Ichinen-fusho 一念不生

Today’s article is a short translation piece from the venerable Ogawa Chutaro sensei (1901-1992). Not only was Ogawa sensei kendo hanshi kyudan (teaching posts at Kokushikan and Keishicho) and an Itto-ryu and Jikishinkage-ryu swordsman, he was also one of the few distinguished kenshi known to have a truly deep involvement in buddhism. I think only Yamaoka Tesshu and Omori Sogen top him in this regard. His ideas about the purpose of kendo as well as his rationale for practising budo, was influenced heavily by this, and can be seen in The Concept of Kendo, which he helped write.

I’m not sure if you will be interested in the translation, but it spoke to me on a private level. I hope you enjoy it.

Continue reading Ichinen-fusho 一念不生

Shugyo 修行

For perhaps the fifth year (or maybe it’s the sixth) I find myself going through ramadan. Well, not exactly ramadan, as I am an atheist (though not irreligious), but I co-opt the month to do my own sort of spiritual and physical discipline (for the same reason I have tried Lent before). During this period I fast during daylight hours, allowing myself only a banana and a piece of chocolate before 6am if I have asageiko on that day, otherwise I eat no food until 7pm-ish, or around about whatever time the sun sets. If I have keiko in the evening it means I may not sit down to eat until after 9pm. As I may do anything from one to three keiko sessions some of these days, I do allow myself to drink water or maybe a cup of black coffee. Even though it’s not ramadan proper, I do believe it still serves as a spiritual exercise meant to better me as a person. This is, to me, an important part of my personal shugyo, of which budo is a part.

Shugyo is a term you here a lot in kendo circles in Japan, sometimes with a wry smile or a chuckle, because most don’t actually go out of their way to do what’s perceived to be (probably rightly!) unneeded hardship. Younger kenshi will often go through very hard physical training, but that’s almost always because they are forced to do so by their teacher, not through volunteering. I’m sure any older raised-in-Japan kenshi you know has regaled you of stories of their high school days! Spiritual discipline is often an unconscious by-product of this process, even if will and intention are missing on the students side (as a teacher, I hope to instil it).

For me personally, I didn’t see the shugyo aspect of kendo until my early 30s when I started teaching at a high school club. It was through practising with the students day-by-day and year-by-year, that I finally started to feel a depth for, a … sense of the flavour of (I’m translating from Japanese here as I can’t think of an appropriate English word!) spiritual discipline. I also noted that most other kendo teachers practised less and worked at improving more casually than their students. In other words, they believed their kendo was somewhat “complete.” I, however, was (am) far from satisfied.


Just under a year and half ago I published The Shugyo Spiral, which included this (dodgy!) graph by yours truly where I tried to visualise the shugyo process (see above)

Note the use of the Japanese 「修行」 for “shugyo” in the graph above. There are actually two “shugyo” kanji combinations commonly used in Japan:

A. 修行
B. 修業

These are used interchangeably by native Japanese speakers but there is, actually, an important nuance in meaning that is relevant to todays discussion. You can probably guess that the nuance lies in the second kanji, not the first, but we have to define that before moving on.

修: discipline, conduct oneself well, study, master (this kanji is often used in dojo names)

The second kanji:

行: journey (to go)
業: business, job, art performance

I think you can interpret the difference quite easily. (B) implies something that you do, and that this activity has an end or can be completed; (A) on the other hand, is a path or road travelled down that has no end or final destination.

I believe strongly that it’s both the physical and spiritual pursuit of kendo as shugyo that defines the quality of the kenshi. Of course, the balance between the physical and the spiritual aspects necessarily changes as you mature (in body and in mind). On this topic Mochida Seiji said:

Until the age of 50 you must do your upmost to study and make the basics your own. You might think that you have already mastered the basics when you were still a beginner, but this is completely wrong. There are many people who think in this wrong manner. It took 50 years for my body to acquire the basics.

and:

When you become 70, your entire body becomes weak. At this time, I focused on keeping my spirit unmoved. If your spirit is unmoved your opponents spirit will be reflected in it. I worked to make my spirit quiet and unmoving.


