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At Saineikan with Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis

At Saineikan with Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis

During keiko yesterday I tried my best to coach a friend on making seme. As I see it, there are two separate but indivisible elements, the physical act of and the mental approach.  In kendo we talk about shikai, the four sicknesses of surprise, fear, doubt and hesitation. It is to prompt one of these conditions that we make seme.

There are many kinds of seme either involving the act of pushing in and taking away your opponent’s control of the centre or in pulling him in to make an involuntary movement, but typically when we think of seme we think of the former.

To break the opponent’s centre, pushing the shinai forward with our arms is not sufficient. We need to push in with our whole body, stepping in with our hips and tanden braced. Equally importantly our kiai and mental approach need to be correct. We should be confident, full of energy and if we are going to surprise our opponent or make him afraid we need to be downright scary. The term kizeme is used to describe the process of attacking your adversary with your ki, or spirit and although this sounds faintly esoteric is a simple process.

If outside of your kendo life you are confronted by someone who is extremely angry, or worse in a state of controlled anger, most people would feel fear. Whilst we don’t ever want to lose our tempers in kendo, we want to induce this feeling of fear in our opponent as we step in to attack. We do this by controlling our breathing and making strong kiai as we make seme and tame (the act of retaining your power in readiness to attack).

The friend that I was working with today is physically small, which makes it even more important for her to produce strong seme to make the other person react.  This is not at all impossible. Some of the most frightening hachidan sensei are of small stature. Arima sensei of Osaka fukei, Suzuki sensei of Hyogo kenkei, Takatera sensei, ex –Imperial Palace Police, and many others are formidable examples of how size does not matter in kendo. To have keiko with any of these sensei is a flat-out assault on your senses that leaves you feeling as if you have been hit by a tsunami.

I know that my friend  is going to watch the Kyoto taikai next month, so perhaps the best advice I can give her is to look out for the tachiai of these and some of the other smaller teachers and see for herself how scary they can be.

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SemeThis blog is becoming increasingly request driven. Morgan Hooper of Enshinkan Dojo in New York asked for clarification on a previous post on seme-geiko and some  the finer points of maai and footwork in seme .

As I mentioned when I last wrote about seme- geiko, I was introduced to the practice by the late Furuya sensei at morning keiko in Sakai. Subsequently I practiced it a few times with his student Uegaki Isao sensei. All of these sessions were with senior ranked kenshi and it was taken as read that everyone knew the mechanics of seme, so no detailed instruction was given. Seme-geiko is effectively kakarigeiko for seniors, but with emphasis on creating the correct opportunity to strike.  Each partner spends a short time pressurizing their opponent and creating chances to make 4 or 5 clean attacks. These are made going forwards in a straight line so waza are limited to men, kote and kote men.

I realise that I haven’t come close to answering Morgan’s question, but let me try to make a few points on seme generally and leave you to transcribe them into seme geiko.

To make effective seme from chudan kamae you must:

  • Step deeply enough into your opponents space to break his composure
  • Move to your uchi ma, a distance that suits you rather than him
  • Keep the centre at all times
  • Move in with only one step
  • Move from your feet and keep correct posture. Do not just push your hands forward
  • Usually you step in with the right foot and smartly bring your left foot up to follow so you can move effectively into the attack as soon as his concentration is broken
  • Breathe in before you enter distance and retain your breath in your tanden during the process of making seme, releasing it in kiai as you make the attack
  • Strike in the timing of one
  • Do not raise or lower the tip of your shinai as you move in, as this this will alert your opponent to your intention
  • If your seme does not have the required effect retain the centre and move back out to safe distance.

These points only apply to moving forward for shikake waza. Hikidasu, or drawing your opponent in is another post in its own right.

Morgan also asked about how to impose mental dominance when making seme. The answer to that one is similar to the old musicians’ joke – How do you get to Carnegie Hall? – Practice.

