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Class Musings – Knife, Knife, Knife

May 27, 2015

There are certain topics which are very weighty, and I have to pluck up a lot of courage to address them in class. One was Togakure Ryu Ninpo (the ninja stuff!). And another is knife.

Why? Because when I first started teaching, my understanding of knife was largely at the Japan Warring States level. If you assume battlefield conditions, you would use a knife only when your spear and katana were unavailable (life got really bad, very fast) and you had to get through an opponent’s armour. That meant a direct stab, with all your bodyweight and momentum, at the opponent’s midsection, hoping against hope you could get through the armour.

Modern knife work, modern knife attacks are much more varied now, since most of us don’t wear armour, or even the military webbing for hanging ammo, water bottles and other equipment. Our opponents can kill us easily even if they aren’t particularly skilled. Whether you die from 2-3 well placed slashes or 47 stabs, you are just as dead.

The only difference is how much work the cleaners have to do, mopping up after you!

The problem is, now there is a wider range of targets for the average knifer. And that means our defences have to be of a higher level of skill, to deal with that range of targets. One of the most systematic and comprehensive ways of categorizing and dealing with knife attacks comes from the Filipino Martial Arts, and I would recommend anyone to spend some time learning them (even a 6-9 month investment of time and effort is great). But what about in my class? My students do not want to learn Filipino Martial Arts, and even if they did they won’t want to learn them from me, since I am not even a proper student of those arts, much less a teacher!

The Approach

I needed a systematic approach to codify the possible angles of attack for a knifer. Here are the ones we have looked at so far

Chi No Kata – Sanshin Tsuki

The knife stab comes in directly.  The textbook response is to move to the outside of the knife arm, strike the back of the knife hand (shikan ken) to disarm, and then omote gyaku. We also explored moving to the inside of the knife arm and going straight back. Those directions are not ideal, but in real life we may not be able to move to the outside of an opponent’s attack. In fact, it becomes even more difficult in a modern setting, since the modern knifer is does not need to be totally committed to the knife stab these days. That means it becomes harder to move to the outside of the knife arm.

Sui No Kata – Omote Shuto

The knife comes in along an angle between your ten o’clock and eleven o’clock. We practiced this by first punching and letting the opponent do the Sui no Kata as a response. Why? Because this teaches us to continue even when we are already in a disadvantaged position. For the next variation we attacked with the Jeet Kun Do straight lead, and the opponent would do the Omote Shuto slash without stepping forward. And that makes our counter or defence much more difficult (as if it wasn’t tough enough already!).

Bear in mind, I taught you people an approximation of the JKD straight lead. Needless to say you won’t get it, not even 10% of it, because it is a complex  technique, with a lot of key factors that need to be coordinated together just right. But I taught you enough for you to begin working on it. This is one technique from outside Bujinkan that is well-worth your time and effort!

Ka No Kata – Ura Shuto

This knife slash comes at the other side, a mirror image of the Omote Shuto slash.

One VERY important point to remember: the knifer NEVER stops after the first attack. Either he pulls the knife back to stab again, doing an old-school sewing machine thing, or he will attack immediately along another direction. If he pulls back he will give you an opportunity to counter. Just flow with him on this. I have a decent ability to flow with this situation, and it comes from normal training. My sensei didn’t do any weird, funky flow drills, but because he taught well the ability just came.

Yeah, after all these years of training with other people and in other martial arts I still think my sensei is great!

If he attacks from another direction, remember that the other direction is predictable. If you block a low slash he will go up. If you block a high slash he will slash low. We will drill such knife attacks a bit more in class, because they are very important. We need to understand this fundamental principle in order to be able to defend properly against a knife attack. Our counters and responses against the knife slashes actually make use of the next slash to bring the opponent to a position of disadvantage.

Fu No Kata – Gedan Boshiken

I am taking horizontal slashes to the abs as a knife equivalent of the gedan boshiken. There are two directions for the slash, and the response for both is the same – we step forward with a gedan knife block AND an ura shuto at the same time. Then we do the most appropriate gyaku waza (omote gyaku, onikudaki, muso dori) and finish up.

Ura Shuto – This is VERY important: the ura shuto MUST be driven and powered by taijutsu.  I see too many videos of people trying to strike as part of their knife defence tactics, and those strikes are powered by mostly arm strength, with just a token attempt to use the hips. That will NOT do. You cannot think of trading blows with your opponent, hoping to wear him out over a few rounds before you finally deliver a knock-out blow. You need to do committed strikes. The ura shuto needs to have your taijutsu, your hip power and leg power behind it.

And why do we hesitate about putting our hip power and leg power behind our strikes? Two reasons: we don’t want to hurt each other in class; and, we have discovered that putting our hip power and leg power behind our strikes makes it easier to counter our strikes. Since we don’t want to hurt each other in class, I understand if we don’t strike at 100% speed and momentum. But we must use at least 80% of correct hip and leg movement, especially in the large movements, or else we will compromise our form and power generation even further in a real encounter.

And as for vulnerability, suck it up. We will use timing and distancing to protect ourselves, but the fact remains: we will NEVER be 100%, or even 70-80% safe. When you first start martial arts you will think that there are ways to make yourself safe all the time. But as you get better you realize that sense of safety was an illusion. Things could change in just an instant, with one variable. We have to learn how to recognize that uncertainty and have the courage to face up to it. Commitment in the face of danger is practicing that courage.

Another problem I keep seeing – kamae compromised when blocking. People tend to hunch up their shoulders when they block, whether it is against punches to the face or knife attacks, both high and low. Hunching shoulders is a boxing practice. It allows you some protection against a hook coming from the outside of your punch. However it compromises your kamae and makes it harder for you to block especially strong slashes and stabs. It doesn’t give you much problem against a conventional straight punch, because those are easier to deflect. But modern knife use also includes stabs along the omote shuto and ura shuto vectors. Those require you to have both the distance and structure created by lowering your shoulders into proper kamae rather than hunching them.

By the way, lowering your shoulders is fine when doing the gedan knife block. I know your neck is exposed for the opponent’s next slash, to your throat, but we want him to do that, remember? That is how he helps you to defeat him, when you are actually ready for it. 😉


A lot to keep track of? Of course! These are points and outlines of the lessons from beginning April up till now. You can see why I consider knife a very intricate topic, one that would require at least 3-5 months to do justice to. And that is already while lessons are at a slower pace than usual, maybe 2-3 techniques per lesson and lots of repetitive drilling. And I haven’t even looked at some of the nastier attacks that can occur. Those are particularly effective attacks, and there is little you can do against them except block the killing stab, strike to stun the opponent, and then carry from there with whatever you know to do. To make that work you need to have enough experience with them, and that is what I want to provide for you in class.

Sobering? Yeah, that’s the reality of knife. If I claimed otherwise I would be either incredibly stupid or incredibly dishonest!

Junjie 俊傑
Bujinkan Ninjutsu

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