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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reflections on my first kodansha grading

6 dan candidates waiting for the venue to open, Esforta Arena, Hachioji

Kodansha (高段者) means someone who is either 6th, 7th or 8th dan. The other terms in Kendo are yudansha 有段者 which is some who has a dan grade, and mudansha 無段者, someone without or not yet dan-graded.

    What does it mean?
    Lots of non-Kendo people ask this question. The short answer is that now I am taken seriously as a kenshi. As one sensei told me, now you are considered an instructor in Japan. This means a lot to me. Ever since I was a teenager doing Kendo in Melbourne I have always looked to Japan as the pinnacle of Kendo. I've always felt that the depth of Kendo there was beyond my capacity to understand. Part of my journey to sixth dan was to do my best to understand this depth by throwing myself into Japanese Kendo at the deep end, as much as I could anyway. So there were many trips to Japan where I was smashed by all and sundry, including the students of the sensei I was visiting, and no success at all in terms of grading. Looking back, these visits were a big part of my preparation.

    What was it like?
    My first trip was overwhelming. Although I was as ready as I could be at the time, it became clear that I was not at the same level as the others who were going for sixth dan.

    What I learned was that there was a certain level of familiarity required regarding the experience of grading in Japan. In other words, I had to fail a number of times in order to be able to deal with the pressure of the grading situation itself. Familiar with what? Well, among other things, there not being any instructions in English, the sheer number of people around you, the pressure that these things place on you, how short 60 seconds feels like when under this pressure, fighting opponents you've never met and who may have much more training under their belt than you (a situation that those who compete at national and international level would be already familiar with) and so on.

    On each of my four trips to grade in Japan I received a huge amount of support from the people I met. I never just turned up for the grading and went home again. On my first trip this was problematic because the very helpful sensei who was looking after me was intent on reconfiguring my basics, one week out from the grading. In hindsight this may have been detrimental but it did mean that I had lots of things to take home with me and work on. The first time I failed 6th dan was also the first time I had ever failed a grading, so that was a extra kick in the guts. I had lots of work to do.

    The second time I was better prepared but still a bit at sea when it came to the actual grading. I don't remember my first opponent but my second opponent was a woman, quite a bit shorter than me. This should have given me an advantage, but she was, like many female kenshi, very good at protecting herself from being struck. Her waza were quite slow, but her degote timing was good under pressure and this unsettled me. I was definitely more afraid of what my opponent was doing than focusing on my own technique. She and I both failed.

    The third time I was knocked off my feet by a taller, more powerful opponent. He was adept at using tai-atari after his opponent had attempted a men cut. My failing there were that I had been knocked off my feet rather than pivoting around his tai-atari, and for having a 'banzai' (arms raised) follow through. His failing was to try and negate my attack without offering any kind of oji-waza (counter-attack), which showed his nervous insecurity. We both failed.

    The fourth time
    My fourth attempt was the successful one. As with all my other gradings, my opponents were both Japanese. Both were men. On this trip I had also had my basics pulled apart and analysed by a very helpful Japanese sensei just a week before the grading. But in this case, that sensei was hachidan and also a grading panel member. I was confident that what he had shown me was of such value to my future Kendo that in a sense I didn't mind if it upset my preparation and caused me to fail. I had been on this journey to sixth dan for so long now (seven years) that I felt that I might be able to incorporate these changes into my Kendo in time to be effective in the grading. Either way, I knew I was being true to my ethos of 'throwing myself into the deep end of Japanese Kendo.'

    In a previous post I mentioned that I was in bad shape physically by the day of my grading. Again, the length of time I had been on this journey meant that I was pretty sanguine about it. There's really no such thing as 'perfect preparation', or rather, there is, but it doesn't in any way guarantee you success. This, I realise now, is an important mindset to have. In line with what I said in that same post about 'heijoshin' (everyday mind), just plowing ahead in spite of circumstances is of fundamental importance. It's interesting that many people understand this when it relates to going for a single cut: throwing everything into the attack. But they forget it also applies to the bigger picture. Many people complain that they don't feel ready, or 'it didn't feel right' to go ahead with their grading because of some circumstance. I suppose this is each person's judgement call. But I feel that some people could practice not listening to their inner doubts a bit more.