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Losing the point

KissakiMany accomplished kenshi lose the opportunity to attack by dropping the point of their shinai as they make seme. I regularly experience situations where my opponent steps in with strong seme and takes control of my centre only to drop his kensen prior to making an attack, in the process allowing me to regain control of the centre.

Moving the point downwards often causes the attacker to lean forward so that their balance is on the right foot. If this happens he needs to readjust his posture so that there is sufficient pressure between the left foot and the floor to be able to push off and launch his attack. Dropping the point also alerts his opponent that he is about to move. It is almost tantamount to announcing “here I come”.

I have thought hard about the reasons why people do this and I believe that in most cases the action is involuntary. As we step in, we gear ourselves up to attack and as we do so we inadvertently tense our arms and shoulders. The result is that the tip of the shinai is forced down by this tension. This is not an easy habit to correct. Many people who fall into this trap are unable to correct their movement even though they are aware of the problem and its root cause

To repair this fault you have to relax and to focus your energy forward rather than down. To achieve this you need to go for overkill and think about making upward pressure. There are many ways to do this. You can imagine that you are pushing towards your opponent’s eye by angling your navel upwards as you step forward. You can also think about an imaginary string pulling the top of your head upwards; almost like a marionette being pulled up by a puppeteer.

Holding the shinai incorrectly is another reason why the point drops as you make your approach. If your grip is too tight, any tension in your body will result in the point either dropping or raising as you step forward. Your hands should of course be relaxed and you should grip the shinai lightly as we have discussed in previous posts.

In a perfect world the transition between stepping in to take the centre should be seamless and any unnecessary movement that signals intention should be avoided. Successful attacks in kendo depend on sharp footwork and light, relaxed kamae. The explosion on striking should come from good fumikomi, kiai and tenouchi and not upper body strength.

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3_Shikakewaza_Men2I have written about seme and tame several times since I started this blog and I feel motivated to do so again. These are difficult concepts for many people to understand and it is even more difficult to translate them into physical action.

We have had numerous conversations about seme at my local dojo and before writing this I scanned some of the comments on the web relating to this subject. I came across a very interesting thread on Kendo World Forums that started with a post about making seme and waiting for the opponent to react and how this did not work against more experienced opponents. Obviously the poster is on the right track but perhaps the clue to why it’s not working is in the word “waiting”. The missing ingredient is “tame”. If you step into striking distance without maintaining the spirit to attack then it is more than likely that you will be the loser in the encounter.

Thinking through the whole process, you should take a big breath in and let half of the air out as kakegoe before stepping into your opponent’s space. Your attitude should be confident and aggressive with the aim of breaking his physical and mental defence (migamae and kigamae). Posture needs to be correct with your hips engaged and you should swiftly pull your left foot up as soon as you step forward with your right. The left heel should be slightly off the ground throughout and there should be a feeling of tension at the back of the left knee. The right knee should be slightly bent. If while doing this your opponents kamae breaks under the pressure, don’t wait, just attack.

If on the other hand your opponent maintains his guard, you need to take further action to create an opportunity. This is done by keeping an attacking mind and centring your breath in your abdomen. You maintain the pressure in your left foot and knee and by moving the tip of your shinai very slighty invite him to attack. As soon as he starts an attacking movement, you can push off from your left foot and make a small sharp strike to whichever target he shows .Use the remainder of the air in your tanden to make a big kiai as you strike either kote or men. Welcome to the world of debana waza.

The Kendo World thread went on to say that it was difficult to make effective seme against more experienced kenshi. Duh, why wouldn’t it be! They have been doing it better and for a longer time. You will also find it difficult against beginners who not yet refined their basic technique to a level where they can make “mind contact”.

With these less experienced players you can practise tame by building pressure then relaxing it for them to attack you. With seniors if all else fails, do kakarigeiko.