I will finish ramadan a day early this year because I am embarking on a Musha Shugyo in northern Japan for a couple of days. Musha-shugyo, are valuable “tests” of ones kendo, both physically and spiritually. I am excited to go.

Hasegawa hanshi’s tai-atari and kakarigeiko 長谷川壽範士の体当たり・掛かり稽古

Recently I was handed a condensed paper booklet of the kendo teachings of Hasegawa sensei, hanshi kyudan. The contents seemed to be a republishing of some earlier material (originally from perhaps the 50s or 60s?) on the 13th anniversary of his death. Leafing through the material I decided to translate a couple of small portions of the text, mainly as a pretext to introduce, via short bio, this forgotten kenshi to everyone.

Sadly, there are many many many sensei with similar backgrounds that have already faded from memory.

Hasegawa hanshi

A short bio of Hasegawa Hisashi sensei

Born in Niigata prefecture in 1906, Hasegawa sensei’s first introduction to kendo was as part of P.E. class in school (he was a member of the track and field club, not the kendo one). Upon graduating from school in 1925, under the influence of his big brother (and against his fathers wishes), he planned to study kendo seriously at the Butokukai’s teacher training facility in Kyoto, Busen. However, before going there it was decided that he should spend a year training under Nakayama Hakudo at Yushinkan. After the year was up Nakayama tried to dissuade him from going to Busen (i.e. for him to stay at Yushinkan), but he went anyway, again at the insistence of his brother.

Hasegawa sensei spent the next six years at Busen, four years as part of the normal course, and the last two years on the research course. Here he studied kendo under such people as Naito Takaharu, Monna Tadashi, Ogawa Kinnosuke, Yano Katsujiro, Miyazaki Mosaburo, Tsuzaki Kanejiro, and Sato Chuzo, amongst others. The highlight of his six years in Kyoto was representing the prefecture at the 1929 Tenran-jiai, which took place in Saineikan, the budojo in the imperial palace.

Upon finishing at Busen he was invited to go to Noma dojo by Noma Hisashi and Masuda Shunsuke, but he declined and became a school teacher instead. He taught kendo in Hikone city, right next to the famed castle, between 1932-9. To further his personal study in kendo he took up an offer to join Osaka police dept. where he remained (surviving the turmoil of the war and post-war years) until retiring in 1967.

He was awarded hanshi in 1963, and became kyudan in 1977. Hasegawa sensei passed away on the 10th February 1986.

The following is the liberal translation of two short passages of Hasegawa sensei’s own words.

hikoneHikone castle by Aki Sasaki on flickr


Tai-atari

Although kendo is an activity whereby you discipline the mind and the body and achieve victory through the use of the sword, there are many times when this victory can be achieved with the aid of tai-atari. For example, you can use tai-atari to break your opponents stability when they are slight off-balance, when they have just finished a technique, or in the very instant they have lost concentration, etc. By doing this you can place them in a disadvantageous position, both posture wise and through loss of nerve.

But tai-atari is not just useful in those situations. If you practise it in your daily keiko it will help train the spirit and body. It is especially important to tai-atari during kirikaeshi.

When executing tai-atari ensure that you pull both your arms back to your body, push out your abdomen, and make sure that your shinai’s tsuka is at a diagonal. During kirikaeshi don’t strike men and go straight into left and right cutting, do tai-atari first. Remember to launch the sho-men strike from a far distance with full vigour and from there tai-atari strongly.

Point 1: smash into your opponents chest not only powerfully, but “flexibly.” At the same time, ensure that your hands push up into the opponents face so that you can scoop them up and force them back (Editor’s note: this is not recommended nowadays…).

Point 2: if the opponent is strong and cannot be forced back easily, try pushing them back a little bit diagonally.

