Most kendoka have had the experience when making a well-timed dou strike, of hearing the dull crunch of shinai against muscle and bone instead of the expected crack of bamboo against lacquer, (or Yamato material). Our normal reaction is to blame ourselves for hitting off target, but in many cases it is our opponent who is at fault for pulling his elbows down to his side to avoid being hit.
The logic of this baffles me. By taking such a defensive action, he loses the ability to respond with a technique of his own and whilst my knowledge of orthopaedic surgery is slight to say the least, I imagine that the pain and inconvenience caused by serious elbow injury outweighs the shame of having your dou hit.
This type of behaviour is not limited to dou and is not just reserved for shiai. I see many kenshi busily blocking attacks to dou, men and kote in their normal keiko as if the objective of their practice is not to be hit, rather than making successful strikes themselves. The mind-set of “not being hit” can go even deeper and some people are reluctant to commit to an attack, even when they have a clear opportunity, because they fear their opponent’s potential reaction. This is rather like an archer being unable to shoot an arrow because he is afraid of the bow string hitting his hand.
It is worth remembering that kendo is a Zen martial art and that our objective is self-improvement through rigorous, unselfconscious training. One of the many Japanese proverbs we hear regularly in kendo, and mentioned a few times in this blog, is “Utte hansei utarete kanshya” – reflect on your successful strikes, show gratitude for the strikes against you. In a nutshell this means we learn as much from being hit as we learn from hitting.
One practical way to overcome the temptation to spoil you opponent’s technique is to ensure that the point of your shinai is continually going forward. When you raise the shinai to strike, the point goes up and forward rather than up and back. Even when you block to make kaeshi-waza, if your kissaki is moving forward, you are able to block and strike in one movement, turning a defensive action into an attacking move. When shinai tips move backwards, postures often crumble and it is if you are rolling yourself into a ball like a frightened hedgehog.
So next time you hit an elbow, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and encourage your keiko partner to worry about your men rather than his own dou.