Reflecting on the Brussels grading, I am reminded that the higher your age, the more difficult it becomes to pass. In my experience, this is not just true for Europe, but applies everywhere including the kodansha grading examinations in Japan.
Now I don’t for a moment think that kendo is ageist. We are privileged to be able to participate at ages that would have exceeded the retirement points in many other sports. Nor when looking at the array of venerable sensei on some grading panels do I think there is any bias against senior candidates. It is however an irrefutable truth that it becomes more difficult to force your body to do good kendo as you reach your 50s and 60s.
Knees and ankles wear out, particularly after years of training on hard floors. Forward motion becomes more difficult and some older kenshi start to rely more on upper-body strength to hit the target. Unfortunately this is not the way forward.
I was fortunate to receive some concerted coaching from Chiba sensei when in my mid 50s that made me realise that I had to adapt my kendo to my age. The key points were that you needed to find your own distance, keep your footwork light, but still forward, and use your opponents’ movement to your advantage. Rather than making your attacks bigger and harder, they should be smaller and lighter.
The more you advance in grade the more important seme becomes. This does not mean that you should constantly push in to take shikake waza, but you should also use hiki-dasu to make your opponent move towards you so that you can execute debana and oji-waza. The logic is that when your opponent steps towards you, you need only take half a step to reach the target. And it’s not always necessary to make fumikomi. A sliding step forward can be sufficient if you have good ki-ken-tai-itchi. Zanshin is of course important, but you do not need to gallop across the dojo to make your point. Two or three steps through with good posture and kamae, before turning to re-engage should be enough.
Kizeme is a necessity. Mochida sensei’s often quoted truth that when your body becomes frail you have to rely on “indomitable spirit” to subdue your opponent is key. You should use your mental strength to make the opponent move in a direction and timing where you can hit him. One of my other favourite quotes on this subject is from Kikuchi Koichi sensei who said “as I become older I move more slowly, but I also see my opponent’s movement more slowly”.
Posts Tagged ‘Chiba Sensei’
Reflecting on the Brussels grading, I am reminded that the higher your age, the more difficult it becomes to pass. In my experience, this is not just true for Europe, but applies everywhere including the kodansha grading examinations in Japan.
A professional educator friend told me never to tell people what not to do, but to accentuate the positive actions that they should be taking. Nevertheless I am going to point out what does not work when making oji techniques:
- Bringing the point of the shinai back towards your body makes it impossible to achieve correct suriage or kaeshi waza
- Dropping the point of your shinai unless for ukenagashi (which we almost never use in shinai kendo) is a no-no
- Blocking and cutting in two separate actions also dooms you to failure
- It is nearly impossible to make suriage waza against overly large, badly timed or off centre cuts
- Waiting for your opponent to attack before you react is a waste of time
At the risk of confusing readers, one of the biggest problems we encounter in ojiwaza practice drills is in starting your counter attack before the opponent starts his strike. Because it is a drill we obviously know what is coming, so we are tempted to attack too early. I often see what should be suriage men turn into debana men.
Whilst I can think of so many don’ts, I can only think of three imperative “dos”:
- Always push the point of the shinai forward when meeting your opponent’s technoique. This applies to all suriage and kaeshi waza
- Always make oji waza in “the timing of one” sliding up or blocking on the upstroke and cutting down to the target in the same movement, using just one step
- Always control the timing by inviting your opponent to attack
This last point applies equally to drills and to jigeiko and shiai. If from chudan you squeeze the shinai gently with the little finger of you right hand, your point will move towards his left eye. More often than not this will make him attack your men at a time when your energy is focussed and you are able to respond immediately with suriage men or kaeshi dou. Move the shinai slightly to his right and he is likely to attack your kote leaving you set up to make kote suriage men.
One effective way is to practice oji waza was taught by Chiba sensei. The class forms groups of between five and nine. Everyone takes a turn as motodachi and the rest of the group are split into two smaller groups one facing him and one behind. Each makes either a men or kote attack, either at random or the group in front attacks men and the group behind kote. Motodachi faces each in turn, turning from group to group and makes the appropriate oji technique, remembering to invite the attack in his or her own timing.
The key point is to control the timing of the attack by holding and breaking centre in the way described.
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!
