Kuzushi - Beginning and Advanced Concepts.


Kuzushi is integral to Judo, and is taught right from the very beginning, but as I’ll discuss here, there are different forms of Kuzushi, and different ways to apply it.
Let’s begin by learning what is meant by the term.  There are three different ‘sets’ of kuzushi that are taught in Judo:

Roppo no Kuzushi – the six directions of breaking balance, referring to the right, left, right front corner, left front corner, right back corner, and left back corner.
Happo no Kuzushi – Same as above, but the directions directly forward and back are added, for a total of eight directions of off balance.
The third set is not commonly taught as far as I’m aware, but comes from Kazuzo Kudo’s observations in his book, “Dynamic Judo”.  He teaches 14 directions of off balance, taking the normal eight directions, and separating the front corner directions into three, and the back corner directions into two.  So instead of right front corner, Kudo has “outside right front”, “mid right front”, and “inside right front.  Instead of the right rear corner, Kudo has “right rear”, and “right rear side”.
Of course, the real number of directions is, in theory, infinite… but it’s good to have a starting basis for being able to transmit the basic ideas of a given throw.  Throws often have a preferred direction of off balance, and often can work in a number of directions, as well as directions in which the throw simply won’t work.  Off balancing your opponent to the left front corner, then attempting a right-sided Osotogari is a recipe for disaster.
What, though, does the term “Kuzushi” actually mean?  We often use it to mean off balancing uke in a given direction, but does “Kuzushi” mean this?  Or is this only one of the meanings that can be used?  Kuzushi comes from the verb, kuzureru, which has the meaning of ‘to break or crumble’.  The problem, as you can easily see, is that this does not necessarily refer to balance. 
If Kuzushi doesn’t actually refer to balance, let’s look at what else might be available.  Koshikudake – this term has the meaning of losing one’s balance (such as in the middle of a match), or a weakening of one’s attitude.  You might begin to wonder why Kano didn’t chose to speak of Koshikudake, Tsukuri & Kake.
Unfortunately, we can’t ask Kano at this time why he chose kuzushi, when there was a much more appropriate Japanese word to use, so let’s examine the issue and see if we can come to any conclusions.  The goal of kuzushi is simple, to prevent uke from being able to mount a defense against the technique being used.  The argument could then be made that a fifth of Scotch or a baseball bat can be a very effective form of kuzushi!
Unfortunately, I suspect that any good tournament director isn’t going to allow you to fight drunken opponents, or to carry a bat with you on the mat - so how can we induce a state where our opponent cannot defend?  Off-balancing uke certainly does exactly this.  When you attack at the moment uke is not in good balance, he cannot make the appropriate defense.  And before I move on, I’d like to cover some of the ways you can induce your uke to be off-balance.
1. A simple push or pull with the hands will force many Judoka to a momentary loss of balance.  This is the very first method that is taught (or perhaps more accurately, the first method that is perceived by the student), and it would be difficult indeed to find a Judoka who doesn’t know this simple way to perform kuzushi on uke.  The major problem with this method is that people have been learning since they first began to walk just how to regain lost balance.  It’s difficult indeed to counter decades of balance conservation with a few months or few years of learning how to pull uke off-balance.
2. A slightly more advanced method is to have uke help you with off-balancing him.  As Mifune puts it, “In most cases, the opponent will oppose your energy when you begin to attack him, in order to maintain his stability.”  So the trick is to force uke to begin a movement that you will help him with.  For example, you really want to throw uke with a left-side Osotogari, so you pull to uke’s right front corner, as if you intend to try Tai Otoshi - as uke will resist by pulling back, you then ‘help’ him with your strength.  This method is more powerful than the first method, as you are now inviting uke to help you off-balance him.
3.  Next, you arrive at the point in which your arms do nothing more than maintain the distance between you (while being quite relaxed), and you off-balance your opponent with your body movement.  This is an advanced form of off balancing your opponent, and particularly, when combined with random changes of tempo, can be extremely effective.

4. Finally, the epitome of off balancing is when you blend with uke’s movement, and add your force to his to extend his movement beyond where he’d intended to go.  Rather than initiating any movement - you take what uke gives you, and work with it.  This is the rarest form of off balancing - and the most difficult.  It simply takes a great deal of experience and randori to achieve.
Now, what happens when you are facing a black belt, perhaps at the national or international level, and only have five minutes to force him to lose his balance?  Let me tell you a secret – IT AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN!
So now, let’s examine again the difference between kuzushi, which means in Judo to off-balance, but comes from the verb kuzureru - meaning to break or crumble, and what Kano could well have used instead, Koshikudake, which does indeed have the very meaning that many Judoka believe “kuzushi” has in Judo.  I think that it’s possible that Kano purposely stayed away from Koshikudake (which, by the way, is frequently used in Sumo).  Kano might well have been telling us that off balancing is merely one way that you can ‘break or crumble’ uke’s ability to make a successful defense against your attack.
What other way is there?  Let’s imagine two Judoka in a classic upright posture, with a normal grip.  Tori suddenly steps backward, placing himself at a 45 degree ‘angle of attack’ to uke.  This creates an overwhelming force to uke’s back, which in order to defend HE MUST STEP BACK (or, possibly to the side, which instead of opposing the force, would let tori’s force go ‘past’ him).  What is to prevent uke from doing exactly this?
Several possibilities here… speed, rhythm, kiai, misdirection, atemi, timing, grip, and psychology… all come to mind.  Let’s examine each briefly:
Speed: If, for example, your attack is so blazingly fast, that uke doesn’t have time to react to it, then you have broken his ability to defend without off balancing him.  Most Ashiwaza falls into this category …
Rhythm: Randori or shiai between two Judoka have a rhythm, or tempo; to the movement being made by both.  If you break this rhythm, take control of this rhythm, you can create a momentary lapse of uke’s ability to present a defense.
Kiai: A loud kiai can disrupt uke’s concentration and movement.  Although appropriate kiai is more helpful to tori than damaging for uke’s balance or concentration, it is certainly yet one more factor to use.
Misdirection: If you fake a throw to one direction, and uke defends strongly in that direction, yet you actually complete the throw in another direction, again, you’ve taken away uke’s ability to defend.  This also forms the basis for renrakuwaza - combining techniques together to form an attacking combination.


