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Unsoku is one of the defining characteristics of Taido. Most simply, unsoku means footwork, but as with anything in martial arts, there’s a lot more to it than that :)
Unsoku’s Importance in Taido
The first thing to understand is that, to a large degree:
Unsoku is Taido.
Unsoku is the primary technique of Taido. We have a lot of flashy kicks that are quite ingenious, but unsoku tops them all. Most martial arts have stances and techniques. Taido introduces unsoku as a linking principle to allow the interjection of strategy on a higher level.
The footwork that makes up Taido’s unsoku is what allows the techniques to be effective – it facilitates the movements. However, we have to be careful not to create a false separation between unsoku and technique. In application, they are functionally linked, and this is one of the things that makes Taido unique.
The only way to master this is through correct practice – everyone always needs more practice on unsoku. Since only perfect practice actually makes perfect, we must practice unsoku perfectly – while thinking about how to apply it.
The 8 Unsoku Movements or Steps
The Meanings of the Unsoku Step Names
The Japanese have a big advantage over most of us when it comes to learning Taido: specifically, they understand Japanese.
Growing up, I had always assumed that the words we used in Taido had meanings, but nobody ever taught them to me. When we studied a little bit of vocabulary, the words were always explained and memorized in a Taido context with no functional connections made to other uses. I suspect many of you had similar experiences.
I used to wonder why a punch was sometimes called tsuki and other times zuki. Even after I began to study some Japanese, it took me a while to figure out that zen (as in zenten) and mae (as in maegeri) were not just different ways to say “front,” but the same word. I’m pretty lazy about studying Japanese, but even my limited linguistic skills have made a big impact on my understanding of Taido.
On one of my solo trips to Japan as a university student, Akiyama Sensei taught me the meanings of the unsoku step names (with the aid of an electronic dictionary and a bottle of single malt whiskey). That night completely changed the way I thought of unsoku. It also opened my eyes to the fact that there is a lot more to Taido than just performing the movements skillfully. We have to move mindfully if we are to have seigyo and control our opponents.
What follows are translations and explanations of the Japanese names for the eight unsoku movements. Though there is no whiskey involved (unless you happen to be drinking as you read this – it might help…), the following is essentially what Akiyama Sensei told me that night several years ago.
- So (送) – Okuru means “to send.” This character is also used in the word for farewell and connotes strong wind and direct movement. In unsoku, the idea is to prevent the opponent from entering your spatial territory – to push him out or send him away.
- In (引) – Hiku means “to pull.” This character can also connote bringing. The object of insoku is not necessarily to withdraw from the opponent, but rather to pull him towards you. Most Taidoka are more comfortable with aggressive tactics than they are with the idea of leading the opponent into a trap by appearing passive. As such, insoku is probably the least-used step. It may be advantageous to spend some time thinking of ways to “pull” as well as push.
- Ka (加) – Kuwaeru means “to add.” This character connotes speeding up or otherwise increasing. In unsoku, a change of angle is being added to the push/pull found in sosoku and insoku. Kasoku can be used as a transition from planning to action, in which case it marks an increase in speed and intensity.
- Gen (減) – Heru means “to reduce or empty.” This character is used when speaking of hunger or loss of money. Where ka is adding, gen is subtracting. In unsoku, the idea is to vacate a space that is not safe. We often think of gensoku as a retreating step, but a more accurate image may be that of simply removing oneself.
- Ko (交) – Majiwaru means “to cross or pass by.” This character is also used in the words for intersections and switching places. In unsoku, the idea is to brush past your opponent’s attack. At the same time, you take his dominance by angling toward his back. In this way, you end up switching attack and defense roles.
- Ten (点) – This is the only unsoku step whose name is never a verb. Ten means “point.” It could be a physical point in space, a number of points awarded for a score, or a point marked on paper. In unsoku, the point is the position to which we adjust. Where kosoku adjusts the angle about the rear leg, tensokuadjusts about the front foot and can be useful when must “enter” an attack that is to fast to avoid completely.
- Tsui (追) – Ou means “to chase,” though not necessarily to catch. Contrary to what many people assume, tsuisoku‘s punch isn’t intended so much to strike the opponent, but rather to force him to move so you can set up an attack.
- Tai (退) – Shirizoku means “to draw back or retreat,” and also connotes returning or becoming “not there.” In unsoku, this could mean returning from an attack (as in gentai) or backing off from a position that is no longer safe or strategic.
