Te-no-Uchi: Gripping the Sword in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido

By Suino, Nicklaus
This article appeared in the "SMAA Journal" Volume 14, Issue 2
Te-no-Uchi: Gripping the Sword in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido

Few arts present as many challenges of detail as does Japanese swordsmanship.  One of the most misunderstood aspects of Eishin Ryu iaido is the proper grip on the handle of the iaito (iaido practice sword), called “te-no-uchi.”  The grip is crucial because it is the final lynchpin in the transmission of power from the body, through the arms, and into the cutting edge of the sword.  A correct grip also provides “feel,” which increases awareness of the sword’s position and helps guide the edge through the correct path in cutting.  If the grip is wrong during kirioroshi (“downward cut”—the major cut in each form), the cut will not reach its potential strength, the sword will wobble excessively at the end of the cut, and the iaidoka will tend to subconsciously trick the cut by allowing a softness to creep into the hands and arms just as the cut ends.  In tameshigiri (“test cutting”), a poor grip will result in a failure to cut cleanly through the target.  This article will focus on te-no-uchi for kirioroshi; in the future I will discuss the proper grip for nukitsuke (the simultaneous draw and cut that is the hallmark of iaido) and chiburi (the blood-flipping motion near the end of each form).

Kirioroshi—The Downward Cut

I have written elsewhere about the major elements of a good, straight, downward cut (see “How to Watch Iaido,” Journal of Asian Martial Arts, August 1994), so a quick review here will suffice to reacquaint the reader:  

At the top of the cut, the sword is held above the head with the blade descending backward at a 45-degree angle. The elbows are wide and the heels of the hands are away from the tsuka (“handle”).  As the cut begins, the arms extend and the elbows begin to straighten, causing the wrists to rotate inward.  About one-third of the way through the arc of the cut, the arms should be straight and the palms should be on top of the handle. During the last two-thirds of the cut, the arms are kept straight and the shoulders pulled down.  The sword should travel in a large arc, coming to rest with the tsukagashira (“butt of the handle”) one fist’s distance from the abdomen.  All motion should end suddenly at the end of the cut. The blade should finish almost level, with the kissaki (“tip”) level with or slightly slower than the tsuka.  Some variation in the final angle of the sword is acceptable, but it comes from the different construction of each sword—such as the angle of the nakago (“tang”) or the shape of the tsuka—rather than variations in the acceptable parameters of the grip.

Gripping the Sword

Te-no-uchi, literally translated, means “inside the hands.” There are many aspects of good grip on the sword, some of which are not technically part of te-no-uchi, such as the distance between the hands, the rotation of the hands during the cut, and the position of the wrists.  Other aspects of the grip are clearly part of te-no-uchi, such as the tsuka’s position in the palms, the extended hand position on the tsuka, the feeling in the fingers during the cut, and the strength of the grip. Their purpose is to provide the most efficient means of directing physical power from the arms, through the hands, and into the edge of the blade.   All are important and should be carefully studied and thoroughly practiced by iaido practitioners.

 Distance between the Hands

The hands should be placed as far apart as they can be while keeping all the fingers of the left hand on the tsuka.  While you may read about other styles of swordsmanship that encourage students to place the left hand so that one or more fingers is off the end of the tsuka, this is not appropriate for Eishin Ryu iaido. In fact, this author has trained with and competed against practitioners of many Japanese lineage swordsmanship styles including Muso Shinden Ryu, Hoki Ryu, Suio Ryu, Katori Shinto Ryu, Mugai Ryu, and Jigen Ryu, and has yet to meet a teacher who advises his students to grip the tsuka with fewer than all ten fingers.  The rationale for this grip is obvious: more fingers on the handle will provide more strength and control for the blade.  So, while there may exist styles of swordsmanship that leave one or two fingers of the left hand off the handle, you should not employ such a grip in your practice unless specifically advised to do so by your teacher. The right hand should be as close to the tsuba (“hand guard”) as it can be (keeping in mind the extended position of the hands discussed below), so that the first knuckle of the index finger touches the tsuba.  The knuckle will frequently become chafed (and eventually callused) by a textured tsuba if the grip is correct.

