Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 5)

This is the final part in a five-part series that translates a lecture made by Morishima Tateo. To see the rest of the published series plus a bio on Morishima sensei, please click here.

Pursing the spirit and modern kendo


4. The essential mechanism for striking

Lastly, I would like to discuss the mechanism for striking. It doesn’t matter how technically able, how physically strong you are, or how much speed you have, if you mistake the chance to attack then you will not be successful. It is a steel rule of kendo not to attack when people are fully concentrated and have no openings, and to attack when they lose concentration and leave themselves open (虚実 Kyojitsu). If you don’t apply this rule, you cannot defeat your opponent. During the cut and fray of keiko, when you are open this is kyo (虚), and when your opponent is open it is jitsu (実). This situation rapidly goes back and forth between you and your partner. During changes in your and your opponents movement small openings for attack will appear (虚). If you overlook this opening it won’t happen again. During an intense battle, with you fully concentrated and without an opening (実) you must strike instantly at your opponents opening if/when it appears (虚). Chiba Shusaku taught this as 「剣は瞬息、心気力一致」(ken wa shuniki, shinkiryoku itcchi. “you must use your sword in an instant, with mind, spirit, and body in unison”).

In todays kendo there is neither kyo (虚) nor jitsu (実), people attack indiscriminately. In some shiai I have seen people call “hajime!” and already people are jumping through the air to strike. There can be no thought of “Is my opponent open?” The person being attacked simply uses sanpomamori to block this (see part 1). In truth, if someone is attacking you when there is no opening they are actually opening themselves up for attack; you must counterattack in this situation. But you simply block and the shiai hasn’t moved anywhere. Because of this, there is nothing but hikiwake in university and adult shiai nowadays.

First, “if there is no opening, don’t attack.” If there is no opening and you attack, you are opening yourself up and may be struck yourself. Next, “if there is no opening, you must make an opening by breaking them (KUZUSHI), then attack.” In kendo today, there is no kuzushi (崩しい. This is where you open you opponent up by breaking their kamae, spirit, or technique. Although not a term common in the English speaking kendo community, most people will recognise the description via sansappo). There are many ways to do kuzushi, but today is not a seminar, so I won’t explain them here. Lastly, “if you see an opening, seize it.” As hinted at in Chiba Shusaku’s quote above, when you think “I should attack now!” you must already be attacking. Just getting to the point where you can see the opening and think “I should attack now!” in itself is difficult.

We need to think about how to know/recognise chances. A chance is a “symptom.” Making a chance is breaking your opponent (kuzushi) then attacking. When you see an opening you should commit with everything (the English kendo community would recognise this as sutemi).

If we are to work on changing kendo from now on, we need to think about the above principles and do “rational kendo” and “kendo without waste.” If you follow the principles, then you will be able to strike shotachi. If we say this in another way: in order for you to be able to strike shotachi, you should work out the principles through hard training and research (kufu), and bit-by-bit remove needless attacks. Nowadays we don’t stop your opponent during keiko and point out “those are needless attacks” because needless attacks have become part of everyday kendo. By removing needless attacks from your kendo bit-by-bit your kendo will grow. This is not only a technical growth, but you will grow as a human too. Isn’t this a good thing !!?! Our purpose is to strike shotachi, but aiming to remove needless striking is also important. Please pursue this.

Winning by striking simultaneously (aiuchi no katchi)

The essential points in kendo are “shotachi ippon” and “aiuchi no katchi” (winning by striking simultaneously). This is the same essential point as koryu schools like Itto-ryu and Yagyu shinkage-ryu, etc. If you achieve shin-ki-ryoku-icchi then you will be able to strike shotachi and win aiuchi. In other words, understanding the principles is extremely important.

There is an old kendo teaching that goes:


Looking from the outside you can’t tell who has won, i.e. the strike was decided by narrowest of margins (the thickness of a single piece of paper).

Let me give you an example. A long time ago Yagyu Jubei was making a visit to a feudal retainer when, by chance, he met a ronin on the road. “Please sensei, a match. Onegaishimasu.” The match was decided in Jubei’s favour by aiuchi. “One more time!” the ronin asked, and again the match went the same way. “I’ve made all this effort to find you, so one more time, onegaishimasu.” At this point Jubei answered “I have won. It seems that you can’t understand this, so theres no point in fighting again.” At this the ronin got angry and said “if thats the case, then lets use real swords and see.” Jubei replied “No. We only have one life, lets not waste it.” The ronin, ignoring these words, drew his sword and prepared to fight. The ronin attack with a slash and Jubei dispatched him with a single stroke. Although the ronin was dead and the winner was decided, Jubei’s sleeve was cut.

