The Tsuba the Katana and the Samurai Soul part 1

the japanese art of Kentsugi


This is a Japanese tsuba:

Tsuba silver

It's quite a small item: 8.3 x 8.3 x 0.5 cm; and it's incredibly lightweight: only 136 grams (4.8 oz.). It was made in the 19th century Japan in iron, silver, and copper, and was signed in gold by its craftsman, Washida Mitsunaka (born in 1829). It features a design of scrolling leaves in silver and is a valuable tsuba, on display at the MET of New York.

Here's another jewel:

Tsuba 2

It features a refined design of peonies and butterflies. The plate is made of iron, while the relief is made of gold, silver, and shakudō, a copper-gold alloy. It was made in the 18th century by Omori Hidenaga, as per signature, and is a very small item (you do not see in its real dimensions): 6.5 x 5.9 x 0.6 cm with a weight of 90.7 grams (3.2 oz.). Like the previous tsuba and the two next ones, it's on display at the MET of New York.

Here's another Japanese masterpiece:

TSUBA gold omote ura

Signed by Bairyūken Kiyotatsu, who made it in the 18th century, this iron tsuba, that you can see on both sides, is richly decorated with gold and shakudō. It's 7.8 x 7.3 cm and very thin: only 5 mm; it weighs 96.4 grams, approx. 3.4 oz. (MET, New York).

The following tsuba is a precious piece with a completely different style and pattern, from the very early 19th century:

Tsuba Japanese Iris

Signed by Sunagawa Masayoshi, this stylish tsuba featuring some hanashōbu (Japanese iris) is made of shakudō, gold, and copper (MET, New York).

Two antique tsuba

Here two antique pieces. That on the left is a copper item made between the late 16th and the early 17th centuries, without signature (mumei), sized 7.8 x 7.3 x 0.5 cm and weighing 119.1 grams (4.2 oz.); it was shaped like a "dancing crane", symbol of good luck and longevity. The tsuba on the right was made in the late 16th century likely by the Kyōsukashi School. In copper and iron, it is sized 7.9 x 7.6 x 0.5 cm and weighs 71 grams (2.5 oz.). Both at the MET of New York.

Tsubas are among the most sought-after collector's items: they are unique pieces of art and history, similar in their sizes and aspect to antique lock-plates. But they are not lock-plates, and they exercise an irresistible fascination, not for the reason you might expect.

They are the handguard of the katana, the sword and "the soul" of the samurai.

I'd like you to touch and hold a tsuba in your hands: this lightweight little something tells a story in such a powerful way to thrust you into a wormhole and throw you into the lost world of the samurai in the blink of an eye.

Tsuba imago 1 MET
Tsuba imago2 MET
Tsuba imago3 MET
Tsuba imago4 MET
Tsuba imago5 MET
Tsuba imago6 MET
Please, note the kata (the detailed choreographed pattern of movements, as in most martial arts) and the kiai (the short shout, similar to a battle cry uttered during some moments) in this performance of Taiko by the Senzoku Gakuen College of Music, located in Kawasaki (in the Kanagawa Prefecture, JP).
Japan on the globe


The tsuba is the handguard of the nihontō, a Japanese term indicating different kinds of swords, including the katana and the wakizashi of samurai warriors in feudal Japan.

Woodblock BM 1
Colour woodblock print by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1803-04, at the British Museum (London, UK).
It depicts Shibata Katsuie (1522~1583), a samurai and military commander during the Sengoku period.
On the left, two assistants; on the right, his wife Otani presenting him with a katana.

This is a tsuba saw from the hilt, called tsuka:

Tsuba from tsuka

And this a view of the tsuba from the blade of the katana and the scabbard called saya:

Tsuba from the blade

The tsuba, therefore, has two sides: the omote, the side towards the tsuka or the hilt, and the ura, the side towards the blade. In many of the photos above, the omote side was signed and more richly decorated than the ura.

These are three handguards of different European swords:

3 Hilts

The handguard on the left is an original silver pattern welded rapier guard, dated between 1580 and 1600, on a fake blade. That on the center is the handguard of a Venetian Schiavona, the Renaissance "mother" of all post-Renaissance basket-hilted sword, like that on the right, an English heavy cavalry sword from 1788.