I am no longer surprised by beginners who after a few weeks in armour, are bursting to take up nito or jodan. Everyone who starts kendo does so with a vision of the kenshi that they wish to become. Of course having a goal to aim for is totally worthy. William S. Clark’s parting words to the students of Sapporo Agricultural College “Boys be ambitious”, became common currency in Japan, and are still quoted a hundred and thirty years after he said them.
We live in an instant age. Whereas singers and musicians achieved fame after years of learning their trade by gigging in pubs and clubs, todays “superstars” reach their dreams by appearing on talent shows. Clearly this view is slightly coloured by my status as a “grumpy old man”, but as a member of the “me” generation, I am probably as much to blame as is Simon Cowell. To face facts, there are no instant gains in kendo. Skill is built on years of hard training.
I have discussed the challenges of building patience into the kendo learning process with a number of my betters; particularly Chiba sensei. His view as a jodan player is that until you can invariably produce accurate waza from chudan with correct ki-ken-tai-itchi you should not move on to the more esoteric aspects of kendo. If you can’t control one sword then you are doubling the difficulty with two and if your feet and hands don’t work together then you will not solve the problem by reversing your foot position when you take jodan. In my humble (and Chiba sensei’s less humble) view, good kendo is built on the foundation of following good instruction and repeatedly practising basic techniques in chudan.
The stage at which people should embark on a shiai career follows similar logic. It is admirable to want to test your skill in competition against others, but unless you can do basic techniques correctly, you risk developing bad habits that could spoil your further development. One or two early exposures to competition will probably help confirm your place in the kendo universe, but without a good basis of accurate fundamental kendo, continued training with shiai in mind will harm rather than help your future development.
So far it all sounds rather gloomy, but to my mind, the joy in learning kendo is in training for its own sake and when something falls into place then the pleasure of achievement is enormous. Of course when you have assembled your kendo tool-kit then you can go on to become a great shiai player, whether in chudan, jodan or nito. As good old Bill Clark might have said “Boys be ambitious, but give it a bit of time”.
I have regular debates with a kendo friend who believes the way to improve is to understand your mistakes and to fix them one by one. His approach is to video his bad habits and then to try to correct them. In contrast I firmly believe that the solution to improving your kendo is to find a model of what you wish to become and copy it.
Another kendo buddy who frequently overhears me haranguing my analytical friend sent me the following article in support of my argument.
As you would expect I agree wholeheartedly with most of the points that the writer makes, but in particular I buy into Daniel Coyle’s general thesis that “practice makes perfect “ and the first, second and last points in his article.
He tells us that students at Moscow’s Spartak Tennis Club are made to endlessly practice their strokes in slow motion whilst teachers make fine adjustments to their technique. This reminds me of the teaching style of the late Matsumoto Toshio sensei, who would devote an enormous amount of time to adjusting a student’s posture and kamae before commanding them to make a single strike. It also has enormous resonance with Chiba Masashi sensei’s story of practising 3000 suburi per day in his All Japan Championship heyday.
Points number one ”Stare at who you want to become” and number two “Steal without apology” are what led us to this article. In my view, if you can find someone whose kendo you admire, you should watch them intently and copy their style, techniques and timing to the smallest detail. Kendo teaching has traditionally been based on demonstration and repetition. Ideally you will have someone in your own kendo circle to emulate, but if you haven’t, then look at DVDs, You Tube – any source of inspiration will do. The tennis players at Spartak are discouraged from competition until they have got the basics right. I agree. Making it your own may be OK for the X-Factor, but putting your kendo to the test too early can lead to problems.
I concur too with Mr Coyle’s view on finding a teacher. If you want praise and encouragement talk to your mum. Whilst your instructor should of course be interested in you, he or she is there to tell you what’s wrong and how to make it right. They need to do this quickly and effectively at the right time. Lengthy discussion sessions may be appropriate after keiko in the pub or coffee shop, but their job in the dojo is to show you the right way to do things and make sure you stick to it.
If you have time read this article. It has some direct relevance to the way we should learn kendo.
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”.
As before he put us through some very simple men and kote drills and reinforced the importance of correct kiai in achieving good technique. I have long been aware of the difference that good kiai makes in kendo and wrote about it in the early days of this blog http://wp.me/stBQt-kiai . Sueno sensei however dealt with the subject much more eloquently and I feel that it’s worth summarising his explanation.
