Samurai3My recent kendo in or out of the Olympics poll produced an 80/20 vote in favour of out, against the 60/40 out at the time of the last Olympics. The poll and accompanying article also stimulated some well thought out comments which fell predominantly into the “out” camp.

On the evidence of this poll, and although as a former marketer I have learned never to trust surveys, I have leapt to the assumption that 80 per cent of us want to retain at least some of the traditions of kendo. I suspect though that there are many variations of understanding of what constitutes “traditional kendo”.

I have had a number of people tell me that “my dojo does traditional kendo”, explaining that they only practice big cuts, or that they avoid taking part in shiai. On the other hand I have been in many dojo in Japan,  including the Imperial Palace’s Sainekan and the old Noma Dojo, where  despite centuries of tradition, the kendo you see is effective modern competitive kendo.

Anyone who has read Alex Bennett’s excellent book, Kendo, Culture of the Sword can see how  kendo has adapted tradition through the ages, moving from the warriors art of medieval Japan to the reflection of samurai aesthetics in the Edo period, before becoming little more than street theatre when the samurai were dissolved. Kendo’s emergence into the early 20th Century was then blighted by being adopted by the ultra-nationalist cause.

Kendo as we know it has been in existence only since 1952, Under the stewardship of the AJKF kendo has been developed both as a sport and as a personal development methodology, utilising the techniques and ideals of traditional Japanese fencing. The Concept of Kendo is explained as “the way to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.”

To me this means training to reach a level where you can make effective strikes without thinking and at the same time treating your opponents, seniors, juniors and teachers with courtesy and respect. Kendo’s traditional system of reigi seems to provide a perfect framework to achieve this objective.

There are many Japanese sword arts and I can see the value of learning Iai or trying tameshigiri as an added extra is a great idea, but to my mind trying kesa-giri in your kendo keiko, or practising to be the perfect kaishakunin is taking tradition a step too far.

The ideal kendo session

Seiza 5Different people have different ideas on what constitutes the perfect practise session. Some are happy to arrive at the dojo, have a quick stretch, put their men on and enjoy an hour’s jigeiko. Others may prefer to concentrate on kihon drills for the whole session.

In my view there is no right answer. The way you structure your keiko depends on how much time you have to fill and the level and physical condition of those taking part. If you are lucky enough to have a number of kodansha in the dojo, then jigeiko can be a great learning experience. To be more precise what you are getting is hikitate-geiko, where sensei is taking a view of your strengths and weaknesses and stretching you to do a bit better. If there is one instructor teaching a class of students then a structured session built on demonstration and repetition is likely to be the best way forward.

The length of your training session also dictates what you do. My ideal kendo week would consist of five or six 45 minute to one hour practices, each conducted at maximum intensity. When you have two or 3 hours to fill, you need to bring in more variety and exercises that offer a change of pace. For example, start with kata or boken ni yoru kihon keikoho, move on to kihon drills, keeping them short and changing partners frequently and finally move to jigeiko.

With kihon drills it’s best to keep to a theme. It might simply be improving ki-ken-tai-itchi, or could be something more ambitious like incorporating seme into the attack. You can work on shikake-waza  one day and oji-waza on another, or you could practise men attacks and the oji-waza to use against them as part of the same session.  In drills like this it is important for both motodachi and kakarite to approach each technique with total commitment and not anticipate the others movement, otherwise you are in danger of producing the counter attack before the attack.

One other word of warning, don’t try to do too much. I have seen sessions which have included almost every technique in kendo. In this case it is difficult to remember what you have covered, let alone get any benefit from it.

However you approach each training session remember that the purpose is to improve your kendo, and to enjoy your time in the dojo.

Capture Olympic PollAt the time of writing this the Rio Olympics are coming to an end and the post that I wrote at the time of the London Olympics has had quite a few new visits.  This and the conversations I have had with kendo friends, make me think that kendo’s stance on the Olympic Games is still a hot topic for many people.

