Tenouchi for men cutting

Editors comment

I have a load of kendo books and magazines at my desk at work. In amongst these I have a couple of kendo-specific scientific sports conditioning and training books. I use these as reference and pick them up for a leaf through quite regularly. Last December I randomly took a picture of a nice diagram from one of them and posted it on the kenshi247 facebook wall. It showed the action of how the shinai moves in your hand as you start and complete a strike. The picture caused a bit of debate on facebook (for and against) so I decided to translate and present the text that goes along with the picture here. I must stress that this is only PART of a larger topic and urge you to read the original book if this topic interests you (see source).

As I noted on facebook, in a dojo of 10 sensei you will get 10 different methods of striking men. I know this through experience. Although kendo does have a general ‘set’ method (defined by the ZNKR) it does – in fact – allow for a breadth of style. To exclaim that this or that is ‘wrong’ shows, I believe, not only inflexibility of mind, but potentially of method also. So, even if you don’t adhere to the method explained here, at least realise that many people actually do. What would be nice, however, would be that the people who don’t use this method to actually try it… a bit of research and self study (called KUFU in Japanese) is required in budo after all.

As implied by the above, please realise that this is not some ‘how to do kendo properly’ article at all, but is presented for your (and my) study purposes. One of the well-known kendo phrases is:

‘Everybody but myself is my teacher’

Tenouchi for men cutting

Look at the picture. It shows the tenouchi, specifically the rather unique usage of the pinky, and its role in energy manifestation in a kendo competitors left hand (as the muscle is extended power is generated). As you can see, as finger/hand muscles are being used the shinai-gashira (the bottom of the shinai) moves/slides between the up and down swing. This unique manipulation of the area around the pinky allows for faster control of the shinai, e.g. when you do kirikaeshi. It also allows for a finer control of the shinai tip.

Although this picture mainly demonstrates the action of the left hand in kirikaeshi, let us think about the position of the thumb and index finger and its role as a fulcrum for the pinky leverage. In this situation the wrist is in a fixed position (i.e. it doesn’t move). If the wrist bends the leverage mechanism will disappear and shinai speed and the ability to do kirikaeshi will be compromised. It follows that if the wrist is fixed then the fulcrum power of the hand can be used and kirikaeshi speed will increase.

If you move the wrist further than needed you risk compromising the ability to snap the wrists when you strike. Please be careful of this.

Lets think about it a little bit more. What we found out before (read the book – see sources) is that – when raising the shinai tip to strike – you risk losing energy in the strike if you bend your wrists in an awkward or crooked manner. Instead, as you raise the shinai tip to strike, keep your wrist fixed and allow the shinai to ‘slide’ in your hands. Ok, so where does the energy start from when you start to raise your shinai tip?

This energy comes from the elastic energy produced by the fumikiri movement (pushing of) from the left foot. As the body is being pushed forward the movement transfers energy (inertia) from the lower body to the left side of the body and arm, and the leverage of the left and right hands causes the start of movement in the shinai tip. Using the elastic energy that is transmitted up from and through the left side of your body plus the coordination of the bend of the muscles in the left shoulder, hand control, and the angle of the raised shinai tip, allows you to the possibility of changing the timing of your men strikes.

Elite competitors say ‘technical ability = the knack of striking men’ (i.e. if you can master how to do a men strike the rest will naturally follow). Once you have this control/knack you can attack with various timings, strike from various positions, be able to turn/rotate your shinai at will, and strike with correct hasuji (‘blade angle’) etc. For example, once you have this control you won’t lift your shinai tip up further than you have to when you strike.

The control of the shinai tip is found through the transmission of elastic energy from lower body >> body trunk >> upper body >> tenouchi (hands) >> shinai.




