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Posts Tagged ‘Kizeme’

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At Saineikan with Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis

At Saineikan with Kato sensei, Takatera sensei and Mike Davis

During keiko yesterday I tried my best to coach a friend on making seme. As I see it, there are two separate but indivisible elements, the physical act of and the mental approach.  In kendo we talk about shikai, the four sicknesses of surprise, fear, doubt and hesitation. It is to prompt one of these conditions that we make seme.

There are many kinds of seme either involving the act of pushing in and taking away your opponent’s control of the centre or in pulling him in to make an involuntary movement, but typically when we think of seme we think of the former.

To break the opponent’s centre, pushing the shinai forward with our arms is not sufficient. We need to push in with our whole body, stepping in with our hips and tanden braced. Equally importantly our kiai and mental approach need to be correct. We should be confident, full of energy and if we are going to surprise our opponent or make him afraid we need to be downright scary. The term kizeme is used to describe the process of attacking your adversary with your ki, or spirit and although this sounds faintly esoteric is a simple process.

If outside of your kendo life you are confronted by someone who is extremely angry, or worse in a state of controlled anger, most people would feel fear. Whilst we don’t ever want to lose our tempers in kendo, we want to induce this feeling of fear in our opponent as we step in to attack. We do this by controlling our breathing and making strong kiai as we make seme and tame (the act of retaining your power in readiness to attack).

The friend that I was working with today is physically small, which makes it even more important for her to produce strong seme to make the other person react.  This is not at all impossible. Some of the most frightening hachidan sensei are of small stature. Arima sensei of Osaka fukei, Suzuki sensei of Hyogo kenkei, Takatera sensei, ex –Imperial Palace Police, and many others are formidable examples of how size does not matter in kendo. To have keiko with any of these sensei is a flat-out assault on your senses that leaves you feeling as if you have been hit by a tsunami.

I know that my friend  is going to watch the Kyoto taikai next month, so perhaps the best advice I can give her is to look out for the tachiai of these and some of the other smaller teachers and see for herself how scary they can be.

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Samurai with scrollI am always grateful to the people who take the time and trouble to send in comments to this blog. I am also impressed by the level of knowledge and insight shown by these contributors from around the globe. No matter how esoteric the area of kendo covered there is always someone happy to share their insight.

This perhaps sounds slightly ungrateful and churlish, but sometimes I briefly wonder “are you talking from knowledge picked up from books and YouTube, or are you able to perform this technique or demonstrate this concept on a physical level?”

Kendo is different from many other martial arts in that we can continue to train for most of our lives and we can spend much of that time gaining a deeper knowledge of kendo techniques. Most people would agree that true knowledge is based on your own repeated practise so that a technique becomes second nature. At the same time you need to understand the purpose or “riai” of each technique on an intellectual or even philosophical level.

In my youth kendo instruction was  very much a “monkey see, monkey do” affair based on demonstration and repetition, only after you had trained for a considerable amount of time would  your teacher think about buying you a beer in your “second dojo” and explaining the rationale behind the aspects of kendo that you had been working on.

Now days with the proliferation of English language books, blogs and videos on the internet, we almost suffer from information overload. For some reason kendo tends to appeal to bright, educated, intellectually curious people. Many of these students are able to quickly understand the finer points of kendo without necessarily being able to perform them. Perfect examples are the concepts of kigamae  and kizeme. You can read about these endlessly, but only when you have developed your kendo posture, breathing and attacking spirit to the required level can you demonstrate them.

In kendo we talk about bunbu no ichi or bunbu ryodo, “pen and sword as one”. This was a maxim that urged the samurai to become cultured human beings by making the most of formal education as well as studying the arts of war. For the modern kenshi  who has 24/7 online access to the worlds knowledge, it is perhaps easier to search for the answers to questions on theory than it is to ingrain the physical elements of correct kendo. As ever this is nothing that can’t be corrected by a significant amount of kihon geiko

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3_Shikakewaza_Men2Even though I am due to take my first non-kendo break of the year next week. It feels like summer is over and we are back up and running with the autumn kendo schedule. As part of this I sat on the panel for the UK’s only annual grading to 5th dan on Saturday.

