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Remembering Chiba sensei

IMG_0257On Wednesday we lost a great kendo teacher. Chiba Masashi sensei, hanshi, hachidan passed away. He had continued to fight the effects of a stroke which he had three years ago and he seemed to be winning, having retaught himself to speak, walk and write. He had made the journey to Yoshino this spring to view the cherry blossoms and was full of plans for other journeys. I saw him in Tokyo last February at his house in Nishi Tokyo and he was talking about making another trip to the UK.

He never gave up. Before the stroke he had undergone a cancer operation and when I visited him in hospital I had expected to see him in bed. Instead he was dressed in a track-suit demonstrating men to a group of Hitotsubashi students.

I first met Chiba sensei in 2006 when we invited Arima sensei of Osaka Police to attend The IKET Embu Taikai and Seminar in Edinburgh. He had a prior engagement and introduced Chiba sensei, who immediately won everybody over with his style of kendo teaching and his perpetual sense of fun. Since then I had continued to meet him at least once a year either in seminars in the UK or on my visits to Japan, where no matter how busy he was he always found time for me.

Over the years Chiba sensei was one of the most high profile kenshi in Japan. He was half of a golden couple, with a wife who had been a member of the volleyball team which won gold in the Tokyo 64 Olympics. Their house is the only home I have visited with his and her trophy rooms. He of course was a 3 time winner of the All Japan Championships, beating all comers with his unique style of Jodan. He had been Shihan of Keshicho and Hitotsubashi University and held appointments in Tokyo Kendo Federation. Throughout his kendo career he never failed to impress in shiai and it was always a joy to see him crack in one or two of his magic kote from Jodan at the Kyoto taikai.

Despite his fame in and out of Japan, he was always self-effacing and down to earth. We were drinking together with some other friends after the 8th dan grading in Tokyo, when jet-lag and few too many oyu-wari took their effect on one of the party. Chiba sensei suggested that we carry our friend to a taxi which could get him back to his hotel. We were making our way to the taxi rank with me at the head end and sensei holding the feet when a crowd of kenshi approached and asked for sensei’s autograph.  Without batting an eyelid Chiba sensei draped our friend over the bonnet of a parked Nissan, signed the autographs, picked up our friend and continued our journey.

I am sure that many kenshi around the world can tell similar stories, but I certainly owe my 7th dan to Chiba sensei. Sensei spent considerable time analysing my faults and trying to fix them. I even had a 2.00 A.M session in my kitchen with sensei working on my footwork. To make sure that I didn’t slack he left a to-do list with Yanai sensei to keep me following orders.

Chiba sensei was kind, generous and funny although he did not shy away from honest advice where it was needed. I remember him being asked “how can I improve my jodan” to which the answer was “give up”.

Forgive my indulgence in setting out my own personal recollections of this great man. Many hundreds of others will have their own special memories, but I am sure that we will all remember him with love and gratitude.

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Last week when I was in Tokyo, I was lucky enough to be invited to practice with the kendo club of Hitotsubashi University. Whilst I have practiced at a number of Japanese university clubs over the years, I tend to forget just how hard kendoka work at this stage of their careers to ensure that the fundamentals are in place to develop shiai and jigeiko skills.

Two thirds of the allotted keiko time was devoted to kirikaeshi, uchikomi geiko and yakusoku geiko. I was impressed by the fact that everyone from first year students on up knew all the drills and their sequence inside out. Of course the club captain provided the appropriate words of command, but everyone went through the whole session on autopilot, concentrating only on doing each technique faster and better. Chiba sensei who is Hitotsubashi Dai’s Shihan, was able to stay aloof from the process of running the session and only intervened to make corrections or suggestions to individual members.

Only after this kihon was completed were visitors brought into the final thirty minute jigeiko session. With twelve or so of these young kendo machines lined up for keiko with me, half an hour of flat-out practice was all I needed.  However after I left for a beer with Chiba sensei, the students continued their practice to concentrate on preparation for that weekend’s shiai with universities from Osaka and Kobe.

