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).
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-kote (cutting kote as your opponent starts their attack)
- 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)
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.
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)
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.