Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kendo strategy 2 - shikake waza

Ishihara sensei (Hanshi 9-dan) from Okayama Prefecture finds a beautiful opening for men against his opponent
(from the 9-dan competition, Kyoto Taikai).

Continuing on from the previous post on strategy, the other main area of waza is shikake waza or techniques that you initiate: in other words, attacking techniques.

The most basic shikake waza involve just cutting when you perceive an opening (suki) in your opponent's kamae. An opening is when your opponent is no longer aiming their kensen (sword-point) directly at your throat. This includes basic men and kote (but not usually do, due to the fact that it is nearly always covered by the arms except when executing a cut).

Shikake waza
However openings will often require some effort from you to create them. There are a variety of ways to achieve this. These are:
  • harai-men*/harai-kote (sweeping the opponent's shinai off the centre-line)
  • ose-men/ose-kote (pressing down on the opponent's shinai so that their kensen leaves the centre-line)
  • uchiotoshi-men/uchiotoshi-kote (striking down the opponent's shinai)
  • makiotoshi-men (using a wrapping or winding motion with your shinai to rotate the opponent's shinai off the centre-line)
  • ni-dan waza (two step waza where the first cut creates the opening and the second scores the point, e.g. kote-men, tsuki-men)
* note that when each waza is named, only the waza and then the target area are named, which differs from oji waza where the opponent's waza is listed first. Of course with shikake waza, there is no technique coming from your opponent to begin with.

The secret with all shikake waza is make sure the waza and the cut that follows it are a single technique. Don't just move into your opponent's ma'ai (that is, move in closer than issoku-itto-no-maai) without having a technique ready. And don't create an opening without moving in to capitalise on it (in other words, cutting).

Sometimes during training I use the analogy that performing shikake waza such as harai waza is like opening a spring-loaded door: you can't just push the door open and then stand there or the door will close on you. You must open the door and then straight away walk through it. It is the same with shikake waza: create the opening in your opponent's kamae and then immediately make use of it.

In fact with most shikake waza, your technique will not be successful if you are not moving towards your opponent as you are performing the technique. Do not wait to see whether your opening has been successful before launching an attack. For instance with harai-men, you should be moving towards your opponent as you sweep their shinai aside: sweep and cut in one smooth motion.

Application of various shikake waza
As with oji waza, there are some basic rules about when a certain waza is most appropriate. Knowing these basic rules is important in order for you to develop your own sense of strategy.
  • harai-kote, harai-men - are used against an opponent whose kensen is high, or against someone who is taller, and whose grip is slightly loose.
  • uchiotoshi-men - this is used against someone whose kensen is low, or someone who is shorter and again, whose grip is loose.
  • makiotoshi-men - this is used against someone whose grip is alternating between firm and loose.
  • ose-men - this is a more subtle technique, useful against experienced opponents
Feeling out your opponent's tenouchi
Above I mentioned that makiotoshi is best against someone whose tenouchi or grip on their shinai is firm. What does that mean and how can you work that out?

You can feel with your own shinai whether your opponent's tenouchi is firm or soft. Do they try and keep their shinai stuck to yours when in issoku itto no maai? Or is it easy for you to move their shinai with sharp slaps from your own?

When facing your opponent with shinai crossed, you should take note of how your opponent is holding his or her shinai by how it responds to your own.

Applying shikake waza against firm and soft tenouchi
Just as certain waza work best against certain height of chudan no kamae, so they also work best against various degrees of firmness or softness in your opponent's tenouchi.
  • harai-waza - best against soft tenouchi
  • uchiotoshi-waza - best against soft tenouchi
  • ose-waza - best against soft to medium tenouchi
  • makiotoshi-waza - best against medium to firm tenouchi
Against very firm tenouchi
Perhaps your opponent has a very firm tenouchi. They may have realised that you are feeling them out in order to apply some shikake waza and so they have made their grip very firm, making it impossible to apply harai, makiotoshi, etc.

In this case you can use their tension against them. Here are some scenarios that may work for you. You can also experiment with discovering your own.
  • ose-waza - resist your opponent's strong pressure with a sideways pressure to the left, then lift and immediately strike their kote when their shinai springs back too far the other way
  • uchiotoshi-waza - strike down on your opponent's shinai from above, then straight away cut their do while they rebound against your uchiotoshi
  • harai-waza - use the normal action for harai-kote, then immediately follow through with men as they lower their kensen in reaction
Sutemi (pronounced s'temi) is written in Japanese with the two characters "to throw away, to discard", and "body". It means to sacrifice, in this case, yourself, your whole body. In kendo it is almost impossible to score yuko datotsu (all the requirements for a winning point) without this sutemi. In the early stages of learning kendo, this "throwing away" must be practiced carefully and deliberately. It takes a while to realise exactly what really giving 100% effort feels like. Later it becomes second nature. Experienced kendoka, especially shinpan (match judges) are expert at seeing it and know just by looking if it is present in your kendo.

