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Archive for the ‘Kendo shiai’ Category

186220813GENXmp_phFor referees the initial rounds of a mixed ability shiai can often be extremely challenging. There is a degree of subjectivity in the way we judge what is and what is not ippon and the level of severity with which we apply the rules will vary according to the age and experience level of the competitors.

With competitions that are open to both kyu and dan ranked players, outcomes are often surprising. Junior kenshi  do not do what is expected of them, or they  react to attacks in a way that more experienced players would not, so you often see skilled shiaisha having a hard time because when they go for what should be an open target, the less experienced opponent’s men is protected by a raised shinai when an experienced player would still be in chudan.

The most challenging aspect is when the newbie is gamely slugging away and hitting the target, but without correct footwork or ki-ken-tai-itchi. None of these incorrect strikes can be counted within the rules of kendo shiai, but they cause frustration and confusion for the competitor and the audience.

It is difficult to create hard and fast rules on grade level. I have seen kyu grades produce highly skilled kendo and dan grades who have not quite got their basics right, but generally, more experienced players tend to have a more established level of basic kendo technique.

Whilst not necessarily guaranteeing the highest level of kendo, these mixed ability events can be highly enjoyable and offer all dojo members a great bonding opportunity. The standard of kendo invariably improves as each taikai runs its course and the players who make it to the last eight and upwards normally demonstrate that correct technique is the most effective.

There are of course competition options other than sanbon shiai. Comparing how well players demonstrate kiri-kaeshi and a range of basic techniques against a motodachi is one approach. This is frequently used for the younger competitors in children’s competitions and is a great way to encourage competitive spirit without building a defensive attitude that might limit kendo development.

As in all things, common sense is probably the way forward. For competitors who are still building their kendo skill set, if they can come away from a taikai with the inspiration to improve, it has been a valuable experience. The key point to remember is that shiai is the tip of the iceberg that we build in our regular keiko in the dojo.

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Igi

kantokukiAs shinpancho at the recent Mumeishi 3s, I was asked the question “where do we get the coaches flags”. My flippant sounding answer was “you buy your own”. Apologies if this sounded rude, but at a friendly, club level competition such as the Mumeishi’s you almost never see a kantoku-ki or coaches flag.

In international competition and major competitions in Japan, team coaches do indeed kneel by the side of their competitor or competitors during each shiai with the kantoku-ki in line with their knee. This flag is raised to signal igi or objection. To put this into perspective, a coach can’t object to a referee’s decision, he or she can only raise an objection to an error in procedure. Whether this is fair or not I hesitate to comment, but I would imagine that if coaches were able to debate points with the referees, the average 5 minute shiai would take over an hour.

An example of a legitimate igi would be when a second hansoku is recorded incorrectly; this could result in an ippon being unjustifiably awarded against the wrong player. If this happens to the benefit of your player, the most likely course of action is that you will keep quiet and leave it to the opposition coach to raise the igi. If it is your player who is about to suffer from the mistake, then you should raise your flag towards the court shunin and call igi. You then point out the error to the shunin who will call a meeting of the referees, and the court staff, if necessary.

If it is agreed that the igi is justified, the results of the shiai will be adjusted to reflect the true situation. If on the other hand the claim is refused, the kantoku is left looking somewhat delusional.

I reiterate that igi can’t be used to debate the validity of referee’s decision, so a coach cannot argue whether a hansoku awarded for a foul was correct or not, or whether a strike was a valid yuko datotsu, and as such should have received ippon. I have however seen the creative use of the kantoku-ki made to register disagreement with the referee’s decision.

In the taisho sen of a crucial team match in the 12th World Kendo Championship in Glasgow, after watching a deciding point being given which took his team out of the competition; the losing kantoku raised his knee from seiza and broke the flag across it. Not a course of action recommended in the rules of shiai, but his feelings were clearly understood.

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OverheadA 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.

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Tsuki in shiai

Copy of untitledWhen I have written about tsuki in the past it has usually been to describe it as a technique that is seen occasionally at “All Japan” level, but never widely practised. I am now starting to change my opinion. I am trying to get over a dose of “man-flu” so did not get to see yesterday’s British Open’s, however during my visit to the previous week’s Swedish National Championship I saw three good tsuki scored. This seems to be part of a trend.

