Posts Tagged ‘sutemi’

Kiai and sae

kiai2Many of my kendo friends are aware that I drone on endlessly about sae or snap. Often kendoka who have good kihon and timing, fail to make decisive ippon because they do not finish the strike sharply.

This could be because they are using the too much right hand power or because they are pushing the shinai forward rather than cutting down. Often though, lack of sae is caused by ineffective kiai. It’s hard to explain this without demonstrating, but if your kiai is slow, lacks energy or comes before or after the point of impact, then it will not help you make a successful attack.

Kiai should be sharp and explosive and delivered exactly at the moment you hit the target. Its purpose is to focus all your physical and mental energy on the cut. It emphasises that nothing else exists for you at that moment, only your total commitment to the strike. Some people believe that kiai is made to alert the shinpan that they have scored a point, or that it is a declaration of intent, a bit like naming the pocket in a game of pool. This is far from the truth. Premature kiai means that your energy tails off too early. Using it to claim your point means that your energy peaks after you need it most.

Your kiai should be made in the spirit of sutemi, throwing every last particle of air into a totally unselfconscious scream as you hit. It will naturally continue briefly as you move through into zanshin. In fact a sharp single kiai will automatically make you accelerate past your opponent. Do not be tempted to elongate your kiai into something like the noise of a car with starter motor problems. Me-e-e-e-e-en simply makes you sound needy.

The mechanics of good kiai are simple. We have looked at them when we talked about seme and tame. You take a big breath in through your nose when you are still in safe distance, then let half the air out as a kakegoe shout; something simple like” ya”. Holding the remainder of your breath in your abdomen you step into your striking distance. Once you have broken your opponent’s centre or pre-empted his attack, raise your shinai and strike down at the target in the timing of one, expelling your remaining breath as kiai. The idea is not just to focus your shout but to commit your entire spirit.

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Most kendoka have heard the term sutemi. Whilst usually translated as sacrifice, the literal meaning is “throw away the seed”. The concept refers to a poem describing a horse chestnut in a fast moving stream. If left whole, it would sink. If the kernel is abandoned, the husk would float with the current. In kendo, sutemi means committing yourself one hundred per cent to an attack without fearing the consequences.

Shishin on the other hand is the state where the mind is preoccupied or dwells on a particular aspect of your or your opponent’s kendo, which makes it impossible for the body to move freely. No prizes for guessing that sutemi is regarded as a desirable element in kendo and shishin is not.

Correct tobikomi men is a practical illustration of sutemi. We enter our opponent’s distance and launch ourselves forward with full spirit and no thought other than hitting men. If our opponent moves away or counters, it doesn’t matter. Once you start a technique you should complete it with all your energy.

In uchikomi-geiko or kakari-geiko it is easy to take this do or die attitude, in shiai or jigeiko  it is more difficult. Very often we worry about our opponent’s reaction to our attack. For some people this causes a general fear of attacking. For others, it results in them stopping mid-technique rather than giving away the point. This “stopping” is my pet hate in keiko. Not only does it strangle many potentially successful shikake waza at birth, but it also robs the stoppers opponent of the opportunity to practise oji-waza.

Many people take the view that shiai is about not losing, but surely the reason for taking part is to win. It could be argued that both equate to the same thing, but the mind-set of winning is about courageously exploiting any opportunity with all your mental and physical power.

In keiko we talk about utte-hansei, utarete-kansya (reflection on how we made a successful strike and gratitude for being hit). This does not mean that we are masochists, but that we learn as much from our opponent’s success as we do from our own.

Of course we do not start any keiko with the intention of being hit. Our objective is to strike first or to break our opponents attack with a successful counter attack, but we can only do this if we have an attacking spirit from the outset

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Without the benefit of a private dojo for toshikoshi geiko, my first practice of the New Year took place yesterday. This hatsugeiko was a great way to get back into the swing of kendo and with my wrist injury now mending, I am once again able to call on some oji waza to use against my fitter, faster juniors.

Perhaps because of the holiday break or maybe because it is a reflective time of year, a number of people asked me to help evaluate their keiko. The common theme was that we all seemed to be operating at a single rhythm, by which I mean that there was no real differentiation between the speed of approach, attack and follow through. This could of course be attributed to a surfeit of Christmas pudding, but more likely the cause is just general tension and inability to relax.

