Inevitably, if you are doing some kind of traditional Japanese martial arts, you will encounter the term te no uchi. In its narrowest context, it means how you grip your weapon. In a larger context, it means a kind of overall skill level for a craftsman. Having good te no uchi is something every good kendo player strives for, what every good swordsman constantly tries to improve, and what a karateka using any Okinawan kobudo weapon should aim for. In fact, I would venture to say that te no uchi can also be used to describe some aspects of unarmed fistic and grappling skills as well.
Literally translated, te no uchi means “inside the hand.” In other words, how your palm grips something. How you handle a tool or piece of equipment says a lot to a keen observer. Hold it too tightly and you are choking the weapon, not giving it enough play and resilience. Hold it too loose and you stand to loose it upon impact or in an unexpected clash with something else. The trick is to hold the weapon just right, so that you can easily manipulate it, but not too loose that any whack or unexpected jarring will not knock it loose. Since bladed weapons were the prime focus of study in classical Japanese weapons arts, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on proper te no uchi on swords, short and long.
In my early years, I used to think there was only one good te no uchi, and that was what I was learning from my primary weapons instructor. Then I started learning other koryu arts and found that there were other variations. It was the same general concept, but quite a bit of variation that may seem rather minor to the general observer, but opened up a world of difference in terms of weapons theory and application from ryu to ryu.
For the most part, the sword grip is securely in the palm of one’s hands, so that the top part of the handle fits right into the center of one’s palms. To do that, the wrist has to be flexed. On impacting anything with the sharp edge of the blade, the resulting force meets up with the palm, buttressed by the wrist. If the wrist is not bent, or turned inwards (perish the thought!), then the handle is being held more by the fingers, not the palm, and if there is a strong impact, the sword could slip out from between the fingertips.
Once the tsuka, or handle, fits securely in the palm, the fingers wrap around and grip it. The last two fingers and the thumb grip the handle securely, with the first two fingers having more play. This allows for a firm but maneuverable grip. The right hand grips the sword close to the tsuba (sword guard); the left below it. How far up and below? Different ryu will argue the millimeters’ differences. My current tendency, from two koryu, is to hold the handle so that the pointing finger of my right hand almost butts up to the metal fushi, or spacer, below the tsuba.
The left hand holds the sword below the right in a similar grip. The distance between the right and left differs, I found, from ryu to ryu. Some schools will hold the sword so that the left is at the base of the tsuka, creating quite a gap between the two hands. One school will hold it so low that the little finger is off the tsuka, wrapping around itself and hiding the butt end. On the other hand, a different koryu I know holds the left hand only one finger’s width apart from the right. It’s an interesting dichotomy. Which is “better”? Neither, I think. The two different grips speak to quite different ways the different ryu handle the sword. One system tends towards more use of the sword in large, sweeping arcs, without much small movements, closing the gap with the body and then crashing down. Another ryu likes to work the sword very close in, hence the need for quick flipping motions of the sword, calling for a closer-hands grip.
I have also found the difference in hand gripping may have something to do not just with particular koryu systems, but also with the progression of budo in time, as emphasis changed. Of the three oldest koryu sword arts I’ve seen, the grip has been somewhat tight, with the first two fingers nearly as tight as the last two. When it gets to modern kendo te no uchi, however, the first two fingers are very, very loose. Other koryu styles fall somewhere in between the extremes.
I thought about it a long time because doing iai causes one to think a lot about such seemingly miniscule things. Then when our club switched over from seitei (kendo-influenced “standardized” iai) to doing only koryu iai, and I retrained with a sempai, I found that the classical iai we had been doing all along had a huge amount of kendo-influence in it, which was now jettisoned in favor of a “koryu” flavor. That included the te no uchi. Luckily, I was working on a tighter te no uchi anyway because that’s how we did it in a different, older koryu.
One of my friends, who had been a high-ranking kendo player before switching entirely over to koryu training, also studied the different te no uchi and he stumbled across a short, insightful comment by an iai sensei who had studied a wide variety of styles under different teachers. Putting together the sensei’s comments and my friend’s deductions, the gist of the discussion was that the tightness of the grip is a matter of emphasis. In koryu, you want to have a good, secure grip on the sword so that you don’t lose it in a battle. That will inevitably narrow the amount of free play and speed you may have with the swordwork, but it’s better that than to lose your sword in a life-or-death situation. However, as swordsmanship went from the battlefield to individual combat, to bamboo staves for contests, the grip loosened so that there could be quicker, faster play with more dexterity and smaller movements. On the other hand, you do run the risk of losing your sword because the grip is looser.
