Posts Tagged ‘kendo no kata’

DNAI seem to have missed an interesting kendo kerfuffle on Facebook this week. A Japanese sensei from Brazil posted on The British Kendo Association’s page that if you wish to learn kata correctly then you should be taught directly by a Japanese sensei and should not learn from a video. Good advice! If I had the chance I would love to take some kata lessons from Inoue Yoshihiko sensei, who has spent a lifetime developing his knowledge of the form.

On the other hand the assumption that only a “Japanese” sensei could understand the riai of kata to a level where they can teach it seemed a bit harsh and a number of my friends took exception to the apparently xenophobic tone of the post. Some of the loudest comment came from Japan where people made the point that kata is often ignored by the majority of kendoka and that more focus is put on its practice by kendo countries outside Japan. It was also noted that not all Japanese kodansha are good at kata.

I have some sympathy with this point of view. When I lived in Japan, I asked a very strong kyoshi 7th dan teacher to teach me kata. He was delighted to help, but did so with a bokuto in one hand and a kata instruction book in the other. I don’t know if the rules are still the same but in Osaka and Hyogo it was possible to be excused the kata part of a grading exam by showing evidence that you had attended a kata course. I took advantage of this several times.

On the other hand I have seen people fail the kata section in the UK and in other European countries for what by Japanese standards are minor mistakes.

The All Japan Kendo Federation strongly promote the correct understanding of kata for both foreign and domestic instructors. The ZNKR kyoshi examination (which is open to non-Japanese teachers), focuses heavily on the teaching of kata and reigi, both of which I see missing as often from Japanese kendo students as from those from other parts of the world.

Let’s face it; learning from a teacher is better than learning from a video – fact. Some teachers are better at teaching kata than others- fact. On the other hand I strongly believe that the ability to teach kata correctly is based on years of practice and research rather than DNA.

Oh and talking about Brazil; a Brazilian sensei from Hong Kong just passed hachidan. It’s a funny old world.  Congratulations Kishikawa sensei and Merry Christmas to you all!

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KissakiSeveral people picked up on the fact and commented that dropping the shinai point can in fact be a very effective way to make an opening in your opponents’ kamae, thereby giving you the opportunity to attack successfully. I agree one hundred percent.  My last post was about the problem of inadvertently dropping your kensen because of either incorrect posture or too much tension in the way the shinai is held.

Kensen is of course moveable and the kissaki should not be fixed when you face your opponent. Many teachers talk about moving the kensen in a triangle from your adversaries’ throat to his dou mune to his left eye. By doing this you can encourage him or her to move in various ways. Dropping the point can encourage an attack to men or kote which gives the opportunity for debana or oji waza, but be aware that your tsuki is also exposed and that you become a target for uchiotoshi men.

Move the point up to your opponent’s left eye and he sees an opening for men, giving you the chance to take debana men or kaeshi dou. Aim at his right eye and he sees your kote and you may get the chance for kote nuki men or kote suriage men.

It is all about making your opponent move, and as we have talked about before, there are two fundamental ways to do this. We either push in and take his centre, or we make him come to us and take away the initiative. This second approach is referred to in kendo as hikidashi (drawing out).

Kamae like most things in kendo is taught to us in simplified form at the early stages of our learning process. Of course it is easier to think about pointing your shinai at the nodo than being given a variety of choices, but once our kamae becomes established, we can experiment  with the areas at which we point the shinai and  learn how by doing so, we encourage our opponent to move or discourage him from moving.

Kendo no kata teaches us a lot about kamae, and though we rarely use gedan-kamae, hasso-kamae and waki-kamae in shinai kendo, practising them in kata gives us a great lesson in flexibility and adaptability.  Gohon me in the Tachi no Kata gives us a text book lesson in how to combat Jodan.  Point to the kobushi and make him move.

So, sorry for any confusion last week, what I meant was don’t unintentionally signal your next move through the point of you shinai. On the other hand you should use every trick in the book to make your opponent move.

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Breathing is important in kendo. Come to think of it, it is generally important. Specifically to kendo however, the way we breathe has an enormous effect on our progress and on the effectiveness of our technique.

The breathing style used in kendo is known in Japanese as Aun no kokyu. We breathe in through the nose hold the air in our abdomen and then expel the air through the mouth. This is the type of breathing associated with yoga and meditation. In kendo however we use aun no kokyu to aid the explosive power of our waza and in concert with our kamae, as a force to repel attacks. Try breathing in as your opponent is moving into striking distance and the chances are that he will attack and you will not be able to resist. If he tries the same approach when you are either holding your breath or slowly expelling air, you become far less vulnerable.

As a general rule we breathe in when we are in safe distance, hold the air in our tanden, expelling some by way of a kakegoe shout in issoku-ito-no maai. We then reserve what is left of our breath until we strike, letting out the remainder as me make our kiai and take zanshin. We only breathe in again after we are back in safe distance. Kendo-no-kata, whilst teaching us many other elements of kendo, gives us a perfect illustration of the correct way to breathe. If we use the first form of the Tachi-no-kata as an example ; both uchidachi and shidachi breathe in on taking jodan, both then hold that breath until they make their respective men attacks, releasing air on their kiai and breathing in after completing zanshin.

