Posts Tagged ‘Matsumoto Toshio’

Matsumoto sensei copyIn the light of some very interesting comments on ashi-sabaki following last week’s post, I wanted to take some thoughts on footwork from Matsumoto sensei’s teachings. However, the way he explained the whole process of kendo movement makes it almost impossible to separate the actions of different parts of the body, so I have taken the liberty of re-posting some lecture notes which I first posted in 2009. I have shown the text relating to foot movement in blue, but as you can see, these instructions are an integral part of of describing how the whole body should move.

Correct Chudan Kamae and Attack Action

A lecture by Matsumoto Toshio Hanshi 9th Dan

Delivered on March 6th 1980 at the 44th Meeting of

Nishinomiya Matsumoto Kenshyu Kai

Recorded in Japanese by Sakagami Takashi, Kyoshi 6 dan

Translated into English by Yamamoto Hisami Kyoshi 7dan

Chudan Kamae

The left forearm should be at 45 degree angle to the ground and the thumb of the left hand should point to a spot about 30 – 40 cm in front of the big toe of your right foot. The thumb of the right hand should point forward almost at a horizontal angle.

The left foot should touch the floor at the point between the ball of the foot and the plantar arch and the heel. The toes should touch the ground in the way that is called, “a cat walking” * as if a very thin sheet of paper is placed between the toes and the ground. By raising the left heel from the floor, the distribution of weight becomes 70:30 between the left and right leg and 70:30 between the front and back of the sole of the left foot. The back of the left knee must be tense.

Attacking Action – Primarily against Men

The left heel which is now raised, should be slightly lowered. This will redistribute the weight 50:50 to the back and front of the left sole. The toes of the left foot which have so far pointed slightly to the left should point straight ahead. Now with the motion of stepping out from the left ankle, you should push your right foot forward.

Now the tension behind the left knee moves to a point of about 6cm above the back of the left knee and tension is applied to a slightly lesser degree to the same point above the right knee, the left hip can then be pushed forward.

Step within easy reach of your opponent, without changing the position of your hands. The left hand is then raised with the right hand following in a natural movement in line with the path of the shinai. This action will cause your right shoulder to draw back. At this point the right hand is acting as support to the left and it is wrong to apply force with the right hand in order to raise the shinai. It is important that you raise the right hand with the feeling of squeezing in which will protect your kote against counter attack as you raise your hand.

You should strike at the same time as you draw the left foot towards the right foot. At this point, the right hand, which so far has not been used to apply force is given the work of hitting together with the left hand, making use of the right elbow to indicate direction. Make maximum use of the power and flexibility of your wrists and use the integral power of your waist, back, shoulders and arms. (You should pursue the correct way of hitting so that it becomes possible to concentrate all your physical force into one strike*) When you make the strike the distribution of weight between your left and right legs will change to 40:60.

When you strike men, the thumb of the right hand is directed to the front as if to poke into your opponents eyes. For tsuki the thumb naturally angles downward.

When your opponent is in Nito or Jodan, his posture is referred to as floating and therefore is different to chudan. A chudan player must raise his hands a little to fight against Nito or Jodan to be in concert with the opponent’s floating posture and movements.

* “A cat walking”, means the way of walking without making a sound. In the case of pushing from the left foot to attack, it is recommended to ease the force in the toes with the feeling of bending them slightly upward. This will increase the power of your forward step.

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Chudan Feet 2We concentrated on men-uchi last week. We started by hitting men from a static position then progressed through taking just one sliding step, to stepping into distance and striking, through to hitting with fumikomi ashi and then moving into zanshin.  We finished with debana men practice during which a dojo member asked for my advice on why he was having difficulty pushing off to make the strike. Instead of being able to launch an attack at will, all of his weight was moving to the left foot and he needed to readjust his foot position before he could move.

Watching his practice it was obvious that the heel of his left foot was too far off the ground, to the extent that he had no traction to push himself forward.  Instead he had to move his left foot forward each time that he needed to attack. To my mind a lot of energy was being wasted on unnecessary action.

Matsumoto Toshio sensei talked about the sole of the left foot being at a 15% angle from the floor, with the left leg being almost straight and keeping a feeling of tension behind the left knee. If you follow this advice then it is possible to move instantly from any spot. You of course need to keep the distance between your feet constant throughout your keiko, moving the left foot into position whenever your right foot moves, but you should be able to stop at any given time and instantly launch from the back foot.

How far apart your feet should be is open to debate. Conventional kendo wisdom suggests that the big toe of the left foot should be in line with the heel of your right foot and that there should be a fist’s distance separating the width of your stance.  In reality some All Japan class players have a much bigger gap between the forward and rear foot and they have the leg strength to make much longer steps than us amateurs.  I also believe that the fists distance in width is only a guide. In most sports, feet and knees should be in line with your hips. So your feet should be far enough apart for you to be stable and balanced.

