Posts Tagged ‘Kendo’

Shodan shinsa

Courtesy of FIK

Courtesy of FIK

Sometime back I wrote a post on how to train for grading examinations. Having sat on the 4th and 5th dan panel in Brussels last week and as I am scheduled to be an examiner for the Irish National Grading this coming week end, I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the points that the panel will be looking for on the day.

The purpose of the kendo grading examination is to allow you to demonstrate what you have learned and what you are capable of. It is unlikely that you will pull something out of the bag that you can not do in your normal keiko. You need to have put in the quantity and quality of practice since your last grading to justify promotion. There are some people that treat the shinsa like a lottery – turn up often enough and your number will eventually come up. The chances are if you are doing the same things you did the last time you failed, you will fail again.

There are some excellent guides available to tell you step by step what to do for each grade, so this is just a quick overview of the points that catch an examiners eye:

• Chakuso – clean unfaded hakama and keikogi. Hakama should be the right length, keikogi wrinkle free at the back. Bogu should be tied correctly with men himo of the correct length. Shinai should be in good condition with no protruding tsuru or nakayui and the tsuba should reach the bottom of the tsuka.

• Entry and exit – make sure that you understand the pattern for entering and crossing the shinsajo operating at that grading. Either watch the people before you, or ask if you are in the first group.

• Sonkyo – bow correctly and make a strong confident sonkyo with a straight back. If you have knee problems tell the organisers and make an alternative salutation.

• Kamae – keep a strong kamae and make sure your left heel is off the ground.

• Full spirit – give yourself time to settle and make a strong kiai. Attack at the right opportunity with full spirit. If your opponent counters or stops you with his shinai, do not let it break the force of your attack. Do not show emotion at, or acknowledge your opponents successful attack, just go on to take or make the opportunity for your own technique.

• Correct posture – keep your posture straight, do not duck to avoid being hit.

• Ki-ken-tai-ichi – remember that your hands and feet should work together.

• Seme – take the centre befor you hit. If you can make your opponent move first and take debana waza, you should impress the panel.

• Zanshin – show good zanshin, do not showboat. Ensure that you turn and go forward to the correct distance after each attack.

• Most importantly – keep a clear mind and do not panic into attacking when there is no opportunity.

Good luck!

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Tokui waza

Maybe too Tokui

Maybe too Tokui

Experienced kendoka are expected to have a “Tokui waza” It translates as “Unique Technique” , although it is generally thought of as favourite technique. Think of Eiga san’s tsuki and you have the kendo definition of tokui waza. Most strong shiai players have a technique that continually wins their matches; but of course, it is not their only technique. It is the one at which they excel and that which beats their opponent no matter how much it is expected.

Tokui waza as a concept, probably came from Judo, where your favourite technique was dictated by your physique. A tall long legged person might excel at uchimata and a short stocky player might prefer seotoshi. There is an element of this in kendo – tall guys favour men, shorter people kote, but there are no rules.

I am not sure if I really have a tokui waza. There are two possible candidates at the moment suriage men and kaeshi dou. Both have been equally effective in keiko and shiai, but they work best in different situations against different types of opponent. My own tokui waza have changed over time from hiki men to degote to debana men to the current favourites.

How do you develop tokui waza? You need to try as many techniques as possible and find the one that suits you. But there are two serious caveats. Do not try overly complicated waza until your basic ki-ken-tai-ichi and cutting technique is correctly established and do not continually over use any technique with the same people in jigeiko. For example a katsugi men or gyaku dou, every blue moon, may startle the strongest opponent, but try it several times in the same keiko and watch the bored expression on your opponents face.

So the answer in my view is to practice new techniques as drills – a few at a time and keep going unti you can do them well. When you feel something really works, try it now and then in keiko against different types of opponent. Another caveat; be careful about using techniques like tsuki on venerable hanshi unless you know them well. When you are comfortable that your tokui waza works and you can make it happen at will, then it’s time to use it to win shiai.

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Big or Small?

Big Furikaburi

Big Furikaburi

I am frequently asked by people in the early stages of their kendo career – “Why do you tell me to cut big when you cut small”. The non diplomatic answer is “because I can and you can’t”. Of course, I am a lot more polite and encouraging than that, but to make successful small attacks, you need good ki-ken-tai-ichi and tenouchi.

