Several people picked up on the fact and commented that dropping the shinai point can in fact be a very effective way to make an opening in your opponents’ kamae, thereby giving you the opportunity to attack successfully. I agree one hundred percent. My last post was about the problem of inadvertently dropping your kensen because of either incorrect posture or too much tension in the way the shinai is held.
Kensen is of course moveable and the kissaki should not be fixed when you face your opponent. Many teachers talk about moving the kensen in a triangle from your adversaries’ throat to his dou mune to his left eye. By doing this you can encourage him or her to move in various ways. Dropping the point can encourage an attack to men or kote which gives the opportunity for debana or oji waza, but be aware that your tsuki is also exposed and that you become a target for uchiotoshi men.
Move the point up to your opponent’s left eye and he sees an opening for men, giving you the chance to take debana men or kaeshi dou. Aim at his right eye and he sees your kote and you may get the chance for kote nuki men or kote suriage men.
It is all about making your opponent move, and as we have talked about before, there are two fundamental ways to do this. We either push in and take his centre, or we make him come to us and take away the initiative. This second approach is referred to in kendo as hikidashi (drawing out).
Kamae like most things in kendo is taught to us in simplified form at the early stages of our learning process. Of course it is easier to think about pointing your shinai at the nodo than being given a variety of choices, but once our kamae becomes established, we can experiment with the areas at which we point the shinai and learn how by doing so, we encourage our opponent to move or discourage him from moving.
Kendo no kata teaches us a lot about kamae, and though we rarely use gedan-kamae, hasso-kamae and waki-kamae in shinai kendo, practising them in kata gives us a great lesson in flexibility and adaptability. Gohon me in the Tachi no Kata gives us a text book lesson in how to combat Jodan. Point to the kobushi and make him move.
So, sorry for any confusion last week, what I meant was don’t unintentionally signal your next move through the point of you shinai. On the other hand you should use every trick in the book to make your opponent move.
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There was some interesting feedback on last week’s post, most of it on the meaning of jiri itchi. As ever, George did a great job in providing the precise definition.
I would like to take the discussion forward one more step, and look at what we need to do to achieve jiri itchi. The answer is fairly obvious. Practice until the technique, the timing and the opportunity become second nature. Only then will you be able to launch that waza “on demand”, without giving it conscious thought.
When on the few occasions senior Japanese sensei compliment anyone’s kendo, they often do so by saying that “you have done lots of keiko”. Not ” your kendo is good”. It is as if the hours of training you put in at the dojo automatically equate to merit. This runs through to formal evaluation at grading exams where, the pass criteria for almost every grade are subject to the caveat, “must be seen to have done an appropriate amount of keiko”.
It is true also of the requirement for referees who must be active in their own keiko schedules and not just involved as referees and teachers. The view is that if you are not regularly polishing your own repertoire of techniques, you will not be in a position to judge those of others.
Of course it is not just a matter of putting in the time in the dojo. Training has to be correct and strenuous to be of value. I have forgotten who said it, but whoever it was said “the more I do of what I do, the more I get of what I’ve got”. Thinking about this in a kendo context it means that if you spend hours training to do a technique incorrectly, you will master the art of doing it wrong.
Obviously it pays to build step by step on technique training. Start with suburi, practice the timing and distance in uchikomi geiko, learn how to get the technique past your opponent’s centre with kakarigeiko and only then incorporate it into jigeiko.
Chiba sensei when speaking about his training before winning the All Japan Champioships talks about doing 3000 suburi in a single session. This is as a police tokuren who already had extensive high level keiko and shiai experience. Of course the concept of improvement through constant repetition is as old as kendo itself and was most famously promoted by Yamaoka Tesshu.
None of us will ever achieve perfection in our kendo, but trying to do so should be a source of satisfaction in itself.
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Katsuya just pointed out to me that in this week’s post whereas I described the gripping action as “the little and ring fingers making the strongest contact. The hands should be turned in with a feeling of chakin shibori”. What Matsumoto sensei actually said was “Hold the shinai with a feeling of chakin-shibori by the Hypothenar Eminence ( Sho-shi-kyu) of each hand.”
To be honest, I have never heard of the Hypothenar Eminence, but according to Wikipedia the “hypothenar muscles are a group of three muscles of the palm that control the motion of the little finger”. With this in mind the post’s description of the grip is pretty much in line with sensei’s directions although the translation diverges from the original.