UPDATE: Check out some youtube footage of the DVD that comes with the book that was released prior to the source listed above:

Sequencing your kendo DNA

(this article mentions kendo specifically, but can apply to any budo)

I often get email from people abroad wishing to join Eikenkai or Yoseikai pracises when travelling through Osaka, and the odd email about people wishing to look for dojo in places outside of the Kansai area. The usual format is “Hello, my name is X and I am Y grade.” After that I may get more information, for example where they practise, the duration of their experience, and – less commonly – their teachers name. People with experience in training in Japan, however, find that when first entering a dojo they are usually asked these questions in the reverse order, i.e. the initial question asked is “who is your sensei?”

Over the net, if someone tells me their age, duration of experience, and grade I can make a pretty good guess of where I think they should/may be technically. Generally. However, this is just what it is: a guess. I can’t possibly know how they do kendo or – more importantly – their attitude to it. This is where telling me your teacher becomes very important. If I know your teacher – either personally, through word of mouth, or reputation – its a much better indicator to me about your method, style, and purpose for practising, which is arguably more important than simply how good you are. Even if you are not so experienced now, if your teacher is well thought of then I know that you are going in the right direction. These people – i.e. those I can easily profile – I am more inclined to spend more of my time to help out. In the same vein, I know that the initial treatment you receive when attending a new dojo in Japan can be affected (both positively and negatively) depending on your answer to the initial “who is your sensei?” question.

Of course there are many times when people mention instructors whom I don’t know, and at that time mentioning your teachers-teacher can be useful. Since I study mainly under a couple of teachers, one being relatively well known (in Japan) the other not so, I often qualify the other sensei when I go to a new place by telling a little bit about his background.

How many people actually know their teachers teacher and what qualifies as a ‘teacher’ anyway? These questions might seem sudden, but they are an important part of this discussion. Let me tackle these questions in reverse.

A teacher is someone you learn from and study under for a (somewhat long) duration. Someone – at least in the earlier stages of your kendo career – you simply copy. If they are a good teacher you will never outgrow them. They should hopefully also be someone who has reached a proper teaching level. It follows that I do not – and I hope you don’t either – consider someone my teacher if I do kendo with them at seminars once or twice a year, even if that spans multiple years or even decades (if they are Japanese then they almost certainly don’t consider me their student in that situation anyway, despite what I or you may wish to believe).

Your teachers teacher is obviously someone that your teacher spent many years studying under, and is possibly someone who you have never met. What good is it knowing about them anyway? If your teacher is serious he/she probably limited themselves to a small number of instructors and studied under them for a good many years. What they learned from their teacher is what they imparted to you. So your teachers teacher has, in effect, influenced your own kendo as well (fundamentally so). So when someone asks you “who is your sensei?” or “whats your experience?” its not only much more useful (to the experienced questioner) but may even be more ‘correct’ (in a traditional manner) to tell them not only your immediate teacher, but your teachers teacher as well (especially if your teacher is not well known). If you list a few dojo’s or multiple names (or heaven forbid, you can’t think of anyone who you would gladly call your ‘sensei), then I’d say you’ve not just gone of on a dangerous tangent, but you are not doing ‘Kendo,’ at least in an orthodox manner.

Kendo is – as I’m sure you don’t need a reminder of – a physical tradition that is taught not through websites, books, and certainly not through video, but is a living tradition taught and learned physically and verbally. If knowing your teachers teacher is to (start to) know your own roots, then it follows that not having a teacher means you have no base.

Unnatural selection a.k.a. the bespectacled watchmaker

Like a lot of people when I was in my teens I often wondered if the strange people living in my home were actually my relatives – their ideas seemed so alien to me I suspected that I might have been adopted!!! As a poor student living hand to mouth I was often bitter about being born in a family that was far from wealthy. As you can guess, I was (am?!) quite an ungrateful son! We can’t choose to whom we are born nor (at the moment anyway) whats going to pop out in the maternity wing. Luckily, kendo-wise, we DO have the ability to choose, for want of a better word, our parent(s) and our genealogy.

