Photo – Kyu – the conclusion of a cut. Photo by Rick Frye, 2014
Today I have the pleasure of introducing a guest blog on jo-ha-kyu by my colleague and friend, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. There are many concepts that came into budo from other areas of Japanese culture. The idea of jo-ha-kyu is one of them. Klens-Bigman Sensei's background as a Jun Shihan in Shinto Hatakage Ryu as well her expertise in Japanese dance gives her an excellent position from which to examine this crucial concept.
The utility of jo-ha-kyu
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
If you have spent time training in Japan, or your teacher is Japanese, sooner or later he/she will mention a concept that is as essential to the study of koryu as any other practical aspect. That concept is jo-ha-kyu.
If you look up the kanji (序破急), you get a set of straight-up definitions. Jo (序) means beginning. Ha (破) means middle in this particular context, but it can also mean, interestingly, to break or destroy, the same kanji found in shu-ha-ri (a subject for another essay). Kyu (急) means a fast pace, and appears most familiarly to visitors to Japan as designating an express train. But, just as looking up the roots of words in English only hints at their current or contextual meaning, those simple definitions don't begin to describe the depth of the meaning of the idea of jo-ha-kyu, nor its importance to the study of any traditional movement form, including koryu budo. As I mentioned above, jo-ha-kyu is a practical aspect, essential to achieve a level of understanding beyond just the mechanical movements of a given kata or waza.
There is a lot of discussion of the application of strength or not, but less about the speed (or lack thereof) in applying given techniques. Generally speaking it seems that we like speed. We learn the elements of waza and look forward to using them “at speed.” However, in koryu budo training, speed is a relative thing, to be used judiciously. Simply put, once a student understands the mechanical aspects of a form or technique (properly learned at a glacial pace), the teacher should begin a discussion as to how the student performs the movements of the form.
In its simplest aspect, jo-ha-kyu suggests rising acceleration. When drawing a sword for a nukitsuke cut, the iaidoka begins the draw slowly, and with a relaxed grip. As the sword is drawn, the speed increases, and the grip becomes more firm (but not tight) until the sword is free. Once free, the iaidoka snaps the monouchi of the sword towards the target by tightening her grip to the utmost. The iaidoka’s grip then relaxes as she re-positions her sword for the second cut of the kata, and the process of acceleration begins again.
Simple enough, yes? And easily seen, though perhaps not as easy to do. But jo-ha-kyu does not only refer to the elements of a given kata. The entire kata exhibits jo-ha-kyu. Let’s go back to our iaido example. The nukitsuke cut is a small cut. Depending on the style, it may be given as a warning to a would-be opponent to back off, theoretically making the balance of the kata unnecessary. The kata assumes, though, that that a second cut is necessary, and so the follow up to the nukitsuke is a much larger, and more lethal, cut. Afterward, if the bunkai of the kata only involves one opponent, the iaidoka performs chiburi and noto and the kata is finished.
Weapons kata seem to make the understanding of jo-ha-kyu pretty obvious (though I can state from experience it’s much harder to learn how to do properly), but the same sense of timing can be seen in empty-hand forms as well. Grab your opponent too fast or too hard, and your technique will in all likelihood, fail. In techniques for Daito ryu, the defender often has to wait for the attacker to do something before he can react. And the timing of his reaction and the execution of his technique depends very often on a sense of acceleration, not a sudden movement.
Jo-ha-kyu works in layers, starting with the individual elements of a given kata or technique, then to the design of the kata overall. But jo-ha-kyu doesn’t stop there. Sets of kata also reflect jo-ha-kyu. For example, the shoden set of Shinto Hatakage ryu consists of six kata. In the process of learning the six kata, the iaidoka learns how to: draw and cut in a shallow, rising diagonal, kirioroshi (straight down) cut, nukitsuke in a rising reverse-diagonal cut, a straight-on thrust, downward kesa (diagonal) cut, tsubame-gaeshi (reverse diagonal followed by downward diagonal; literally “barn swallow [and] return” because it resembles a swallow’s forked tail) cut, ko-(or yoko-) chiburi , simple noto (resheathing of the sword) and kaiten chiburi, in which the sword spins in the iaidoka’s hand, followed by a reverse-hand noto. The first form in the set is straightforward, followed by increasingly complicated bunkai of the subsequent forms. After that, it gets complicated.
Regardless of the style, shoden sets of forms always teach – well – basics. The second set of forms assumes this basic set of skills and applies them in different (sometimes radically different) ways. Some teachers have suggested the shoden set is like playing scales on a musical instrument – learning how the instrument works and what it is capable of. In koryu budo, the practitioner learns how the weapon works, whether a sword, a stick, or his own body. Over time, techniques increase in complexity.
Now, everyone knows that levels of training involve beginner, intermediate, and advanced forms. But considering a ryuha in terms of jo-ha-kyu gives more depth to the utility of a layering of rising acceleration. And I don't mean speed. I mean depth of understanding. Once a practitioner begins to see jo-ha-kyu in the techniques, kata, and overall ryuha, the utility of the concept can be seen practically everywhere, even in aspects of everyday life.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank Ismael Franco Sensei of Tora Dojo and Peter Boylan Sensei Of Michigan Koryu Kenkyukai for vetting portions of this post.