Also on the plus and negative side of the equation, my friend noted that constantly gripping a sword tightly could lead to problems like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Holding it looser with more play would mitigate the stress on the wrist. On the other hand, getting Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in a few years is not the biggest worry if you are going into battle against someone whose goal is to kill you that day. Better Carpal Tunnel in some distant future than getting killed right away.
What adds fuel to that theory is that both of us also study a koryu that is rather old, but not as old as the oldest koryu, and the grip for the sword in that school tends towards the oldest koryu style, but with a slight variation that allows for quicker, faster flicks and cuts for closer-quarter fighting. It’s like tracing the DNA of a technique through historical examples.
In Japanese koryu, there are also specific te no uchi for handling staff weapons, which are markedly different from holding a Japanese sword. The level of specifics and general characteristics are pretty sophisticated, so much so that I would hazard to say that most of what I see in terms of bo, jo and sword work among many modern practitioners of karate and aikido are quite rough. If you’re going to use a weapon, you need to really understand how to grip it, and from what I’ve seen, there’s not enough emphasis placed on te no uchi among such practitioners yet.
A good observer can deduce their opponent’s skill by seeing the te no uchi because the hand grip will tell volumes about the rest of the person’s weapons abilities. I can also winnow out so-called self-styled “masters” of martial arts by simply observing their te no uchi. The fakes and incompetents usually have no idea how to have good te no uchi.
Because te no uchi reveals so much about one’s general skill level, it also has come to mean one’s general skill level. Thus, you can have good te no uchi in kendo and that can also mean you are, in general, pretty good at kendo. You cah have good te no uchi in gripping your opponent in a grappling art. “Grabbing” someone actually has some skill to it beyond just grabbing and hanging on like a pit bull sinking his jaws into the leg of some unfortunate interloper. I’ve had a tai chi ch’uan master “grab” me with what he called a very “loose” grip and I couldn’t squirm out of it. That was really good te no uchi. No strength, just a whole lot of technique.
Te no uchi, as I noted, also refers to skill in pursuits beyond martial arts. A sushi chef can have good te no uchi. In fact, the term might have come from the world of sushi. Squeezing the hot rice grains together in the palm of one’s hands so that they are firm but not compacted and then slipping on a bit of wasabi and raw fish in a few seconds inside of one’s plam (te no uchi) was such a skill that chefs would hide what they were doing from guests and possible spies from other sushi bars when they made sushi. In fact, try going to a top-rated sushi bar and watch how they make their sushi. I would guess that just when they finalized the forming of the sushi, they would hide what they were doing in the palms of their hands so you couldn’t exactly see the final touches.
The greatest compliment a sushi maker could receive would be that he/she has good te no uchi. Here, it doesn’t just mean grip. It means the skill that is central to the chef’s craft. Good te no uchi, then, can also be used to describe the skill a woodworker displays in manipulating a wood-bodied hand plane, or how he uses a chisel to carve out a butterfly mortise joint, all by hand. Good te no uchi is how a chef can use a knife to cut so quickly and effortlessly to make paper-thin slices of a tomato or cucumber.
An old Chinese Taoist tale tells of a philosopher who stood in a market amazed at the skill of a butcher, who seemed to cut through pieces of pork effortlessly, his large knife not needing to be sharpened often. The philosopher finally asked the butcher how he learned his skill. The butcher replied that it was no great feat; it was simply being sensitive to the meat and bone and how the knife sliced into the flesh. He didn’t cut into bones, rather he aimed to cut through the spaces in between the joints. That way, by letting his knife slip through spaces instead of trying to cut forcefully through bone, he let the knife seek its own easiest way. The philosopher was enlightened, but the butcher simply felt it was a matter of common sense, honed over years and years of cutting pork. I think te no uchi in Japanese sword work is the same. It may seem so arcane and esoteric, but it’s really based on common sense applied with great attention to detail, honed and honed over years of careful attention.
As for me, I would hazard that I have fair to middling te no uchi in my own style, and perhaps given a decade or two more, I’ll get better. After all, there was one kendo eighth dan in his 80s who admitted that, as much as he had done kendo for over six decades, he was still trying to improve his te no uchi because he wasn’t satisfied with it. I figure, I’m a heck of a lot younger than him so I can also improve as well, and hopefully I have more time to get my te no uchi better.