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The most recent comment  on my blog was from Guilherme, requesting that I use some of my injury induced free time to talk about ki and seme. I have touched on these a number of times already in posts on Tame, Breaking Through, Kiai, kigurai and Kihaku, but separately or together they are subjects that are hard to exhaust.

I think most kendoka are aware of the meaning of both terms, but just to set the ground rules – ki means spirit, energy, life force. Kiai, which is universally accepted as the shout we make before and on striking, is not dissimilar, literally meaning to gather up or unite the spirit. Seme is the root of semeru which literally means to attack, but in kendo it is the accepted term for breaking through your opponents defence and taking the centre. Both are closely tied together and I would suggest there is one other essential member of the group, “Correct breathing”.

In an ideal world, both ki and seme would be “always on”. From the moment you enter sonkyo to the point where yame is called, or your opponent acknowledges defeat. In kendo, because there are two individuals involved, each with their own rhythms, strengths and weaknesses, it is never that simple.

You control ki through your breathing, filling your abdomen with air and holding it by keeping your stomach muscles tensed. You should retain this air, either until the completion of a successful waza or until you are in safe distance. You and your opponent each have your own rhythm, sometimes referred to in kendo as  Kan-Kyu-Kyo-Jaku (gradual-rapid-strong-weak). This can be explained in various ways but one possibility is the initial tentative approach through seme to technique to relaxation after hitting. Sumi sensei once explained this as the feeling of facing a wave. If you crash into it when it is at its peak it will knock you over, you however, are in control when it is ebbing away.

There are two major opportunities to attack. One when your opponent makes his own attack. Two when he succumbs to the pressure of your forward movement. In each case you need to be confident and full of spirit, whilst keeping your mind clear and level. In the first instance you stop and hold your pressure “tame”, just moving the point of your shinai enough to invite an attack and then hit as he is about to start his technique. This is debana waza. If his attack is more advanced then you use oji waza.

The second option is easier to understand. You simply step in and take center, (you can do this if he steps back or forward). As his kamae breaks you strike,(shikake waza). This is the most obvious example of seme. You do not need to push his shinai with your own, but simply step in strongly with good kamae and dominate with the strength of your ki, (kizeme). It is a very simple process and becomes increasingly simple the more you practice.

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The two comments on “tame” received in response to my post about Chiba sensei’s seminar were in line with the reaction of many people at the event, who had difficulty in understanding the concept of “tame”.

I mentioned this to Chiba sensei at the meal after his farewell practice and his reply was that “you should approach the opponent in the spirit of, “I am cutting now” and wait for his or her reaction to determine which target to strike.”

This is a good explanation, but for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with “tame”, let me add what little I can on the subject.

Firstly “tame” is an extension of seme. I have written about this before, but the act of moving into your opponents distance or inviting them into yours is seme. Seme and the technique that follows it should not however be continuous. If it were that would show premeditation on the attacker’s part to hit, for example men, when his or her opponent could well react differently and show another target.

“Tame” is the interval between approaching and striking where you determine your opponent’s next step and choose your target.  Of course this makes it all sound very leisurely, where that is far from the case.

So practically, you step in and staying relaxed, maintain your pressure and readiness to attack. Your chudan, (explaining “tame” from jodan is beyond my ability), should be firmly fixed on your opponent’s centre. You need to maintain the tension in your left leg so that you can push forward instantly and contain your breath in your abdomen so that you can move explosively with strong kiai. As soon as your opponent moves – attack. This could be with any shikake waza if he or she breaks their kamae, or with oji waza if they choose to attack. Of course they may choose to do neither, in which case the only solution is to move back to safe distance and start all over again.

I hope this helps. For further information there is a translation of an article on seme and tame by Lorenzo Zago on the BKA website, or better still, find a clip of Chiba sensei on YouTube and watch how he does it.

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Trying to apply seme in Kyoto

Inspired by my recent trip to Kyoto, I taught at the two day Watchet Seminar. The theme of the weekend was “Breaking through your opponents centre” and I was lucky enough to have the senior group to teach. This consisted of candidates for 3rd dan up to current 5th dan holders and rather than look at tricks to move the shinai, I decided to work on the elephant task of teaching seme.

