Along with Naito Takaharu, Takano Sasaburo (1862-1950) is rightly considered one of the fathers of modern kendo. There are many reasons why he can be considered so (see a full bio of Sasaburo here) but the one of interest to us today was the publication of the highly influential kendo manual (sometimes referred to as the “bible” of kendo) simply titled “Kendo” by Sasaburo in 1915.
“Kendo,” based on years of research and almost certainly influenced by Kano Jigoro (who Sasaburo worked under), discussed kendo in a more logical manner than kendo books up until that time had, in particular it tackled the process of instruction and the purpose of kendo in the teaching environment comprehensively. The impetus for this book was, of course, the recent inclusion of kendo as a school subject for boys (which was also, btw, the reason the kendo kata were created).
In 1930 Sasaburo would go on to publish what is basically a revised and extended version of the 1915 book, which he called “Kendo Kyohon.”
Although Sasaburo is credited as the author of both books the contents are, in fact, only partly his own work (exactly what percentage is hard to say). Some of the sections were written by others and simply edited, put together, and published under Sasaburo’s name.
Now and then I think about translating it into English, but it would be a mammoth task and unfortunately only a very small percentage of kendo practitioners would be interested in it. Besides, many/most of the concepts, ideas, and teachings have been repeated in other kendo books over the years (including my own), so I’m not sure – except for the crazy kendo nerds like myself – theres a need for it.
Anyway – after all that! – todays article is not a translation of part of the book. Instead what I have done is to take a chapter from the book and used the headings and points therein and expanded on them using my own words (influenced by the content of the book and my own experience). I hope you find it interesting.
Victory and Defeat
Here are 15 points (as found in “Kendo”) that influence your chances of winning (or losing) a kendo match, be it in shiai or jigeiko.
1. Mittsu no sen
This refers to sen-sen-no-sen, sen, and go-no-sen.
Although a common concept in modern kendo’s lexicon many people don’t quite get the idea… perhaps because of it’s often subjective and nebulous nature (I’m not even sure I’ve got it yet!). Confusion sometimes occurs because of the overlap with other traditions that have the same (or similar) ideas but use slightly different terminology.
Sen-sen-no-sen is when you strike the opponent in the instant he has made up his mind to attack but before (ideally) it actually appears in physical form. In this way, strikes like these can have a mysterious quality to them (they might even seem like magic), and obviously it is difficult to actually confirm that this is what actually happened. This is part of the nebulous nature mentioned above.
Taking the initiative and striking first or luring the opponent into attacking you then striking, is considered sen. In this state – generally the default one in kendo – you continually prod and threaten your opponent proactively at all times in order to make an opening (suki) or force them to make a mistake (also suki) to take advantage of.
When the opponent has noticed an opening (non-deliberate) in you and strikes, reacting to this and striking in reply (often instinctively, without thought) is called go-no-sen. In experienced kenshi this is the least desirable of the three.
There is, obviously, a lot of overlap between the three states. For example an equally successful kaeshi-dou can be executed first by luring an opponent in and striking (sen) or reactively when your opponent suddenly attacks (go-no-sen). A successful men or kote strike can fall anywhere on the spectrum depending… though you could only properly call it “debana” if it was not struck after the fact (i.e. go-no-sen).
Due to the subjective element at play here, it can sometimes be hard to categorise our kendo in this way. At any rate, Sasaburo states that:
“In searching for SEN it is essential that you learn the myriad strategies of attack and defence, and to understand that every victory is borne out of one of these three states.”
2. There is only attack
When the opponent strikes unexpectedly we often try to block their shinai, dodge out of the way, knock their shinai to the side, etc., that is, we make an effort to stop their attack from making contact. This in itself is fine, but if we do so with the sole intention of stopping an attack then it shows inexperience.
In an ideal situation every seemingly “defensive” action would turn immediately into an offensive counter attack. I say immediately but Sasaburo says it should be the same action, like the fire that is produced the instant you strike stones together.
The renowned kiriotoshi of Itto-ryu is not cutting the enemy’s sword down then winning, it is one action: you cut through the enemy’s sword into their head (or naturally thrust into their body).
To give some easily understandable modern shinai kendo examples: men kaeshi-dou (blocking a men strike and cut dou), men nuki-dou (evading a men strike and cutting dou), kote suriage-men (blocking a kote attack and striking men), kote nuki-men (evading a kote attack and striking men), hiki-dou kaeshi-men (blocking a hiki-dou attack and striking men), tsuki suriage-men (blocking a thrust and striking men), etc.