The final piece of the jigsaw is to ensure that as you push with the left the right foot moves forward and not up. By keeping a slight bend in your right knee you should be able to make fumikomi with a big slapping sound and not damaging you knee or heel in the process.

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Suburi shinaiWhen I wrote “Kendo a Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Swordsmanship” my editor asked me to include a section on “hitori-geiko”, or individual practice. I felt that his thinking was to help align the book to the newbie and kendo curious markets where people may feel that they can learn kendo off the page.

As I explained several times in the book, kendo is a sport or art, depending on how you look at it, which requires interaction between people; whether it is between competitors, training partners or student and instructor. Suburi, footwork and shadow keiko exercises can of course be practiced alone, but are much more motivational when done in a dojo environment with a group of sweating, shouting fellow enthusiasts.

Experienced kendoka can of course work on their cutting action in the home or garden. I remember seeing shinai shaped grooves and scratches on the ceiling of Matsumoto Toshio sensei’s entrance hall and he explained that he had been giving extra instruction to some of his students at his home. Ceiling height is of course a constraint, but we can now buy special suburi shinai that are designed to replicate the weight and feel of a normal shinai while being short enough to swing in a room with average ceiling height. Using this type of equipment you are free to replicate any kendo exercise that you would do in the dojo without a partner; that is providing you take care not to trip over the furniture.

Where I do have concerns about training outside the dojo is where the practitioners are self-taught or have tried to put together their own “styles” by extracting pieces of information from books and videos. YouTube is littered with footage of “kendo stick fighters”. This clip is as good an example as any. The two full sized shinai used nito fashion and the cigarette clamped between the teeth of the young man on the left give early warning that it is not going to end well.


To my mind you get the most out of home practice if you use it to reinforce and polish what you learn in the dojo. Videos (of real kendo) and books can of course help you understand the finer points of a technique and it is worth both studying information from reliable sources and sharing it with your dojo mates.  Ideally though, your training should follow the principle of Shu-ha-ri.  Shu, when you follow the principles of one instructor, ha, when you start to add your own ideas and ri, when you formulate your own style. Someone should tell the boys in the YouTube clip that they need to do it in that order.

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Matsumoto sensei

Matsumoto sensei

I had a Eureka moment this week about the importance of good kamae.

Of course we know that kamae, footwork, breathing, timing, distance and cutting action are all interdependent and equally important, but sometimes we forget that kamae not only determines how easy we are to hit but it also promotes or inhibits our ability to strike correctly.

We were using a number of drills to work on men-uchi, trying at first to make big correct kihon men attacks and then through a succession of different approaches and timing to make small, sharp men attacks. This is not an easy task as it is essential to stay relaxed, to modify your footwork so it is in time with the smaller striking action and to use the balance of both hands in the strike and tenouchi.

I am aware that many people in the earlier stages of their kendo career fall into the habit of leaving their left hand in place and making small attacks almost exclusively with their right hand, which forces them to use a pushing motion with the right arm. This usually results in an inaccurate strike, which often slips off the target. So if I am instructing I usually point out the importance of using the left hand, however small the technique.

I noticed that one individual was doing something quite different, in that at the point of impact, he was pushing his left hand above his right hand. When he hit the target the strike was weak. We tried a few things, adjusting the position of hands and arms which worked momentarily, but he kept returning to the same cutting action. As we proceeded through the drills, I noticed that his kamae was particularly low, with his left arm extended straight down and the left hand directly in front of the tare.

After I pointed this out, we spent a few moments adjusting his kamae, so that the left hand was in line with his navel. We made sure that his shoulders and elbows were relaxed and that his grip was light and hands were in the correct position and then, when he tried to hit men he was able to make an accurate sharp strike.

Thinking about this after, it occurred to me that I was attempting to do what Matsumoto sensei  had done with me. Obviously my efforts were not nearly as skilled, but going through this process made me think about how keiko with sensei had consisted of him spending a long period of time adjusting my kamae before commanding me to make one single men strike and that was it, game over. Obviously his point was “you are only going to succeed if you start from the correct position”.

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Capture armsFollowing the post on kamae, I have received a number of questions about the correct position of the arms in chudan.  Looking at Matsumoto sensei’s lecture notes and with a lot of translation help from my friend Katsuya Massagaki, we have tried to come up with a reasonable overview of sensei’s advice on the subject. The original text is not easy to understand so I have added my own clarification, for better or worse. The gist of the Japanese text is as follows and as always, any errors are mine.

The arms should hang naturally from the shoulders and you should have the feeling of holding an egg in each armpit. The shinai should be supported by the  latissimus dorsi muscles (the big muscles that run down each side of your back) and the brachialis muscles (the muscle that flexes the lower elbow joint). You should not use the biceps or pectoral muscles.

The feeling in your upper arm should be similar to that experienced by a Sumo wrestler in the “ottsuke” technique where he pushes his opponents arm thrust to the side. To assume the correct position you should hold your palms upward and then with a feeling of pushing forward, turn your forearms in using the brachia muscles.  The crease at the back of each wrist, once in position, should form a right-angle with the floor.

The upturned open hands should be turned in to grip the shinai with the little and ring fingers making the strongest contact. The hands should be turned in with a feeling of chakin shibori (wringing out the cloth used in the tea ceremony, this implies a gentle rather than harsh wringing motion.). (In this case shibori applies to the grip in kamae and should not be confused with the idea of shibori after cutting).

Key points:

  1. The position of your wrists will change depending on the situation. In principle the direction of your downturned thumb and little finger reflects the angle of the blade.
  2. To  best understand the position of your forearms, try sitting in a chair in front of a table, rest your elbows and forearms on the table with your palms upward then twist your forearms inwards. By keeping your elbows directly in front of you, you will understand the importance of not letting your elbows move out at right angles.

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Kamae CaptureMany potentially strong kenshi reach a stage where their kendo development is blocked because their hips are not sufficiently engaged when they make a forward attack. This is one bad habit that seems as common in Japan as it does in the west. You see this trait very often with people who have had successful high school and university shiai careers and who have come to rely on speed and good reflexes to beat their opponents. Unfortunately as we get a bit older we start to slow down, so we need to ensure that our posture and technique are correct, to ensure that we make the most of the opportunities we see and that we do not leave ourselves open to attack through bad kamae. Obviously your hips need to be engaged before during and after each attack and if they are not, our posture will be hollow as we strike.  Our feet may well finish in the correct position and our hands may be in the correct place to hit the target but unless our hips are forward and we are able to cut with the power of our back, the strike will not be effective. We are given various advice on how to correct this. Some teachers talk about “tightening your buttocks as you step forward” others recommend “making seme with the intention of pushing your navel towards the opponents left eye”. Other sensei have gotten the required result without even talking about the hips; for instance by ensuring that the left leg is straight, with tension behind the knee as you step forward. If you do this, it is impossible not to engage your hips. “Many paths to the top of the same mountain” as they say. There is however need for caution in how we change our kamae. It is only too easy to over-straighten your hips, pushing your left hip and by default your left shoulder too far forward. This will have the effect of making your posture overly stiff and tense and it then becomes difficult to make relaxed fluid strikes with the shinai. Your posture should be natural and comfortable and although your centre should be focused on the target it does not mean that both hands and the mid-point of your head and body should be in a direct line. Instead your body should form a triangle pointing at the target. I have taken an illustration from Matsumoto Toshio sensei’s lecture notes that illustrates this far more effectively than my explanation. But remember, push your hips forward and relax.

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Inoue keiko 3Inoue Shigeaki hanshi is currently visiting the UK and I have been fortunate enough to attend all of his keiko sessions and the weekend seminar. I have known Inoue sensei for some time and share some common ground in that I spent a comparatively brief period of time studying with Matsumoto Toshio sensei who was Inoue sensei’s teacher.

After training, Inoue sensei showed me an essay that he had written in English on the purpose of kendo and he explained that although he has been hachidan for over 20 years, he is only now reaching the point where he feels at ease putting his own thoughts forward rather than quoting the advice of his teachers. I will ask his permission to reproduce his essay in this blog sometime in the future, but the key point of his argument is that there is a current trend towards teaching kendo with an emphasis on how to win in shiai without taking into consideration the broader aspects of personal development based on the “Principles of the Sword”.

In his view the traditional pattern of finishing a hard day’s work, stopping at the dojo for an hour’s hard keiko and emerging feeling better and more determined to take on the next day’s challenges is losing ground to a more “train to win” approach. With this in mind he had reiterated the values of kendo that he has come to understand from his many years of shugyo.

In 2011 I posted a translation of an article by Matsumoto sensei on the “Aim of Kendo”, wherein he emphasised the positive values of kendo in a similar way. Interestingly the article was written over 35 years ago. In this post I had also included a photograph of Matsumoto sensei. I showed this to Inoue sensei who took off his dou to show me the writing inside. He was in fact wearing the same dou that Matsumoto sensei was wearing in the photograph. Obviously not only the dou had been passed down along with much of his physical kendo technique, but the philosophy of kendo and its impact on how we shape our lives was an equal part of the inheritance.

Of course we are all familiar with the concept of respect for those who taught us and those that taught them, but to see such a concrete example is a strong reminder that we never actually take possession of the values of kendo, we just keep them to pass on to the next generation.

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