Sutemi means putting 100% into your attack, not holding anything back. It also means showing confidence, believing in yourself, not hesitating. It also means not caring about whether your attack is successful or not, whether your opponent cuts you or not, but caring only about doing your VERY best.
"This is the last act I will ever undertake in this life. I cannot guarantee its success. But I can guarantee that I will do my absolute best, giving everything I have. Because of this I can die with no regrets", this is how the samurai
used to prepare for their duels with real swords, and it is the essence of what sutemi means. Of course we no longer need to be prepared to die in kendo! But the feeling that every time you do something you are showing your absolute best is still possible. Understanding and developing sutemi is one of the most important goals for your kendo in the first years of training.

In relation to shikake waza, sutemi will help you break through after the intial waza creates the opening. Sutemi will mean you do not hesitate even for a nanosecond to make use of the opening you have made and crush your opponent. It will mean that you score cuts where previously you were unable to.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Strategy in kendo 1 - Oji waza

Strategy in kendo can be a very complex area. Every experienced kendoka will have developed their own strategies against different kinds of opponents and different situations. Sometimes these strategies are deliberate and consciously thought-out, sometimes they are instinct, or unconscious. Generally strategies that are not conscious I would say are more part of an individual's 'style' rather than real strategy and this tends to be the norm with less experienced kendoka. This means that whether something is working or not working against their opponents, the less experienced kendoka usually can't say why.

At a basic level however, kendo has some simple rules about strategy, and many of these I have talked about during training. So here I will take the opportunity to repeat what I have already said in the dojo.

Shikake and oji: attack and counter-attack
As you all know, kendo waza can be divided into shikake waza and oji waza. Please note that shikake refers to attacking waza and oji to counter-attacking. The opposite of attack in kendo is NOT defence, but counter-attack. It is a very important thing to understand the difference between the two. Put simply, defence just means stopping the opponent cutting you. This keeps you alive but does not produce a victory. Counter-attack means stopping them cutting you and then straight away cutting them. This is what you need to do to be successful.

In this post I want to briefly mention strategy as it relates to oji waza only.

Often we practice drills in training for oji waza. Often I get you to name all the oji waza that you can so that you remember them consciously. This is the first step to being able to think about your personal kendo strategy and make it more than just 'your style'.

But more than that, it is important to be able to think about each waza and to what situation it is best suited. For that reason we divide oji waza training into two basic groups: men-ni-taishite waza (techniques against men) and kote-ni-taishite waza (techniques against kote).

Men-ni-taishite waza
When naming these waza I always include as the first part, the target area of your bogu that your opponent is trying to cut, followed by the name of the technique that avoids or blocks their attack, and then the target area on your opponent's bogu that you cut in reply. This is to reinforce the important idea that you should always aim to have a counter-attack ready for whatever your opponent does. This is the second step in developing your own strategy that is conscious and well-thought out. If you do this you will automatically develop an attacking mind, one that is ready and active even while your body is waiting.

This class of waza includes:
  • men-debana-men (cutting men before your opponent finishes their attack)
  • men-kiriotoshi-men (similar to debana men, but using your downward cutting action to knock the opponent's shinai off line before cutting their men in the same action)
  • men-nuki-do (slipping past your opponent's men to cut their do, without blocking their shinai)
  • men-suriage-men (receiving your opponent's men with an upward-sliding movement of your shinai, before cutting their men)
  • men-kaeshi-men (receiving your opponent's men attack on the omote side of your shinai, then moving your shinai so you cut them on the ura side, and vice-versa)
  • men-kaeshi-do (receiving your opponent's men attack on the omote side of your shinai, then moving your shinai so you cut their right do, passing by their shinai on the ura side)
You may have noticed that I have put them in order from the 'earliest' waza to the 'latest'. You may have also noticed that they sound very complicated, perhaps unnecessarily so. My apologies for my wordy descriptions, but I believe it is important to be able to describe each waza clearly in words. This is perhaps the third step in helping you think about your technique and hence, your strategy: not just doing it automatically as you have been taught (although this is also very important), but thinking about it clearly outside of training in the dojo.

Application of men-ni-taishite waza
Of course the obvious answer to this is, "when your opponent is going for men." But more broadly, this class of waza will be most useful against an opponent who is taller than you. Knowing this, you will be able to face such an opponent with more confidence, knowing that you already understand the kinds of waza that will help you win against them.

This is the fourth step in thinking through your personal kendo strategy: understanding in broad terms the different situations, and opponents, you will face, and having a plan to deal with them.

Kote-ni-taishite waza
The next class of waza are against kote, and are:
  • kote-nuki-men (avoiding opponent's kote attack by stepping back and raising arms, then countering with men)
  • kote-suriage-men (similar to men-suriage-men)
  • aikote-men (cutting your opponent's kote at the same time as they cut yours, but following up with men)
  • kote-uchiotoshi-men (stopping your opponent's kote with a downwards strike and then following up with men)
  • kote-kaeshi-kote/kote-kaeshi-men (similar to the men-ni-taishite kaeshi waza)
Application of kote-ni-taishite waza
Generally speaking, these waza are often used when the opponent is shorter than you. This is not just because, as with kote-nuki-men they are waza that suit a taller person's physique, but because a shorter kendoka's basic strategy will often be to cut your kote quickly as it will be easier for them to reach.

