By Steve Kelsey.
When you study jukendo you learn the importance of attack, nearly everything you do is aimed at delivering a powerful, focused attacking thrust, and this is generally accompanied with a forward leap. The forward leap adds power to the thrust and also enables the attacker to enter past and inside the defender’s guard. The first line of defence from these thrusts is this guard or kamae; this is supplanted with parries, deflections and interestingly enough retreat. This tactical retreat when timed perfectly can break the attacker’s rhythm and balance, allowing for effective counter attack. Watching jukendo shiai one sees a great deal of forward and backward movement, attacking mirrored with retreating. With two well-matched exponents this forward and backward movement can become nearly hypnotic, as each man tries to gain the initiative by advancing and retreating. In this article we shall look at how jukendo teaches the ability to step back and immediately launch a scoring counter. I will show that being put on the back foot can be a distinct advantage in jukendo.
A beginner to jukendo starts out by learning the basic handling of the weapon, the standard kamae, they will then learn chokutotsu or the basic thrust. From practising chokutotsu into the air the beginner is given a live target, the padded heart region of a senior student or teacher. It is here that lessons in retreat are explored for the jukendo practitioner, not for the beginner but for the receiver of the thrusts. With every thrust that is delivered by the beginner, the receiver takes a small barely noticeable step back, looking like a small backward hop. The purpose of this is to cushion or lessen the impact of the thrust, a kind of rolling with the blow. A proficient teacher or student will be able to judge his step back exactly to match the thrust, allowing for a crisp and correctly focused blow no matter how poorly executed the thrust. More interestingly though, he will learn to judge the minimum distance needed to over-withdraw, to over-retreat, stopping the blow from properly landing, rendering the thrust ineffectual. Through this practice the jukendo practitioner will begin to realise that retreating just a hair’s breadth too far will leave even a well timed and focused thrust hanging uselessly in the air, causing a break in the attacker’s balance and or timing, providing opportunity to counter attack.
By practising this pattern again and again, the jukendo practitioner learns instinctively how to withdraw and over-extend an attack. This skill is further developed and honed as one’s partner starts to use combinations and thrusts chained together one after each other. These get faster and include increasingly sophisticated techniques, where the angle and target are varied. This increased complexity of attack needs to be perfectly matched, with exact and perfectly timed back steps. The receiver learns to harmonise his retreat, and so conversely learns how to break the attack.
Immediately following a thrust, the teacher or senior student takes a further step back, resetting the ma-ai to the proper engagement distance and enabling the next thrust to be executed and so on. As the speed of attack increases these retreating steps become progressively harder, this forces the practitioner to judge the combative distance both quicker and more accurately otherwise they face being overwhelmed or having their balance completely broken by the rapid thrusts.
It is often around this point that the teacher will include multiple back steps between thrusts, doubling or expanding the distance that the attacker needs to cover to launch their attack. The prime reason for this is again to train the attacker, to get them to develop efficient and rapid entering footwork, as well as the development and appreciation of how retreating and creating separation from the attacker can be a benefit. If the small back step used to receive a blow develops a micro appreciation of distance, then this rapid backward retreat starts the understanding and appreciation of macro distance in jukendo. Where the micro retreat of a centimetre or two can upset a thrust, the sudden opening up of a wide macro distance between the two practitioners can break the poise, timing and momentum of an attack. In reality the sudden need to cover several metres to attack an opponent, who was an instant before at the end of your mokuju, is an uncomfortable and bewildering experience.
At higher levels in jukendo there are paired exercises that concentrate on retreating and advancing patterns, the debana-hikibana exercise being the most common and arguably the most difficult. These patterns work one hard at the principles of opening and closing distance, with all the complexities of timing and focus that they bring. Jukendo kata also contains all these elements but with another twist, where at the end of each kata the practitioners walk back 5 paces with their mokuju in a gedan-kamae. The retreat is quite slow and very deliberate, but the feeling of being able to respond to a sudden attack is strong, which leads to a physical retreat but with one’s spirit being projected forward. It is this element that is the last part of our jigsaw. The ability to retreat, step back on the rear foot and then attack is very much a learnt and developed skill in jukendo, but without the ability to press one’s spirit forward, it would be in vain, as one would soon succumb to an energetic and fast series of attacks. The jukendo practitioner needs to learn how to retreat, how to move backward in order to upset the attacking distance or a thrust, and also learn to equally project spirit or emotional and physiological energy forward. When this is achieved, countering from the back foot becomes both achievable and quite deadly, for the jukendo practitioner has learnt how retreat can be a powerful and winning technique.