Another kendo term used to describe this (but not used in “Kendo”) is “Kobo-ichi” – attack and defence as one. One term that Sasaburo does use is “Isshin-itto.” It’s literal meaning of “one heart one sword” brings us seemingly into the mysterious again, but it basically means to do something with a single intention, i.e. to block/evade and attack in a single rhythm.
Seemingly an easy concept, I think the reality of doing this constantly is very difficult.
Btw, another way to look at this concept is that pro-active attacking is itself, in a way, a type of defence. If you opponent is overwhelmingly powerful sometimes it’s better to attack them than just wait to be struck. Hopefully they will be overly concerned with your attacks to forget to attack themselves (hopefully!) and you might just fluster them enough to get a good strike in.
3. Ken-tai ichi
This concept is easily explained by looking at the kanji:
ken: to attack
tai: to wait
ichi: in unison
Literally, “attacking and waiting in unison” the exact timing of which can be elucidated further by looking at a related phrase: ken-chu-tai, tai-chu-ken, the “chu” section being 中 (“within” or “while” in this circumstance).
In other words, while you are physically attacking your opponent, while your body and shinai are moving quickly, you should be calm and controlled (watching the opponent carefully) on the inside (i.e., spiritually and mentally). The reverse is also true: while on the outside you might not be moving a lot, on the inside you are calculating, strategising, and mentally pressuring your opponent.
Another, more poetic phrase hints at the same idea:
Movement and stillness as one
Personally, this is my preferred term to use when teaching this concept as it can not only be used to discuss kendo, but it also hints at how we should (or how I’d like to) deal with the varied problems that we face in our lives on a day-to-day basis.
Obviously many of the points in this list overlap and connect, and this section has strong connections to points 3 and 4.
4. The clear mirror of victory
When it comes to competing in shiai you should be free from worldly desires (Munen-muso). If you do desire strongly to win then you are already handicapped from the start. If you can keep yourself free of desire then all you need do is to be confident in the hard training you have done and allow yourself to respond freely to whatever situation comes up during the flow of the shiai. Mastery of ken-tai-ichi in particular is important here.
If you think too deeply, or strategise too much, your plans will not only appear on the outside and be read by your opponent, but you may become stiff and unable to move as freely as you could.
It’s very difficult, but maintaining a calm state of mind (and body) like this is one in which you can be said to be as clear and clean as a mirror.
5. Victory through the enemy
Again, this concept is strongly connected to what we wrote before. It also suggests that the desire to cut and thrust the enemy is a handicap. Rather, you have to, in a way, “give yourself over” to them, to follow their actions closely, to allow them to move as they want, and to adapt yourself to them in order to achieve victory. By doing so carefully you will be ready to take advantage of any openings that appear within them (which naturally appear in everybody). In the same way, also, you can select the right course of action to induce those openings.
It follows through that having a clear mind and mastery of ken-tai ichi is, if not a prerequisite, strongly desirable. Acting in this manner should be like the moon and the tide, or the reflection of something in the water, that is, natural and unforced. Needless to say, it’s not something that comes easily.
6. Don’t strike twice
A better title should be “don’t strike the same place in the same manner twice.” A good opponent will not only get wise to your strategy quickly and ready himself for your next attack, but it shows your own lack of technique variation. Even if your strategy works once or even twice, you shouldn’t do it a third time.
It’s common knowledge that the Japanese and Korean national teams (and America I think) video each others competitors and analyse the type of kendo (including technique selection) that is exhibited. Although you might not be such an elite competitor, it’s highly possible that your friends or people in the same shiai circuit are watching and making notes about what style of kendo you do in order to defeat you in the next shiai. The solution is, of course, to practise and master a wide range of techniques that can be executed against a variety of kendo styles.
7. Be quiet at the beginning
It’s often the case that youngsters or the inexperienced simply fly off the white line in an attempt to strike men (or kote) at the start of a shiai (some even do it in jigeiko). There is little concern about any meeting of minds or crossing of swords here. The whole act of “seme-ai” (the mutual play for the upper hand) before strikes are executed (or lured) doesn’t exist.
When the action starts, things can get a bit frantic with lots of movement, shouting, strikes, and tai-atari, but before the clash of shinai and body it’s better to seme-ai carefully and quietly.