Shorter kendoka often focus on developing fast waza so as to make up for their lack of reach against taller opponents. The fastest possible waza is kote as it is the closest target, hence this is will be a strategy often used against tall opponents. If you are tall but not fast, you may find such opponents a little daunting. Armed with this information, you will be able to develop a strategy that gives you confidence against them.

These strategies don't yet take into account the individual differences in strength or style of tall or short opponents, but they do give you a head start. Once you understand the basics of strategy you can then think about your actual experiences in sparring or competing against different individuals and develop more detailed strategies against these individuals. The more kendo you do, the more you start to notice different 'types' of kendoka, as well as different 'types' of kendo and your confidence will increase against whomever you encounter.


Postscript: What about mushin?
Perhaps you already know about mushin (translated as 'no-mind', 'empty-mind' or 'clear-mind'). In that case you might be a bit confused - all this talk of strategy sounds like you should be thinking a lot during your jigeiko and shiai. The concept of mushin says your mind should be empty of all thought in order to perform the perfect technique in any situation.

This is indeed the ultimate state, to fight like this 100% of the time. However most of us know mushin only sometimes, and never, it seems, when we need it. The highest level sensei may be able to reach this state at will, but only after they have understood the ri (logic) of their kendo thoroughly. They have been through this process already: of thinking about their technique and how best to apply it in all situations. Then they have tested and tested it through many, many keiko.

Mostly I am after you to think about your kendo when you're not at the dojo. In the dojo just focus on doing kendo with your whole body, mind and spirit.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The importance of suburi

Kendo is an artform that requires a partner. However there is a lot of time when you can't train with a partner but you can still help your kendo improve by training by yourself. Suburi is the main way of doing this.

Suburi is shinai-swinging practice and can be done in the air or with a target to strike. Most kendo dojo start training with some form of suburi. Some dojo just do a few quick repetitions and others spend a long time on it. Some sensei find suburi very useful, others feel that it emphasises the wrong aspects of the cut, especially if done without an actual target.

Although it is great to have a target to strike (like a hitting dummy or uchikomidai), I am going to focus here on kuukan datotsu, or striking empty space. This is by far the most portable kind of training you can do by yourself, you can do it anywhere and it has a variety of purposes. You don't even need a shinai or bokken.

If you live in an old house with high ceilings (and no low-hanging lights!) then you can easily do suburi inside, standing up with a shinai. Just be careful of vases and people... If you live in a newer house with low ceilings then you can still practice suburi a couple of ways.

1) With a shinai: sit in seiza and do sets of sho-men uchi and sayu-men uchi. Increase the difficulty by sitting in sonkyo and performing suburi that way. Alternate katate (one-hand) and morote (both hands) suburi.

2) Without a shinai: you can use a well-stoppered champagne bottle filled with sand to practice katate suburi standing up and using normal footwork, even in a house with low ceilings. This is also an excellent form of strength training as a bottle full of sand is very heavy! (Caution: this is not something you should try until you've been doing regular suburi for a number of weeks).

Outdoors offers more options with your swinging weapon: extra-long suburito can be used if you have one, and the ground surface does not matter too much. Hayasuburi (jumping men) is also possible now. Normally a fairly even surface is best, however it can be useful to do suburi on uneven or sloping ground from time to time.

Even though you are just striking the air, you should always focus on your imaginary opponent (gasso teki). Try not to fall into the habit of looking at the ground when you practice, but look up, as if at someone who is about the same height as you. Performing suburi in front of a full-length mirror is a good reminder of this.

How much is enough suburi?
There is an old adage that if you cannot train with a proper teacher, then 1000 suburi by yourself every day will still see you become a good swordsman. A thousand suburi every day is certainly a very good target to aim for, but build up to it. Don't set yourself the task of starting at 1000. You will just give up sooner.

If you are new to kendo, or have not done many suburi for a while, start off with a small number, but do them EVERY DAY. If you do, you will naturally build up the number of repetitions as you feel your arms, shoulders and wrists getting stronger. Start with fifty or less (per day) in the first week, a hundred in the second week, two hundred in the second week, and so on.

How much is enough also depends on your age. I would say for primary school aged kids, 50/day is plenty. For junior high school kids 100-300 is enough. And for senior high school kids and adults 300-500 is probably plenty to maintain good kendo strength.

You don't have to increase the number of suburi to get more benefit. There's a big difference between doing 1000 suburi in lots of 100, 200, 400 or all in one go. You will find you maintain your interest if there is some variety. So alternate between one hand and both hands, joge, sho, sayu, hayasuburi (jumping men).