Most of us have heard it said that “Taido begins and ends with unsoku.” If this is so, then a thorough understanding of unsoku is vital to our understanding of Taido. Since Japanese is a symbolic language, we can’t take for granted that sosoku is simply a name for a particular movement. The name of any technique is a clue to its application.
Taido is about combining naiko and gaiko, mi and karada, thought and action. So we should consider the meanings of the movements along with their uses when we practice. This is the origin of the tradition of saying “so” when we do sosoku and “in” when we do insoku – to give meaning to the physical practice. In the West, it’s usually treated as a mnemonic technique, but the Japanese get more out of it. That’s their advantage.
Now it’s yours too.
Technical Notes on Each Unsoku Step
Below are technical notes for the various types of stepping in Taido’s unsoku.
- SO: So-soku is an advancing step for narrowing the distance to the target. Since it moves closer to danger, it's very important to begin with a solid face cover. Likewise, the punch should be strong and direct to prevent the opponent from attempting to control your step. Notice that so-soku terminates in neko ashi dachi, with one leg supporting most of the weight. This allows the unweighted foot to move quickly for changing directions or initiating an attack.
- IN: In-soku is the reverse of so-soku. It is used to gain distance quickly. Here again, a cat stance is employed to maintain mobility after the motion. Also be aware that the outstretched soete helps to keep the advancing opponent at bay. In-soku is probably the least-practiced and most underestimated of all the unsoku movements, but when understood correctly, it can be employed to good effect in jissen.
- KA: Ka-soku is an advancing step which is practiced in two forms. The irregular hensoku version will be discussed below. Ka-soku begins similarly to so-soku, but continues beyond the strike. There is no break in the motion at this point – only a change of direction. The initial strike can be used to illicit a defensive response from the opponent. Then there is a sidestep to circumvent the defense and move towards an opening. The angle of the final step can be adjusted toward the target. This entering step is not the end of the movement, but should be used to initiate the appropriate sotai. Therefore, the direction and speed of the final step are vital to the execution of the technique.
- GEN: Gen-soku is inverse to ka-soku and is used for retreating from attack. Like ka-soku, gen-soku has an alternate version. The key point is the small step which is used to initiate movement and get away from harm as quickly as possible. This is a retreat into a cat stance from which the unweighted leg can move to whichever direction is most advantageous. Gen-soku’s effectiveness in jissen is due to the fact that it is not a backwards escape which invites further aggression, but a strategic escape which retreats to a more-defensible position. As with ka-soku, the final step should lead directly into sotai.
- KO: Ko-soku is the most basic, and most used of Taido’s unsoku. The purpose of ko-soku is to maintain control of your angle and position relative to the opponent. In ko-soku the angle is altered with respect to your back foot.
- TEN: Ten-soku is similar to ko-soku, though not as easy to understand or employ. Where ko-soku adjusts the angle at a safe-feeling distance by turning about the back foot, ten-soku adjusts the angle by turning about the front leg, often within inches of the opponent. Though it appears to have limited application, ten-soku is useful for entering an opponents attack and changing the angle to favor your own attack from within. Like in-soku, ten-soku should be studied and its applications explored to find new ways of controlling the opponent.
- TSUI: Tsui-soku is a very fast lunge and strike, often confused with untai no tsuki. Tsui-soku does not move up and down, so it is not an untai technique. It lacks the power of untai, but can be nearly twice as fast and is useful for taking advantage of a fleeting opportunity. While tsui-soku is not a viable option for seriously attacking, it can be used to break a combination or thwart and oncoming attack.
- TAI: Tai-soku is a used for returning to genten after an attack. Don’t neglect to practice returning from techniques. Tai-soku primarily removes you from engagement distance after an attack. This reduces the opportunity of counter attack by the opponent and allows you to apprise the situation from a relatively safe distance.
Oyo no Unsoku or Hensoku
As mentioned above, there are alternate versions of both ka-soku and gen-soku. In America, these are referred to as hensoku, or irregular footwork, because they don’t return to genten. In Japan, I usually here them referred to as “oyo no kasoku” and “oyo no gensoku.”
In either step, the object is the same as the original version, but the movement is altered to cover the greatest possible distance and be adjustable to the situation. In both hensoku moves, it is important to remember that the final kamae is not the end of the motion – it should lead into the body movement of a technique.