Before moving into the drills, he repeated the point he made at the seminar, that “There are many paths to the top of the mountain”. A good way of saying that different teachers have different approaches, but that in kendo the end goal is always the same. The drills themselves consisted of students working in pairs, starting in issoku ito maai with kakarite stepping into his or her own cutting distance and concentrating on delivering a men strike with correct ki-ken-tai- itchi timing. Each partner would make two large men attacks then receive two. After several repetitions, instructions were given to make the strikes smaller.
Once everyone was into the rhythm of exchanging men attacks, Sueno sensei made the following point. “Before starting the attack breathe in quickly through your nose; hold the air in your abdomen and make a big shout releasing some of the air. Then make your kiai as you strike, releasing the rest of your air as you move through to safe distance. As you strike your kiai should grow in volume and in pitch so that it increases your energy and acceleration and pulls your posture up throughout the attack and zanshin.”
He continued to point out that if you allowed your kiai to diminish as you hit, it would have the adverse effect, causing you to lose power and “grind to a halt”.
To demonstrate the feeling of “holding breath in your abdomen”, sensei suggested that we try to tense the muscles in our stomach and abdomen, which everyone could and did. Then he instructed us to put tension into our shoulder and chest muscles at the same time, which nobody could.
We then returned to the drills with the emphasis on just edging our feet into our own preferred striking distance rather than taking one clear step in.
As Sueno sensei says “There are many paths to the top of the mountain” and I would be happy to have many of the Hanshi sensei as my guide. However in much the same way as does Chiba sensei, Sueno sensei has the ability to make complicated kendo concepts appear simple and logical.
People often ask for tips on which kendo books they should buy and I suppose the answer depends on what you want from your kendo reading. There are quite a few available publications ranging from “how to” manuals to those covering kendo history and philosophy. If you are thinking about asking Santa for a volume or two for Christmas, here are my brief reviews of some of the books available.
I have not included some of the the AJKF’s specialist manuals such as “Training Methods for Fundamental Kendo Techniques with a Bokuto” or “Nippon Kendo Kata” as they are one perhaps too specific to be a general kendo read. I would however highly recommend the “Official Guide for Kendo Instruction”
Official Guide For Kendo Instruction, All Japan Kendo Federation, 2011
This book is meant as a guide for instructors and covers teaching approach and methods as well as kendo basic and advanced technique. It also gives guidance on kendo philosophy and history.
The book is well laid out and illustrated with photographs using high grade kenshi as models and is therefore easy to follow. Unlike many books that have been written in Japanese and then translated, this book is a joy to read thanks to Dr. Alex Bennett’s brilliant translation.
Developed and translated from the official Japanese Kendo Shido Yoryou; as you would expect, a great deal of care and thought has gone into the production of this book. I would recommend it to any instructor. It also serves as a great reference book for those not yet teaching kendo.
Fundamental Kendo, All Japan Kendo Federation
Japan Publications, 1974, possibly out of print.
Practical guide to kendo meant for a wide range of ability levels. Covers practical aspects of kendo from putting on equipment to executing techniques. It contains some details of training methods and appendices on kendo shiai and Kendo no kata. It also includes historical background in the introduction.
The book uses photographs to show techniques. These are accompanied by factual descriptions. The technique descriptions are in accurate English but not detailed.
A great book in its time! Perhaps a little brief in description of technique, but well worth having.
Kendo The definitive guide, Hiroshi Ozawa
This is a more recent practical kendo guide, written by a respected Japanese kendo teacher. The book progresses through sections on Basics, Stretching Exercises, Techniques, Kendo no kata and practice methods. The book contains appendices such as the rules of shiai which are easily available from other sources.
It is described as being suitable for beginners and as a reference book for instructors.
This book uses line drawings and is cleanly laid out. Technique description is accurate but could be more detailed. It carries interesting elements of guidance in the training section.
This has been one of my favourite kendo books for many years, not only because my photo is on the back cover.
This is Kendo, Junzo Sasamori, Gordon Warner
Tuttle 1964, 6th Reprint 1994
This is a seminal reference book, which helped introduce Kendo to the West.
Much of the book is devoted to the traditions and background of kendo. This was particularly pertinent at the time of publication as kendo was going through a renaissance in Japan, following the occupation’s ban.
The structure of the book is different to many in that the middle section is labelled “Fundamental Procedures and Techniques”. This contains a mix of not necessarily connected technical information.
The book primarily uses to photographs to show technique, with some line drawings. The photographs are obviously chosen from those available and whilst all are extremely interesting, have not been taken expressly to sequentially demonstrate each technique.
This is clearly one of the better kendo books; but structure is somewhat random with, for instance an explanation of the Tsuki technique followed by an explanation of kirikaeshi.
Kendo Elements, Rules, and Philosophy, Jinichi Tokeshi,
University of Hawaii Press, 2003
Dr Tokeshi’s book is well structured and progresses through the history and key points of kendo. It gives a detailed explanation of kendo equipment, some clear insight on training methods and dojo organisation. It covers shiai rules and kendo no kata and has some interesting chapters on philosophy and brief biographies of some of the important early kendo teachers. It also contains a good glossary. Dr Tokeshi brings a great deal of knowledge and erudition to this book.
Well written, structured and illustrated with good line drawings. This is a worthwhile book to have in any kendo library.
I liked Dr Tokeshi’s book. I do however feel that the chapters on kata and shiai rules, whilst useful as a summary, are not essential as they are available elsewhere in more detailed form.
Looking at a Far Mountain, Paul Budden
Ward Lock 1992
An Interesting book on the history and practice of Kendo no Kata. An outline of kendo no kata is appended to nearly every book on kendo; this book is therefore aimed at those wishing to probe deeper into the meaning of kata. Paul has carefully researched the history of the formulation of Kendo no Kata and provided detailed descriptions of the techniques.
Concise and well set out with detailed photographs.
This is a useful book for those who want to take a detailed look at Kendo no Kata.
Kendo Kata Essence and Application, Yoshihiko Inoue,
Kendo World Publications 2003
Inoue sensei is probably the leading authority on the essence of kendo no kata. This is a truly excellent book.
Kendo The Way and Sport of The Sword, Michael Finn
Self Published 1982
Michael Finn is a multiple martial artist. He has included some interesting historical background and some nice photographs from his time in Japan.
The book uses photographs of Mr Finn’s students to illustrate technique and sadly, most of the pictures show people in incorrect position or with armour tied incorrectly. In its time, this was perhaps a good primer for the casually interested reader, but is not a useful investment for the serious kendoka.
Complete Kendo, John Donahue
Mr Donahue’s book gives a good overview of kendo progressing through history, culture, the dojo, etiquette, basics, technique and kata. He also covers shiai / competition in a different way, looking at the psychodynamics of a competitive situation. He states that as an anthropologist, his stance is interpretive. He also points out that his book is a basic guide for beginning kendoka. John provides a glossary that goes beyond kendo to describe other martial arts.
This is a well written book; he uses the device of wrapping chapters within the five element headings of the “Book of Five Rings”. I am not sure that I can understand the logic in how he applies the headings to the chapters within them, but admit that this device helped set the book apart at a time when “Go rin no sho” was enjoying a deal of popularity. My only question is on the level of detail and authority used in technique description.
I like many of the elements of this book’s scope and presentation like the approach on shiai attitude. I do however feel that there is a need for more detailed technique description
Kendo, Jeff Broderick
New Holland Publishers 2004
This book follows the standard pattern of history, equipment, reigi, basics, techniques, accessories. However the content seems to be heavy on standard information from the International Kendo Federation. i.e contact addresses for country kendo federations etc. Looking at the reviews for this book it appears to be aimed at the beginner or the kendo- curious. It is illustrated with photographs and text descriptions of techniques but does not cover kendo techniques in sufficient depth to be of use to the serious kendoka.
The Way of Kendo and Kenjitsu, Darrel Craig
YMAA Publication Centre, 2004
This book leans towards traditional kenjutsu and covers an eclectic mix of kendo and Iai. Much of the book is devoted to samurai and swords and the author includes chapters on sword collection. The actual kendo content is somewhat erratic, including a chapter on the “The three short sword kata”. As these are an integral part of Kendo no kata, I was surprised to see them featured in isolation.
Mr Craig’s book is also semi- autobiographical and dwells on a number of past conversations with his teacher. Not for me, but I would bow to the opinion of those that know more about kenjutsu.
The Shambhala Guide to Kendo.
This is an interesting book but it deals only with the philosophical aspects of kendo. Whilst a worthwhile addition to any kendo book collection it does not cover the physical aspects of kendo.