Surely this is the origin of the phrase “let him cut your skin, but cut his flesh” (fans of Kurosawa Akira’s ‘The 7 samurai’ will notice that there is a scene in the movie that is based on this episode). This is aiuchi. Striking when your opponents attacking feeling starts – having the ability to perceive this and to strike first – is the meaning of aiuchi. This is the real “aiuchi no katchi.” Technical skill goes without saying, but you must also have an unperturbed spirit when in kamae. This is mushin, If you do this, then your opponents striking feeling will be reflected in your heart. Shotachi ippon is the the passage way into auchi no katchi. Therefore, this auichi no katchi is the summit of Japanese kendo. In other words, there should be no simple blocking of your opponents attacks.

Thinking about the important points in kendo

This is the last thing I wish to discuss in this lecture. The following is the former chief justice of Japan and 2nd president of the ZNKR (he was also the 5th headmaster of Itto-shoden muto-ryu, the 18th headmaster of Takeda-ha hozoin-ryu sojutsu, and received menkyo-kaiden in Ono-ha itto-ryu from Sasamori Junzo), Ishida Kazuto sensei’s words:

Live when you are alive, and die when when you should die. This is indeed “life and death as one” (死生一如 from Confucius). “Live when you are alive” means to use up all your energy living life to the fullest, and “die when you should die” means that you should proceed to the end in calmness.

The ability to show strong resolution and to make correct judgements during your entire life – it is my conviction that it is this, at the end of the day, where the true meaning of Japanese Budo lies.

The essential point is the removal of the attachments that routinely spring forth from within us, with the mind/heart neither stopping nor stagnating; in other words, by the cultivation of mushin (free from obstructive thoughts) and muga (selflessness, removal of the ego), and by being free of possessions (permeable or otherwise), you can arrive at a situation where your heart and mind are like a clear mirror.

I have not yet arrived at this destination, so for me to explain this to you is arrogant/disrespectful of me. To discuss it in detail is frivolous but at the end of the day you should be facing your opponent in kamae and have “arrived at a situation where your hear and mind are like a clear mirror” – this is the essence of kendo.

The part “This is indeed…. end in calmness” is Ishida sensei explaining the “essence/true meaning of Japanese budo.” To get to this point you need to train for the aiuchi no katchi, which I talked about before.

With reserve, let me look at the section “by the cultivation…. like a clear mirror.” The clear mirror reflects the subject as it is, and if the subject goes away, the mirror goes back to being clear. The mirror doesn’t wonder who or what the subject is or was. The essence/heart of kendo is like this. Yamaoka Tesshu sensei said:

In clear weather it looks great, in cloudy weather it looks great, Mt. Fuji.

In other words, in spite of the situation the essential nature or shape of the mountain does not change. Please transpose Mt Fuji into your heart and suppose this is your true self. “Winning is good, losing is good,” “adversity is good, favourable circumstances are good,” if we go extend this teaching further then we could go as far as saying “dying is good, and so is living.” Nowadays we can’t expect to go to this depth of understanding, but famous people and experts in the past had this purpose in sight when going through their arduous training.

If we look at modern times, there is only one kendoka that I could bring up without hesitation: Yamaoka Tesshu. In the prior paragraph I talked about seeking a depth of understanding, Tesshu went to this final destination. One time, one of his students approached him with a question: “Sensei, what is the secret/essence of kendo?” He answered, “Go and ask the Kannon (Buddhist deity) at Asakusa.” I heard this story when I was young and went to offer a prayer to the Asakusa Kannon. If you look up in the main hall there is a large picture hanging there. It was written by Tesshu. It reads 施無畏 (semui). Tesshu’s secret was the “elimination of fear.” If you can reach the place where “life and death are as one” (死生一如), then you have nothing to fear. At least, this is what I believe.

The reason why I respect Tesshu is that during the attack on Edo (Meiji restoration period), there was a famous episode where the “follower of the enemy of the court (Tokugawa shogunate), Yamaoka Tesshu” managed to slip over the loyalist forces line alone and unaided; he continued pressing forward until he met and negotiated with their leader – the result of which stopped the planned attack on Edo. He not only saved the residents of the city from a dangerous situation, but also put his life on the line for his country and the Shogunate. This is the spirit of kendo’s “aiuchi.” Its bushido. This exists within kendo. Kendo isn’t only just winning and losing. I want to make everyone aware that this amazing spirit is part of kendo, and for you to teach kendo with pride.

The departure point for the pursuit of kendo (剣道の修行) is “sutemi” (the act of attacking with 100%, without fear or hesitation) and the destination is “aiuchi.” You must do keiko with “sutemi.” Give up your body to your enemy. If you wish to pursue the discipline required to train the heart, even if your progress is small or slow, you must always be in this mental state – if we do this I we can get closer to having a heart “like a clear mirror” don’t you think? This is the “Concept of Kendo” – “To discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana.” If the above is true, then you have to ask yourself the question: are you putting KIAI (i.e. your full effort) into your daily pursuit? If you do your upmost at all times then the mirror in your heart will surely open.

