The Iaido Journal  Mar 2007
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Jo Ha Kyu

copyright © 2007 Peter Boylan, all rights reserved

This essay will examine the meaning of the term “johakyu” (序 破 急) and how the concept is expressed in iaido kata. I will first examine the term’s history, application and meaning; and following this, the expression of examining johakyu in Ipponme Mae of the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei Seitei Iai.

Johakyu is an ancient term originating in Noh Theatre. It first appeared in the 14th century writings of the master Zeami Motokyo, who used it to describe the development of story and action in Noh drama. In theatre, music, and literature, johakyu encapsulates the idea, in simplest terms, of a beginning, middle and end.

The characters with which johakyu is written provide much more meaning than the three simple words “beginning, middle, end” however. While “jo” () commonly does mean “beginning,” “ha” () and “kyu” () have much larger meanings. “Ha,” when it stands alone, is read as “yaburu,” meaning to tear, break crack,. “Kyu” means “sudden, rapid, urgent, emergency.” These meanings for “ha” and “kyu” give a very different feel to the idea of “johakyu” than simply “beginning, middle, end.” These meanings, when combined with the basic idea of “beginning, middle, end” provide a sense of tension or stress beginning and building to a moment when the tension breaks into action, the resolution of which brings us to the end.

Looking at Ipponme Mae in this light gives insight into the structure of the kata as it practiced in the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei Seitei Iai. The kata begins with the iaidoka in seiza, sitting peacefully. As he becomes aware of his neighbor’s intention to attack, he slowly moves to draw his weapon to prevent the attack. Throughout this period, the tension increases as the iaidoka comes closer and closer to drawing his weapon and his opponent does the same. This is clearly “jo” (), the beginning that builds towards the action. “Ha” () occurs at the moment that the tension breaks into action, when the kissaki leaves the saya. At this moment the “jo” is over, the beginning has ended.

Using “ha” () to describe this transition is particularly appropriate for budo kata, where the beginning and the middle are so different in feeling and in the character of the movement, and where the transformation happens so abruptly that it truly does feel like something being torn. In Ipponme Mae, the iaidoka must express this development by pressuring teki with her metsuke and her deliberate drawing of the sword. Combined with the action of rising and pressing forward, these actions put pressure on teki to abandon his intention to attack. When it becomes clear that teki will not stop, will without doubt attack, the iaidoka breaks the moment, cutting (rather than tearing) the fabric of the situation with her attack to teki’s eyes. This cut both forestalls teki’s attack, preventing him from drawing his sword, and drives him back, off balance and into a position where he can neither draw his sword nor otherwise move effectively.

From the moment the kissaki leaves the saya, we are in the middle, the ha of the kata. Following the nuki uchi, which drives teki back and off balance, the iaidoka drives forward, maintaining pressure on teki and leaving him no opportunity to assemble himself for his originally intentioned attack. The tension that began with the iaidoka’s realization of teki’s intention to attack has not been released by the preemptive attack; it has been extended and even increased. As the iaidoka drives forward, pushing teki still further back with pressure of his attack, he raises the sword above his head.

This brings us to the final portion of the action, what might be termed the climax in Western literature. The iaidoka has arrived at the moment of “kyu.” The finish of the kata is the final kirioroshi. Teki has been driven back, and in this moment when he is open, the iaidoka finishes the action. This kirioroshi must be powerful, containing all of the energy and tension that has developed through the jo and kyu sections of the kata. This is culmination of the entire kata. Everything in the kata has to drive to this point, with the energy and intention of the iaidoka leaving no room for any other resolution once teki has fully committed to the attack.

Following kyu the kata is not over, but the tension and drive have been resolved. The iaidoka cannot allow himself to become inattentive because his foe has been defeated, but must maintain zanshin, awareness until conditions change, and the kata is truly complete.

There is a line of thought that each portion of johakyu has its own johakyu. While extremely interesting, this is more than can be covered in this essay. We have instead looked at a kata on the broad level of johakyu,. We can see in this concept not only that performances have a beginning, middle and end, but also very particular ideas about how these sections develop and the transition from section to section. In the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei Seitei Iai kata Ipponme Mae, we see johakyu in the development and action of the kata. Jo is the peaceful opening and the development of tension and movement until the moment of nuki uchi., at which point, ha occurs. This is the middle, and it starts with cutting of the peace, tense though it might have been, of the beginning. Kyu is the rapid completion of the action of the kata, which resolves the conflict.

This article is based on Peter Boylan's Yondan Shinsa Essay September 28, 2006

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TIN Mar 2007