As part of that post, I included a poll which showed that the majority of readers were in favour of staying out with a vote of 62% to 38%. I would be interested in everyone’s thoughts this time round.

Perhaps I am softening with age, or am feeling my share of national pride at Britain’s medal haul in Rio, but I can now take a slightly more balanced view than I did four years ago. The pluses of kendo becoming an Olympic sport are that we would attract more players. With increased funding the level of kendo would improve globally, eroding the dominance of Japan and Korea.

In the minus column there is a very real probability that we would need to simplify our scoring system so that it was understandable to non-kenshi spectators. This could totally change the nature of kendo with the current values for yuko-datotsu being eroded. Without the insistence on valid strikes being based on the “Principles of the katana”, we would lose much of the spirit of kendo. Reiho would almost certainly suffer too as we develop a win-at-all-costs attitude.

One other change that is either good or bad depending on your point of view is that instructors and coaches might finally receive some payment for their efforts.

Along with many other people, I am confused about the amateur status of Olympic sport, particularly with the recent addition of professional golf and tennis to the games. Certainly the more successful competitors for many sports fall into the “paid to train” category and I am sure that kendo would soon see an increase in “professionalism” if admitted. Having said that it could be argued that police tokuren and dojang instructors fall into this category already.

Opinion is still polarised with The All Japan Kendo Federation staunchly refusing to join the Olympic movement for the reasons mentioned, but nevertheless taking Kendo into the Combat Games. The Korean Kendo Federation on the other hand continually lobbies for the inclusion of kendo, making impassioned speeches at FIK meetings and WKC referee meetings.

On balance I still come down in favour of staying out of the Olympics. Having spent almost 50 years treating kendo as a shugyo I would not like to see it devalued. I wonder though how much sentiment has changed over the past four years so I include a new poll and would appreciate you taking the time to tick a box.


HikimenHaving spent the past two weeks discussing the correct forms of zanshin for hiki waza, Olga reminded me that we have not looked at hiki waza as a technique.  Rather than start from scratch I have borrowed an excerpt from my book “Kendo a comprehensive guide. I have included Katsuya Masagaki’s excellent illustration for hiki men, which explains the technique far better than words alone. This is just one of a number of illustrations around the subject, which would make it worth looking at the book itself:-

Hiki waza fall into the category of shikake waza but are almost a class of technique on their own. Hiki waza are techniques made going backward from tsubazeriai. Men dou and kote can be done in this way. Only tsuki is not a viable hiki technique 🙂

To get to tsubazeriai in the first place we normally push into close distance with our opponent using taiatari, so it is probably worth briefly describing how this should be done:

If after making a forward attack, your opponent is still directly in front of you pull your shinai towards your body and push forward using your hips. The secret to successful taiatari is not to compromise your posture. After hitting, keep your arms and shoulders relaxed, drop your hands into correct tsubazeriai, keep your balance between your feet and slightly drop your hips forward. This should be enough either to move your opponent, or at least to put you in safe, close distance, ready to make your next move

In tsubazeriai the omote side of the jinbu of the shinai should be crossed at the point above the tsuba. The shinai should not directly touch your opponent. Any variation to the above is classed as a tsubazeriai infringement and would earn a hansoku in shiai.

Hiki men

From tsubazeriai push your partner’s hands upwards. As he responds by pushing down he exposes his men. Lean back slightly and step back with your left foot, making sure that you create sufficient distance to strike the men with the datotsu bu of your shinai. As you strike men you should pull your right foot back, making fumikomi.  Zanshin should take the form of you continuing to move back to safe distance, keeping your shinai in chudan position.

Hiki gote

This time push your opponent’s hands to your left so that he pushes back to your right, opening his kote for attack. Moving in the same way as for hiki men, step back and strike kote. Remember that as his kote moves forward into kamae it is closer than men, so you will need to create sufficient distance.   2.28

Hiki dou

Again the process is the same. This time push his hands down and hit dou as he forces them up against your pressure.