Oyo no KA-Soku
In the major difference between oyo no ka and ka-soku is that the oyo version doesn’t step back after striking. Instead, the motion continues forward at an angle. This is for chasing a retreating opponent.
Be sure not to stop in the punching position. Shift your momentum to retain the forward pressure advantage. Likewise, don’t step forward with a weak punch and expect an opponent to react defensively. It’s your job to make him move by stepping forcefully with a strong punch.
Oyo no GEN-Soku
Here again, the step is altered to move further. Where gen-soku steps back to nekoashidachi before moving sideways, oyo no gen takes a full step backward before angling back. The final step includes an overstep and correction that stretches away from the oncoming attack and adjusts to the appropriate angle into the final kamae. As a counter to hensoku ka, hensoku gen is for retreating quickly from an aggressive opponent.
Movement Notes for Unsoku
Though each unsoku step has a different purpose, they all work on the same basic principles of movement. Mastering these principles will make your unsoku more effective. You can apply the concepts below to any unsoku practice and should keep them in mind when practicing jissen as well.
Expansion/Contraction on Sidesteps
When we begin learning unsoku, we tend to start off with the misconception that it is somehow related to walking. A casual analysis shows that this is not the case.
When we walk, we pick up one leg and begin to lean forward. As gravity takes over, the unweighted leg swings forward. The rear leg pushes at the ankle to increase the forward movement. The forward leg then catches the ground, and momentum carries the hips forward. Et cetera. This is not unsoku. Walking is mostly passive. It is a simple sequence of leveraging the upright body from one leg to the next, using gravity to do most of the work.
Unsoku is different. One thing that my instructors always stressed was the necessity of practicing unsoku with as wide a step as possible – especially on the sidesteps. This means stretching your legs out from the center and then pulling them back together. This expanding and contracting movement is a key component of unsoku.
We don’t want to interact with gravity very much in our unsoku. Ideally, we will keep our hips at approximately the same height. Moreover, we are not only moving forward in Taido; we often want to move to the side. Since the hips are not structured to waddle sideways, we must expend some physical effort to get where we want to be. We do this by stretching out laterally and then gathering our bodies back to the new center.
To accomplish this, begin by pushing with the trailing leg, in the direction of the lead leg (if you are moving left, you push left with the right leg). As this happens, extend the lead leg in the direction of travel. Stretch it out and feel for the ground. Try to grab a piece of the ground that is beyond your normal reach. At this point, the trailing leg will have to begin moving as the hips pull it away from its start point. Now this much would be easy if we were to visualize it as a sideways hop, but that would force us to move up and down and make it difficult to control our motion.
In unsoku, we push straight to the side. If we simply pushed off and let ourselves fall, we would end up in a near split. Instead, we now squeeze our legs together, using the muscles of the inner thighs. With the lead foot gripping the ground, this results in the legs snapping shut above that foot. This means that the hips will also be directly over the lead foot.
This method works especially well when you need to cover a lot of distance rather quickly. Push off and stretch the leading leg. Then, after you have found the point at which you wish to land, squeeze your legs together tightly in order to pull yourself to that position.
As my instructors always drilled into our heads, if you can move long distances quickly, you will have little difficulty in moving short ones. Of course, deciding the appropriate distance is an entirely different can of worms. Still, the logic holds that by practicing stepping as far as possible, you will be better able to move your body to wherever you need it to be.
As with any physical motion, the alignment of the body makes a great deal of difference between mechanically effective and ineffective unsoku. Obviously, your posture affects your balance, and I will deal with this aspect below (see cautions), but here I want to describe something different.
Think of your body as a lever with two weighted ends – your spine connecting your head and hips. To generate the most power from this system, you want the lever to be as long as possible. By straightening the spine and stretching your kamae upwards, you will notice that small changes in your head and hip positions will have noticeable consequences in your motion. I find this is particularly desirable when attempting to execute hengi and nengi, because the added leverage translates to speed and power in my attacks. I also find that by lifting my head, I can achieve more of a floating feel to my unsoku – that is, I move easily and smoothly.
Conversely, for more control over your motion, you may wish to shorten the lever. For ungi, sengi, and tengi, contracting the muscles of the back and abdomen brings the head and hips closer together in a tighter relationship. This lends itself to moving with the body’s axis perpendicular to the direction of motion. Especially when moving groundward, I find myself pushing my head down into my spine and my hips into the ground. This helps increase the precision with which I can execute certain techniques.
