What is Nanba walking? ナンバ歩きとは何ぞや？
Nanba is a special walking method of swinging the arm of the same side of the stepping leg which is the opposite of the standard walking method we do. In other words, you bring your right arm forward as you step forward with your right foot. While the left leg is behind you will keep your left arm towards the back. Here is a photo of showing how one walks in Nanba. He (Sensei Kohno who is a historian and also specializes in koten bujutsu) is demonstrating with some exaggerated motions to show how it is done. By the way, Nanba walking was almost a forgotten walking method of the ancient Japan (Edo period and before) until Sensei Kohno discovered it from his research into the old manuscripts and introduced it some twenty years ago.
The origin of Nanba has not been agreed by the scholars yet. One theory is the origin of Nanba is Nanban (南蛮) which literally means South Barbarian, the Westerners. The ancient Japanese believed that the Westerners lived in the South and they traveled North to Japan via India and the Philippines. According to this theory, the Japanese people laughed at how the Westerners walked (the normal way according to the modern day people) and this funny walking was called Nanban. However, the Western walking method was taught to the soliders during the late 19th century after the Meiji Restorations. Those soldiers consisted of not only the samurai but merchants and farmers. Since then the Western way of walking became the standard in Japan. When the Japanese looked back and had to refer to their old way of walking they had to say, “We walked differently from the Nanban style.” They did not or could not come up with a name for the old method of walking so the Nanban style (though it was completely opposite) became the name for the old way of walking in Japan. Though this theory has not received agreement by all the historians I consider it the most likely origin for this word.
You can find this body movement in Noh and Kabuki (the traditional Japanese theatrical play), in Sumo (Japanese wrestling), in many Japanese traditional dancing as well as in the Japanese martial arts such as Aikido, kenjutsu and Kendo. Interestingly, the human being is not the only animal that can do this walking. We found that the Gorilla and the cats also do this walking. Here is a video of a cat walking in Nanba if you are interested:
In the very first photo shown at the top of the page, Sensei Kohno purposely, as I had mentioned earlier, swung his arms excessively to demonstrate the Nanba walking. I must emphasize that I do not believe this is quite exactly how the ancient Japanese walked. In fact, I consider that particular walking strange and I do not believe any of the ancient Japanese including the samurai walked like that.
By studying the old drawings of ancient Japan, the people in general, did not swing their arms as they walked. It is easily guessed because how the Japanese clothes are designed (it wraps around you). Here is photo (left) from one of the Kurosawa samurai movies, Yojinbo. If you are a samurai movie buff you can identify Mifune here and remember he liked to keep his arms inside the kimono. But you may say, “This is only a movie and not from the old time Japan.” You are correct, so I will share another photo. This one (right) is a photo of a real samurai, Sakamoto Ryoma, before the end of Tokugawa Shogunate. In fact, he helped the Meiji Restoration and Japan open its door to the Western culture. You can see in the photo that Sakamoto is also keeping his arms inside his kimono.
So, walking without moving the arms much was a general etiquette in Japan. Unfortunately, now a days it is difficult to find the Japanese in kimono. However, if you find one you will witness that most of the women will walk with their hands held in front (photo below). In this photo you see a man in kimono (which is even rarer than a woman in a kimono these days) holding his arms straight down. Wearing a kimono and a geta (wooden clog) you need to walk in this manner. I will explain more later.
OK it looks graceful if you walk like a Japanese woman in kimono with your hand held in front. But you wonder why a samurai would keep his arms inside the kimono? You need to know that there were no pockets in kimono so to relax their arms they pulled their arms inside just as you would relax your arms by sticking your hands in the pockets. So, this is a relaxed style and a samurai will not walk around in a town in this style. If you happen to see this in a samurai movie then they are showing a ronin (a masterless or unemployed samurai) who lost his etiquette. A serious or an employed samurai would never walk that way as his right hand will be tied up and will not be able to draw his sword in a hurry. A samurai would walk just like a western gunman with two pistols at his hips. It is the same idea and a samurai wants to keep his hands near the swords.
