Archive for the ‘Kendo teachers’ Category

shu-ha-ri2Most of us have heard of the principle of shu-ha-ri. In (shu) you start kendo and entrust yourself completely to a single teacher who gets you to the next stage (ha). You then have the freedom to learn from other teachers before you reach (ri) and the chance to develop technique under your own guidance. I have never heard a precise explanation of the timescales involved in each of these stages or the grades you need to attain before you move on, but my guess is that you reach ha in the middle dan ranks and only touch on ri when you are firmly into the kodansha stage.

This all sounds ideal and I have many friends who were lucky enough to go through junior, middle and high school kendo clubs under the guidance of 7th and 8th dan teachers and they just needed to turn up and do their best. On the other hand I know kenshi from around the globe who are either self-taught or who rely on someone who is their senior by a narrow margin or who are a page ahead in reading the instruction book. There are online and print resources that can help the learning process, but to improve we all need the help of experienced sensei as and when it is available.

We can get this type of help by visiting sensei (in your own country or abroad), or by attending seminars when  skilled instructors are invited by your club or national federation. I have had discussions in the past with my friend George McCall, of Kenshi247 fame who emphatically points out that this is not the same as learning from these sensei on an everyday ongoing basis. Having had the experience of doing this when resident in Japan I agree with him. I still feel that any exposure to leading instructors gives your kendo a boost.

One of the challenges however, particularly for less experienced kenshi, is that different teachers have different ways of getting us to improve. Don’t shoot me if I get one of these wrong, but to the best of my recollection Chiba sensei said bring the shinai back 45 degrees, Sumi sensei said 45 degrees, Sueno sensei said let it go past that point and Iwadate sensei said let the shinai touch your bottom.

All of these gentlemen are hanshi, all are capable of highly impressive kendo, all have trained champions and all have different ways of getting us to do correct kendo. My only suggestion is that if you are lucky enough to have the chance to learn from these or any of the other top teachers. Do as they say, try it for a while and see what works for you. This may put you in danger of some premature  ri, but hey, nobody is perfect.

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YamabushiI am lucky enough to work in an international environment and even luckier because our working language is English, so my non-native speaker colleagues have to work much harder to communicate than do the Americans and Brits.

A lady in my office was explaining to a Spanish speaking co-worker that “There are many ways to skin a cat”, meaning various routes to achieving the same goal. She was instantly met with a string of questions about her need to be cruel to animals, what she was going to do with the skin of the unfortunate animal and what did skinning cats have to do with the work topic under discussion. Fortunately I was just an innocent eavesdropper to this conversation, but it made me think that the Chinese / Japanese equivalent “There are many paths to the top of the mountain” gave a far more positive, affirming view of alternate choices.

When kendo was first exported to the West, many of the teachers who introduced it were not professionals, so they taught in the same way they learned. In many cases they were taught in primary school and they used the same methods to teach adult beginners.

More recently the professional kendo teachers sent out by the AJKF have taken a far more analytical approach to kendo tuition. These experts have worked out the best ways to coach people of varying ages and ability levels. Nevertheless, different sensei have widely differing methods of teaching the same things. One might emphasise making big swings in suburi, another may concentrate on small sharp cuts against the opponent’s shinai to improve tenouchi. Either way the objective is to help the student make correct, relaxed cuts.

Some instructors focus on posture, others talk about bracing the abdomen; while others may emphasise the importance of drawing up the left foot after cutting. All of these approaches are designed to instil ki-ken-tai-itchi in the student.

I have heard kenshi complain that they get widely differing advice from various teachers and don’t know which to follow. This is a challenge, particularly for those in the early stages of kendo development. In an ideal world we should be able to follow the principles of shu-ha-ri, following the instruction of one teacher until we have strong enough basics to branch out and borrow from others. Finally we become capable of improvising and improving technique unaided.

For many though, it is a matter of taking advice from whoever will give it. In this case it is worth keeping in mind that “there are many paths to the top of the mountain” or if your shamisen needs refurbishing “many ways of skinning a cat”.

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IMG_0259I am constantly surprised by the difficulty that many people have in striking dou correctly. Because it works best as an oji waza they wait until their opponent makes a men attack and attempt nuki or kaeshi dou. In most cases they wait too long and hit when their training partner has entered their distance. The result is that they either strike the front of the dou or have to push both hands over to the right so that there is no power behind the strike. In either case it is a waste of time and effort as neither is classed as yuko datotsu.

The other common misconception is that dou is a diagonal cut. This probably was the case when cutting with a katana. The objective was to cut from the armpit to the hip. If however you try this with a shinai it simply slips down off the target. When combined with late timing and too close distance the result is hira-uchi, striking with the side of the shinai, which is probably the worst sin that you could commit in the long list of crimes against correct dou.

