Posts Tagged ‘Chiba Sensei’

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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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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During his recent UK seminar, Sueno sensei made the point that “ kote attack should be in a straight line”. Sumi sensei backed this up during his visit last week and Chiba sensei has certainly said more or less the same thing.  So why, when we get back to our normal hanshi free keiko, do people revert to hitting kote from a variety of odd angles.

Beginners in particular tend to stand directly in front of their opponent and move the tip of the shinai to their left to attack kote. This has the effect of diagonally cutting across the soft tsutsu part of the kote rather than making a correct hit on the kote buton. The other common mistake is to rotate the shinai under the kote which leaves the left hand too low to make a correct strike.

The key point to bear in mind is that when we talk about cutting direct from our centre to the target, it does not mean the centre of our body should be directly in line with the centre of our opponent’s body. It means that the centre of our body should be in a straight line with the target we are striking, be it men, do, or kote.

A useful tip for striking kote is to move your right foot over as you make the kote attack so that it lines up with your opponent’s right foot, rather than his left, which would be the correct position from which to strike men. By doing this, your body is facing the target, although you are now positioned slightly to the left of your opponent. Your shinai should be in a straight line, from your left hand, which should be in front of your navel, to your partner’s kote.

Another thing to remember is that when you move from the centre to hit kote, you only have to move above the height of your opponents shinai tip and no more than the width of his shinai to the left.

With this in mind it is tempting to leave your left hand in place and just use right hand power to make the attack. This is wrong! Your left hand should do the bulk of the work and the right hand just keeps it on course and squeezes gently with equal pressure to the left hand to make tennouchi on impact.

A final caution! You only need to cut through the thickness of your partner’s wrist. So the force of the attack should be forward. As Sumi sensei once eloquently put it “like a chameleon’s tongue coming out to catch a fly”.

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Following the recent Mumeishi seminar,  Sueno sensei attended our regular Tuesday practice and taught another session to add to the information that he gave us at the weekend.

As before he put us through some very simple men and kote drills and reinforced the importance of correct kiai in achieving good technique. I have long been aware of the difference that good kiai makes in kendo and wrote about it in the early days of this blog http://wp.me/stBQt-kiai . Sueno sensei however dealt with the subject much more eloquently and I feel that it’s worth summarising his explanation.

Before moving into the drills, he repeated the point he made at the seminar, that “There are many paths to the top of the mountain”. A good way of saying that different teachers have different approaches, but that in kendo the end goal is always the same.  The drills themselves consisted of students working in pairs, starting in issoku ito maai with kakarite stepping into his or her own cutting distance and concentrating on delivering a men strike with correct ki-ken-tai- itchi timing. Each partner would make two large men attacks then receive two. After several repetitions, instructions were given to make the strikes smaller.

Once everyone was into the rhythm of exchanging men attacks, Sueno sensei made the following point. “Before starting the attack breathe in quickly through your nose; hold the air in your abdomen and make a big shout releasing some of the air. Then make your kiai as you strike, releasing the rest of your air as you move through to safe distance. As you strike your kiai should grow in volume and in pitch so that it increases your energy and acceleration and pulls your posture up throughout the attack and zanshin.”

He continued to point out that if you allowed your kiai to diminish as you hit, it would have the adverse effect, causing you to lose power and “grind to a halt”.

To demonstrate the feeling of “holding breath in your abdomen”, sensei suggested that we try to tense the muscles in our stomach and abdomen, which everyone could and did. Then he instructed us to put tension into our shoulder and chest muscles at the same time, which nobody could.

We then returned to the drills with the emphasis on just edging our feet into our own preferred striking distance rather than taking one clear step in.

As Sueno sensei says “There are many paths to the top of the mountain” and I would be happy to have many of the Hanshi sensei as my guide. However in much the same way as does Chiba sensei, Sueno sensei has the ability to make complicated kendo concepts appear simple and logical.

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People often ask for tips on which kendo books they should buy and I suppose the answer depends on what  you want from your kendo reading. There are quite a few available publications ranging from “how to” manuals to those covering kendo history and philosophy. If you are thinking about asking Santa for a volume or two for Christmas, here are my brief reviews of some of the books available.