8. Strike and be victorious in one action
When you calculate that the opponent is weak, or if they attempt to retreat due to fear, step in strongly and quickly dispatch them in one action.
I don’t think the concept of sutemi needs a long description here as I think everyone gets it. However, I think it’s very hard to attack with sutemi constantly in our daily keiko. In a way, it’s probably impossible, at least while we are in the process of learning kendo. Shiai (and I think degeiko also), however, provides us with a great opportunity to put this into practise.
In theory, once the decision to attack has been made, you should be attacking with such abandon that you care neither for life nor death.
In Itto-ryu, zanshin is the result of properly executed sutemi. If you have a cup of water and flick your hand so that the water flies out, this is sutemi. The small bit of water that remains in the cup is zanshin. I’ll let you ponder that!
10. Don’t match the enemy’s style
When playing rock-scissors-paper if you both put out rock then there is no victory. If one puts our rock and the other paper then the seemingly weaker paper beats the hard rock. This concept is the same in kendo.
If your opponent is attacking rashly and strongly it’s best not to get riled up and react in the same manner. Rather, you should reply to his power softly, using it against him or waiting for his inevitable mistake. In the same way, if the opponent attacks weakly you should reply strongly; if they use chudan you should go into gedan and pressure their fists from below; and if they use gedan you should use chudan and press down on them from above.
In other words, victory can sometimes be found by deliberately not matching the opponents style.
11. Victory through heart/spirit, not through form
Some people grow to be tall, some don’t. Some people exercise a lot when they are younger, others go to MacDonalds and eat junk food. There are lots of different people, body types, and shapes in the world. Some people are very athletic. Some people look strong but aren’t, and others look weak but are in fact powerful. Kendo-wise, when I face a very tall person who has good understanding of their maai I generally don’t manage to do my best kendo against them… well what I want to say is that I can’t hit their men!! I’m sure I’m not the only person with this problem.
Reading this section in “Kendo” was a revelation for me. Sasaburo suggests that if you forget the “form” element, i.e. how tall or short your opponent is, how athletic or non-athletic you are, etc., and focus on doing kendo “through your spirit/heart” (that is, sutemi) then the physical shape of things don’t matter. Kendo becomes a spiritual battle and, thus, through daily arduous training, a tool for spiritual polishing.
With this in mind I’ve suddenly realised that my “tall opponent complex” is in fact a spiritual weakness. I must train more!
12. Startle the enemy
This is a very simple concept – simply do something unexpected to surprise the opponent into opening an area up which you can take advantage of and attack.
For example attack from an unexpected angle, suddenly make a noise (e.g. fumikomi or kiai without actually attacking), feint, strike their shinai, etc.
Unknowingly, people can affect the actions and emotions of others. We do this often through facial expressions, hand gestures, tone, etc. we mimic other people unconsciously relatively often. Everybody has “caught” someone else’s yawn.
But what about kendo? Have you ever noticed your movement being influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by your opponents? What about your mood? Have you ever tried to influence your opponent to act or react in some unconscious manner?
I can think of numerous things that fall into this category. Here are a small handful of examples of things that I do to influence my opponent hopefully without their knowledge (you can probably think of more):
– changing kiai to aggravate or calm my opponent down;
– stopping kiai completely;
– pressuring my opponents kote causing their hands to move up unconsciously;
– standing on my toe tips or sinking down (often my opponent will mimic this).
I have more to add but I don’t want to give all my secrets away!
14. Be careful not to have your concentration snapped away
This is the reverse of point 13. Whatever the opponent is doing, for example if he takes a strange kamae, shows an opening, feints, or suddenly shouts, never allow your concentration to falter and allow yourself to be drawn in by their strategy. If you do you will allow an opening to unconsciously appear, and you will be struck.
15.Know thy enemy
The last point of the 15 is a simple one: understand your enemy. What are their habits (good and bad), the techniques they favour, their personality, etc. The more information you have on them the more you can use to your benefit. If you aren’t in possession of good information you may under or overestimate their ability, either of which can be a recipe for disaster.
So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Like I mentioned within the body of the article, there is a lot of overlap here. Some things might even be contradictory, but that’s ok! I also mentioned at the top of the piece that I used a chapter of Sasaburo’s “Kendo” only as a starting point – this is mostly my own interpretation of the content based on my experience. I hope that you can find at least one or two useful things therein. Cheers!
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p.s. “ichi” or “icchi” = the same. I don’t care for grammar or spelling police.