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Posts Tagged ‘Tachiai’

1909_kendoA number of people have asked me where fighting spirit ends and good manners, or concern for the welfare of your fellow kenshi begins.

In keiko your objective is to break your opponent’s kamae and strike a target as soon as you have created an opportunity. There are many ways to do this you can make him start an attack and strike as he begins his movement. You can use kaeshi  waza, suriage waza or nuki waza to counter the attacks that you encourage him to make. You can take his centre by stepping  in and making a strong tobikomi attack, or you can use your shinai to knock your opponent’s weapon up, down or to the side, even to twist it out of his hands. All of these are permissible with the rules and spirit of kendo and you should do them as energetically as your stamina will allow

It is equally permissible to move your opponent by striking with your body, but only in the form of correct tai-atari where the contact should be tsuka on tsuka with the hands at waist height and the power coming from the lower body. Pushing to the chin or face, using your feet to sweep or trip, trapping your opponent’s shinai or using your own to push any part of his body constitutes an infringement. Taiatari should be one quick body check followed by an attack rather than a long concerted pushing match.

Tsuki is a valuable kendo technique but must be done correctly as a sharp on-off attack.  Mukaetsuki, with your arms locked as your opponent makes a forward movement against you is considered the height of bad manners. Even a good attacking tsuki against a teacher or senior in poor taste, if it is done when they make an opening for you to hit men.

Most of these are obvious violations of the rulesa of kendo and would be penalised in shiai. There are other less obvious breaches of etiquette that are undesirable in keiko. Using your shinai to block without countering is wrong and spoils the flow of the tachiai, as does starting and stopping an attack mid flow to prevent your opponent from hitting you. Hitting your partner off-target in order to create an opening is equally bad, as is showing contempt by celebrating or walking away after striking.

Some of the rules invariably get bent in shiai, but there are 3 referees in the court to stop you from transgressing too much. In keiko it is up to you to train as hard as you can whilst still showing respect for your dojo mates.

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Mohan jiai CaptureMy first sight of real master level kendo was back in 1976 when Ikeda Hanshi and Ueta Hanshi performed a Mohan jiai at the 3rd World Kendo Championships. In essence nothing happened for 4 minutes 50 seconds then as Ueta sensei started to attack men Ikeda sensei took degote and both went into sonkyo. Whilst my description sounds as if much of the shiai was spent waiting, nothing could be farther from the truth. From the initial rei the atmosphere was positively electric, with every small change of position and attitude measured by the two men. Whilst physical movement was minimal, their concentration was as intense as that of a predatory animal stalking its dinner.

More recently I had keiko with a visitor, who still in the early stages of his kendo career came up from sonkyo and waited, and waited and waited, until I suggested that it might be a good idea to do kakarigeiko. Whereas the two meijin were like tigers preparing to pounce on their prey, my young friend appeared more like a pensioner waiting for a bus. Based on this comparison, the ability to move from a static position in instant reaction to an opportunity is not a function of youth and stamina, but the result of tame built on years of experience of hard keiko.

Tame is described in the AJKF Dictionary of Kendo as “the condition of being composed both mentally and physically and maintaining a spiritually replete state despite the tense situation”. Perhaps a simpler more physical account of tame is that by ensuring that your posture is correct and your tanden tense, and that your left foot is drawn up to the correct position with your heel of the ground, you will be able to launch yourself into an attack the moment you see an opportunity. The only way to achieve this is by actively practising kendo and not just standing back and waiting.

The instructions often given by teachers on how to pass grading examinations usually contain the advice to “not miss any opportunity to attack, but not to attack when there is no opportunity”. This may at first sound confusing, but the more keiko we do the easier to understand it becomes. In the early stages of our development it pays to do too much rather than too little. As we progress along the continuum we hopefully start to see the clear opportunities to strike. If we ever approach the level reached by Ikeda sensei and Ueta sensei at the time of their tachiai then hopefully we should be able to possess the clarity of mind that allows us to mirror our opponents’ intention.

In the meantime we can all crack on with some more kakarigeiko.

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JapaneseA colleague who trains in Brazillian Jujutsu showed me an on-line video of the sport. I could not but notice the similarity to Judo, although I am told that the groundwork differs but that the throws are almost identical. Having done Judo in the past I know many of these techniques only by their Japanese names and my friend referred to them by their English tags. He did not go into detail but I presume the original language used is Portuguese and that the countries where it is practised use their own terms.

This made me reflect on the fact that in kendo we use Japanese on a scale that followers of other martial arts would find difficult to justify. Not only do we have imported labels for the techniques, but all dojo and shiai commands are in Japanese. The courtesies we observe before and after practice are in Japanese and many kenshi have a vocabulary that extends to social conversation.

There are obvious advantages to the use of a single language amongst an international population. We can travel to countries where we do not share a common language and still understand the instructions given in a training session. The downside is that as beginner as well as having to learn to make your body do things that it has never done before, you have to learn a new vocabulary.