There are an increasing number of European kendoka who are adding tsuki to their list of tokui-waza. Whether this is because we are seeing more players take up jodan and nito or because we are generally becoming aware that it is one of the four basic techniques of kendo, I am not sure.  My own pet theory is that the current popularity of tsuki owes much to Naoki Eiga’s decisive point in the team final of the 12 WKC. However when considering that this happened almost 12 years ago, some of the kenshi now successfully using the technique in shiai, were in junior school at the time, so Eiga san’s tsuki must have left its mark on kendo’s collective consciousness.

I include both single and one handed tsuki in kihon drills. Obviously it requires a degree of care when practising, particularly from newer kenshi, but doing tsuki safely and successfully is as much the responsibility of motodachi as kakarite.  If motodachi is afraid of receiving tsuki, the chances are that kakarite will miss the target. If motodachi leans back or twists his body away from the tip of the shinai it is highly likely that it will slip in by the side of the tsukidate, grazing his neck or worse. If he tilts his head back, then there is a strong probability that the kisaki will go up and under the protector, causing even greater discomfort.

The way to meet tsuki is full on, with your body square to your opponent and your chin down, so that there is no gap between the tsukidate and the dou mune. Posture is also important. If you are erect with your balance centred in your hips and core, then the strongest tsuki should not disturb your equilibrium. For the attacker tsuki should be short and sharp, made with the body and the feet and with the hands applying tenouchi correctly at the point of contact.

I aim to do lots of tsuki drills over the next few months to help understand the technique as a player and as a referee.

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Presenting Fighting Spirit Prize to Mukhtar Hussain.

Presenting Fighting Spirit Prize to Mukhtar Hussain.

This year’s Sir Frank Bowden Taikai took place on Saturday. As shinpan-shunin  one of my duties was to work with the refereeing team to select candidates for the fighting spirit prizes.

Of course different referees have different opinions on who to choose, but this is not surprising as we all probably have different views as to what “fighting spirit” actually means. This is a subject that is seldom discussed and I can’t remember ever seeing objective guidelines as to what constitutes fighting spirit. Having asked colleagues the reasons for their choices over many years’ competitions, I get the feeling that definitions include the following.

  • Being one of the most aggressive fighters.
  • Overcoming the odds – small person beats much bigger person or low grade beats higher graded opponent or opponents.
  • Turning things around – being in situations where you come from being a point behind to evening the score and taking one more point to win, or pulling out the stops in the captain’s match to take an evenly drawn team score to victory.
  • Having the best technical kendo.
  • Keeping calm under pressure.
  • Not giving up.
  • Someone who in spite giving it their all in every fight still shows courtesy and fairness to their opponents.

I believe that all of these are valid in their way, but I feel, and this is as subjective as it sounds, that true fighting spirit is a combination of all of these.

Of course aggression is important, but it must be controlled and shown within a spirit of fair-play. The smaller or less experience player or the individual who overcomes the odds and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat will most likely, only be a contender if he or she uses correct technique.

On the other hand correct technique will probably be admired, but not if you do not have the strength of mind and will to win to overcome your opponent.

If you can do all this and at the same time show correct reiho and generosity of spirit to your opponents, it should do even more to enhance your chances of getting a fighting spirit prize.

On a practical level, it is unlikely that you will get the first place medal and a fighting spirit award. It is generally thought that being the winner or being in the winning team is reward enough in itself.

Despite the subjectivity, I was very confident that on Saturday we picked three worthy winners – Jenny Wilding, Mukhtar Hussain and Sarfraz Aziz.  All fought consistently well throughout the day and displayed the true spirit of kendo.

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I am back from a weekend of kendo. On Saturday I ran a coaching session for the British Kendo Squad and on Sunday I refereed The British Open Championships. It was an interesting combination of events as the second day allowed everyone to work on putting theory into practice.

I have written about sae on a number of occasions. This term describes the snap or sharpness necessary to turn a strike into a successful yuko datotsu. This and seme were the themes of the squad training session. Whilst we looked at a number of shikake and oji techniques, we paid particular attention to both how we made the opportunity and how we finished each attack.

Sae in theory is a product of tenouchi, (the inside of the hands), or the way you complete the cut by squeezing the tsuka of the shinai as it makes contract with the target. In practice the path of the cut also has to be correct and ki-ken-tai-itchi has to bring all the elements of footwork, posture and kiai together at the exact point of striking the target. Sae is not something than can be applied as an afterthought. If your hands are in the correct position throughout the strike then it is simply a matter of squeezing with the little and ring fingers of both hands on the point of impact. If they are not and for instance your right hand is holding too strongly, then regardless of whether or not you squeeze the shinai, it will not result in ippon.

