Hicho – The Effects of Distributing Weight Over a Singular Leg

The original publication can be found here.

Of the countless classical martial arts found in feudal Japan, there is a particular collection of traditions and lineages that carry within them a certain body of knowledge recognized for their unconventional utilization of the human body. These particular currents(1) of practice and thought (koryūha; 古流派) are either found within the regions of Iga and Kōga, or at some point in their lineage have passed through this region and were influenced by the sciences found there. One of the many biomechanical principles that contribute to the uniqueness of the martial arts of this geographic area is a detail called “Hichō” (leaping bird; 飛鳥),(2) which refers to the practice of maintaining one’s weight distribution over a single leg. Though there are many pros and cons to this practice, some of the effects include the ability to deliver kicking techniques without telegraphing the action to the enemy, the capacity to position one of the legs in any position without having any influence over any other component of the body, and the ability to suddenly displace one’s weight without any hesitation regardless of the encumbrance of ones armor or field gear.

Though the current practices of martial arts body culture has been profoundly influenced by what is often referred to as “sports movement”, that is to say a reliance on muscular strength and explosive speed in one’s effort to execute a technique, the classical theories of body culture was very different.(3) Instead, observing the advantages of subtly in movement (sabaki; 捌), positioning (kamae; 構), and situational awareness (ma-ai; 間合い) to allow the classical warrior to observe the maximum amount of intelligence about the enemy, while providing the minimum to him. One of the greatest advantages in utilizing the principle of Hichō, is that one is able to instantly deliver a kick, from any angle, in a single movement, as opposed to the common practice of relying on speed and tension to shift one’s body weight to a supporting leg in order to lift the leg without disrupting one’s balance negatively. This common method creates a proprietary movement before being able to lift the leg off the ground to be implemented, in turn both delaying the technique, as well as telegraphing the nature of the technique to the enemy and effectively negating the element of surprise. The combative techniques of the province of Iga and Kōga all took advantage of the ability to deploy any technique or weapon without relaying such an intention to the enemy.

tangu-hicho-mutodori
A Tengu (ascetic demon; 天狗) demonstrating a form of Hicho-gamae.

Another major advantage of this principle is the capacity to stand perfectly profile to the opponent, hiding the rear half of the body, while allowing the lead leg to protrude as an appealing target for common stratagems such as leg sweeps, and low-striking attacks with weapons (Figure 1). The ploy is of course, the fact that there is no weight on the lead leg, allowing the recipient of the initial attack to retract (Figure 2), reposition and/or counter attack without having to shift one’s weight. If the response of repositioning the lead leg is timed correctly the opponent would be taken by surprise and unable to defend for a well-placed and timed counterattack.

A much undervalued yet exceedingly valuable quality of this sort of positioning is that it was devised and implemented with the use of armor in mind. Firstly, the leg positioning allowed for movement without the haidate(4) (thigh guards; 佩楯) to shift, exposing the thighs to attack, as well as delivering kicking techniques, as described above, again without exposing openings in the armor.(5) Furthermore, one is than able to drop the weight from one leg to the other suddenly, without telegraphing or delaying the movement with proprietary movement, effectively breaking the inertia of a fixed position and yet not generating uncontrolled momentum often resulting in unbalancing oneself. This type of movement allows the classical warrior to discreetly shift from a neutral position (shizen gamae; 自然構) to the defensive position commonly regarded as Ichimonji gamae (positioning on a straight line; 一文字構) all the while taking an effective defensive position as well as being able to deploy any form of weapon or technique from said position.

The above three effects are only a few of the resulting qualities and details developed from the biomechanical theory of Hichō, and this principle of Hichō is only a small yet significant aspect of a much larger holistic system of thought and movement found in the classical martial arts of Japan, and most particularly in those systems found to have been influenced by the inhabitants of the province of Iga and Kōga. From something as simple as a special distribution of weight in the body one is able to deploy the supposed slowest form of attack and technique in the martial arts without the enemy perceiving nor understanding the nature of the attack, laying out a stratagem to lure in the enemy for a counter attack, as well as building an effective platform for which to suddenly and without warning, displace one’s own weight for disguised methods of evading and defending from attack.

hicho diagram
Figure 1Ichimonji, Figure 2 Hichō, Figure 3 Zenpō Geri

Foot Notes:

1 Koryūha 古流派: Classical or old way of using the body and weapon that show a deep flow in order to develop and understand the human’s body and psyche through the experiences of various warriors (famous or not). Those experiences allow to keep an open heart and mind in order to always keep the flow (Ryū) running, to face any kind of situation, weapon, man, fighter, warrior, killer or style. (Zoughari, New interview with Dr. Kacem Zoughari on koryû, ninjutsu and practice)

