Anyone practicing Ninjutsu or any other traditional Japanese martial art has probably heard the word Kamae (構え). In Ninjutsu, Kamae are the stances used in combat, martial practice, and daily life. It’s a Japanese term used in other martial arts and traditional theater that roughly translates as “posture” or “base”.
Kamae is to be differentiated from the word tachi (立ち), used in Japanese martial arts to mean stance. While tachi (pronounced dachi when used in a compound) refers to the position of the body from the waist down, kamae refers to the posture of the entire body, as well as encompassing one’s mental posture and attitude. These connected mental and physical aspects of readiness may be referred to individually as kokoro-gamae (心構え) and mi-gamae (身構え), respectively.
Although it is a generic term, context may mean there’s a default specific posture which is being implicitly referred to, e.g. many modern styles use kamae by itself as shorthand usually for the style’s basic stance for sparring or self-defense. As a further note, there are also related verbs, and adding te to the end of kamae makes the command for “get ready/in position” – Kamaete! This reminds me of our Shidoshi as he demonstrates a technique saying with a commanding presence; Kamaete, to emphasize it’s the kamae completing the move and not strength.
The Kamae in Ninjutsu are a body positions that have many facets of utility. On the most basic levels of learning the stances help with distancing, protection, and orientation. The Ninjutsu kamae adds another facet to the practice by referring to attention, breath patterns, and emotional attitude as determined by body position.
The Heart of Kamae
When thinking about kamae, most practitioners will immediately think of terms like shizen, ichimonji, hicho, or seiza no kamae. While it does represent these terms it also represents much more as stated in our definition. In the beginning, we learn kamae as a pose that we hold before we do something else. We learn hand feet and head positioning, how to form the shape, what to feel, and we develop the stamina and flexibility to hold these positions. As we begin to grasp this, we learn to move without losing good form while in the static version of kamae. Then we learn how to bring it all together and use it against various attacks.
While this is where the journey ends for most people, it’s really at the heart of Budo Taijutsu. Unlike most martial arts, Budo Taijutsu doesn’t teach defense against punches and kicks. Sounds weird I know and while most people teach it this way, it’s not at the core of Budo Taijutsu. The Bujinkan, in it’s expressions of Budo Taijutsu, doesn’t teach this method of trying to quicken response time to attacks either.
Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu is the study of space, distance, and shape on the physical, mental, and spiritual plane. This sounds as mysterious as the ninja themselves, but it’s so practical that most people miss it all together. The heart of these studies is kamae. Think of kamae as how you shape the space in between and all around you and your opponent by controlling the distance. One way to control and shape this space is by taking kamae, hence kamae and sabaki are one.
Controlling 3 planes
As stated earlier, rather than matching technique for technique, the Bujinkan teaches the practitioner to control the playing field or space on all three planes of the physical, mental and spiritual.
The physical plane is all around you and the attacker, in front of, behind, above and below. Then there is also the relationship of the attacker with the surrounding environment whether it’s people or objects, stationary or moving. This space can be shaped using tools, other people, weapons, etc. Using this manner, the practitioner is no longer at the mercy of the game of matching speed, technique or power.
The mental space can be defined as what the attacker is thinking before the encounter. What they will do before during or after the attack and why they are doing it are all thoughts that take shape as objects in this vast mental space. Since we are human with 5 senses, one could as a defense strategy, control that mental space as well, with proper understanding of human perception and human behavior.
The spiritual space is one that is difficult to define or teach, but the gateway to this space is feeling. A great example of this would be former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson staring his opponent down thus totally destroying their fighting spirit causing them to lose the will to fight; another example of kamae.
The main takeaways from this article are that kamae such as ichimonji no kamae from the kihon happo should not be looked at like a “technique” that can be used against another technique. This could lead down a path tumbling through failure. Look at kamae, space intention, and movement as a way of controlling the kukan (space) on a three planes. The techniques of attack and counter aren’t as important as the concepts we’ve discussed and should be varied.
So when you’re in kamae, physically, mentally or spiritually, understand the reason and essence of each pose.
This is Ninjutsu.