Chiba sensei talks about making tenouchi for men once the shinai is at chin height. The concept is to hit the target and then squeeze after, so that you strike with full force and complete the technique sharply just below the point of impact. This is not as aggressive as it sounds, because if the use of shoulders, elbows and wrists are correct, the strike will be quick and sharp rather than heavy.

At yesterday’s taikai we saw varying levels of sae. There were many long encho where both fighters made numerous strikes, but few were sharp enough to make the referees raise their flags. At the end of the day we were presenting prizes and cleaning the hall at the same time. There was of course some enjoyable kendo. Mr Yamazaki, from Hokkaido University took first place, demonstrating my sae theory with some explosive techniques, including an excellent tsuki in the semi-final. I was also delighted that two of our regular Mumeishi students Alex Heyworth and Alan Thompson respectively took second and third place medals.

On a completely different subject, I had a Skype chat with a Japanese kendo friend who recently returned home after many years in the UK. He visited the Shudokan in Osaka and mentioned that he had to wait 45 minutes for keiko with a hachidan sensei. Nothing changes!

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I am now recovered from man-flu. Thank you well-wishers for your concern! I was back in the dojo last week and on Thursday had a visit from the British Army kendo team who are training for an inter-forces competition this weekend. After kihon practise we had a friendly shiai and finished with jigeiko.

During jigeiko the newest member of the Army squad stood there waiting for me to hit him. I am not keen on conversation in keiko, but thought a few words might be in order, so suggested that it might be a good idea for him to try attacking. He then expressed the view that it would be better if I went first. I then politely asked how long he had practised kendo, to which the response was 17 hours. I then did a quick calculation along the lines of an average of 8 hours keiko per week, over 50 weeks per year for 43 years,  gives me about 25,000 hours, so perhaps he would like to attack first and catch-up.

Talking to the rest of the squad in the pub after training, it was obvious that our friends in the forces have very different challenges to us civilian martial artists. With members being deployed at short notice to Afghanistan and Iraq, it is difficult for the same group to train regularly together, and with an emphasis put on “competitive sport”, forces teams are made up of experienced players and those who are just keen to give it a try. They then go through short periods of concerted training leading up to competition. As a good team member my reluctant attacker was practising “not getting hit”, with team strategy in mind.

It is good to know that kendo is now officially recognised by all three branches of our armed forces and many British universities including Oxford and Cambridge. Whereas kendo in the UK used to be practised only in unofficial clubs, it is now starting to gain more establishment acceptance. The trade-off is that these institutions expect to see a healthy level of competition along the same lines as other more established sports. Oxford and Cambridge have their boat race and their varsity kendo competition. In the same way the Army, Navy and Air Force have regular inter service competitions, as they do for Rugby.

So Army Team, I hope you were successful on Saturday and that kendo continues to increase in popularity. As for the man with 17 hours experience behind him, he was doing brilliantly under the circumstances.

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I am no longer surprised by beginners who after a few weeks in armour, are bursting to take up nito or jodan. Everyone who starts kendo does so with a vision of the kenshi that they wish to become. Of course having a goal to aim for is totally worthy. William S. Clark’s parting words to the students of Sapporo Agricultural College “Boys be ambitious”, became common currency in Japan, and are still quoted a hundred and thirty years after he said them.

We live in an instant age. Whereas singers and musicians achieved fame after years of learning their trade by gigging in pubs and clubs, todays “superstars” reach their dreams by appearing on talent shows. Clearly this view is slightly coloured by my status as a “grumpy old man”, but as a member of the “me” generation, I am probably as much to blame as is Simon Cowell. To face facts, there are no instant gains in kendo. Skill is built on years of hard training.

I have discussed the challenges of building patience into the kendo learning process with a number of my betters; particularly Chiba sensei. His view as a jodan player is that until you can invariably produce accurate waza from chudan with correct ki-ken-tai-itchi you should not move on to the more esoteric aspects of kendo. If you can’t control one sword then you are doubling the difficulty with two and if your feet and hands don’t work together then you will not solve the problem by reversing your foot position when you take jodan. In my humble (and Chiba sensei’s less humble) view, good kendo is built on the foundation of following good instruction and repeatedly practising basic techniques in chudan.

The stage at which people should embark on a shiai career follows similar logic. It is admirable to want to test your skill in competition against others, but unless you can do basic techniques correctly, you risk developing bad habits that could spoil your further development. One or two early exposures to competition will probably help confirm your place in the kendo universe, but without a good basis of accurate fundamental kendo, continued training with shiai in mind will harm rather than help your future development.