What I find particularly interesting is that Hitotsubashi University does not have a particular kendo or physical education focus. Its reputation in Japan is primarily that of an elite academic institution, so of course the students all have to spend a great deal of time focussing on their studies. Nevertheless it was obvious that kendo plays a major part of their lives, both in and out of the dojo. It was also clear from Chiba sensei’s opening and closing remarks that the objective of the university kendo club was not just to develop effective tactical kendo but to promote the holistic values of kendo and its impact on everyday life.

Certainly, judging by the way visitors are treated by these students, sensei has done a great job in reinforcing the true spirit of reigi. I understand that next year the Kendo Club of Hitotsubashi Daigaku is going to make a visit to Imperial College in London with the aim of establishing an official twinning relationship. Imperial also has the reputation for attracting some very bright students, so next year should see a meeting of minds as well as kendo spirit.

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Chiba sensei is back in the UK for his annual visit. He has an unerring ability to quickly spot what needs fixing and to offer a remedy. After two dojo visits for keiko, he reached the conclusion that may UK kendoka suffer from the lack of coordinated ki-ken-tai-ichi.  This stems from a number of timing problems but mainly from using too much shoulder power and leaning in, causing the right foot to come up rather than forward.

Over the weekend he then ran a two day seminar. Using a series of drills that progressed through the range of shikake and oji waza at different speeds and distances, he made people work on developing a natural kamae and cutting motion to eliminate this problem. The theory is quite simple, in that you should relax your arms and shoulders in chudan leaving your inner arms close to the body so that you cannot see daylight between your inner arms and your dou. Your left hand should be at navel height and turned in at an angle where you can easily support the weight of the shinai. Your right hand should be held at a relaxed angle without being forced, so that you can move the shinai easily. The grip from both hands comes from the little and ring fingers only.

You should step into your own one step cutting distance with a feeling of seme and at the right time you should lift the shinai bending your elbows and wrists in a natural fashion. How high you lift the shinai depends on you. If you are an experienced kendoka you should be able to cut in a very small movement. It needs to be bigger a motion if you are less experienced.  The key point is that the final part of the motion with your wrists is what gives the strike its “snap” and if your wrists are supple enough, you should be able to cut from almost a standing start. As Chiba sensei has said in the past, when you strike men, you should do so with the intention of cutting through to the chin.

In terms of getting the foot movement part of the equation right, you should not move your right foot before you start the strike, however just before you do so, bend the right knee slightly. Not only can this provoke your opponent to move, it aligns your leg so that when you make a fumikomi stamp, you will painlessly hit the floor with the flat of your foot rather than risk bruising your heel.

As simple as the theory might be, for many of us, it will take quite a few hours in the dojo before we can put it into practice.

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There are some very complex English language explanations of Maai available on the internet. Many of them talk about the duality of time and distance inherent in the word. One of the simplest descriptions of the terminology is to be found in the All Japan Kendo Federation’s Japanese-English Dictionary of Kendo where Ma is translated as the interval in time and Maai the physical distance between you and your opponent.
Having accepted the terminology we are then treated by most writers to the differences between toi maai or toma, (log distance), issoku itto maai (one step, one sword distance) and chika maai, (close distance). All are of course very important aspects of kendo, but perhaps too much to think about if your question is simply, “which distance should I attack from”.
I was originally taught to penetrate the opponent’s kensen by 15 centimetres and if there was no chance to attack try another 15cm. Still unable to make an opening, then go back to safe distance and start again. This was useful advice but perhaps a little too prescriptive and “one size fits all”. Chiba sensei on the other hand talks about “moving as far as you need to into the opponents distance to break his kamae and to arrive at a point where you can comfortably strike the datotsu-bu with the correct part of the shinai in one step, whilst retaining good posture.
This is logical and not unique to Chiba sensei. A number of famous kendo teachers, have over the years voiced thoughts along the lines of “everyone has their own distance”.
So in essence we are talking about your ideal “one step one cut” distance, which means you have to be in a position to push off from the left foot and in one step cut the correct part of the target. This distance is by no means fixed. We are all different – our own height, weight, leg and arm length, age and muscle condition; will govern the distance we can cover. Remember that your opponent’s kote is closer than his men and that dou is further away. Also remember that the distance for oji-waza is closer, as your opponent is moving forward at the same time; so you need only the smallest of forward movements to make a successful strike.
Like many elements of kendo, the secret of success depends on sharp footwork and you need to practice to ensure that you can vary the distance you cover to suit the opportunity. Chiba sensei suggested a drill where you start from close up and experiment to find your own perfect distance. I would recommend this as a useful part of kihon practice.

