Sueno sensei, hanshi hachidan and 1979 All Japan Championship winner from Kagoshima, is currently in the UK and has just given us a very interesting seminar. At the opening stage, he stressed the importance of continuing suburi throughout your kendo career and made the point that ”if you can’t do suburi, no matter how long your kendo experience, you can’t do kendo”.
He instructed that the path of the shinai in suburi should be smooth, in line with the centre of the body and close to the head and that we should use all three joints; shoulders, elbows and wrists. He also insisted that we should ensure that we use the muscles in the underside of our arms rather than those on top. To achieve this, we should pull our arms back past the midpoint of the top of our heads and feel these muscles engage before starting the downswing. Once this has been achieved and the muscle memory kicks in, we are able to make our upswing smaller and smaller and that in keiko or shiai, the cut can be as small as you wish as long as it has impact.. We should not pull our elbows out and arms should remain relaxed. When viewed from the back our shoulder width should not change throughout the whole striking process.
Sueno sensei also talked about the old commonly taught concept of shibori (wringing the hands on completion of the cut), being incorrect and that we should not change our grip from beginning to end of the cut. He explained that the hands throughout the cut should be in kirite (cutting hand) position, although they could be extended in nobite (extended hand) form to lengthen our reach on impact. He also torpedoed the old myth that we should straighten our right arm on cutting men by demonstrating that doing this gave a 4 to 5 centimetre reach advantage, but that the resultant body imbalance caused us to lose 30 or 40 centimetres of distance from our footwork.
Sensei then went on to take us through a sequence of waza geiko, uchikomi geiko and kakarigeiko exercises, constantly reinforcing the concept of accurate relaxed swing. The other key point that was accentuated was correct breathing. When you breathe in you are open to attack, so before you enter fighting distance, you should breathe in quickly and conserve your breath in your tanden until you can conclude a successful waza. Finally he made the point that if you miss with your attack you should keep going until you make a successful strike.
Although I was there in an assistant instructor role, the temptation to try things myself was overwhelming. The highlight of the seminar for me was a keiko with Sueno sensei, who was of course, impossible to hit. As the old song goes “It don’t mean a thing, If you ain’t got that swing”.