All these European handguards have been designed to achieve two different results: to protect the hand from the opponent's blade, and to prevent the hand from sliding onto the blade. They are entirely welded to the blade and give good protection to the back of the hand.

The tsuba has a very different structure: it's removable from the blade and is a thin, small plate. It could not protect the hand: it was designed to prevent its sliding onto the blade and to speed up the unsheathing of the katana. In the battlefields, the samurai hand was armored, and in the relatively peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868), the katana was a weapon of assassination and revenge, both in a lightning-quick assault. Since its origin, the katana was designed to be a lethal sword, very different from the rapier, the perfect weapon for the Italian fencing style of Renaissance and post-Renaissance swordplay. The katana was not made for exhausting duels, nor for hurting the opponent. It was made to kill, preferably with a single strike. The first.

The tsuba tells us more. Look at its structure:

Tsuba explic

This is the hira (body) of a tsuba, on the omote side. The nakago-ana is the hole for mounting the tsuba on the tang (nakago) of the katana. The sekigane, the metal filler that you can see on top and bottom of the nakago-ana, were pieces of metal (usually iron) put in place to adjust the hole to the exact dimensions of the katana. Their presence tells us that the katana and the tsuba were made by different specialized craftsmen and that only rarely a tsuba was made for a specific nihontō (sword). Therefore, a tsuba that does not show any sekigane, or any signs of modification along its window rim, was probably never mounted onto a sword.

Look at the nakago-ana, the central hole: its bottom is larger than the top. This tells us that the katana was a single-edged blade with the mune (back) larger than the ha (the cutting edge).

The nakago-ana is the small hole of a small plate: this tells us that the katana was a very slender blade.

The side of the photographed tsuba is the omote (towards the hilt), and this tells us that the katana was worn thrust through the obi (the belt) with the cutting edge facing upward inside the scabbard (saya).

Woodblock Kabuki
Two woodblock prints from the British Museum (London, UK). Left to right: the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Yaozo as a ronin (a masterless samurai); the Kabuki actor Onoe Matsusuke as the samurai Kajiwara Genta. Both were made by Katsukawa Shunsho in the mid-18th century.

These two prints depict two Kabuki actors as samurai. Both of them wear the daishō, the matched pair of traditional swords of the samurai class in feudal Japan: the katana - with a blade length among 60 and to 87.6 cm, standard 70 cm - and the shorter wakizashi - whose maximum length was set firstly at 50 cm in 1638 and then to 54.5 cm in 1712. Both wear the swords inside the saya (scabbard), on their left side, thrust through the obi and securely tied with a cotton ribbon called sageo. Look at the curvature of the swords: it indicates that all of the blades are facing upwards.

The katana was never worn vertically, suspended from the belt, and hanging downwards to avoid the dangerous contact between the kissaki, the very sharp point, and the bottom of the wooden saya. It was never worn horizontally with the edge facing downwards to prevent any contact between the ha (edge) and the inner side of the scabbard. The katana was a deadly sword, boasting an edge able to behead a man or cutting his torso in a single strike. Nothing was to jeopardize this exceptional sharpness, and the traditional way to wear it was the best way to protect its edge.

There was a second reason, as well: the katana was worn with the cutting edge facing up to allow a super fast unsheathing. With the katana worn thusly, a samurai could draw the sword and strike the enemy in a single quick motion, called "the air-to-ground stroke". In other words, the drawing of the katana and the dealing of a fatal blow were not two separate actions: they were unified in a lightning-fast flow of motion and energy.

Even the curvature of the katana (sori) finds here its raison d'être: «It owes its origin to a practical demand: the need to draw a sword and strike quickly as possible and in a continuous motion. Where the sword itself forms part of the circumference of a circle with its center as the wearer’s right shoulder and its radius the length of his arm, drawing a curved sword from a narrow scabbard will naturally be easier and faster than with a straight weapon» (Fred Weissberg, cit.).

Here's a short video of Battōjutsu, the art of drawing the sword based on the concept of drawing and striking in a single quick motion, keeping the cut straight & flat, making clean cuts, transferring power properly through the body, and minimizing wasted motion. Developed in the mid 15th century, together with the advent of a curved sword called uchigatana, it involves hard training that allows the wielder to sward the katana and to realize a deadly cut in half to three-quarters of a second.

The tsuba still has a lot to tell us.

