Posts Tagged ‘Kendo’

The recent anniversary of the passing of one of my kendo mentors made me reflect on how much we owe our sempai. A much used expression in kendo is “you can see the faults of the teacher in the keiko of the student”. Conversely the good qualities in a student’s kendo are a positive reflection of their teachers efforts.

In some cases, particularly in the west; our kendo is the result of a hodgepodge of influences from many different teachers. Often these teachings come to us diluted to the extent that their original owners would not recognise them. Whereas the people who had direct access to great teachers have their instructions imprinted in their minds, those who relied on the same information being cascaded down through a succession of sempai, receive a pale shadow of the original.

Still for those willing to make the effort, you do not have to live in Japan to  “sit at the feet of a master”. In this age of jet travel and electronic communications, many of the strongest kendo teachers travel throughout the world giving classes and seminars and there is always the opportunity to watch them on Youtube.

As someone who has been lucky enough to spend some time with some of the current generation of hanshi and their predecessors, I am perpetually reminded of the fact that there is very little variation in the kendo taught today. Instruction styles vary from teacher to teacher, but the end product changes very little. As Sueno sensei recently said “There are many paths to reach the top of the mountain”.

Many of the old kenjutsu ryuha are still flourishing and nurture unique styles and techniques. A number of kenshi combine practise of one or more of these styles with modern kendo. In my experience, their keiko changes very little from that of the rest of us. Given that kendo now relies on a linear attacking style and fumikomi ashi, it would difficult to do anything radically different.

I suppose one of the reasons for the homogeneity of kendo, is that in its present form it is less than a hundred years old, and even younger if you count back to post-war reintroduction. When you talk to the current great kendo teachers they refer to the influence of sensei such as Nakakura, Nishiyama, Onuma, Matsumoto, Murayama, Nishi and others. These in turn, would I am sure, direct you to the teachings of Ogawa, Mochida and Saimura sensei.

In much the same way as horse racing enthusiasts will tell you that all of today’s thoroughbred racehorses are descended from the Godolphin Arab, kendo as we practise it now has come to us pretty much intact from the pre-war tenth dans.

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Kendo for non kendoka

Thinking back to my distant days as a student, I remember wading through a book entitled “Finance for non Accountants”. Picking up on the perceptions of kendo amongst people who have not tried it themselves, a similar “Kendo for non Kendoka” might be of value. Strangely enough, practitioners of other martial arts often have the most distorted view of kendo. A friend who was fairly advanced in one of the “harder” schools of karate told me, “you guys are nuts, the way you beat the living cr-p out of each other with sticks”.  Another kick boxing, MMA competitor in his twenties, explained that kendo looked “far too fast for me”.

It is only on probing deeper into what they have seen of kendo, that I realise they have witnessed demonstrations of what you or I would not class as real kendo. Although now with youtube, anyone can see the real thing, but it is easier to find if you know what you are looking for.

What many people have seen, are demonstrations at non kendo events, where folk who do not know the basics thrash away at each other; typically wearing kendo equipment in their own unique way. Often the demonstrators are very able martial artists, but unfortunately, kendo is not their major. This is also true of some of the film and TV portrayals of the art. There is a great scene from one of the James Bond films, (I can’t remember which one), where a would be assassin, bundled up in kendogu smashes up a range of inanimate objects. This is nearly as funny as the old Inspector Clueseau film scene, featuring Kato (pronounced Kayto),who shows a similar level of wanton vandalism. 

Ther are of course exceptions in the film industry. One that comes to mind is Kataoka sensei of New York, who is both an accomplished actor and an excellent nanadan kendoka. Unfortunately he never seems to play the kendo part, he was the non kendoka son, of kendo playing policeman, Takakura Ken in Black Rain.

So suggestions would be welcome on how we educate the general public on what is kendo. We could emulate the beer lovers CAMRA, (Campaign for Real Ale), with a Campaign for Real Kendo; but the acronym does not work. We could go with my book idea, or we could get some of the better looking kendoka to try for a career in Hollywood. Maybe we should just work on the basis that ignorance is bliss, and admit only those that wait for a few days outside the dojo door. Come to think of it though, I have still got a soft spot for Kendo Nagasaki.


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Mutual Respect!

As the kendo versus Iai debate has continued, I have given way to popoular demand by posting the two image polls below. The output from these should help sociologists, anthropologists and sports scientists reach a definitive understanding of how practitioners of the two arts regards each other.

The polls have been scientifically designed by Kendoinfo’s crack team of behavioural scientists and statisticians and  meet the standards  of objectivity and rigour insisted upon by national governments.

Please think carefully before choosing an option, whilst the purpose of these polls is to understand what you truly think. The future harmonious relationship of these kindred martial arts depends on the choice you make today.


Thank you for your valued opinion

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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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