Kukan – what is it?

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Johannes (Yoshio) created the topic: Kukan – what is it?

I just came across this article today and felt like it could be interesting for others as well as, although it is written about experiences and teachings within Bujinkan, it is not limited to it. So here it is!

Kukan – what is it?
By Ed Lomax

In January ’99 Hatsumi Sensei in the middle of a class started talking about distance and correct positioning, in relation to your opponent. And introduced me to the Japanese word ” kukan”, which was translated at the time as “space”, however Hatsumi Sensei himself translated the word as “slack”. This made a lot more sense to me, as distance and correct positioning are entirely time dependent, as well as context dependent. It is fairly obvious then, that to be in the correct position depends on what time you are there. It also reminded me of the basic in timing, that if you have read the scenario correctly, and have placed yourself on the right position, you will encounter moments of free time in the fight – in which you can reassess the scenario. This can’t be simply translated as space as there is a time component, and therefore Hatsumi Sensei’s translation of the word as slack is much more appropriate.

This started me thinking that Hatsumi Sensei was talking about a lot more than just space or distance. To my understanding, what Hatsumi Sensei is suggesting, is that by correctly understanding the intent of your opponent, you can place yourself in the correct position and therefore, gain yourself the time to reassess the scenario and ensure yourself a successful outcome. This goes hand in hand with other comments he was making at the same time concerning reducing your opponent to zero. In the context of the class, it was fairly obvious that he was talking about reducing your opponents intent to zero, which I also took to indicate a state of mind that you can manipulate.

This understanding of mine is not because my Japanese is any where near as proficient as the translators that were there but more because I was not listening to the words so much as the meaning (feeling) Hatsumi Sensei was trying to convey. Hatsumi Sensei quite easily noticed that I was not as confused by what he was saying as the others there, and that his words had somehow struck a cord of understanding with me. So he asked me to put some of my thoughts into words for the benefit of others.

Then Hatsumi Sensei also commented, that people should give themselves some slack in their lives, and expanded it to mean beyond just giving themselves some free time, but to being patient with themselves in the achieving of their goals and allowing themselves to be happy.

All fights have a strong psychological basis, the force of intent of your opponent, and your reaction to it, largely determine how much slack you will have in the fight. By maintaining a calm state, you give yourself the mental slack to react appropriately, which in turn puts you in a better position and creates ” free time “. By destroying your opponents intent, you force them to reassess not only their intentions but their physical position, which again creates some slack for you in the fight.

Creating slack is not enough however, even if you have also destroyed your opponents intent. For if you do not use this slack, it will become slack for your opponent where he can reassess his intentions and position and decide on more appropriate action.

This also goes hand in hand with other concepts such as “fudoshin” or immovable heart, for if your psyche and intention can be forcibly altered by your opponent you yourself may be reduced to “zero” for long enough for you to suffer serious injury or worse. Notice that I do not use the word “loss” here as budo has nothing to do with winning and losing in the conventional sense of sports and making points in competition. In Budo there is advantage and disadvantage, tactical positioning, initiative, intention, tricks and traps, strength and weakness, but no loss other than maybe death (in most circumstances anyway) and certainly no real winning either.

Many students make some basic mistakes in real fights, often because they have not had much experience, the gap between dojo and reality is hard to span. One aspect in budo is to sense your opponents intention, but it’s a terrible mistake to do this via empathy. You will either be overcome by their spirit or get dragged into the same mentality as them. By this I mean that the strength of their intention may crush you, or you may take on their anger or fear. To correctly judge your opponent’s attitude you need to maintain some objectivity, which means keeping your distance mentally. This in itself is enough to weaken or destroy the intention of many assailants and if difficult for you to achieve can be aided by tricks such as Takamatsu Sensei’s comments about laughter in the face of adversity.

I myself have often used humour as a form of defence and attack on the opponents spirit – particularly when faced with young men who get angry at social occasions. Often they take offence to minor things or behave badly due to a desire to establish themselves as people to be respected or feared, mostly stemming from personal weakness that they have not been able to deal with. Sometimes the jokes are very harsh – “maybe you could kill me, but it won’t make your dick any bigger!”, and other times dismissive “I’m not interested, go home”, “I’m too tired for this, go away”. I am happy to say that after several years of working as a bouncer at one establishment, my boss turned to me and said that he had never seen me get angry, but amused to hear from him that it did also scare him a little.

The important thing is to maintain your emotional distance from your opponent and then to use his weaknesses against him. If your opponent is not very determined, simple things like jokes are often all that are needed to discourage them. But if they are quite determined then you can tactically draw them into a trap by presenting a false opening, or making a fake attack so you can move to a better position. You will have to learn to feel so that your feelings move you in the right direction – much like the godan test.

In conclusion then, I feel kukan is a concept that people should understand both on the physical level of positioning and timing, and on a psychological level. Don’t try to be the fastest, strongest, most aggressive, but aim to be the one who can find the slack/space in a situation to enable you to solve it easily, in general life or in self defence, it is all the same.


Qui-Gon Jinn: "We cannot control our emotions, but we can decide how we go along with them."
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Jax replied the topic: Kukan – what is it?

Thank you, this is an excellent story on many levels. The importance of listening with your whole body rather than just your ears and mind. The application of martial arts to life and back again. And the realization of how few martial artists, and by extension martial arts schools, teach the true depth and power of martial arts.
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  • Johannes (Yoshio)
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Johannes (Yoshio) replied the topic: Kukan – what is it?

Fully agree with You, Jax, on that and that is why I feel so blessed, for the lack of a better word, to be able to train Bujinkan and through this being able to get to know those people and teachers. Training and studying martial arts has helped me and keeps helping me on so many levels.

Qui-Gon Jinn: "We cannot control our emotions, but we can decide how we go along with them."
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