Atemi: Unfortunately not allowed in randori or shiai, but can be an excellent method to break an opponent’s concentration and/or balance.

Timing: If Uke has just made an attack on you, and as he is withdrawing, you initiate your attack, you are using timing as a factor to prevent uke from defending.  While only one example, this is perhaps one of the stronger uses of attack timing.  More advanced Judoka can also use the time immediately preceding uke’s attack.  Uke is poorly prepared to defend an attack at the moment he is initiating one.

Grip: What Judoka has not had the experience of attempting to defend and suddenly discovering that because Tori has an unusual grip, no defense works?  Or that your opponent has started his attack - but you don’t have a grip yet?
Psychological: Related somewhat to misdirection - if you continually attack, or threaten to attack, with right-sided forward Tai Otoshi, and suddenly shift your attack to a rearward left Osoto Gari, uke can become disoriented momentarily, and this can prevent his effective defense to your waza.
What do all these methods (which do not directly affect uke’s balance) have in common?
If you watch high-level competition, you will see that they attack opponent’s who are clearly not off balance.  They are using exactly these factors to prevent uke from defending.  This leads to the next discussion - the problem of what came first, the chicken or the egg.  Or, in Judo terms, is it Kuzushi and then Tsukuri, or the other way around?  Well, to begin with, every Judoka is taught that Kuzushi comes first… as indeed, at the lower levels of Judo, it does.  But at the higher levels of skill, it is Tsukuri which comes first, and creates kuzushi - whether in the form of off balance, or by destroying uke’s posture, or simply making it impossible for uke to defend.
To some Judoka, this might sound at first as a heretical concept… but let’s examine what others have said… From Kazuzo Kudo’s “Dynamic Judo”, we find this description: “Getting your opponent into a posture from which it is easy to throw him or easy to down him is called breaking his posture (kuzushi).  We also sometimes refer to this as making the proper posture (tsukuri).”
It’s interesting to own both versions of Kodokan Judo, and watch how concepts have evolved and changed over time.  Let’s look at what the current 1982 edition of Kodokan Judo says about Tsukuri:
“To execute a throw (kake), after breaking your opponent’s balance you must move your body into position for the throw.  This is known as tsukuri.” - Note that for this edition of Kodokan Judo, there’s clearly the sequential sequence of Kuzushi, Tsukuri, and Kake.
Now, let’s see what it originally stated… from the original 1955 edition: “To destroy your opponent’s posture or balance so as to make your attack easier while holding yourself ready at the same time to attack him is called Tsukuri or “preparatory action for attack”.  To actually apply our contemplated technique, when his posture has already been broken by Tsukuri, is called Kake, or “an attack”. - Note the difference here - The sequential sequence is clearly Tsukuri (creating Kuzushi), Kake.  Or, perhaps this edition presupposes that Kuzushi and Tsukuri don’t have a clearly defined demarcation.
Jimmy Pedro, America’s most successful International competitor, puts it this way: “In some throws the three stages happen in order, one following the other—kuzushi, breaking the balance; tsukuri, positioning for the throw; and kake, the throw.  On other occasions the kuzushi and tsukuri occur simultaneously, with the kake following.  In some throws the three phases happen simultaneously.  Finally, in a few throws the tsukuri happens first, the kuzushi occurs next, and the kake ends the technique.” (‘Judo Techniques & Tactics, pg. 62)
Clearly, what at first might appear to be an idea contrary to good Judo is nothing more that mainstream Judo.  Certainly it is mainstream competitive Judo.  Anyone who watches the video “101 Ippons” will quickly learn that successful attacks don’t necessarily start with an off-balance uke.  So perhaps Kano was telling us something when he chose to use Kuzushi - which in my opinion more accurately refers to an uke’s posture OR ability to defend being broken or crumbled, rather than only his balance.  For if balance were Kano’s only concern, there’s a far more appropriate Japanese term.
Kuzushi is one of the major differences between Judo and the foundational Jujutsu arts from which Judo developed.  The expertise that you develop with Kuzushi will largely determine the expertise with which your waza can overcome your opponents.  This is a topic that you should constantly spend your training time on.  While there are many factors that bear on your Judo skill and ability, there are only five major factors that can improve your Judo:

  1. Greater speed with your waza.
  2. Greater body strength to employ.
  3. More body weight.
  4. More precise taisabaki.  (Accurate and precise Tsukuri for a given waza)
  5. Better and more accurate Kuzushi.

The first two are quite difficult to improve, the third is only applicable if you wish to change your art from Judo to Sumo, and the last two are the two that will give you the greatest gains for the time spent improving them.
So the next time you’re at the dojo, spend some time in randori observing how to disrupt your opponent’s ability to defend, and your Judo will be the better for it.