2 The posture of Hichō (Hichō no kamae; 飛鳥之構) is described in the written manuscripts as “The left foot is raised to the right knee joint, make a fist with the right hand with the thumb extended, this is positioned over the left elbow.” (左足を右足中関節のところに上げ、左手を半開き前方に右手拳と親指を立てて、左手肘関節の辺に位取りのこと。) (Hatsumi 212)

3 “According to the most recent report presented at the gathering of the Nihon Budô Gakkai, we see that after a century of modernization, the Japanese combative sports, collectively known as the martial arts, are now at an impasse. This sentiment is shared by large number of researchers and high ranking practitioners. This impasse extends itself right down to the way of moving in everyday life, as the modern martial arts claim to be the end result that is founded on the way of movement of the greatest martial arts masters of Japan such as: Yagyû Sekishûsai (1529-1606), Yagyû Munenori (1571-1646), Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1646), Itô Ittôsai (1550-1618), Tamaoka Tesshû (1836-1888), etc.” (Zoughari, THE HISTORY OF MOVEMENT IN THE JAPANESE MARTIAL ARTS: Structure, Way of Thought, and Transmission)

4 Haidate (佩楯) Thigh guards which tied around the waist and covered the thighs. These were made from cloth with small iron and or leather plates of various size and shape, usually connected to each other by chain armour (kusari; ) and sewn to the cloth.

5 “In Japanese armor, there are two parts; haidate (thigh guards which tied around the waist and covered the thighs. These were made from cloth with small iron and or leather plates of various size and shape, usually connected to each other by chain armor and sewn to the cloth; 佩楯), and suneate (shin guards made from iron splints connected together by chain armor and sewn to cloth and tied around the calf; 臑当). When you walk it moves to protect you on the side. When you do the sweeping side kick that a lot of people do in the Bujinkan, this plate moves out of the way and exposes your own flesh and thigh. Thus if you are always in Hichō gamae, the plate will stay in place, and you can safely position to kick with zenpō geri.” (Zoughari, Stockholm 2010 Gyokko Ryu & Toujutsu)

Works Cited

Hatsumi, Masaaki. Budō Taijutsu 武道体術. Ed. Matt Cotterill. Trans. Doug Wilson, Craig Olson and Bruce Appleby. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.
Zoughari, Kacem. New interview with Dr. Kacem Zoughari on koryû, ninjutsu and practice Martial Arts Magazine. 6 February 2012.

—.  Stockholm 2010 Gyokko Ryu & Toujutsu. By Kacem Zoughari. Perf. Kacem Zoughari. Stockholm. 2010.
—. “THE HISTORY OF MOVEMENT IN THE JAPANESE MARTIAL ARTS: Structure, Way of Thought, and Transmission.” Seishin Ninpō Dōjō (2011).

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6 thoughts on “Hicho – The Effects of Distributing Weight Over a Singular Leg

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  1. Looking at the sequence, why is Fig. 2 needed? Why not transition from Fig. 1 to Fig. 2?

    What is the purpose of bringing the leg backwards to meet the other leg before launching it forwards?

    Really interesting article, thanks! 🙂

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    1. The primary reason that figure two is present in this diagram is because this is literally the position or posture called “Hicho no kamae” (attitude of the leaping bird; 飛鳥之構). Furthermore, this illustrates the position of repositioning the lead leg to avoid a low-level attack such as a legsweep. Finally, it illustrates that between Figure 1 (Ichimonji) and and Figure 3 (Zempo Geri), no other element of the body needs to move, thus mitigating signs that there is an oncoming attack (the kick) being telegraphed to the enemy.

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  2. Thanks for the reply!

    But isn’t the telegraph obvious if you pull your leg to hicho posture? Sure you can fire the kick from hicho but it is quite… obvious?

    …OR do you mean that in ichimonji your front leg is weightless, hence you can fire it up in from Fig 1 straight to Fig 3?

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    1. Precisely. most have to shift their weight before a kick can be delivered, and though they might be fast, the sympathetic nervous system reacts much faster and the opponent can and will likely flinch.

      So as you stated, because from Ichimonji no kamae, there is no weight on the lead leg, it can be deployed either offensively or in response to an attack without any other part of the body having to shift or move; reducing the amount of information to the enemy and circumventing the sympathetic nervous system’s natural response of flinching and responding.

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