Chiba JodanThank you Martin for giving me two topics to write about this week.  When I started this blog quite a few years ago, I was warned that a blog written by a seventh dan was doomed to failure because kendo’s respect system would kill debate. This has not been the case and Kendoinfo has received close to 2000 comments. Quite a few of these have been challenging, but nearly all  were good natured.

I don’t usually respond to comments, but commenting on the “stupidity” of someone’s view is not in line with kendo etiquette. It is also worth bearing in mind that the topic is kendo, not tameshigiri. I also can’t see how you made the assumptions that I advocate taking your eyes off or turning away from your opponent. The whole theme of my post was that zanshin is vital to kendo, and awareness of your opponent is the essence of zanshin.

Keeping these points out of the equation, our key disagreement is over the correct zanshin for hiki waza. You have suggested that keeping your shinai raised is both “furikaburi” and jodan.  Furikaburi means to swing up, not keep up, and jodan requires a great deal of hand foot coordination that goes beyond pointing your shinai skywards.  I remember Chiba sensei’s advice to a casual jodan player who asked him how to do better jodan. The answer was “stick to chudan”.

“Hit men as you step back and return to chudan” is not my invention. As part of the research for “Kendo a Comprehensive Guide” we looked at the writings of numerous famous sensei and they all advocated chudan as the end position for hiki-men. Looking at the available English language references, in both Ozawa sensei’s definitive guide and the AJKF’s Fundamental Kendo, the instruction is hit men and return to chudan. The AJKF’s “Official Guide for Kendo Instruction” takes things a step farther and cautions against hikiage as “an unacceptable action following a strike, such as exaggerated posturing after scoring a point in a match. This can result in the point being rescinded by the shinpan.”

I have always made a point of approving all comments to this blog and I thank you for contributing and look forward to hearing from you again. Please though, let’s keep within the spirit of kendo’s reigi.


Kote Uchi ZanshinEvery kendo technique ends with zanshin. It is that piece at the end of an attack where we move clear of our opponent to regain the initiative to attack again if the first attempt was not successful. In the old days of mortal combat it would be a matter of moving yourself to a safe position to check that either the job was successful or that you still needed to finish your opponent off.

Zanshin is still an integral part of scoring in kendo. The instructions for making or judging a successful yuko- datotsu always end with “followed by zanshin”. The concept is quite simple – you hit the target, take three or four steps past your opponent and turn forwards as you assume kamae and the readiness to strike again if necessary. This is by and large the formula.

There are of course exceptions. If your zanshin follows a technique where you move to a diagonal position with your opponent, it may be sufficient to stay on the spot, regain your kamae and simply look confident. I regularly see people try to adopt the 3 steps though approach at the cost of compromising their posture.

There is a common tendency for new kendo students to attack, raise the shinai, move past their opponent and then retake chudan whilst stepping backwards. This is incorrect. You should always turn forwards into chudan, in doing so both protecting yourself and regaining the initiative. As you go through the shinai should remain in the same position as your cut, so for instance at men height. It should not be raised in celebration or the outcome could be tori-keshi.

Even folk who make correct zanshin on forward technique fall into the habit of raising the shinai as they step back from hiki-waza. In my view this is dangerous. If the hiki waza didn’t work and your opponent is quicker than you, you are a sitting duck for a tsuki attack

The attitude of good zanshin should be one of kigurai and not boastfulness. You make your initial attack with 100 per cent commitment. Survey the results from a safe distance whilst retaining your physical and mental readiness to attack again if it is needed. It is definitely not the opportunity for celebration or show-boating.


Korea1This week I am pleased to use someone else’s words in my blog. I have continually confessed my ignorance about Korean kumdo, so Chris Bowden sent me this contribution offline. With his permission, here it is.

“I was reading your blog ‘PMA versus DNA’ and you mentioned that the Korean team is selected on physical prowess, but that was hearsay and that you would be interested in any insight.  I began kendo in Korea and trained there up until 3rd dan, so I have a bit of insider knowledge on how things are done over there.  Not that I was allowed anywhere near the national team.  