It's easiest if you think in sets of 100. After a while it becomes quite easy to keep count, but at first you might find you keep losing track. Keep at it and when in doubt, add an extra 10 or 20 for good measure.

The importance of the left hand
If you only have time for 100 suburi per day (and that only takes about 2 mins, so everyone can do that much if not more), I would strongly advise that those 100 be left-hand only suburi. As most people in their first 3 years of kendo have a fundamental flaw in their swing based on using too much right hand, left hand only suburi is the only way to remedy this situation. Never, in your first 5-10 years of kendo, practice right-hand only suburi (people specialising sei-nito are an exception here) only left-handed katate suburi. The reason for this will become clear to you if you do the practice.

Also, practice your katate suburi straight up and down: sho-men uchi is the best suburi for the left hand. Keep a close eye not only on how straight your cutting action is, but how straight your backswing is too. Again, a mirror is excellent for this. If you don't have a good mirror but you do have a digital camera, recording yourself in movie mode from the front is almost as good (a mirror is better because it's instant feeback).

Why do suburi?
Suburi is good for building and maintaining strength in your kendo muscles, especially in your left hand and arm. For children a little bit of strength training is a good thing but don't overdo it. Teenagers who are not naturally strong, particularly girls, will really find their kendo improves from a technical point of view. They might also find kendo becomes more fun because they achieve more winning cuts by having a sharper cutting action.

As you get more experienced, strength becomes secondary. Suburi becomes more like what practicing scales is to a musician: they keep you in touch with your instrument. Even if you can't get to training, you will notice a big difference in your kendo if you do suburi in between trainings, as compared with if you do nothing.

Keep checking with your sensei that your technique is good. Doing regular suburi at home is only useful if it is correct suburi.

(The yellow circle represents the end point of the cut.)

How much is too much suburi?
There is such a thing as overtraining, but most people are so far from that they need not worry. Kendoka preparing for the All Japan Championships regularly do 2000-3000 suburi every day, on top of their regular dojo training schedule. If you can maintain a reasonable number, say between 300 and 800, every day, then there is little chance you will pick up an injury, especially if you vary the suburi, vary the weight of the shinai or bokken, vary the number of suburi with you do without a break, and so on.

Of course if you do notice pain in your shoulders, arms or wrists, and it seems to get worse the more you do suburi, then stop. See if the pain also stops. Listen to your body and if you think there's a problem, go see a doctor or physio whom you trust.

Suburi is a simple, repetitive excercise. It's not very interesting by itself. But then it's not the reason most people do kendo. What is fun is seeing how your own kendo improves through regular suburi practice.


Monday, August 18, 2008

A Way of Life

Photo (c)2006 annmerry

A Way of Life

by Ben Sheppard

(Author's note: This article was written to promote the 32nd Australian Kendo Championships, Melbourne 2007).

I was delighted to read Dr Jeremy Moss’ article on fencing in a previous edition of A2 (The Age, Melbourne). As a bit of a martial arts geek, I enjoy reading about almost any martial art, especially when the article appears in the mainstream media and is written by someone so erudite (most martial arts magazines I see have articles but I suspect they are there mainly to keep the Protein Supplement adverts apart). Fencing is not my art, but it shares a lot of similarities with the one I practice: kendo, the Japanese “Way of the Sword.”

When considering the martial arts, especially the Eastern ones such as kung fu, karate, tae kwon do, etc, many people mistakenly conflate the two concepts of self-defence and martial arts. I am often challenged with the philosophical chestnut of, “but it’s no good for self-defence because you don’t always carry a stick around with you.” Aside from the fact that I could relate many stories of incidences averted by the quick-thinking, humility, or self-confidence gained from kendo, the shortest reply is that kendo is not a form of self-defence. Kendo presupposes that you are deliberately engaged in a duel with someone who understands as you do the rules and consequences of what you are about to do. The kendoka, or kendo student (most don’t like the term ‘player’) is encouraged to approach the duel with a do-or-die attitude which in Japanese is called sutemi, or willingness to sacrifice everything, including one’s life.

Unlike modern fencing, where the right-of-way rule encourages a gentlemanly conversation of parry and riposte, in kendo, attacks are made to be devastatingly effective in a single blow.
"One cut, one life", as the Japanese saying goes. In former times it was not unusual for both duellists to be killed as a result of aiuchi, or a mutual strike. The mindset that has evolved as a result is every bit as gentlemanly and chivalrous as European fencing, with one difference: a Japanese swordsman had no exit strategy. Their only wish was to die having done their absolute best, without having held anything back. To survive was considered a bonus, not an outcome to be sought. "Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it." This was not a symbolic text for the samurai, it was practical advice.

And so every training encounter in kendo has inherited this mindfulness. Do everything as if it was your last act on Earth, from the way you bow at the start of training to the way you fold your hakama (culottes) afterwards. Indeed this way of thinking handed down from the samurai has famously permeated nearly every aspect of Japanese life: from the way a service station attendant remains bowing until your car passes out of sight, to the shop assistant who patiently and immaculately wraps your $7.99 imitation rice-straw thongs in the midst of a busy department store. The result is that they can make you feel like you are the only person in the world who matters.

