Physical Training Feb 2010
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Maai and Personal Space in Iaido

copyright 2010 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

Iaido is a difficult art to practice because we have no opponent, or rather, our opponent is imaginary and invisible. In this article I will discuss the concept of maai in relation to our impression of personal space and I will examine the interpretation of iaido kata in relation to this awareness of space.

Maai is often described as the combative space, the attacking or killing distance between two opponents. It has elements of time as well, and I will discuss that a bit later. Personal space is defined as that distance around ourselves that we are comfortable with. As people move into that space we become uneasy. Personal space is something that we all feel, and I believe that we can relate it in general terms to combative distance, or at least use it to understand the maai of our imaginary opponent (kasso teki) in iaido.

Personal space is not uniform around a single person or between different people. Consider an elevator, there is a reason why people, in this crowded situation, all face the same direction (toward the doors). This provides us all with the minimum personal space and the least discomfort. If you want to test this, stand with your back facing the door, looking at the rest of the crowd. You will notice that a space tends to open up between the rest of the people and yourself. The same thing happens, to a lesser extent if you face inward from the side of the elevator, at 90 degrees to the rest of the people.

Now let's consider the first three techniques of Omori ryu or Shoden, the first level of iaido practice in the Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu or the Muso Shinden ryu. These kata are Mae/Shohatto, Migi/Sato, and Hidari/Uto. The opponent is facing our front, left and right sides respectively.

Let's examine Mae first, with the opponent sitting facing us. I asked Tom and Chris, two students of iaido to sit facing each other at the closest comfortable distance. In the first photo (fig 1) you will see them about 9 wall-lines apart, or about two brackets apart.

Mae - initial distance
fig 1, Mae, minimum comfortable personal distance.

At the end of the photos I again asked them to take the minimum comfortable distance apart and this is Fig 2.

Mae - minimum comfortable distance
fig 2, Mae, minimum comfortable personal distance.

Careful counting shows that they are now 8 wall-lines apart, just slightly closer than they were at the first of the photo session. This is fairly consistent and I don't want to suggest that they are now a bit more comfortable so are sitting 6 inches closer... that would be extrapolating from too few data points.

Fig 3 shows how close they are in relation to combative distance, they held their arms out to measure how close they actually were.

Mae, actual reach
Fig 3, actual distance

As is readily apparent, they are actually slightly outside sword-cutting range, if they were holding their blades neither would touch the other without rising onto their knees (and thus moving forward the length of their shins).

So this minimum personal space seems to correspond well with maai for the first kata, Mae/Shohatto.

Fig 4. Moving to Migi and Hidari I first asked Tom (on the left) to sit as close to Chris (who is facing Tom) as he was comfortable sitting.

Migi, personal distance
fig 4, Migi/Sato, minimum comfortable personal space

How close is he?

Migi, reach
fig 5, Migi/Sato, actual combative distance

He's close, in fact he's within combative range, but not too far within to prevent Tom from performing the kata and being at the correct range. It seems that Tom's personal space doesn't extend as far to the side as it does to the front. Interestingly, when I asked them to exchange their positions so that we could see the situation for Hidari we get the situation in figure 6 and 7.

Hidari, personal space
Hidari, combative distance
figs. 6 and 7, Hidari/Uto personal distance and combative distance.

It seems that Chris' personal space is not the same as Tom's. It is so small that Chris would not be able to do the kata. Perhaps Chris understands that he is now within Tom's combative range and so feels safe from the sword at least. He is also almost, but not quite in punching range, Tom would have to rise up/forward to reach his head with his hand.

So, are Migi and Hidari correctly begun from this seating arrangement? Let's look at the situation where the two start by sitting side by side. Again I asked Tom and Chris to sit as close as they were comfortable sitting. Figures 8 and 9 show the results of one, then the other setting the distance. It seems that they both have the same comfort zone toward someone facing the same way they are facing.

Personal space, side by side
Personal space, side by side
figs. 8 and 9, Tom, then Chris sitting as close as is comfortable to the other.