What we are taught and study in the dojo is simply the physical (and verbal) teachings of generations of instructors. From your teacher you simply inherit what they were taught and these teachings are, if you will, part of your kendo DNA. Naturally, choosing a ‘bad’ teacher leads to a dubious (even bleak at times) future.

So when you go to new hospital or visit a new doctor and you are asked about any congenital conditions in your families background, maybe you will recall your first visit to a Japanese dojo when they asked you “Who is your sensei?”


Obviously peoples learning experiences and situations are different. Some people may not even be interested in their teachers teacher or further down the line. But for those of us that take the study of kendo seriously, researching and discovering your roots is, I believe, vitally important.

The kanji for KEIKO means – as everyone knows – to ‘reflect’ on the ‘past.’ One basic meaning of this is ‘repetition’ – to repeat what you have (and your teacher, and their teacher, and… has) done before, polishing and refining it.

I remember *Ken-Zen dojo’s Ebihara-sensei stop and tell the class one day:

“Everything you do in the dojo has been done before. You might think you have made up some new technique or strategy for attacking but thats rubbish. Its all been done before. Just repeat kihon. This is keiko.”

(I paraphrase – I have a strong memory of the scene and the gist of what was said, but not the exact words. I was a young and immature kendoka in Ken-zen in the mid/late 90s… I hope my understanding of Ebihara-sensei’s words are correct, in content if not in words.)

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.


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.


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.

Kakashi jodan 案山子上段

There are some people that take jodan-no-kamae whilst sparring their sempai or sensei. Jodan is about overpowering the enemy and forcing their technique, spirit, and power to cower before yours, all the while unreservedly attacking any of their openings wholeheartedly (sutemi). To reach the point where you can do this requires a long and arduous training regime. Even skilled masters take 30 or 40 years after first putting on their bogu to reach this level… so its only really these people that are ready to take jodan. People that try jodan without first reaching this level have a kamae that is completely open to attack and – whether they are on the attack or are attacking – they just look clumsy. Their attacks are strangely groping-like, relying only on luck and good fortune for success. This type of jodan has been called KAKASHI-JODAN from a long time ago.

(‘kakashi’ means someone who takes the outward form of something for the sake of status or pride despite their lack of ability to do the thing they say or attempt to do. It can also refers to scarecrows – they look human, but they aren’t.)

It we gathered all the current active hanshi and split them into 4 groups and ask each “What do you think makes good jodan?” we’d have a lot of discussion on the matter… jodan is that difficult to master.

In other words, it is only superior level kenshi should be taking it up and beginners or low-skilled people using such a prestigious kamae against their sensei or sempai are simply rude. For people that wish to make their opponents look foolish (i.e. use the kamae in order simply to strike their opponents, win at shiai, or to get prestige and look cool through using it) I want to tell you that this is an unacceptable attitude.

Even if our partner is of the same level we are taught to say “GO BU-REI SHIMASU” (‘I’m being impolite’) before taking jodan; people using the kamae must fully understand why they say this.

My point is that there are many more important things worthy of study than simply the desire to hit people, and I want you to think of and work on these things instead. I’ve other things to say on the matter but I’ll leave it here. I hope this can be of some aid.

– Nakayama Hakudo

Editors comment

The above small piece is Nakayama Hakudo’s comments on jodan. He has a particularly strong opinion on who is eligible to practise jodan. Takano Sasaburo, senior to and probably a more influential kenshi than him, forced all of his students at Tokyo Shihan Gakko to practise jodan in their 3rd year of school (he was training people to be kendo teachers however). As a hanshi active at the same time as Nakayama, he serves to illustrate a different approach than the one above.

Although the era and the style of kendo in which Nakayama wrote the above is different from ours, it doesn’t take a close inspection of youtube to see that many people attempt jodan far to early on in their careers (never mind nito…). Kakashi jodan, as Nakayama would recognise it, is sadly still very alive today.