We were lucky enough to have Sumi sensei head the panel which consisted of another hachidan, Tashiro sensei, and 4 7th dan examiners. Although we don’t look at each other’s marks, when the result papers came back in time for the kata section; it looked like our votes where almost unanimous. Unfortunately cut-off time for the hall booking did not allow us to give feedback to the many people who asked for it, but for the people trying for third dan and above that I spoke to and the those that I overheard the other panellists advise, the cause of failure was almost identical – the lack of seme.

To vastly oversimplify, the requirement for Ikyu and shodan in kendo exams is to be able to demonstrate good technique with strong spirit and good posture. Nidan should do this with more understanding of timing and opportunity plus the ability to demonstrate renzoku waza. As we climb the grading ladder from there, the focus increases on the importance of making and taking the opportunity to strike. This is often slightly mystically explained along the lines of “you must strike when you see an opportunity and you must not strike when there is no opportunity”.

Unfortunately in kendo, like most other facets of life, opportunities do not just happen; you have to make them. The way we do this is with seme, either pushing through your opponents guard with your own stronger physical and mental kamae, or by creating and breaking your own pressure to draw him into distance with hikidasu. By doing so, we proactively create the chance to strike.

This is half the battle. The other half is being able to launch yourself to strike as soon as you make the opportunity. To make this happen, your left foot must be continually drawn up to the correct position with a feeling of pressure in the ball of the foot and tension at the back of the left knee. Your posture must be perpendicular with just a slight inclination forward, so that you can move smoothly forward as you push with your left foot. As you do so, you simply raise the shinai and strike the target in a timing of one.

If your balance or footwork is incorrect then you will have to adjust your posture before you strike, by then your opponent will have recovered his defence and the moment will have passed.

If you passed on Saturday my warmest congratulations, if you didn’t it’s time to do some more work on seme and attack.

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Ninja fingersA number of people have confessed that they were drawn to kendo after reading books by Eric Van Lustbader or Trevanian who ‘s works featured heroes who had developed supernatural powers from their studies of the martial arts. This romanticised view was not limited to a few western authors.  Japanese mythology also accredited supernatural power to the “Way of the Sword”. More recently manga have continued to give kendo this sword and sorcery image.

I believe that there is a grain of truth in most legends. When you consider the ability of elderly kendo teachers to dominate younger, fitter opponents with the power of their minds (kizeme) it’s easy to realise that kendo transcends the purely physical.

Having thought for some time to see if my 45 years of kendo practice have given me any superhuman abilities, I realised that I am able to stay sitting comfortably in my morning commuter train seat while my fellow travellers fight their way to the exit, and I still beat most of them onto the Bakerloo line. Now I appreciate that this does not compare with the ability to levitate, as seen in many Hong Kong Kung fu movies, or the power to make birds fall from the trees at the sound of your kiai, but it’s a start.

On a more serious note, I believe that kendo does help develop the ability to stay calm under pressure, to strive when the odds are against you, to be confident yet modest and that empathy and fighting spirit can go hand in hand. Where I am not clear is whether these attributes are unique to kendo, or if they are as easily learned from other martial arts or team sports. I am also unclear as to how long it takes to acquire these qualities.

I am also interested to know whether physical mastery and mental development proceed at the same speed. Can you become a physical expert who does not grasp the nuances of kendo philosophy and vice versa? I have heard people give very well thought out rationales on the deeper meaning of kendo before they have acquired basic hand and foot co-ordination.

I would really like to hear your comments on whether kendo has changed you as a person and if so in what way. How long it took to make any appreciable change in your personality and whether you think that change would or would not have happened if you did not practice kendo. If you have learned to levitate or bend spoons without touching them, please tell me about it.

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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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