Monday, October 19, 2009


Being defeated, being beaten by an opponent, is one of the hardest things to deal with in kendo*. Sometimes, when we have tried really hard and we still get beaten, it makes us want to give up kendo. Some people do.

It is because it is so difficult to bear that being defeated has the most to teach us about our kendo, and also about ourselves. Someone who has learned to come back from defeat in kendo will be able to deal better with hardship outside of kendo, because they know defeat is only temporary. They also know that today's defeat contains the seeds of tomorrow's victory.

As a result, being defeated becomes a precious and valuable experience because it shows us our weak points. If we are humble and dedicated, we can use that knowledge to develop our weak points so that they become our strengths. This is how we improve as
kendoka. This is why there is a saying in kendo, "When you are defeated, give thanks." Your opponent has just shown you what you need to know to win next time.

But it still hurts...
Then think about this:

The Shinkage Ryu was developed from the Kage Ryu by Kamiizumi Ise no Kami.

Yagyu Sekishusai was already an experienced samurai when he first met Kamiizumi. Sekishusai had first led troops into battle when he was only 15 years old, and many times since then he had been singled out for praise for his bravery in war. This was the Sengoku Jidai or 'Warring States Period' in Japanese history, when the many small domains that made up Japan were constantly fighting each other. In other words, Sekishusai knew what real fighting was and he was pretty good at it, good enough to survive.

In 1564 the Shinkage Ryu founder and some of his students were in the area where the Yagyu family lived. It appears that Kamiizumi asked around as to who in the area was a worthy swordsman. Sekishusai's name came up and so a match was arranged. History is sketchy about whether it was Kamiizumi himself who fought Sekishusai. More likely it was one of his senior students (perhaps Hikita Bungoro, another famous name in Japanese swordsmanship). Whoever it was, the outcome was the same—Yagyu Sekishusai was soundly beaten.

Even though he was already a successful and highly-respected samurai commander, Sekishusai's response was to become Kamiizumi's disciple**
. It was this decision that put Sekishusai, and his entire family, on the road to greatness. He studied
Shinkage Ryu under Kamiizumi intensely until he finally received the seal of full transmission of the school from Kamiizumi. Yagyu Shinkage Ryu went on to become the personal school of the Tokugawa family, after Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first Shogun, or Supreme Military Ruler of Japan. Many of the most important philosophical ideas in Japanese swordsmanship come from the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. And the school still exists today, still headed by the Yagyu family.

All thanks to Sekishusai swallowing his pride and begging Kamiizumi to teach him everything he knew.

"If this person can defeat me, then I want to know what s/he knows."
This is not the thinking of a wishy-washy person or a weak person. It is the thinking of a humble person, someone whose drive to be better is bigger than their ego. A great person doesn't just stick to their guns, they know when they have seen something extraordinary and then quickly grasp the opportunity.

*It's also one of the great things about kendo. When someone beats you there is no arguing. It's clear. You have to deal with it. No half-points. No variation in rules from one dojo to the next. Some martial arts do not give you this kind of clear feedback, and I personally believe this is why these martial arts sometimes end up with people at the top who are very egotistical and yet who never allow themselves to be challenged by their students. In kendo two things keep us honest: sweat and yuko datotsu (successful scoring cuts).

**What is the difference between a student and a disciple (弟子
deshi in Japanese)? A student may study hard, but their life is otherwise pretty normal. A disciple is someone who is willing to give up everything (family, friends, possessions) if necessary so as to follow a particular path or a particular teacher.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

正面 Shomen

Like a lot of kendo terms there is at least two meanings to shomen: a simple one and a more subtle one.

The simple meaning of the term shomen refers to cutting the centre of your opponent's head. It is the first cut everyone learns. To be precise this is called shomen-uchi 正面打.

The more subtle meaning is to face something head-on. This is why it is so important in kendo, because kendo is not about learning how to defeat another person but to develop your self. So in kendo you need to practice facing things head-on, not shying away or making excuses.

Shomen uchi
The basic technique in kendo is shomen uchi. Using a straight backswing and a straight cut, you aim to strike your opponent's men (helmet) right above the tate-gane, or vertical bar of the mengane (helmet's steel grill).

A UMKC student asked me recently, "when should you use sa-yu-men?" (left or right diagonal men cuts). This made me think and I realised something about shomen.

It is often said that all the techniques in kendo comes from shomen, and that if you can execute shomen confidently you will be able to master all the other techniques. Why is that? Well, because if you see all the different techniques in kendo as separate you will learn them all separately, and they will remain separate for you. As a result you will probably specialise in just one or two techniques that you can do really well, because trying to learn all the others just takes time away from perfecting your 'preferred waza'.

This is the wrong approach.

You should see shomen as no different to all other techniques. Sa-yu-men, kote, do and, later on, tsuki, are all just variations of shomen. If you perfect shomen you can perform all the others as variations of shomen. You adapt shomen on the spur of the moment to become kote, for example. Seen in this way, when you practice your shomen, you are also practicing all the other techniques, and vice versa: when you practice the other techniques, you are also practicing shomen.