*The arrow indicates the Hypothenar Eminence.
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Following the post on kamae, I have received a number of questions about the correct position of the arms in chudan. Looking at Matsumoto sensei’s lecture notes and with a lot of translation help from my friend Katsuya Massagaki, we have tried to come up with a reasonable overview of sensei’s advice on the subject. The original text is not easy to understand so I have added my own clarification, for better or worse. The gist of the Japanese text is as follows and as always, any errors are mine.
The arms should hang naturally from the shoulders and you should have the feeling of holding an egg in each armpit. The shinai should be supported by the latissimus dorsi muscles (the big muscles that run down each side of your back) and the brachialis muscles (the muscle that flexes the lower elbow joint). You should not use the biceps or pectoral muscles.
The feeling in your upper arm should be similar to that experienced by a Sumo wrestler in the “ottsuke” technique where he pushes his opponents arm thrust to the side. To assume the correct position you should hold your palms upward and then with a feeling of pushing forward, turn your forearms in using the brachia muscles. The crease at the back of each wrist, once in position, should form a right-angle with the floor.
The upturned open hands should be turned in to grip the shinai with the little and ring fingers making the strongest contact. The hands should be turned in with a feeling of chakin shibori (wringing out the cloth used in the tea ceremony, this implies a gentle rather than harsh wringing motion.). (In this case shibori applies to the grip in kamae and should not be confused with the idea of shibori after cutting).
- The position of your wrists will change depending on the situation. In principle the direction of your downturned thumb and little finger reflects the angle of the blade.
- To best understand the position of your forearms, try sitting in a chair in front of a table, rest your elbows and forearms on the table with your palms upward then twist your forearms inwards. By keeping your elbows directly in front of you, you will understand the importance of not letting your elbows move out at right angles.
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Many potentially strong kenshi reach a stage where their kendo development is blocked because their hips are not sufficiently engaged when they make a forward attack. This is one bad habit that seems as common in Japan as it does in the west. You see this trait very often with people who have had successful high school and university shiai careers and who have come to rely on speed and good reflexes to beat their opponents. Unfortunately as we get a bit older we start to slow down, so we need to ensure that our posture and technique are correct, to ensure that we make the most of the opportunities we see and that we do not leave ourselves open to attack through bad kamae. Obviously your hips need to be engaged before during and after each attack and if they are not, our posture will be hollow as we strike. Our feet may well finish in the correct position and our hands may be in the correct place to hit the target but unless our hips are forward and we are able to cut with the power of our back, the strike will not be effective. We are given various advice on how to correct this. Some teachers talk about “tightening your buttocks as you step forward” others recommend “making seme with the intention of pushing your navel towards the opponents left eye”. Other sensei have gotten the required result without even talking about the hips; for instance by ensuring that the left leg is straight, with tension behind the knee as you step forward. If you do this, it is impossible not to engage your hips. “Many paths to the top of the same mountain” as they say. There is however need for caution in how we change our kamae. It is only too easy to over-straighten your hips, pushing your left hip and by default your left shoulder too far forward. This will have the effect of making your posture overly stiff and tense and it then becomes difficult to make relaxed fluid strikes with the shinai. Your posture should be natural and comfortable and although your centre should be focused on the target it does not mean that both hands and the mid-point of your head and body should be in a direct line. Instead your body should form a triangle pointing at the target. I have taken an illustration from Matsumoto Toshio sensei’s lecture notes that illustrates this far more effectively than my explanation. But remember, push your hips forward and relax.
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It’s very common for people to move to the side of their opponent in kendo. They either stand up from sonkyo and take a step to the right, or when they attack men or kote, they do so in a diagonal line, so that after striking they pass their opponent on the right. There is probably a biological reason for this. It might be because many of us feel that the right side of our body is stronger than the left, but that’s just speculation on my part.
There are however some obvious kendo specific reasons why people move this way. Those in the habit of veering to the side after hitting, usually do so because they fear a collision with their opponent, injuring either themselves or the other player. What they fail to take into account is that the other party will more often than not, automatically move out of the way after being hit. If he doesn’t they can always use taiatari to finish the forward movement safely.
When you stand from sonkyo, unless your opponent has a very weak kamae, it is unlikely that you will see an opening to attack. Many kendoka somewhat misguidedly think that by moving away from the centre they will have a side-on view of an exposed target. Unfortunately this does not happen as your opponent needs to turn only slightly to face you in your new position.