Many years ago, I was given some advice by Kikuchi Koichi sensei, former Vice President of the BKA, more recently of Shibuya dojo, that the feeling in kendo should be “like a feather in a hurricane”. This has been a constantly memorable image, signifying to me that kendo should be light and flexible but driven by a great elemental force. What sets great kendo players apart is the ability to instantly transform form a totally relaxed state to explosive movement.

Most of us will never achieve this, but there are certainly ways in which we can get closer to the ideal. Good posture and balance and a relaxed, flexible kamae are all necessities. Correct footwork too is essential, with the ability to drive off from the left foot as soon as you see the opportunity. Most importantly the cut itself must be done with relaxed shoulders, elbows and wrists. If you use too much shoulder power, it makes your attack heavy and slow. The feeling on making the attack should be as if you are being pulled upward and forward, accelerating through the strike into zanshin.

This is all very easy to describe but very difficult to do. The ability to relax, particularly in stressful situations such as shiai and shinsa, needs strict mental as well as physical preparation. You need to control your breathing and put aside the kendo sicknesses of fear doubt and perplexity. Whilst the ideal of “a feather in a hurricane” may not be achievable, you may avoid looking more like a pudding in a blizzard.

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Very often kendo shiai spectators are puzzled why apparently accurate strikes to men kote or dou are not scored by the referees. The reason in most cases is that they lack “kime”.

Kime literally means to decide, so it is a broad term that encompasses sae, (the sharpness of the technique), zanshin (awareness after attacking), kiai and confidence.  I have seen a number of examples where the receiver appeared totally convinced that a strike was successful, but the point was not given because the attacker looked surprised that he had made contact. This shows either a lack of self-belief or that there was no original intention to hit the target. Another potential reason for lack of success in concluding a technique is due to holding back and thinking about defending against counter attack. In this case the technique is judged to lack “sutemi”.  

Sutemi is a term which is used widely in the martial arts, but is a concept dating back to feudal Japan which resonated throughout Japanese society. Sutemi  is often interpreted as “sacrifice”, but literally it means to “throw away the seeds” and is taken from a poem that makes the point, that in a fast flowing river a seed would sink, but if the inner kernel was abandoned, the husk would float with the current. The relevance to kendo is that every attack should be totally committed and without thought for any possible repercussion.

Sae also relies on a compound of kendo elements, but by and large refers to the te-no-uchi applied to the strike at the point of impact. I have discussed te-no-uchi in earlier posts, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that hands need to be relaxed. The left hand should do most of the work and you should apply small squeeze from the little and ring fingers of each hand at the point of impact, or slightly after.  

The final ingredient is zanshin. Maintaining the correct distance posture and awareness after the successful strike should ensure ippon.

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Going Straight!

taiatariOn Sunday after the Dublin Open we ran a kendo seminar. It took the form that most people would recognise, with lots of work on basics in the morning and moving on to more technical waza practice after lunch. I taught suriage men as part of a series of oji techniques. As you may have seen in previous posts , my view on suriage waza  is  simple – You create the opportunity, slide up the shinai and cut down in one movement and without moving back or to the side, go forward to your opponents centre as you finish the attack.

After spending some time practising this, Henrik, one of the senior Dublin members, asked the question, “what happens when you try this and you have 150kg of Noel bearing down on you”. Now to be fair to Noel, he does not really way 150kg, but he is significantly bigger than Henrik. Rather than just explain, I demonstrated how it would work against Noel. As expected, he came forward strongly for shikake men, but stopped when my technique hit. I was able to finish my attack going forward, without moving from the centre line.

The logic is simple.  As long as your distance is correct, you keep your point forward and stick to raising the shinai and hitting in one continuous movement, the strength of your attack will break your opponent’s forward motion. One other tip to bear in mind is that if your opponent is coming forward, you can use their movement, so you do not have to step in as deeply as for shikake waza.

So, problem solved, but then thinking about it after I realise that many people are reluctant to commit to aim for their opponents centre in a spirit of sutemi (sacrifice), whether they are initiating shikake or oji waza. This is particularly true for smaller people, who may fear injury from a collision with a bigger person.

 If this is a concern, I have two suggestions. Firstly, seme – If you truly break your opponents’ centre, they have nothing left to hit you with. Secondly learn correct taiatari. If you keep your weight down and your hands low, you should be able survive clashes with opponents of any size. I can’t guarantee that you will not be the one who bounces back, but you can do it with strong posture and balance, safely ready to make the next attack.

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