Sunday, October 25, 2015

Suburi revisited, suburi as homework

The example on the right is the correct one. In Japan the maru is used where we would use a tick.

Here at Shugo-Nanseikan, I've written about suburi more than a lot of other concepts or techniques. That's because over the last ten years, with all the work I've done on my own Kendo and with other kenshi of different ages, the thing I've found that makes the single biggest difference to a person's Kendo is their commitment to doing suburi everyday.

This may not be the case where you are, if you are not a Nanseikan student and you have different opportunities to train. If for instance, you train more than four times per week, your Kendo will improve without suburi. But for my students, given our timetable and other factors such as age, fitness level and motivation, suburi is the thing that makes the most difference. It helps both the new beginner who is not very strong as well as the experienced kenshi building up to shiai. It helps each in different ways but it helps equally, and it never becomes obsolete.

But it needs to be practiced every day, or at least most days.

diagram showing where your suburi should finish, for straight suburi (left) and diagonal suburi (right)

How much is enough suburi?

The short answer is: any amount that you can do every day without injury.

The basic premise of all kinds of training is that as you get stronger, you should increase either the load or frequency, depending on what kind of results you want. However, the first hurdle to conquer in this instance is not physical weakness but mental weakness.

You have to train yourself to make the time to do the suburi.

So in the beginning, a short and simple program that you stick to is better than an ambitious and complex program that you soon give up.

Fifty, double-time, sho-men suburi take less than one minute!

When you start to look forward to doing the suburi, or alternatively if you start to feel like something's wrong if you haven't done your daily suburi, then you have overcome the first hurdle. The next step is to increase the load or frequency.

from Oyakata Mamoru san's blog

How do I know what suburi to do?

In the beginning stick with straight, two-handed men*. This is the most fundamental technique in Kendo and helps to ingrain straightness as well as requiring tenouchi. If you can do it outside or you have high ceilings it's best to do it standing with footwork. If not, you can get a lot of benefit from doing suburi while sitting in seiza.

When you want to increase variety the next suburi to practice is, like the kids above, left-hand only suburi (katate-men). Keep the cuts very straight and clench your right fist on your hip, like the boy on the right. If you are not strong in the arm or wrist, start by gripping the tsuka (handle) closer to the tsuba (hilt). As you get stronger your aim is to be able to do straight cuts with your left hand down the very end of the tsuka. Never do right-hand-only suburi, at least not until your second decade of Kendo.

After that you can introduce all kinds of variation: using bokuto, using suburito, kote-uchi, do-uchi, nidan-uchi (e.g. kote-men), vary the footwork pattern (e.g. ten forward, ten back; five forward, five back), diagonal cuts, hiraki-ashi, lunges, kabuto-wari, hayasuburi, etc.

No matter what suburi you do, you must keep the following things uppermost in your mind:

  • gaze: look straight ahead, not down or up
  • posture: the straightest possible with very erect spine and relaxed (i.e. not hunched) shoulders
  • tenouchi: 'freeze' for a moment at the end of each cut. Relax, squeeze, relax...
  • sharpness: move briskly with both upper and lower body in unison
  • accuracy: aim for a certain point and hit that point with regularity
  • hasuji: be aware of the angle of the blade matching the angle of the blade's path without wobbling

The ethos of every day

There's an oft-quoted urban myth of the swordsman who could never get to the dojo but instead did 1000 suburi every day and thus became great. It sounds simplistic but there's more to it than at first appears. That's because the difficulty lies not in the actual suburi (1000 suburi is not as hard as it sounds, takes 20-30 mins) but in the making time for them and then sticking to it. If you have that willpower, you have already distinguished yourself amongst your fellows. Amongst most people who do Kendo, I would guess an average of only 20% do suburi regularly and only 10% everyday. But I would also guess that above a certain level—let's say 4th dan—that this percentage increases dramatically. I'd be willing to bet that more than 50% of experienced kenshi have a solo practice they commit to every day. And my hunch is that above 6th dan that figure would rise to more like 90%.

a visual representation of how suburi connects to the core (tanden)

The ethos of insight

Bruce Lee once said that he didn't fear the man who had practiced 10,000 kicks, but he did fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times. What he was talking about was depth of insight into not only the movement but also oneself. Related to the point above, the attitude of commitment enables one to reap rewards that remain out of reach otherwise. There is a level of understanding that is not conceptual or nameable, it is simply demonstrated by how well one can perform a technique when required and with consistency.

With suburi, one of the things we are doing is maintaining muscle-memory with regard to manipulating the sword. The sword is a tool that works only when used precisely, even though this cutting movement is a simple one. The human body is always failing in its ability to re-create this precision movement, because the sword and the human body are fundamentally different. With suburi, one is engaged in maintaining the discipline and precision of co-ordinated muscle use necessary for a successful cut, as well as learning new things about how the body and this linear object interact.

On the one hand there is the action of the hands, arms and shoulders in relation to the cutting action itself. Then there is the action of the lower body, the mechanism that delivers the cutting action to the opponent. These need to work together, which is why suburi usually has a footwork element even if it is only forwards and backwards on the spot.

Through repetition, a kenshi gains insight not only in how to perform these upper and lower body actions efficiently, but also begins to understand the connection between them. She or he realises it's not just about arms and legs but also about the spine, the muscles of the core, the hip flexors and buttocks, and how all of these effect posture, weight transfer and stabilisation.


