eyes forward. Relaxed shoulders. Feet about shoulder-width apart. Bending the front knee.

Carl Long sensei offered a bit of advice at a seminar that I've found very useful over the years. When you first see a problem, the actual cause of the problem is often two steps behind what you think it is. With regards to cutting, sometimes the problem one has with a cut isn't with what you are doing with the sword, but with the rest of your body.

I want to focus here on insights of which I was recently reminded having to do with gyaku kesa and grip. This is about the appearance of what you are accomplishing with gyaku kesa, and what your grip reveals about the actuality of what you are accomplishing with gyaku kesa.

Gyaku kesa is an upward diagonal cut. Our hands end up at roughly eye level. Our kissaki is pointed forward, not upward. Our kissaki should have cut through a torso-wide target, so assuming our tip is not trailing, our kissaki should be slightly past the line of our front foot. Assuming we are reaching with our tip, our hands should be located relatively forward, and not crowded near the head in a way that forces the arms into "chicken wing" positions.

During suburi (practice cuts in the air), we may have gyaku kesa that at a cursory glance seem as though they should cut. The kissaki ends up in the right place, suggesting you are reaching and that your tip is not trailing. The tachikaze ("sword wind," or the sword's sound as its cuts) suggests good hasuji (edge alignment). However, when it comes to tameshigiri (test cuts on mats), the resulting gyaku kesa might differ from expectations.

There are many reasons for this potential mismatch between appearance and actuality, but again, let's focus on grip. Grip is important for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the hands connect the sword with the body, making grip key to conveying force with the blade during attacks and defenses.

There are many factors that go into a successful grip, but let's focus on some basics. When it comes to the four fingers that are not the thumb, the second knuckles of those fingers (the knuckles in the mid-finger closest to the knuckles at the base of each finger) should be roughly aligned with the sword's edge. When it comes to the palm, think of it like a square; the pads of the palm at the four corners of this square should exert firm (but not overly tight) pressure on the tsuka (the sword’s handle).

Let's look again at a suboptimal gyaku kesa after we complete it and then hold our body and sword in place. The kissaki is in the right place, suggesting that the tip was not trailing during the cut. However, the left hand grip may be loose; the pads of the palm are not all in firm contact with the tsuka.

The kissaki is roughly in the correct place, if a little high.

However, there are signs that something is off,

such as the poor grip with the left hand.

(My weight is also on my back foot.)

In trying to make the kissaki do what we want it to, what we are taught to do with it, we have relaxed one of the fundamental aspects of what we should do with the rest of our body — in this case, our left hand grip. You might have had a proper grip with the left hand before you started the cut, but it loosened at some point during the cut.

So, as Sang Kim sensei once pointed out to me, if we at this point adjust our left hand grip so that its palm's pads are in firm contact with the tsuka, what happens? The kissaki may droop down.

Without moving any other aspect of my body, I gripped the tsuba

properly with my left hand. See how the kissaki has now significantly

changed its position?

This is what I mean by the appearance of the cut versus the actuality of the cut. At first glance, if you don't look at the grip, the cut looked as if the tip was not trailing. However, if you adjust your left hand grip to reveal how the cut would have behaved if the left hand maintained a proper grip to the end of the cut, you will find that in actuality, the tip was effectively trailing. It may have even effectively ended up still within the target. This may help illustrate one reason why a gyaku kesa does not cut during tameshigiri.

Grip is something that one should master, but I do find that it can take a while to fix. There are things that one can and should fix in the meantime that may help address this problem. To extend Long sensei's insight, you can focus on the mistakes you see in the grip, but perhaps fixing other problems in the body can solve this issue.

I find that poor body mechanics can keep the arms, hands and therefore sword from moving properly during gyaku kesa. As such, fixing those body mechanics can help the arms, hands and sword swing properly, and therefore help maintain a proper grip throughout the cut.

For instance:

x) Are you rotating your body enough during the cut?

x) Are both shoulders relaxed during the cut?

x) Is your back straight throughout the cut?

x) Are your eyes forward and chin up throughout the cut?

x) Are you making sure to keep your spine in one place throughout the cut, as opposed to shifting toward one side, or forward or backward?

x) Is your front knee bent enough? If your weight is too far back — as may happen when you move into waki-gamae — your axis of rotation may keep you from extending your arms, hands and sword to their proper positions.

x) Are your feet about shoulder-width apart?

This is a lot to consider, but the more proper posture is practiced, the more natural it becomes and the easier it is to institute not just in gyaku kesa, but in other cuts, and as you walk during kata.

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