Kakarigeiko

Note that the term “kakarigeiko” and “uchikomi” are sometimes used to mean the same thing. What is being described here is what we would refer to as “uchikomi” today.

The job of the motodachi during kakarigeiko is to make random openings for the kakarite to strike. The motodachi should be able to differentiate between well executed and poorly executed attacks, receiving the former and blocking or executing oji-waza against the latter. The motodachi must also pay careful attention at all times, and work hard to teach (show) the kakari-te the difference between the correct and in-correct way of striking so that the kakari-te can improve.

The kakari-te should throw away any personal ideas they may have and aim to execute attacks exactly as they have been taught them during basic training. Attacks should be executed largely, from a far distance, and with a loud voice. Kakarigeiko should be done this way repeatedly with a full spirit.

Point 1: Kakarigeiko is practise of basic strikes in a free manner.

Point 2: You cannot become victorious without have a correct posture and deliberate striking (as we learn in basics). Practising kakari-geiko with these points in mind at full power and intention is essential to becoming victorious.

Note that I used “kakari-te” in this translation but the term used in the text is actually “shugi-sha” (習技者).


Bonus: Hasegawa sensei’s last quote

“After 60 years of age you should keiko more with your spirit than with technique. If your opponent steps forward and pressures you allow yourself to move freely. Pressure them physically from your waist and spiritually with your presence (kurai). When you pressure them never wait. If you wait your presence will disappear. If you pressure with your spirit in this way the opponent will be unable to stand it and attempt to strike you. Strike them at that instant (debana). We are only human so of-course sometimes our strikes are unsuccessful, but if you are patient and stop yourself from striking randomly, and you practise like this again and again, eventually you will develop a strong presence. I tried keiko-ing like this for two or three years but couldn’t master it. Please, try it yourself.”

54 days after he said this, Hasegawa sensei passed away.

asdasda
Yours truly doing keiko with one of Hasegawa sensei’s kendo students in 2006, himself also kyudan.

Sources

私の剣道修行第1巻。体育とスポーツ出版社。1985発行。剣道時代編集部編。
剣道手引き。非売品。発行不明。長谷川壽

(Special thanks to Jean-Christophe Helary for some extra research help!)

The shugyo spiral 修行スパイラル

Just under six years ago I published an article entitled The Kendo Lifecycle. It was quite popular at the time and, based on my site stats, is still visited regularly by people from all corners of the Internet. As an extension to this I started, from about two or three years ago, to attempt and organise Japanese terms and phrases used in the discussion of long-term kendo shugyo. Using these I then tried to sketch out a physical “image” of what kendo progress looks like in theory.

Although it’s been quite challenging to combine somewhat independent ideas and represent them visually, I came to a conclusion about the general “shape” of the graphic quite quickly. After this I kind of sat on it and let it simmer for a year or so. Since I’m not sure I can expand or detail it any further without input from others, I’ve decided to publish it here. If it seems like a random collection of ideas pulled together simply as an academic exercise please don`t worry… that`s exactly what it is!

Here it is …

(Apologies for the low quality of the image… I bought a new MacBook and my scanner stopped working! I also have terrible handwriting – in English as well as Japanese – but don’t worry about that… )

spiral


Commonly used terminology

First, I’ll introduce and describe the various ideas/phrases used in the chart.

1. Shu ha ri (shin-gyo-so)
守破離 (真行草)

“Shu ha ri” is a common concept discussed in budo circles so I`m sure all kenshi 24/7 readers have heard of it before. Its basic meaning refers to the progress of skill and understanding in an art by a student under the tutelage of a master. Although we are referring to it in a budo context today, it is used across not only all the traditional arts of Japan (for example tea-ceremony or noh) and also in more modern endeavours such as cooking, baseball, or even software development.

The shu (“protect”) stage is the time when a novice studies diligently under a master. At this time they are like an infant copying the actions of their mother. No deep discussion of theory is needed, they simply look at the master and copy. Needless to say, a bad “master” at this stage often spells disaster for the future.

