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Posts Tagged ‘Seme’

4-dan-passesWe just had the grading that I mentioned in my previous post and as with all examinations there were euphoric successes and disappointed failures. From my side of the judges table the most impressive part of the day was the attitude of everyone who took part. Those who passed did so with modesty and those who failed did so with the determination to train hard for the next opportunity.

Within the constraints of the time I had, I tried to give feedback to everyone who asked for it. But for those I missed here are some general points.

For ikkyu and shodan, everyone went for it. There was no problem with staged , ”you hit me then I hit you” performances that I mentioned in previous posts. The most common criticism from the panel was “incorrect cutting” which in most cases meant that the hands finished too low and the monouchi was at too steep an angle so that it hit the mengane rather than the top of the men. There were also a number of people who did not lift the shinai enough to hit correctly.` The remedy is more suburi and uchikomi geiko.

Nidan and sandan mostly failed on timing and opportunity. I am sure that many of the candidates had developed their technique to a pass level, but unless they were able to make or take the opportunity to make a clear strike, there was no way to show the judges that ability. To train for your next grading, think about the opportunities to strike, such as when your opponent initiates his attack or steps back. or visibly breathes in. Also consider ways to break his physical and mental kamae. Don’t just save these for jigeiko, incorporate them in your drill regime.

Yondan and Godan  – Seme and tame were what let many people down. You need to demonstrate that you are controlling your opponent throughout the tachiai. You need to break his or her centre and take your own ideal maai. If you can see an opening when you do this then immediately strike the target. If his kamae stops you from doing this then keep control and hold your breath in your abdomen until he starts to move, then strike. You can encourage him to do this by slightly moving the point of the shinai or slightly moving your front foot forwards. Or as Chiba sensei advised, just slightly bend your forward knee. Incorporate seme into your kihon drills.

For everyone, pass or fail, a little more kata practice would not be wasted.

So congratulations or gambatte kudasai, but please keep going.

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Getting Bigger

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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OverheadA friend recently mentioned that he was giving up shiai to concentrate on getting his kendo to a level where he could confidently try for 6th dan. This made me reflect on just how compatible success in shiai was with developing high grade kendo.

Conventional wisdom says that keiko, shiai and tachiai for grading examinations should be the same, and at the highest level of kendo this is true. Watch the All Japan 8th dan Championship and you will see some truly impressive shiai that nevertheless keeps to the fundamentals. At lower levels, and I include the World Kendo Championships and the All Japan Championships, some athletes adapt their kendo to a much more defensive style, using the shinai to block overhead or holding it in front at head height extended downwards. Obviously national pride and the prospect of a secure job make the occasional bit of ducking and diving forgivable, but is it kendo?

In contrast I found some notes that were given to me by Inoue sensei , that made the following point. “Ken means to attack or strike an opponent. Tai means to wait while observing the opponent’s movement calmly. Offence and defence are inseparably combined. This term illustrates the importance of always being mentally and physically ready to defend against the opponent’s counter attack while attacking, and ready to counterattack while defending”

In more basic terms the answer is to keep a good kamae and an unfettered mind without preconception of what you or your opponent might do. You should push for openings and then react to them, or whatever might come in their place, rather than rigidly defend throughout your five minute tachiai.

Another opportunity to watch kendo that embodies the basic principles is at the annual Kyoto enbu taikai where the good and great are responsible for showing their best kendo. It is particularly interesting to watch some of the older  8th dans. I have seen occasions where one or two of these highly skilled kenshi have acknowledged “mairimashita” to a point before it was made, because their experience tells them that their opponent’s seme was strong enough to make the following ippon inevitable.

Perhaps though it is easier to be gracious when the stakes are the bill for lunch or a few beers rather than a job promotion or a new car.

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Seme and Tame again

HeronI am back from yet another grading examination. As usual the 4th dan pass rate was reasonably slim and as usual the main reason was visible lack of seme and tame. This seems to be a common thread that runs through every grading.

I deliberately added the word visible because I did see a number of people who made numerous successful attacks, but who still failed the examination. They may or may not have broken their opponents guard to reach the target, but the creation of the opportunity to strike was not visible to the panel.

Seme and tame are inseparable. The ZNKR’s Japanese / English kendo dictionary defines semeru, (seme’s verb form) as “To take the initiative to close the distance with the opponent with full spirit”. Likewise tame is described as “the condition of being composed both mentally and physically and maintaining a spiritually replete state despite the tense situation”.  The two added together and put into plain language, equate to the act of aggressively penetrating your adversary’s kamae whilst maintaining a level state of mind and then being ready to strike the moment your opponent shows a weakness in his guard.

