Kano Jigoro realized that efficiency of movement is one of the highest principles. He enshrined his insight in this maxim of Kodokan Judo, “seiryoku zen’you” 精力善用, most often translated as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency.” Seiryoku zen’you is probably better translated as “best use of energy” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as neatly as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency.” This is the foundation of Kodokan Judo’s technical curriculum, just as jita kyoei 自他共栄 or “mutual benefit and welfare” is the foundation of Kodokan Judo’s moral and ethical principles.
The principle that Kano Shihan so succinctly clarified in just four kanji characters has always been a critical part of martial arts. Kano’s genius lay in clearly elucidating that principle and building his entire system around it. Even though it took until the 1880’s for the principle to be made explicit and public, it has always been essential in weeding out techniques and practices in the martial arts. Anything that doesn’t contribute to success in conflict will eventually be eliminated because those who rely on it will lose.
Making the “best use of energy” seems like an obvious good idea, but things like this often seem obvious in hindsight. Even if the idea wasn’t explicit, it has always been implicit within the martial arts. The universe is ruthless, and during the long centuries of civil war in Japan leading up to the enforced peace of the Tokugawa Period, anything that wasn’t efficient for teaching, learning, practicing or applying the martial arts was culled simply because anything that wasn’t efficient would get its proponents killed.
Look at pretty much any koryu budo. They aren’t filled with endless lists of techniques. They have a few techniques that are polished like treasured gems, and then are practiced in a variety of kata so students learn the real foundations of the art and how to apply them spontaneously. Effective budo has to be efficient.
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That’s the secret reason why koryu budo generally don’t have extensive curriculums with endless lists of techniques. It’s not efficient. Instead, a basic principle or two are embodied in the fundamental technique of the system which are then explored through a limited set of kata result in that teaching the plasticity of the main principles.
Sword systems are often based around one fundamental cut, with the entire system expanding on that. Sasamori Takemi talks about the kiri otoshi of Ono-Ha Itto Ryu. Kashima Shinryu kenjutsu is built around the a fundamental cut practiced in the Kihon-tachi. Arts that teach other weapons are similar. Shinto Muso Ryu calls its fundamental jo technique hon te uchi, or “fundamental hand strike.” Judo has a large syllabus by comparison, with five basic principles for throwing expanded into the Gokyo, or “Five Teachings.” Aikido also breaks up it’s main principles into 5 techniques, called ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo and gokyo, or “teaching 1, teaching 2, teaching 3, teaching 4, teaching 5.” In both judo and aikido, there are numerous expressions of the five teachings, but they all start from the same fundamental principles.
It makes sense when you consider it. Which is going to work better under stress, one technique that you can apply to a thousand situations, or a thousand techniques each of which is good for only one situation?
Efficiency shows itself in myriad ways. Learning one technique well takes less time than learning one thousand techniques to mediocre level. This why in Olympic judo, the competitors don’t spend their time trying to master all the throwing techniques of Kodokan Judo. They focus on two or three techniques and develop their understanding of the techniques and their principles so they can apply them in any situation.
Within those fundamental techniques is another level of efficiency. Techniques have to work with as little effort as possible. This is true of any effective martial art. Efficiency of energy is a key component of effectiveness. If a technique requires a lot of raw strength to perform, it will be useless when you run into someone bigger or stronger. The more efficiently the principle uses your strength, the greater the situations you can deploy it in. I was in Japan recently practicing with one of the shihan from Shinto Muso Ryu, and he kicked my butt over this. I was doing kuri tsuke ( a technique for catching a sword attack and binding the sword to the attacker’s body) and it was working, but Sensei pointed out that I wasn’t doing it as well as I could. He resisted my technique and I was able to muscle through his resistance. He then showed me how to do the technique with minimal modification so that I didn’t have to dig in to muscle past his resistance. If I got the angles right, I left him without a stable platform from which to resist. I had learned a more efficient way to perform the technique.
He didn’t use the word, but the term that floated through my head was from Kodokan Judo. “Kuzushi” 崩し. Don’t attack strength to strength. Maneuver your adversary to a position where they cannot apply their strength and attack there. In other words, attack where your opponent’s strength is minimized and your own is maximized. Seiryoku zen’yo in action.
Our strength is limited. I might be able to muscle through Sensei’s resistance because I’m a lot bigger than he is. I know plenty of people who are bigger than I am though, and there is no way I could muscle through them. But, If I do the technique efficiently, strength is no longer a concern. The efficient technique is the effective technique. This is true no matter what you’re doing.
Here are a couple of videos that have been floating around the web. One shows a little girl screaming and flailing around with a sword with great effort. The other shows a little girl cutting with no effort at all. Efficiency gets the most out of the energy being expended. Which one better embodies seiryoku zen’yo?
Flailing little girl
Efficient and effective little girl
Efficiency is a critical component of any martial art. Just because Kano Jigoro enshrined seiryoku zen’yo as a maxim of Kodokan Judo doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in other arts or that you can ignore if you don’t do Kodokan Judo. Making the best use of your energy is always a good idea.