From its origins on the battlefield of the 13th Century, the Way of the Sword became more codified as the Tokugawa military Government enforced 250 years of peace. Members of the samurai caste who were now experiencing their longest ever period of under-employment focused more and more on refining sword and other combat techniques within their own ryuha (schools). These schools established the practice of kata (pre-arranged sequences of techniques) and the tradition of passing their techniques down through the generations with little or no innovation. In the 17th Century, armour and swords that allowed the samurai full-contact practice without injury were developed. This is largely the same equipment used in modern kendo: the bamboo sword, breastplate, gauntlets, apron and the distinctive, metal-grilled helmet.

The reinvention of Japan that occurred in the 19th Century threw the country into turmoil—anyone who has seen the Last Samurai knows the basic story. The samurai were now truly unemployed, and had to get creative about finding new careers. Many went into education, creating the conditions for the martial arts or budo to become pathways to physical and spiritual development. At the same time as the first VFL footy clubs were being incorporated, kendo was making its debut as a part of the Japanese high school curriculum, a place it still holds today.

In the 1930s, the martial rather than the educational aspect of kendo was emphasised to help bolster Japan’s imperialist ambitions. Kendo played a part in the creation of a culture of ruthlessness and cruelty in the Imperial Japanese army, an army that would commit war-crimes against the peoples of Korea, China, Taiwan, and of course our own servicemen and women.

And yet this was also a golden age of mastery in the art of kendo: a handful of kendoka reached heights of technique that we may never see again. The last of these kengo (giants of the sword) was Seiji Mochida who was ranked 10th dan, a rank that no longer exists in kendo. Mochida-sensei trained constantly until his death in 1974 aged 89. Imagine if it were possible for Bradman to have done the same, always learning, always improving.

The resonances of war meant that Australian government recognition for kendo came slowly. As recently as the 1980s, the Australian Sports Commission would not recognise an art where the Japanese sword was the focus. But in the space of a single generation there has been a massive change in the way we see Japanese culture. The nori roll is the chiko roll of the 21st century, and Australia now boasts some of the finest kendo talent outside of Japan.

But what, after all this time, is the true value of kendo? How can an art-form that has lost its raison d’etre, to kill, have anything to offer a peaceful and humane society? The short answer is this. As Dr Moss said of fencing, so it is true of kendo. There is no sledging. In fact in kendo even the thought of sledging doesn’t exist. Posture, appearance and deportment as they reflect a swordsman's sincerity are so important that you can fail a grading exam based on those factors alone, even before you’ve demonstrated any technique. And perhaps something to do with the fact that you bow dozens of times every training to your various opponents also mitigates against pettiness and name-calling.

Sports which place great store in aggressive, in-your-face conflict and high levels of physicality seem to use sledging as an audible trope of their combative nature. Whether this is supposed to be seen as a sign of these sports’ intensity, or whether the players simply reserve the right to engage in tactical mind-games, it interesting that martial arts such a kendo and fencing that are truly descended from fatal violence rather than its pretence are much more protective of the sanctity of good manners. It reminds me on the one hand of the idealistic and puffed-up enthusiasm of young men who go to war, and on the other of their insights into the futility of it when they return.

This is the true value and paradox of the martial arts, and especially for me, of kendo. From trying to destroy another human being we realise, amongst many other things: the preciousness of the present moment, the importance of respect in human relations, and the stark emptiness of our own incorrigible hubris. Somehow, what began as a way of death has been transformed into a way of life.

June 2007

Friday, July 11, 2008

Cross-training for kendo

Caleb running up Tiger Head Mountain in Taiwan.

Why am I running up and down a mountain in that photo? (I usually go up and down five times each way, plus I have to hike to and from those stairs.) Check out this article on cross-training:,7120,s6-238-263--7420-1-1-2,00.html

