Friday, April 13, 2018

Jo-ha-kyu in suburi; or, 'how fast should I swing the shinai?' (answer - every speed!)

Watch this Noh actor for the johakyu in his retreating steps.

Suburi, as we know, is a very important form of solo training for the development of efficient movement in Kendo.

When you are practicing, it might become confusing as to how fast you should swing. When you do suburi or kihon waza at training, while you are warming up it might be difficult to find your tempo. There is a very common tendency to rush, born of two things 1) the influence of watching people around you move quickly, and 2) trying to please sensei and her/his admonitions to do your best!focus!move faster!etc.

In these situations, whether by yourself or training with others, using the principle of "jo-ha-kyu" can help inform correct and powerful technique without excessive force or muscle power.

Jo-ha-kyu has been well-described in English on the internet. This article is especially good (as is the blog it is taken from). Johakyu appears all over Japanese culture, from the movements of the Noh, to the way the we beat a drum in the dojo (don.............don........don......don....don...don..don-don-don-dondondondon..... don!). We even use johakyu in the three steps between bowing and sonkyo.

With suburi, you should use johakyu to begin slowly and then accelerate through the back-swing to the cut, and finally tenouchi. It is absolutely essential that there is no stopping in your movement. This is one of the bad habits that johakyu can help eliminate: the tendency to pause slightly at the top of the swing.

Johakyu means basically that you don't swing fast or slow, but fast and slow and every velocity in between. Explore this movement and timing deeply. This is why we do suburi. It is our personal research time.

What I hope you will find is that your swing becomes easier, more accurate and more powerful and that you use less effort. The speed of your cut when you use johakyu timing is constantly increasing. This makes it unpredictable for an opponent. Hence it is more than just a training exercise, it has martial relevance as well.

When you return to the dojo, use this timing to warm up your body and ground your technique during the first few rotations of kirikaeshi and kihon waza.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Shisei 姿勢

Shisei, or posture, in Kendo is very important. For people who start Kendo young it's not usually a problem. But if you start Kendo as an adult, very often you'll have some issues with your basic posture, most commonly in kamae.

But what's the big problem? Does it matter how you stand? We all stand pretty much the same don't we?

We learn quite early in Kendo that it's not so difficult to stand in kamae without resting our arms against our body, even though in the beginning it looked like it would take a lot of effort. More importantly we learn that it is a requirement of being able to move the shinai quickly. The shisei of the whole body is no different.

I've been working on my posture for the whole time I've been doing Kendo, and it has been a fascinating journey of discovery about how I stand when I'm not thinking versus how I could stand if I worked on it. I've learned what it feels like to be more ready with less effort. And I've been lucky to have received excellent instruction from a variety of sources along the way. On the left here we have pretty much the kind of posture I started with. The left foot is planted a long way back to support the arch in the spine. The left heel is high. From the top of the head to the heel this kenshi's body makes a reverse "S".

This is really quite a static position. No matter what this kenshi wants to do, they have to undo this position first. It is not neutral. It is not ready. On the contrary it is quite a restful position so the kenshi often feels they have to expend effort to wake themselves up!

This is a much improved posture. The shoulders are above the hips, not behind them as in the first picture. The feet are a better distance apart. The heel is lower. There is still a little bit of work to be done in learning to stand even taller with the ears above the shoulders not in front of them, but the improvement is vast and will allow more spontaneous and relaxed movement. The kenshi is maybe as much as 20cm closer to their opponent even without changing their front foot position, because of the shift in their centre of gravity brought about by straightening the spine.

They can now move from the hara more effectively and keep their upper body relaxed while doing so. Shifts in body weight are easier, more fluid and less perceptible. And a whole lot of techniques that were impossible before suddenly become a lot easier.

This is the reason why posture is important. Not just because it looks good, or sends a commanding message to your opponent, but because it lifts the level of your Kendo, making possible things you couldn't do before.

Next time you're at the Kenshikan and there's a seminar with some visiting sensei, keep an eye on how often they go and check themselves in the mirror. They're not vain, they're just working on shisei!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Nabeyama sensei at the Gyokuryuki

Coming up in March is a seminar in Sydney and Melbourne with Nabeyama sensei, head instructor of Tsukuba University Kendo Dept. Here are some highlights of his Kendo when he was back in high school, fighting for the famous PL Gakuen of Osaka. Date is sometime in the late 80s I think.