My approach was to run through a complete series of drills looking at the main shikake and oji waza, but ensuring that the drill for each technique incorporated its own seme. So for instance, shikake men entailed starting from long distance, taking a step into the opponents ma and then attacking men once you had control of the centre. If that did not work, students were encouraged to take one more small step forward, to break the opponents posture. In contrast we practised degote by lifting the point of the shinai towards motodachi’s left eye, to encourage him to strike men and then hit kote as he started to raise the shinai.

Other things we worked on included kakarite moving into distance and maintaining tame until motodachi started to move so we could instantly push off from the back foot to take debana men. It is all pretty much the same tried and trusted stuff, but put together in a different context.

Fortunately it seemed to work, with a number of people going on to demonstrate strong seme and pass the 4th dan examination at the end of the seminar.

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Stepping Back

Max TsukiI have always found that the easiest time to hit someone is when they step back. This is normally because in the act of doing so, they break concentration and lose their kamae. Theoretically, if your chudan is correct it is impossible for an opponent to strike you. However when you step backwards, particularly when you do so to avoid your opponent’s pressure, you risk moving the point of your shinai from the centre. This is a perfect opportunity for your opponent to attack men. It is surprising that even strong players make this mistake. In most cases they do so to give them sufficient distance to make their own attack, but once they are on the back foot, it is relatively simple for the other party to take an extra step forward and strike.

It is not difficult to avoid this problem, simply do not step back. If you think about keeping the point of the shinai forward at all times it is easier to apply counter techniques and the worst that can happen is that you both move forward into tsubazeriai. Now you can move back safely into fighting distance, but do so watching your opponent and covering his shinai. Most importantly ensure that you keep your left heel off the ground, as once your heel is planted you are unable to move in any direction and again become an easy target.

I realise that this advice is taking a somewhat negative tone in being a list of things not to do. Looking at it in a more positive light, your objective is to keep moving forward. Constantly take the fight to your opponents half of the court or practice area and break his or her posture and kamae by strongly stepping into their distance. When we talk about this, the question most often asked is “what happens if your opponent also comes forward”. This does and will happen, but your mind set should be that you will dominate and if you really believe that, the chances are that the other player will crumble under the pressure.

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Freshly inspired by Chiba-sensei’s thoughts on seme, I taught at a pre-grading seminar over the weekend. I made sure that every shikake and oji waza drill we practiced, started from making the appropriate opportunity, either by breaking the opponents centre or by inviting him to attack and taking away the point. Many of the students there visibly bought into the concept that you win in Kendo by creating the opportunity and that the strike is just the completing statement. So far, so good.

On the afternoon of the second day, we had the grading and the ikkyu and shodan candidates did a great job of demonstrating their ability. When we got to the 2nd and 3rd dan candidates the pass rate dropped dramatically. The reasons for failure were those I listed in a similar post after the last grading. Mainly people did not pass second and third dan because they did not hit anyone.

By hit, I mean strike the target correctly with clear intention and opportunity.  Taking it on one level, they did not make opportunities by using seme. Instead they waited for a reasonable interval before rushing in and attacking without breaking the opponents centre or coaxing them out of centre. This resulted in various strikes that missed or at best achieved ai-uchi.

This was disappointing because the grading panel needs to see clear evidence that the candidates can stike with correct timing and opportunity before they can put their circles in the box. Most of the failures had been making and taking perfectly good opportunities at the previous day’s seminar, so I can only assume that nerves or adrenalin overdose were the problems on the day.

Many senior Japanese instructors talk about the grading requirement as “having done sufficient keiko”, this does not mean turning up twice a week and having fun beating all comers, it means practicing kihon and waza until they become instinctive.

So guys, more kihon drills starting from seme and the next examination should be a piece of cake.

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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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