Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kuzushi Is More Than Off Balancing


Kuzushi means “off-balancing.” Everyone knows that. It’s been translated that way for decades. Off-balancing must be an accurate translation of the word if everyone keeps using it. The truth is it’s a terrible translation.  Not the complete misdirection that is translating 柔道 as “the Gentle Way” but still pretty awful.

Kuzushi comes from the word “kuzusu 崩す” which according to the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary means “to break, pull down, tear down, knock down, whittle away at, break, change.” Judo is pretty clear about the process of throwing though, separating it into 3 steps that go kuzushi - tsukuri - kake. Tsukuri is roughly “making” and in this case is something like making the technique by getting in the right place. Kake is executing the technique. Kuzushi happens well in front of execution, so it can’t literally mean knocking something down in this case. We’re also not breaking our partner, so what are we doing?

My friend Michael Hacker likes to interpret kuzushi as “undermining the foundation.” For a long time, this was the best interpretation of kuzushi I had found. It’s quite a graphic and effective image. If you undermine the foundation of a building, it falls down under it’s own weight. If you can undermine the foundation of your partner, they will begin to fall down and all you have to do is direct your technique so they can’t recover.

I like this much better than the simple “off-balancing” that is the common translation. Getting someone off-balance is nice, but they can recover. From a tactical point, off-balancing is usually obvious to the person being attacked. If you subtly destroy the foundation of their stance though, they may not even notice that you are doing it. Often people can even be lead into compromising their own structure. If you can get someone to push or pull harder than can be supported by the foundation of their feet and legs, then you’ve undermined their foundation.

Undermining the foundation was my working concept for kuzushi for quite a while, and it helped me find the way to my current understanding. I’ve been working on a somewhat different way of thinking about kuzushi. I’ve found myself applying what I recognized as kuzushi not just when doing judo and aikido, but also when training in kenjutsu and jodo. At first it was just about getting someone off-balance or wrecking their foundation so they couldn’t resist my technique. In jodo, there are techniques where you attack your partner’s weapon, and if your attack doesn’t steal their balance for at least an instant and force them to take steps to recover, your technique has failed and you find a bokken uncomfortably close to your nose.

Then I started to envision the concept of kuzushi slightly differently. It was a combination of experiences from Aikido, Daito Ryu, Shinto Muso Ryu Jo, and several styles of kenjutsu. I found that kuzushi worked well in all of them. And not just the happo no kuzushi that is introduced in judo. Often what is happening is not the big movements described in judo classes where you are drawing, lifting or driving someone’s center of gravity away from the support of their feet and legs. It is much smaller and subtler.

That’s why I like Michael Hacker’s definition of “undermining the foundation” even as I look for something that is simpler and more generally applicable. An experience with Jim Baker, an amazing Aikido teacher, got me thinking about this more. What he does in standing kokyuho practice is lock up your body starting at your wrist when you grab him. Without any significant motion, he then locks your elbows, your shoulders, all the way down your spine, and then he makes your knee give way. I’m not sure how he does the last bit, because I can only lock someone up through the shoulders with any consistency, but he does it to me without effort. I tried to find a video of it, but there aren’t any where you can see what’s going on.

Jim isn’t attacking the foundation. He doesn’t even attack the support structure of the leg until after the upper body is completely locked up. I realized this is similar to something I do in judo to setup some throws. Often I don’t try to break my partner’s balance. For some techniques I try to set my partner up so they are well balanced, so well balanced that they can’t move to defend themselves because they’ll start to fall if they do. Then I attack.

What Jim Baker and I are both doing (though he does it much more elegantly than I) is not off-balancing our partner or undermining their foundation.. We’re destabilizing them. All the way along when I do this in judo, my partner is balanced. If I let go without throwing, she’ll stay upright because I haven’t unbalanced her.  What I have done is make her unstable, so she can’t move without starting to fall. Jim Baker does the same thing. He makes your body’s structure, the bones and joints, lock up and become unable to adjust to changes as they are designed to.

The same thing can happen with crossed weapons. A good partner can move you into an unstable structure so that you can’t do anything to respond to her. Many kata in koryu are designed to teach how to do just that, drive you into a position where you don’t have enough stability to be able to respond to your partner’s attack, create a moment where you cannot move into a safe position. This happens a lot in the higher level kata of many classical systems, although they don’t usually call what they are doing kuzushi. It’s a great term for what is happening though. They are destroying their partners stability, making it impossible to respond effectively. In Shinto Muso Ryu there a number of techniques that are only really effective when they disrupt not only your partner’s weapon, but also your partner’s stability. Maki otoshi is a good example.


Each technique by jo in the above video disrupts and momentarily destabilizes the swordsman. The first technique twists his structure to the left and off his center. The second technique, a stop strike, drives the swordsman’s head and upper body back and slightly off balance, giving jo time to attack the sword directly.  The attack on the sword is followed by maki otoshi. Maki otoshi is actually a very soft technique that done correctly, as it is here, completely disrupts the swordsman to the right. The technique destabilizes him so much that he must take a step to regain some stability. This is good kuzushi.

Our bodies are loaded with flexible joints. We maintain stability by flexing the joints and moving. In budo, good balance and stability are not about standing statically upright. Good balance and stability are dynamic. That’s why counters work so well in judo. If you attack but I retain or regain my stability I can go from being thrown to throwing you, even if I’m already in the air. In a situation like that, even without a foot on the ground, I have a stable center that I can use to destabilize you and get you airborne.  When facing a stick or sword, you can maneuver and manipulate your partner so they aren’t stable enough to resist you.