The competition this video comes from is the Gyokuryuki Taikai, which is held every July in Fukuoka. According to All Japan Budogu, it is the largest high school tournament in Japan with 900 schools competition over 5 days. Like most HS shiai in Japan, the crowd noise and the barracking is much louder than the All Japans or the 8-dan Championship! This is also because it uses the 'kachinuki" format which often makes for a more volatile competition. Teams are still of five, with the various designation of team places (e.g. Senpo, Jiho, Chuken, Fukusho, Taisho) but if you win, you stay "in". If you lose or draw the next member of your team has to step up. So in theory one person can defeat the whole opposing team. This means that teams that only have one really good player can go much further than in a normal teams event.

From watching this video of Nabeyama it certainly looks like he has an attitude of "win quickly"! You can also see how the person who wins through can develop a momentum that is difficult for their opponents to resist: they are not just warmed-up, they are running hot.

Nabeyama sensei's Kendo here is interesting to watch. His posture is that of a young man: flexible, a bit stooped, lacking the 'spine' that he will develop later. All his Kendo is about speed and readiness. But he shows an amazing ability to find opportunities when his opponents are resting or just beginning their movement. He is also very relaxed in his cuts, which shows the speed of his mental processing: he is not getting ippon because his reactions are fast, he wins because he has very quickly seen (or anticipated) what his opponent is going to do. He looks like he's fighting less-experienced people in ordinary jigeiko, not the best in Japan at a major tournament!

Thanks to Tom of MUKEN for introducing me to this video.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Tying up the elbows for better technique

Yesterday we did an interesting exercise that carries on from my thinking about Kendo, geometry and robots.

We tried tying our arms together with old himo (laces) above the elbow and then performing kihon men. As you can see from the pictures, students were told to tie their arms together quite tightly. Tight enough so that some of the kids complained of discomfort. One was even prompted to exclaim, "Oh, my precious elbows!" which is about the second best thing I've ever heard said in the dojo.

But interestingly there was very little impact on people's ability to perform basic men cuts. Both from my observations, and also from self-reporting after the exercise. Most students reported either no difficulty with their technique or an improvement in their technique. Why?

The reason I believe is excessive flexion of the elbows, a common beginners' mistake that makes accuracy and consistency more difficult. Elbow flexion increases the overall tendency of the shinai to be able to veer and wooble through the air unpredicably. After all, the more joints you have, the more movement possibilities you have. Using the sword correctly however requires fewer movement possibilities, so reducing the number of joints involved in the action from six to four logically improves accuracy. Severely restricting the ability of the elbows to move during the cutting action shows the student how little their elbows contribute to the performance of an effective men cut.

Now there are many ways to skin a cat, and I know of experienced kenshi who use the elbows to great effect in their kihon waza. The key word here is experienced. Also, as I mentioned in training yesterday, the very vertical, up-down cutting action that Kendo employs, based as is it on Itto Ryu, is not the only way to use the sword. Tatsumi Ryu and Katori Shinto Ryu for example, both use cutting actions that are circular rather than linear as the basis of their kihon uchi.

However in the context of a Kendo club that teaches fundamentals to a wide range of ages and abilities, the desire is to find the most effective, efficient and easy-to-understand way of using the shinai, that nonetheless still matches the logic of using an actual sword (刀法 - toho). I think that this exercise is a great way forward in this respect.

If you try it out yourself, please leave a comment and let me know what you think. We only used it for kihon men. Next week we might try kote and do as well. I think it might even prove more useful there too, as the position of the elbows in the cut has an important influence on which part of the palms of the hands make contact with the tsuka, and how tenouchi is employed, which again has an impact on accuracy.

The only drawback is that it does make reiho pretty much impossible!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Fight. Die. Repeat.

Aargh! I'm sick of these tension headaches!
I've got you mate!

As a bona-fide Kendo tragic, I'm always thinking about Kendo. Often I get new insights into what Kendo is about when watching other pastimes, such as my son's soccer matches.

Soccer is a great thing to compare to Kendo because it comes from a very different cultural mindset. Players are allowed to celebrate, to criticise the referee (within limits) and to show disrespect to their opponents (within limits). And spectators are allowed to do the same. Rather than these things being problems, they are celebrated as part of the 'passion' of the game. The same probably goes for all football codes and most spectator sports in general.

The safest place to be at a Greek soccer match: outside the stadium.

It couldn't be more structurally different either: a team sport with 90 mins to decide the outcome of a single match in which you are allowed to score as many times as you are able. Soccer is unusual also in that is possible for the dominant team (the team with the majority of the possession of the ball or majority of the play in their own half) to lose. I suppose you could say the same about Kendo sometimes.

So watching soccer has helped me to clarify what I love about Kendo, about what makes it unique.