    The part of the grading that was most stressful was, for me, the prospect of getting to the grading venue, which this time was a 90 minute train journey west of Tokyo to Hachioji. The stress came from the prospect of making connections between trains at the various major stations like Shinjuku. How difficult would it be? Would we have enough time to make our connection? I was there with Teoh sensei from Fudoshin Kendo Club in Melbourne and he was much more confident about the logistics. In the end we were fine, but I worried about it right up until the moment we finally got out at Hachioji station.

    The doors to the arena opened and there was the now-familiar rush for spots to park one's gear and start getting ready: another aspect of grading in Japan that can be daunting for the first-timer. The sheer number of people is quite astounding. Soon it became apparent that Esforta Arena, being a very conventional four-sided box of a building, had a lot more space than the Nippon Budokan which is octagonal and has no 'corners'. It is also considerably bigger than the Tokyo Budokan. So while there was more space for one's belongings, there was still no shilly-shallying about getting ready and getting down onto the floor for a very quick warm-up.

    Three things interrupt one's warm-up before the grading proper starts: 1) the distribution of grading cards and allocation of kaiba (grading area), 2) the pre-grading briefing to all candidates by the organisers and 3) the allocation of grading numbers. Generally speaking if you haven't had a warm-up by the time you have to gather for the briefing, you're not going to get any more than a quick (and discreet) stretch in beforehand. In my experience a physical warm-up is probably not such an important thing to aim for anyway. You will only be doing Kendo for a total of  120 seconds, so it's not going to be physically taxing. And you'll have to wait for anything from 5 mins to 3 hours before your grading, so any physical benefits will be lost for all but the first few candidates. And part of your preparation should have been the ability to perform -- to be "on"-- at a moment's notice. This is another reason to discard the notion of the perfect preparation. At sixth dan your mental state should remain unflustered no matter what happens.

    I was surprised to find that Teoh sensei and myself were up quite quickly: the previous time we had both been in the last grading group of the morning session. This time we had to wait less than an hour. Candidates are organised according to date of birth and it happens that Teoh sensei and I are so close in age that we were once in the same group of four. This time I was in the group following Teoh sensei's, so I got to watch both his gradings. Unfortunately he didn't get to watch mine as he was moving off the grading area and thanking his opponents. By the time he had done that I had finished my grading.

    the main arena for jitsugi

    $3000 kiai
    One of the sensei who had helped me prepare gave me this advice. When she heard how much it cost for me to come to Japan for each attempt she was a little shocked. "I'll never complain about flying up to Tokyo for a grading again!" She also knew that I had been told to make sure my first kiai was especially loud, so she said, "make it a $3000 kiai!" This was an easy bit of advice to put into action!

    It's hard for me to say how I went. I'm never good at remembering the individual waza I perform in gradings. I know there were a couple of degote, a couple of kaeshi-do, and perhaps a suriage men that wasn't 100%. I think I might also have landed one or two debana-men, which is the technique I had been working on the most. But I couldn't have said how well I had done any of those. I don't think there was a cut that felt 'wow'.

    Nevertheless when I was finished I felt good. I had done everything I could have done on the day. I had not been intimidated, and I hadn't tried to negate my opponent's cuts. I only did positive Kendo. If I didn't pass I felt that was OK. Passing and failing are outside our control. I had done my best with the things I had control over.

    The big piece of butcher's paper
    At these national gradings, the first results come out pretty quickly. After the first 16 groups of four candidates had finished they calculated the results. The grading was continuing on in the background when the big pieces of paper come out, just like in the documentary. Each kaiba had its own, and the dutiful Nittaidai students who do all the basic admin jobs hold them up: a reassuringly analogue display in today's digital world.