How and why does this work?
As I mentioned earlier, the term shomen has the feeling of facing things straight on. In kendo if you face your opponent straight on without flinching or backing down, you will eventually break through. If you face them with a single-pointed focus, and a completely empty mind, then if the opportunity arises for kote instead of shomen, you will perform kote easily. If, on the other hand you have practiced kote as a separate technique to be used in certain situations, then your mind will have to sort through all the waza you know and choose the right one before you can act. In kendo, this is too slow.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Simple shiai guide

You've probably seen this video before, but pay attention to the first 10 seconds for a good example of shiai etiquette.

Some of you are new to shiai, so here is a basic guide to the main things you have to remember.

Reiho 礼法
  1. Start just outside the shiaijo (court). When the shinpan (referees) are standing ready, you must face your opponent and step into the shiaijo. You will not be given a command to do so because you must make a connection with your opponent. Do not be the last to step in, but neither be the first. Step in such a way as you make your opponent follow your lead.
  2. Come to a point about a metre inside the shiaijo. Bow silently to your opponent without taking your eyes off them. Do not say "onegaishimasu".
  3. Take three decisive steps forward to the shiaisen (white line) and draw your sword. Again do not race your opponent but move so that they follow you. Sonkyo so that they do it at the same time as you.
  4. Wait for the shushin (head referee) to call "hajime!"
  5. Stand up promptly but do not rush. Always step slightly forward into chudan-no-kamae, never backwards. Kiai strongly. Use your kiai to tell your opponent that you will never back down.
  6. Fight and take shodachi 初太刀 (the first point)
During the match
You already know that matches are the best of three points. Here's a reminder of the shushin's calls:
  • hajime! yame! These two are self-explanatory. They will be accompanied by strong flag movement by all shinpan.
  • men ari! do ari! kote ari! A point has been scored. You must stop fighting and return your shiaisen (white line).
  • nihonme! Begin! (fighting for the second point)
  • shobu! Begin! (fighting for the final point)
  • shobu ari! There is a winner! (the match is over). The shushin will call this after you are both returned to your shiaisen and waiting in chudan-no-kamae. As shushin calls it, s/he will lower the flag of the winning kendoka. You and your opponent must sonkyo together at the same time as the flag is lowered.
End of match
Do the normal movements: sonkyo, o-same-to, five small steps back, lower the sword and rei without saying "domo arigato...". Take a few steps backwards out of the shiaijo. Once you have crossed the line you can turn and walk away normally.

These are the basics aspects of shiai. There are many others, but if you can learn these, then you can participate in shiai.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

勝負 – Winning and losing

勝負 shobu refers to a match. It is also what the shushin calls out before the deciding point of a match. The word shobu is made up of the two characters sho 勝 (victory) and fu 負 (defeat).

In term 3 our focus will be on shiai, or competition. We will practice various waza, as well as how to enter and leave the shiaijo correctly.

We will also think about what winning and losing means in kendo. Often we are told that competition is not the main point of practising kendo, and this is true. But we still need a drive to win in order for there to be some point to our training. This is called a paradox, a situation where two opposites are true at the same time.

What is the difference between wanting to win and not wanting to lose? They are sort of similar aren't they?

This is what we will be investigating through practice in the coming term.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

溜める To build up your spirit

from Okinawa Soba's Flickr photostream (CC)
Follow the link to see quite a few good kendo pics from more than 100 years ago.

溜める (tameru) means 'to build up' or 'to accumulate'. It is not mentioned in kendo as much as 残心 (zanshin) which as you know refers to the follow through after an attack, but the two are directly connected. You can't follow through without something to start you off in the first place.

So what is it actually?
The best description of tame (pronounced tum-eh) is to imagine you are like a bow. Your attack is the arrow. And your tame is the bow-string. If your tame is weak, it is as if you have not pulled the bow-string back very far and so the arrow will not fly very far. It will probably fail to reach the target. Your tame, your build up, must be like drawing the bow as far as it can go. The power is then almost too strong to hold, the bow vibrates with energy and the arrow strains to be released. As soon as there is an opening, your attack flies and there is no stopping it. When you think of it this way, zanshin is just a by-product of tame. And so it should be. Zanshin should not be artificial (such as forcing yourself to do extra footwork to pass your opponent), it should just be a natural part of the attack.

How do you develop tame?
There are two ways to develop tame. The first way is with kiai. When you kiai at your opponent, even before you have any idea of your first attack, the purpose is to build up your attacking spirit, in other words, tameru. You must always kiai strongly, and notice the effect it has on your opponent: did they kiai back? Did they flinch? What was their kiai like?

The second way is through attacking practice like uchikomigeiko and kakarigeiko. People who have trained regularly and hard, especially in these exercises, find it easier to have powerful tame. It is like they have found the tame switch in their body and in their kendo.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pre-war kendo

I sometimes mention during training how kendo was different before World War II, e.g. being able to trip, wrestle and/or choke your opponent. Always sounds like fun doesn't it? ;)
Of course I only know about it from hearing stories from Nagae sensei. But finally one of the most important pre-war kendo books is being translated chapter-by-chapter into English by Mr Kent Enfield.