There are three main reasons I cross-train:
1. The first won’t really apply to you, but because I’m older I have to vary my training so I won’t get worn out and/or injured so readily from doing the same thing over and over. Physically, I simply couldn’t do kendo every day.
By hiking, mountain-biking/cycling, surfing and working out, I’m able to exercise every day (actually more than once per day sometimes), and thus, attain a level of fitness that would be impossible if I only did kendo. To give you an indication of this, between a better diet and more exercise, I’ve lost more than seventeen kilos in the past eleven months in Taiwan and I can out-last most of my friends ten years younger than me on a big hike. A few months ago, one of my best friends here (who is fairly fit) and I hiked up to a temple on the outskirts of Taipei. We wanted to see how long it would take us to get to the top of the 1,200 stairs. Time: 14 minutes. That’s 1.43 steps per second. I don’t work out in the conventional sense (with metal weights), but instead, I go for really short, intense training sessions that will build practical fitness (as opposed to gym strength), and really get me huffing and puffing (which mimics what you’d need for kakari-geiko, for instance). Check out these videos: (That guy has a lot of great videos.)
2. I’ve been dealing with a really annoying thumb/wrist injury for the past few months. Again, if I only did kendo, I simply wouldn’t be able to do kendo because the weakest link would prevent me. As it is, I’m able to hold off on going like a bull at a gate a bit at kendo and be more sensible in my training, and work on my fitness in other ways. If I get an injury in one part of my body, I can change the emphasis of my training. Shoulder injury? Do more hiking or cycling. Ankle injury? More upper-body and core work.
3. Finally, motivation is a big factor for me. I’m someone who gets bored doing too much of the same thing. I simply couldn’t do kendo every day from a psychological point of view. By doing a lot of other things, I manage to keep myself really fresh mentally, and my enthusiasm for kendo is sky-high right now. It also means that if I’m going through a bit of a rut with my kendo, I don’t feel like everything really sucks. It’s hard to feel that way when you’re on top of a mountain, or speeding down it on your bike, or catching a wave. A lot of the time, cross-training doesn’t even feel like training (even if your lungs say otherwise!) because it’s so much fun.

Of course, one final factor, which is probably most relevant to most of you kids, is accessibility of training. Maybe your parents don’t have time to drive you around to a whole bunch of different kendo dojos all over Melbourne. That doesn’t mean you can’t get on your bike or play soccer with your friends in the park. That’s cross-training too. Be imaginative. If you can’t train for kendo for some reason, such as being on holidays, it doesn’t mean you can’t become a super fitness beast by running up and down the local hill and freak everyone out with how hard you can go the next time you do kakari-geiko. Everyone else will be thinking, “Gee man, I just want to get through the next kiri-kaeshi, but look at this guy!”


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

掛稽古 Kakarigeiko

pic by Steve

Firstly kakarigeiko is "attacking practice". It is designed to build stamina and the ability to break through against a powerful opponent. It should only be practiced once you are completely warmed-up, as the intensity of it can cause injuries if the body is not ready.

Generally kakarigeiko is performed in such a way that the motodachi holds centre and the kakarite 掛手 (person who is attacking) must create an opening before attacking. Kiai should always be very loud and extended, continuing with the zanshin: no short yelps or grunts. This helps open up the lungs and increases cardio-vascular (heart and lung) fitness.

It should be done will nothing less than 100% of your energy and willpower. This 100% will increase as you go through repetitions, because kakarigeiko creates its own kind of warm-up. Imagine a battery that, the more you use it, the more power it can store: that's the human body. Subsequent repetitions will be performed at higher intensity, so that your initial energy output will seem small in comparison. Of course after enough repetitions this energy curve will start to dip rapidly. It is common for kakarigeiko to be used in Japanese uni and high school training as an especially severe training method, where kendoka are driven to complete exhaustion and even collapse.

In the early stages kakarigeiko is primarily a fitness-building exercise. That means it should be performed at your maximum energy level. As you get fitter over time, that output level will increase. Emphasis is on using your lower body to drive through and beyond your opponent, turn quickly and commence a new attack without stopping or pausing. Motodachi should encourage mostly atttacks moving forward: men, kote, do, ni-san dan waza. At this stage motodachi should not deliberately hamper their training partner.

Later, when fitness and skill levels are higher, motodachi can perform some actual blocking of cuts. Motodachi can also block their opponent with their body forcing taiatari and hikiwaza. This is a higher level of kakarigeiko where the kakari-te has to overcome the frustration of being hampered, or of their attacks miscarrying. Mukaezuki,(迎え means 'to welcome') where the motodachi holds centre so that even when kakarite thinks there was an opening, s/he runs into the tip of motodachi's shinai, can also be used by motodachi but it is potentially dangerous and should only be used by experienced dan grades.

More difficult still is ai-gakarigeiko 合掛稽古, where there is no motodachi and both kendoka attack simultaneously. Without a high level of regular training and skill, this drill can be ineffective.

The main mental benefits of kakarigeiko are: 1) to instill a spirit of perseverance ("knocked down seven times, get up eight"), and 2) to enable us to realise a state of mushin during training. Obviously in order to make a successful and appropriate attack there is some degree of planning and analysis required. However during kakarigeiko we learn to trust that this can still happen outside our conscious thinking processes as the sequence is too rapid for these processes to occur. So usually it is during kakarigeiko that the kendoka first has an experience of mushin 無心. They find themselves doing something correctly first, then only think about it later.

Yoshiyama Mitsuru sensei, who has written an excellent guide to passing high-level kendo gradings, says he feels kakarigeiko is of more benefit to one's kendo development than even jigeiko.

Kakarigeiko is the last drill before jigeiko. It has almost all the dynamism of jigeiko, and the least structure of all the drills. The main thing people find difficult, apart from the huge amounts of energy required, is the improvisational nature of it. When you get it right, it's like all your cuts are predestined. When you don't, it's like you can't put a foot right. But it takes some trust in yourself and your training to allow yourself to find rhythm. The best way to find that rhythm is to go all out and hold nothing back. Put most of your power into your legs, and keep your upper body relaxed and your cuts light. And sound like a homicidal maniac. Really.