    When I saw my number I was strangely unmoved. I looked, thought "that's my number", looked down at my zekken to double-check, then looked at it again, "yep, that's it." Sadly Teoh sensei's number was not there. We commiserated, and then I looked around to see who else had passed and who had not. From memory neither of my opponents passed. People whose numbers were there started to congratulate each other: it's well known that the kata section of the grading is much easier to pass. Unless your grasp of the 10 kata is very poor you will receive your sixth dan.

    the kata arena

    The next part of the grading, Nihon Kendo no Kata, starts almost immediately. The successful candidates from all eight kaiba were called on to make their way to the second arena. We were assigned new numbers and then had to sit, while seven pairs of kenshi performed kata in front of three hanshi hachidan sensei. I recognised two of them: Ota sensei who had once visited Melbourne long ago, and Iwatate sensei, whose DVDs were playing at one of the pop-up Kendo shops in the foyer.

    We sat cross-legged and waited in rows. This arena was a real contrast to the one where jitsugi was still underway. The only sounds here were the kiai "yah!", "toh!" and the occasional clash of bokuto.
    The mood was one of restrained excitement, like children waiting to unwrap their Christmas presents, a total contrast to the more oppressive tension in the main arena. When my turn came after almost an hour of sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, it was a relief just to be able to stand and move around. I did a passable set of kata, non-plussed a little by the 'blunt' kissaki (tip) of the bokuto that the All Japan Kendo Federation provides for all candidates. I must have done OK because in spite of the fact that I was placed directly in front of the grading panel, I passed kata as well. There was a moment of tension as results were tabulated and we realised there would indeed be a "pass-fail" announcement, then widespread relief when it was announced that the three candidate numbers on the butcher's paper were of those people who had failed. Out of a cohort of over 200 kenshi, that was a rather different pass rate than of the jitsugi. Overall the pass rate was about 20%.

    One thing I was very grateful I had the presence of mind to act on was to remove the tape on my feet before I did kata. There was tape on both my toes and also some kinesiology tape on my left Achilles which was falling off and stained a mottled-blue by my hakama. When we changed numbers on our zekken I thought to throw these bits of tape away with my old number, and I'm glad I did, especially given that I was placed directly in front of the grading panel. One never knows what might tip the old turtles over the edge, and dirty, ragged sports tape is pretty undignified. Little considerations like this were a product of my three previous attempts, and all the advice and disappointment along the way.

    Kendo is a personal journey. My path to 6th dan is my own and unlike anyone else's. Your story will be different. You have to write it yourself. However there are some fundamentals that are common to all successful attempts. Your ability to perceive what those things are and how to incorporate them into your Kendo will be part of your story.

    Tuesday, December 13, 2016

    Music as preparation

    This year's Rio Olympics showed many athletes wearing headphones.

    I'm not normally a fan of the pre-race/bout/match headphone wearing brigade. The best rationale I have heard is that wearing headphones is a way to get people not to bug you with chit-chat. You don't necessarily have any music playing, but the headphones buy you a quiet space. This I can understand. On the other hand, the athlete who needs to listen to death-metal or 2Pac in order to get into the 'zone' is not someone I admire.

    Heijoshin is a concept in Japanese culture that says your performance frame of mind should be your ordinary frame of mind. It comes largely from the Zen idea that enlightenment is not a state that is separate from ordinary life, nor is it 'special' or on a higher plane.

    The implication of this is that one shouldn't try to 'escape' from the present moment in order to best manage or understand it, one should penetrate deeply into the nature of its very 'ordinariness' (or its 'stress', 'fear', etc). I personally believe this is a very, very profound truth, one that requires ongoing study.

    So on my path to 6th dan I knew I wasn't going to have a special playlist for the morning of my grading, or a playlist for suburi, or for the hours of cross-training on the bike. I believe this attenuates the experience of the journey towards the goal. Those bike rides I went on to build lower-body strength and the intervals I pedalled to improve my cardiovascular fitness were experiences of their own, as well as being experiences with a purpose. Those experiences I wanted to live fully, not have them take on the samey flavour of one of my dull playlists.

    So when I found myself wanting to listen to something special the night before my grading I was in a bit of conflict. Was I submitting to the cultural norms of the day by having to 'soundtrack' my life? And yet I love movie soundtracks and how they can reveal an extra dimension to a particular moment.

    So I chose a track which I have listened to in the past for relaxation. It wasn't a favourite. It was something that always just came on first when I chose my favourite album of this particular band. I chose it as an anchor, a summation, to try and wrap up and say good-bye to the years of preparation.