So far there are four articles describing men, kote, do and tsuki. They can be found here. Keep checking back from time to time as he may have added new chapters.

These articles are translations of a work called Kendo Kyohon (Kendo Instruction Manual) by Takano Sasaburo (pictured above), one of the legendary 10th dans of kendo.

The thing that will hit you first as you read is how many techniques Takano sensei describes - 50 different techniques in all. Some of them are no longer practiced, no longer called by that name, or are simply too advanced for most of us to grasp without instruction from a very senior sensei. But as you read, I hope you are able to imagine what most of the waza look like and then picture yourself doing them. This is also real training. b

Many of you will have seen this before. It is a video of two famous Japanese-American kendoka performing on US television in the 1950s which is just after the War ended. Watch closely and you will see many attempts at ashi-barai or foot-sweeps, which throw the opponent to the floor. Notice also how the ashi-barai is used, really as an opening to strike with the sword straight away, not as a signal to start grappling on the ground.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Kihon waza backswing - how big should it be?

Another thing that I spoke about last class, and which I often remind people of, is their backswing.

Most people who have a problem with their backswing, tend to swing back too far. When most people do a large backswing, they swing back much further than 45 degrees for men, and vertical or 90 degrees for kote. Often they swing back to 0 degrees, meaning totally flat behind them, or even further. There is no real problem with this, other than it means your shinai has to travel further than necessary.

In kendo, 45 degrees and 90 degrees are considered a kihon backswing. Your backswing never needs to be bigger, and in certain situations can be smaller than this.

Again, for visual learners especially, please consider the diagram below.

The test of whether your backswing is big enough, is whether you can see your opponent's target area (datotsubui) beneath your left hand.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Being Dojo Captain

When you have as many members as this, you need to know exactly who is Dojo Captain!

Today at training I spoke about this issue, and also promised to blog it for future reference, so here it is.

The Dojo Captain's role is to be the second-in-command. They are directly below the instructor in importance. At Nanseikan, this means that the Dojo Captain is the oldest member of the club and the one with the most years continuous training.

When that person is not at training, the duty (and honour) of being Dojo Captain falls to the next most senior person present. In case the day comes when that will be you, dear reader (and it will!), I have written below the basic commands and tasks that need to be memorised. All of them are what you will know from training every week. Here is a chance for you to study them a little in preparation.

There is no real set plan for warm-ups. So long as all the major parts of the body get covered, there can be a lot of variation. However this can be a hard thing to know when it comes to your first time running warm-ups, so here are a few tips:
  • Start with simply moving the major joints of the body. Start with the ankles and work upwards, finishing with the neck. Always move the neck gently and try to avoid full circular rotations, especially fast ones: these can lead to injury.
  • The sequence of movements counting to eight cover a lot of the major warm-up needs. So use them.
  • Don't forget the wrist, calf, thigh and achilles exercises.
  • If it is cold, try including star jumps, and/or jogging/sprinting/hopping/jumping on the spot.
  • Don't encourage ballistic stretching. This refers to stretching where you bounce in the stretch to try and achieve a greater range of movement. This can lead to injuries.
Unless I say otherwise, suburi should not go on too long. The usual pattern of 20/20/20/20 is plenty.

Don't crticise
Please don't use warm-ups or suburi to examine everyone's technique and give them tips. Only if there is something seriously wrong, such as someone obviously not knowing what naname-buri is, should you stop and explain. In this sort of case, it's also best to give a brief demonstration.

There are slight differences between how different dojos run the zarei (seated rei) at the beginning and end of training, but mostly it is the same. Below are the terms in order and their meaning.

Start of training
  1. Seiretsu! .................... line up!
  2. Chakuza! ..................... kneel down!
  3. Ki o tsuke! ..................... be ready! (literally "switch on!")
    Some dojo use "seiza o tadashite" ("make your sitting correct!")
  4. Mokuso! ........................ meditation!
  5. *clap!* or yame! .......... stop!
  6. joseki ni... rei! ................ bow to calligraphy at front of dojo!
  7. sensei ni... rei! ............... bow to sensei!
  8. "Onegaishimasu!" ......... please help me to train!
End of training
  1. Seiretsu! .................... line up!
  2. Chakuza! ..................... kneel down!
  3. Men o tore! ................... take off men! (and kote)
  4. Ki o tsuke! ..................... be ready!
  5. Mokuso! ........................ meditation!
  6. *clap!* or yame! ........... stop!
  7. sensei ni... rei! ............... bow to sensei!
  8. joseki ni... rei! ................ bow to calligraphy at front of dojo!
  9. "Domo arigato gozaimashita!" ......... thank you for training!
Please take some time to read through all this and think about it.
To help those like me who are visual thinkers/learners, here is a little picture guide for each step:



Ki o tsuke!


Mokuso hand position (called the Hokkai-jo-in)

Joseki ni...


Sensei ni...
(when there is more than one sensei, the command is "Sensei-gata ni...")

(close up of correct hand placement for kendo zarei)

Some dojo also like to do "otagai ni... rei" meaning a bow to each other as equals. b

Thursday, May 7, 2009


source -

[Before I start this article I must say this: if your injury does not improve quickly, or if you have any worries at all about it, see a doctor.]