Recently I was struck by an incident in one of my son's games that showed me something lacking in soccer: intensive practice at winning and losing.

After an important goal towards the end of a match, members of my son's team yelled out ferocious encouragement to themselves that was also part bragging about how they were dominating the other team. The effect of this was interesting. It actually had the result of firing up their opponents, who had until that moment been demoralised at being down 2 nil. The opposition then scored a quick goal, and with only a few minutes left, suddenly saw they could rescue a draw, if not win. In the end it was a tense finish and my son's team didn't concede another goal. But their 'passion' and 'swagger' very nearly gave away the match.

“If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.” ― Sun TzuThe Art of War

It struck me that in Kendo one of the things we practice the most is how to win and how to lose. We know that to celebrate a win would only fire up our enemy. We know to show via our posture that we are demoralised also hands them victory. We regularly have to accept that despite our best efforts we get beaten, sometimes many times over! "Strike and reflect. Be struck and give thanks." This is, in effect, the point of Kendo. Victory and defeat, over and over again. Some people are easy to lose to. Some people are not. How will you manage it?


We are told by our sensei to be thankful because the opponent who defeats us is the one who shows us the path to improvement. More than this, it helps us manage our egos, which is the real barrier to self-improvement. You've got to first recognise you're maybe not as good as you think you are, before you can work out what you need to do to improve. It's very easy, especially as you get some seniority, to go into denial about your defeats. You can tell yourself it was a fluke, or an anomaly. You might avoid shiai or shinsa where the outcome is uncertain, or only do keiko against your students. You might think that to admit to yourself and others that you've been defeated would be to lose face. The struggle against this kind of thinking is endless.

"The most important thing in Kendo is a flexible mind, which makes one humble enough to recognise one's own weakness, and to overcome it through practice."
Ishida Kenichi sensei 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Kiriotoshi sequence

This sequence was shot at the Kenshikan, Melbourne. Takizawa sensei is demonstrating kiriotoshi waza against Shinoda sensei (renshi 6 dan) while Yano sensei (Kenshikan head instructor) watches on.

As you can see by the action of the hands they are both cutting downwards. The third frame above shows the point at which Shinoda sensei's shinai stops. The kiriotoshi movement, although it is travelling in the same direction as Shinoda sensei's attack, has managed to halt his attack so effectively that there is a small bend in the shinai. This seems to go against the laws of physics! I am confident that Shinoda sensei was not 'pulling' the cut, that he was genuinely going for Takizawa's men. Video below for moving reference.

This is a sequence that needs a genuine slow motion camera to record it...

Monday, April 10, 2017

Why studying koryu is important for Kendo

Recently I have invited our senior students to join me in practising Tatsumi Ryu Iai before our regular Saturday morning training. This was partly inspired by the example of Ozawa Hiroshi sensei, who practices Mizoguchi-ha Itto Ryu in addition to Kendo at his dojo, the Kobukan, in Tokyo.

Over the years, I've found that most of the kenshi I admire, both Japanese and non-Japanese, have at least some, and in most cases a lot, of experience in one of the traditional sword styles or koryu. This practice gives them something extra in their Kendo, something that I think is worth investigating.

What are koryu?
Koryu literally means 'old style'. Briefly, these are traditions or styles of martial art that started before the Meiji period of modernisation in Japan. In other words before the 1870s. They usually use a system of kata to transmit the techniques of their style. Throughout history, koryu would often break off into different branches and form new styles. For instance the Itto Ryu has many branches such as the Ono-ha (Ono branch), Mizoguchi-ha and others. A very few of the oldest koryu still in existence date back to the Sengoku Jidai or Warring States Period (1467-1603). Most however were developed during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868). The main difference between Sengoku and Tokugawa era koryu is that the former contain techniques either for and developed from battlefield use (armoured opponents, various weapons, multiple opponents) and the latter tend to be more focused on duelling (unarmoured, single opponent, mainly sword use).

This video has some great sequences of Kato soke performing and explaining the basics of Tatsumi Ryu. 

Tatsumi Ryu Hyoho
In Melbourne we are fortunate to have a licensed instructor of one of the oldest and rarest koryu, Tatsumi Ryu Hyoho, in the form of Liam Keeley sensei. He has given me permission to start teaching the basics of the Tatsumi Ryu Iai curriculum to interested Nanseikan students for the purpose of developing their Kendo. Of course any Nanseikan students who become enamoured of the style are welcome to contact Keeley sensei directly about formalising their study.