    For this purpose, I found music, and this music in particular, was a perfect catalyst for this last stage of preparation.

    As I listened to it I became able to let go of all the 'to do lists' of the last seven years. It helped me shed the weight of preparation and just 'be' in the state of readiness that I was in at that time. That state was far from perfect: damaged voice, sore Achilles, intermittent flu symptoms, lack of certainty about my new kamae. But it helped me to accept what was at that moment.

    In looking for a video of this track to post, I realised I didn't want the official music video playing while people listened to it because that would cloud the meaning of the music. So I quickly pieced together a video using the small amount of footage I had from my trip; images that I hope will trigger a similar feeling in the viewer to the one I had in my hotel room in Tokyo where I finally understood what it means to "effortlessly release what we have learnt in training."

    The title refers to Bishamon, the Buddhist deity and sometimes patron of warriors, and a small shrine dedicated to him outside the city of Kagoshima. It was the second time I had been taken there, and the promise by my friends to pray there for my success on the morning of my grading was very moving. Hence the video is dedicated to that experience.

    Saturday, July 2, 2016

    Basic cutting action

    Recently I have noticed a lot of people with incorrect cutting action. Not just at Nanseikan but other clubs too. These people are all in their first few years of Kendo so it is understandable. But without extra effort and guidance, this incorrect technique could become a bad habit that is hard to break.

    Broadly speaking there are two basic aspects that I'm referring to:

    The action of the arms.

    The action of the hands.


    At the uppermost backswing, your elbows should be equally bent, the same as in jodan no kamae. Your arms should make the number "8" in Japanese, i.e. 八 with your fists at the apex. As you bring the sword down to the target, you bring your elbows together by rolling in your wrists, squeezing them together the same way we wring out the 'zokin' which we use to clean the floor before training. Rolling your wrists inwards allows you to straighten your arms as much as possible. This allows you to gain the maximum possible reach for your build.

    It is crucial to make sure both arms are equally straight at the end of the cut. Most often, beginners have their left elbow bent at the moment of cutting because they are using predominantly their right arm to power the cut. If anything the left arm should provide more of the power.

    Your elbows remain totally straight only momentarily. As important as it is to straighten them, it is equally important to relax as soon as the cut has been made. Your arms should retain the finishing position of the cut but without tension.


    The action of the hands and wrists is even more important and subtle than the action of the arms. This doesn't mean you shouldn't work on understanding it at the beginner level. It just means that you will continue to understand new aspects of how to use your hands in Kendo for many years to come.

    Basically your hands and wrists have to reach to the maximum extent. There is a moment of overextension at the point of impact, but, as with the elbows, this exertion only lasts for the moment of the cut, before the kensen rebounds off the target. The difference between the angle of the shinai at the moment of cutting and the moment of rebound is fairly well illustrated by the double-image of the shinai in the photo at top.

    The shinai should never be extended at the exact same angle as the arms. Even at full extension, there should be a 5 to 10 degree difference between the arms and the shinai.


    A good measure for both these aspects above is that the knuckle of the left thumb should briefly touch the muscle of the bottom of the right forearm (flexor carpi ulnaris) at the moment of cutting. This brief contact indicates not only that the angle of the sword is correct, but that the arms are working in unison.

    Hashimoto Keiichi sensei demonstrates correct finishing position for men uchi.

    Monday, March 7, 2016

    Whether crucible or anvil, gradings transform

    When I wanted to describe the testing aspect of Kendo grading, the part that makes it difficult, I naturally thought of the term "crucible". A crucible is a special container designed to be heated to extreme temperatures. In English usage it is also used to describe a test or trial of extreme difficulty where the final result is something new. In the crucible, metals are melted together to form an alloy. The metals are transformed by melding together and the final result is something stronger than the original.

    But what would the Japanese or Kendo metaphor be? Because of its connection to the process of making swords, in Kendo the metaphor used is forging, tanren 鍛錬. Metal is forged when it is beaten repeatedly with a hammer. The beating slowly changes the structure of the metal, strengthens it and forces out impurities in the form of sparks.