I don’t think that the Korean team is picked based on physical prowess, but it is an aspect of Korean culture that runs very deep.  Most Kendoka in contention for the national team will be professionals who studied kendo at university.  My own kendo master studied at YongEui University, majored in Kendo and had minors in judo and taekwondo.  Many martial artists in Korea take this route and then open their own dojo like an after school class.  When at university they train intensively, so having a high level physical prowess is requisite to compete. 

A lot of people in the UK ask me about the difference in kendo and kumdo.  There is a separate kumdo association, but it is a minor group and has no influence on mainstream kendo.  The word kumdo is just the Korean pronunciation of the kendo kanji.    As for real difference I have to say that there isn’t a lot.  Koreans tend to practice faithfully to the way the Japanese practice.  I have practised several times in Japan and whenever a Japanese sensei holds a seminar I am reminded of how I used to train in Korea and Japan.  I find that the UK has the bigger differences.

 I think that it is the culture of the country kendo is being practised in that leads to the differences.  Almost all Koreans train in taekwondo at school or in military service and it is of no wonder that this has bled into their kendo practice.  Taekwondo practitioners launch flurries of attacks to create openings, so renzoku waza are practised a lot in Korea.  Taekwondo is also a progressive martial art. The taekwondo headquarters has an R&D department that puts into practice what is being taught, so that it is as practical as possible.  This marginal gains way of doing things is then applied to kendo too. 

 In the UK there we like to do things properly and this in my mind leads to more polarised styles and techniques.  I was worried that when I returned to the UK that there would be hardly anyone practicing kendo and that it would be terrible.  I am glad to say that I found kendo flourishing and that I have been able to continue to improve, especially with sensei being able to communicate in English.  Knowledge of zen is very minimal in the UK and this I find clashes with the British desire to be correct.  

One sensei will say one thing and another with offer seemingly conflicting advice.  This confuses people as they don’t know which is correct.  There isn’t a deeper analysis.  No consideration that both are correct and that the student needs to find their own answer.  Perhaps this could be a topic for one of your future blogs*. 

Anyways, thank you for your insightful blogs.  If you have any further questions don’t hesitate to ask.


*Actually I covered this in a number of previous posts, most relevantly http://wp.me/ptBQt-ca

International reigi


Kyoto asageiko

Kyoto asageiko

My “Kendo Ritual” post prompted some enlightening contributions from a number of people. Hakan’s last comment was particularly thought provoking.

I wrote the original post from the perspective of someone who‘s formative kendo years were spent in the Japan of the 70’s when many of my teachers brought pre-war values to the dojo. Even then zokin-gake was not a fixed part of adult kendo practice, but was a daily ritual for many high-school and university and kendo clubs. There were however a number of duties that seem strange to some of my western kendo friends that I viewed as an earned privilege.

Being asked to take care of a very senior teacher’s sensei’s bogu, washing his back in the communal dojo bath, even being one of the select few who were invited to bow to his departing car or taxi, were signs that you were accepted as a student and not the non-person who had spent months or years waiting to gain acceptance.  In those days, even with an influential introduction, most new members had to prove themselves before becoming part of the group.

Thanks to the efforts of FIK in internationalising kendo and the fact that many senior Japanese instructors teach seminars around the globe, kendo in Japan now seems to be far more accessible to foreigners. Nevertheless the format of reiho is still uniquely Japanese. The importance of correct reigi is underlined by the AJKF in the syllabus for the Kyoshi examination and there is an emphasis on imparting kendo’s values as well as its techniques both at home and abroad.

I have had numerous discussions with friends who think that my attitude to dojo etiquette verges on fundamentalist. They believe that a more localised approach would give greater encouragement to new students. I can see the value of both points of view but I am obviously a product of my own experiences.

I am perhaps softening with age. At Mumeishi dojo where my co-instructor is Japanese, my bogu is invariably impeccably tied and whisked away to the changing rooms at the end of each practice. In Shion dojo in Spain where I teach from time to time, I take care of my own kit, but very often the keiko ends with a round of applause and a hug. Both scenarios are very different, but each serves the same end in demonstrating mutual respect. Put it this way, I always come home from kendo in a good mood. Perhaps that’s a reflection on being part of a vertical society.

