Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Nanba Aruki

For the able-bodied, walking seems like the most natural thing in the world. We learn to walk at such an early stage in our lives that I assumed the process of walking, with opposite arm swinging to leg, was due to some kind of biological programming. In other words, I assumed that our walking style was nature rather than nurture.

Then I read about nanba aruki. Now I realise that the way in which we walk is nurture rather than nature. It only feels natural because we have been doing it for so long!

Nanba aruki is a style of walking in which the same arm and leg are moved at the same time. The centre of gravity is lowered and the legs remain slightly bent with the torso relaxed. The left arm moves with the left leg and the right arm with the right leg. The centre line of the body acts as a pivot as the person takes small steps forward in this manner, landing on the ball of the foot first.

Here's some Nanba walking:

Nanba aruki was a style of walking that would have seemed very natural to the Japanese during the Edo period (1603-1868).  It is thought that the word nanba means 'difficult place' and aurki means 'to walk'. So one interpretation of nanba aurki is to walk away from a difficult place. In other words nanba walking was designed to get you out of a trouble or do difficult jobs more easily.

The bushi walked in this style and farmers tending the fields used a variation of it. It is difficult to walk in a sodden paddy field in the usual way so the farmers adopted a stance with the right leg and arm forward and shuffled forwards in this semi-sidewards position, pushing the hoe in front of them. This variant of nanba walking (where the same leg and arm remain in the front) is called hitoemi and essentially means to move the body along a single line as one mass. Hitoemi is used extensively in many sword arts as well as in bojutsu and other weapon arts.

The principles of nanba aruki are inherent in the classical Japanese martial arts including karate, aikido, jujitsu and kobujutsu. This style of movement is more energy efficient, less fatiguing and quicker than the more Western (sport/athletic) way of moving and suits martial arts in particular. The centre of gravity is kept low and centred; and the upper and lower parts of the body remain unified all the time. In the Edo period, samurai messengers and couriers (hikyaku) would travel between Edo and Kyoto (310 miles) in as little as 6 days running in nanba aruki :- that's 50 - 60 miles per day, carrying a load!

In martial arts the principles of hitoemi and nanba aruki are used in tai sabaki, most of the stances and kamae positions (same arm and leg forward) and oi zuki (step through punch). In the skillful practitioner this principle of movement allows concealment of the transfer of body weight because the torso remains relaxed and movement starts with the hips, projecting energy in a horizontal plane. The rotational movement around a central axis means the body can move as a whole and allows increased speed with little muscular effort.

Here's a video of some karate nanba:

 In Japan, nanba aruki fell out of favour during the Meiji restoration when Japan wished to adopt all things Western. People were taught and encouraged to walk with opposing arms swinging. Many martial arts became sports focused and adopted Western patterns of movement. Karate adopted the gyaku zuki (reverse punch) which actually aligns more with the boxing or kick-boxing techniques and is counter to the principles of classical karate and nanba aruki. Many people lament the introduction of western style sports principles into classical martial arts as they consider it to be a distortion and erosion of the essence of the art.

What do you think? Does your art utilise the principles of nanba aruki or have you adopted the western 'sports' way of moving?

Further reading:

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. said...

A thought provoking post as usual Sue. The majority of strikes and blocks in my style are carried out over the front leg - so I guess that would be a "yes" to the Nanba Aruki style for us. That first video really made me want to try that - I bet its uber difficult even though they make it look easy (that'd be a lot of retraining for us westerners to get that to feel natural I think).


Sue C said...

Hi Marie, that video makes nanaba walking look so graceful but I'm sure it looks clunky and comical when you first learn to do it!

Mathieu said...


good post. Center-line body alignment. Gedan-barai shows this. Yet, the second video feels very chinese like. It this a kenpo/kempo ma?

I've been reconsidering everything I do and how I do it recently. This is interesting.

Sue C said...

Hi Mat, I can see what you are saying about looking Chinese but nanba principles are entirely Japanese and were not used in China or Korea.

The text that accompanied the video is: "Tamaki Sensei is a Master of Karate, and demonstrates movements which also illustrate the Nanba principles of Don‘t Force, Don’t Twist, and Don’t Disconnect. He also was able to move through a tight group of people without touching anyone, and like a Ninja almost disappearing before our eyes. You can imagine how from the movements here."

Visit this website for more information about Nanba:

Journeyman said...

Very interesting. I had not heard of this style of movement, but examining my own training, I see it pops up from time to time, mainly during some attacks.

My Sensei often is on us to 'bring everything together', not to let the punch arrive before the step and vice versa. This full tensing or involvement of the body at the point of impact may very well be based on these principles.

I'll be examining my training for more signs. Thanks.

Sue C said...

Journeyman, it's funny how when you become aware that something exists you see it everywhere! Anything that helps us understand what we are doing better must be a good thing.

SenseiMattKlein said...

Interesting way of moving. My thoughts were exactly the same as Mathieu. It looks like Kenpo in many ways-the rapid-fire hand combinations and shuffling footwork. I don't see the hard linear style characteristics of Japan in it. I like it!

Sue C said...

Hi Matt, I understand exactly what you are saying. I think the softer or more circular styles of karate may recognise these nanba movements more than hard, linear styles but even in linear styles the 'same arm, same leg' movements are still there.

Ninja Training said...

I've never seen this before. Very interesting article, as always.

Sue C said...

Thanks ninja!


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