One of our newer members is a professional musician. His kendo is visibly improving from week to week, but like almost everyone who starts as an adult he tends to use more physical power than he needs to.
Trying to find an easy analogy, I thought about my experience as an incompetent bedroom guitarist and realised that the inability to relax was the major reason for my lack of progress. When you watch great musicians they seem able to chill completely and just come in on the beat with lightest of touches. Amateurs like me on the other hand can be seen staring intently at the fret-board with their tongues poking out as they manfully prod at the strings.
In kendo relaxation is equally if not more important. You have to relax in order to keep an effective kamae and to be able to move easily. Shoulders, elbows, wrists and your grip on the shinai must be loose and must remain so throughout the striking process. People are often confused by the instruction to apply pressure, or tension and relax. What is generally meant is that your legs, hips and abdomen should be braced, but that your chest, shoulders and arms should not be tense.
To get this feeling you should push your shoulders back as if you are trying to make your chest feel wider. Then you should check that there is space between your upper arms and the sides of your body. Elbows should be bent. There is no reason why your left arm should not rest on your dou. Your right arm should certainly not be straight, as some people believe that it should, as it would pull your right shoulder forward and spoil your kamae.
Your left wrist needs to be turned slightly outwards to support the shinai, but this does not mean that it should be tense. Your right wrist should be in a completely natural position. Your grip should be relaxed. You need to grip only with the little and ring fingers of each hand, with the other fingers following without making intentional contact with the tsuka of the shinai.. The points of contact for the gripping fingers are the finger tips and the opposing point of the palm. You should not apply pressure with the inside surface of the fingers. Finally your tenouchi on striking the target should amount to no more than a squeeze without changing your grip.
Of course with kendo and music and I imagine any other activity that requires physical dexterity, the more you practise the more relaxed you become. Maybe there is a chance that if I keep playing my scales I may become another Carlos Santana or Eric Clapton. At the current rate of progress it should only take another 120 years.
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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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Back in the days when I started kendo, heavy emphasis was placed on the “shibori action” on completion of each cut. If you don’t know, shiboru is the verb meaning to wring out a cloth or napkin. When you visit a Japanese restaurant or coffee shop you are greeted with an oshibori; a hot or cold, depending on season, damp cloth to wipe your hands and face.
In kendo, shibori is the action of turning both hands out in a wringing action on the point of cutting as part of tenouchi. Interestingly I have not seen shibori taught or demonstrated by any of the leading Japanese kendo teachers for many years. In fact the only mentions that I have heard of shibori have been disparaging.
Some time ago I witnessed a kata demonstration where one of the participants squeezed so hard that the tsuka of the kata sword disintegrated and the blade disappeared in the direction of the audience, fortunately without collateral damage. This could on many levels be described as overkill.
Clearly shibori is out of fashion in modern kendo. My guess as to why, is not that the concept is fundamentally wrong; or that the fault lies with those who originally taught this method, but it is more likely that at some stage, someone saw an exaggerated demonstration and passed it on as the “the way to do it”. As I understand it, shibori should be made by slightly turning out both hands at the point of tenouchi. Where it appears to have gone wrong, is that many people over emphasised the movement, almost turning the palms of the hands from facing up to facing directly down. This stops the forward motion of the shinai on or before it reaches the target.
Chiba sensei teaches us to cut through the men to the level of the opponent’s chin and to gently squeeze with the little and ring fingers at this point. In so doing we continue the cut with the flexibility to hit the men cleanly on top of the datotsu bui rather than choke the shinai’s movement and strike the mengane.
In my own, somewhat surreal imagination I equate the shibori action as that of someone trying to choke a chicken. This may well have a place in the preparation of Kagoshima’s favourite breakfast food, but it is not a necessary part of modern kendo. Then again my view of shibori is based on the information I received rather than the probably more subtle instruction that was originally passed on by the sensei who deemed this an integral part of every technique.
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Posted in Tenouchi, tagged Tenouchi on November 5, 2009 |
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I touched on tenouchi in an early post on holding the shinai and in my report on Chiba sensei’s first UK seminar. I make no excuses for posting about it again, because it is an important aspect of kendo and in many cases, the final piece of the puzzle that decides whether or not a technique results in ippon.
Tenouchi translates simply as “the inside of the hand” and in kendo means the squeezing action of both hands at the point of striking. If you squeeze too hard or too early, the point of the shinai will not extend forward sufficiently to strike the target correctly and crisply. In some kendojo people were, and maybe still are, taught to wring the shinai between both hands at the point of cutting. Unfortunately this has the effect of causing the point of the shinai to rise on impact, so it actually defeats the purpose of using it as an aid to finish the cut correctly.
Like every other component of kendo, tenouchi should be relaxed and natural. Rather than create an artificial action at the end of your cutting swing, you should start the movement holding the shinai correctly. That is with the end of the tsuka fitting into the heel of your left hand and the little finger and ring finger applying slight pressure with the middle , index finger and thumb barely making contact. For the right hand the grip is the same, but if anything lighter and the knuckle of the forefinger should lightly brush the tsuba. If this is uncomfortable, chances are your tsuka is too long. I cannot overemphasise that your grip should be light. If someone tries to pull your shinai forward out of your hand, it should slide forward without protest or friction. A further key point is that your wrists should turn in slightly, so that the centre of the V formed by thumb and forefinger of each hand should be at a 90 degree angle to the ground.
Holding the shinai in this way, you should aim to cut through the men to chin level and kote through the thickness of the wrist and squeeze lightly with the little and index fingers after the point of impact. You should not change your grip at any stage of the cut.
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We were practicing kihon men yesterday and I could not help noticing how difficult it is for many newer, (and some not so new) kendoka to hold the shinai correctly. There seem to be a variety of problems.
The most common fault is gripping too tightly with the front of the hand, causing the shinai to pull up at an angle when you strike. Other problems are:
- Using the right hand too strongly and letting the left just act as a pivot
- Opening the left hand at the point of hitting
- Keeping our arms too tight to the body, so we have difficulty in moving the shinai freely
- Turning the wrists out rather than in
Ways to fix these problems are to:
- Relax your arms and shoulders
- Let your elbows have enough flex so your arms clear your body as you raise the shinai
- Turn your wrists in
- Use just the ring and little finger to grip the shinai
There is no need to grip your shinai tightly, no one is going to steal it, unless your dojo is in a very tough neighborhood. Also it was common practice for instructors to talk about a “wringing” action at the point of cutting. This resulted in a number of people looking as if they were strangling a chicken, rather than hitting men. It is much easier to limit this tenouchi to a light squeeze with the left and an even lighter squeeze with right hand.
I have posted an old, much copied picture of Mochida sensei’s hands to show how it should be done.
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