The ha (“break”) stage sees the student progress to the point where they are experimenting a little bit with what has been taught them, like a teenager rebelling against her parents. Sometimes this can lead to great progress, but at other times a night in jail or a trip to the hospital!

The ri (“separation”) stage is one that few ascend to. It is the point where the student has finally soaked up all that their master can teach and, combining it with their own discoveries in the ha stage (both the good and the bad), they create something uniquely theirs. They now become independent of their teacher.

In arts such as kendo, which has quite a long gestation period, the shu stage is usually what makes up the bulk of an individuals career. A novice who thinks that they have acquired deeper understanding than they actually have and attempts to experiment before they are ready is setting their own progress back considerably. What is needed here is the guidance of a good teacher and humility from the student. There is no sudden line to cross between shu and ha and, I think, most people who get this far spend the rest of their careers hovering above and below the line, alternating between serious study under a teacher or teachers and personal experimentation.

Note that there are also some other terms that attempt to describe what is essentially the same progress of physical skill but sometimes with a different twist, e.g., shin-gyo-so.

The problem with gradings as indications of shugyo

I have seen various charts attempting to equate the shu-ha-ri stages to grades. For example:

Shodan-godan: shu
Rokudan-nanadan: ha
Hachidan+: ri

As I have discussed before, I believe the grading process to be the biggest problem in modern kendo. There are various reasons for this including wide discrepancies in the difficulty of gradings based on area, and the fact that gradings are often the primary (sometimes the only) source of income for organisations. On top of this is, of course, the fact that it`s extremely difficult if not impossible for judge on a grading panel to know or read the mental state of the challengers.

I personally know plenty of people who’s attitude to and skill in kendo far surpass their grade (some even have no interest in grading) and others whose grade surpasses their actually ability. The latter outnumber the former.

At any rate, I think we can safely disregard grade as anything other than a general indication of technical competence, and remove it from our discussion today.

2. San ma no kurai. (Kenkyu to Kufu) 
三磨の位 (研究と工夫)

sanmanokurai

Moving on, san ma kurai is a term which initially appeared in Yagyu shinkage-ryu`s heiho-kadensho, written in the 17th century, and is process that underlies this entire discussion.

San ma no kurai describes the acquisition of a physical skill (any skill, not only budo) as a circle with three parts:

Shu (習): to study or learn something
Ren (練): to practise it (repeatedly)
Ko (工): to work/figure out and improve on what you studied based on feedback from practising

After the ko process you would then go back to shu and repeat. This learn-practise-think process continues, round and round, endlessly. To those that think, then, continually progress is thus assured (however minute), and it is implied that there is no limit to the skill that can be acquired.

This phrase pops up a lot in serious kendo publications and discussions, but your general kenshi usually uses the term “kenkyu and kufu” when describing this process at work. Basically, it is up the individual to do their own research and to make an effort to work things out for themselves (of course, whilst under the tutelage of more senior teachers). Again, this is a circular, never-ending process that continues for the entirety of their career.

An interesting related phrase “Mon-shi-shu” (聞思修) literally means “listen – think – practise” and suggests the exact same circular process.

3. San toku
三得

Related to 2 above is a term not in common use in the English speaking kendo community: san toku. “Toku” basically means to “benefit” or “gain” something and is, for our discussion, combined with other kanji as follows:

Kai-toku (会得): understanding / comprehension
Shu-toku (習得): acquisition
Tai-toku (体得): mastery

This could be used to describe the circular study of individual waza as in 2 above, but I prefer to use it at a more macro level to describe kendo as a whole, which brings it nearer to shu-ha-ri, though I would suggest it isn’t so all-encompassing.

In the first years of your kendo study you strive to understand how things should be done. Sometimes teachers explain explicitly, sometimes (especially in Japan) they do not. Eventually though you manage to get some sort of comprehension and slowly you begin to acquire the techniques of kendo. These stages tend to overlap with the shu phase detailed above.

