Seme - overview
Seme 攻め means to attack, in the sense of 'to storm a castle'. When I was first learning kendo it was translated as 'pressure', that you put pressure on your opponent. I think it is that too, but it is more than just pressure.
How does it work?
I have spoken about seme a few times in different articles, and very often in the dojo. It is one of those things that is easy to talk about but hard to put into practice!
Seme is a force which creates the opportunity for you to strike your opponent.
Seme does not happen accidentally, it happens because you make it happen. In English we usually say that someone 'creates seme'.
You create seme by convincing your opponent that you are about to do something that they will not be able to stop.
So you have to be able to threaten your opponent convincingly. There are several ways that can happen. The first group are physical threats:
- you threaten them with your size
- you threaten them with your speed
- you threaten them with your appearance (how you look in their eyes)
- you threaten them with your kiai
- you threaten them by closing distance
- you threaten them by knocking their shinai off-line
- you threaten them with your attacks
There are also non-physical threats, known generally as kizeme 気攻 which are much more subtle and come mostly through experience. These are outside the range of this article. However in principle they have a lot to do with knowing your opponent and being able to stifle their plans, creating a sense of threat with little or no physical movement on your part.
But to return to the physical actions above, let's look at them one-by-one.
Threaten with your size
This is easier for big people because they are used to seeing others react to their size all the time in everyday life, but it is still possible for everyone to create a sense of size to their kendo. To do this you need:
- good posture, so that you are as tall as possible
- a well-shaped men, to create an imposing shape
- well-looked after dogi, especially a hakama that is straight and the right length
- the feeling that you are looking down on your opponent, even if they are taller
- an enormous kiai – there are no height limitations to this!
Threaten with your speed
Of course this works for people who are naturally fast, but speed is not just how quick you move, it is whether you can move before your opponent. It means being first by seeing the opportunity to act before your opponent does. Everyone can improve their speed by:
- regular suburi at home
- other exercise, especially for the lower body like running, bike riding or soccer
- getting to the dojo before training and being ready at the designated start time (not arriving at the designated start time and being ready 10mins later)
- being first to understand instructions and act on them
- being first person to put on men and be ready in line
- being first to do keiko with sensei or experienced visitors
Threaten with your appearance
This relates closely to 'size', and many of the points are similar. If you have clean and well-maintained bogu and dogi (including tenugui that is washed and ironed before each training) you will make an impression on your opponent as someone they should take seriously. The way you act when not training is also important: no chit-chat during training (before and after yes, during - no.), no chewing gum, no leaning, no sitting down with legs outstretched, no leaning against the walls or furniture, etc, etc.
When fighting, your face gives away a lot about you and your intentions. Keep a calm and emotionless face – it's more threatening and less tiring than a war-face.
Always keep the best posture you can. Pull your chin in, shoulders down and back, tilt your pelvis back slightly, weight even on both feet, glide lightly across the floor. The way you stand should show a sense of grace and dignity. It will make you seem tall, whether you are or not.
Threaten with your kiai
When each keiko starts, you must begin with your best kiai. This is the first waza (technique) of any keiko.
Over time, your kiai will naturally become stronger, more impressive. This is not just about how loud you are but about your character. You kiai tells your opponent that you will never give up, and that you are confident in your abilities. It is an upward spiral – your kiai will also give you that confidence. As you say it, at that very moment it becomes the truth.
Threaten by closing distance
Being the first to close the distance to your striking distance (uchima) is the way we train basics (kihon) at our club. From far distance (to-ma), step confidently in to striking range (uchima) and kiai "YAAA!". Then cut men and follow through. This is our normal sequence.
So this closing of distance should be familiar. The main points are:
- do not step in unless you have a strategy
- step in with utmost confidence and decisiveness always
- always aim to step in straight and take control of the centre-line (chushin). Never go around your opponent's kensen!
- step in and quickly come to a position from where you are balanced, ready, and can strike. This means stepping in without crossing your feet.
- bring your back foot into position with lightning speed
When the tip of your sword crosses that of your opponent, it is like invading another country. Be ready to go all the way to the capital city and capture it decisively without hesitation, then you will have conquered your enemy competely!
Threaten by knocking their shinai off-line
This is not just a technique for creating an opening, it can also be research into your opponent's mindset and how they react. Do they flinch? Do they start to attack as an automatic reaction? Is their grip weak or strong?
Done at the right moment and with enough tenouchi, a slap of the shinai can also have a strong psychological effect, worrying or distracting your opponent enough that they forget their strategy for a moment. It can be done with or without kiai, with or without fumikomi. But it should be done no more than about twice in any keiko or shiai. It must always have a purpose—either to create an opening to attack straight away (as in harai waza) or to observe your opponent's reaction—otherwise it becomes a sign not of your confidence but of your nervousness.
Threaten with your attacks
This is what it all comes down to – will you follow through with your threats?
"OK", says your opponent to themselves, "they look confident and they sound pretty loud. Are they really that tough? Oh, they've stepped in to range... what are they going to do about it?"
If your opponent is thinking that way, this is good. But if they get to have that whole last thought, then you haven't acted, but have just stood there looking impressive when actually you're just a paper tiger. Pretty soon your opponent will know they can control and dominate you mentally without too much trouble. No matter what you do to try to create seme, it won't have any effect, because it carries no threat. They know that nothing's going to happen. This is where seme becomes difficult.
This is how it should sound in your opponent's mind:
"OK. They look confident and they sound pretty loud. Are they really that tough? Oh, they've stepped in to range... wha--"
Just as they start to wonder, you cut off that thought with your attack. Even if it doesn't score, you've now got them on the back foot. They know you will attack if you need to, that your seme has a real threat to it, and that you are now controlling their thought process, not the other way around.
This is the beginnings of seme.