Was that the only reason for a samurai to keep his hands to the sides and probably slightly in front of his body? There were two other main reasons.
One is the hip rocking. If you walk in your normal (this word is debatable, however) way, your hips will naturally rock slightly up and down as shown in the photo right. Well what is wrong with this? As you remember a samurai carries two heavy swords. An average katana weighs any where from 2.5 pounds (1.1kg) to as heavy as 4 pounds (1.8kg). This means with two swords, a samurai would be carrying the total weight between 2kg and 4kg whenever he steps outside of his house. Just to go to his castle every day to work, there were, of course, no buses and trains then and only a few high rank samurai could ride a horse. So, he had to walk, and probably a minimum of a few kilometers each day. Though there is no record of how much an average person in Edo period walked each day, there are many records indicating how much they walked in their travels. The average distance they travelled daily was between 35km and 40 km. The average speed is estimated to be 4 km per hour so it means the Edo period travelers walked 9 to 10 hours daily. If this is the case, it is easily guessed that these people walked minimum 5 km and possibly 10 or 15 km in their regular life. If your hips rock each time you walk, I am sure can imagine what will happen to your left hip (where you carry your sword). In the long run your spine will be bent and you will have a permanent backache. It also minimize the unnecessary moves of the hips thus you will get tired less. Therefore, as a samurai used to walking that many kilometers he needed to have a walking method that would not rock his hips.
The second reason is more based on the martial arts preference. If you walk in the conventional (maybe this labeling is better) way, you will be twisting your upper body. For instance when your left leg is in front your right shoulder will move forward as your right arm is swung forward and the opposite side will create a twist also. This twisting motion will create the unnecessary hip rotation (photo right). Would you like to swing your hips while you are carrying the heavy pieces of metal weighing up to 4 kg on your left hip? Certainly not. You would prefer to keep the hips riding not only flat but also still. The illustration on the left shows the walking method that keeps the upper body “flat” at all times. In the illustration, the arms are being swung forward but in practice you do not swing your arms or minimize it. By walking this way, you will not twist your internal organs and you will also not use many of the muscle groups that are located in the belly section. This action definitely is more energy efficient than the standard walking method.
I am not suggesting that this standard walking method is bad nor worse than the Nanba method. In fact, you can probably walk and definitely run faster using the conventional method. The conventional method may be even better if you wish to burn up your extra calories from a big meal by your fast walking exercise in a park.
If you wish to practice this walking method, let me suggest that you pay much attention to how to coordinate your shoulders along with your steps. You will want to move the same side shoulder forward as you step forward. As far as your hands are concerned, you want to keep your arms close to your sides with both hands slightly forward. In fact, you can do the Nanba walking easier if you hold your hands together in front of you. The idea is not to move your arms too much and pay attention to the smooth coordination of your shoulders and steps.
Let me give you one more unique feature of a samurai walk. I have written in the past an article about Noh, a traditional Japanese theatrical play. In it I discussed about suri ashi (摺り足 photo below), so you may remember what I wrote. If you walk in a conventional way, believe it or not your body will go up and down slightly. This motion may not be felt or noticed when you walk but it becomes more obvious when you run. Suri ashi is found in Noh play but certainly it was used by the samurai. I am sure I do not need to explain why any more. Yes, the swords are heavy and you surely want to minimize your energy in walking. I will not go too deeply into Suri ashi but this walking method can be applied in karate training so I will give you a few pointers. The idea in suri ashi is to slide your foot parallel with the floor. It will be easier if you lean your body slightly forward as shown in the photo left. This is how they teach the Noh walking. What happens here is that your ankles will be bent so that you can move your foot without or with a little lifting of your heel. Initially it is easier if you bend your knees slightly. You cannot take a large step. You will walk with small steps and that is the way you want to walk if you are wearing a kimono especially the women’s as it wraps pretty tightly around the legs all the way down to the ankles. Why do you, a karateka, want to learn suri ashi? If you are a senior practitioner you already know the answer. When you body shift you want to minimize the ups and downs of your body height except for some situations such as jumping, extra high stance and extra low stance.