Look at this refined piece, on display at the MET (New York):

Tsuba 18 C last
A very fine tsuba made in the 18th century in iron and silver, signed by Ichinomiya Nagatsune (1721–1786), sized 7.9 x 7.6 x 1 cm. It weighs 215.5 grams (7.6 oz.).

This gem has been photographed on both sides, omote and ura. They are different: the signature is only on the omote side, which also shows a more complex design. Westerners tend to translate omote as front or recto, and ura as back or verso, but they usually do it not knowing that they are dealing with one of the most complex pairs of Japanese culture. Omote and ura are twin concepts that have been applied to almost any aspect of Japan or life in Japan for centuries.

Takeo Doi (1920-2009), a Japanese psychoanalyst, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Tokyo, became famous in the 1970s for his influential essay on contemporary Japanese society, The Anatomy of Dependence. In 1985, he published a second essay, The Anatomy of Self: The Individual Versus Society, whose real title in Japanese was Omote to ura.

This conceptual pair can be a key to enter the core issues of Japanese society; therefore, we have to handle it with the same care required to caress a katana blade.


In contemporary Japan, omote refers to the rules and conventions that guide the social behavior and the specific language and gestures to be adopted in public or in a given social microcosm (workplace, school, etc.), while ura refers to the informal behavior in a private context (family, close friends, etc.). Everyone has an omote side, his/her social appearance and formal behavior, and an ura side, his/her informal private nature, and a relaxed style of living. The general meaning of omote is "obvious" and"widely visible", and therefore "compliant with social norms"; ura is "what is kept hidden in public and can be therefore quite shadowy or unclear".

In many martial arts, such as Karate and Aikido, each technique can be performed in omote or ura mode.

Things also have two sides: the omote is usually the front, or the outer side, the ura the back, the inner, or the reverse side.

The tsuba, the saya, the katana, the tsuka (the hilt of a katana), and even the samurai have omote and ura sides.  And talking about sides, we will penetrate into the most intimate secret of the samurai.

We already know that the omote side of the tsuba is the side facing the tsuka or the hilt, while the ura side faces the blade. And we know as well that the omote side shows more decorations, the craftsman's signature, sometimes the crest (mon) of the samurai family or clan, and sometimes the kamon (emblem) of his feudal lord, the daimyō.

Look at a samurai in front of you.

Old samurai by Okinawa Soba
By Okinawa Soba - Rob (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The blade of his katana is sheathed (ura); the right side of the scabbard is hidden against his left waist (ura), and what you can see is part of the tsuba and the tsuka (omote) both of the katana and the smaller wakizashi sword, whose matched pair made up the daishō. Wearing this last was a privilege of samurai only: it was a visible sign (omote) of his being a bushi, a member of the warrior caste.

The most visible parts of both swords were also the ones that used to be more richly decorated. These decorations were not simple frills added to the swords to make them look more attractive; on the contrary, they were intended to be clearly visible indicators of the exact position of that samurai within both the warrior caste and the firmly established dominance hierarchy. They can immediately tell you if the wearer is a low-ranking, poor warrior or a high-ranking, dominant samurai. They teach you how to behave and talk in his presence, and that's omote.

The following picture depicts the omote side of an uchigatana style koshirae, the ornate mountings of a sword (in this case, a katana) to be used only when the sword was worn by its owner. The saya and the tsuka (scabbard and hilt) are outstanding masterpieces made in the 19th century by Nakagawa Issho for a sword forged in 1520 by Kawachi no Kami Sukesada.

Tsuka no.1
© The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

This saya is made of maki-e lacquered wood (a technique that involves the use of precious urushi lacquer, sprinkled with real gold), with an amazing chrysanthemum pattern. The tsuba is made of gold and silver over a base made of shibuichi, a copper alloy, and is decorated with shrines among pine trees and a seascape.

The hilt or tsuka is made following the tradition: it has a core of wood or bamboo, covered with samegawa, the whitish real ray skin with a specially textured surface that prevents the wrapping from slipping or becoming loose. In the past times, the ray skin was so rare and expensive that the nobles used it as a tribute, and a gift (today is no longer used).