Ice is a kendoka's friend!

Whenever we get any "soft tissue" injuries, in other words strains, sprains or bruises, the best treatment is to apply ice. A good example is if your wrist is bruised because your kote are too soft or your training partners are too hard. When you get home you should apply ice to the bruised area. It is amazing the difference it makes. Without it, the soreness can last for days, and even worse, it comes back very quickly the next time you get hit there.

If you ice the injury, the next day all the pain will have gone away. And by next training, if you get hit there, it won't be any worse than before*.

So do I just get an ice block from the freezer and put it on my wrist?
No. You can use ice from the freezer, but put several blocks in a plastic bag to stop it getting messy as the ice melts. Then use a damp tenugui or wash-cloth around the bag to stop the ice from burning your skin. Yes, ice can burn you! If the cloth is damp it helps to transfer the coldness to your skin, but protects your skin from burning.

When should I ice my injury?
You should ice your injury as soon as possible after training. But even if you forget, using ice the next day will still help.

How long should I use it for?

You should hold the icebag against your injury for as long as you can stand it. Usually 5-10 minutes, depending on your age, and the size of the body part (your finger will get cold much quicker than your thigh, for instance). If your whole wrist (or whatever part of the body is involved) starts to ache from the cold, just stop, put the ice bag back in the freezer, and let your wrist/finger/ankle/etc warm up again for about the same time as you had the ice on it. Then apply again, e.g. ice for 10 mins, rest for 10 mins, ice for 10 mins, rest for 10 mins, ice for 10 rest for 10. Let's call this "one cycle".

Do one cycle as soon as you get home. Then leave it for a few hours, then do another cycle. Leave it for a few more hours, then if you still feel a bit sore, do one more cycle. The next day you should feel a great improvement. You should continue to rest from kendo, but you probably won't need to keeping icing your injury.

Be careful not to leave the ice on too long. It's safer to stop, rest, and do it again, than to keep it on for a long time.

Why does ice work so well?
The cold effect of applying ice slows down blood flow to the affected area and also reduces the response of nerves in the area. This does two important things:
  1. It instantly reduces the pain (a kind of anaesthetic).
  2. It reduces swelling, which in turn helps the injury to heal more quickly.
What else should I do to look after my injury?
The basic way to look after all soft-tissue injuries can be remembered with the word RICE. The word RICE is a mnemonic, in other words a device (a word or a rhyme) for remembering something. It stands for (in order of importance):

Rest - stop the activity that caused the injury

Ice - apply ice to the injury

Compression - use a strong, elastic bandage wrapped tightly around the ice-pack to help reduce swelling.

Elevation - Keep the affected area raised to reduce blood-flow.

But if you can't do all of these, the most important one, aside from rest, is ice.

Is there anything I should avoid doing?
Yes, several things. These can be remembered with the mnemonic, "No HARMS".

Heat - no heat packs, hot water bottles, hot baths or hot showers.

Alcohol - none of this of course!

Rubs - no medicated rubs like Tiger Balm, Deep Heat, Liniment Oils etc.

Massage - no massaging the affected area

With the exception of alcohol, most of these things are usually good things. But not for the first 72 hours (3 days) after a soft-tissue injury. There is one thing they all do, and that is they all increase blood flow. This will slow down healing and actually increase the pain, inflammation and swelling of your injury.

So for three days after the injury, no HARMS, just RICE! Oh, and did I mention to see your doctor if you're not sure? Yes? Good!

Are those gel-filled cold packs worth getting?
I was going to say they work quite well, although not as well as ice.

That was, until I found this product recall!

It seems many of the common brands of gel-filled hot/cold packs contain a toxic substance, ethylene glycol, otherwise known as anti-freeze for car radiators. This is a highly poisonous substance.

So I would say NO! They are not worth getting. And further, if you have one, contact your local council or your local chemist about how you can dispose of it safely.

Surgipack, one of the most commonly available brands of gel-filled hot/cold packs.
These have been found by the Australian Gov't to contain ethylene glycol, a toxic substance.

*It's a very good idea to mention such injuries to me, or whoever is taking training where you are. If your opponent is hitting too hard (even if that person is me) you should tell them. You can also find another pair of kote with a firmer datotsubui (striking area), or wear some padding underneath.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Teramoto vs Takanabe in 2007 All Japan C'ships. Go here for the video of this men-uchi.
Photo by Tyler Rothmar

A lot of people new to kendo see more experienced kendoka and all they see is speed. "If I can move as fast as that then I'll be as good as them."

True, being able to move quickly is part of it, and that does come with practice. But there are many other aspects to what experienced kendoka do, more important than simple speed, that allow them to be effective.

How does one get faster? The most basic way is to be able to perform the techniques of kendo in a relaxed manner. This means not being tense in your muscles as you swing, or as you step. The tricky part is that in order to not be tense, you have to stop trying so hard to go fast.

