Kurai Dori
“Seizing the Position”

by Dr. Luke Molitor

Kurai dori literally means “to take a position” and, among several concepts, is often used to describe kamae (combative engagement postures) in various koryu bugei (classical military traditions). However, this is just the beginning. Kurai dori refers to the full utilization of positioning, environment, distance, and timing in order to best engage an armed or unarmed adversary on a physical, mental, and spiritual level. On a purely physical level a warrior engaged in physical conflict would take a position that best suited his purpose while taking into account the environment and the enemy's weapons and actions in that environment.

To integrate kurai dori in our everyday training, we can begin by being aware of our surroundings, and taking a position that best suits our environment. When your practice partner attacks you, train yourself to move to the most tactically beneficial place where you can deploy all your weapons, while rendering any of his attacks impotent. For example, as you are standing next to a wall, your partner attempts a right-hand punch to your head. Finding yourself unable to move backward due to the wall, you shift forward to your left side, slipping the blow and facing his rear. This position enables you to employ most of your weapons to several vulnerable areas (kidneys, neck, knees, etc), while making it extremely difficult for him to follow up his initial attack. Pay attention to the direction of any light sources (sun, moon, street lamps, etc) in relation to a potential threat. One instance is to keep any bright light to your back, thereby directing it into your opponent's eyes, blinding him. Be sure not to walk too close around a corner, and keep your distance from someone you feel may pose an immediate physical threat. If you feel that the individual in front of you is about to sucker punch you, take a step away. By changing your relationship with him, he is forced to commit fully to the attack giving up his ability to surprise you, at the same time allowing you more time to respond to his actions. Know the characteristics of any potential weapons you can employ. If using a handgun, know what distance you can accurately shoot, or which direction the wind is blowing when deploying any chemical sprays. When confronted by a situation, try to ascertain the psychological state of everyone involved, then plan your strategy accordingly. Causing an opponent to lose his temper or keeping him calm, depending on the situation, is one aspect of this concept.

Spiritual fortitude also plays a significant role in kurai dori. Possessing the proper spirit for your endeavor is of paramount importance, as is discerning your adversary's will to engage the situation. Do you have the proper spirit to engage the enemy? Does he have the will to fight?

Kurai dori also applies to military strategy on a grand scale, and has been used throughout history to facilitate an enemy's defeat. In feudal conflicts, the army who occupied the high ground would be in a much better position to observe, defend, or attack. Similarly, a contemporary example of this usage of kurai dori can be seen in Operation Desert Storm, where the Coalition forces achieved victory by having complete air superiority. Taking a position that enabled them to use the high ground, in this case air force reconnaissance and bombing, facilitated the quick dispatch of the Iraqi army.

One of the most famous examples of kurai dori is when Miyamoto Musashi fought Yoshioka Genzaemon in 1605. Genzaemon was the family patriarch of the Yoshioka family. They had served the Ashikaga shoguns as fencing tutors with distinction, helping them become famous for their sword skills and fencing school. Musashi formally challenged Genzaemon to a duel, and they agreed to meet at dawn on the next day. At the appointed time, the prompt Genzaemon appeared, but Musashi was nowhere to be found. To say that Genzaemon was extremely upset would have been an understatement, and someone was sent to find Musashi. He was found at his inn still sleeping. After being woken, he apologized and assured the messenger he would be there soon. At least two more hours passed before Musashi nonchalantly arrived at the appointed location. It is important to note that Musashi was from a provincial part of the country, low ranking in samurai terms, was in his early twenties, and generally considered a foolish, young country bumpkin – especially since he challenged such a highly regarded swordsman. Musashi half-heartedly apologized, antagonizing the famous master even further. When the match finally commenced, Musashi was reserved and unperturbed (not to mention well-rested) while his rival was extremely angry and impatient. With the noon sun to his back, Musashi fought the irate Genzaemon, eventually knocking him unconscious with his wooden sword, signaling the end of the match and Musashi's victory. This story is an excellent illustration of kurai dori on every level. By showing up extremely late and acting indifferently, he displaced his rival's mental and spiritual equilibrium while at the same time, arriving at the sun's daily zenith, helping facilitate a stunning victory which catapulted him to becoming one of the most famous swordsmen in Japanese history.

Training for combat encompasses a wide variety of knowledge and skills. Properly understanding and integrating kurai dori in our martial training can greatly improve our capacity for resolving physical and mental conflicts. This concept, handed down to us in the koryu bugei, benefited the classical warriors of yesterday, and can greatly enhance the performance of their contemporary counterparts in modern conflicts.

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