The official languages of kendo are Japanese and English and when we attend Europe Zone Referee Seminars, translation is provided from the former to the latter, we then usually have numerous side conversations to ensure that whatever message is being delivered is understood by those who are not fluent in English. My guess however is that nearly as many people understand the Japanese instruction as the English translation.

I personally like the fact that we use Japanese for kendo. Initially I found it part of the attraction as it made kendo seem exotic. Then having spent time living in Japan and using the language I realised that the meanings of technique names and commands are fairly mundane – “mask, glove, trunk, stop, start, thank you very much”; they do not sound nearly as grand in English.

If we did revert to our own languages, international competition would be interesting.  In the shiai-jo with a Spanish opponent and a German referee, should you shout glove, or guante, or handschu  or all three when you make a kote attack?

Kakegoe too would become interesting. When we make these initial shouts before attacking, although without meaning, they are usually modelled on Japanese sounds. I have a fear that in moving to English these would become more like the “sledging” insults used in English cricket to put the opponent off his stroke.  Standing up from sonkyo to taunts about my body shape or my opponent’s relationship with my wife does not seem like an ideal start to a good kendo tachiai.

It might not be ideal for everyone but I suggest that for the time being we keep the ZNKR’s dictionary of kendo terms in the bogu bag.

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GophersWatching the start of a recent kihon session I was  reminded of a fairground stall where the objective is to hit gophers with a mallet as they randomly pop up and disappear back into holes. People were starting to bow as their partner finished bowing; others were taking sonkyo as their opponent moved into kamae. Not a particularly unusual spectacle, but ask kendoka at almost any level of experience “when does keiko start” and they will tell you “from the first rei”. So, we have got the theory right, but we don’t always put it into practice.

In kendo as in sumo, the term tachiai is used to describe a bout or demonstration. Tachiai literally means to stand and meet and if you are lucky enough to watch high level kendo you will see that from the initial rei through to sonkyo  and kamae there is total engagement between the two partners. Some teachers describe this as “mind contact” others talk about the meeting of ki (spirit or life-force).  In fact this is the real meaning of the term kiai. At the highest level kendo calls for total awareness of each other’s thoughts and feelings and even involves mirroring an opponent’s breathing, (aun no kokkyu).

Obviously it’s extremely difficult to reach this level of harmony. Doing so may take a lifetime’s practice. If we are to stand any chance of reaching this hallowed ground, we need to start by co-ordinating our physical movements from the earliest stages of our kendo careers.

When we make the initial standing rei before keiko, we should make eye contact, raise the shinai to the hip and bow 15 degrees from the waist in unison with our opponent. We then take the  three steps forward at exactly the same time, moving as one into sonkyo; drawing the sword at the same time as we drop into position.  When in sonkyo we should try to make contact with our mind as well as the tip of the sword. Only when we feel that this contact has been made should we stand up together.

When we stand, we should either keep our position or step slightly forward, never back or to the side. This is when we should take time to read our opponent before making the first kakegoe. Most of us can’t achieve aun kokkyu, but we can ensure that we breathe in quickly and retain our breath for as long as possible. We should release half of our air on the initial kiai and keep the remainder (nokori) to expel on our first strike.

Mind-reading may take a lifetime’s practice, but we can at least start by moving as if we can read our partner’s actions.

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Grading + KataI was recently asked about my thoughts on what was required to pass the 6th and 7th dan grading examinations. Over the years I have heard various theories. One of my favourites was from a successful Japanese candidate for 6th dan, who explained that throughout your tachiai you should have the feeling that you are writing the hiragana character “no” with a writing brush held between your buttocks.

In the EKF’s grading guidelines we get the slightly less fun but arguably more relevant interpretation as follows:

6-7 dan Capture

Like many of the guidelines for passing grading examinations, the meaning becomes clear once you have reached the required level, but appears as if it is designed to confuse those preparing for the next stage.

To the best of my understanding, “Jiri “ or “Jiri itchi” means the unity of technique and theory, so you not only need to deploy successful techniques, but you also need to look like you know why you are deploying them. To put it another way, you should do nothing that has no purpose.

Techniques should correspond with real opportunities to strike, but whereas with 4th and 5th dan the focus is on breaking through the centre with seme, you now need to add the more subtle principle of “hikidasu”, or pulling your opponent in, so that you can respond with debana waza or ojiwaza.

Many people are given over simplistic advice, such as “wait 30 seconds, give a loud kiai and make two good attacks”. This sounds ideal, but it is perhaps too simple a way of saying that as you stand from sonkyo you must make strong mind contact with your opponent and then strive to make opportunities to attack. If you can only make one strike in the brief time available, so be it. On the other hand, if you make or are given 20 clear opportunities to strike you must take advantage of them. The rule is don’t attack when there is no opportunity, but do when there is.

This should be overlaid on all the things you had to get right for the previous gradings – correct footwork, posture, kamae, tenouchi etc. and of course don’t drop the writing brush.

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