Another way to become relaxed in your movements is to train them. A LOT. Do suburi until you can hardly lift the shinai, then you will know what it means to really relax. Go to a lot of different trainings and train hard: uchikomigeiko, kakarigeiko, again until you can hardly keep going.

Being able to perform the basics of kendo with a unified body also helps speed up your movements. Co-ordination is helped by using kiai, which both prepares the body and helps launch it.

気剣体一致 Ki-ken-tai-itchi: the kiai, the cutting action and the footwork together as one.

The real secret to how great kendoka are able to cut with such apparently blinding speed in this: perceiving the right opportunity or kikai. When your opponent finds an opening in your kamae, it may seem fast to you but to them it may be like they've got all the time in the world.

This comes only with much practice and experience, although most people with only a few years kendo experience will have had the occasional experience of what this is like. Though some people seem to be able to do it more easily than others, everyone can improve their ability in 'seeing' the openings.

Here is a simple diagram that shows some of the different moments of opportunity in kendo, and two different ways to refer to them.

(c) Ben Sheppard

Speed Game Test
And finally, here's a little online game for you to test and train your reflexes

Don't worry if your first few results are bad. If you practice you will get faster: relfexes are not set at birth (like height or other physical attributes) but respond to training. Apparently the absolute fastest anyone can be is 0.2 of a second...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The basics of ma-ai

Another important concept in kendo is ma-ai (pronounced with a short pause in the middle, or sometimes "mawai").

It is used a lot in the dojo by instructors and is usually translated simply to mean 'distance'.

Ma'ai between you and your opponent
This distance is broken down into three basic kinds:

1) to-ma: far distance, where there is a gap between your kensen (sword tip) and your opponent's [below]

2) issoku-itto-no-ma-ai: "one step-one cut distance", where the two shinai
are crossed just past the tip

3) chika-ma: close distance, where shinai are crossed at between one third and
one half of the way down the blade

In the beginning we need to use the shinai to measure the distance between ourselves and our opponent. Even with this very obvious 'measuring stick' it is still easy to lose track of the ma'ai during keiko and allow your opponent to get too close without realising.

With more experience one becomes more aware of ma'ai and in fact it is possible to develop very strong instincts where it becomes almost a sixth sense.

Ma'ai in the dojo
We always train in the dojo along the centreline, coming back to the centre after each drill before we sonkyo with our opponent and part. Developing instincts about where you are in the dojo: how close you are to the wall behind you, how close you are to your training partners next to you, and so on, these are important distances to become familiar with as well.

Before we even start training we need to be able to judge kyuho no ma'ai (nine steps distance) so that we can bow, take three steps in to sonkyo and know we will be in the right place. When we do kata, a sense of where we are in the dojo helps us to stay near the middle and not 'drift' to one side as we perform them in sequence.

In these cases we don't have the shinai to use as a measuring stick, but we do have the fact that we train in the same way over and over. This helps to hone our sense of where we are in the dojo at all times.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Metsuke means "gaze" and in kendo it means where you look during keiko. Metsuke not only helps you see what your opponent is doing or going to do, but it also gives your opponent information about you. Even if you feel scared on the inside, you should have a steady, confident gaze that doesn't give anything away to your opponent.

Suburi and kukan datotsu During suburi and kukan datotsu (practicing cutting and following through without a target) you should always imagine your opponent and look at where their eyes would be. In other words you shouldn't be looking at the ground. Occasionally look at your feet to check your footwork but other than that, look straight ahead.

This also applies to kyu gradings where you might be asked to perform techniques in front of the grading panel. Just look straight ahead at your opponent, not at the floor or the grading panel. This will give a very good impression.

Against an opponent
In this case you should look straight at your opponent. This shows confidence. If you look away or at the ground, your opponent will gain confidence because they know their presence is having a strong effect on you.

Many sensei say you should look directly at your opponent's eyes. Other sensei warn that looking at the eyes can be mesmerising and that you should look at the whole person from head to toe. As you practice you must think about what works best for you.

Metsuke and facial expressions
As I said above, metsuke can give your opponent important information about your state of mind, how you are feeling, and so on. The other thing that can give your opponent information about your state of mind is your facial expression.

Generally, people who pull exaggerated faces during keiko are not that scary. The most effective facial expression is just your natural, calm face. No matter what happens, your face stays serene. This is much more unsettling for an opponent than an angry war face. And it is much less tiring for you. If you have a calm face it helps you to stay calm, and this in turn helps you to observe your opponent, because you are not busy with trying to rev yourself up.

However if your are strongly intent on cutting your opponent, your calm face will naturally take on a piercing and intense quality, like the snow leopard above. She is not putting on an act. She really is intently focused.

Metsuke is a very important part of all Japanese swordsmanship and there has been a lot written about it over hundreds of years. I will leave it up to you to investigate further if you are interested.

Friday, March 6, 2009


picture (c) Richard Stonell

Uchikomigeiko is a drill where the motodachi shows various openings to the student or kakarite, who does their best to cut and follow through as quickly and as correctly as they can.

After a while, motodachi sometimes get lazy or forget their job, and they show the openings to the student before the student has entered ma'ai. This makes the student's job much easier and they can come into ma'ai recklessly and without stopping. This helps create the false feeling that the uchikomigeiko is flowing smoothly.