Kuzushi can be off-balancing your partner. That’s not all it is though. Kuzushi doesn’t have to be big and obvious, pulling someone off their center. It can be smaller, rearranging their posture just enough to make them unstable even while they are still balanced, and unable to respond to what is happening.  If you make someone unstable, they can’t respond to what you’re doing, and have lost. That’s kuzushi.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you are interested in kuzushi, then you have to really go the internal strength route to figure out how it works, but good luck there finding a qualified teacher who can teach reproducible skill.

D Suter said...

I like your description of kuzushi. Thanks for the blog.

Anonymous said...

To allow for aiki in the definition, I would say kuzushi is the inability to maintain balence. To be specific, with aiki you can drop someone by making them miscalculate the actions they take to balance causing them to fall. Kuzushi in this case is not physically unbalancing someone but denying ability to mentally perform accurate balancing adjustments. Another example is a knockout punch.

Gene Shin said...

Thank you for posting this lucid discussion of kuzushi. I would like to read more, though, about how "gentle way" is a misleading translation for "judo". Have you written about this already? Also please feel free to visit my dojo's website at www.ssjjudo.com. I'd welcome any feedback you may have.

The Budo Bum said...

Hello Gene,

Gentle Way is a bad translation because there is nothing in 柔 that implies gentleness. 柔術 jujutsu literally means "flexible technique(s)" Judo 柔道 is really the Way Of Flexibility. I don't know who came up with Gentle Way, but it's one of the best pieces of propaganda going. Gentle Way would be 優道.

Gene Shin said...

Thanks for the reply! This is fascinating, because Dr. Kano himself translated Judo as "gentleness" or "giving way" in Chapter 1 of his book, Kodokan Judo. He goes on to say directly that "'Jujutsu' may be translated as 'the gentle art', judo as 'the Way of gentleness',with the implication of first giving way to achieve victory." (p.16)

I never really questioned this before, but your assertions caused me to wonder if perhaps this might have been an error on the part of someone mistranslating Dr. Kano's words. However, in the Foreword it states that "Chapter 1 (and several other sections) were composed in English by Professor Jigoro Kano." (p.12)

If you don't have a copy handy, it can be accessed on Amazon here, including a view of the relevant pages: http://www.amazon.com/Kodokan-Judo-Essential-Founder-Jigoro/dp/156836539X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1438313623&sr=8-1&keywords=kodokan+judo+jigoro+kano

Geoff Harris said...

Wonderful lucid blog, congratulations. How far can you stretch the definition of kuzushi - would shouting in somebody's face to disorientate them (kiai, basically) or using softeners or atemi class as kuzushi?

Draven Olary said...

Interesting and meaningful post, but I was exploring another way of understanding kuzushi when fighting with swords. How can I put the guy off-balance when I am 2m away from him - in a sword fight? The single way I see it, is when I take the initiative from him and do my thing.
Sugino Sensei explained one time how the japanese duel is happening:
"As I said before, one does not receive the other’s sword, the moment of receiving is left out and one just cuts directly. In an actual fight there is no time to receive. One does not know how the opponent will change and come at you next. Therefore, we cut the opponent directly from a receiving posture."
And this made me to translate kuzushi in "breaking his initiative" or 'taking the initiative from the opponent". This can be used in empty-handed arts too. At least, is my explanation for this.

Mike O'Leary said...

There is no "Internal" as anonymous said. There is no mystical training or interpretation.. ITS MECHANICS>. Those who train long enough come to realize the changes you can make or influence in order to disrupt anothers balance. Stance, and control of your own stance and mechanics will allow you to "take your opponents " balance.

To adress a few other comments.. Certainly a kiai or softening technique will work.

Receiving is a term used to define a block. There are hard blocks and then there are soft blocks, soft blocks or re directions are described as "receiving" .. this is also known as a " gentle" way.. Absorbing.. all the same thing.. Becoming caught up in the translations without asking native students of the old masters what was intended is disregarding history.. having a general interpretation is also irresponsible.. By researching older students of " The teacher you are quoting" is the only way to define a statement..

One of the problems of using Asian terms is that students often get one translation.. So in the example of " The Gentle way" and then saying it is more accutate to translate the kangi to " Flexible way" .. is one of the most common mistakes.. Flexible and Gentle have a connection . IF we are "flexible" we bend, or give, or it could be seen as absorb.. We evade, we use another's strength agains him, all of this applies..

Dont be so hard lined in the definition. is the lesson. Rather than focus on a written definition, work on the physical interpretition.. in our stances learn to pivot as opposed to stepping. learn to shuffle or slide.. as opposed to taking a step.. all these assist in your balance.. When you are balanced.. it is hard for your opponent to unbalance you.. OR to take your balance. or intiative.

As to finding teachers who understand this.. A teacher who talks about this type of activitiy needs to have done the practice. because it is someting that , although not mystical or ' internal".. takes practice.. and that teacher needs to guide a student through the practice.. and contrary to the modern day view.. it actually does take lots of practice so the old addage.. " practice the technique a thousand times" may in fact be true.. But because it requires commitment and time , and is a rudimentary basic of all martial arts.. is often passed over because nobody wants to spend the time.

Mike