Now let’s quickly look at what the samurai tried to avoid. The points were 1) no rocking of the hips, 2) no twisting of the upper body, and 3) no ups and downs of the body. I hope you see that these points make good sense as the samurai carried the heavy swords on their left hip. The rest of the Japanese population (farmers, merchants, labors and craftsmen) might have not imitated the fine points of these body mechanisms, but at least, they all followed the etiquette of not swinging their arms as they walked.
You will probably say “OK I understand now why the samurai walked in Nanba method but what has it got to do with me?” I was hoping you would ask. I would like to ask you to take a closer look at the body mechanism of Nanba walking. Doesn’t the body mechanism of the samurai look like what your sensei tells you to do in your karate training?
You do not want to have a rocking motion (side ways) of your hips when you step forward or backward. It is interesting to tell you but I see many students including the yudansha rocking their hips in their karate techniques. The junior students may ask, “Why is it bad?” or “Why do we have to avoid this?” All the senior practitioners know the answer but I will explain briefly for the junior practitioners. In kumite what happens if your attacking side opponent rocks his/her hips as he/she steps forward? Correct, you can easily detect his/her move. No need to explain further. The same reason goes equally for the hips going up and coming down. This is why you need to practice suri ashi and also the correct use of the knee to keep your hip height at the same as you make your attack. It is much easier to detect the movement of sideways and up/down when you compare them to back and forth. As long as you do not move horizontally and vertically, the opponent will have more difficulty detecting you making a small body shifting forward by bending your front knee forward, for an example.
How about twisting the hips? Most of you may say, “We frequently use hip rotations in our techniques so what’s wrong with this?” You are quite right that hip rotations are found in many of the karate techniques. Good examples may be Tekki and Bassai kata but the hip rotation is found in literally all kata. Let me explain why I say we need to limit or control the hip rotation. This is a little technical and may be beyond the understanding of the junior practitioners. But for the senior practitioners I believe understanding this and being able to execute this is almost critical so I will do my best to explain.
First, compare if you feel the difference in the body between executing oi zuki (illlustration left below) and oi gayku zuki (illustration right below).
Maybe you have practiced these techniques so many times you may not feel too much difference. However, if you are a junior practitioner, oi gyaku zuki is much more difficult. Check your kyu exam syllabus. In most organizations, you will find oi zuki for the 8th kyu requirement but not oi gyaku zuki. Why? Because it is, interestingly, more difficult. Many techniques a junior practitioner learns are consisted of the arms and the legs of the same side, i.e. gedan barai, age uke, etc. However, this is for a single technique. Once you have a multiple techniques such as a combination of a block and a counter attack, you will often have gyaku zuki. So, you will say, “We should practice the difficult techniques and that is karate training.” You are right and we must not stop practicing it just because it is a difficult technique. It seems to be a simple technique, one reverse punch. Why? Because it is not a natural body movement. Many junior practitoners “cheat” by taking a step forward first then execute a gyaku zuki after the stance is already set. It is much more difficult to execute gyaku zuki as you are stepping forward (by the way, I am sure you know that gyaku zuki with stepping backward is even more challenging). Executing oi zuki as you step forward is much easier as you are extending the arm with the leg of the same side. I wanted to mention this as we all need to know this but this is not the reason why I am brining this subject here.