I have not included some of the the AJKF’s specialist manuals  such as “Training Methods for Fundamental Kendo Techniques with a Bokuto” or “Nippon Kendo Kata” as they are one perhaps too specific to be a general kendo read. I would however highly recommend the  “Official Guide for Kendo Instruction”

Official Guide For Kendo Instruction, All Japan Kendo Federation, 2011


This book is meant as a guide for instructors and covers teaching approach and methods as well as kendo basic and advanced technique. It also gives guidance on kendo philosophy and history.


The book is well laid out and illustrated with photographs using high grade kenshi as models and is therefore easy to follow. Unlike many books that have been written in Japanese and then translated, this book is a joy to read thanks to Dr. Alex Bennett’s brilliant translation.


Developed and translated from the official Japanese Kendo Shido Yoryou; as you would expect, a great deal of care and thought has gone into the production of this book. I would recommend it to any instructor. It also serves as a great reference book for those not yet teaching kendo.

Fundamental Kendo, All Japan Kendo Federation       

Japan Publications, 1974, possibly out of print.


Practical guide to kendo meant for a wide range of ability levels. Covers practical aspects of kendo from putting on equipment to executing techniques. It contains some details of training methods and appendices on kendo shiai and Kendo no kata. It also includes historical background in the introduction.


The book uses photographs to show techniques. These are accompanied by factual descriptions. The technique descriptions are in accurate English but not detailed. 


A great book in its time! Perhaps a little brief in description of technique, but well worth having.

Kendo The definitive guide, Hiroshi Ozawa 

Kodansha 1997


This is a more recent practical kendo guide, written by a respected Japanese kendo teacher. The book progresses through sections on Basics, Stretching Exercises, Techniques, Kendo no kata and practice methods. The book contains appendices such as the rules of shiai which are easily available from other sources.

It is described as being suitable for beginners and as a reference book for instructors.


This book uses line drawings and is cleanly laid out. Technique description is accurate but could be more detailed. It carries interesting elements of guidance in the training section.


This has been one of my favourite kendo books for many years, not only because my photo is on the back cover.

This is Kendo, Junzo Sasamori, Gordon Warner

Tuttle 1964, 6th Reprint 1994


This is a seminal reference book, which helped introduce Kendo to the West.

Much of the book is devoted to the traditions and background of kendo. This was particularly pertinent at the time of publication as kendo was going through a renaissance in Japan, following the occupation’s ban.

The structure of the book is different to many in that the middle section is labelled “Fundamental Procedures and Techniques”. This contains a mix of not necessarily connected technical information.


The book primarily uses to photographs to show technique, with some line drawings. The photographs are obviously chosen from those available and whilst all are extremely interesting, have not been taken expressly to sequentially demonstrate each technique.


This is clearly one of the better kendo books; but structure is somewhat random with, for instance an explanation of the Tsuki technique followed by an explanation of kirikaeshi. 

Kendo Elements, Rules, and Philosophy, Jinichi Tokeshi,

University of Hawaii Press, 2003


Dr Tokeshi’s book is well structured and progresses through the history and key points of kendo. It gives a detailed explanation of kendo equipment, some clear insight on training methods and dojo organisation. It covers shiai rules and kendo no kata and has some interesting chapters on philosophy and brief biographies of some of the important early kendo teachers.  It also contains a good glossary. Dr Tokeshi brings a great deal of knowledge and erudition to this book. 


Well written, structured and illustrated with good line drawings. This is a worthwhile book to have in any kendo library.


I liked Dr Tokeshi’s book. I do however feel that the chapters on kata and shiai rules, whilst useful as a summary, are not essential as they are available elsewhere in more detailed form.

Looking at a Far Mountain, Paul Budden

Ward Lock 1992


An Interesting book on the history and practice of Kendo no Kata. An outline of kendo no kata is appended to nearly every book on kendo; this book is therefore aimed at those wishing to probe deeper into the meaning of kata. Paul has carefully researched the history of the formulation of Kendo no Kata and provided detailed descriptions of the techniques.


Concise and well set out with detailed photographs.


This is a useful book for those who want to take a detailed look at Kendo no Kata. 

Kendo Kata Essence and Application, Yoshihiko Inoue,

Kendo World Publications 2003

Inoue sensei is probably the leading authority on the essence of kendo no kata. This is a truly excellent book.