Thinking about it, ki-ken-tai-ichi is integral to everything we do in kendo and I have talked about it in other posts, but tenouchi is particularly relevant to making small waza work. Personally, I do not have a preference between big and small techniques. I believe that you should have both in your kendo armoury and use them to fit the opportunity. Kote is by definition a small technique as distance is closer than for men and you simply need to lift over your opponent’s chudan to strike. So the choice of big or small techniques is primarily for men.

Nuki men is a great example of big technique. You have to lift your hands up above your opponent’s kensen to avoid his attack. Tobikomi men too can benefit from a big furikaburi, lifting your hands above your mengane and taking your kissaki back 45% degrees or so behind your forehead. I find that this works against opponents with strong chudan kamae, particularly if you make the attack with a feeling of sutemi.

However whether we are talking about big or small techniques, none of them will work without correct tenouchi and wrist action. If your wrists are flexible, (see my post from July last year on holding the shinai), you should be able to strike men cleanly on top. If your wrists are stiff, either because your kamae is incorrect or because you are gripping the shinai too tightly, the shinai will land at the wrong angle and either strike the mengane or slide off the side of the men.

Chiba sensei showed us a great series of drills to overcome this problem. At first, he explained that for speed and flexibility, the cutting motion should be elliptical, with your hands coming down towards the top of your head as you start the downswing. He emphasized that in suburi, bringing the shinai back against your buttocks, as in the illustration above serves two purposes, it acts as a warm up, and it teaches beginners how to find centre. It is not the way to hit men. He demonstrated that the strike should be through to the chin and that the squeeze from the right hand should be just after the hit not on or before. Above all, he stressed that arms shoulders and hands should be free from tension.

At his recent UK seminar, he prepared the ground by telling how he practiced 4000 continuous suburi everyday, he then asked everyone to do a mere 200 using an opponents shinai, held at head height as a target. The psychology is simple, people were relieved at having to do only 200, but as this was more than the standard set 20 or 30 they relaxed from the start, saving energy for the last few. The drills moved on through a series of large and small techniques, both shikake and oji waza. By and large even people with particularly stiff kendo were able to be much more flexible and were successful with a far wider range of waza.

I think this is the key. If your shoulders, elbows and especially wrists are relaxed enough to do big techniques correctly, then it is equally simple to do small techniques. The choice is simply to find the most appropriate technique for the opportunity. In fact if you do enough kihon practice, the choice should make itself, but that is another subject.

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Go rin no sho

Go rin no sho

To misquote a well known saying!

I use a number of business networking sites for work and do get a lot of value from one in particular – Linkedin. This site is of a size where it has lots of specialist groups, including one for Kendo Business Professionals. In the Q and A sessions for this group, one question that regularly pops up is, “Do you believe that kendo has an impact on your working life”. People come up with some pretty good answers based on allegory using kendo images. Here are some recent examples:
“It does. Ki-Ken-Tai can be seen as intention, action, result and this applies to work too. Also Zanshin is important.. this relates to quality, attention to what has been done and how it worked. Well this is my opinion, I believe KenDo really is a way to achieve greater self-consciousness and increase willingness in life. ”

“Definitely. It teaches me to undergo tasks with full potential, purpose and concentration. It helps me deal with stressful situations without losing inner calmness or clarity of mind.”

This is by no means a new phenomenon, back in the eighties and nineties when the Japanese electronics and automotive industries were wiping the floor with their western counterparts; everyone was talking about keiretsu and kaizen. Even non-Japanese methodologies were jumping on the bandwagon with six sigma practitioners qualifying for their green belts and black belts. Books that were originally written to describe kenjutsu techniques and strategies, such as Musashi’s Book of Five Rings became business strategy bibles, much to the delight of their then niche publishers and translators. Chinese philosophy became conveniently japanised. I have somewhere, on a not too visible bookshelf, a copy of “Sun Tzu and the Japanese art of War”. And of course, we had the specially created books like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, – one of my favourites.

