Japan athletes, caregivers turn to art of samurai

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Clad in a dark robe, Yoshinori Kouno glides silently over tatami flooring, then suddenly slices the air with his samurai sword.

The 59-year-old master of Japanese ancient martial arts may never get a chance to test his skills in real combat in the modern world, but some of the country’s top athletes are learning from his moves dating back to the days of the samurai warrior.

Even caregivers looking after Japan’s ageing population have adopted Kouno’s techniques -- those used to confront larger opponents -- in their daily routine of supporting and lifting the elderly, which puts a heavy burden on their backs.

Kouno’s quick and potentially deadly moves are the result of over 30 years of researching and practicing the techniques of legendary swordsmen and warriors, and are strikingly different from the way we move our bodies today.

“They constantly confronted situations where you either killed or got killed,” Kouno said, adding that under such circumstances, only those with the most efficient moves survived.

One of the key principles he follows is to eliminate any twisting motion to quicken his actions and outwit an opponent.

At a class of some 30 students, Kouno shows how one can predict a boxer-style punch, explaining that it’s preceded by a twisting of the shoulder joint.

He then unleashes a jab-like punch, without any twisting, which is too quick for one of the students to escape from.

“I had always wanted to move my body efficiently and then I saw him on TV. He is just amazing,” said Kumiko Suzuki, a 36-year-old office worker, who has been attending Kouno’s class for a year now.

Professional athletes, including Olympic competitors, have also turned to the techniques taught by Kouno, such as the “namba” way of walking, which involves not swinging one’s arms at all or moving the arm and the leg on the same side of the body simultaneously.


According to Kouno, Japanese only started to walk the way most do now -- moving the arm and the leg of the opposite sides by twisting the body at the waist -- after the country opened up to the West in the late 19th century.

For many, the non-twisting “namba” motion makes it difficult to run, but Kouno says it uses less energy and allows a person to run faster once it is mastered.

Sprinter Shingo Suetsugu, who won the bronze medal in the men’s 200 meters at the 2003 world athletics championships and became the first Japanese to win a medal at either the Olympics or the worlds, has said he has taken hints from “namba”.

Other athletes have come to Kouno, including table tennis player Sayaka Hirano, a four-time winner of the national women’s singles title who will represent Japan at the Beijing Olympics.

Kouno also says that moving body parts around a fixed joint limits one’s power, whereas more power can be generated by using the entire body as if it were a “moving dragon”.

He says caregivers often rely too much on the power of their arms and shows that turning one’s palms away when putting arms around the elderly to lift them makes the move much easier.

Caregivers who have taken up Kouno’s methods say it’s not something one can master overnight, but add that it has lessened the strain on their bodies.

“I learned that if you use all of your body, that you can be very powerful,” said Ayaka Suzuki, who works at a nursing home for the elderly in Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo.

“From now on, I’ll try to be conscious of using the entire body and not resorting to just my arms.”

Kouno says his techniques are not at all perfect, but may be better than conventional methods followed by athletes and caregivers.

“I wouldn’t say this is the ‘right’ way, but this may be better because I hear that many caregivers suffer from chronic back pains,” he says, after easily lifting up a Reuters cameraman, heavier than himself, from a sitting position.

Editing by Sophie Hardach