体術は何ですか: What is Taijutsu?

Taijutsu (体術) literally means body technique, but it encompasses a myriad of aspects involving how to use the body.  But this definition is woefully incomplete and unhelpful for most. So, what is taijutsu? It’s a good question (a question many have asked) and the primary reason for writing these blog posts. It is my intention to help those both willing and able to learn taijutsu to understand what taijutsu is and how it works. This blog will be conversational in its approach, by asking questions and leading the internal conversation and hopefully conversations on and off the tatami. You should question everything written here since nothing is gospel, but you should do it with an open mind and related it to your “Taijustu” and test it.  Upon a deeper introspection I hope, you the reader, the martial artists, find some answers all your own about taijutsu.

            In this series of articles, you will find conversations about multiple Japanese martial concepts, conversations from multiple martial art sources and ryu-ha, both modern and old.  You will hear stories to illustrate points, also concrete examples and training methods to employ to help understand these concepts.  We will also discuss other arts related to taijutsu, such as kenjutsu, shurikenjutsu, bojutsu, jojutsu, and many other “jutsu” as they related back to taijutsu. 

Two Tengu in a staring contest.

At the time of writing this, I have been training for twenty-five years in the Bujinkan, (since I was sixteen years old). I have spent some time in other martial arts and traditions in addition to the Bujinkan (since I do not have master teaching licenses in these other arts, I will not list them.) I lived in Japan for five years and became a bit of  tengu,[1]  But, to become a “demon” is much easier than to be human, it took several years and getting married to my wonderful wife to truly understand what it means to be human, although she jokes; ”あなた、人間じゃない”[2] and she calls me Sheldon from the BIG BANG THEORY. But, becoming human is preferable to becoming a demon, as it is something I still strive to become.  To sum up this brief rambling of an introduction, this series of blog posts will be a basic guide to understanding taijutsu and its key concepts. So, I hope I have a chance to discuss these concepts on facebook and a chance to meet you on the tatami. 

頑張りましょうか[3]


[1]天狗になる Tengu ni naru, means becoming a tengu.  There is also gesture that corresponds to the phrase, where you take both of your fists and hold them on your nose as if to make your nose longer.  Tengu had large noses.  The phrase basically means to become arrogant.  However, in folklore tengu are considered masters of martial arts often teaching people that have founded schools. 

[2]Translation: ”you aren’t human”.

[3]Translation: Let’s do our best!?

Kyudo and Zen?

Kyudo like many Japanese martial arts has spiritual aspects attributed to it. Most notably Kyudo is seen primarily as a practice of Zen Buddhism in the west. Eugen Herrigel was the first to popularize Zen in the practice of Kyudo with his book “Zen in the Art of Archery”.

In recent years, a few Japanese writers have argued that Herrigel’s view was both the result of poor or vague translations at the time and Herrigel’s aspirations to find Zen in Kyudo. The strong association of Buddhism and Zen with Kyudo doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, regardless of recent journal articles arguing against Zen’s inclusion. The relationship is so intertwined in the collective consciousness that it seems unlikely to ever disappear. This is due to the nature of religion and Japanese martial arts in general.

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Buddhism and Shinto are the two main religions in Japan and they are so interwoven that most Japanese cannot tell the difference between the two. Often one will find Buddhist temples next to  Shinto shrines, which further confuses the differences between the two faiths.

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Kyudo is primarily used in Shinto ceremonies. The bowman will wear the white garments of a Shinto priest while performing ceremonies. Unlike Buddhist ceremonies in which pure white garments are not used. The arrow itself is a Shinto talisman to ward of evil and to attract good luck. In Zen the sword carries a heavy symbolic weight and the arrow has no symbolic significance.

Despite the utter lack of Buddhist ceremonies involving Kyudo in Japan there are an extensive Kyudo exhibitions in the west involving Zen temples. Kyudo exhibitions are never held at Buddhist temples in Japan. It seems that Zen and archery has stronger associations in the west than it does in Japan. 

Although Zen Buddhism might not have anything to do with Kyudo directly, the ideas and practice of it are quite Zen-like. Central tenets like the concepts of no-mind and non-attachment are notions shared with Zen Buddhism, however slightly differing in aim and approach.

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Since Shinto lacks a founder and religious texts, many attribute Buddhism to things that are primarily Shinto in origin. The Shinto/Buddhism difference is paper-thin in Japan which further perpetuates the seemingly contradictory statements about Kyudo and Japanese spiritual life.

Some might regard Kyudo as an inner and outer practice uniquely Japanese, the outer as the expression of Shinto with the inner the expression of Zen Buddhism. Regardless what is attributed to Kyudo, the practice requires diligence, concentration and Zen-like qualities to perform the elegant and sublime feats of Japanese archery.