Kamae equation

The prerequisite of beautiful kendo is a beautiful kamae

The importance of developing a good kamae is stressed by every kendo instructor that you meet: without a correct kamae, many sensei state categorically, you cannot do correct kendo. Only once your kamae is correct can this lead to execution of correct technique (and thus “beautiful” kendo). It naturally follows, then, that a kamae that is flawed can only lead to flawed strikes, even if the execution is fast and strong.

But what is a correct kamae?

Although I could easily show you a diagram of the definition of a “correct” kamae, the fact of the matter is that individuals develop their own kamae based on their own body characteristics through years of experience. The length of peoples arms and legs, their height and frame, the length of their trunk in comparison to their legs, etc etc, all these parameters are part of what I will call the kamae-equation.

As an individuals kendo career advances, they undoubtedly change their kamae many times. This is a natural part of kendo growth and teachers should not only encourage their advanced students to think deeply about their kamae, but be considerate of individuals physical differences. We should also be aware of physical changes that occur over time and there impact on an individuals kendo. For beginners or less-experienced students, however, its best to try to fix their kamae into a single style until they get more experienced.

The following will not attempt to explain or expand on the above in full, but simply look at a single difference that can be explored when studying kamae. Its up to you as an individual to research further.

Chudan-no-kamae

Walking into a dojo today, each sensei has their own (based on experience) kendo style including, naturally, their own kamae. Even though this is the case, we can say that, very broadly, chudan-no-kamae falls into one of two main – and equally acceptable – types:


From l-r (all sensei are hanshi 9dan): Ota, Shigeoka, Ono, Nakakura

* Straight kamae (chudan-no-kamae)

As you can see by looking at the first 2 sensei in the picture above, their body is straight on, hips are square, and the shinai/sword is pointing directly straight. This style is universally taught to children and beginners, and is the way you must kamae in kendo-no-kata. This is by far the most common way to kamae for the general kenshi.

* Open kamae (seigan-no-kamae)

Looking at the last 2 sensei in the picture above you can easily see that their body is slightly open to the left (hips are diagonal, left foot is sometimes slightly splayed), their left fist is moved to the left, and their shinai is pointing to the right. This is very common kamae seen in elder and/or more experienced kenshi in Japan (I sometimes see it in very good high-school and university level kenshi as well). This is almost probably the more classical or orthodox shape of what we refer to as “chudan” nowadays.

Although I referred to this open kamae as “seigan-no-kamae” above, this nomenclature has fallen out of general use in recent years (or is sometimes used to describe the shape taken when facing a jodan kenshi*). In fact, either of these kamae can correctly be called ‘chudan.’

* this is sometimes called ‘kasumi(-no-kamae)’ but this branding is, it seems, a product of internet forums.

Chudan type vs center line

Commonly the ‘center’ is usually taken to be the line of extension from your kensen to (usually) the vertical line from your opponents forehead down to their stomach/abdomen. ‘Semeai’ is the battle to see who can control this line and, by extension, be in the best position to execute a successful strike. This works fine for the general chudan described above, but for seigan the extension of the kensen tends to be from the opponents left eye, down the left side of their body to their stomach/abdomen. It naturally follows that semeai will be slightly different in this state.

Another often heard explanation is that the ‘center’ is not a line, but a (sometimes triangular) ‘zone’ in which you can freely move your kensen in order to pressure your opponent.

Either way, the ‘center’ is generally a nebulous thing, with a strong psychological element as well as physical aspect attached, the understanding of which only comes after years of training (not that I understand it of-course!!).

Chudan vs Seigan

As a teacher of kendo who is still very much first and foremost a student himself it is, I believe, worthwhile thinking about who uses which type of kamae and why, and which shape leads to easier use of what waza. Not just that, however, I also believe its important to consider your own and your students kendo in total (e.g. age, experience, body type, etc) when it comes to studying kamae and what springs from it (seme(ai) and the execution of techniques, etc). In this way you can develop a correct kamae that fits the individual, and by extension bringing yourself and them closer to our goal of correct and (thus) beautiful kendo.

Summary?

Although this small article is called kamae-quation I didn’t expand the description on that part on purpose. I also chose not to talk about other elements that spring up from the description on chudan types, for example the difference in semai. This to was done on purpose. Japanese kendo manuals are replete with the terms “kenkyu” and ‘kufu” (to research, study, and work things out by yourself), i.e. the final responsibility for the kendo that we do is ourselves. In that way, I offer no summary here, just (maybe) pause for thought.

Support kenshi 24/7 on Patreon!

Published by

George

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.

