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Kendo childrenThe Japanese university kendo club is the perfect environment for learning and improving kendo. Usually with at least one high grade teacher to direct training and correct faults, members rely on each other as training partners.  Given that there is a maximum 4 year age and experience gap, groups are usually highly cohesive and supportive, with the more experienced seniors leading and encouraging their juniors. This encouragement may have occasionally in the past created some pressure for those at the front-end of the process, but most ex-university kendo players look back with appreciation at this stage of their kendo careers.

Those practising in general dojo face a much broader range of opponents. In smaller dojo, particularly in the West, if there are only a few of you, then you have no choice as to whom you practice with. Mawari-geiko may place you in front of a 25 year old 4th dan or a 60 year old rookie. In both cases the task is the same – to ensure that you each get the most value from each keiko.

There are some simple rules that guide us in most situations. If you are training with a much higher grade it is up to you to attack as well and as often as you can. If your opponent is your obvious junior you need to make and allow opportunities for him to attack. This all sounds fairly straightforward, but what do you do with partner of your own grade who is much older than you, or heaven forbid, a child who is much stronger than you.

The latter is not as unusual as it may sound. At Mumeishi we have had a number of junior and middle school champions in our kid’s classes who could knock spots off some of our adults. As a rule of thumb it is best to ensure that children train together or only with experienced motodachi, but at the occasional godogeiko, I have seen a few surprised seniors as these junior tornadoes attack from all directions. The key challenge when training with children, or much smaller adult opponents is to ensure that you work on your own seme and control the situation but avoid body contact or hitting too hard.

With older adults whose footwork might not be what it was, your objective could be to find good opportunities to attack against timing that is slightly different from that of younger kenshi.

Approached with the right mind-set, every keiko is a valuable experience, but if you are constantly training with the same few people then try to visit other dojo and practise with as many teachers as you can.

Lost Heroes

toda-senseishihan-chibaFirstly apologies for taking my longest ever time out from writing this blog. A troublesome house move and both my wife and I running into some health problems slowed things down a bit.

2016 has been a year where my baby boomer generation lost many of its heroes. The list of famous people who passed away seemed long and relentless. We were by no means untouched in kendo with the sad loss of Chiba sensei and now Toda sensei.

I was fortunate enough to get to know Chiba sensei well enough to write about him when he passed away earlier this year. Toda sensei I knew less well but had met him a number of times in France at the annual Orleans Seminar and again in Japan and at several international taika. All Japan Champion at the age of 22, he was a one Japan’s leading jodan players, becoming a double hero in his 50s by switching to nito and spearheading its revival.

A friendly sociable man he had both empathy for the people that he met and a great sense of fun.  I remember him demonstrating a good singing voice and some pretty mean guitar playing at a Kitamoto end of seminar party. The last time I spoke to him was at the referee’s training camp in Japan before the 15WKC. He was there to provide experience of refereeing nito matches. After one of his shiai which I witnessed from the sidelines, he delivered a particularly strong men strike which was not awarded ippon. I told him as he came from the shiai-jo that I was surprised that it did not score. His reply was that “you and I must both study harder”.

Chiba sensei and Toda sensei, I will be thinking of you both this New Year’s Eve. I am sure that your examples will give many people the strength and inspiration to build on kendo’s legacy in the coming years.

May I wish you all a happy, healthy and successful New Year.

Time out!

Excuse the silence. Kendo info is taking a week or two off to cope with the chaos of last week’s house move, Back as soon as I find the box with my hakama.box-1-457165-m

Martial Aids

477-mennaris-2tFriends from a nearby dojo have developed an addiction to doing suburi with a device that looks like a bicycle pump. When recently asked for my opinion of such a thing, I took the view that if the ZNKR had thought it a good idea, they would have issued a book on “kendo kihon practise with a bicycle pump” or “jitensha no kūki-ire ni yoru kendo keikoho”.

Apparently the device in question is supposed to slide open if you make a correct swing and stay closed if you don’t. I think it might be improved if it rang a bell or made a honking noise for each successful yuko datotsu. It may be that my view is coloured by the intransigence of old age, or the fact that on the one occasion I tried one out, it stubbornly refused to slide open for me, but the use of this piece of paraphernalia smacks of what my less charitable golfing or skiing friends would refer to as “all the gear and no idea”.

To be fair, I am not totally against new developments in kendo, but this joins the carbon fibre shinai and the men with a Perspex face panel in my list of unloved kit, particularly as the aforementioned men had a tsukidare which was fixed solidly to the mengane. In the event of the wearer receiving a tsuki the whole men tilted forward, either pushing the men towel over his or her eyes or falling off completely. I am also not a lover of cameras mounted on the men or shinai, that is unless you are trying to make a kendo equivalent of The Blair Witch Project.

More traditional items also go on my list. I have never understood the value of suburi with heavy suburi bokken. These invariably cause the user to engage too much arm and shoulder power to avoid cutting down too far, in effect making tenouchi before striking the men.

The ideal suburi aid should help us closely replicate the action of striking the men sharply and firmly in an “up, down” timing of one. It should allow us to focus on hitting the top of the men whilst cutting through to the opponent’s chin level. It should encourage us to use shoulders elbows and wrists on a relaxed and flexible way to transmit the power from our core. I know of the ideal tool to use for this. It is called a shinai.