The defining feature of the handle, clearly visible even from a distance, is the braid wrap that, in this case, was made with a refined blue silk ribbon. This tightly wound handle braid, called tsuka-ito, follows an intricate traditional pattern that leaves diamond-shaped gaps through which the ray skin can be seen. It fulfills different purposes: it provides a better grip, keeps the whole handle together, and the menuki in place. The menuki is a jewel or an ornament in gold, silver, gold-copper alloy, cast iron, bronze, etc., with different purposes as well: it's a status symbol, a grip enhancer, and can hide the mekugi-ana, the matching hole in the tilt and in the tang (nakago) where a small bamboo peg (mekugi) is tightly inserted to keep the blade and the mountings together.

Tsuka expl
The tsuka of a katana, gifted to a French ambassador in the 19th century (photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France)
Two menuki in gold and copper-gold alloy (shakudō) signed by Osozuka Hisanori, Edo period - 19th century. Dimensions: (a) 3.8 cm, 11.3 g; (b) 2.9 cm, 8.5 g.

In the following picture, you can see the tsuka of a katana and that of a matching wakizashi, the two swords making the samurai daishō. The tsuka of the katana clearly shows the small bamboo peg, called mekugi, to secure the tilt to the tang.

Daisho tsuka
The two tsuka of a daishō from 1845, at the Historical Museum of Bern (photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France)

Usually, the tsuka of a katana was approximately 25-30 cm long: it's a long handle, almost twice the average hilt of a European rapier. There was a reason, of course: the katana was a two-handed sword.

Not all tsuka, of course, were luxury items with many gold or silver parts. The following two are quite sober, yet still elegant items:

In the next video, you will see a traditional maintenance operation, the cleaning of a katana, which requires disassembling the tsuka from the sword. You will see how simple the mountings are and how much respect the katana deserves: before and after touching it, you have to bow. It recalls a gesture that samurai have been performing for centuries.

We've seen how every part of a katana and the whole have an omote and an ura side. There's always an ura side, hidden behind every omote for everything and every person. For the samurai, as well.

What does it happen when the samurai draws the katana and deals the fatal blow?  What does it happen in the moment of truth and death?


All of a sudden, the blade, hidden inside the saya, glitters in the air and sinks into the flesh. What was ura, now is omote.

The sides of the tsuba overturn: the omote retreats (now it faces the hand of the samurai) and the ura prevail. The social image that the tsuba gave to the world now recedes. What does it come to light instead?

The omote of the samurai gives place to his ura. His social identity and his self-concept fade out. What was secret is now lightning, what was silent, is now thunder. What does it come to light now?

A good help to focus on the relationship between omote and ura comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, who studied and knew Zen Buddhism. In Beyond Good and Evil he wrote: «Whatever is profound loves masks (...). Every profound spirit needs a mask: even more, around every profound spirit, a mask is continually growing» (a famous and misconceived quote). Ura is the depth and omote is its mask. Omote and ura do not have an extrinsic linking but an internal relation: if this last dissolves, omote loses a part of itself, and so does ura. The Nietzschean mask should not be understood like a facade, a disguise, or a camouflage, but as the wavy surface of the sea depth. That every profound spirit needs a mask means that the surface is necessitated by the depth. Omote is necessitated by ura.

The omote side of katana, tsuka, and tsuba gives us good information on the samurai social status inside the vertical power structure of feudal Japan. The omote side of a samurai was his social awareness, his personal identity as a member of a powerful or powerless family or clan, as a loyal bushi (warrior) of a particular daimyō (feudal lord), as a man with a story and a certain age (a relevant factor in Japan).

In combat, be it a battlefield fight or a private confrontation, this omote side has to disappear. The samurai should attain the state of mushin, "the state of no-mindedness", "mind without mind", “empty mind”. Mushin is not a mental state: it's a deeper level of consciousness at the core of Zen Buddhism practice. It's attained after years of training that was a fundamental practice for the past samurai as is today for many martial art masters.

What is mushin?

Wrong question. This is the typical Western-style question that has no answer in the Japanese culture.

Moreover, mushin cannot be grasped by the intellect or by the mind in its ordinary level of consciousness. It would be like asking a two-dimensional figure to move into a three-dimensional space.

Mushin is a condition that has to be achieved only; as often happens in these cases, it can be connotated negatively: mushin is the level of consciousness of a mind that has erased every discursive thought, expectation, hope, judgment, and attachment; that is free from emotions and desires, that feels no anger and fear, no doubts and worries; that has fully overcome the egoic horizon. It's an "empty mind": mu is "emptiness" and this last is - also - the absence of ego or limited self.