One of the key things that we have to do to move up the grade ladder is to learn to face and dominate our opponent. When we rise from sonkyo we need to firstly take the time to feel and read our opponent’s mind, then to take the appropriate action to make a striking opportunity. This can be done by pushing forward and breaking your partner’s kamae, by moving his shinai out of the centre with either a harai, osae or makiotoshi technique, or by forcing him to move by showing an opening and beating him to the punch with a debana waza.
This concept of drawing your opponent out is called hikidasu. This can be done in a number of ways. You can slightly raise the point of your shinai, or move your right foot forward, or just slightly bend your right knee. You can also use any of these in combination. Once he commits to an attack you respond with debana, or oji waza if his movement is more advanced.
So don’t be tempted to step to the side. Hold the centre and demonstrate courage and confidence.
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I once spent an enlightening thirty or so minutes sitting in seiza listenting to a post keiko lecture from Kaku sensei in Nara. Kaku sensei’s theme was Hidari de motsu, hidari de utsu. “You hold with your left (hand) and hit with your left” The driving force behind the lecture was that kaku sensei had observed that many of the students at the practice were using too much right hand power and were therefore not striking effectively.
The extended seiza must have helped drive this lesson home, because it is easy to see that many of the problems of overextension, poor posture and inaccurate cutting are caused by the application of too much right hand power. The stiffness that we looked at in my last post is often “one sided” caused by the overuse of the right arm.
Many people overuse the right hand in an attempt to make small waza. The left hand becomes a fixed pivot and their cutting action is based on pulling the shinai back and pushing it forward with the right hand almost as if they were trying to touch their own nose with the shinai. Whilst this might appear to make the attack quicker it typically has the opposite effect.
Correct cutting whether large or small relies on the left hand raising the shinai to a point where it can be brought down on the target. The right hand is very much the junior partner and follows the left hand on its upward path and only makes a real contribution by squeezing to make tenouchi after the point of impact. In the case of men uchi this means raising the left hand to a point above your own men gane and then striking down. The right arm should be relaxed and not over straightened on the point of hitting. There should be a very slight flexion in your elbow and both shoulders should be square-on to the target.
With small techniques such as kote, the left hand should play its part, even if it is to lift the shinai no higher than the point of your opponent’s shinai. In this case it is a matter of striking sharply forward rather than down, but it is the left hand that does most of the work.
The benefits of doing this are enormous. It allows you to stay relaxed and to keep your posture correct and remain square on to your opponent. When your posture is correct you can push more easily from the left foot, maintaining correct ki-ken-tai-itchi and the shinai is more likely to hit the correct part of the target with sharp sae. The added bonus is you use far less energy.
So whilst my knees complained at the time. I owe a vote of thanks to Kaku sensei for the lecture.
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I am back from a weekend of kendo. On Saturday I ran a coaching session for the British Kendo Squad and on Sunday I refereed The British Open Championships. It was an interesting combination of events as the second day allowed everyone to work on putting theory into practice.
I have written about sae on a number of occasions. This term describes the snap or sharpness necessary to turn a strike into a successful yuko datotsu. This and seme were the themes of the squad training session. Whilst we looked at a number of shikake and oji techniques, we paid particular attention to both how we made the opportunity and how we finished each attack.
Sae in theory is a product of tenouchi, (the inside of the hands), or the way you complete the cut by squeezing the tsuka of the shinai as it makes contract with the target. In practice the path of the cut also has to be correct and ki-ken-tai-itchi has to bring all the elements of footwork, posture and kiai together at the exact point of striking the target. Sae is not something than can be applied as an afterthought. If your hands are in the correct position throughout the strike then it is simply a matter of squeezing with the little and ring fingers of both hands on the point of impact. If they are not and for instance your right hand is holding too strongly, then regardless of whether or not you squeeze the shinai, it will not result in ippon.
Chiba sensei talks about making tenouchi for men once the shinai is at chin height. The concept is to hit the target and then squeeze after, so that you strike with full force and complete the technique sharply just below the point of impact. This is not as aggressive as it sounds, because if the use of shoulders, elbows and wrists are correct, the strike will be quick and sharp rather than heavy.
At yesterday’s taikai we saw varying levels of sae. There were many long encho where both fighters made numerous strikes, but few were sharp enough to make the referees raise their flags. At the end of the day we were presenting prizes and cleaning the hall at the same time. There was of course some enjoyable kendo. Mr Yamazaki, from Hokkaido University took first place, demonstrating my sae theory with some explosive techniques, including an excellent tsuki in the semi-final. I was also delighted that two of our regular Mumeishi students Alex Heyworth and Alan Thompson respectively took second and third place medals.