Zanshin – All or nothing

image-iaidoHelton asks the difference between kigamae and zanshin.  This question deserves more than a two word answer. Kigamae  in everyday Japanese means mental position or approach. According to the AJKF Japanese English Dictionary of Kendo the meaning of kigamae is “the state where one’s entire body is alert and ready to react to the moves of the opponent’s mind and body that precedes a strike”.  In effect it is your “mind posture” a state of awareness where you are completely tuned into your opponent. The focus of kigamae is anticipation of your opponent’s movement in readiness to strike.

The most basic kendo explanation of the meaning of zanshin is “a state of awareness after striking”.  The concept of zanshin is however far more complex. In Zen zanshin means complete follow through, leaving no trace. Zanshin means “the remaining mind” and also “the mind with no remainder.” This dichotomy is also echoed by explanations I have heard about nokori, the remaining breath after a strike and kiai. For both breath and awareness the suggestion is that they remain and yet not remain.

Zanshin and nokori are tied closely together. A flow chart of a tobikomi men attack would be along the lines of:

Breathe in –hold your breath –make kakegoe, expelling a proportion of your held breath -step in while styill holding your breath – keep holding your breath in tame- launch yourself from the back foot and strike men in the timing of one, expelling the remainder of your breath – move through to a safe distance – turn and face your opponent in chudan no kamae while holding your breath, keeping yourself in a state of readiness to attack again.

In practical terms zanshin is the continued awareness of your opponent after you strike. You should be in a position to attack again instantly if he or she makes a move against you. I would imagine that this is even more obvious to Iai practitioners where zanshin is a matter of watching intently after delivering the final death blow. This is where I expose my ignorance, but I have the impression that even in returning the sword to the saya, it is done with the feeling of being able to draw again quickly should circumstances require it.

So to sum up – kigamae is the state of being ready to do it before you do it. Zanshin is the readiness to do it again after you have done it.

More on good manners in keiko

old-tsukiLast week’s post prompted some interesting questions. Tsuki as a technique is as important as men, kote and dou. As with attacks to all of these targets ippon is generated by a sharp, accurate on-off strike. Debana tsuki like debana men is made just as the opponent starts an attack. You should strike just as he starts to lift his hands, so it is up to you to step-in and hit the men dare.

Mukaetsuki is a tsuki that meets your opponent’s forward movement as he steps in to attack. Not only are you holding him off with the shinai’s point, you are increasing the force with which you receive him by pushing your hands forward at the same time. This is not only bad behaviour, it is dangerous as the shinai can cause damage if it slips under pressure and goes under the tsuki dare.

Daniel made reference to some kodansha hitting the target and releasing the tension in this situation. He also mentioned holding the shinai against the attacker’s dou mune.  To make sense of this, it is essential to realise that practice between juniors and seniors is different to that between peers. This hikitatgeiko is similar to jigeiko or gokakugeiko, but the senior takes the lead in encouraging good strikes and in using his own technique to pre-empt or block bad ones. This holding (but cushioning) kamae against a forward moving kenshi is normally done to teach the student about distance and timing.

As for walking away after striking, kodansha develop bad-habits like everyone else, although this could be an initiative by sensei to move you back to the right spot for keiko and to avoid leaving you in a space where you might bump into other players. Senior level zanshin may well be on the spot and not involve excess movement, but the strength of the attack and kiai and manifestation of kigamae would make it very clear that sensei had made a successful yuko datotsu.

Sumi sensei’s show of dropping into sonkyo after kaeshi  dou is as suggested a humorous way to emphasise a point. I have seen him do this too. He is not alone in concluding keiko in this way. Arima sensei of Osaka police was well known for taking kote or tsuki and immediately squatting, but he amplified the effect with his distinctive high pitched kiai as he wrapped things up by calling out something along the lines of “otsuki, otsuki, sainara (sayonara with a Kansai accent).

Good manners in keiko

1909_kendoA number of people have asked me where fighting spirit ends and good manners, or concern for the welfare of your fellow kenshi begins.

In keiko your objective is to break your opponent’s kamae and strike a target as soon as you have created an opportunity. There are many ways to do this you can make him start an attack and strike as he begins his movement. You can use kaeshi  waza, suriage waza or nuki waza to counter the attacks that you encourage him to make. You can take his centre by stepping  in and making a strong tobikomi attack, or you can use your shinai to knock your opponent’s weapon up, down or to the side, even to twist it out of his hands. All of these are permissible with the rules and spirit of kendo and you should do them as energetically as your stamina will allow

It is equally permissible to move your opponent by striking with your body, but only in the form of correct tai-atari where the contact should be tsuka on tsuka with the hands at waist height and the power coming from the lower body. Pushing to the chin or face, using your feet to sweep or trip, trapping your opponent’s shinai or using your own to push any part of his body constitutes an infringement. Taiatari should be one quick body check followed by an attack rather than a long concerted pushing match.

Tsuki is a valuable kendo technique but must be done correctly as a sharp on-off attack.  Mukaetsuki, with your arms locked as your opponent makes a forward movement against you is considered the height of bad manners. Even a good attacking tsuki against a teacher or senior in poor taste, if it is done when they make an opening for you to hit men.

Most of these are obvious violations of the rulesa of kendo and would be penalised in shiai. There are other less obvious breaches of etiquette that are undesirable in keiko. Using your shinai to block without countering is wrong and spoils the flow of the tachiai, as does starting and stopping an attack mid flow to prevent your opponent from hitting you. Hitting your partner off-target in order to create an opening is equally bad, as is showing contempt by celebrating or walking away after striking.

Some of the rules invariably get bent in shiai, but there are 3 referees in the court to stop you from transgressing too much. In keiko it is up to you to train as hard as you can whilst still showing respect for your dojo mates.