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.