Fujii sensei Lecture

Kendo Lecture by Minoru Fujii sensei,
Kendo Hanshi 8 dan,
Standing Committee member of All Japan Kendo Federation,
Shihan (Head Sensei) of Hokkaido University Kendo Club
Lecture given at: Kenshikan Melbourne, Sunday 4 June 2006

The lecture is made up of six sections:
1 History of kendo
2 Characteristics of kendo
3 Value of kendo
4 Effect of doing kendo
5 Concept of kendo
6 Attitude of instructor*

If I start to feel tired I will simply stop the lecture early. [Note: * In fact this section was omitted due to the lecture running almost an hour over time.–BS] In the All Japan Kendo Renmei, lectures of this sort are attended standing. Those in the audience are not permitted to sit! However I will let you all sit today!

1) History
Kendo is a unique product of Japanese culture. The first origins of kendo were for the purpose of hunting and killing animals for food. Much later the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai 戦国時代) led to swords being used for political purposes. From this, swords, spears, the staff, etc, were developed with a view to killing other human beings.

Later, during the Tokugawa Period (徳川時代) the concept of bushido (武士道) was developed. The sword was no longer used for war but schools developed for their use, based on killing. At one point there were between 400 and 500 different schools (ryuha 流派) dedicated to swordsmanship and related arts in Japan.

Kendo developed from many of these schools, such as the Itto Ryu (一刀流), the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu (柳生新影流), the Ono-ha Itto Ryu (小野派一刀流 ) and so on. Tokugawa Ieyasu chose the Yagyu Ryu because the emphasis was not on the killing aspect of swordsmanship, but on the spiritual or human development aspect.

In the Yagyu Ryu there were two key concepts: satsuninto and katsujinken.
satsuninto 殺人刀 literally, the “killing people sword”
katsujinken 活人剣 literally, the “life-giving sword” or “sword for developing people”

So the sword for killing people became the sword to develop life, or people’s life. The Tokugawa clan ruled peacefully for 300 years, largely due to this concept of katsujinken. Today’s kendo continues this tradition, where the point is not strength or conquering others. It is to develop people and human society.

2) Characteristics of kendo
Age doesn’t matter in kendo.
Gender doesn’t matter in kendo.
Weather doesn’t matter in kendo (because we train indoors).
People don’t die any more in kendo.
Kendo is a lifelong activity. The senior senpai here today is Nagae sensei. How old are you sensei? 85 years old! Many of the sensei here in this delegation are in their 60s. You don’t have to be impatient for progress. Just aim to be still doing kendo at 80 years old.

The purpose of kendo practice is to improve your techniques, your mind and your physical fitness. Things learned in the dojo you can use to benefit society.

3) Benefits of kendo
Concentration (kiryoku 気力)
Speedy judgement (as in the case of shinpan practice)
Abdominal strength (tanryoku 丹力)
Broadening of the mind
Sympathy, generosity

4) Value of kendo
Artistic nature of kendo. Beauty is very important in kendo and it is this aspect that is closely linked to etiquette. Yesterday I showed you how important it is to take off your men neatly, placing your men himo carefully on the floor next to your men. This is an expression of your awareness of beauty. Actually, etiquette is nothing more than the appreciation of beauty in everyday actions: for instance not loudly blowing your nose opposite someone at the dinner table but first removing yourself and doing it away from view is an appreciation of beauty, and at the same time an appreciation of the feelings of others.

Martial nature of kendo. This aspect was discussed above in regards to the history of kendo.
Educational aspect of kendo. Kendo’s aim is to develop people who can contribute to society.
The competitive nature of kendo. (As an aside, Fujii sensei said he was dismayed at how many instructors were teaching their kendo students only techniques useful for winning, and neglecting the other aspects above, especially the importance of beauty and etiquette).

5) Concept of kendo
In the year Showa 50 (1975), the All Japan Kendo Federation published the Concept of Kendo (剣道の理念 Kendo no rinen)
“The concept of kendo is to discipline the human character via the application of the principles of the sword.”

The All Japan Kendo Federation (全日本剣道連盟) badge is based on the circle, with three partial circles of different colours contained. The three colours are red, blue and white: red=knowledge (chi 智), blue=sympathy (jin 仁) and white=courage (yu勇). Courage is this case represents courage against evil.

The circle represents the totality of the whole world. It also represents peace [wa 和 means both ‘peace’ and ‘circle’]. The circle also represents the cycle of the four seasons, of birth, growth, decline, death and regeneration. The circle is also linked to the concept of katsujinken. Finally, the symbol of the circle representing the four seasons is the secret teaching (okuden奥伝) of the Itto Ryu.