If I think about it objectively, you can draw parallels from any sport or pastime to any other aspect of existence. Life can be a “marathon”, negotiating a “game of chess” and (for UK TV viewers only), in the words of Swiss Tony, “Business is like a beautiful woman”. Kendo players are therefore absolutely right to use elements of their chosen shugyo as an illustration of other areas of their lives.

Where I am not convinced however, is that you should practice kendo specifically to become a better business person, parent or pupil. There is only one reason for practicing kendo – because you want to, and the reason for continuing, even though you hate kakarigeiko whilst you are doing it, is because you enjoy it.

That’s the motivation taken care of. But I do believe that Kendo makes a difference. Significant time spent training hard and sincerely, observance of kendo’s rules of respect and courtesy and the ability to relate to people from around the globe who share a common interest have together, got to help you become a better person. Just do not expect that that extra twenty minutes of kirikaeshi will make you any better at closing deals.

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Kendo and Zen

ZenI am not for a moment going to try to explain the relationship between kendo and zen. To attempt to do so would take me way beyond my own level of understanding. This is more me musing on the different levels of emphasis placed on that relationship by different kendoka.

Along with kyudo, sado, shodo and ikebana to name a few, all of the Japanese sword arts have a strong zen tradition. The various aims of heihoshin (natural mind), fudoshin (immovable mind) and munen muso(no intention no mind) are integral concepts and goals of kendo practice. Kendo however is loud and visibly aggressive and does not tipify the serenity of say, kyudo. This, I believe, makes for a population of kendoka who’s interest in zen ranges from zero to intense.

Whilst kendo has developed around an underlying zen philosophy its concepts could be applied to any other sport. A six in cricket, a baseball home run, a horse and rider clearing a big fence or a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal are all probably achieved in the same spirit of mushin as the perfect men attack, but it is unlikely that the conversation in the post match dressing room will cover satori.

I find it strange, if after years of a practice, a kendoka has no interest in reigi or the theory of kendo, but it is more disconcerting if someone takes up kendo with a religious fervour or belief that they are there for instant enlightenment. It is easy to talk about zen concepts, but without long hard training there is no chance that you will really understand how they apply to kendo.

Through continued kendo practice, people certainly achieve moments of clarity and for me it is the perfect way to continue to exercise my body whilst occasionally feeling that I am becoming to understand myself better than I did a few years ago. However if you are looking for instant dharma, skip the kendo and go straight to the zazen.

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How does Kendo fit in?

Mandal InstructorsI just got back from teaching at the Norwegian Martial Arts Association Summer Camp in Mandal. This event is unusual in that it attracts students from many different martial arts. This year there were instructors teaching various schools of Karate and Jujutsu, Kung Fu, Kick Boxing, Judo, Aikijutsu, Escrima, Krav Maga and some I didn’t recognise. I was there to teach Kendo and Rene van Amersfoort from Holland taught Jodo and Iaido.

Apart from the attraction of being held in a pretty seaside town and having a dojo within walking distance of the beach, many of the martial artists come because it is a chance to practice disciplines other than their own. This happened constantly with people from one “body art” trying another. From a spectators perspective there are obvious similarities between most self defence forms regardless of their country of origin and many of them use weapons in a way that fits naturally with the structure of their “bare hands” forms. Kendo however really appears to be out on a limb, having no obvious connection with most other arts.

You can argue of course that the principle of blocking for kirikaeshi is similar to the way people block in Karate and that we push from the tanden in taiatari like in the body arts, but visually Kendo appears to be out on its own. The linear footwork, the requirement to go through after attacking men, the unique use of sonkyo, all make Kendo look very different.

At the end of the day on Saturday, each group presented a demonstration to the whole camp. Kendo, with all its inherent bashing and crashing and loud kiai was very well received as I had expected. I then watched Rene’s Jodo and Iaido demonstrations which were extremely impressive. The fact that we shared a number of students between the Kendo and Jodo sessions underlined the similarity between these sword arts.

Rene then went on to present a Karate demonstration and suddenly you could see points of similarity between Karate and Iai and Jo. I wonder is that the link. Do people who practice the body martial arts get interested in Iai and Jo to improve their weapons skills and if so is there a further migration to Kendo. I really don’t know the answer. I would be interested to know how people reading this blog got started in whichever arts they now practice. Anyway here is the official line up from the Mandal Camp.

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