The space between the hands provides a degree of leverage and control that is not possible if the hands are close together.  This can be distinguished from the grip on a golf club or baseball bat, in which the hands are close together, and the grip on an axe, which is appropriate for chopping.  In both golf and baseball, you want the club or bat to swing freely at the moment of impact to transmit energy to the ball.  With an axe, the hands start out apart, and then come together at the end of the chopping motion to let the momentum of the axe head do the work.  In each of these actions, the hands are close together, creating a pivot point for the tool.  

Unlike golf clubs, baseball bats, and axes, which are heaviest at the end furthest from the user, a good katana or iaito tends to be heavier toward its handle, with a balance point closer to the user: about two-thirds of its overall length away from the kissaki (“tip”).  Instead of chopping, our goal in cutting with a katana is to lead with the koshi (the thick middle portion of the blade) and follow through with a slicing motion.  Both downward pressure through the edge and horizontal blade movement are important. Hand separation on the tsuka allows you to maintain control of the blade so that its angle remains consistent while the power of the body is transmitted to the whole edge of the blade to make slicing possible.

Leverage is not the primary reason for the space between the hands, however.  Many swords being offered for sale these days have tsuka exceeding 10 inches in length, some as long as 14 inches.  Advertisers have suggested that the long tsuka helps increase leverage, and therefore power in the cut.  For reasons that are very technical, a proper kirioroshi cannot be performed with a tsuka that is too long.  If you are considering buying an iaito or shinken (“real sword”) for iaido practice, look for a tsuka that is approximately nine inches long, unless your hands are exceptionally large. If your hands press together even when they are as far apart as possible on the tsuka, find a sword whose handle is just long enough to allow an inch of space between them.

Rotation of the Hands

During the first third of the cut, the hands rotate inward slightly to bring the palms over the top of the tsuka. This inward movement of the hands continues, to a lesser extent, through the final two-thirds of the cut.  At the end of the cut, you should have a feeling of pushing down on the tsuka with the palms.  The heels of the hands are rotated or pressed down over the top of the tsuka.

Another way to think about the hand rotation is to consider it a by-product of the motion of the elbows.  As the sword is raised overhead, the elbows bend and extend out to the sides.  This motion pulls the heels of the hands away from the tsuka. As the cut begins, the elbows straighten and the arms extend so that the heels of the hands return to press inward over the top of the tsuka. 

Many iaido students overdo the rotation.  One of the standard expressions used among iaido teachers is that the hands should rotate as though “wringing water out of a towel.” Students who hear this analogy sometimes make the rotation too large, bending their wrists inward at the overhead position, and employing far too much rotation during the cut.  This excessive motion deprives students of edge feel and blade control.

Instead, the fingers should move very little in relation to the tsuka during the cut.  The majority of the motion achieved by the “rotation” of the hands should occur in the heels of the hands, which, as stated above, move away from the tsuka in the overhead position, and back over the top of the tsuka during the first third of the cut. It is critical to emphasize, however, that the palms should end up virtually on top of the tsuka.  Many iaido instructors can determine a student’s ability just by looking at his or her te-no-uchi.  A poorly trained iaidoka will hold his or her sword with the palms on the side or bottom of the tsuka.

Position of the Wrists

The wrists should be bent upward toward the thumbs. To better understand this position, hold your right arm straight out with your hand extended forward as though you were going to shake someone’s hand.   Your fingers should point straight ahead with your thumb on top and your little finger on the bottom, with your wrists in a neutral position.  Without changing the position of your forearm, point your fingers upwards.  You will probably find that your anatomy causes your hand to stop at an angle of about forty-five degrees. 

Make a loose fist.  Now cock the wrist back towards the knuckles.  This is the approximate position for your wrists from the end of the first third of kirioroshi through the end of the cut.

The purpose of this wrist position is twofold: first, along with the extended position of the hands (which is discussed below), the bent wrists help to maximize the amount of contact between the hands and the tsuka, thereby adding blade control; second, the position helps to ensure that the lower center portion of the palm is pressed toward the top of the tsuka.  This removes any flex that might be caused by a loose wrist, effectively making the blade an extension of the arms.

