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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Finding the switch for focus in high school

Teachers talk about focus all the time: "Sit still and focus!", "You need to bring your focus back to the task." "If you focus on studying effectively then you will do well in the upcoming test."

But what is focus really? How do you get it? Some kids seem to get it easily and never get in trouble from their teachers but others don't seem to know what it is. In this article I hope I can explain not only what focus is, but also how to get it and why we need it.

The most important thing is to realise that you probably show focus already in things that you love to do. What sorts of activities are easy for you to find focus in? Playing a soccer match? Drawing? Making or building stuff? If you get so engrossed in something that you forget the time, or you forget to eat, then you know what focus is.

Think a bit about that feeling. It might be hard to do because the focus comes by itself. It's almost like you're not doing it. It's like you're so absorbed in the activity you forget about yourself altogether. You forget about trying to be focused. You just are.

But when it is something you don't like so much, or you're not good at, staying focused is really difficult. Sound familiar? Most people are like this, adults included.

The way to bring yourself back to focus is realise that there is a switch for it. And that switch is the fact that you've done it before. Remember a time when you were focused and it was something you didn't enjoy so much. At school, tests are a good example. Maybe it was a big maths test in class, or perhaps the dreaded Naplan. They're stressful and sometimes, like with Naplan, you have to sit still and not talk for quite a while, as you focus on answering the questions. Beforehand it was stressful, but after it was all over there was relief. Often students think, "what was the point of that really?"

Well apart from giving teachers an idea of where your knowledge is at, the test situation itself is a really important experience for you. It shows you can focus when you choose to. And this is the point. You are the one that turns the switch on. No-one else can do it for you. Just remind yourself that you've done it before.

The more often you flick that switch, the easier it gets. And if you can learn to do that, then you can turn your mind to learning anything!

Why is focus so important?

the action starts at 2:04!

Perhaps this video is a better explanation than I can put into words. This pistol is being cut in half by water. That's right, just water! It is high-pressure water that is focused to a single point. This is a great image to have in mind when we wonder what can be achieved with focus. When you focus on something you can overcome huge obstacles.

But the first obstacle you have to overcome is yourself. That's why it's important to remember that you can find focus when you try, because you've done it before.

Focus is important because it is what will help you learn new things. There are a whole lot of things at this stage that you don't even know that you don't know! To go from not knowing about something, to knowing about something, to then being an expert in something takes focus.

Remember it might be hard to focus at first, but hang in there. Like anything, finding your focus gets easier with practice.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lessons from the Hokkaido Police

The various police forces around Japan have a special connection to Kendo*. When the Tokyo Metro Police (Keishicho) was established, it's first Superintendent, Kawaji Toshiyoshi, stipulated that police officers should learn bujutsu in order to keep in shape and apprehend criminals. He was no doubt inspired by the success of the Battotai, an early police unit of the Meiji Government who helped to defeat Saigo Takamori's rebels at the battle of Taburazaka (1877) using only swords. To this day, each prefectural police force maintains a Tokuren (Special Training Squad) and a Kidotai (Riot Squad) that recruits the strongest university kenshi. Places on these Tokuren are coveted, as the members have special dispensation from regular police duties to train in Kendo. Over the years the vast majority of All Japan Champions have come from the police force.

This video is of the current members of the Hokkaido Police Tokuren. They have great skill, speed and strength. But their basics are also really solid. Each technique is demonstrated and explained, then a slow-motion repeat is shown. I will go through the video and translate some of their main points.

The video is produced by Let's Kendo, whose Youtube channel is an extensive collection of videos from all the major Japanese tournaments.

1:01 Suburi
Matsui sensei emphasises making a big, sliding step when you do your suburi. This is something Yano sensei at Kenshikan also says. Matsui-s. also says to bring up your trailing foot quickly.

Notice also that his arms at the end of each cut are both straight.

1:49 Kiri kaeshi
Hayashi sensei has a very powerful, fast and correct kirikaeshi but what can we learn from it? His first kiai is huge, this is important. Even though his cuts are fast his left hand comes up above his face every. single. time. and his footwork is in sync with his cuts. When he finishes, and important detail is that he turns and holds a stable kamae before relaxing.

His points: aim for the opponent's head, not finishing your cuts above it; also he says to cut sayu-men on each side from above your head (literally "from furikaburi" which is the name for the high point of a men cut), not by bringing the shinai around your shoulders, so to speak. Cutting down at 45 degrees.

His partner Kuraoka sensei's point is to receive your partner's cuts in kirikaeshi by pulling back your shinai towards you on either side, which helps with timing and also allowing your partner to cut close to the target area (as opposed to blocking a long way from your own head).

3:29 Men
Iida sensei says for small men cuts not to raise your kensen too high, it opens your kote to attack. Instead you must choose the shortest path to your opponent's men. Apply seme to opponent's throat by driving forward with your kensen towards tsuki, and at the last moment cut men. Remember not to raise your sword first.

4:27 Kote
In this you can see what I was explaining last week about how in Japan it's usual to practice kote by finishing with tai-atari rather than following through past your opponent. This makes for a different kind of zanshin. Watch closely how Yoshida sensei demonstrates zanshin, and also how Eto sensei receives.

Yoshida sensei says to cut, again with the shortest, most direct movement, then come in to meet your opponent with tai-atari making sure to keep your posture straight, and then return to a good, solid kamae, maintaining your strong spirit. She makes a point of saying not to dodge or fade away to the right after cutting. This is a common trait in high school Kendo, who are probably the main audience for this video in Japan.

5:16 Hiki waza
As we have only just started looking at hiki-waza (techniques moving backwards from tsubazeriai) I will just summarise the main points that Jishiro sensei makes here. Other than that, please watch his movement closely.

His main points that apply to all forms of hiki waza are to keep a straight posture and have enough of a space between yourself and you opponent when in tsubazeriai. He says if you lean your upper body back when you make the technique then your cut will be too shallow. For hiki do he says to push down slightly on your opponent's fists to create a counter-movement where they raise and reveal an opportunity for you to strike.

8:41 Tsuki
Lastly, Ando sensei demonstrates morotezuki or two-handed tsuki. His points are simple: make sure you seme strongly so that opponent flinches and then follow up immediately with tsuki. This is important. Tsuki can be very dangerous when executed against someone who is moving towards you. Your opponent must be static or flinching away from you in order to perform tsuki safely in keiko and shiai. He also says not to withdraw or step back after delivering the tsuki, but to step up. This makes it possible to perform a follow-up technique if necessary.

Ironically enough, here is a video of Ando himself performing a tsuki in shiai where he withdraws afterwards in just the way he says not to! To be fair, this is a stylistic thing in high school and university, and this video was taken when Ando was on the Kokushikan University team in 2014. Or at least I'm assuming it's the same Ando. It is a fairly common name! I'm guessing each of these Hokkaido Tokuren guys have been chosen because the waza they demonstrate is their favourite, or at least one they're known for.

Regardless, Ando sensei's tsuki waza here is pretty formidable! The main thing to do is to admire and watch closely to see what else you can glean about his technique.

Thanks to Let's Kendo (and Zen Sankei) for these great videos. Support original and worthwhile content on Youtube by subscribing.

*From an excellent short history of Kendo