27 thoughts on “Kamae equation”

  1. Hello again George

    Coincidentally, this is something that has been on my mind for the last week or so. I’ve seen the somewhat skewed type chudan (seigan) that you mentioned, but since I was taught the ‘square’ version that’s what I stuck to.

    I’ve been trying the slightly skewed version, but I wonder if it doesn’t favor the development of bad habits such as an excessive focus on the right hand/side of the body. It does seem to me that you gain a couple of inches by tilting the whole body diagonally to the right and to the front, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not proper kendo.

    Anyway, just food for thought.

    Cheers!

    – Alex

  2. Hakamada Sensei showed me once that the main difference between chudan and seigan (as used above) is the placement of the left wrist vs. left thumb root at center line.

    Ivan (don’t know his full name) has posted a nice article about that on his kendo blog
    covering talks from Toshio Matsumoto (松本 敏夫) about “natural stance kamae”

    http://shinai.blogspot.com/2010/08/natural-stance-kamae.html

  3. Its actually pretty normal in Japan. I don’t think I’ve kamae’d ‘straight’ in years!!

    Yeah, I have almost all of those Matsumoto-sensei articles (those weren’t the basis for this though). Thanks for the link!

    p.s. that Matsumoto’s sensei kamae in the header…. !

  4. That’s actually good news for me at least ’cause I really like the slightly tilted version!

    – Alex

  5. Also interesting is that in seigan-no-kamae the kensen is lower and presumably more forward. It would seem that it would be a more effective kamae for Oji-waza. However I am just a beginner.

  6. @Alex: its good news for me too… !

    @Brian: like the standard straight kamae the height of kensen is moveable. In general (for shinai kendo), lower is good anyway. Both kamae have waza that are more favorably executed from them.

  7. “This is almost probably the more classical or orthodox shape of what we refer to as “chudan” nowadays.”

    It’s certainly the version consistently demonstrated by Takano Sasaburo in his writings, and it’s pretty common in the other books I have from late Meiji to early Showa.

    A few years ago, upon seeing this as Takano sensei’s chudan no kamae, I started thinking about how shidachi could use switching from the “seigan” version to the “chudan” version to lure uchidachi to strike kote in Nihon Kendo Kata no nihonme.

  8. Yeah, I was originally going to use Takano Sasaburo to illustrate this but as I was rooting around my hard drive for the pictures I (re)descovered the above. I think I had originally scanned them about 4 years or so ago.

    I may sometime in the future use him to illustrate the change in kamae in general over the last 100 years. Specifically, it always annoys me when people refer to wakigamae as a stance where you hide your blade…..

  9. Up until now, I haven’t given much thought about kamae, I just tried to do it correctly (i.e. square and straight) but I have found myself recently trying something new, lowering the kensen. It’s not a huge change, but I think by making these little experiments I can improve my Kendo in general. Thanks for the article, it has made me think deeply on the subject

  10. Interesting food for thoughts George, I have come across one hanshi (in particular) who showed how it is possible to have very effective, powerful and flexible kendo from a straight kamae, however I would note that most kodansha seem to prefer more of a seigan, especially the elderly. Maybe it is also partly to do with physical evolution and what their body becomes comfortable with after many years of practice?

  11. I use a mix of Hira seigan and chudan, depending on the situation.

    But for me Hira seigan plays more a defensive role and chudan plays an attacking role.

    Hira seigan is covering the kote and is good to use to counter attacks, and allows me to only attack from limited directions because of the ‘twisted’ look and allows my opponent’s attack to come from a limited angel as well. It is harder for my opponent to take my center so if I get caught not ready, I can step back and mukai tsuki.

    Chudan allows me to attack from many angles and allows my body to move forward from a square position allowing me to put a more aggressive seme. But if I do not have heart or a lot of guts on my attacks, it allows more openings for my opponent.

    Hence, chudan for me is attack and hira seigan is more of a defense.

  12. I also think that seigan used NOT against jodan is called ‘hira seigan’ and seigan used against jodan is just called ‘seigan’

    I could be wrong but it is to my knowledge that these are different terms.

  13. @Burm Kim: basically, if you look at kamae shapes over different koryu you will sometimes see the (more or less) exact same kamae being used. What its called, however, may be different. There are also multiple ways to write ‘seigan’ in kanji which also leads to the confusion. In other words, its very hard (if not impossible) to say ‘x kamae’ is done ‘like this’ and give a definitive answer. To add to this, many people (including high ranked sensei) are unaware of the historical background of the kamae they are doing, so confusion abounds. Chudan, seigan, hira-seigan…. they are basically all ‘chudan.’