中山博道剣道口述集。堂本昭彦 (原者:中山善道・稲村栄一)。スキージャーナル株式会社。2007年発行。

DIY#5: Take Dou – A Labor of Love

When I heard that my friend Eric Aerts had actually hand made a dou from nothing I had to get an article out of him! He kindly wrote the following and supplied pictures. Check out the link at the end of the article to see more pictures of the various steps. Enjoy!

I can recall my father waking me on Saturday mornings to do maintenance work on his old wooden sailboat and how I would groan and roll my eyes at the prospect of a day spent (wasted) sanding and varnishing in what is the on-going battle for all wooden boat owners against time and the elements. Although it was a truly beautiful vessel, and this a labor of love for my father, it is difficult to explain how much I hated the seemingly endless hours of detailed woodworking and finishing. Despite my childhood aversion to this type of chore, those force-fed lessons would eventually serve me well as I came to relish working and creating with my own hands – certainly, there are few tasks more gratifying. Eventually, I began to combine my love of craftsmanship with another passion – kendo.

Initially, I started by making shinai tsuba – hand-carved from exotic hardwoods to resemble the iron designs of nihonto tsuba. These broke too easily so I made them for bokuto (kendo no kata) instead. Next, I designed and made daisho stands using sambar dear antlers (the first of these as a gift for my sensei).

What I really wanted to tackle, but was honestly a bit intimidated to take-on, was a true take (bamboo) dou; produced using all the traditional techniques. I also knew that I wanted it to have a same (shark) skin finish, which I’ve always been partial to.

Where to start? As you might imagine, there are no (to my knowledge) manuals on how to construct your own bamboo dou and, short of an apprenticeship in Japan, the best I could come up with was a video on Youtube with a 5 minute section on dou manufacturing. I watched this many times – pausing and actually trying to take measurements off my computer screen – and even though it left me with a lot of questions, I at least had a fundamental sense of the construction techniques.

My first challenge was to source the materials – quality bamboo in a 3 ½ – 4 inch diameter and large, tanned shark pelts are not exactly standard New Jersey Home Depot fare. I was extremely lucky in that not far from my home is a family-run company that has been importing bamboo and rattan from around the globe for 130 years. They allowed me roam their enormous warehouse and pick what I wanted – a real treat. When the time came, I also found a very accommodating exotic-pelt importer/distributor who was able to supply me with the same (pronounced “samei”) skin to my exact specifications.

Next, there were a number of tools which I would either need to fabricate entirely, or at least modify from existing tools. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this project was conceiving of ways to resolve the many novel technical challenges – either with the dou itself, or the tools needed to produce it. I must have passed as many hours daydreaming about how to create a certain tool, or to hold something in place, etc., as I did at the worktable actually putting my ideas into play. Although there were times that I ended up having to scrap what I initially thought were genius breakthroughs, I am certain that all that pondering saved me many painful mistakes. Remember, it’s always harder to go backwards.

Bamboo is an amazing material to work with and my appreciation for it grows the more time I spend with it in my hands (both in the dojo and in my workshop). In certain aspects it resembles wood (a species that would have to be extremely dense, long-grained, and impossibly light-weight); however, it reacts differently in different situations and there are important tricks to working with it. It also produces the most horrific splinters you will ever suffer. The best thing to remember when working with bamboo is to soak it thoroughly before splitting, shaving, sawing, or bending/shaping; this will produce better results, more easily, and will save your tools. I learned this lesson the hard way and it was my Japanese wife (with the carpentry skills of a kindergartner), who saw me straining to force a strip of bamboo through a die and said “why don’t you soak it first? That will make it easy – everybody knows that.” Yeah, well, not “everybody” in Jersey.

Now, looking at a doudai (the shell), one might think that this is not such a technical marvel, and certainly, pressing fiberglass resin into a bowl-shaped mold (as with a factory-produced dou) is not. However, try to take a 6-foot section of bamboo and turn it into 60 half-inch curved and hand-tapered strips (that are themselves convex and concave on 2 sides) that fit together in a seamless, symmetrical shape, devoid of a single straight line and that is expected to weather a lifetime of bashing and perspiration, and you will begin to understand why a quality hand-made bamboo dou can run thousands of dollars. Think Swiss watch meets Sherman tank.