    As a metaphor it has the same intention as the term crucible. Both are used to describe why it is important to push through situations that are difficult.


    We don't understand when we are in the middle of it, but the important fact is that when the process is over we will be transformed. We will be an alloy that is stronger than the original metal. We will be shaped and strengthened with the 'impurities' forced out.

    The process has a purpose. It will come to an end and it will be worth it.

    It also points out to us that this is something that doesn't happen by itself. Iron ore in the ground doesn't transform itself into steel. It just stays lying in the ground. Some coal turns into diamond, but only when, by some geological fluke, it happens to come under extreme pressure. Most coal just stays there, being coal.

    Unlike coal, people can choose to transform themselves by subjecting themselves to intense pressure. This is important. Because when you find yourself in the crucible, when you are the piece of metal being smashed between the hammer and the anvil, you can remember that you were the person that put yourself there.

    What difference does this make? It makes all the difference! Being beaten up when it's not your choice is, by definition, punishment. Punishment is designed to weaken, not strengthen. So it has the exact opposite effect. By remembering that this process is something you chose for yourself puts you back in the driver's seat. Everything that then happens is part of a strengthening, learning, purifying process.

    One of my favourite Zen priests, Shunryu Suzuki said, "Hell is not punishment. Hell is training." He was taking this idea even further. He meant that even things that many people think of as punishment, things we didn't consciously choose to happen to us we can transform into things that are part of our 'training' if we have the right mindset.

    So the small process of a Kendo grading can have enormous implications for the rest of our lives if we choose to see it that way.

    I have done many Kendo gradings and I came late to the crucible. My first grading I double-graded to 4th kyu. Thereafter I passed every grade on the first attempt. Sixth dan has been my first taste of this painful forging process. I have had to remind myself time and again that the process is worth it, that it will come to an end, that I chose this for myself and indeed that I am very lucky to be able to be a part of it. I have learnt that in failure there is a lot to be gained. Each time I've been able to discard bad habits and attain new skills. I have been strengthened and my Kendo (slightly) purified. Even after failing three times, I know I have learned more and improved more than had I just turned up to training with no purpose. That would have been the way to remain as just a piece of coal lying in the ground.

    Sunday, October 25, 2015

    Suburi revisited, suburi as homework

    The example on the right is the correct one. In Japan the maru is used where we would use a tick.

    Here at Shugo-Nanseikan, I've written about suburi more than a lot of other concepts or techniques. That's because over the last ten years, with all the work I've done on my own Kendo and with other kenshi of different ages, the thing I've found that makes the single biggest difference to a person's Kendo is their commitment to doing suburi everyday.

    This may not be the case where you are, if you are not a Nanseikan student and you have different opportunities to train. If for instance, you train more than four times per week, your Kendo will improve without suburi. But for my students, given our timetable and other factors such as age, fitness level and motivation, suburi is the thing that makes the most difference. It helps both the new beginner who is not very strong as well as the experienced kenshi building up to shiai. It helps each in different ways but it helps equally, and it never becomes obsolete.

    But it needs to be practiced every day, or at least most days.

    diagram showing where your suburi should finish, for straight suburi (left) and diagonal suburi (right)

    How much is enough suburi?

    The short answer is: any amount that you can do every day without injury.

    The basic premise of all kinds of training is that as you get stronger, you should increase either the load or frequency, depending on what kind of results you want. However, the first hurdle to conquer in this instance is not physical weakness but mental weakness.

    You have to train yourself to make the time to do the suburi.

    So in the beginning, a short and simple program that you stick to is better than an ambitious and complex program that you soon give up.

    Fifty, double-time, sho-men suburi take less than one minute!

    When you start to look forward to doing the suburi, or alternatively if you start to feel like something's wrong if you haven't done your daily suburi, then you have overcome the first hurdle. The next step is to increase the load or frequency.

    from Oyakata Mamoru san's blog

    How do I know what suburi to do?

    In the beginning stick with straight, two-handed men*. This is the most fundamental technique in Kendo and helps to ingrain straightness as well as requiring tenouchi. If you can do it outside or you have high ceilings it's best to do it standing with footwork. If not, you can get a lot of benefit from doing suburi while sitting in seiza.