I say false because to enter ma'ai recklessly, just assuming or trusting that your opponent will show an opening is not good kendo strategy. Even when training fundamentals, we should be developing a sense of what really works.

The motodachi plays an important role here. They should always make the student seme strongly before showing them the opening. If the student ignores this, the motodachi should keep their shinai in the centre and allow the student to run onto the kensen (according to the experience of both partners, the strength of this mukaezuki should be modified, i.e. kyu grade motodachi may allow the kensen to touch their opponent's body but then should quickly remove it. Experienced motodachi can keep the kensen there and really stop their partner in their tracks, provided their partner has the experience to receive it properly). They will then get the message and be a bit more wary.

To find a balance between recklessness and waryness is what training in uchikomigeiko is all about. The student steps in and shows good seme, not knowing how their opponent might react, but ready for any opening. Being able to improve this kind of all-around readiness is the great benefit of uchikomigeiko.

Remember: to the casual observer uchikomigeiko should look like it is flowing, but to each of the two people doing it, there should be: 1) seme-> 2) opening-> 3) seeing the opportunity and taking it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I just posted the list of requirements on Dojo News, but the list doesn't tell you how you must do what is listed. Here are some tips to remember in order to help you pass your next kyu grading.

How you wear your hakama and kendogi, and at higher levels, your bogu, tells the grading panel a lot about your kendo. Make sure you ask a fellow teammate or another kendoka (preferably someone who is more experienced) before your grading to check whether your appearance is correct. Sometimes because of nerves or lack of experience you might tie something incorrectly. You should also be comfortable, without feeling like your uniform is too tight or too loose.

  • Wear t-shirts or anything else visible under your kendogi (including necklaces)
  • Wear a kendogi that shows your leg through the side vent of your hakama
  • Wear your hakama so that it drags along the ground, or sags down at the back
  • Wear jewellery (including wrist bands of all kinds) or a watch
  • Wear a hakama and kendogi that is worn out or torn
  • get a senior person to check how you look before your grading
  • wear a clean uniform, with a hakama that has been pressed carefully (or at least kept folded between trainings)
  • make sure the back of the kendogi is stretched flat across your back
  • make sure the hakama himo have been tied properly and are flat
Reigi Saho
The single biggest impression you can make on the grading panel is the way you perform rei, sonkyo and kamae. Take time to practice the movements at home by yourself. Handle the shinai likes it is a sword and always picture your opponent clearly.

Especially practice sonkyo, at home if you have trouble doing it properly. You must be able to lower yourself down into sonkyo and stand up into kamae with a straight back all the way.

Practice sonkyo as part of your warm-up when you get to the Kenshikan, so that you can do it without wobbling in your grading.

General advice
Remember, even though you feel nervous, that the grading panel is not there to try and trick you into failing. They, and everyone else, want you to have the opportunity to show your best kendo. If you are not sure about what you are being asked to do, then you might make a mistake that affects your performance. So if you are not sure, put up your hand and ask the Dojo Steward who is giving the commands to repeat his or her instructions and also demonstrate what is required. You cannot fail your grading for asking for an explanation to be repeated.

I'll say that again...
  • If you're not sure what you are supposed to do, ask! You cannot be failed for asking for instructions to be repeated.
Having said that, make sure you watch the gradings before yours, so you can learn what to do before you are asked to line up.

Future gradings
After your grading has finished you'll probably be a little relieved and exhausted. You might want to have a bit of a rest. But make sure when the gradings for the level above yours are due to begin, that you spend some time watching them. That way you will know what to expect for next time. Also observe those whose kendo seems to be a cut above the rest and try to work out what it is that makes it better. This is called mitori-geiko, learning by careful observation.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tenouchi - the grip

in kendo means the swordsman's grip on the sword. Literally translated it means "the inside of the hand", in other words, the palm of the hand. When referring to the bogu it means the leather palm of the kote. In Japanese generally it can simply mean "skill".

There are many common mistakes people make when holding and swinging the shinai.
  • Holding too tightly with the right hand.
  • Opening the grip of the left hand to increase the size of the swing.
  • Holding the shinai with the wrong part of the left hand
Maintaining the correct tenouchi is part of suburi practice at home. This is why it is important to make sure that your tenouchi is correct before you spend time practicing by yourself: you don't want to practice bad habits!

Strength at the bottom, softness at the top
I was taught that you should hold the shinai mostly tightly with the fingers at the bottom of the shinai handle, in other words the little fingers of your left hand. Then your grip should be slightly less with the thumb and index finger, a bit less with the little fingers of the right hand, and softest with the thumb and index finger of the right hand.

Eventually tenouchi becomes so quick and efficient that even though you train all the time, you no longer get callouses on your hands. This happens at around 7th dan I believe...

Holding too tightly with the right hand
People who hold the shinai too tightly with their right hand find that:
  1. Their cuts are not as accurate
  2. Their cuts are slower
  3. They tire more quickly
  4. They develop blisters on their right hand
Below is a picture of someone holding too tightly with the right hand. There is quite a sharp angle in the wrist as a result.