So far it all sounds rather gloomy, but to my mind, the joy in learning kendo is in training for its own sake and when something falls into place then the pleasure of achievement is enormous. Of course when you have assembled your kendo tool-kit then you can go on to become a great shiai player, whether in chudan, jodan or nito. As good old Bill Clark might have said “Boys be ambitious, but give it a bit of time”.

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Gyaku dou

Helton asked for my thoughts on why it is so hard to score ippon from hiki dou. Wearing my referees hat (or blazer), I would say that of course every case is different, but more often than not it is because few hiki dou have sufficient sae or snap to justify ippon. If that is not the case, then it is because hasuji (angle of the blade), is incorrect.

When you make a hiki men, you do so in a straight line, stepping back to give yourself enough distance to strike with the datotsu bu of the shinai. You also strike in an up/down motion so it is quite simple to generate the momentum to make a strong, sharp cut. With hiki dou you need to ensure that the target is open, lift your hands up to strike, then adjust the hasuji and hit the dou with the correct part of the shinai whilst making one quick step back. In my view it is not easy for many people to do this, hence the poor ratio of successful attacks to attempts.

Dou in any direction is a difficult target. Most shikake or oji dou are unsuccessful because the attacker hits the dou whilst moving across in front of their opponent so that the strike is made with bent arms and is therefore weak. As we have discussed before, a good dou strike should be made directly in front of your opponent, with your right hand pushed forward. If you think about this applied to hiki dou, you have not only to be clear of your opponent from tsubazeriai, but you must give yourself enough room to punch forward with your right hand as you make the attack. So you need to generate significant propulsion from a standing start to do this in one step.

Gyaku dou is even more frequently doomed to failure. Whilst not classed as a hiki technique, the strike is usually made as you step back. With this waza referees are looking for a more powerful cut. The reason behind this is that samurai originally wore daisho (two swords) in their belt and that when the long sword was drawn; the kodachi usually remained in their belt. That meant that a cut to the left dou needed to be strong enough to cut through the hilt before it reached the target.

The only tip I can offer on hiki dou is to start in tsubazeriai by pushing your opponents hands down. He is likely to react by pushing his hands up in a reflex action, exposing the target. You should step back as far as you can starting with your left foot, keeping in a straight line and strike dou as hard as you can by pushing the hands forward, turning your right wrist so that your palm is parallel with the floor. Take another step back after hitting, keeping your shinai tip pointed at your opponents nodo to complete your zanshin.

The last step is to hope that at least two of the three shinpan like dou.

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 I was asked to give some advice on performance at shiai training in preparation for this weekend’s London cup. I won’t say at which dojo or on which day this took place, otherwise I might give away the secrets of their shiai preparation.  During most of the shiai, the one single element that made the difference between achieving ippon and failing was hikitsuke. So in the interests of fairness, I will share some advice on this with all prospective competitors; well at least those who read my blog.

In kendo hikitsuke means to pull the left foot up to the correct position (left toes in line with the right heel), in readiness to make an instant strike. In everyday Japanese it can also mean to attract or fascinate, but that is another story.

Coming back to the point, when you move forward in kendo your left heel should be off the ground so that your foot is at a 15 degree angle with the floor. 70% of your weight should be on the left foot and 70% of that weight concentrated on the ball of the foot. You push from this foot to move, sliding the right foot forward and instantly bringing the left foot into position to repeat the action.

When you attack, you should use this action to push off instantly and strike as soon as you see or make an opportunity. In theory simple, but most people at shiai practice were not doing this; instead either their left leg trailed impotently behind, because the left foot angle was too high, or the left foot was flat on the floor so the left leg remained in place as the right foot moved forward. The repercussions for both of these mistakes was that it was not possible to make sufficient forward distance to hit men cleanly with the datotsu-bu of the shinai, or because of the need to compensate by leaning forward or turning the body to make distance, the attacker was not able to strike with good posture and zanshin. End result – no ippon.

This lack of left foot traction was also evident when some fighters stepped back, allowing the heel to sink down to the ground. This action mades them an obvious victim to hikibana man.

As I have  repeatedly been told, successful shiai depends on good basics. Good basics depend on lots of keiko, so that when you see the golden opportunity to hit the target that wins your shiai, you do not have to think about it. You just let your left foot decide.

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