A friend recently mentioned that he was giving up shiai to concentrate on getting his kendo to a level where he could confidently try for 6th dan. This made me reflect on just how compatible success in shiai was with developing high grade kendo.
Conventional wisdom says that keiko, shiai and tachiai for grading examinations should be the same, and at the highest level of kendo this is true. Watch the All Japan 8th dan Championship and you will see some truly impressive shiai that nevertheless keeps to the fundamentals. At lower levels, and I include the World Kendo Championships and the All Japan Championships, some athletes adapt their kendo to a much more defensive style, using the shinai to block overhead or holding it in front at head height extended downwards. Obviously national pride and the prospect of a secure job make the occasional bit of ducking and diving forgivable, but is it kendo?
In contrast I found some notes that were given to me by Inoue sensei , that made the following point. “Ken means to attack or strike an opponent. Tai means to wait while observing the opponent’s movement calmly. Offence and defence are inseparably combined. This term illustrates the importance of always being mentally and physically ready to defend against the opponent’s counter attack while attacking, and ready to counterattack while defending”
In more basic terms the answer is to keep a good kamae and an unfettered mind without preconception of what you or your opponent might do. You should push for openings and then react to them, or whatever might come in their place, rather than rigidly defend throughout your five minute tachiai.
Another opportunity to watch kendo that embodies the basic principles is at the annual Kyoto enbu taikai where the good and great are responsible for showing their best kendo. It is particularly interesting to watch some of the older 8th dans. I have seen occasions where one or two of these highly skilled kenshi have acknowledged “mairimashita” to a point before it was made, because their experience tells them that their opponent’s seme was strong enough to make the following ippon inevitable.
Perhaps though it is easier to be gracious when the stakes are the bill for lunch or a few beers rather than a job promotion or a new car.