So where are our our imaginary opponents facing? In the first kata it is reasonable to assume that they are facing us from the front. In the second and third kata are our opponents sitting side by side with us and then turning toward us to attack or are they sitting initially at 90 degrees to us and starting their attack from that point? I think it is pretty obvious that our opponent must be sitting, facing us if we are to perform these kata as they are taught, this investigation into personal space would indicate that our opponent would be much too close if we began the kata with both of us facing the same way and sitting comfortably close.

I don't intend to suggest that this proves we cannot begin this kata from the side by side position, we certainly could, all we need do is sit further apart, but I do suggest that for us to be able to use the feeling of personal space to help us "feel" our imaginary opponent, it is better for us to have that ghostly enemy facing us. In that way we can tap into our feelings about personal space to identify the combative distance we need to deal with.

I mentioned earlier that I thought the relationship of maai and time should be examined. It is apparent, on thinking about our past experiences, that personal space will close up with familiarity (time). As we sit longer beside someone we relax our space, think about a long bus ride beside a stranger. This experience of time relates to combative distance as well, it is obvious that we allow those we are familiar with to get closer to us and so they would have better access than a stranger, should they wish us harm. On a shorter time span, we can be also be sucked into a dangerous distance by the lack of reaction from our opponent over time as our combative or personal space is invaded. This "drifting into range" is a familiar sight in any Kendo match between opponents of different skill levels.

Can we use this feeling of personal space elsewhere in our iaido practice? Consider the technique Tsuke Komi ( Gyakuto) which is as follows.

Tsuke Komi 1Tsuke Komi 2Tsuke Komi 3Tsuke Komi 4
The swordsman moves forward, drawing toward the opponent. This means that he has moved into the opponent's combative (personal) space, which forces the opponent to stop and cut short, to cut sooner than he expected. The swordsman takes advantage of this and stands up to avoid the short cut and immediately strikes into the opponent's forehead.
Tsuke Komi 5Tsuke Komi 6Tsuke Komi 7
While continuing to press into the opponent's personal space the swordsman steps and cuts once more, cutting all the way down to horizontal. Then the swordsman steps back , making distance to cut a third time but it is not necessary.  The swordsman sinks onto one knee and prepares to clean and put the sword away.

Looked at with a partner:

Tsuke Komi 1Tsuke Komi 2Tsuke Komi 3
Here is where the opponent (Kat) is intending to hit Pam. If Pam moves forward inside the combative distance Kat cannot hit properlySo as Kat approaches, Pam moves into that space which forces Kat to shorten up her step and her swing
Tsuke Komi 4Tsuke Komi 5
Which means that as Pam steps back and up she is out of range of the cut which allows her to continue the tecniquewith a return cut to the forehead. Note that Kat has swung down to where she expected Pam to be, leaving space for Pam to enter and strike.

This same driving into the opponent's personal/combative space happens again in the technique Oi Kaze (Koranto). This technique is like Mae but running forward. As an opponent walks toward us to draw and cut, we grasp our sword and take two quick steps into his space. This means that our opponent must back up to make enough space to draw and cut us, at which time we chase with shorter steps, draw and cut him horizontally, then finish with a vertical cut.

Oi Kaze 1Oi Kaze 2
Oi Kaze. In this case Kat intends to come to this position And cut into Pam's shoulder with her draw and cut.
Oi Kaze 3Oi Kaze 4
But as Kat moves into that distancePam takes two steps into Kat's combative space which will force Kat to start moving backward to get the distance to draw and cut. Pam chases and cuts horizontally before Kat can do this.

I have argued that we can use our sense of personal space, that distance where we begin to feel uncomfortable as someone comes closer to us, to get a feel for the opponent in an iaito kata. Using this definition of personal space I would also argue that combative space (maai) is the same as personal space once a swordsman gains some experience. When fighting or when doing a kata it should make us uncomfortable when an opponent moves into attacking range. We can tap into our experience of "too close" in everyday life to help us understand maai.

Kim Taylor is a nanadan (7dan) in the Canadian Kendo Federation iaido section. He is available for seminars in iaido, jodo and niten ichiryu.

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