Although I am using a simplified physical model, you can experiment and find various uses for manipulation of your posture while moving.
One of the most important things to understand is that unsoku is part of your technique. You should never find yourself doing an unsoku movement and then executing a technique. The technique should flow naturally out from the unsoku motion.
I see this all the time in jissen. Both opponents will moving around in unsoku, looking for an opening, and testing each others’ reactions. Suddenly, one will change his angle, cut quickly in a different direction, and plant his kamae while he decides whether or not to continue his attack. This is not how it works. That brief pause destroys the momentum of the technique and gives the opponent a chance to defend.
We must seek to eliminate this pause by launching techniques directly from unsoku.
Taido’s kamae and unsoku were designed to work together with the techniques. We are aiming for a synergy of several components. Keep this in mind when practicing unsoku and always remember that you should be able to execute any technique at any time during your step – not just on the final kamae.
There are a few cautions you should keep in mind when moving by unsoku. Three of these are mentioned in Taido Gairon. First, do not pick up your feet while stepping. You should move close to the ground so your opponent cannot easily trip you. Second, do not drag your feet. This can also throw your balance. Third, do not step hard or stomp. Your footwork should be smooth and quiet – the opponent shouldn’t know whether your feet are touching the ground or not.
In addition to the above, I would add that unsoku as a motion happens from the hips down. That is, you should avoid moving your upper body very much at all. Leaning the body and tilting the head will affect your balance and telegraph your movements to the opponent. Besides that, your moves should work with your kamae to set up techniques. Maintaining straight posture facilitates this. No portion of you body above your hips has any contribution to make towards moving effectively in unsoku. Therefore, upper-body neutrality is ideal.
The most common unsoku mistake I see students making has to do with the direction of the hips. The hips need to be aligned correctly in order to deploy effective techniques. Very often, students performing ka-soku and gen-soku will turn their hips towards the outside as they make the final kamae in anticipation of a technique such as ebigeri or sentai with turns in that direction. In fact, many Taido techniques spin in the same direction, but this does not make it OK to be in the habit of setting your unsoku for them automatically. For one thing, it reduces the power potential of the technique by cutting the range of travel. More importantly, it makes it very difficult to move in the opposite direction. Taido needs to be adaptable. If your unsoku favors one side or type of technique, it is a hindrance. Be careful with regard to the direction and orientation of your feet and hips while moving in unsoku.
The best way to test the accuracy of your final step in unsoku is to pay attention to any tendency of the front foot to turn (especially to the inside) as you set it down. Focus on squaring the hips in the direction of the intended kamae before turning them off axis (to 45 degrees – hanmi) as the foot steps. Ideally, the rear foot should also point toward the target before pivoting 90 degrees into kamae.
Practice Routines for Unsoku
Below are the basic patterns and routines for practicing unsoku. I’m willing to bet that you haven’t mastered them all…
The most basic unsoku practice is unsoku happo, which contains the eight unsoku movements.
The order is: so – in, ka – gen, ko – ten, tsui – tai.
Notice that they are grouped in pairs of obverse movements. Unsoku happo is a very important practice in Taido. It is simple, yet contains all of the eight steps. It doesn’t require a lot of space to practice, and the pairing of like movements helps to remind us which unsoku work together.
The other simple unsoku practice is ido tanren, which combines techniques with the unsoku steps. This routine only uses ka-soku and gen-soku and is found in two halves in sentai and untai hokei. The purpose of this exercise is to use the unsoku step with whichever technique you are practicing.
The order is: ka + waza, gen + waza, ka + waza, gen + waza.
By using ido tanren, you can practice both sides of any technique with unsoku. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this practice for developing strong attack and defense habits.
Unsoku no Jigata
The most complicated unsoku routine is unsoku jigata, which means footwork in the shapes of letters. Actually, the footwork doesn’t follow the letter shapes, but the shapes provide a kind of map for the movement.
The thing that makes this routine so complicated is that its really 24 separate routines that are simply determined by the same process. Most people don’t like unsoku jigata very much because learning it is a pain, but it can be a good way to stretch your imagination with respect to unsoku and break out of habits. Besides that, you can bust it out during class and sound really smart by saying “OK, lets do combinations with random unsoku series. How about C3 and sentaigeri?” Then when everyone looks at you funny, “What you guys didn’t learn unsoku jigata yet? That’s all right, I’ll just tell you. C3 is ka – ko – ten – gen.”