礼に始まる、礼に終わる rei ni hajimaru, rei ni owaru
In kendo we say “Kendo begins and ends with courtesy.” This means that manners are most important. A kendoka should not be proud of victory, not disappointed in defeat. Self-control (kokki 克己) is important. Respecting others is also important.
Eventually the spirit of budo links to developing the human being.

I would now like to talk about the specific aspect of attacking known as seme
First of all there are two concepts that relate to the completion of an attack: shin ki ryoku itchi (心気力一致) and ki ken tai itchi (気剣体一致)
Shinkiryokuitchi describes the necessary condition of readiness in order to make a successful attack, that is, that your intention, your energy and your physical power are all in accord.

Kikentaiitchi refers to the action of making the cut, whereby all aspects of the cut come together as one, that is the shout, the sword and the footwork or body movement.

In producing seme, there are several stages. Firstly, the meeting of the two swords. At a slight distance apart this is where seme starts. Then when the two kensen touch, this is called shokujin (触刃). When the two swords cross over each other, this is called kojin (交刃). see fig.1

fig. 1

There are many kinds of seme leading to the cut. My teacher was Sugawara Keisaburo. His motto was:

勝って 打つ
katte utsu
“Win (first, then) strike”

This means you should win the point first, using seme, then follow through with a cut once you have already defeated your opponent. But what is seme? How do you use it?

There are three kinds of seme:
1) seme against your opponent’s ki 気
2) seme against your opponent’s kensen 剣先
3) seme against your opponent’s waza 技

What does “seme against your opponent’s waza” mean? It means to get in first. Don’t let them express their technique. Debana waza is an example of this. see fig. 2


In kendo there are what we call the four sicknesses: fear, doubt, surprise and captivation 驚懼疑惑 (kyo ku gi waku). When you see any one of these in your opponent, you strike. When the opening is there, you give 100%. Don’t hold anything back, or think about what your opponent might do as a counterattack. Just put everything into your attack. Also, we train to eradicate these sicknesses from our kendo. Yesterday when I was doing jigeiko against one of the other Hokudai sensei, he showed seme towards my kote and in response I raised my shinai. This I considered a losing point, even though yuko datotsu did not actually occur. Just the fact that my opponent was able to arouse one of the four sicknesses in me was enough. This is the reason that I train with a shorter than normal shinai. When I have trouble with my mind, I use a very short shinai [shorter than a size 34 shinai—BS]. With a very short shinai, I must have a strong centre and mind in order to overcome the disadvantage of the short shinai. This is the way I have developed to help me train my mind.

When using the shorter shinai however, it is like using the kodachi (小太刀). A slightly higher kamae can make up the difference in length, so that there is almost no difference in maai. see fig. 3


The left hand is your mind. A constantly moving left hand shows a disturbed mind [‘disturbed’ as in ‘not calm’—BS].Fudoshin 不動心, an immovable mind. This is the ideal. If the left hand is your mind, then the right hand is your technique.

In Japanese it is said that “bad technique comes from a loose armpit”, meaning a gap between the arm and body.

If your kensen is raised, then your kote is open.
If your kensen is lowered, then men is open.
If kensen is lifted in a technique, then do is open.

Kensen movements should always be subtle. Don’t show your eagerness to attack. Don’t be greedy to get the point. On the other hand, the character mu 無 on my tenugui does not mean “do nothing”. It means don’t have an idea in your mind to do something.

6) Breathing technique
Breathing is important in kendo. Of course. If you stop breathing you die! So we do it all day and all night. But would you like to know how to increase your tanryoku through breathing? It’s very simple and you can practice anywhere. Put one hand on your tanden 丹田, which is the lower part of your abdomen, about 2 inches below your navel. Breathe in quickly and fill your lungs. Now breathe out as slow as you can, feeling your hand move. Practice to increase the length of time you can spend breathing out. In kendo breathing is linked to the moment of attack. It is very hard, perhaps impossible to attack while breathing in. In fact the moment of breathing in is an opening to attack. In Japanese we call the in-breath kyo 虚 (falsehood) and the out-breath jitsu 実 (truth). The outward breath creates strength and has no weakness. The inward breath creates 隙 (suki) or weakness.

The important thing in kendo is to take sen 線 (the line).
Kendo is not to exercise technique.
Kendo is not to strike.
Kendo is not to wait.
I read recently that someone said “kendo is eyelashes.” I thought about this for a long time. In the end I came to the conclusion that he meant that it is something that is right in front of you, but you can’t see it.

We have gone over time. I was going to say something about the role of the instructor but I find it is not necessary because you have Nagae sensei. In Japan these things I have told you are not talked about. They are not sharedwidely. But I am just a fool. I tell you all everything!

Thank you very much!

This transcript is based on notes made by me during this lecture. It is not meant as comprehensive translation of Fujii sensei’s lecture. It is merely meant to serve as a reminder for those who were there, and an ‘informative taste’ for those who weren’t. These notes were made after the simultaneous translation into English by Yano Yoichi sensei. Any mistakes are mine. Any corrections or additions from others who were there are welcome.
Ben Sheppard, Melbourne 2006.