Tatsumi Ryu dates from the Warring States period and is a sogo bujutsu, which means it is a comprehensive fighting system that has kata for all armed and unarmed combat situations samurai would find themselves in. That means as well as sword it teaches spear, naginata, staff, grappling and so on. Keeley sensei's organisation is called the Melbourne Koryu Kenkyukai.


My feeling about the difference between Seitei Iaido and Tatsumi Iai!

Iai and Kendo
One of the reasons I prefer Tatsumi Ryu Iai to the 'normal' Seitei Iaido (which is what most Kendo people know), is because of the Tatsumi Iai belonging to a larger curriculum*. There is a very simple but profound rationale behind everything in Tatsumi Ryu. Whereas Seitei Iaido has a small range of very handsome kata with various methods of drawing, cutting and sheathing the sword, Tatsumi only has a couple of very straightforward ways of doing the same. But those simple techniques are then expanded into literally hundreds of different applications. To me, Iaido feels like a demonstration art, like a piece of decorative furniture, that shows (off) all the different things one can do with a sword. Tatsumi Iai is just the bare bones and feels more purposeful, almost as if it was designed to learn quickly because you, as a samurai, are going to need to use it for survival-- tomorrow! I find there is a great sense of urgency in the techniques for that reason: you must study and master this! You must get it right! There are some historians who see this as evidence of Tatsumi Ryu's wartime origins whereas Seitei Iaido's antecedents were created during times of relative peace and stability.

If at its heart Tatsumi Ryu Iai has this martial urgency, by contrast the outward movements emphasise softness, naturalness and as a result, a kind of invisibility. Iaido people show great kigurai and shisei-- commanding presence and beautiful posture-- when they perform their Iaido. The hakama is deftly and proudly swished out of the way when they go into a seated position like seiza or iaigoshi. Tatsumi Iai doesn't show you when it has started. Kneeling in seiza takes half the time and no noise, but all the more leg strength in order to do so!

In Tatsumi Iai the sword is initially grasped very lightly, as lightly as a ballerina resting her hand on the barre, or a dragonfly sitting on a reed. The characteristic action of the sword in Tatsumi Ryu, zenkai, is executed with soft hands and supple wrists. The Tatsumi student learns the importance of letting the sword move naturally with the help of gravity, not muscling it to follow their will. Use of muscle power is momentary and extremely focused, returning quickly to softness. Kendo of a high level also has this exact aim. It is all about minimum effort for maximum effect. Simple to say but years of practice to achieve!

Tatsumi Ryu is, almost by accident, a very good fit with Kendo and there are many kendoka amongst the ryu's Japanese members. The same cannot be said of all koryu, and especially not of other Sengoku Jidai koryu.

Understanding the sword
As well as the improved understanding of use of the body, Iai also teaches about what a sword can and can't do. It shows what we should keep in mind when using a sword. For instance, not using your index finger to guide the blade into the saya! And it deepens our understanding of the culture of sword use, the why, when and how of the sword. This is true of Tatsumi Iai and Seitei Iaido equally.

On the other hand, part of the larger Tatsumi curriculum is close-quarter techniques, known as Yawara. These are not 'unarmed' techniques since Tatsumi Ryu assumes both self and enemy always to have at least a sheathed dagger or bo-shuriken in their belts, as much as for situations when samurai were forbidden to draw their weapon, or elected not to for various reasons. In learning these techniques you are drawn directly into a practical understanding of the history and ethics of the feudal Japanese class system. It also reminds us of the fact that even today soldiers and indeed civilians are subject to laws about appropriate use of force in violent conflict. The very breadth of sogo bujutsu, or comprehensive systems, gives expanded understanding to each component part of the curriculum. The parts form the whole but the whole even more so informs the parts.

This expanded understanding is also what I think koryu practice gives the kendoka; the connection to a whole culture of sword use so that even carrying the shinai feels different. You no longer have to imagine the shinai is a sword, it is no longer an abstract concept. You really understand that it is a sword that you are holding in your hand. And you start to be confident that you will know how to handle it correctly, with every nuance of what that word implies.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: It is not my intention to denigrate or belittle Seitei Iaido via my observations of the differences between Seitei and Tatsumi Iai. The practitioners of Seitei are dedicated and knowledgeable group of people, many of whom are my good friends and possess amazing skills. And a lot of them do Kendo too! If, dear reader, you are in an area where the only option for sword-based study is Seitei Iaido then I would encourage you to take it up!

* Of course Seitei Iaido is connected to related koryu, most commonly Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and/or Muso Shinden Ryu. However this connection is not aurtomatic, nor easily found in Australia. Iaido students often have to travel to seminars around Australia and internationally in order to progress their koryu practice.