Coming back for a reality check, we need to hit the correct target with the correct part of the shinai with correct intention and “high spirit” followed by zanshin. In my view this means giving the side of the dou a good whack with the datotsu bu of the shinai ensuring that we hit with the bottom take. To do this you need to be in front of your opponent at the time of the strike and consciously punch forward with your right hand whilst turning your wrist sharply inwards. Your left hand should be more or less in line with the centre of your body. Only after you have done this should you think about breaking your grip on the shinai and moving through diagonally. It is also essential to keep your eye on your opponent and to retake kamae as soon as you are in safe distance.

One of the excuses often given for cutting dou incorrectly is that the opponent moved too quickly and did not allow us the distance to get it right. The way to avoid this is as with all successful oji waza, we should control the timing of his attack by maintaining and the breaking pressure when we want him to move. This and the flexibility of your right wrist are the keys to success.

There is an exercise developed by Chiba sensei that helps you gain this correct cutting action. You practice yoko men or dou suburi, but do so turning your hands inwards on each stroke so that the path of the shinai is horizontal or parallel with the floor.  It is a way to gain the wrist flexibility that you need to make your dou attack effective.

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Seiza 5I once spent an enlightening thirty or so minutes sitting in seiza listenting to a post keiko lecture from Kaku sensei in Nara. Kaku sensei’s theme was Hidari de motsu, hidari de utsu. “You hold with your left (hand) and hit with your left” The driving force behind the lecture was that kaku sensei had observed that many of the students at the practice were using too much right hand power and were therefore not striking effectively.

The extended seiza must have helped drive this lesson home, because it is easy to see that many of the problems of overextension, poor posture and inaccurate cutting are caused by the application of too much right hand power. The stiffness that we looked at in my last post is often “one sided” caused by the overuse of the right arm.
Many people overuse the right hand in an attempt to make small waza. The left hand becomes a fixed pivot and their cutting action is based on pulling the shinai back and pushing it forward with the right hand almost as if they were trying to touch their own nose with the shinai. Whilst this might appear to make the attack quicker it typically has the opposite effect.

Correct cutting whether large or small relies on the left hand raising the shinai to a point where it can be brought down on the target. The right hand is very much the junior partner and follows the left hand on its upward path and only makes a real contribution by squeezing to make tenouchi after the point of impact. In the case of men uchi this means raising the left hand to a point above your own men gane and then striking down. The right arm should be relaxed and not over straightened on the point of hitting. There should be a very slight flexion in your elbow and both shoulders should be square-on to the target.

With small techniques such as kote, the left hand should play its part, even if it is to lift the shinai no higher than the point of your opponent’s shinai. In this case it is a matter of striking sharply forward rather than down, but it is the left hand that does most of the work.

The benefits of doing this are enormous. It allows you to stay relaxed and to keep your posture correct and remain square on to your opponent. When your posture is correct you can push more easily from the left foot, maintaining correct ki-ken-tai-itchi and the shinai is more likely to hit the correct part of the target with sharp sae. The added bonus is you use far less energy.

So whilst my knees complained at the time. I owe a vote of thanks to Kaku sensei for the lecture.

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I have regular debates with a kendo friend who believes the way to improve is to understand your mistakes and to fix them one by one. His approach is to video his bad habits and then to try to correct them.  In contrast I firmly believe that the solution to improving your kendo is to find a model of what you wish to become and copy it.

Another kendo buddy who frequently overhears me haranguing my analytical friend sent me the following article in support of my argument.


As you would expect I agree wholeheartedly with most of the points that the writer makes, but in particular I buy into Daniel Coyle’s general thesis that “practice makes perfect “ and the first, second and last points in his article.

He tells us that students at Moscow’s Spartak Tennis Club are made to endlessly practice their strokes in slow motion whilst teachers make fine adjustments to their technique. This reminds me of the teaching style of the late Matsumoto Toshio sensei, who would devote an enormous amount of time to adjusting a student’s posture and kamae before commanding them to make a single strike. It also has enormous resonance with Chiba Masashi sensei’s story of practising 3000 suburi per day in his All Japan Championship heyday.

Points number one ”Stare at who you want to become”  and number two “Steal without apology” are what led us to this article. In my view, if you can find someone whose kendo you admire, you should watch them intently and copy their style, techniques and timing to the smallest detail. Kendo teaching has traditionally been based on demonstration and repetition. Ideally you will have someone in your own kendo circle to emulate, but if you haven’t, then look at DVDs, You Tube – any source of inspiration will do.  The tennis players at Spartak are discouraged from competition until they have got the basics right. I agree. Making it your own may be OK for the X-Factor, but putting your kendo to the test too early can lead to problems.

I concur too with Mr Coyle’s view on finding a teacher. If you want praise and encouragement talk to your mum. Whilst your instructor should of course be interested in you, he or she is there to tell you what’s wrong and how to make it right. They need to do this quickly and effectively at the right time. Lengthy discussion sessions may be appropriate after keiko in the pub or coffee shop, but their job in the dojo is to show you the right way to do things and make sure you stick to it.