On a completely different subject, I had a Skype chat with a Japanese kendo friend who recently returned home after many years in the UK. He visited the Shudokan in Osaka and mentioned that he had to wait 45 minutes for keiko with a hachidan sensei. Nothing changes!
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During his recent UK seminar, Sueno sensei made the point that “ kote attack should be in a straight line”. Sumi sensei backed this up during his visit last week and Chiba sensei has certainly said more or less the same thing. So why, when we get back to our normal hanshi free keiko, do people revert to hitting kote from a variety of odd angles.
Beginners in particular tend to stand directly in front of their opponent and move the tip of the shinai to their left to attack kote. This has the effect of diagonally cutting across the soft tsutsu part of the kote rather than making a correct hit on the kote buton. The other common mistake is to rotate the shinai under the kote which leaves the left hand too low to make a correct strike.
The key point to bear in mind is that when we talk about cutting direct from our centre to the target, it does not mean the centre of our body should be directly in line with the centre of our opponent’s body. It means that the centre of our body should be in a straight line with the target we are striking, be it men, do, or kote.
A useful tip for striking kote is to move your right foot over as you make the kote attack so that it lines up with your opponent’s right foot, rather than his left, which would be the correct position from which to strike men. By doing this, your body is facing the target, although you are now positioned slightly to the left of your opponent. Your shinai should be in a straight line, from your left hand, which should be in front of your navel, to your partner’s kote.
Another thing to remember is that when you move from the centre to hit kote, you only have to move above the height of your opponents shinai tip and no more than the width of his shinai to the left.
With this in mind it is tempting to leave your left hand in place and just use right hand power to make the attack. This is wrong! Your left hand should do the bulk of the work and the right hand just keeps it on course and squeezes gently with equal pressure to the left hand to make tennouchi on impact.
A final caution! You only need to cut through the thickness of your partner’s wrist. So the force of the attack should be forward. As Sumi sensei once eloquently put it “like a chameleon’s tongue coming out to catch a fly”.
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Apologies to Milan Kundera for the plagiarism, but I am feeling philosophical after seeing a clip of an Australian newsreader sink an interview with the Dalai Lama whilst attempting to explain the joke about the Buddhist who walked into a pizza shop and asked “make me one with everything”.
One of the advantages of aging is that as you become weaker, you stop wasting some of the energy you did when you had it to spare. For many years I used far too much power in my arms and shoulders to no benefit other than burning calories. In fact using too much upper body power has a negative effect on your kendo by pulling your weight down and stopping the smooth forward motion needed to make the transition from successful attack to zanshin.
In kendo we often hear the statement “Ichi gan, ni soku, san tan, shi riki”, one sight, two feet, three tanden (abdomen), four power, (in this instance it refers to the power of technique rather than strength). This adage tells us that after seeing the opportunity, our power should come from our feet through our lower body and then finally our arms and hands conclude the waza.
To make this happen you have to combine the following points:
- Your left foot must always be in place. As soon as you move your right foot forward your left foot should follow. Your heel should be at a 15 degree angle to the floor giving you enough traction to push off as soon as you see an opportunity.
- Your abdomen should be braced; you need to breathe in and hold that breath in the interval between entering distance and attack. The feeling should be that of attacking your opponent’s left eye from your navel.
- Arms and shoulders should be totally relaxed with the left wrist cocked to support the shinai and the right hand in a natural position with just little and ring fingers gripping the tsuka. Elbows should rest lightly on your dou and you should keep a natural bend in your arms.
- Finally you should make sure that you do not move your hands and arms until your foot and body movement is nearly complete. The sequence should be push off from the left foot, raise your left hand, start to bring the shinai down as your right foot leaves the ground and strike as you make fumikomi, not forgetting to quickly draw your left foot up again, ready to move through.
Many years ago Sugo sensei of Chuo University tried to reinforce this behaviour in me by grabbing my keikogi and the koshi ita of my hakama and pulling me upwards as I attempted to strike men. Unfortunately it took quite a few years before the lesson sank in. Whilst I am not necessarily advocating hakama wedgies, my advice as always, is more kihon geiko. Although you get to use more energy in the process, you may find the way to save it while you still have some to spare.
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