The most recent comment on my blog was from Guilherme, requesting that I use some of my injury induced free time to talk about ki and seme. I have touched on these a number of times already in posts on Tame, Breaking Through, Kiai, kigurai and Kihaku, but separately or together they are subjects that are hard to exhaust.
I think most kendoka are aware of the meaning of both terms, but just to set the ground rules – ki means spirit, energy, life force. Kiai, which is universally accepted as the shout we make before and on striking, is not dissimilar, literally meaning to gather up or unite the spirit. Seme is the root of semeru which literally means to attack, but in kendo it is the accepted term for breaking through your opponents defence and taking the centre. Both are closely tied together and I would suggest there is one other essential member of the group, “Correct breathing”.
In an ideal world, both ki and seme would be “always on”. From the moment you enter sonkyo to the point where yame is called, or your opponent acknowledges defeat. In kendo, because there are two individuals involved, each with their own rhythms, strengths and weaknesses, it is never that simple.
You control ki through your breathing, filling your abdomen with air and holding it by keeping your stomach muscles tensed. You should retain this air, either until the completion of a successful waza or until you are in safe distance. You and your opponent each have your own rhythm, sometimes referred to in kendo as Kan-Kyu-Kyo-Jaku (gradual-rapid-strong-weak). This can be explained in various ways but one possibility is the initial tentative approach through seme to technique to relaxation after hitting. Sumi sensei once explained this as the feeling of facing a wave. If you crash into it when it is at its peak it will knock you over, you however, are in control when it is ebbing away.
There are two major opportunities to attack. One when your opponent makes his own attack. Two when he succumbs to the pressure of your forward movement. In each case you need to be confident and full of spirit, whilst keeping your mind clear and level. In the first instance you stop and hold your pressure “tame”, just moving the point of your shinai enough to invite an attack and then hit as he is about to start his technique. This is debana waza. If his attack is more advanced then you use oji waza.
The second option is easier to understand. You simply step in and take center, (you can do this if he steps back or forward). As his kamae breaks you strike,(shikake waza). This is the most obvious example of seme. You do not need to push his shinai with your own, but simply step in strongly with good kamae and dominate with the strength of your ki, (kizeme). It is a very simple process and becomes increasingly simple the more you practice.