Today I talked about how to change “defensive” kendo into “positive/attacking” kendo. If we don’t make this change to attacking kendo, then there is no future for Japanese kendo. This is the danger that we encounter today. I am definitely not over-exaggerating this point. Please, everyone, be more and more diligent over this matter.

I’m sorry for taking such a long time over this matter, thank you for listening. Please have a good year, and lets all try out best this coming year. Thank you.

(this lecture was given on December 1st at Kudansha kaikan hall in Tokyo. Morishima sensei’s lecture was part of the “6th Kendo culture lecture”)

Editors comment

I don’t usually add comments to translations, except for my usual disclaimer, but I would like to add something briefly here. This entire lecture took up 9 pages and required quite a lot of effort for me to translate. I don’t mind making the effort (its education for me after all!) but I do feel slightly nervous regarding my translation ability. There are things that are easily said in one language which cannot be said as easily in another. There are also things in this lecture that fall out of my kendo experience (as yet). As such, I have been quite liberal with my translation in parts, and have had to guess at at the deeper meaning of the words at times.

With this comment/disclaimer in hand, I hope you enjoyed this five part lecture anyway, and that it causes some pause for thought, whether individually or in the pub after keiko. Cheers!



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I'm the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net. Amongst other things I am a high school kendo club coach, an avid practitioner of classical swordsmanship, a history student, and a vegetarian.

20 thoughts on “Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 5)”

  1. George,
    I honestly commend you for the great “translation of the spirit of what was said/written” effort you have been doing.
    This article is very interesting and keeps bringing to the table the discussion about what Kendo has been, what it is, what road it is taking and how we should be aware of keeping the path for using Kendo as a tool for improvement of character.

    “The true beauty of martial arts dwells not only in the physical aspects but more in the mental and spiritual accomplishments you achieve when developing discipline and sense of righteousness. Mules can kick and Kangaroos and bears are said they can punch; if it would be that easy then we know where the masters are.
    Those who do not delve into developing discipline and sense of righteousness will probably miss the best part of it”.SBT

  2. This series was a valuable lesson. Thank you very much for your effort in translating and sharing this with us. For someone outside Japan and without your level of Japanese, these are material that would be inaccessible.

  3. Thank you George! Great work you did here. I will look forward to spread this also in my dojo. Please finish it by putting it all together in one article.

    Thank you very much. That lecture of the sensei was enlightening.

    Gambate Kudasai!

  4. Dear George,
    Thank you so very much for your hard work and dedication. This series has been exceptionally interesting and valuable. My heartfelt thanks and gratitude.


  5. Fab George.
    I’ve been reading this off and on and come back to it during the days I have ‘nothing’ work related to do. Thanks for the time spent on the translation. Much appreciated. I shall get our troops to read this too and let’s hope that it becomes inspirational to them also.

  6. Can’t thank you enough for the effort and time you put in translating this very interesting lecture

  7. You’ve done well G. This was a great speech/essay to translate. There’s a lot of stuff in it I’ve heard before, but Morishima sensei seems to put into clearer language. I’ve been thinking a lot about the concepts he describes. It’s also interesting to have an insight into some of the domestic debates about kendo in Japan. Morishima sensei’s views on sanpomamori are maybe more explicit that I’ve heard before, and perhaps it’s this that makes his arguments more direct and more urgent. b

  8. My first post gentlemen so ‘hello’.

    Two things – excellent series of articles and thanks again to George for the translation. I suspect many people read them several times and keep returning to the ideas they contain – I know I do.

    Second a question – as a very low grade – Nidan – how do I discourage the ‘needless attack’….or do I just let it happen and try to avoid being drawn into doing it myself?……..guidance appreciated.

  9. Alan,

    Thanks for commenting and your kind words!

    As for discouraging needless attacks… you are talking about from yourself I guess? If your opponents are attacking you at the wrong point just ignore it. If its yourself you are worrying about, then its something you have to work towards and discover yourself. The quickest point to get there is to surround yourself with high quality teachers.

  10. Hi,

    I’ll start learning Kendo in september and as I’m growing with enthousiasm with each days, I read a lot about this discipline. Finally I stumbled here and I must say that, even if I didn’t start yet, I feel like I already learnt something very precious and valuable. Thank you a lot for that!

    Tany/Fred, a random 35’ish guy.

  11. Hello George,
    Despite this being a post from last year, I just now read all 5 sections. Truly an amazing presentation and amazing work on your part. One of the best things I’ve read on kendo in a long time.

  12. Thanks Mark!!! Your comment is much appreciated. I read a lot of things in Japanese that I’d love to translate into English but it just takes too long……

  13. George
    Studied Zen for three years under a Iai master. These lectures bring a lot of the deeper concepts back to me in a kendo perspective. They deserve repeated reading by all kendoka. Thank you so much for your translation.


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