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Chiba sensei is back in the UK and we just completed a two day seminar with him. This time he was accompanied by Hayashi Tatsuo, Kyoshi Hachidan who acts as official translator for the ZNKR, so he took on the onerous task of translating Chiba sensei’s teaching into English.

Firstly I had some good news and bad news from Hayashi sensei, who told me that he was a regular reader of this blog. He did point out however that although he agreed with the points I made on kime, my assumption that the literal meaning was based on kimeru meaning complete,  whilst the kanji used actually mean to fulfil. The logic therefore is that all the elements needed to successfully complete the technique need to be present.

However moving back to the seminar, this time Chiba sensei introduced a whole new approach to waza training. As before he started by ensuring that everyone was cutting with correct tenouchi and went on to teach the basics of shikake waza. This time however, he put far more emphasis on distance, timing and opportunity. All techniques were practiced with seme and sensei made the point that the technique does not follow immediately after seme, but that you need “tame”, or the state of holding the focus of your pressure after you step in. This allows your opponent to react, so that you can choose the most effective attack according to his reaction.

He does not hold with the “one size fits all” approach to distance and believes that you should step in as far as you need to find your ideal maai. He incorporated this concept into the shikake waza drills, by asking people to launch their attacks from different distances until they were in their optimum position.  He also looked at reading opportunity by way of pushing the opponent’s shinai in different directions and watching the reaction to choose the point to attack.

Oji waza were also heavily explored, through drills designed to exploit the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses to select the most appropriate technique. For instance, suriage men will not work against someone who lifts the shinai after hitting, where kaeshi dou will work all the time with such an opponent. He also had us try an interesting drill for debana waza. Two partners attempt to hit at the same time immediately after sensei blows a whistle. The loser does 30 hayasuburi, later traded down to 20.

Finally he put an interesting new spin on hiki waza, showing how to make the opponent open by forcing him to push back against your pressure. I have seen this before with men and dou, but his idea of pushing his hands to the left in tsubazeriai to make him push back to the right, opening his kote; was a revelation.

So as ever, Chiba sensei delivered an awful lot of information in a short time. For me this is a great opportunity to incorporate some of it into my teaching and of course, my own kendo. I may well write more about specific elements, once they have had a chance to sink in.

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Charles AtlasI am really warming to the subject of kendo teaching, so thought I would give it one more burst. I noticed that a dojo in the Mid West is offering online kendo tuition. This may be a great idea, but it reminded me, and perhaps it will my older readers, of the advertising in the back of bygone  boys comics for postal courses on “jiujitsu” sic. and bodybuilding. One of these famously elicited the reply, “Dear Charles Atlas, I have completed your course, please send me my muscles”

Seriously, I do not know if you can learn kendo online, or from books or videos, for that matter.  I have always thought that the traditional Japanese teaching approach of demonstration followed by the individual constantly repeating the action until everyone is satisfied, as being the easiest way to commit kendo techniques to muscle memory. I am also wary of over analysis and thinking too deeply about kendo in that we are aiming to react to opportunities instantly in a state of “no mind”.