There are also many non kendo specific books which are worth a read by the serious kendoka. My favourite is “Zen and Japanese Culture” by Daisetsu Suzuki, which contains more information on the philosophy of kendo than most dedicated books on the subject and there is Eugene Herigel’s evergreen “Zen and the Art of Japanese Archery.
For those with an E-reader, Kendo World Magazine comes in electronic form as does George McCall’s “kenshi 247” selected articles. There are of course some great kendo books in Japanese. The good news for non-Japanese readers is that many of them have accompanying DVDs. Why not check Chiba sensei’s” Perfect Master”. Happy holiday reading!
Last week when I was in Tokyo, I was lucky enough to be invited to practice with the kendo club of Hitotsubashi University. Whilst I have practiced at a number of Japanese university clubs over the years, I tend to forget just how hard kendoka work at this stage of their careers to ensure that the fundamentals are in place to develop shiai and jigeiko skills.
Two thirds of the allotted keiko time was devoted to kirikaeshi, uchikomi geiko and yakusoku geiko. I was impressed by the fact that everyone from first year students on up knew all the drills and their sequence inside out. Of course the club captain provided the appropriate words of command, but everyone went through the whole session on autopilot, concentrating only on doing each technique faster and better. Chiba sensei who is Hitotsubashi Dai’s Shihan, was able to stay aloof from the process of running the session and only intervened to make corrections or suggestions to individual members.
Only after this kihon was completed were visitors brought into the final thirty minute jigeiko session. With twelve or so of these young kendo machines lined up for keiko with me, half an hour of flat-out practice was all I needed. However after I left for a beer with Chiba sensei, the students continued their practice to concentrate on preparation for that weekend’s shiai with universities from Osaka and Kobe.
What I find particularly interesting is that Hitotsubashi University does not have a particular kendo or physical education focus. Its reputation in Japan is primarily that of an elite academic institution, so of course the students all have to spend a great deal of time focussing on their studies. Nevertheless it was obvious that kendo plays a major part of their lives, both in and out of the dojo. It was also clear from Chiba sensei’s opening and closing remarks that the objective of the university kendo club was not just to develop effective tactical kendo but to promote the holistic values of kendo and its impact on everyday life.
Certainly, judging by the way visitors are treated by these students, sensei has done a great job in reinforcing the true spirit of reigi. I understand that next year the Kendo Club of Hitotsubashi Daigaku is going to make a visit to Imperial College in London with the aim of establishing an official twinning relationship. Imperial also has the reputation for attracting some very bright students, so next year should see a meeting of minds as well as kendo spirit.
Chiba sensei is back in the UK for his annual visit. He has an unerring ability to quickly spot what needs fixing and to offer a remedy. After two dojo visits for keiko, he reached the conclusion that may UK kendoka suffer from the lack of coordinated ki-ken-tai-ichi. This stems from a number of timing problems but mainly from using too much shoulder power and leaning in, causing the right foot to come up rather than forward.
Over the weekend he then ran a two day seminar. Using a series of drills that progressed through the range of shikake and oji waza at different speeds and distances, he made people work on developing a natural kamae and cutting motion to eliminate this problem. The theory is quite simple, in that you should relax your arms and shoulders in chudan leaving your inner arms close to the body so that you cannot see daylight between your inner arms and your dou. Your left hand should be at navel height and turned in at an angle where you can easily support the weight of the shinai. Your right hand should be held at a relaxed angle without being forced, so that you can move the shinai easily. The grip from both hands comes from the little and ring fingers only.
You should step into your own one step cutting distance with a feeling of seme and at the right time you should lift the shinai bending your elbows and wrists in a natural fashion. How high you lift the shinai depends on you. If you are an experienced kendoka you should be able to cut in a very small movement. It needs to be bigger a motion if you are less experienced. The key point is that the final part of the motion with your wrists is what gives the strike its “snap” and if your wrists are supple enough, you should be able to cut from almost a standing start. As Chiba sensei has said in the past, when you strike men, you should do so with the intention of cutting through to the chin.
In terms of getting the foot movement part of the equation right, you should not move your right foot before you start the strike, however just before you do so, bend the right knee slightly. Not only can this provoke your opponent to move, it aligns your leg so that when you make a fumikomi stamp, you will painlessly hit the floor with the flat of your foot rather than risk bruising your heel.
As simple as the theory might be, for many of us, it will take quite a few hours in the dojo before we can put it into practice.