Given this importance, it might seem a little strange that I have all but eliminated suburi from our regular training routine. However this is not because I don't believe suburi is important.

It is because I believe that most current members see suburi as a dojo-only form of training. It is my aim to put the onus squarely on the individual to do suburi themselves outside of training, by removing it from training as much as possible. I hope that those who do not do it at home will start to see their Kendo deteriorate, and will realise for themselves why it is important.

Of course if their Kendo does not deteriorate without suburi then it was a waste of time all along!

*  When you read this phrase and it doesn't even occur to you to snicker, you know you're a Kendo tragic.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Nagae sensei — still teaching

Nagae Sumitaka sensei, Kendo Kyoshi 7th dan (1921-2011)

Many of you know that recently we held the third annual kendo gasshuku for high school students at the Kenshikan. The aim is to improve the quality of Australian kendo through building the number of young people who love kendo.

At the gasshuku, some of the young kenshi trained harder than they had ever trained before. A few of them reached the point where they felt they couldn't go on. Tears, wanting to vomit, being unable to breathe, they experienced the full range of physical and psychological symptoms of going beyond their limits.

In kendo culture this is a sign of the best training you could hope for!

Everyone who has been there knows that it's really an unpleasant place to be. For a young person who has not experienced anything like it before, and who doesn't know that it is temporary, it is even more frightening. It can feel like the end of everything, like a near-death experience.

Of course the important thing about these kind of experiences is not that they are fun or some kind of 'macho' badge of toughness, but that we come to learn that we can survive them. At the end of the training session where some had reached their limit I felt that it was important to let them know this.

The best way to explain something is to embed it in a story, and fortunately Nagae sensei had told me a story of when he had survived similar experiences and what that had done for him. He told me that in 1933 when he was only 12 years old his father sent him to train at the dojo of Kokushikan Senmon Gakko (later Kokushikan University). Kokushikan has always been regarded as one of the strongest universities for kendo. Nagae sensei, as a quite frail, asthmatic boy was up against young men who had no concern for his safety or well-being. This was the pre-War era when the ethos of kendo training was preparing for actual combat. Nagae sensei found out later that some of the Kokushikan team would put lead weights inside their shinai near the tip to give them more weight and a louder sound when striking.* This meant they would be more likely to score the winning point in matches that, at that time, were adjudicated by a single shinpan solely on whether a strike would have been a decisive, killing blow.

He told me that he cried before training, he cried during training and he cried after training. The blows of the university students were so hard he was in a lot of pain during and after training, and of course there was the fear in anticipation of going back. One can only imagine what it must have been like!

But he said that this experience came to his aid many times in his life, not least of which when he was sent to Europe after the war to research new industrial techniques for his employer Snow Brand. As a Japanese amongst war-scarred Europeans, Nagae sensei was the target not just of racism but open hatred and threats. He told me it was quite common for Japanese businessmen in such circumstances (and there was a number of them it seems) to commit suicide rather than ask to return home. It was against this extreme stress, fear and isolation that his tough experiences at Kokushikan came back to protect him. He was able to put his present troubles in context, knowing he just needed to keep going and he would be OK. If his early experiences had not been so terrible, if they had been merely unpleasant, he might not have found them so helpful later on. I would suggest that the protective factor about his time at Kokushikan was that those experiences threatened his very survival. It was a near-death experience over and over again, if not in the physical sense then at least in the psychological sense.

As I told the story, I knew that it was giving some tired and stressed young kenshi the chance to regroup internally. There was silence in the dojo, the kind where you know people are listening. Some of the more experienced kenshi who knew Japanese kendo but not the story were nodding in agreement, marvelling at the idea of a 12 year old training with the powerhouse Kokushikan.

It was not long before I saw smiles on the faces that were earlier crying and stressed. And it felt appropriate that at the Kenshikan, his old dojo, Nagae sensei was teaching a new generation of kenshi the meaning of kendo.


On reading back this article, it occurred to me that some might misconstrue my main contention, and believe that I was condoning abusive training as a positive value of benefit to young people. This is a fraught area and I have written about it before here:
(indeed I had forgotten I had wrote it, I thought George had! I was genuinely surprised to find my name at the bottom!) 

Nagae sensei's childhood occurred in a much different world to the one I live in. Few parents would submit their children to exactly the kind of training that Nagae sensei told me about. But then, how hard was it really? His 12 year old self, recalled at a distance of more 70 years, remembered the university students as mountains, ruthless and cold. Would their treatment of him if observed by an adult be still considered extreme? And which adult? A contemporary Australian one or an early Showa-era, Japanese one? Male or female? Kenshi or non-kenshi? Most importantly, was I guilty of driving the students at the gasshuku to such abusive extremes? 

All I can say is that their training at the gasshuku was less than one tenth as hard as what I would consider 'hard'. Perhaps if and when these students reach my age and stage of Kendo they will think about this first gasshuku and wonder at two things: a) how hard it seemed, and b) how easy it actually was!

*Almost as confirmation of this, the current Regulations for Kendo Shiai state:
Article 2: The specifications of Shinai referred to in article 3 of the Regulations shall be as follows: 
1. Shinai shall consist of four slats and shall not include therein other objects than the core inside Sakigawa and Chigiri inlaid at the end of the Tsuka...
The Regulations of Kendo Shiai and Shinpan, International Kendo Federation (revised 1996)