Following Tesshu and Ittosai’s guidance on repetition leading to mastery, kendo has developed on the principle that you should train exhaustively until each technique becomes an extension of yourself. However on the basis of “garbage in garbage out” it pays to have a qualified teacher watching over you and ensuring that you get it right from the start and continue to make it better.

Do books and visual aids work?  I am sure they do, but not in isolation. Books, web sites and blogs offer theory, history and discussion, but are not ideal to learn technique. Video whether online or DVD gives you the opportunity to watch techniques carried out by experts.

Chiba sensei’s latest book incorporates a DVD which shows each technique in full motion and correlates to the relevant page. Information of this kind is a valuable supplement to your normal dojo training, but would not work on its own for a raw beginner.

My own favourite instruction manual is Youtube, which has some great video footage of kendo. If you seek out the semi-final and the final videos of this year’s eighth dan holders’ competition, you will see a master class of how men and kote should be done in shiai. However as for learning exclusively from the screen or books, I am not so sure. As always please don’t, and I am sure you won’t, take my word as gospel, as I may be biased. My last experience of e-learning cost me a laptop, when I knocked a glass of wine into it whilst trying to learn a guitar solo.

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Many people have read the theory of sansappo or sansatsuho – The threeways of making an opening:

  • Ki wo korosu – Kill the spirit / mind

    Thanks to Eurokendo

    Thanks to Eurokendo

  • Ken wo korosu – Kill the sword
  • Waza wo korosu – Kill the technique

For many of us this is a concept that is difficult to translate into physical action. At the recent seminar, Chiba sensei did a great job in demonstrating how this concept works as part of his instruction on seme. He did this in the following way:

  • Ki WO korosu – Take a deep step into you opponents distance with full spirit. The movement has to be deep and aggressive. Merely pushing in past the point of his shinai is not enough. The movement must be sufficiently strong to break his composure and force him to lose the centre. As soon as he does this, strike men.
  • Ken WO korosu – In essence this means to knock the shinai out of the centre, so harai, osae, uchiotoshi or makiotoshi can all justifiably claim to fit this purpose. The key point with these is that they should be accomplished in the same movement as the following strike. For example with harai men, you only make one step from approach to strike, knocking the shinai away as your right foot travels forward.
  • Waza wo korosu – This means to break the attack against you and counter, so debana, oji, kaeshi, nuki, suriage etc all fall into this category. The key point here is not to wait, but to aggressively force or invite your opponent to attack and take away and return his waza.

If you are an experienced kendoka, there should be nothing new or surprising in this description. I was however impressed how Chiba sensei made the theory understandable to students of every level, by a great practical demonstration.

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Courtesy of Zeke Li, Eurokendo

Courtesy of Zeke Li, Eurokendo

I have not posted for 2 weeks as I was busy preparing for and then enjoying Chiba sensei’s latest visit to the UK. As always, he imparted a lot of information in a short time, covering correct basics and a whole range of techniques.

With such a variety of teaching, I imagine that different people took different things away from the seminar, but what particularly resonated with me, was sensei’s instruction on seme and maai. 

He pointed out that over the years it has become conventional wisdom to teach people to attack from long distance. I was personally taught to come in no more than 15cm past the point of the opponent’s shinai. In his view, this is simplistic and your optimal cutting distance depends on your age, height, leg strength etc.

He pointed out that it would be unlikely for seme to be strong enough to break your opponents spirit if you only pushed in beyond the point of the shinai and therefore a deep movement forward was required to make your opponent move back. This was also true in the case of positioning for uchiotoshi and makiotoshi waza.

His main thoughts on seme were that you should keep a relaxed and natural posture and use seme to force your opponent to react to make the chance for debana or oji waza. For instance, as you step in, point your shinai to the right of the men, so that he tries to beat you to the men attack and then take degote, or you seme to his kote and take men as he tries to cover his kote; or raise to the right eye to force a men attack to counter with ojidou.

