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Posts Tagged ‘Tame’

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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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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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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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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DrillFollowing last week’s post, several people asked if I knew of any specific drills to help develop debana men. There are two that are worth trying. Which you use depends on your level of kendo experience. Both should be practised against a partner who acts as motodachi.

The first is for less experienced kendoka. You should start by taking chudan kamae and move into your own uchima striking distance. Motodachi then takes one hand of his shinai and pushes the palm of his kote against the tip of you shinai. You should ensure that your feet are in the correct position, paying particular attention to quickly drawing up your left foot. Make sure that your left heel is slightly raised off the ground and that there is a feeling of tension behind your left knee. You should have taken a breath before your step into distance and as we discussed last week, let half of it out as kakegoe. Keeping the remaining air in your abdomen and making sure that hands and arms relaxed, you should push against motodachi’s hand using the pressure of your hips and back. When motodachi decides that the time is right, he pulls his hand away. You should be able to strike instantly by pushing off from your back foot.

This exercise will help some people understand the feeling of pressure even if they are not quite ready to appreciate the force exuded by a strong opponent’s kigamae. For more experienced kenshi a similar drill can be used, but motodachi should not physically touch kakarite’s shinai. Instead kakarite observes the same precautions about breathing, posture and hikitsuke, but this time it is the force of motodachi’s kamae that holds them at bay. Motodachi makes the chance to strike, obviously breaking the tension by slightly raising the shinai and inclining his head forward. He should pay particular attention to vary the timing of each striking opportunity. If this is done correctly motodachi gets as much out of it as does kakarite, as he can experience the “feeling” of the opportunity as he makes and breaks “mind contact” with kakarite.

The third drill in this series is where motodachi picks the opportunity to strike men and commits to making the attack. Kakarite responds with debana men. I would not recommend this for anyone but the most experienced, as there is a tendency for motodachi to change the timing of the attack to beat kakarite’s strike. No-one does this intentionally, but our competitive inner selves have a tendency to take over.

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3_Shikakewaza_Men2I have written about seme and tame several times since I started this blog and I feel motivated to do so again. These are difficult concepts for many people to understand and it is even more difficult to translate them into physical action.

We have had numerous conversations about seme at my local dojo and before writing this I scanned some of the comments on the web relating to this subject. I came across a very interesting thread on Kendo World Forums that started with a post about making seme and waiting for the opponent to react and how this did not work against more experienced opponents. Obviously the poster is on the right track but perhaps the clue to why it’s not working is in the word “waiting”. The missing ingredient is “tame”. If you step into striking distance without maintaining the spirit to attack then it is more than likely that you will be the loser in the encounter.

Thinking through the whole process, you should take a big breath in and let half of the air out as kakegoe before stepping into your opponent’s space. Your attitude should be confident and aggressive with the aim of breaking his physical and mental defence (migamae and kigamae). Posture needs to be correct with your hips engaged and you should swiftly pull your left foot up as soon as you step forward with your right. The left heel should be slightly off the ground throughout and there should be a feeling of tension at the back of the left knee. The right knee should be slightly bent. If while doing this your opponents kamae breaks under the pressure, don’t wait, just attack.

If on the other hand your opponent maintains his guard, you need to take further action to create an opportunity. This is done by keeping an attacking mind and centring your breath in your abdomen. You maintain the pressure in your left foot and knee and by moving the tip of your shinai very slighty invite him to attack. As soon as he starts an attacking movement, you can push off from your left foot and make a small sharp strike to whichever target he shows .Use the remainder of the air in your tanden to make a big kiai as you strike either kote or men. Welcome to the world of debana waza.

The Kendo World thread went on to say that it was difficult to make effective seme against more experienced kenshi. Duh, why wouldn’t it be! They have been doing it better and for a longer time. You will also find it difficult against beginners who not yet refined their basic technique to a level where they can make “mind contact”.

With these less experienced players you can practise tame by building pressure then relaxing it for them to attack you. With seniors if all else fails, do kakarigeiko.

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