Kendo The Way and Sport of The Sword, Michael Finn

Self Published 1982

Michael Finn is a multiple martial artist. He has included some interesting historical background and some nice photographs from his time in Japan.

The book uses photographs of Mr Finn’s students to illustrate technique and sadly, most of the pictures show people in incorrect position or with armour tied incorrectly.  In its time, this was perhaps a good primer for the casually interested reader, but is not a useful investment for the serious kendoka.

Complete Kendo, John Donahue



Mr Donahue’s book gives a good overview of kendo progressing through history, culture, the dojo, etiquette, basics, technique and kata. He also covers shiai / competition in a different way, looking at the psychodynamics of a competitive situation. He states that as an anthropologist, his stance is interpretive.  He also points out that his book is a basic guide for beginning kendoka. John provides a glossary that goes beyond kendo to describe other martial arts.


This is a well written book; he uses the device of wrapping chapters within the five element headings of the “Book of Five Rings”. I am not sure that I can understand the logic in how he applies the headings to the chapters within them, but admit that this device helped set the book apart at a time when “Go rin no sho” was enjoying a deal of popularity. My only question is on the level of detail and authority used in technique description. 


I like many of the elements of this book’s scope and presentation like the approach on shiai attitude. I do however feel that there is a need for more detailed technique description

Kendo, Jeff Broderick

New Holland Publishers 2004

This book follows the standard pattern of history, equipment, reigi, basics, techniques, accessories. However the content seems to be heavy on standard information from the International Kendo Federation. i.e contact addresses for country kendo federations etc.  Looking at the reviews for this book it appears to be aimed at the beginner or the kendo- curious.  It is illustrated with photographs and text descriptions of techniques but does not cover kendo techniques in sufficient depth to be of use to the serious kendoka. 

The Way of Kendo and Kenjitsu, Darrel Craig

YMAA Publication Centre, 2004

This book leans towards traditional kenjutsu and covers an eclectic mix of kendo and Iai. Much of the book is devoted to samurai and swords and the author includes chapters on sword collection. The actual kendo content is somewhat erratic, including a chapter on the “The three short sword kata”. As these are an integral part of Kendo no kata, I was surprised to see them featured in isolation.

 Mr Craig’s book is also semi- autobiographical and dwells on a number of past conversations with his teacher. Not for me, but I would bow to the opinion of those that know more about kenjutsu.

The Shambhala Guide to Kendo.

Minoru Kyota

This is an interesting book but it deals only with the philosophical aspects of kendo.  Whilst a worthwhile addition to any kendo book collection it does not cover the physical aspects of kendo.

Other Books

There are also many non kendo specific books which are worth a read by the serious kendoka. My favourite is “Zen and Japanese Culture” by Daisetsu Suzuki, which contains more information on the philosophy of kendo than most dedicated books on the subject and there is Eugene Herigel’s evergreen “Zen and the Art of Japanese Archery.

For those with an E-reader, Kendo World Magazine comes in electronic form as does George McCall’s   “kenshi 247” selected articles. There are of course some great kendo books in Japanese. The good news for non-Japanese readers is that many of them have accompanying DVDs. Why not check Chiba sensei’s” Perfect  Master”.  Happy holiday reading!

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Last week when I was in Tokyo, I was lucky enough to be invited to practice with the kendo club of Hitotsubashi University. Whilst I have practiced at a number of Japanese university clubs over the years, I tend to forget just how hard kendoka work at this stage of their careers to ensure that the fundamentals are in place to develop shiai and jigeiko skills.

Two thirds of the allotted keiko time was devoted to kirikaeshi, uchikomi geiko and yakusoku geiko. I was impressed by the fact that everyone from first year students on up knew all the drills and their sequence inside out. Of course the club captain provided the appropriate words of command, but everyone went through the whole session on autopilot, concentrating only on doing each technique faster and better. Chiba sensei who is Hitotsubashi Dai’s Shihan, was able to stay aloof from the process of running the session and only intervened to make corrections or suggestions to individual members.

Only after this kihon was completed were visitors brought into the final thirty minute jigeiko session. With twelve or so of these young kendo machines lined up for keiko with me, half an hour of flat-out practice was all I needed.  However after I left for a beer with Chiba sensei, the students continued their practice to concentrate on preparation for that weekend’s shiai with universities from Osaka and Kobe.