This state is not an unconscious condition or a state of mental relaxation: on the contrary, it implies a sort of openness to everything (perceptions are not selected and restricted by egoic expectations), an enhanced mental clarity, a full presence in the here and in the now.

Takuan Sōhō (1573~1646), an important Zen Master of the Rinzai School among the first to link Zen practice and martial training, wrote:

When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.


Yagyū Munenori (1571~1646), a Japanese swordsman, the son of the founder of an important ryū, school of swordsmanship, wrote:

Total removal means completely removing all sickness. Sickness here means sickness of the mind. The thing is to get rid of all the sickness in the mind in one fell swoop. (...) The general meaning of sickness is the lingering or tarrying of the mind. In Buddhism, this is called fixation, and it is severely rejected. If the mind is fixated on one spot and lingers there, you will miss what you should see and suffer an unexpected defeat.

Keeping the inner mind attentive, like a duck swimming on the water, calm above while paddling below, when this practice builds up, the inner mind and the outside merge together so that inside and outside become one, with no barrier at all. To arrive at this state is the supreme attainment.


"Getting rid of sickness" means clearing the mind of egoic "fixations", removing the incessant undercurrent of thought to attain a mushin level of consciousness. In this way, attention is no more trapped and can function more freely, fully, and fluidly in the here and in the now. The empty mind is supremely alert, attentive to everything, without favoring any in particular. It's open to anything that can happen, focused, calm, receptive, transparent, and fluid like water.

Got the gist?

I'm sure you did not.

Let's do a funny experiment, called "The Monkey Business Illusion", developed for the very first time many years ago by two American experimental psychologists: Daniel James Simons and Christopher F. Chabris.

Did you already know the "invisible gorilla experiment"? Try this newer test.

Scholars call "inattentional blindness" our inability to notice or perceive a fully visible object or an event happening in front of us, in plain sight, due to the limits and the fallibility of attention, a cognitive process that plays a determinant role in the relationship between what is in our visual field and our perception.

For us, today, perceiving or not perceiving "the gorilla" makes a relevant difference: think about the consequences of not perceiving a pedestrian when you are driving your car.

For a samurai, not perceiving the gorilla meant death.

Attaining the mushin state of alert meant for him to reduce the limits and the fallibility of his everyday attention and to fully perceive what is happening around him and not be deceived (and killed) by what he is expecting to happen.

However, in combat (as in many martial arts), the ability to have a wider sense of awareness, freer and powerful attention, and a full presence is nothing if is not combined with the ability to act or to react faster than the blink of your opponent's eye. If you see the gorilla, but your re-action has the speed of a sloth, you're dead.

Takuan Sōhō (1573~1646) wrote:

When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. 

He just stands there with his sword, forgetful of all techniques.


Yagyū Munenori (1571~1646) wrote:

 Once a fight has started, if you get involved in thinking about what to do, you will be cut down by your opponent with the very next blow.

Suppose you are shooting with a bow and you think you are shooting while you are shooting; then the aim of your bow will be inconsistent and unsteady. If you are conscious of wielding your sword when wielding your sword, your offense will be unstable. When using a sword or riding a horse too, you do not "wield a sword" or "ride a horse." When you do everything in the normal state of mind <mushin or unminding>, then everything goes smoothly and easily.

At this point, you don't even know yourself. When your body, feet, and hands act without your doing anything in your mind, you don't miss ten times out of ten.


Let's get the gist.

You are a 20-year experienced driver and you are driving your car on a country road on a cold day. There is no traffic, and suddenly it starts to rain heavily. Visibility is reduced and the asphalt gets slippery. You do not feel stressed, but get more focused than before. At least, you stop singing Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rainy day
By Phil Denton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Suddenly the car in front of you visibly swerves and freezes sideways. You don't think how to avoid aquaplaning or a skid situation, how to depress the clutch pedal, what the hell your right foot has to press, whether it's better to brake hard or not, how to move your hand on the gear shift... Nope. You do not think at all. You just react in a fraction of a second and do what needs to be done. You do it is a quasi-automatic mode as if you and your car were a single entity, and you succeed in avoiding a bad rear-end collision.