It’s a great way to make all the black belts in the class feel like a bunch of morons (though you’ll probably pay for it later).
Of course if you’re planning on doing this, you have to learn it first. The way it works is that you imagine a square wherein each corner represents an unsoku movement. Southwest is gen, northwest is ka, northeast is ko, and southeast is ten. For the m and x routines, the center is so-in or tsui-tai, respectively. Confused yet? Good. Now you superimpose the upper-case letters C, U, N, Z, M, and X on the square. You do the unsoku in the order suggested by the shape of the letter. You get more combinations by flipping the letters around backwards and upside-down.
Does this seem convoluted and silly? Yeah, it’s just as fun and useful as memorizing all the state birds back in junior high. Memorizing the routines is not the point – practicing them is. I’ll spare you all the brainwork and just give you the patterns. Here they are:
- N1: gen – ka – ten – ko
- N2: ko – ten – ka – gen
- N3: ka – gen – ko – ten
- N4: ten – ko – gen – ka
- Z1: ka – ko – gen – ten
- Z2: ten – gen – ko – ka
- Z3: ko – ka – ten – gen
- Z4: gen – ten – ka – ko
- U1: ka – gen – ten – ko
- U2: ko – ten – gen – ka
- U3: gen – ka – ko – ten
- U4: ten – ko – ka – gen
- C1: ko – ka – gen – ten
- C2: ten – gen – ka – ko
- C3: ka – ko – ten – gen
- C4: gen – ten – ko – ka
- M1: gen – ka – so – in – ko – ten
- M2: ten – ko – so – in – ka – gen
- M3: ka – gen – so – in – ten – ko
- M4: ko – ten – so – in – gen – ka
- X1: ka – so – in – ten – ko – tsui – tai – gen
- X2: ko – so – in – gen – ka – tsui – tai – ten
- X3: gen – so – in – ko – ten – tsui – tai – ka
- X4: ten – so – in – ka – gen – tsui – tai – ko
So, there you are. All 24 of them. And if you think trying to practice all these is going to be tough, try typing them sometime…
A far less mentally-taxing pattern exercise for unsoku. “Gorendo” means five continuous patterns. That’s a lot less to memorize and also easier to use because they all move in the same direction. If you paid much attention to the jigata, you’ll see that it includes the patterns for unsoku gorendo. Take a look at N1, Z3, C4, U2, and M1. At any rate, I’ll repeat the five patterns in one place here for clarity:
- gen – ka – ten – ko + ten
- ko – ka – ten – gen + ten
- gen – ten – ko – ka + ten
- ko – ten – gen – ka + ten
- gen – ka – so – in – ko – ten – ko
I let you off the hook on unsoku jigata, so there’s no excuse for not memorizing unsoku gorendo as soon as possible. It will help you.
To truly develop facility with unsoku, all of these practice routines are essential. Most students only practice two: happo and gorendo. The result is that most people use just two types of unsoku in jissen. Happo is great for developing the single steps, and gorendo works well for circular patterns that cover a lot of ground or skirt obstacles in a hurry. Most jissen consists of only these sorts of unsoku.
Many students have difficulty moving directly from unsoku to attack or defense. Ido tanren is sometimes practiced in the US, but only occasionally and with limited techniques. Ido tanren is not designed to train speed or endurance – proper practice teaches how to eliminate the gap between unsoku and technique. By practicing this routine thoroughly, one will find it easier to attack without hesitation and defend confidently.
And almost nobody practices the jigata patterns. They’re a pain in the ass, but they are the only systematic method in Taido for teaching your body to move well in any direction at any time. The patterns don’t always flow smoothly in one direction, and this forces you to learn to change directions quickly. So when the unexpected happens in jissen, you can adjust and adapt without breaking your unsoku and creating openings for your opponent to attack.
The point here is that all of these patterns have value for the student who wishes to attain a complete education in Taido. Of course, most people will take the easiest path and practice only the bare minimum. It’s possible to do quite well in tournaments by only practicing basic unsoku, hienzuki, sentaizuki, shajogeri, and senjogeri or suiheigeri. In fact, that’s just about all one sees used in most matches, but it’s not true to the ideal of a creative and dynamic martial art.
Unsoku is the door to greater mastery of Taido, and these routines are the methods for attaining that mastery. You can choose a superficial practice of Taido and attain a superficial understanding and ability. But if you hope to grok this Taido thing deeply, my suggestion is to start with the practices on this page.