What I find particularly interesting is that Hitotsubashi University does not have a particular kendo or physical education focus. Its reputation in Japan is primarily that of an elite academic institution, so of course the students all have to spend a great deal of time focussing on their studies. Nevertheless it was obvious that kendo plays a major part of their lives, both in and out of the dojo. It was also clear from Chiba sensei’s opening and closing remarks that the objective of the university kendo club was not just to develop effective tactical kendo but to promote the holistic values of kendo and its impact on everyday life.

Certainly, judging by the way visitors are treated by these students, sensei has done a great job in reinforcing the true spirit of reigi. I understand that next year the Kendo Club of Hitotsubashi Daigaku is going to make a visit to Imperial College in London with the aim of establishing an official twinning relationship. Imperial also has the reputation for attracting some very bright students, so next year should see a meeting of minds as well as kendo spirit.

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Chiba sensei is back in the UK for his annual visit. He has an unerring ability to quickly spot what needs fixing and to offer a remedy. After two dojo visits for keiko, he reached the conclusion that may UK kendoka suffer from the lack of coordinated ki-ken-tai-ichi.  This stems from a number of timing problems but mainly from using too much shoulder power and leaning in, causing the right foot to come up rather than forward.

Over the weekend he then ran a two day seminar. Using a series of drills that progressed through the range of shikake and oji waza at different speeds and distances, he made people work on developing a natural kamae and cutting motion to eliminate this problem. The theory is quite simple, in that you should relax your arms and shoulders in chudan leaving your inner arms close to the body so that you cannot see daylight between your inner arms and your dou. Your left hand should be at navel height and turned in at an angle where you can easily support the weight of the shinai. Your right hand should be held at a relaxed angle without being forced, so that you can move the shinai easily. The grip from both hands comes from the little and ring fingers only.

You should step into your own one step cutting distance with a feeling of seme and at the right time you should lift the shinai bending your elbows and wrists in a natural fashion. How high you lift the shinai depends on you. If you are an experienced kendoka you should be able to cut in a very small movement. It needs to be bigger a motion if you are less experienced.  The key point is that the final part of the motion with your wrists is what gives the strike its “snap” and if your wrists are supple enough, you should be able to cut from almost a standing start. As Chiba sensei has said in the past, when you strike men, you should do so with the intention of cutting through to the chin.

In terms of getting the foot movement part of the equation right, you should not move your right foot before you start the strike, however just before you do so, bend the right knee slightly. Not only can this provoke your opponent to move, it aligns your leg so that when you make a fumikomi stamp, you will painlessly hit the floor with the flat of your foot rather than risk bruising your heel.

As simple as the theory might be, for many of us, it will take quite a few hours in the dojo before we can put it into practice.

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On my occasional visits to one or other of the kendo message boards, I often see requests for advice or clarification, to which someone invariably posts the response – “ask your sensei”.  This seems to me to be the most logical and accessible way to have questions answered, but obviously many people find it a more daunting option than referring to wiki style resources or asking their peers online. Surely not all kendo instructors are ”grumpy old men”, (no personal comments please), who fill students with fear.

Reflecting on this situation it is worth thinking about the roots of kendo pedagogy. As an essentially Zen martial art, traditionally the onus has been on the student to find his or her own path to enlightenment. Stories of potential disciples sitting for days outside the dojo door begging for admittance are common as are accounts of the uchi-deshi (in-house student) spending months or years just occupied with cleaning and cooking, before being allowed to pick up a weapon. Even post war, there are numerous accounts of beginners spending up to a year on their own practicing suburi before being allowed to join the class.

Certainly during my experience in Japan in the 70s, many high graded teachers were reluctant to hand out advice. Whilst their intentions were obviously benign, their approach to teaching was to act as motodachi for kakarigeiko; allowing correct technique to connect and punishing poor attacks by breaking kakarite’s posture. Some were more approachable than others and were prepared to pass on a few words of encouragement when I waited to thank them personally after the final rei. Others were polite but less outgoing.

The world and kendo with it, has however changed. Kendo is no longer one of two choices for compulsory physical education in Japanese schools, although reintroduction is being discussed. Globally it competes not only with other martial arts, but with a whole range of sports and pastimes. In parallel we have seen a new breed of super-hanshi, people like Chiba sensei and Sumi sensei who are not only superb kendoka, but also great teachers who are happy to explain and coach as well as acting as training partners. Those of us lucky enough to spend time with them are likely to receive a quick, accurate analysis of our kendo strengths and weaknesses and tips on ways to improve.