This is not meant to be a tutorial on how to make your own dou – that would easily fill a book and to be honest, as I am now beginning to produce my dou for others, there are a few hard-fought proprietary methods I’d like to hold onto (not to worry, if you’re committed, you’ll conquer your own hurdles), but here are the basics:

– You will need roughly 6 feet of 3.5 to 4 inches-in-diameter, good-quality bamboo (get more the 1st time – you will make mistakes); there should be 12 to 14 inches between the nodules and it should not be scarred or too green.
– Remove the skin by sanding or planing (if dry, only sanding will work) and cut just inside the nodules to approximately 11-inch cylinders.
– At this point, you have to make a decision on how to proceed; the raw strips, which must be an exact width and depth, can be produced in one of two ways (both requiring customized tools). In short, you can either use a piston-driven die to split the strips, or a double-bladed saw to cut them.
– Once you have the raw strips, you will need to file and sand the adjoining sides to be sure they fit together without gaps. Then, the ends must be tapered so that when the strips are pulled together, the thinner tops and bottoms will draw together into a convex shape. This will require practice and is part of the art.
– Lay the strips out in the order you plan to use them (I numbered them to keep track) and draw the eventual pattern you will use for your doudai (keeping room on top and bottom for the eventual trimming. The strips will be laced together with 3 nylon strings (2 of these run the full length and one holds the center 20 or so strips at the top portion); draw the lines where these will be placed.
– Soak the strips overnight.
– You are going to be heating and bending the strips into the proper curve, so you will need to construct a frame to hold the bent strips in place as they dry. Heat the strips over an open flame (I used an old BBQ grill) until pliable, bend the strips (I made a half-moon shaped wooden form for this) and place them in the frame. Obviously, you want the outside (or convex side) of the bamboo to be on the inside (or concave) of the curve – this is what gives the inside of the doudai the scalloped lines.
– Once the strips have dried, use the lines you previously drew to drill holes in order to thread the nylon strings as well as the bamboo pins that will hold the strings in place. These will all have to be at exactly the same depth, or the strips will not line up properly.
– Thread all three of the strings; however, you have to tighten, clamp, and pin the center 20 strips with the uppermost string first, as these pins will be covered by the other strips (you will have to recess these strings so the strips on either side can lay flat against each other). Then, clamp all 60 strips as tightly as possible and pin the other two strings.
– Place the doudai over a form with the curve/diameter you want for your finished shape and sand the outside as smooth as possible.
– Now you will need to adhere to the outside of the doudai, an adhesive and cloth combination. Some takezo dou makers use bondo (as in auto body repair bondo) and a type of canvas. Personally, I think this is too brittle and would recommend some type of 2-part marine epoxy and medium weight fiberglass cloth (better strength and flexibility). Only use one cloth layer and one finishing layer – remember, you want this to be as lightweight as possible. Sand smooth.
– I finish my dou with sharkskin, which must be soaked, stretched, dried and glued to the doudai (using the correct glue will be crucial for longevity). Then, I lacquer the inside with a tough marine varnish (why cover that beautiful bamboo with black or red?).
– Cut to pattern, and add the mune, border, and himo loops.

The finished dou. Click to enlarge:

Keep in mind that the above is an extremely paired-down explanation of what is involved in producing a quality bamboo dou and should you wish to finish yours in the traditional urushi lacquer, this is itself an entirely separate art form. That being said, as a fan of things of beauty, which combine form and function, it is a very rewarding craft and one that you will appreciate every time you enter the dojo. For me, the perfect exclamation point on this project was seeing my sensei showing off my dou to another visiting sensei – a better testimonial, I couldn’t have asked for.

If you have any questions, please leave them on the comment section below, or, if you wish to see pictures of my dou and the process of making them, please visit the following Picasa photo album.