The correct way is to hold more lightly with the right hand. You can see this by less of a bend in the wrist. The fingers appear a little more open, with the index finger reaching forward to just touch the tsuba.


Holding the shinai with the wrong part of the left hand
The first picture shows the shinai being held with the wrong part of the hand, with the tsukagashira (end of the handle) lying between the two bumps on the heel of the palm.

incorrect grip

The second picture shows the correct way to grip the tsukagashira, with both bumps of the heel of the palm on top of the handle.

correct grip

Opening the grip of the left hand to increase the size of the swing.
This is pretty self-explanatory. The top picture is the incorrect way. This is a hard thing to be aware of by yourself. Usually it takes a sensei or senior student observing you to let you know if you are doing this wrong during suburi.


Below is the correct way. In kendo, the little fingers of the left hand should never release their strong grip on the tsukagashira. This means that your wrist has to provide the flexibility and strength for the cut. Chiba sensei's technique for developing this strength and flexibility is to perform kirikaeshi with horizontal men cuts.


Tenouchi and strength
There is undoubtedly a connection between good tenouchi and strength in your hands. Next time you train with an 8th dan sensei, have a good look at their hands. You will most likely notice that they are pretty strong, with what looks like bicep muscles on each finger. This only comes from lots and lots of training.

This takes us back to the importance of suburi. Even if you don't do 1000, daily suburi will definitely make it easier to strike sharply.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Bokuto training sequence

image from Mushinkan Kendo and Iaido Dojo

The bokuto ni yoru kihon waza keiko ho is a set of 9 "kata" designed recently by the All Japan Kendo Federation to help teach kendo basics. At Nanseikan we have practiced these for a period of time every year for the last three years or so. Still, we do not practice them all the time, so a little reminder in black and white will be handy.

The purpose of the bokuto keiko ho is to give an introduction to the basic techniques of kendo, both shikake and oji waza, and at the same time an experience of handling the bokuto. It has been formulated especially for beginners so that they can practice something fundamental even before they are able to wear bogu. And it is a sequence that can be useful for all kendoka to practice from time to time.

In the bokuto keiko ho, there are two roles. They are the kakarite: the person who is practicing the techniques, the attacker, and the motodachi: the person receiving the techniques. The role of the kakarite is a bit like the role of the uchidachi in kata, only much less active. For all of the shikake waza, the motodachi just shows the correct opening and receives.

The order of the keiko ho is this:
  1. kihon ichi: kihon men, kote, do, tsuki
  2. kihon ni: ni dan waza, kote-men
  3. kihon san: harai waza, harai-men (from omote)
  4. kihon yon: hiki waza, men-tsubazeriai-hiki-do
  5. kihon go: nuki waza, men-nuki-do
  6. kihon roku: suriage waza, kote-suriage-men (from ura)
  7. kihon nana: debana waza, debana-kote (also called degote)
  8. kihon hachi: kaeshi waza, men kaeshi do
  9. kihon kyu: uchiotoshi waza, do-uchiotoshi-men
There is a little rhyme in Japanese for remembering the order. It goes:
  • ichi, ni, hari, hiki, nuki, sure, ba, kaeshi, uchi
A detailed description of the actions, as well as video for the entire sequence are readily available on the net. Just google "bokuto ni yoru" (or click on the photo above).

Zanshin is particularly important in the keiko ho. For example, in the four kihon waza contained in kihon ichi, there are two steps back by the kakarite after every technique. At the first step back the kakarite must be aware of demonstrating zanshin by pausing for a brief moment to hold centre and threaten the motodachi's throat. The helps to prevent the keiko ho from becoming just an empty set of movements. Like kata they must be performed with the feeling that you are actually using these techniques to defeat the motodachi.

Like kata, the distance is very important. When you perform a technique, it should reach the target area so that if you wished you could physically strike the correct part of your opponent's body. Naturally your well-practiced tenouchi stops this!

The only exception to this is the fourth part of kihon ichi - tsuki. In this case, as you know, the motodachi takes a step back at the moment kakarite delivers the tsuki in order to guard against accidents.

The way the keiko ho is perfomed is very like kata, with largely the same reigi saho (performance of etiquette) as kata, the same starting from kyu ho no maai (9 steps distance), taking three steps in, etc. When using the bokuto it should be performed with the same feeling as kata.

The keiko ho can also be run as a sequence where both sides are wearing bogu and using shinai. In this case, full contact can be made and the instructor may decided that you not perform all of the reigi saho each time but instead use it as the basis of training drills at full-speed.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ashi sabaki - footwork

footwork diagram from Boston Kendo Kyokai

Footwork is the base of kendo. Without good footwork, you cannot get better in kendo.

Actually in Japanese ashi means leg as well as foot, so we could say it's called "leg-and-footwork". To have good ashi-sabaki, you must develop strong legs and feet. Personally I believe it is more important to have a strong lower body (which includes stomach, hips and lower back) than a strong upper body (chest, shoulders and arms). For this reason I strongly recommend cycling or running as important training for kendo development.

There are two main kinds of footwork as you know: ayumi ashi and okuri ashi. Both use a kind of suri-ashi or sliding action across the floor. As you know also, the heel is not used in kendo except at the moment of cutting. At that moment the footwork is called fumikomi ashi.

The left foot
The secret to achieving excellent footwork in kendo is the left foot. If you can bring the left foot up quickly to the start position, you will be ready more quickly to take the next step. The left foot is very much the driving force in propelling you forward. I think of it as having a rear-engined, rear wheel drive car, like a Porsche. The engine in the back drives you forwards.

When going backwards it becomes the right foot which drives you backwards. In both cases we say it is the trailing foot that is provides the power.

The left knee
When you face an opponent in kamae, the left knee is very important. In kendo it is said that, "wherever you point your left knee, that is where you will go". Therefore it is important, as you and your opponent move around in shiai or jigeiko, always to keep your left knee pointed at your opponent.

The left knee should be slightly bent, relaxed, but filled with power. A weak left knee will bend when your opponent applies pressure or seme. Bending the left knee when in kamae will cause you to lean backwards. This is what creates the appearance that you are being overwhelmed by your opponent, and indeed this is exactly what is happening!

Both knees should be slightly bent, relaxed and ready to move, but not about to buckle. In my own words I would say your knees should be "braced but not locked". Whether that makes sense to anyone else I'm not sure. This is a very difficult thing to explain and can only be learned through your own practice. However it is a good thing to think about.

Fumikomi ashi
This is an area that a lot of people have trouble with, even after they are confident with the rest of their footwork. However thinking through the basics and practicing them carefully will help you learn the correct way.

The secret is again the left leg and foot. With fumikomi ashi the main difficulty lies in smoothly linking the big fumikomi step with the continuous okuriashi steps of your zanshin. If you can quickly bring your left foot up, you will be able to stop yourself 'falling in a hole'. If you are having real difficulty over a long time with this, it may be because you are trying for too big a leap with your fumikomi. Go back to only doing short fumikomi and you will find it easy to link it with your zanshin. Then gradually lengthen your fumikomi until you can both cover a lot of ground and also follow through smoothly. Remember if you have been away from training you might need to go back to short fumikomi while you get your strength back.

Needless to say the right foot should never come very high off the ground and you should always strike the ground with the whole right foot flat when you do fumikomi ashi.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Chushin 中心 - the centre

Ishizuka Yoshifumi sensei (Kyoshi 8-dan, on left) demonstrating where you should point your kensen.

As I write about basic strategy, there are many concepts that come up that need more explanation. Chushin, or the centre, is definitely a very important one and deserves its own article. Understanding chushin is the key to knowing whether there is an opening, an opportunity, to cut your opponent.

Chushin is written with two kanji: chu (middle) and shin (heart/mind). It means the core, the focus, the pivot. We might say in English, "going to the heart of the matter." This is a good way to think of chushin in kendo.

How big is chushin?
Chushin is partly real and partly abstract: partly a thing you can touch with your hand, and partly an idea.

The idea part is this: chushin is sometimes called "the centre line", an imaginary line between you and your opponent. When you face your opponent, only one of you will be able to point the kensen (tip of the shinai) at the other's throat. Chushin is an imaginary line between the two of you, between your throat and your opponent's. Chushin is difficult to perceive because it is dynamic, it never sits still.

The concrete, or real, part is this: chushin is exactly as wide as the tip of the shinai. The actual tip of the shinai, the leather cap that can wear out and needs to be checked regularly, is called the sakigawa. The sakigawa is about 3cm wide. Hence chushin is 3cm wide.

...although sometimes your opponent's kensen can seem HUGE! hehe!
pic (c) George McCall

How can something that is an idea also have such a specific size?
If you think about it, it becomes clear. Only one person can control chushin at a time. The sakigawa is 3 cm wide. Therefore if your sakigawa moves away from the centre by 3cm or more, your opponent can now point at your throat, controlling chushin, the centre. Therefore chushin = 3 cm.

A quick but important exercise
  1. Go get a ruler and a shinai.
  2. Have a look at how long 3 cm is.
  3. Hold your shinai in chudan no kamae and practice moving the tip side to side, but make sure the movement is less than 3 cm.
  4. Take notice of how small a movement it is. Think about how often you might wave your kensen around more than that when facing an opponent in jigeiko.
Chushin and openings
An opening is when you perceive that your opponent's kensen is not pointing straight at your throat. Being able to perceive chushin accurately, and especially, being able to know whether you or your opponent is controlling it is important. Not only that but being able to be aware of this all the time is the key. This is very difficult to do.

At the beginner levels, people use shikake waza like harai-waza or ose-waza unecessarily because they don't realise that they are already controlling chushin. If your opponent's kensen is slightly to one side, or slightly high, then you can often cut them without any prior waza. If your opponent's kensen is too high for example, then they have opened their kote.

Next time you are facing an opponent, whether it be during kihon practice, uchikomigeiko, or even a match, pay close attention to whether their kensen is pointing directly at your throat. This kind of observation of your opponent is vital if you wish to develop strategy and learn how to overcome them.

Remember: only one person can control chushin at a time.