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.