He also pointed out that for senior grades, (given they had developed tenouchi and kikentaiichi), that it was not necessary to make a fully blown forward motion  for such techniques and that you only needed 50% of the effort that you would apply to shikake waza as your opponents forward motion created the other 50%.

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One of the most interesting aspects of kendo is that you can continueKyoto Taikai 2008 to improve and grow throughout your career. Even though I have been training for over forty years and I enjoy coaching others, my own continuous improvement is what gets me to the dojo on time.

It does however become more difficult to improve as you progress up the grading ladder, particularly if you are one of the most senior people in your own area. As one of less than a handful of seventh dans in the UK and having little access to the one eigth dan in Europe, advice is hard to come by.

During the few years when I was trying to make seventh dan, I was extremely fortunate in that I had the benefit of regular keiko with Yanai Norimitsu sensei, who had both the intuition and the knowledge to help me to shape my kendo to what was required. Unfortunately for me, his job then took him to New York, so I expect that he is currently helping some lucky New Yorkers to improve their game. Now I manage the occasional practice with our National Coach, Matsumoto Jumpei sensei, but because of our respective schedules, this happens less than once a month.

I normally make an annual pilgrimage to Japan, to take part in the Kyoto Taikai. The embu only lasts 2 minutes, but their are also numerous keiko opportunities with Japan‘s strongest kendoka, so I draw enough inspiration from one week to last me for the next six months. This year, prudence in light of the credit crunch, suggested that it might be better to stay at home, so I did not get my annual Kyoto fix.

The good news is that Chiba sensei is here for a seminar at the beginning of July and regular readers of my blog will have gathered that I am very enthusiastic about his teaching, so hopefully I will get some more diamonds of information to build on.

However when things are back to normal and I revert to being a medium sized fish in a small pond, I need to think of a way forward. Fortunately I was taught some time ago, how to use keiko with partners of any level to develop my own technique and timing. It is possible when acting as motodachi for relatively inexperience kendoka, to build up pressure and seme to make clear opportunities for them to attack whilst at the same time thinking as if you were the attacker.

Of course there are always kihon drills which will serve you well whatever your level, but I hope that the economy fixes itself in time for my next trip to Kyoto.

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Chiba sensei

Chiba sensei

Chiba sensei

I have just spent 6 days with Chiba sensei who came to the UK to run a most enlightening seminar for our higher grades.

As you would expect from a kendo teacher with Chiba sensei’s reputation, he showed us some great techniques and drills. Overall, the instruction he gave was about correct cutting, posture and ki-ken-tai-ichi. The way he gets there though, is in my experience, unique.

He constantly stresses using a light touch in tenouchi and keeping a natural posture. Whereas many teachers maintain that the torso should be square-on to the opponent, he emphasises that although the balance between left and right hand should be 50:50, the right shoulder should be slightly forward of the left. He disagrees with the commonly held notion that in cutting men, the path of the left hand should follow an equal distance from chudan kamae to 45% back from the front of your head and then down to the target. Chiba sensei’s view is that it is quite acceptable to allow the shinai to be pulled in almost flat above your men as part of the upswing, to give the wrists added flexibility, allowing more snap.

Not unlike other top instructors, his overall view of cutting, is that small is good and that in oji waza the block or sweep up and the downstroke should be done in one movement. He also asserts that these counter techniques should be a result of pulling the opponent in with our own seme. Where he does challenge conventional wisdom, is with his view, of how to hit dou. On this point, he makes it clear that it is acceptable for the cut to be parallel with the floor.

As I was assisting at the seminar, I had the chance to listen and watch his demonstration and did manage to discretely try some of the drills with Matsumoto sensei. My biggest revelation came at 2.30 yesterday morning, when Chiba sensei completely adjusted my kamae whilst we were having a nightcap. It just goes to show that people who excel at what they do, never take time off.

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