Posts Tagged ‘Shinsa’

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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Freshly inspired by Chiba-sensei’s thoughts on seme, I taught at a pre-grading seminar over the weekend. I made sure that every shikake and oji waza drill we practiced, started from making the appropriate opportunity, either by breaking the opponents centre or by inviting him to attack and taking away the point. Many of the students there visibly bought into the concept that you win in Kendo by creating the opportunity and that the strike is just the completing statement. So far, so good.

On the afternoon of the second day, we had the grading and the ikkyu and shodan candidates did a great job of demonstrating their ability. When we got to the 2nd and 3rd dan candidates the pass rate dropped dramatically. The reasons for failure were those I listed in a similar post after the last grading. Mainly people did not pass second and third dan because they did not hit anyone.

By hit, I mean strike the target correctly with clear intention and opportunity.  Taking it on one level, they did not make opportunities by using seme. Instead they waited for a reasonable interval before rushing in and attacking without breaking the opponents centre or coaxing them out of centre. This resulted in various strikes that missed or at best achieved ai-uchi.

This was disappointing because the grading panel needs to see clear evidence that the candidates can stike with correct timing and opportunity before they can put their circles in the box. Most of the failures had been making and taking perfectly good opportunities at the previous day’s seminar, so I can only assume that nerves or adrenalin overdose were the problems on the day.

Many senior Japanese instructors talk about the grading requirement as “having done sufficient keiko”, this does not mean turning up twice a week and having fun beating all comers, it means practicing kihon and waza until they become instinctive.

So guys, more kihon drills starting from seme and the next examination should be a piece of cake.

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Shinsa feedback

Pre-grading seminar

Pre-grading seminar

Having just returned from sitting as a panelist at a grading examination and having instructed at the pre-shinsa seminar, I was asked for feedback by many of the unsuccessful candidates. Although this examination was for candidates from ikkyu to 4th dan, I realised that most people who failed did so for the same reasons. So having posted before on the things you need to do pass, this post is a simple guide to the 3 mistakes that will cause you to fail.


  1. You did not hit anyone – it is surprising how often candidates get to the end of their 2 minutes without having managed to make a successful strike. There are various reasons for this. In more senior shinsa it can be because both players have strong kamae and it is not possible to break through, but more often than not it is because people wait rather than seizing the initiative with seme. This can result in successive ai-uchi attacks where one person attacks every time their partner initiates their own attack.
  2. You did not lift your left hand up – people seem to confuse quick small attacks with a static left hand, causing the right hand to do all the work. Typically this makes it impossible to hit the top of your opponent’s men with sufficient sae to make a successful yuko datotsu. Too much right hand power also spoils your posture causing you to lean forward or leave your left hip and foot behind.
  3. You did not have sufficient weight on your left foot – this is related to the two earlier points, but you need to have enough weight on the ball of your left foot to push the right foot forward as soon as you see or make an opportunity, thereby being able to strike instantly without having to transfer weight from one foot to the other.

Of course this is simplistic and there are other elements such as kihaku and zanshin that impact performance, but by and large if you get these basics right, you will get at least to 4th dan without too many problems. The good news is that fixing these problems is not rocket science. Good kihon practice including kirikaeshi and uchikomi geiko is the cure. Do not go back to do what you were doing before until the next grading. As someone once said “The more you do of what you do, the more you get of what you have got.”

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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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Stoke Seminar warm upI just got back from a weekend seminar and grading in Stoke on Trent. As an instructor and grading panellist it is interesting to see whether a hard day and a bit’s training and coaching before a grading examination makes any difference to the outcome. Like everything in Kendo, there is no easy answer.

Certainly, if you have a major physical technique problem that is causing you to fail gradings then you can’t fix it in a few days. You need to train repeatedly until doing the movement correctly becomes instinctive. On the other hand small corrections to kamae and timing and the understanding of opportunity can be understood and acted on quickly. One candidate had some advice on changing his seme and went on to do a great job of passing 4th dan.

Everything you learn at seminars or from visiting sensei is useful. The question is whether it is useful at the time you learn it. If you have a problem of hitting men correctly then the recipe for the perfect gyaku dou or kaeshi hikigote is not going to solve it. On the other hand memory is a wonderful thing, in that it files away information until you do need it. I occasionally have flashes of enlightenment about advice given to me 20 years ago when it made no sense at all. Now having learned some of the bits in between, I start to see the point.

In terms of preparing for grading you need either your own game plan or a sensei that has one for you. I have to thank Yanai Norimitsu sensei, (now in New York) for making me practice only debana men twice a week for a year in the lead up to my passing 7th dan. Somone once said the more you do of what you do, the more you get of what you’ve got. So the rule is listen to advice, isolate the points that are holding you back and get help to fix them and practice until doing it right becomes second nature.

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