There are numerous examples of tame in the animal kingdom. The way a heron waits by the waterside ready to spear the fish below as soon as it moves, the way a cat watches a mouse, ready to take the chance to attack when it knows the direction it will take, the way a snake almost hypnotises and then strikes its prey; all make good tame role models.

If this is all starting to sound a little too metaphysical, let me remind you  that you also need to make the correct physical actions to back up your kiryoku. As you make seme your left foot should snap into place to allow you to move at will. Your heel should continually be raised  so that the sole of your foot forms a 15 degree angle with the floor and the back of your left knee should be tense. You should hold your breath in your abdomen so that you are ready to explode when you see the perfect opportunity to strike.

Throughout all this your upper body should be relaxed, allowing you to deliver a perfect ippon.

Apologies for constantly raising this subject, but lack of seme and tame really seem to be one of the major barriers to reaching the higher dan grades.

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Sueno senseiMumeishio dojo was fortunate to receive a visit last tuesday from Sueno Eiji sensei, hanshi  hachidan and former All Japan Champion.

Sensei instructed a kihon session before taking on all comers for jigeiko. He made a number of important points over the course of the evening and as per previous visits commented on the importance of correct cutting. After giving everyone the opportunity to try the ojiwaza of their choice against men and kote, he demonstrated how to control body movement so that they benefitted from the attackers forward momentum. Although most oji techniques are delivered moving forward, there is no need to continue across the dojo for numerous steps as in the case of shikake waza , instead it is enough to make a sharp attack and then to immediately assume zanshin, letting your opponent do most of the hard work.

Sueno sensei also talked about the preparation for ojiwaza and compared the difficulty of waiting and trying to counter your opponents timing rather than using seme and hikidasu to make him attack at a time when you are ready for him. He demonstrated applying and releasing pressure so that the attacker is drawn into your space and timing and therefore is unable to escape your trap.

Hi final comments after jigeiko however were much more concerned with basics. “The movement of our hands in kendo should be up and down”. He moved his open hands in a straight line from the wrists so that fingers were angled first up then down. He then showed us how many people were using their hands, and that the right hand was either pushing over to the left, or the right wrist was twisting inwards so that the shinai was either at an angle or turned to hit with the side edge. He also inferred that using our right hand in this way was likely to spoil our posture and balance.

So simple but extremely valuable advice – hands should be soft and flexible and like our elbows and shoulders move in a straight up and down motion, allowing us to hit the target accurately and sharply without wasting energy.

Thanks from all at Mumeishi to Sueno sensei. We look forward to your next visit.

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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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SemeThis blog is becoming increasingly request driven. Morgan Hooper of Enshinkan Dojo in New York asked for clarification on a previous post on seme-geiko and some  the finer points of maai and footwork in seme .

As I mentioned when I last wrote about seme- geiko, I was introduced to the practice by the late Furuya sensei at morning keiko in Sakai. Subsequently I practiced it a few times with his student Uegaki Isao sensei. All of these sessions were with senior ranked kenshi and it was taken as read that everyone knew the mechanics of seme, so no detailed instruction was given. Seme-geiko is effectively kakarigeiko for seniors, but with emphasis on creating the correct opportunity to strike.  Each partner spends a short time pressurizing their opponent and creating chances to make 4 or 5 clean attacks. These are made going forwards in a straight line so waza are limited to men, kote and kote men.

I realise that I haven’t come close to answering Morgan’s question, but let me try to make a few points on seme generally and leave you to transcribe them into seme geiko.

To make effective seme from chudan kamae you must:

  • Step deeply enough into your opponents space to break his composure
  • Move to your uchi ma, a distance that suits you rather than him
  • Keep the centre at all times
  • Move in with only one step
  • Move from your feet and keep correct posture. Do not just push your hands forward
  • Usually you step in with the right foot and smartly bring your left foot up to follow so you can move effectively into the attack as soon as his concentration is broken
  • Breathe in before you enter distance and retain your breath in your tanden during the process of making seme, releasing it in kiai as you make the attack
  • Strike in the timing of one
  • Do not raise or lower the tip of your shinai as you move in, as this this will alert your opponent to your intention
  • If your seme does not have the required effect retain the centre and move back out to safe distance.

These points only apply to moving forward for shikake waza. Hikidasu, or drawing your opponent in is another post in its own right.

Morgan also asked about how to impose mental dominance when making seme. The answer to that one is similar to the old musicians’ joke – How do you get to Carnegie Hall? – Practice.

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