I'm not saying you're a samurai (singing Bohemian Rhapsody is a serious hindrance), but you switched in a mental condition slightly similar to a mushin state. Now you can better understand master Munenori who says If you think what you have to do, you're dead, or Master Sōhō who wrote Forget all the technique, act with an empty mind. That's exactly what you did to avoid the crash. You did not rely on what you thought should have been the next move to carry out; thanks to your 20-year experience and your alertness, you reacted in a sort of fast, instinctive, or intuitive mode.

The contemporary cognitive sciences call the mushin mental condition "a state of flow and transient hypofrontality".

When faced with a confrontation, the samurai can attain at will, thanks to a long complex training, a mental state which entails enhanced alertness, wider attention, full presence in the moment, and super fast, semi-automatic reactions. His social "face" has disappeared: his omote side gave place to his ura, the mushin condition, sort of a deeper "face" stripped of the social personality and of all egoic traits. What was ura is now omote: mushin is now omote. However, as we said before, there is always an ura hidden beneath a given omote. And we have to discover what is the ura, the hidden side, of the mushin state in the here and in the now.

Master Yagyū Munenori gives us Ariadne's thread: a teaching called "hearing the sound of wind and water":

As for the matter of "hearing the sound of wind and water," this means being calm and quiet on the surface while keeping energy aggressive underneath. The wind has no sound; it produces sound when it strikes objects. Thus wind is silent when it blows up above. When it makes contact with objects like trees and bamboo below, the sound it produces is noisy and frantic.

Water also has no sound when it is falling from above; it makes a frantic sound below when it comes down and hits things.

Using these images as illustrations, the point is to be calm and quiet on the surface, while keeping energy aggressive underneath. These are images of outwardly being extremely serene, unruffled, and calm, while inwardly being aggressively watchful.

Furthermore, when outwardly intensely aggressive, if you are internally calm, so your inner mind is not captured by the outside, then you will not be outwardly wild. If you move both inwardly and outwardly at once, you become wild. The aggressive and passive modes, movement and stillness, should be made to alternate inside and outside.

The energy that is hidden within and not revealed is called the "potential of the moment". It is like a hinge, which is inside the door. To observe the invisible workings hidden inside and act thereupon is called "the art of war at the vanguard of the moment.



The energy that is hidden within and not revealed, the ura of the mushin state of consciousness has a name: in Japanese, it's called ki.

What is ki?

Again, we face here a question that has no answer, hence a wrong question.

From an eastern point of view, ki is not to be understood.

From a western point of view, there's no scientific evidence that ki, whatever it may be, exists. For the majority of western scientific researchers, the question "What is ki?" is just as important as this other one: "What is the dark side of the force outside the Star Wars fictional universe?". Wasted time.

I will not enter this highly controversial issue, here.

The Japanese ki, and the Chinese qi or chi, is a key concept in both Japanese/Chinese traditional medicine and martial arts, including kenjutsu (the art of swordsmanship).

«Eastern medicine has been built on the fundamental concept that the head and the various inner organs are connected to specific points in distal areas (dhands and legs) with "meridians". The major meridians are 12 regular meridians and 8 irregular meridians. They are broadly divided into yin and yang groups and Ki flows through them. Along these meridians, there are about 350 acupoints, used for acupuncture therapy. When the Ki-flow is stagnant, we become sick. Acupuncture allows the Ki to flow smoothly». (S. Tsuyoshi Ohnishi & Tomoko Ohnishi, cit., see Bibliography).

The Chinese acupuncture and Tui-na therapy (we can say almost all Traditional Chinese Medicine), as well as the Japanese Shiatsu (acupressure) and Reiki practices, work on the ki or qi meridians.

Japanese acupuncture points
Japanese acupuncture points by Okamoto Ippo. Photo by Wellcome Images (licensed under CC BY 4.0).

«Ki flows and circulates throughout the universe, not only through each human being» (S. Tsuyoshi Ohnishi & Tomoko Ohnishi, cit.).

Ki has been defined in the West as "vital energy", "breath of life", "subtle energy", "air", "material energy", "life force", "energy flow". You can mockingly call it "the mother of Yoda's force" but it does not matter. Ki is not a name and is not something you need to understand via the intellect (Kenjiro Yoshigasaki Sensei said that ki is something that cannot be defined).