The Tsuka’s Position in the Palms

At the end of kirioroshi, the top of the tsuka should transcribe a line in the palms that extends from the heel of the hand, across the center of the palm, to the base of the index finger (the distal end of the first metacarpal). This provides the maximum gripping surface possible, and provides strong anatomical support for the cutting motion. In order achieve this position, the iaidoka must employ the extended hand position on the tsuka.

The Extended Hand Position on the Tsuka

The grip on the tsuka cannot be a square grip such as one would use to grasp a dumbbell or a paddle. Instead, as discussed above, the wrists should be flexed toward the thumbs.  This allows the two large fingers of each hand to open and extend slightly, adding to the overall contact between the hands and the tsuka, thereby adding to edge feel and blade control.  Further, the wrists should also be flexed backward slightly, allowing the heels of the hands to extend forward.  As noted, this helps to drive the lower center of the palm toward the top of the tsuka, improving the transmission of energy to the blade.

The Feeling in the fingers During the Cut

All the discussion so far has centered on the hands on the top of the tsuka and their role in directing power through the blade.  However, the bottom of the tsuka is also important, because it provides feedback on the location and angle of the blade edge.  The bottom of the nakago (“tang”) is the extension of the edge.  By wrapping around the tsuka, the inside of the iaidoka’s fingers provide the feedback needed to feel the angle of the edge and guide it along an accurate cutting path. 

It is important for the iaidoka to cultivate sensitivity to the position of the edge.  One good way to do this is to practice kirioroshi while thinking of pulling the blade down with the inside of the fingers.  This drill should be repeated many times.  I often practice this during suburito practice (repeated cuts with a heavy wooden sword), but it requires a bokken (“wood sword”) with a very blade-like feel.  Once the feeling of guiding the blade with the inside of the fingers is established, the complete waza (forms) should be practiced with this same feeling in mind.  Tameshigiri can also be used to deepen one’s understanding of this aspect of te-no-uchi.  Eventually, it should be possible to cut through even very thick mats with almost no effort when the edge is properly guided with the fingers.  Once this feeling in the hands is understood, it need be refreshed only occasionally by concentrating on pulling through the cuts with the fingers, and one’s cuts will be stronger and much more accurate for the rest of one’s iaido career.  

The Strength of the Grip

The tsuka should be held with a firm, but gentle, grip.  Think of it as the neck of a goose that you want to keep from escaping but don’t want to strangle.  The two smallest fingers of each hand should grasp most firmly, while the two larger fingers should grasp more lightly to allow the sword to “breathe.”  However, even though the larger fingers grasp lightly, do not open the fingers or allow them to extend past the edge of the tsuba.  Anything beyond the edge of the tsuba is at risk of being cut off during swordplay.  

The proper grip guides the sword accurately.  You will see that the cut of a skillful iaidoka moves on a clean, straight path, and stops suddenly at its end.  At the same time, too tight a grip prevents the sword from moving through its full natural arc, making cuts weak.  When muscular iaido students attempt tameshigiri while squeezing the sword too tightly, their cuts usually fail.  Only when they relax and learn to guide the sword gently through the tatami mats do they begin to cut smoothly and consistently.

* * * *

In summary, during kirioroshi the hands should be placed as far apart as possible while keeping all ten fingers on the tsuka.  The heels of the hands should rotate over the top of the tsuka during the cut, and the wrists should be bent upward toward the thumbs and cocked back.  The top of the tsuka should transcribe a line from the heel of the hand, across the palm, to the base of the index finger.  The hands should adopt an extended position on the tsuka.  The iaidoka should cultivate a feeling of pulling the blade edge through his or her cuts with the fingers.  The two smaller fingers of each hand should grip firmly, and the two larger fingers should grip lightly. 

In combination with the multiplicity of other movement skills required to master iaido, these checkpoints help to transmit energy from the body to the blade.  By practicing each of these checkpoints with the assistance of a good teacher, the iaidoka will gradually improve the strength and accuracy of his or her cuts.  Moreover, the introspection required to analyze and apply the checkpoints will help to improve concentration and deepen understanding of the art.  There is no substitute for concentrated practice over time; hopefully these guidelines will help you practice correctly and move quickly toward mastery of the wonderful, subtle art of Japanese swordsmanship.

Note: A version of this article previously appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts.