Posted by: B Gourley | April 13, 2012

The Nature of the Name and Nature in Names

In older martial arts one sees frequent reference to the natural world. This may be most easily recognized in kung fu styles like Eagle Claw, Mantis, or Shaolin’s 5-Animal style, but in Japanese kobudō there are many techniques whose names refer to emulation of animals, plants, and other elements or forces of nature.

There is one reason for this that I will only briefly touch upon, and that is that there was once greater secrecy about technique than there is today. Modern martial arts, such as judō, tend to favor more readily apparent technique names, e.g. “large inner sweep” or “hip throw”, because it aids in communication and being archaic offers no real benefit. In the old days, a name like “inlet waves”  or “rock crush” could serve as a reminder to those initiated into the school without telling an outsider about the technique that they might find used against them.

Perhaps the more important reason for such naming is that nature provides abundant lessons about how to stay safe. Everything that exists in nature is supremely adapted to having the best possible odds of survival. Take, for example, the technique from Kukishinden-ryū bikenjutsu called Kocho-gaeshi. The “kocho” part of this name refers to a butterfly. One may say, wait… a butterfly? Isn’t that one of the most vulnerable creatures existing in nature? It’s fragile and yet brightly colored to attract attention.  Try taking a photo of one in flight (without a tripod, a motion sensor, and 40+ hideous shots to get one that turns out decently.) The butterfly’s enemies face the same problem with its erratic and completely unpredictable flight patterns. 

I picked kocho-gaeshi to write about because it’s one of many techniques that tell us to move lightly and this may be anathema to one’s mindset as a martial artist. A writer fails when writing dialogue if all his or her characters sound the same. A martial artist fails if all of their techniques are delivered with an indistinguishable feel. If one practices Kukishin-ryū Dakentaijutsu, and one’s Yama Arashi (“Mountain Storm”) feels identical to one’s Setto (a technique meant to emulate the feel of a branch being broken by building snow), but is only different in the physical steps, your practice is probably quite rudimentary.


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