Kendo kotoba

Kendo kotoba

I wandered into the dojo a week or so back, and overnight my sensei had written and taped some kendo-specific kanji to the wall (see picture above).

The terms are very commonly used when talking about or describing kendo, but I thought I’d use this this opportunity to go over them here. As an added bonus, his handwriting is beautiful – enjoy!

For each term I will present the ‘official’ translations available from the Japanese-English dictionary of kendo where available (italicised), then supplement my own additions after that. The final version of my additions became somewhat larger than I intended, sorry!

The descriptions of the words are written below as the appear on the picture from top-bottom and right-left (the traditional direction of Japanese writing). Pay careful attention to the order that the vocabulary are presented in, as its not random.

HASSEI (発声)

The act of vocalising. The act of shouting at the opponent when facing each other. The act of shouting kote, men, do, when striking.

KIAI (気合)

The state where one is fully focused on the opponents move and one’s planned moves. Also, it refers to the vocalisations one produced when in such a state of mind.

The words hassei, kiai, and (not mentioned above) kakegoe, are three – at times – overlapping and interrelated words that we in the English kendo community commonly package (mistakenly) into single word: kiai. Why is this mistaken? Basically, kiai refers to a feeling of focus and determination, an internal will or drive to do something (e.g. desire to pass an exam, determination to ask a girl you like out on a date, etc). Sometimes (though not always) this is expressed vocally as a shout. We are in the habit of calling this kiai, but its probably more correctly termed kagekoe. Hassei is the act of doing kakegoe.

KIHAKU (気魄)

The strength of spirit to face any situation. Also called ki-gai. A strong mind capable of responding properly to a pressing matter or an attacking opponent.

To express kihaku in your kendo you would stand up and face your opponent without wavering. A power, both mental and physical, with which you face adversary. If your kendo lacks kihaku, its empty.

SAN-SAPPO (三殺法)
KEN O KOROSU (剣を殺す)
WAZA O KOROSU (技を殺す)
KI O KOROSU (気を殺す)

An important teaching concerning three ways to overwhelm an opponent. The three ways are ‘killing the ki (spirit),’ ‘killing the sword,’ and ‘killing the waza.’ Killing the ki means that one’s ki overwhelms the opponents ki, thereby forestalling his/her attack. Killing the sword means that one controls the movement of the tip of the opponent’s sword by restraining or deflecting the sword. Killing the waza means that one anticipates the opponent, giving him/her no chance to attack.

The order of the terms in the ‘official’ description above is misleading, and the descriptions simplified. The order that my sensei wrote it shows a flow of progression to maturity. When kenshi are in an immature stage they tend to attack their opponents by hitting their sword away, pushing and/or slapping it up or down, left and right, and jumping suddenly in to attack. As they become more experienced they start luring in the opponents attack and defeating them as they attempt to strike. The final stage of this progression, of the truly mature kenshi, is when they are able to overwhelm and control their opponent through mental power alone. It sounds a little bit fantastic but, as any experienced kenshi knows, it happens.

SEME (攻め)
SEME-KOMU (込む)
SEME-KIRU (切る)
SEME-KATSU (勝つ)

To take the initiative to close the distance with the opponent in full spirit. This puts the opponent off balance mentally and physically and prevents him/her from moving freely. This enables one to maintain a constant advantage over the opponent. In kendo its important to intentionally attack and strike, not to just strike by chance. The back and forth action of offense and defense involved in seme (attacks) and seme-kaesu (counterattacks) not only improves the skill of both players but also develops their minds and bodies. All of this leads to the mutual self-creation of both people and to the building of human character.

Here, my sensei has broken the act of seme into three parts. Seme-komu is the act of driving in for the attack. This can be in a physical or mental sense. Seme-kiru is the act of finalisation of the strike, and Seme-katsu refers to victory as consequence of the attack. Seme is not something singular but, rather, has its own progression. Seme without seme-kiru or seme-katsu leads to nothing.

KOKYU (呼吸)

The act of inhaling and exhaling. In kendo this term also means to predict the opponent’s movement and adjust one’s moves accordingly as part of the interaction with the opponent.

KI (気)

The basic energy which exists in all matter that is born, develops, and dies. In human beings, it is the source of the kinetic energy responsible for perception, sensation, and instinct. In kendo, it refers to the environment surrounding one’s self and one’s opponent, and it is the basic energy in making the functioning of one’s body and mind full and harmonious.

Breathing is taught little in modern kendo circles nowadays, mainly because even some of the most senior teachers aren’t schooled in the traditional breathing methods. AUN NO KOKYU is usually mentioned at this juncture. It is a method usually associated with zen meditation (and sometimes yoga) which refers to not only breathing, but a sort of mental harmony between you and your partner, with the goal being a unification with the entirety of existence.

Looking at the description of kokyu and ki above, you can see that kokyu’s function is to tap into ki. This results in gaining access to all the energy in the universe, becoming one with it. In other words, kendo is simply a physical activity (any activity would actually do) who’s purpose is to unite you with the universe. Your partner helps you with this… they are not the enemy, and winning/losing are irrelevant. Kendo’s final goal is revealed through kokyu.

UCHIKIRU (打ち切る)

Simply tapping or hitting your opponents armour is not good enough for ippon. It has to be a strong strike with good tenouchi. It should be strong enough that your opponent (and any watching shinpan or grading panel) can acknowledge the strike, but not so hard or heavy to cause injury or pain. The strike must be deliberate and definite.

ZANSHIN (残心)

The body posture and state of mind in which, even after striking, one is alert and ready to respond instantly to any counterattack by the opponent. Generally speaking, after striking one should put the proper distance between one’s self and the opponent and face him/her in the chudan posture in order to be ready for a possible counterattack. If one cannot move the proper distance from the opponent, one should put the tip of one’s shinai in the center or around the throat of the opponent to guard against a counterattack.

Zanshin is often mistakenly taken to be simply a physical state, as suggested in the description above. It also tends to be thought of something that comes after a strike. In actual fact, zanshin should exist in your kendo at all times, right from when you face your opponent and bow (ritsurei) until you finish. I might even go as far as to say that you should aim to be ‘switched on’ and aware at all times, whether that is in the dojo – you see a student looking tired and like they are about to collapse and make them sit out – or at the bar after keiko – you see your sempai is about to finish his beer and you quickly order the next one.


Minus the extra information I added in my additions, you can see that there is a logical progression from Hassei (kakegoe/kiai) through to Zanshin in the kanji shown above, from your first shout, through to pressure, attacking, and finally zanshin.

What we have described here then is, in the end, the act of hitting an ippon. I hope this extended definition of kendo terms is useful!!!

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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.

12 thoughts on “Kendo kotoba”

  1. Thanks for sharing this! Certainly a different take on what could have otherwise been YAG (yet another glossary). I really appreciate the exposition on your teacher’s lesson.

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