Posts Tagged ‘Chiba Masashi’

Remembering Chiba sensei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perfect MasterFollowing a recent post on kaeshi men, Helton asked for more information on which techniques work for tall people against shorter people and vice versa.

One of the best guides to understand which waza work in which situation is Chiba sensei’s book and DVD set “Perfect Master” , where he devotes a whole section to which techniques should be used in which circumstances. If you can get your hands on a copy this explains a lot about kikai or opportunity, whereas most kendo books describe technique in isolation.

There are of course some very obvious examples of shikake and oji waza that have a probability of success in different circumstances. Men works for tall people against shorter opponents, dou and kote are more likely to help smaller kenshi against the tall. Tsuki too works for small people, which was regularly demonstrated by Arima sensei of Osaka Police.

As we discussed, kaeshi men is difficult against a taller opponent as their hands or shinai get in the way of the target whereas kaeshi dou or nuki dou are much more likely to succeed. Helton points out that at a height of 2 metres suriage men works for him. Strangely enough at my 1m 73 it also works for me, but I think that is because we are sliding up against a downward strike so both shorter and taller people can use it successfully. On the other hand kiri-otoshi is almost impossible against a much taller opponent.

Against jodan we have a whole new set of challenges regardless of the respective height of each player. I would guess however that many jodan players are relatively tall. In this case as well as the text-book tsuki, keeping your shinai in hirasegan and threatening  kote and switching to men or threating men and switching to hit kote are worthwhile  ploys. Kaeshi men too seems to work against jodan regardless of height as the jodan players men is open once he makes his attack.

Nito is a nightmare. Variations of techniques against jodan are still relevant, but the kodachi is always there to block men attacks. In this case tsuki and dou are the major targets.

In all of these situations practise and experimentation are the only way to find what works for you against different opponents, and if you train regularly with the same few people, it is worth visiting other dojo to broaden your selection of partners.

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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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Perfect MasterOne of the regular members of our Thursday session is an aspiring jodan player. He started using jodan because of injury and has continued with it for a year or so and is getting obviously stronger using this difficult kamae.

The obvious challenge for kenshi who use anything other than the standard chudan kamae is finding correct instruction. When I am asked for advice I have to put my hands up and say that I know nothing about jodan. Obviously my friend is welcome to use me as a target and I enjoy testing my seme and timing against him, but I do not have the knowledge to teach what is almost another form of kendo.

The best suggestion I could make is that he learn from a jodan expert and if one is not available then  find some written or video instruction. I have a copy of Chiba sensei’s Perfect Master book and DVD and although the instruction is mainly on chudan techniques, he devotes two short chapters to jodan. Now obviously as one of Japan’s most famous post-war jodan players, if anyone knows about jodan he should, so here are some key points from his book. I am sure that he will forgive my inaccuracy in paraphrasing.

  • Kamae should be held at one fists distance from the left forehead with the shinai leaning back at a 45 degree angle.
  • As kote, tsuki and dou are all open to your opponent, you should not take Jodan if you do not have the confidence to do so.
  • When you strike, the motion is as much based on the action of pulling your right had back as of throwing your left hand forward. It should be done with almost the same feeling as doing “flys” chest exercises where you pull both arms and shoulders back.
  • Your men strike should finish with your left hand at chest height. Higher and the grip position will be wrong.
  • For kote it is impossible to hit if you are square in front of your opponent, as he will probably take hirasegan. You need to step to your diagonal left so that you are square on to his kote.
  • You should make him think that you are going for men by pulling your right hand down towards your left hand as you make the step and then attack kote.
  • If your opponent goes for tsuki, do not block by dropping your hands, as this will expose your men. Instead knock his shinai down as you strike his men.
  • If he attacks kote then go for degashira (debana)  men.
  • Jodan has its own maai which is difficult to find. Too close or too far and it won’t work. You need to continually practice to get it right.
  • To break your posture to avoid being hit is tasteless. You should face your opponent as if you are prepared to die.

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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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