In shinai kendo we are in a strong position when we are replete with air or slowly exhaling. So for example with debana men; we breathe in before we make our initial seme, release some breath as we step in, hold our breath in tame and then explode into the technique whilst letting out our kiai. What happens if you run out of air? My suggestion is that you move back to safe distance, breathe in and try again.

There are lots of opportunities to practice correct kendo breathing. One is of course during mokuso, particularly after keiko when we may be out of breath and need to slow things down. The idea is to breathe in quickly through the nose, hold the breath in your tanden for as long as is comfortably possible, then breathe out slowly.  Another classic approach is through the practice of kirikaeshi, aiming to complete the first shomen, nine yokomen and the second shomen strike in one breath.

Whichever way you do it, the most important point with breathing is not to stop.

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If I had to give up any one single item of my kendo equipment, my bokken would probably be the first to go. Not because it is in any way less valuable than my bogu or shinai, but because it is used less often and replacements are easier to borrow. Unlike shinai, bokken seldom break, so they do not have the “at your own risk” stigma associated with borrowing shinai.

Please do not misunderstand me. Modern kendo evolved through the use of wooden swords.  Bokken are essential to kendo practice, not only for kata but for the Bokken ni yoru kendo kihon waza keiko ho (method of practising kendo kihon with bokken), which was introduced by the AJKF in 2003. The idea behind this training format is that it is a way for kendoka up to 2nd dan to work on the key shikake and oji techniques without the pressures of winning and losing inherent to shinai kendo. As with kendo no kata we do not wear bogu or strike our opponent, at least not on purpose, so it is easier to move naturally without the restrictions of wearing armour.

Thinking about it, the Kihon keiko ho does exactly the same thing as Kendo no kata; teach technique through repetition and concentrated practise, the only differences are that in Kihon keiko ho the techniques are arguably less complicated and that the number of steps between the start and finish of each technique are fewer.

The clear advantage of training with bokken is that as the weapon simulates the shape of the katana, it is easy to understand correct cutting distance. The obvious disadvantage is that as the lengths of shinai and bokken differ, so does the distance at which we originate and finish techniques. In some cases beginners who have learned techniques exclusively with bokken will find it hard to transfer the technique effectively to subsequent shinai keiko. In my view the way around this is to combine bokken and shinai training; trying the technique first as a bokken drill and then repeating with a shinai whilst wearing armour.

This goes beyond the bokken keiko ho. For many years Sumi sensei has been using innovative drills based on Kendo no kata. With these, he short circuits the normal kata lead-in and focuses on the essence of the technique. So for instance, in Kendo no kata ippon me, he would instruct both fighters to stand in issoku-ito-maai and have uchidachi strike men from jodan. The strike would be repeated three times. For the first two attempts, as shidachi is in jodan, the cut would stop just above his left kote. On the third he would step back, pulling his hands out of the strike path and return the cut to uchidachi’s men.

Once this has been successfully concluded, men and kote are put on and we repeat the exercise using shinai, adjusting distance so that we hit with the shinai’s monouchi.  When we go on to complete the technique by actually hitting the datotsu bu on an armoured opponent, the meaning becomes far more obvious.

Alternatively we can develop our own unique kata, as did these guys 😉


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Kata in Mandal

Kata in Mandal

We have just had the last grading examination of the year, so except in the case of a few enthusiasts, kata training has been put on hold until the next pre-grading panic.

I am certainly not excluding myself from the kata dodging majority, as I tend to do kata only if I am asked to demonstrate or teach it before a grading. When I practise kata I enjoy it, but normally I gravitate towards some exercise or another that involves a full set of bogu. I think this is not specific to Europeans. I practised in Boston, USA for a while back in the 80’s and we never did kata. During my time in Japan, kata practice was very sporadic and I remember asking a 30 year in grade nanadan for some pre-grading coaching. He went through the list with a book in one hand and a boken in the other. I am not sure if it is still the case, but in some prefectural gradings, up to and including 5th dan, it was possible to avoid the kata examination by attending a pre-grading seminar.

The best kata in Japan story, (and I will not guarantee that it is not urban myth); is about the candidate at the Kyoto 8th dan grading several years ago. It is alleged that having successfully passed jitsugi, he left because he did not know the kata. This, in the light of the fact that if you take the kata section and fail, you get a second free try without retaking jitsugi. If you walk away, you have to start from scratch. With sub 1% pass rates, you have to be very brave or very stupid to leave without a token attempt.

Of course kata has value and the better at it you become, the more it benefits your kendo. Not only is kendo no kata a toolkit of techniques, timings and opportunities; done correctly it teaches mind-contact and zanshin as well as riai (the reason for making a technique).

When you start learning kata, the objective is to remember the techniques, the number of steps and the order in which everything happens. This is not the aim of kata training but only the beginning. Once you have mastered the basics, kata gives you the opportunity to really feel the nuances of the techniques it features.

So, I will try to make the effort to practise kata regularly, rather than save it for the far off day when I have to join the remedial 8th dan candidate kata class.

Kata on the beach in Norway. More fun less precision.

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