PMA versus DNA

dna2There was an interesting comment on last week’s post from Kami who suggested that fighting spirit grows as you develop confidence from keiko and that a good instructor can foster fighting spirit in his students. I agree completely.  I also believe that anyone who continues to follow kendo’s difficult path demonstrates fighting spirit through their determination to keep going.

The fact that kendo is a “marathon not a sprint” allows people to grow their technical ability and develop their mental attitude over a period of time that is much longer than that available to practitioners of most other sports. Thinking about this sent me on a slight diversion to reflect on the nature versus nurture debate and how it impacts kendo.

In many professional sports athletes are chosen for their physical characteristics. Many coaches will choose rookies with the right height, lung capacity, even the ability to metabolise energy, over experienced players with average physical attributes. In kendo we welcome all comers and the cream tends to rise to the surface over time. Two eighth dans who I have spoken to about their route into kendo told me that their parents made them start kendo because they were not particularly robust as children.

In Japan top shiai players mostly come from the ranks of police and education kendo and have progressively moved up from schools and universities with enviable kendo reputations before reaching professional or semi-professional status. It is largely from this select group that the World Championship squad is chosen, based on performance in national competitions.

I believe that Japan’s biggest rival for the Wold Championships, Korea has a different approach. Athletes are selected on physical characteristics and put through intensive training leading up to WKC competition.  I may be completely wrong as this is based only on hearsay, so I would welcome input from any Korean kumdo devotees who can either confirm this or set me straight.

For us amateurs in the west it is even more difficult to judge. Many people who do not enjoy conventional sports take up martial arts. Some are obviously more athletically gifted than others and make much faster initial progress than their fellow newbies. I have seen a number of people who found the early stages of kendo extremely challenging go on and overtake their more gifted dojo mates. By and large this is based on perseverance and what the self-help gurus often refer to as Positive Mental Attitude.

From what I have seen of the students that I have been lucky enough to have taught, I believe that physical characteristics are important, but more important is the determination to succeed.

Kendo childrenRegular readers will be aware that I continually bang on about the importance of attacking with “full spirit”, by which I mean commit 100% of your energy to any attack that you make.

This is not a concept that I have developed, but it has been drummed into me by my teachers throughout my lengthy kendo career.  Obviously many others have had the same instruction over the years, particularly those who started kendo in elementary school and middle school. I am not sure what happens in today’s more enlightened school system, but my kendo contemporaries in Japan were always urged to attack flat out from the day they first wore a hakama and keikogi.

Obviously those that continued their kendo career through the evolution of high school, university and adult kendo have had the chance to build on this initial strength by adding the understanding of seme, tame and kikai, as well as developing a range of basic and advanced technique. Not every kenshi however has the chance to follow this path and sometimes circumstances mean that they are unable to continue to practice past school age. Study schedules often get in the way of continued practice and even for those lucky enough to continue training through university, life as a “salaryman” can leave little time for kendo.
For a number of Japanese kenshi their first opportunity to get back into kendo is when they are posted abroad to countries where people spend less time in the office than they would in Japan.  Many expats see this as a chance to spend more time on the golf course and driving range, but for that special few who have been awaiting the opportunity to restart kendo, this is it.

Walking into a kendojo in another country is an incredibly brave act.  There are no guarantees that the kendo practised by foreign kenshi bears any resemblance to the home grown kind and you have to trust your instincts and any introductions that you were able to gather from friends in Japan.

The more cautious often start by joining the beginners’ class for a while before they throw themselves into keiko, but when they do, they tend to bring their old school values with them. For kenshi in their teens and twenties treating each jigeiko as a kakarigeiko is tiring but possible. For those in their late 30s and 40s it is more difficult.  I personally enjoy the challenge of helping returners make up for lost time. You can always add to your knowledge of distance and timing, but fighting spirit is something you either have or you don’t.