Posts Tagged ‘Chiba Sensei’

Brussels GradingReflecting on the Brussels grading, I am reminded that the higher your age, the more difficult it becomes to pass. In my experience, this is not just true for Europe, but applies everywhere including the kodansha grading examinations in Japan.
Now I don’t for a moment think that kendo is ageist. We are privileged to be able to participate at ages that would have exceeded the retirement points in many other sports. Nor when looking at the array of venerable sensei on some grading panels do I think there is any bias against senior candidates. It is however an irrefutable truth that it becomes more difficult to force your body to do good kendo as you reach your 50s and 60s.
Knees and ankles wear out, particularly after years of training on hard floors. Forward motion becomes more difficult and some older kenshi start to rely more on upper-body strength to hit the target. Unfortunately this is not the way forward.
I was fortunate to receive some concerted coaching from Chiba sensei when in my mid 50s that made me realise that I had to adapt my kendo to my age. The key points were that you needed to find your own distance, keep your footwork light, but still forward, and use your opponents’ movement to your advantage. Rather than making your attacks bigger and harder, they should be smaller and lighter.
The more you advance in grade the more important seme becomes. This does not mean that you should constantly push in to take shikake waza, but you should also use hiki-dasu to make your opponent move towards you so that you can execute debana and oji-waza. The logic is that when your opponent steps towards you, you need only take half a step to reach the target. And it’s not always necessary to make fumikomi. A sliding step forward can be sufficient if you have good ki-ken-tai-itchi. Zanshin is of course important, but you do not need to gallop across the dojo to make your point. Two or three steps through with good posture and kamae, before turning to re-engage should be enough.
Kizeme is a necessity. Mochida sensei’s often quoted truth that when your body becomes frail you have to rely on “indomitable spirit” to subdue your opponent is key. You should use your mental strength to make the opponent move in a direction and timing where you can hit him. One of my other favourite quotes on this subject is from Kikuchi Koichi sensei who said “as I become older I move more slowly, but I also see my opponent’s movement more slowly”.

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Chiba senseiA comment on an old post on suriage men arrived yesterday. This plus a session that I ran in the dojo this week on ojiwaza invigorated my interest in exploring the subject a little more.

A professional educator friend told me never to tell people what not to do, but to accentuate the positive actions that they should be taking. Nevertheless I am going to point out what does not work when making oji techniques:

  • Bringing the point of the shinai back towards your body makes it impossible to achieve correct suriage or kaeshi waza
  • Dropping the point of your shinai unless for ukenagashi (which we almost never use in shinai kendo) is a  no-no
  • Blocking and cutting in two separate actions also dooms you to failure
  • It is nearly impossible to make suriage waza against overly large, badly timed or off centre cuts
  • Waiting for your opponent to attack before you react is a waste of time

At the risk of confusing readers, one of the biggest problems we encounter in ojiwaza practice drills is in starting your counter attack before the opponent starts his strike. Because it is a drill we obviously know what is coming, so we are tempted to attack too early. I often see what should be suriage men turn into debana men.

Whilst I can think of so many don’ts, I can only think of three imperative “dos”:

  • Always push the point of the shinai forward when meeting your opponent’s technoique. This applies to all suriage and kaeshi waza
  • Always make oji waza in “the timing of one” sliding up or blocking on the upstroke and cutting down to the target in the same movement, using just one step
  • Always control the timing by inviting your opponent to attack

This last point applies equally to drills and to jigeiko and shiai. If from chudan you squeeze the shinai gently with the little finger of you right hand, your point will move towards his left eye. More often than not this will make him attack your men at a time when your energy is focussed and you are able to respond immediately with suriage men or kaeshi dou. Move the shinai slightly to his right and he is likely to attack your kote leaving you set up to make kote suriage men.

One effective way is to practice oji waza was taught by Chiba sensei. The class forms groups of between five and nine. Everyone takes a turn as motodachi and the rest of the group are split into two smaller groups one facing him and one behind. Each makes either a men or kote attack, either at random or the group in front attacks men and the group behind kote. Motodachi faces each in turn, turning from group to group and makes the appropriate oji technique, remembering to invite the attack in his or her own timing.

The key point is to control the timing of the attack by holding and breaking centre in the way described.

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I am back from a weekend of kendo. On Saturday I ran a coaching session for the British Kendo Squad and on Sunday I refereed The British Open Championships. It was an interesting combination of events as the second day allowed everyone to work on putting theory into practice.

I have written about sae on a number of occasions. This term describes the snap or sharpness necessary to turn a strike into a successful yuko datotsu. This and seme were the themes of the squad training session. Whilst we looked at a number of shikake and oji techniques, we paid particular attention to both how we made the opportunity and how we finished each attack.

Sae in theory is a product of tenouchi, (the inside of the hands), or the way you complete the cut by squeezing the tsuka of the shinai as it makes contract with the target. In practice the path of the cut also has to be correct and ki-ken-tai-itchi has to bring all the elements of footwork, posture and kiai together at the exact point of striking the target. Sae is not something than can be applied as an afterthought. If your hands are in the correct position throughout the strike then it is simply a matter of squeezing with the little and ring fingers of both hands on the point of impact. If they are not and for instance your right hand is holding too strongly, then regardless of whether or not you squeeze the shinai, it will not result in ippon.

Chiba sensei talks about making tenouchi for men once the shinai is at chin height. The concept is to hit the target and then squeeze after, so that you strike with full force and complete the technique sharply just below the point of impact. This is not as aggressive as it sounds, because if the use of shoulders, elbows and wrists are correct, the strike will be quick and sharp rather than heavy.

At yesterday’s taikai we saw varying levels of sae. There were many long encho where both fighters made numerous strikes, but few were sharp enough to make the referees raise their flags. At the end of the day we were presenting prizes and cleaning the hall at the same time. There was of course some enjoyable kendo. Mr Yamazaki, from Hokkaido University took first place, demonstrating my sae theory with some explosive techniques, including an excellent tsuki in the semi-final. I was also delighted that two of our regular Mumeishi students Alex Heyworth and Alan Thompson respectively took second and third place medals.

On a completely different subject, I had a Skype chat with a Japanese kendo friend who recently returned home after many years in the UK. He visited the Shudokan in Osaka and mentioned that he had to wait 45 minutes for keiko with a hachidan sensei. Nothing changes!

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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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