Anatomy of Kamae
Attitudes and preparation for encounters
We have all heard the word, in the Do-Jo, as a term used in the practice of sparring or at sparring matches or at our local tournaments, But what does Kamae (Kam-I) mean? It is understood as a expression to signal alertness and to posture yourselves for action. In ancient times the word Kamae had a very different meaning. When translated into English, the word literally means, structure or construction. Kamae, in the Japanese language is mainly used to communicate a well built structure, as in a house, building or temple. In martial arts, the word Kamae has a dissimilar meaning. In the ancient martial arts world, kamae (structure) would be thought of as, one who thinks like a military general which studies the design of a fortress surrounding a castle or city. If he were at war and his intent was to sack a metropolis, an Asian general would study the land mass leading up to the outer walls and how he might overcome those barriers. He would study the material construction of the walls, the height, thickness, how deep under ground the walls penetrate, if there is any underground water systems, and so on. He should learn this and more for a better understanding before aggressive action. In the same way, a Kamae will be studied and should be understood by two opponents who face one an other in combat. For this reason, the stance and the hand position may be viewed as a fortress or barrier surrounding the city or in this case the body. In this way the word Kamae should be viewed. A masters understanding is, if the posture can be comprehended before contact the battle is already won! Even if the opponent used one posture after another, if the posture has been read and understood, the odds are well in the masters favor. This fact has been held in mystery for over seventy years. And this teaching has been minimized around the world to this day.
There is and old story, which I was told years ago in one of the schools I studied in. It goes like this. Two Grand masters who chose to address each other in mortal combat faced each other bowed, and then one master postured himself (in a kamae). The other master in reply postured himself as well. The first master changed his posture and in reply so did the other. This went on and on till the two masters determined the match to be a stalemate, turned in opposite directions and left for home. The first time I was told this story my minds response was, what the -^!*&- is that supposed to mean? As time when by, and I sparred in the DoJo I slowly started to understand the story. And I learned to study the postures of my opponent. As I learned, my sparring record went from a one win one lose figure to a constant win factor. I also realized that it didn’t matter what color belt the opponent had. What mattered was if he got confused with my posture and if I understood his! It changed all the ground rules for sparring for me.
So, how many Kamae’s are there? Originally, there were four which came out of the Shaolin temple. In time the four Kamae’s were expanded to thirty-two Kamae’s. How ever, it maybe said that there are five basic and unique Kamae’s, but alas, century’s ago, the Kamae, was considered too precarious to teach any longer because it was a primary method used only to study a life and death combat situation and it’s teachings in totality had been prohibited in the orient along with other practices of the martial arts. So then “what is a Kamae”? It is much more than a posture used to protect the body. Lets analyze one of the commonly known, “on guard” postures, in doing so, we may better understand just why the study of the Kamae was so important to learn in ancient times.
The name of the illustration of the posture below is called, in Japanese, Enshin-on-kamae. If we haven’t used it for sparring ourselves, we’ve seen something like it in tournament sparring matches. The drawing is a very old Shaolin representation from a early manuscript. This posture was titled, “Change hungry tiger robs the goat”. I translate the name to mean, change (movements) of the hungry (determined) tiger (predator minded) robs the goat (low comprehension skills). The Comments for this illustration tell us that you would take steps forwards and backward as the hands changed there positions from high to low in a rotational motion. (This hand motion would be similar to pedaling a bicycle using your hands) stepping three steps forwards then seven steps back at the same time. When this movement came to Okinawa and Japan, the name was changed to Enshin-no-kamae. Today, it’s the most used fighting posture. In fact, it is a rare duck to see another posture used in a sparring match or tournament. Several other sport fighting arts have adopted Enshin-no-kamae into their fighting arts. But the question is, did the ancient fighters of the Shaolin temple use Enshin-no-kamae for the same reasons as we do today? The answers may surprise you.
In Schools and tournament sparring you will witness similar postures which are for the most part static. As we go on to analyze Enshin-no-kamae, the first thing we may notice is the hands are placed in front of the body spanning the center line of the upper and middle parts of the body for protection. The stance also covers the center line of the lower body ( hips and legs). Today Enshin-no-kamae is used for fear of a strike to the front of the body. This was not totally the case in ancient times. In ancient times, the operator of Enshin-no-kamae moved his body back and forth as he rotated hand positions creating a “obstruction”, forcing an attack to the outside of the body rather than the front of it. The attacker would feel that a straight in assault would be difficult and worked around this type of defense. Now as you look at the depiction, it is noted that there seems to be open areas (for a possible strike) and others (the front) are more closed. The attacker most likely would strike at the more open areas rather than the closed. This is the subtle strategy of all types of Kamae-s. To hopefully cause the attacker to strike at and open area for a very special strategic reason. The mysterious teachings of the all kamaes, as you may be starting to recognize is that, there is more to it than a posture or a stance. In Enshin-no-kamae, when in the hands of a person who has learned, mastered and practiced all the secrets of the kamae, could use it to gain superior advantage. You may be asking at this point, what secret and what are the advantages? As you continue to look at the drawing below, note the seemingly opened area that you may perceive as possibilities for a successful strike. The simple fact is that you are in reality being sucked in to interpret the option as reality when you are not! You may be asking the question, How am I misinterpreting what I see? The answer is you have been lead into a trap! Why? Because there are standard blocks as well as strikes which are within the posture, which protect the opened areas from attacker! You maybe thinking, I didn’t know that, I wonder what they are? The first technique I should explain is, the use of two stances used in Enshin-no-kamae, the back stance and the cat stance. The two stances are interchangeable and can be used to trick the attacker by using a back stance to telegraph an illusion of stability and the inability to kick but the stance can be changed quickly to a cat stance, by drawing back the lead leg, which may snap out a kick or block one from the opponent. The second technique is to learn how to move forwards and backwards with a slight curve, very quickly. This will throw off the timing for an attack. The third technique is that the two hands can be rotated in a pin wheel fashion in a forwards rotation (explained above) either continually or at will.