If you have time read this article. It has some direct relevance to the way we should  learn kendo.

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Despite the panic of trying to complete my December work load before Christmas, I am in a good mood. Mainly because I have just had my hachidan keiko fix, which should keep me going into the new year.

We were very fortunate to have Iwatate Saburo sensei supported by Hayashi Tatsuo sensei in London for a weekend seminar, they also brought  two nanadan sensei with them, Nishioka and Suzuki sensei, the latter being one of the few female seventh dans to have visited the UK. What made the seminar special for many of the attendees is that Hayashi sensei is American educated and acts as an official interpreter to the IKF, so translation was accurate and fluent.

As always on these occasions the local 6th and 7th dans are asked to check that partipants are doing things correctly and getting the most from the drills, so I diligently listened to both Iwatate sensei’s words and Hayashi sensei’s translation. What struck me from the outset is that different teachers have very different approaches to the same end outcome. Our last UK seminar was with Chiba sensei who advocates small cuts and a parallel style of striking dou for beginners up. Iwatate sensei is an evangelist for a big cutting motion, practised with the shinai touching your bottom on the backswing, even for dou.

The logic is irrefutable. By cutting in this way, you learn to use your shoulder joints in a relaxed manner. As the seminar progressed, sensei explained and demonstrated, that as you progressed up the grading ladder your attacks could then become smaller whilst retaining the suppleness gained from big movements. Another impressive element, was the way that throughout the drills, sensei managed to incorporate and build upon the elements of kikai and seme.

So an excellent seminar, which I am sure did a lot to improve the kendo of most of the people there. For me however, I was most impressed by Iwatate sensei’s closing words. Where almost as if he read my mind, he explained that in a lifetime’s kendo, we all get varied information and instruction from a variety of teachers. In his words, the trick is to judge in your own mind, which of these approaches and techniques is right for you and to build on them accordingly. So, to sum up in my words; there are some great teachers out there, but only you can make your kendo work for you.

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ReiWhen people come over to make the final one-to-one rei at the end of a practise session, there is always the expectation that the more senior kendoka is going to say something useful about their keiko. This is not always easy as the teacher or sempai might be thinking:

  1. No change since last week, so nothing to talk about.
  2. I did not really notice what you were doing, I was just enjoying the practise.
  3. You are still doing what I have been telling you not to do for the past 2 years, so what is the point.

On the other hand and more likely, he or she may have some useful advice to give you. The only problem may be, that it sounds completely different to the advice you got from the guy you bowed to 30 seconds before. In this case you need to remember that different people see things in different ways. One teacher may tell you your feet are too slow, and another that your hands are too fast. If you think it through, it is clearly the same point made differently.

You do though often get conflicting information. I regularly visit a club where I invariably suggest to a number of members that they make a bigger men attack. The resident instructor urges the same people to make smaller movements. The reason behind my advice is not because I particularly like big techniques, but because there is a tendency for them to cut only with the right hand, which will limit future progress. My colleague on the other hand, wants them to make small attacks so that their kendo becomes quicker. Who’s right? Why me of course:-) , only joking, but the real issue for the student is which advice should you take.

I believe the solution comes back to the concept of shu ha ri. When you start, you should find a teacher you trust and follow his or her advice exclusively. Later when you have the basics established, you can benefit from the knowledge of other instructors, but evaluate the information thoroughly. Either that, or you can start cutting big in a small way, whilst moving your hands slower and your feet quicker

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Matsumoto sensei

Matsumoto sensei

My last post was to remind people like me  – the fifth, sixth and seventh dans around the globe who are charged with encouraging others to improve their kendo, that we need to lead by example. I would not even presume to address my thoughts to the daisensensei , hachidan and hachidan hanshi.  They have worked it out for themselves a long time ago.

Herge Sandsleth sent me a great comment saying that I am on my way to becoming the Rob Redmond of kendo. I take that as a compliment, but certainly do not want to be known as the “grumpy old man” of kendo.

Yesterday I attended the official farewell practice for the BKA National Coach, Matsumoto Jumpei, Kyoshi  Nanadan and as the Chairman of the BKA, for most of the period that he was with us, was asked to make a speech in his honour. My speeches, like my blog tend to be spontaneous, so I cannot remember my exact words, but I tried to convey the following points.

Matsumoto sensei, has been the ideal role model, not just by invariable showing correct kendo technique but by constantly demonstrating the meaning of kendo through his attitude. He shows humility by always referring to others as sensei, whether or not they deserve the title, if there is any doubt as to seniority – by grade, age or position in the Association, he sits to their left.  

His kendo is correct and honest and his attitude in keiko is always 100% committed. “Shinken kendo” best describes the way he approaches keiko with everyone whatever their grade. His fighting spirit is obvious, but he never compromises his posture to avoid being hit and never begrudges a point to his opponent.

I will miss practising with him in the UK, but am sure I will catch up with him the next time I visit his hometown, Kyoto.

Matsumoto sensei okini.

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