The key point I want to bring up is a combination, such as age uke and gyaku zuki or even a kicking counter attack. We see this combination very frequently in our kihon kumite. When an opponent attacks with jodan oi zuki, the defender steps back and execute jodan age uke then follows up with chudan (or jodan) gyaku zuki. The instructor tells the junior practitioners to make a big hanmi (hip rotated in a large angle, the blocking side shoulder is almost pointing to the opponent) then he will tell you, “Make a large hip rotation before gyaku zuki.” The reason why he tells you to make a large rotation is, supposedly, that action would generate more power to the counter punch. I do not agree with this claim but we will not go into this subject because it is not an important subject for this discussion. I say it is not important because generating so much power into a counter punch is unnecessary. In other words, this is the same argument that we do not need to have a magnum 45 gun to kill a person when a small 22 can do the job in most of cases. The problem I wish to present here is the timing. The combination of age uke with gyaku zuki is commonly called two tempo combination. In other words, you have two separate techniques delivered one after another. The timing of two tempo is ok only if the opponent would wait his/her second attack long enough to allow you to execute that gyaku zuki. In a kihon ippon kumite, a long delay after a block is permissible. However, if you do this in jiyu ippon kumite and if your opponent continues to move away after his/her first attack, your gyaku zuki would be punching in the air as your opponent is long gone. So, what do you need to do? Yes, what you need to do is to reduce the timing between a block and a counter. For this purpose, it is very obvious that a big wind up of your hips will only slow you down. You need to rotate your hips less before you do gyaku zuki. You want to keep your hips almost straight (or very small hanmi) when you block. Many of you may be surprised as this is, probably, complete opposite from what you heard from your sensei. You may feel you cannot generate enough power in your gyaku zuki if a hip rotation is small. I point out the same analogy that a 22 gun is good enough to kill if you hit the right target. However, you can, if you are an advanced practitioner, generate almost as much power without a big hip rotation. How? It is called hip vibration. In some of the Okinawan styles, they even claim they do not have gyaku zuki like we have in Shotokan. They keep their hips straight when they block so that the punch is delivered from shomen instead of from hanmi. They use the hip vibration to “whip” out the punch.
Another budo reason why we should minimize the twisting of our body is energy consumption. Our typical dojo training is between one to two hours. Our kumite, jiyu kumite, typically lasts only one to two minutes and you have only one opponent. This is why you do not need to worry about conserving your energy. The way you conserve energy is to go slower or use less power. You must think how would you last in a 6 hour or 8 hour class. How about doing three hour jiyu kumite facing 100 opponents? How to conserve your energy in a wise way becomes very important.
Then why do the instructors teach big rotation? All the karate techniques are difficult to a novice so you need to teach a novice with a large motion. Eventually, the movements must develop and improve which means the outer physical movements become smaller yet the core level movements may be the same or similar. If your sensei continues to tell you to make a large hip rotation for your counter, I suggest you use another kind of technique such as using the same arm to do both block and counter. This combination will not require hip rotation. Or block and counter simultaneously using both arms. This one also does not require a hip rotation. In both situation, high level of hip vibration can and should be used. A hip vibration itself is a big subject and I will have to find another occasion to make a full article.
My recommendation is not to learn Nanba walking per se. But rather, I hope the readers will study it and see if you can really see the benefits that I have described above from this walking mechanism.
Even if you do not agree, I suggest that you will check your body mechanism in your karate techniques. Check and see if you have any fundamental errors such as unnecessary hip rocking and too much hip rotations in your techniques. By eliminating those errors or faulty moves I guarantee that your karate will improve dramatically.
If you happen to want to try Nanba walking, I will attach the video links below where they teach this walking method. At first, I suggest you will start by sticking your hands in the pockets and walk slowly. This way you will not need to swing your arms. What you want to do here is to pay attention to your shoulders. As you step forward, try to move your shoulder of the same side forward. Do not swing your upper body too much but keep it at minimum. I think you can quickly pick up Nanba walking and enjoy it.
If you have any comments to my article, I am open to any constructive suggestions and criticism. Please leave them here at my blog sight so that all the readers can share your thoughts and ideas.
Here are some related videos and websites where you can learn more about Nanba walking:
Video of nanba walking explanation and demonstration by William Reed (18 min 34 sec)
William Reed has a web site called Samurai Walk
Nanba aruki (Nanba walking) guide: