Moving Mountains: The Meaning of Kuzushi

If you ever spend much time training in Japanese-based martial arts, you might hear the word “Kuzushi.” I recently had a revelation about this interesting term.

On a coaches’ forum, longtime Judo coach Richard Riehle posted that one of his favorite kanji in Judo was 崩し or “kuzushi.” He noted that these are the characters for ‘mountain’ supported by two characters for ‘moon.’ He wrote, “I always think of it as, remove Moon and the Mountain will fall.”

崩し

I know that seems a little meta but stay with me. As I’ve traversed the martial arts world, I’ve found concepts that were both simple on the surface and deep in their understanding. Kuzushi is one of those concepts.

What is kuzushi?

In its simplest sense, kuzushi means to break your opponent’s balance or to upset his base.

The creator of Judo, Jigoro Kano, wrote, “To use strength most efficiently, it is vital to break the opponent’s balance. In line with the principle of dynamics, he is then vulnerable and can be brought down with a minimum of effort.”

Kuzushi makes taking your opponent down easier like removing the moon and the mountain falls.

How can I apply kuzushi?

You can apply the idea behind kuzushi to almost every combat art and self-defense situation. Let’s look at a few illustrations. 

In grappling styles such as Judo, Jujitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and even Wrestling, kuzushi is about upsetting your opponent’s balance so you can perform a throw, sweep, or takedown.

You might lift your opponent slightly onto his toes and get his weight leaning forward so you can perform a throw. Or, in BJJ, you might pull his collar and sleeve while he’s in your guard so you can hit the perfect scissor sweep. You often see a pop to the shoulder or a head snap before taking a shot in Wrestling. All of these are ways to off-balance your opponent in a sport setting.

Judo coach Shintaro Higashi teaching off-balancing your opponent in Judo.

In classical arts like Japanese Jujitsu and many self-defense applications, kuzushi may come by a strike. If you strike the groin or stomach, a person will lean forward leaving him open to takedowns.

He may also be reaching or running toward you, which allows you to use his movement against him. According to Steve Scott, a world-class Judo, Sambo, and Jujitsu coach, movement is the most important part of kuzushi.

In his book, Winning on the Mat, Scott defines kuzushi as “controlling an opponent’s body and the most effective way of doing that is to do it when he is moving. Controlling and breaking your opponent’s balance is a combination of a lot of things that happen in a sequence… and movement is the most important element.”

Can I counter kuzushi?

Movement can work for you when someone is attempting kuzushi on you. Kano wrote that when “countering your opponent’s attempt to break your balance, give way to him, then apply your own kuzushi. If pushed, go with the force of the push while maintaining your balance, then pull… If pulled, push.”

Is kuzushi only a physical concept?

You may have heard of no-touch knockouts and seen their epic failure on YouTube videos, but there is such a thing as no-touch kuzushi.

Classical Jujitsu teacher George Kirby thinks that while the physical ways to create kuzushi are essential in combat, verbal and non-contact distractions are equally important in self-defense.

According to Kirby, “You may choose to use a nonviolent approach such as a visual or verbal distraction.” Something as simple as a “hand or finger motion, quickly looking to the left or right… or giving an unanticipated verbal response to the potential assailant’s verbal command” are all useful forms of kuzushi.

In the following video, former UFC Champion Anderson Silva used an eye-fake to distract Vitor Belfort and set up his devastating kick.

Anderson Silva using an eye-fake distraction to upset Vitor Belfort’s mental balance.

Here is a video of Jeet Kune Do sifu Tim Tackett discussing unanticipated verbal responses to disrupt an opponent’s focus in a potential situation.

Sifu Tim Tackett using verbal Jiu-Jitsu as kuzushi to distract his opponent.

There is a reason kuzushi is so fundamental to winning a fight. It’s what initiates the finishing move. It’s the element that lets you tackle giants and topple mountains. Study it and apply it in your art so you can get maximum efficiency with minimum effort.

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