It is however important that this openness is not abused. Remember that their time is limited; and if they have some advice for you they will tell you. When you cross the dojo to thank them, “arrigatou gozaimashita”, is sufficient. When you are part of a queue to bow your thanks, the last thing you should do is confront them with a list of questions; and never, never stop to ask a question during keiko. If sensei wants to tell you something he will; and you may be lucky enough to be part of a longer discussion later in the pub.

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Recently I was lucky to practice with Sumi sensei on his stopovers in London to and from a seminar in Russia. Despite suffering from jet lag he taught a one hour kihon session prior to jigeiko at Mumeishi. As well as enjoying (if that’s the word) the opportunity to stretch myself in keiko with him, it was interesting to see his unique approach to teaching kendo.

For many years I have seen Sumi sensei at least once a year and every time he offers a new method to teach some aspect of kendo. This time he seems to have put particular emphasis on timing and opportunity focussing on ojiwaza.

He has developed a series of drills based on moving the feet in a diamond pattern in suriashi, without ostensibly moving from the spot. Techniques included were men kaeshi men, men suriage men and men kaeshi kote. The kaeshi kote he further expanded on by developing the drill to move around in a continuous 360 degree circle.

He then introduced a practice based on an attack, block, change attack pattern, again using sliding footwork rather than fumikomi. Techniques taught in this way were kote, which was blocked and followed with kaeshi kote and men blocked overhead before the attacker reverting to oji dou. Finally he put the spotlight on seme by bringing in a drill where kakarite pushes the right foot forward to trigger forward movement from motodachi before striking men. This start on a simple hit per seme movement basis and then develops to take account of real mind contact and interaction between the two partners.

The whole approach was aimed to develop real interaction in keiko rather than the kakarigeiko style approach where you decide to attack regardless of your opponent’s actions.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, this holistic approach to kendo teaching is unusual. Chiba sensei takes a very different view of how timing, distance and opportunity are used by building different variants within drills for each technique. Both these meijin and some of the other leading hanshi teachers are being creative. In turn, trying to save us all much of the pain of learning only through hard won experience. This approach differs vastly from the old school style of teaching the basic waza by demonstration and repetition and letting the student work out how and when to use the techniques.

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The principle in most martial arts is that you use your opponent’s force to defeat him. In Judo or Aikido you make him push and then use minimal effort to break his balance and throw him. Many people seem to forget that this also applies to kendo.

Because in kendo we set out to strike our opponent, we think about using footwork that gets us to the target as quickly as possible. This for many people means one thing – big steps. What many people often ignore is that there are two of you involved in keiko or shiai and you need to adapt your distance and timing to reflect that of your partner and that you can take advantage of his effort to beat him.

This was demonstrated very clearly in a seminar last year by Chiba sensei and is something that I have become increasingly conscious of. I have noticed however that a number of people seem to take a “one size fits all” approach to footwork.

If your opponent is static or going backwards, you need to first move into your own attacking distance and then take a further step as you make the technique. If he retreats as you make your initial seme, you may well need to cover a distance of up to a metre before making contact. On the other hand if he is moving forward, he is doing most of the work in getting to a distance where you can make a useful attack. To take advantage you need to make only a slight forward movement.

It all seems fairly straightforward and logicall but I see many situations where both players take big steps towards each other at the same time, resulting in an invalid strike made towards the tsuba end of the shinai, which as we all know, is invalid.

By stepping in, not only is your opponent supplying most of the forward motion for your technique, he his supplying much of the forward energy, so typically your technique needs less force than an attack against an immobile partner.

Typically you would use debana or oji waza in this situation. Using debana men as an example, you need to be ready to move with pressure on the ball of your left foot. As your opponent steps into distance, you just push off from your back foot and make a small crisp men cut. In these circumstances, your step probably needs to cover a distance of no more than 15cm. The force of the attack can stand to be 50% lighter than a shikake attack, as your opponent is supplying the forward movement. As long as your technique is finished cleanly with good tenouchi, it should be judged as ippon.

For degote, distances are even closer and you may need to make fumikomi on the spot without moving, to maintain the correct distance.

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