Not the simple "experience" but the "management" of ki, whatever it is, lays at the core of many teachings in different martial arts, and from the late 17th century on (Edo Period), it became an essential part of the samurai esoteric education.

The upper class of Samurai received complex training: the acquisition of combat techniques and the physical military training were a small part of it. They were trained also in Zen Meditation and Esoteric Buddhism. In particular, they were trained through two kinds of meditation techniques (namely, the "meditation with prolonged sitting" and the "meditation with prolonged walking") and via a pattern of specific breathing techniques to channel, concentrate in the hara (in the low abdomen, below the navel), enhance, and direct the Ki at will.

The result of this multifaceted training was a remarkable increase in the power of the very first sword strike. To kill, in other words, was not the katana alone, nor the arm; not even the physical force of the samurai body, nor decades of technical education and resulting dexterity. The lethal power was attained by concentrating and releasing the ki in a mushin mental state, where everything becomes one - the katana and the arm, the body and the mind, the instinct and the technique, the man and the universe. Still today, in many martial arts, the true strength is a product of the art of "governing the ki" rather than governing the muscles. A martial artist who has learned this art can calm down his mind, lower his center of gravity, and strike out with a truly enhanced power.

Master Issai Chozan (1659~1741), a samurai from Sekiyado, well acquainted with Shintoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, wrote a text entitled The Subtle Art of a Cat (Neko no Myōjutsu) that had been handed down from master to master since the beginning of the 17th century as secret teaching. Here, in the version that Karlfried Graf Dürckheim received from his Zen master Teramoto Takeharu, we read as follows:

He who has free access to the Energy (ki) can encounter everything within infinite freedom and in the right way. If his energy is in tune, it will not shatter even on gold or rock and need to exert no special power in battle. Only one thing is necessary: that no trace of egotism, of self-consciousness comes into play, lest everything should be lost. (...). What sort of a way or art is to be used? Only when you are in that disposition which is free of all consciousness of self (mushin), when you act without acting, without intention and stratagem, in unison with the Greatness of Nature, are you on the Right Way.

Issai Chozan

Many legends that tell us of powerful samurai that could perform no-touch knockouts by only directing the ki. Legends? Probably, but with a core of truth.

«Stories tell us that the great martial artist possessed such a strong Ki-power that his opponents were immobilized. In Japanese martial arts history, there were records that some martial artists could throw opponents without touching. This is known as the Toh-Ate technique and is considered to be the ultimate form of martial arts. However, this has been a secret technique for centuries, and no curriculum to master this technique was taught or published until recently. Currently, at least three Japanese Ki masters (Kozo Nishino, Hiroyuki Aoki, and Kojo Tsuboi) are reported to be able to perform the Toh-Ate technique. It is interesting to note that two of them (Nishino and Tsuboi) had practiced Aikido. Aoki was an expert in Karate. Japanese brain physiologists recorded changes in the brain wave of Aoki when he performed Toh-Ate technique». (S. Tsuyoshi Ohnishi & Tomoko Ohnishi, cit.).

Kozo Nishino, born in 1926 in Osaka, was a former dancer and choreographer, and at 50 became a 7th-degree blackbelt of Aikido and a Master of Kung Fu. Later on, he developed the Nishino Breathing Method to master the ki. During a practice called taiki, Nishino can ‘move’ his students without any physical contact. Many of them run, jump, or roll on the floor when they receive his ki-energy, even when they cannot see the master. Some of these cases have been photographed and studied (see the Bibliography).

Kozo Nishino

The instant before striking the deadly bow, the samurai is «calm and quiet on the surface while keeping energy aggressive underneath», as Master Yagyū Munenori (1571~1646) wrote. The samurai mind is in a state of mushin (omote) and enhanced attention and calmness, but he's going to burst in the most rapid and violent motion (ura). When ura becomes omote and the deadly stroke is given by directing powerful destructive ki from the hare, the samurai must attain an inner state of calmness and stillness (now ura), as a sea stirred on the surface by violent waves, but motionless in its depths. This new ura is necessitated by what is now omote: the ability to manage deadly destructive energy has to be rigidly controlled and requires a stable and perfectly balanced mental attitude, cleansed of selfish interests, egoic thoughts, and personal emotions. Otherwise, this ability could be a threat to social order.