    You are the first person I’ve ever heard of who attempts to mix shapes! Your take is quite interesting.

  14. George,

    the interesting question is if going to hira-segan makes hidari kote a valid datotsu. Per rule book it is, but I had never seen/heard it awarded. Only times we’ve seen hidari kote had been given when person was in jodan or in “high school” high block (that was in encho).

    here is some discussion of this at Kendo Guide, take a look http://www.kendo-guide.com/datotsu-to-hidari-kote-left-kote-.html

  15. Hey, thanks for commenting.

    The answer to your question is simple: a hidari-kote strike will never be awarded unless the person you strike is in jodan or some sort of nito-kamae.

    I’m surprised that you seen it awarded when someone was doing the high-block thing… was that in Japan or elsewhere? Do you have a link to a video? Sounds like a shinpan mistake to me.

    btw ‘seigan’ is a normal chudan position, and I could argue that its ‘more’ normal that the type of chudan we see nowadays. Therefore hidari-kote is not valid anyway in that kamae.

    Hope that helps!
    – George

  16. I`ve seen some very striaght kamae during my time here in Japan. and mine indeed was quite straight until I moved to where i now live. Everyone here (almost everyone) is seigan, though they mostly give me different reasons as to why. maybe what they have been told or thier own interpretations?? I dont know. I did ask one of the higher level police guys here for his take. its hard to explain, not even sure if I understood him right. But in his words the main difference is the left fist. with seigan the bulk of your fist will be to the left of your navel with just the knuckle of your left thumb centred. this allows for a natural triangle with your hands and shoulders. with a straight kamae its more unatural and takes more effort to keep a good kamae as your hands would be inline with each other and your navel. dont know if you can picture this but he showed me pretty convincingly that with the seigan method when you apply seme you only need to apply half seme( dont take the full centre) but then once you are into you attack the rest of the centre line will open to you. If you apply full seme and take the centre line(too early/ fully) its very easy for higher levels to knock away or whatever. he then said to look at some 8th dans and the people attacking. he did point out thatit depends on the people and situation at the time.he also said that those strong sensei with very straight kamae can do that because they are afraid of nothing, and have probably come full circle with thier kamae.
    I cant remember all that was said, so it`s probably out of context and I`m on the turps (on a tues. to) so take it with a pinch of salt.

  17. The question of hidari-kote being a valid datotsu-bui is interesting. The Musashi-kai sensei (Sasaki, 7-dan, Fujii, 7-dan, Sato, 6-dan) say that if the opponent is in hira-seigan or kasumi-no-kamae, then hidari kote is a valid target. This comes up in nito-ryu study as many people take unusual kamae in the face of nito. But they acknowledge that many shimpan are not aware of this and you cannot count on scoring even if all the conditions of datotsu are met. The current text of the rules says something like “when in a kamae other than chudan” hidari-kote is valid. I’m not sure that there is a current written rule specifically clarifying this anywhere. Is there?

  18. @Marcus – cheers for the comment. Yeah, its pretty common in Japan, especially amongst older sensei.

    @Brian – ‘valid’ depends entirely on the people involved and the situation you are in (including what your aim of practising kendo is) I guess. For shiai (which is only a small aspect of kendo) the rules state:

    小手部は、中段の構えの右小手(左手前の左小手)および 中段以外の構えなどのときの左小手または右小手
    “for kote, in chudan kamae the valid target is the right kote (or the left kote if your left hand is in front) or, for kamae other than chudan, left and right kote.”

  19. George,

    thanks for the comments.. don’t remember.. it has been in some tournament, might have been at nationals here in US. It was a clear point kenshi feigned men (his opponent was excessively blocking) and then made cut to kote which was above eye level. Big sound, 3 flags go up.

    out of curiosity.. if I am reading the rule correctly the “in chudan kamae the valid target is the right kote (or the left kote if your left hand is in front)” would mean that in reverse chudan (left hand in front) right kote would not be a datotsu-bui, right?

  20. @Cyclopathic – thats right. An example would be say if someone is handicapped in some way and use the hands the other way around or perhaps only have one hand. I’ve seen it. The situation you mentioned would have had to be *amazing* to convince experienced judges (in Japan at least).

    @Brian: that is a variation of chudan and not a ‘kamae’ per-se, no questions asked. As I was suggesting above, in practise a strike to the left kote in shiai would not be awarded with a point, I did not say that it would not be acknowledged as an ippon in other circumstances.

    All seems pretty straightforward to me (and there is wide consensus to it in Japan).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *