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.