The continual motion will confuse your opponent, but more importantly as the lower hand rises up it maybe used to strike high as the opposite hand lowers which maybe used to block a strike! Are you starting to get the picture? Mastery of just these three techniques can build a hard to penetrate field for a center line attack, which will force even a seasoned fighter to go for the more open areas. The foolish opponent will just dive in to the buzz saw with a frontal attack! There is even more to Enshin-no-kamae! But at this point I should stop and explain how you may use Enshin-no-kamae practically.
In the Kata Shin Shu, For the students benefit, I displayed Enshin-no-kamae in a more advanced way in the later part of the kata. Turning from north to the south you immediately stand in the Enshin-no-kamae posture (as seen above, left hand high and left foot forward in a back stance) as the opponent comes forwards to attack, the illustrations hands rotate forward (three times) as the front foot retreat into a cat stance, and kicks. I interpret the movement of the hands in two ways, the opponent attacks with a fist strike. The kata shows the higher hand dropping down to block the attack as the bottom hand rises to strike the opponent by way of creating an opening, which is the same area your opponent once used for his own strike! The other interpretation is the two hands rotate to cause your opponent to study the meaning of the rotating hands as you attack him low by way of kicking. This is the way I demonstrate and teach Enshin-no-kamae in my Shin Shu kata as am advanced technique but there is more to it than that!
We began by noticing that there were closed areas as well as opened ones. And that the attacker would automatically try to strike at the open areas. This is were the Yin Yang theory comes in to play, The theories states as follows, “what is closed must become open and what is open must become closed”. In this case, The Enshin-no-kamae is closed in the front, so it must open to the outside. You maybe asking, how does it open? Enshin-no-kamae, opens in the way of blocks and strikes to it’s opened areas, using the Chudan-tsuki, Kinkeri and Mae-geri with Shotei and thrust to the opponents stomach with Nukite also a poke to the eyes with a Nukite, parry-ing with Jodan-tsuki with Shotei, Shuto or Henka-Shotei. The foot can be used Kin-geri, Mae-geri and Kansersu-geri. Now that we have gone this far, we can start to see that one Kamae is a total protection system all on its own!
But just for fun, lets make a subtle change to Enshin-no-kamae by changing it to Soshu-no-Kamae. This change can be made simply by changing the two open hands into closed fists, all else is the same. Now a whole different range of techniques can be used. The hands can now punch rather than stab or chop. With this one simple change, the striking arsenal for the hands has doubled. This is also shown in the kata Shin Shu, the technique is called, “shifting hands”. If you are starting to think to yourself, WOW, that’s incredible. What about this? What if we could learn about the other Kamaes? You now have a working knowledge of Enshin-on-kamae and Soshu-no-kamae what about the others. Maebane-no-kamae, Ryuhen-no-kamae, Birin-no-kamae and henka-soten-no-kamae along with their strategies methods and techniques? What would you have? You would have, Martial arts!
My study of the history of martial arts, has shown that Kamaes are the ancestor of Kata. In fact Kata came from the early Kamaes, And these postures have a variety of techniques with vast forethought put in to an array of strategies. And that Kata may simply be one kamae attached to another kamae. If this theory is correct, the way back through history in terms of finding out the meaning of kata is through the Kamae. By the careful study and practice of the collection of Kamae, you may unlock the original meanings as well as the adaptations of Kata and therefore better understand are martial art systems.
Today’s tournament sparring has been heavy influents by boxing. Many followers around the world consider today’s tournament sparring as nontraditional, as well as ineffective. I consider these query to have an element of veracity. If the teachings of martial arts continue to be side stepped, then the old Roman empire has truly returned! And the new coliseum, the ring, and the octagon will give way to traditional martial arts to boxing and mixed martial arts were youth, strength, and DNA become the measuring stick all for the sake of a TV rating and a big audiences. Martial arts on the other hand, has always been about knowledge and wisdom, but the end result for the participants of fighting may be a moment of glory, a crippled body, and a broken spirit which is almost always the case for boxers and the like. When they get old all they may have left is memories of when they were the strongest. Which is the final story for most fighters as we already know and that’s sad isn’t it? Traditional Martial arts is different in this way. We learn and in learning we use wisdom to over come complexity. Fighting is when two men bump heads. The thicker skull wins every time! Martial arts on the other hand, when you are attacked by way of head butting, move your head! So, as an old time martial arts student the study of kamaes and like methods is a vital part of the wisdom factor and distinguishes martial artists from fighters. The study of martial arts methods like Kamae is were the difference is made.