This everchanging dynamic between omote and ura is clearly stated by Master Munenori:

Furthermore, when outwardly intensely aggressive, if you are internally calm, so your inner mind is not captured by the outside, then you will not be outwardly wild. If you move both inwardly and outwardly at once, you become wild. The aggressive and passive modes, movement and stillness, should be made to alternate inside and outside.


Yagyū Munenori lived between the late 16th and the early 17th centuries, but his words have gone through the centuries intact and still clear.

Tōhei Kōichi Sensei (1920-2011) was a 10th Dan aikidoka, the founder of the Ki Society, and of a style of aikido, officially Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (literally "aikido with mind and body unified"), aka Ki-Aikido. In his book Ki breathing (Ki no Kokyuho), published in Japan in March 2005, we can read an echo of the old teaching of Munenori and other masters from the Edo Period:

Either state implies the existence of the other. Action within calm, or calm within action, means that a state of complete calm implies the element of extremely violent activity and that violent activity, by its own nature, implies absolute calm.


We are able to move most rapidly and violently when we are most calm. Maintaining a profound calm within even the most violent action is also essential. Like the sea whose lower depths are always peaceful whatever tempest furrows its surface and like the eye of the typhoon around which the violent winds howl, we must always retain our own calm. Strength of action is born from inner calm. For this reason, if we have that calm, regardless of how rapidly we act, we will not upset our breathing.

Jon Takagi and Koichi Tohei
Koichi Tohei demonstrating Aikido with Jon Takagi at Arizona State University, 1974 (under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

The relation between omote and ura is something more than a simple difference between the front and the backside: its dynamic relationship opened to us the secrets of the samurai training, rooted in the Zen Buddhism practice, veined with Shinto elements and Confucianism. Not all samurai were so lucky to receive superior training, firstly as many of them were poor warriors in the service of a small daimyō that could not afford to hire the best masters. Secondly, this training was jealously guarded as esoteric teaching by many ryū (schools). «The man of wisdom in Asia had realized very early that ki (...), or any other power which man might acquire in the course of his experience, could be misused, abused, corrupted (...). Almost every respectable school has warned its adherents of such a possibility and adopted methodological safeguards intended to prevent abuses. The careful scrutiny of a candidate aspiring to the knowledge imparted by that school, and the stern emphasis placed upon the secrecy of transmission, were attempts to prevents such knowledge from falling into the wrong hands. However, while such an aim was not automatically achieved through secrecy (a student always being able to misuse the limited power of ki which he had developed), there were many schools which, unfortunately, disappeared precisely because of this emphasis upon stringent safeguards and restricted transmission of their stores of knowledge and lore» (Ratti & Westbrook, Secrets of the Samurai, see Bibliography).

The Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū is one of the oldest extant martial arts, an exemplar of bujutsu and a prestigious ryū founded in 1447 in Katori (in present-day Chiba Prefecture). Risuke Ōtake (1926) is one of the legendary shihan (Master Instructors) of this ryū, which still requires every candidate seeking entrance to sign a blood oath of allegiance (keppan) to safeguard the secrecy and integrity of the teachings. In the next video, you will see Master Risuke Ōtake and his son performing kenjutsu in the strict respect of the ryū's tradition.

Pay attention to two aspects:

  1. The intense shout (kiai).

The kiai, that in kenjutsu can be done silently or loudly, starts always in the hara: it comes from the lower belly, not the throat. The Japanese word kiai derives from the union of ki and the contraction of the verb awasu, "to unite". Here's a good definition of what it is: «The kiai marks the point in bujutsu where the outer factors of these arts (weapons and techniques) were subordinated to factors of an inner nature (control and power), which, according to the leading masters of the warrior arts, made those arts truly effective in combat» (Ratti & Westbrook, cit.).

  1. The sheathing of the katana (nōtō).

There were many techniques of returning the sword into the scabbard, always without having to look at it and keeping focusing attention on one's surroundings. Master Risuke Ōtake and his son carry out two specific movements before completing the nōtō, called chiburui or chiburi: they are symbolic gestures which call to mind the real motions made by past samurai to remove the opponent's blood from the sword. This shaking off the blood is done here knocking the tsuka (= hitting the hilt with the fist) and cleaning the mune (the ridge or back edge of the sword) with two fingers.


Alyx Becerra




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