Tai-toku, or physical mastery of kendo, takes a very long time, and perhaps is out of reach for most of us. Those that do master it, however, may not necessarily go on to master kendo, which is something different entirely. As with the prior stages, there is a spectrum or gradient of mastery, no final destination.


Related terms

The following may seem like a loose collection of terms, but I think they are all at play in one way or another in today’s article and the attached graph.

The Importance of a teacher:

不得正師、不如不学
(Futoku seishi, funyo fugaku)
It’s better to go unlearned than study under a bad teacher

A saying of the zen Buddhist priest Dogen, it suggests that it’s better to wait until you find a good teacher before learning something. If you are impatient and study under a poor one you will ultimately pay for it.

良い師匠は鉄の草鞋をはいても探せ
(Yoi shisho wa tetsu no waraji ha haitemo sagase)
Even if you are wearing steel sandals find a good teacher

No matter how long you walk, no matter how long you search, if your sandals are made from steel they won’t wear out. Keep going until you arrive at the thing you seek, i.e. a good teacher (another way to say this is that “thought the steel sandals hurt your feet it’s worth it to keep walking in them until you find what you seek”).

三年かけて良師を探せ
(Sannen kakete ryoshi wo sagase)
Even if it takes three years, seek a good teacher

Pretty much the same as above.

師授伝習
(Shijudenshu)

Again, in order to receive the correct transmission of something you must become an initiate of a good master.

The importance of keiko:

朝鍛夕練
(Cho-tan-seki-ren)
Forge yourself in the morning and temper yourself in the evening i.e. be a kenshi 24/7 !!

Allegedly a phrase first used by Musashi, this spells the importance of constant daily practise. This is a personal favourite of mine (as you may have guessed).

The importance of humility:

我以外皆我師
(Ware igai minna shi)
Everyone is my teacher

This is pretty simple: there is something to be learned from everyone.

初心に帰る・戻る
(Shoshin-ni-kaeru/modoru)
Return to beginners mind

This strongly hints to the cyclic nature of long term study. Even if you think you have mastered something you should, at times, go back to the beginning and re-study with your new perspective. In other words, not only have you not mastered whatever it was that you were attempting to, but you may even have a long long road in front of you. Again, this suggests that there is no end to shugyo.


The shugyo spiral explained

In a paragraph:

Through daily study and practise under the watchful eyes of a good teacher or teachers, the thoughtful individual will see her kendo improve through time. It takes a lot of consistent effort, a lot of listening and watching others, and tireless self study. Mastery comes neither quickly or easily… in fact, it may never come. Taking care during your day-to-day keiko over years is what counts. Mastery, if it does come, can be thought of a by-product of this, it is neither something that is forced nor desired.

The graph shows a straight line through the middle but, of course, progress isn’t straight. In this spiral model you can imagine it a point (“progress”) spinning round and round. Sometimes you spend more time on studying the principles and learning new things, other times you are just busy doing uchikomigeiko and kirikaeshi. In general, however, if someone has the correct attitude towards their shugyo, exerts effort over years, and studies kendo theory then, over the course of years, they cannot fail to progress.


Addendum

Kendo, as an art, professes to be something more than “mere” sport. The Concept of Kendo, The Purpose of Practising Kendo, and The Mindset of Kendo Instruction all state larger goals within them than that of mere physical mastery, some quite grandiose. If kendo is to be like that then measuring “progress” for the purpose of comparison becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. This is why I said above that “we can safely disregard grade as anything other than a general indication of technical competence.”

I’m not sure if any of this made sense but, if nothing else, I hope it serves as fuel for discussion over post-keiko beers. Cheers!


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Victory and defeat: 15 points 勝敗

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.


Korea vs Japan

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:

懸待一致
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:

動静一如
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.

9. Sutemi

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.

13. Contagion

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.

知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆。
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


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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.