Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Proto-Kuzushi - The Origins of Off-Balance

Welcome to the dojo. For the last few years, I've been exploring the relationship between judo, aikido, iaido, jodo and kendo - and some other arts.

In 2006 I visited an archeological museum in Taiwan, where I found an ancient terra cotta camel that had been traded there - which tells me that the trade routes across Asia, the different versions of the 'Silk Road', didn't necessarily start and end where I would have thought. Today, I'm of the opinion that we can translate this same concept to our martial arts training - and to the history of the development of off-balance.

The principle of kuzushi, or off-balance, is vital to many modern martial arts. In kendo, for example, one player lunges forward with a mighty yell, while the other recoils in defense (or takes a whackin'). When I tried it, I spent a lot of time on my heels, trying to back-pedal out of the kill zone (I'm not a very good kendo player). It may not be readily apparent to the casual observer, but off-balance plays a major role in the kendo attack.

The principle of off-balance isn't always taught in aikido schools, except in Tomiki aikido, which is heavily influenced by judo. In Tomiki aikido, the judo/jujutsu off-balance is key to the proper execution of most techniques.

But where did this principle develop? Where did it come from? There will be some (including most of the sensei whom I've met) who'll tell you that it's an exclusively Japanese creation. They say that, although the basics of jujutsu were imported from China by way of Korea in the 15th century, the off-balance principle was only added once the art was sufficiently codified by the early Japanese masters. Of course, there are also people who'll tell you that jujutsu, like the Japanese language, was handed down from the gods.

Check out the Chinese art of shuai jiao (fast wrestling). It's basically a Chinese version of judo, only much older, and much less refined. It's fairly obvious, from my perspective, that elements of jujutsu could have been developed from shuai jiao. I say could have been, because there are significant differences between the two, even on a fundamental level.

Shuai jiao is a very old art, and elements of its throwing curriculum outdate Japanese jujutsu. But where did it come from? This is only speculation on my part, of course, but through the sanda connection, one might make the argument that shuai jiao developed from throwing techniques evident in old Shaolin forms.

Now, I know what you're thinking: Here we go again with the "All Roads Lead to Shaolin" thing. Right? Well, no. It can be argued that Shaolin was a stepping stone for what we call the martial arts on their way from India to America, if you like to see it that way (I certainly do). Shaolin gets a lot of credit in my book, but was hardly the birthplace of the ability of one human being to throw another human being to the ground. What I'm saying here is that it may be that the Shaolin monks developed - or at least codified - a version of off-balance techniques that eventually became the nucleus of modern "ju" arts.

Does this make modern arts like jujutsu, judo and aikido any less Japanese? Of course not. Nor does it steal anything from their credibility as martial arts. But the human body only moves in a finite number of ways, and it only makes sense that people were throwing each other around in other places and at aother times, in much the same way in which we do it now. Before researching the matter of off-balance in the softer martial arts, I never would have thought to look for connections between modern aikido and old Shaolin. And although I'm only speculating on those connections now, the implications are - at least for me - intriguing.

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