    When you want to increase variety the next suburi to practice is, like the kids above, left-hand only suburi (katate-men). Keep the cuts very straight and clench your right fist on your hip, like the boy on the right. If you are not strong in the arm or wrist, start by gripping the tsuka (handle) closer to the tsuba (hilt). As you get stronger your aim is to be able to do straight cuts with your left hand down the very end of the tsuka. Never do right-hand-only suburi, at least not until your second decade of Kendo.

    After that you can introduce all kinds of variation: using bokuto, using suburito, kote-uchi, do-uchi, nidan-uchi (e.g. kote-men), vary the footwork pattern (e.g. ten forward, ten back; five forward, five back), diagonal cuts, hiraki-ashi, lunges, kabuto-wari, hayasuburi, etc.

    No matter what suburi you do, you must keep the following things uppermost in your mind:

    • gaze: look straight ahead, not down or up
    • posture: the straightest possible with very erect spine and relaxed (i.e. not hunched) shoulders
    • tenouchi: 'freeze' for a moment at the end of each cut. Relax, squeeze, relax...
    • sharpness: move briskly with both upper and lower body in unison
    • accuracy: aim for a certain point and hit that point with regularity
    • hasuji: be aware of the angle of the blade matching the angle of the blade's path without wobbling

    The ethos of every day

    There's an oft-quoted urban myth of the swordsman who could never get to the dojo but instead did 1000 suburi every day and thus became great. It sounds simplistic but there's more to it than at first appears. That's because the difficulty lies not in the actual suburi (1000 suburi is not as hard as it sounds, takes 20-30 mins) but in the making time for them and then sticking to it. If you have that willpower, you have already distinguished yourself amongst your fellows. Amongst most people who do Kendo, I would guess an average of only 20% do suburi regularly and only 10% everyday. But I would also guess that above a certain level—let's say 4th dan—that this percentage increases dramatically. I'd be willing to bet that more than 50% of experienced kenshi have a solo practice they commit to every day. And my hunch is that above 6th dan that figure would rise to more like 90%.

    a visual representation of how suburi connects to the core (tanden)

    The ethos of insight

    Bruce Lee once said that he didn't fear the man who had practiced 10,000 kicks, but he did fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times. What he was talking about was depth of insight into not only the movement but also oneself. Related to the point above, the attitude of commitment enables one to reap rewards that remain out of reach otherwise. There is a level of understanding that is not conceptual or nameable, it is simply demonstrated by how well one can perform a technique when required and with consistency.

    With suburi, one of the things we are doing is maintaining muscle-memory with regard to manipulating the sword. The sword is a tool that works only when used precisely, even though this cutting movement is a simple one. The human body is always failing in its ability to re-create this precision movement, because the sword and the human body are fundamentally different. With suburi, one is engaged in maintaining the discipline and precision of co-ordinated muscle use necessary for a successful cut, as well as learning new things about how the body and this linear object interact.

    On the one hand there is the action of the hands, arms and shoulders in relation to the cutting action itself. Then there is the action of the lower body, the mechanism that delivers the cutting action to the opponent. These need to work together, which is why suburi usually has a footwork element even if it is only forwards and backwards on the spot.

    Through repetition, a kenshi gains insight not only in how to perform these upper and lower body actions efficiently, but also begins to understand the connection between them. She or he realises it's not just about arms and legs but also about the spine, the muscles of the core, the hip flexors and buttocks, and how all of these effect posture, weight transfer and stabilisation.


    Given this importance, it might seem a little strange that I have all but eliminated suburi from our regular training routine. However this is not because I don't believe suburi is important.

    It is because I believe that most current members see suburi as a dojo-only form of training. It is my aim to put the onus squarely on the individual to do suburi themselves outside of training, by removing it from training as much as possible. I hope that those who do not do it at home will start to see their Kendo deteriorate, and will realise for themselves why it is important.

    Of course if their Kendo does not deteriorate without suburi then it was a waste of time all along!

    *  When you read this phrase and it doesn't even occur to you to snicker, you know you're a Kendo tragic.